These days, “old school” training is all the rage. Gym rats everywhere are getting back to basics — back to their training roots — by spending less time on machines and more time throwing around the dead weight of barbells and dumbbells. If there happens to be rust on the bar or if the dumbbell plates are rattling a bit, all the better. Just makes it that much more old school.
But if you’re looking to go more bare-bones with your training, there’s another implement you should be throwing around: the kettlebell, a Russian tool that’s been around for hundreds of years. Talk about old school. Outside of helping you add big-time strength and slabs of muscle to your physique similar to barbells and dumbbells, kettlebells can add a dynamic element to your training to help you bust through plateaus and keep the gains coming.
Where the kettlebell differs from the equipment you’re probably accustomed to using at the gym is in its unbalanced distribution of weight — there’s a handle on one end and a heavy “ball” on the other that, when used on explosive exercises like cleans, snatches and swings, pulls the weight away from you with excessive force, making your muscles work that much harder to stabilize yourself and maintain balance.
“Kettlebells work a wide variety of physical attributes,” says Steve Cotter, president and founder of the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation. “For example, if someone was looking to add bulk or strength, a barbell would be a very good tool for that. For cardiovascular fitness, you’d do aerobic activity. For flexibility, you’d do some form of stretching or yoga. With kettlebells, you’re combining all three of these qualities — strength, endurance and flexibility — into one tool, so it’s a very time-efficient way of training.”
The following training program, designed by Cotter, involves only four basic kettlebell moves that will train your body from traps to calves. And that’s one of the main benefits of training with bells — the hallmark kettlebell exercises are full-body movements that will train your body differently than a typical bodybuilding routine that consists of many isolation exercises.
Outside of training the body “collectively” instead of isolating different muscle groups, Cotter cites a few other benefits of kettlebell training: its proficiency at working fast-twitch muscle fibers because of the ballistic nature of the exercises, which can stimulate hypertrophy; the extended range of motion on moves like swings, in which the weight is actually brought behind you at the bottom of each rep; and the ability to enhance grip strength because of the kettlebell’s unique handle and weight distribution that forces the hands and forearms to work harder. “Kettlebell training also tends to burn more calories because it’s more aerobic compared to barbell and dumbbell training, so it’s great for fat burning,” Cotter says.
So when it comes to keeping your training old school, what should you use: barbells and dumbbells or kettlebells? That’s easy: All the above. Muscles need to be challenged in a variety of ways and with myriad pieces of equipment to continue to get bigger and stronger. The more you throw at your body, the less likely it will be to adapt to one style of training. Give Cotter’s kettlebell program a try to get accustomed to the new moves, then mix the kettlebell exercises in with your barbell and dumbbell work, if you like. And just like that, your training will be über old school — with loads of new muscle and strength to show for it.
Beginner’s Kettlebell Routine
The following routine was designed by Steve Cotter for those new to kettlebell training. The objective of the program is to enhance muscular strength and endurance, though hypertrophy (muscle growth) will be achieved, as well, provided sufficient nutrients are taken in before and after workouts.
• The exercises included are basic but brutally effective, and form on these moves should be perfected before moving on to more advanced kettlebell exercises.
• Cotter recommends that relatively strong men and/or those weighing more than 220 pounds use a 24-kilogram/53-pound kettlebell; and men with moderate levels of strength and/or those weighing less than 180 pounds should start with a 16-kilogram/35-pound kettlebell.
• Perform the workout three days a week with one to two days of rest between workouts (Monday, Wednesday, Friday).
• Follow this routine for four to eight weeks, then either try a more advanced kettlebell program or return to your typical workouts. If you’re returning to traditional bodybuilding training (using barbells, dumbbells, machines, etc.), you can incorporate kettlebell exercises into those workouts, as well, for additional training benefits.
Two-Hand Kettlebell Swing 15
One-Arm Kettlebell Clean and Jerk 2 minutes each hand
Double-Kettlebell Front Squat 10
Hand-to-Hand Kettlebell Swing 30
Repeat this circuit three times through with little to no rest between exercises. Rest one minute between circuits.
Two-Hand Kettlebell Swing
>> Stand holding a kettlebell by its handle with both hands with your feet shoulder-width apart.
>> Start with your knees slightly bent, your torso leaned forward just a bit, and the kettlebell hanging straight down toward the floor with your arms extended.
>> Squat down while reaching back so that the kettlebell travels behind your feet and glutes, then immediately swing it forward and up in an explosive motion by extending your knees and hips to pull the weight up to head level.
>>Let the kettlebell swing back down and go right into the next rep. Each set should be performed as a continuous up-and-down swinging motion with no pausing at any point.
One-Arm Kettlebell Clean and Jerk
>> Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart straddling a kettlebell on the floor.
>> Squat down and grab the handle with an overhand grip.
>> Begin with the kettlebell on the floor with your butt down, weight on your heels, chest up and back flat.
>> Starting in a squat, with your weight on your heels, chest up and back flat, explosively extend your knees and hips so you’re standing. When your body is fully extended, clean the weight by pulling it up to your shoulder and flipping it outward so that your palm faces your face and the ball rests on the outside of your wrist.
>> Now in a standing position, immediately go into the jerk portion of the lift by dipping down slightly with your knees and exploding up to press the kettlebell overhead.
>> At the top position, the arm is fully extended, you’re standing up straight and the ball of the kettlebell is behind your hand. Carefully lower the kettlebell back to the floor and repeat for reps, then switch arms.
Double-Kettlebell Front Squat
>> Stand upright holding one kettlebell in each hand with your feet shoulder-width apart and your knees slightly bent.
>> Lift the kettlebells up in front of your shoulders and position them so that the balls are outside your hands (with the bottoms of the kettlebells facing out to the sides) and your palms face each other. This is your start position.
>> Keeping your back flat and chest out, squat down as you normally would for a front squat until your thighs are past parallel with the floor.
>> Extend your knees and hips to stand back up and return to the start position, keeping the kettlebells in the same position throughout.
Hand-to-Hand Kettlebell Swing
>> Stand upright, holding a kettlebell by its handle in one hand with your feet shoulder-width apart.
>> Start with your knees slightly bent and the kettlebell hanging toward the floor with your arm extended. Squat down and reach back just as you did with the two-hand swing — except that only one hand will be holding the kettlebell this time — then explosively swing the kettlebell up by extending your knees and hips.
>> When the kettlebell reaches shoulder height, quickly transfer it to the other hand before it drops back down.
>> Complete the next rep with the other hand, transferring back and forth between hands on every rep (rep No. 1 with your right hand, rep No. 2 with your left hand, rep No. 3 with your right hand and so on).