Of the various tools, toys, implements, widgets, and other pieces of fitness equipment, my favorite is and always will be the kettlebell. I don’t know of anything more effective or with a wider range of applications. The kettlebell has remained in use due to its versatility, practicality, simplicity, and high degree of effectiveness. Interestingly, fitness was not its original use. Kettlebells came from Russia, where they are called “girya” (singular) or “giri” (both pronounced with a rolled R). Giri were used by farmers as counterweights when weighing grain or potatoes in the market. Eventually people started performing exercises and feats of strength with them, and birthed kettlebell training.
For a long time kettlebells were the stuff of circus strongmen and showboating farm boys, before formalized strength training became a postindustrial phenomenon. Over the course of the 20th century, the Red Army and sporting organizations throughout the Soviet Union refined the use of this instrument as a strength and conditioning tool, creating a system of over 40 basic exercises. That number has grown significantly since the kettlebell’s westernization; without an official count, the number of moves I have personally mastered has to be over 200.
Before you can get into fancy exercises like snatches, flips, mills, and bottom-up presses, you should learn how to simply hold a kettlebell properly. Most people find them uncomfortable to hold, and even more uncomfortable to receive in a clean or a snatch. Partly, it’s not supposed to be comfortable, but more often than not, pain is due to poor technique, which I will help you fix here.
To learn to perform the following moves properly, you will need some proper weight. For women I recommend 15 to 25 pounds (8 to 12 kilos) to start, and 25 to 35 pounds (12 to 16 kilos) for men.
The Racked Position
Racking is a one-arm technique for picking up a kettlebell from the ground to your shoulder. Racking properly is the key to optimal safety, stability, control, and comfort when handling kettlebells. Start by placing the bell on the ground about a foot in front of your body with the handle parallel to your shoulders. Grasp the kettlebell handle between your thumb and hand on the corner of the handle. As you rotate your thumb forward, swing or curl it up to your shoulder with the ball resting against the outside of the wrist and the forearm vertical.
Now open your hand with all five fingers straight and the wrist in a neutral (straight) position. The kettlebell handle should rest diagonally across your palm, from the base of the thumb down to and around the pisiform bone (where the heel of the palm and wrist meet). The mistake most people make is to hold the handle firmly across the middle of the palm. Holding it diagonally allows for two points of contact on the wrist—the bell on the back, and the handle against the pisiform—and gives your wrist better leverage over the bell. It also allows the bell to rest further up the forearm, where it’s meatier and more comfortable.
The kettlebell should be resting against your wrist and shoulder equally. Your vertical forearm should be pressed against your rib cage, shoulder blade retracted and anchored to your spine, core online, and neck relaxed enough to turn your head side to side with ease. If the ball end against your wrist gives you sharp pain, move your wrist ever so slightly until it’s less uncomfortable, but make sure you’re within the range of wrist-neutral. If you think you have the position right, test it by tugging down on the kettlebell with your free hand. Better yet, if you have a superfriend around, have them test it for you—keeps things more honest. Once you’ve passed the test, you can close your hand and grip the handle.
Moving in the Front Rack
Next you’re going to come down into the bottom of your squat. When I say “bottom” I do mean the Paleo definition of bottom, which means if you can’t poop there, it’s not the bottom. Keep your core engaged, spine neutral, feet arch-neutral with the weight in the center of the foot, knees out, and the kettlebell, wrist, arm, and shoulder in the exact same orientation as when you’re standing. At the bottom, your forearm should still be vertical, with the elbow not resting on your leg. Hold this position and have your superfriend or your free hand tug on the bell to test the integrity again. If you’re good, come back up. As you practice squatting, make sure you’re not rounding your back, cocking your head back, or letting the kettlebell roll forward. Keep your kettlebell stable and resting on your wrist and shoulder the whole time.
For the final test you’re going to press the kettlebell over your head. This requires shoulder strength and mobility. If your shoulders are so tight that reaching overhead is difficult, pressing cast iron over your head is probably not the best idea. If you need to, spend time addressing your shoulder mobility before attempting this move. Due to the way we load the kettlebell against the wrist, the press tends to reward good mechanics and punish bad mechanics.
To properly execute a press, start from the rack and drive the kettlebell straight up and back until your elbow is locked and your arm is aligned vertically over your shoulder. A good press means having your core and spine neutral (no sticking the ribcage out and arching your back) and your foot, hip, shoulder, elbow, and bell stacked vertically. If you have trouble holding the weight over your head, it’s not stacked. If it’s stacked, you should be able to hold it there for at least a minute. To bring it down, bend the elbow and return to the racked position, bell resting on the wrist and shoulder.
Put It Together
Now combine the squat and press. Put two minutes on the clock for each side and go without setting the bell down. Take your time and pause in each position to really lock things down. This works great as both a warm-up or as part of a bigger workout circuit. Your goal should be to work up to easily doing the press with a higher weight—something around 35 pounds (16 kilos) for the ladies and 50 pounds (24 kilos) for the gentlemen.
This may seem like a simple one-armed squat and press, but mastering simple positions is the foundation of all strength and conditioning. Your goal is to own these positions so well that you can easily spend minutes in them without resting or compromising your alignment. Kettlebell workouts will drastically improve your grip strength, wrist control, and core stability and make you strong . . . like Soviet bear.