Top 5 tips for kettlebells

Andrew Raynor


Andrew Raynor

Andrew Raynor Dover NH
Note the bell’s position in relation to the body and the spine’s neutral curve through the exercise.

It’s not about the bell, it’s about moving well

Like a dumbbell, barbell, clubbell, sandbag or any other training implement, kettlebells are ultimately just tools that we use to get stronger. It’s how we learn to use the tool that’s important. Being a weird looking cannonball with a handle on it and a funny centre of gravity makes the kettlebell cool, unusual and a very versatile strength and conditioning tool, but learning how to use it properly is about learning how to move better. And that’s no easy feat.

When people enquire about learning how to use kettlebells, what they often don’t realise is that they are actually asking to learn how to move better and improve movement patterns. And it’s not so straightforward as picking up the bell and doing some exercises to include in their home workouts, circuits or bootcamp training. Learning how to move better takes time and the eye of an experienced coach. Understanding movement is the foundation of any successful strength training program.

This is important because with clumsy and uncoordinated movement and poor movement patterns, we inherently increase the risk of injury once we start to load the body up with kettlebells.

Your coach needs to have trained or competed with kettlebells for some time and to have a qualification with high standards before teaching you

You can’t take someone else where you haven’t been yourself. While this is probably not the forum to vent my dissatisfaction with the current state of education for personal trainers or certification in the fitness industry, to me it is just plain common sense that a two-day, ‘tick and flick, pay and pass’ certification in kettlebells without any standards of achievement in strength and conditioning, technique or teaching just isn’t good enough to be teaching others. What could your trainer possibly know after training for a day or two with a kettlebell? What could they possibly offer you for your hard-earned dollars, having done their education at the ‘University of YouTube’ or by watching a few instructional DVDs that you could watch for yourself?

Lifting kettlebells is just like any other sport or physical pursuit — it’s best learnt hands-on from a qualified coach and someone who has been doing it for a long time. Like all arts, there are so many subtleties and important nuances to learn that can make a massive difference to your practice — things that can only be hard-earned in the trenches. So, ensure your trainer has done so.

Not all kettlebell certifications are the same

When looking for someone to teach you kettlebells, look for someone who has used kettlebells consistently in their own practice for years and for someone who has done a certification that has strict technical, strength and conditioning and teaching standards. This means that participants of such certifications have reached a competency level (or not) in their own practice and have learnt a progressive and intelligent teaching system to coach others. Certifications like the Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) often have fail rates around 20-to-30 per cent because of their technique, strength and conditioning demands and their teaching standards. What I loved about the RKC was that, not only was it about learning how to move well, it was about learning how to teach others well. It was a comprehensive system of strength, movement and teaching — immensely valuable for any personal trainer.

The best athletes don’t always make the best coaches. The skill set of the coach and the skill set of the athlete are very different, which is why having a teaching system is important to effectively impart knowledge, experience and skills to others.

You can’t just pay and turn up for these sorts of certifications. Training for these qualifications can take anywhere from three to six months for someone who already moves well and is strong, and anywhere up to 12 months or more for someone just getting started.

Where the real gold is in these certifications, isn’t the actual piece of paper that you receive at the end of a gruelling three days — it’s what has been learnt in the months training for the certification. That experience and knowledge gained on the journey is invaluable. Seek the education yourself or seek someone who has it to train you.

Basic doesn’t mean easy

Regardless of the sport or art, once you stray from the fundamentals, things are going to go pear shaped. While the fun stuff or the ‘candy’, as I call it, may look cool and offer entertainment and variety, really spending your time nailing the basics first is important. You have to earn your candy.

Everyone wants to do a kettlebell snatch before a swing, or a press before a clean, or wants to work with two bells before they have mastered one. And everyone wants to start lifting heavy stuff overhead work before they have gained adequate stability in their shoulders and a safe overhead position with the Turkish get-up…and so on.

The interesting thing is that in order to have a really good kettlebell snatch, you have to have mastered a kettlebell one-arm swing beforehand. Before you have a great press, you have to have mastered both a kettlebell one-arm swing and then a kettlebell clean. Each foundation lift sets up the next subsequent lift and any faults or issues with your ‘basic’ technique are highlighted when you start to lift heavier or get more sophisticated with technique.

‘Everything is okay until it gets heavy’ is a saying that has been thrown around in my circle for a long time. What it simply means is that the guys and girls who know their stuff are throwing around respectably heavy weights. Strength is a skill.

While your kettlebells at two, four and even six kilograms may look cute, and they might be okay in some commercial gym programs such as kettleworkx, they are absolutely useless for proper strength training. The only thing I think these weights are useful for would be the aged and frail. And that’s probably not you. Anything under 8 kg is useless. If you can’t lift an 8 kg kettlebell effectively and with good form, my suggestion is to look at some bodyweight training for a while, first.

For Pete’s sake, learn how to swing properly

Everywhere I look, whether it’s online or in a park, or at the gym, I see people squatting and performing a squat pattern when doing kettlebell swings. Let me be clear here. The kettlebell swing is a hip-dominant, posterior chain, deadlift-type action that relies on hip hinging, where the purpose is to propel the kettlebell forward by snapping the hips explosively. It’s not a knee-dominant squat pattern where the hips and knees break evenly and the body goes up and down.

One of the biggest benefits of many kettlebell exercises is the focus on hip extension, core control and glute/hamstring development. This can’t be achieved as optimally by squatting with the bell. And it’s certainly not a squat, either, if there’s a simultaneous front raise of the bell — it’s a bastardised and potentially dangerous exercise.

It drives me crazy enough to see people not performing the Russian swing well (which is only to chest/eye height), but it’s even worse to see people doing the American or overhead swing incorrectly, too. It is not a squat with a front raise!

While we lack the space here to cover the overhead or American swing (and it has been done to death on the internet), I will say that many CrossFit coaches (CrossFit made this version of the swing popular) do not do American swings anymore and there are multiple reasons for this.

Surprisingly, contrary to what CrossFit coaches originally thought, power actually drops off after the hips have fully extended, so going Russian to chest/eye height, propelling the bell forward, actually generates more power. Secondly, because the kettlebell is really essentially a one-handed implement, if you want to go overhead it’s safer to do the kettlebell snatch.

Unfortunately, the American swing cannot be done well or safely by the majority of the population, as it requires very good thoracic spine mobility as well as hip and core control. It also puts the shoulder into a terrible position overhead, which isn’t good for overhead patterning or mechanics and is responsible for many a shoulder problem. So while it can be done, you have to weigh up the risks versus the benefits of this exercise, keeping in mind there are more effective and safer options available.

Not only is the swing not a squat, nor a squat with a front raise, it is also not a hunch with a rounded back followed by standing up and leaning back with lumbar hyperextension. It doesn’t start with the bell in front of the hips while you try to dry-hump it in mid-air to get it to start moving. The swing, when done well, is very coordinated, quite aggressive, flowing and a thing of graceful beauty. Learning how to swing properly is part of nailing your basics and you are still a novice lifter or coach until you do. 

Andrew Raynor

Andrew Raynor New Hampshire

Andrew Raynor

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