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Let me introduce myself. My name is Mark Sisson. I’m 63 years young. I live and work in Malibu, California. In a past life I was a professional marathoner and triathlete. Now my life goal is to help 100 million people get healthy. I started this blog in 2006 to empower people to take full responsibility for their own health and enjoyment of life by investigating, discussing, and critically rethinking everything we’ve assumed to be true about health and wellness...

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September 25, 2008

Kettlebellin’ for Strength

By Worker Bee
102 Comments

Dietary advice and nutrition trends get the brunt of our attention here at MDA, but an equally crucial component to the Primal Blueprint is the development of functional strength and fitness through Primal exercises. Lifting heavy weights, running intense sprints, and incorporating constant, steady movement into your day mimic the activities of early man and represent the most efficient path to fitness. The free weights at the gym are great, but you don’t always have time to get there. Short of absconding into the wilderness for a boulder-lifting, tree climbing, beast hunting sabbatical, investing in a few kettlebells will give you the means to emulate some of the more savage strength building movements our ancestors employed, without having to drive to a gym.


Why the kettlebell?
First off, the kettlebell is perhaps the most Primal piece of exercise equipment available. Its very appearance is brutal – a huge metal ball with a handle. Primal man would have killed for a kettleball, and using one tends to release the baser instincts that make for the best workouts. There is no “casual kettlebelling”; it is an engrossing exercise that engages your entire body and demands your rapt attention.

Their size and maneuverability make kettlebells incredible versatile. Because they are relatively small but incredible dense, almost any natural movement – twisting your body, raising your hands above your head, swinging your arms – can be enhanced and turned into a serious exercise with the addition of a kettlebell. They’re portable, meaning you can ramp up the intensity of a weekend hike by bringing along your kettlebells. Just think of yourself as a Primal huntsman stalking his prey with a skull-crushing rock, and you’ll be fine. Going out of town and need to maintain your exercise regimen? A couple nice-sized kettlebells on a road trip will take care of your fitness needs on the go and help you avoid paying outlandish single-use gym fees.

And finally, kettlebells are so effective because they are fairly awkward to handle. Unlike a dumbbell, a kettlebell has momentum. It swings. It’s a bit unpredictable, just like the outside world. Working out with something that swings and has momentum means working out your entire body – stabilizer and primary muscles alike – to account for the added movement.

The Swing

The basic kettlebell exercise is the swing. Either performed with one or both hands, the kettlebell swing enlists your shoulders, core, and thighs. Such a compound movement leaves room for error, so be cautious of your form. Correct form is absolutely essential to avoid injury and maximize output. To start, squat as low as you can. Maintain proper squat position – feet shoulder width apart, toes slightly out, slight curve in lower back, weight on your heels, chest out, shoulders back, eyes straight ahead – with the kettlebell resting between your legs. Grab the bell and, as if in a deadlift, rise up while pushing your hips out. Drive the kettlebell up primarily with your lower body and core; your shoulders will help, of course, but they shouldn’t be the main agent of movement. Try to resist pulling with your shoulders and instead actively engage your legs, hips, and stomach in the movement, and you’ll be able to handle higher weights sooner. When you reach the top of the motion, actively pull the kettlebell down to the start position. (The video shows both good and bad swing form, but with an absolutely terrible song that I had hoped I’d never again have to hear.)

Clean and Press

These Olympic lifts aren’t only possible with a barbell; the kettlebell works as well. From the basic swing, you can transition into numerous other movements. For the clean, start in the swing position. Still pushing with your hips and legs, swing the bell up while keeping your elbow in. As the bell reaches your shoulder, dip your knees and get your elbow underneath the kettlebell. Hold it at your shoulder. From the clean, you can move into the press. Simply push the kettlebell up over your head with your shoulder and slowly lower it. Return to the squat/swing position and repeat.

Turkish Get Ups

This is a fun one, but also a bit difficult to describe. For clarity’s sake, let’s use a specific hand. Lie on your back while holding the kettlebell straight up in the air with your left hand. Keep your elbow locked and the kettlebell resting against your forearm. Keep the elbow locked throughout the exercise. Prop yourself up on your right hand (obviously, not the one attached to the arm holding the kettlebell) while bringing your left foot toward your buttocks. Put your right knee and left foot on the ground, so that you’re in a half-kneel. Maintain the straight arm and stand up. Always keep your eyes on the kettlebell. Turkish get ups have long been a staple for Eastern European strongmen, and incorporating them into your workout will strengthen your body’s foundation and improve your core strength. We’ve shown this video before, but it’s a great one.

Any natural motion a Primal man might have made, from crushing animal thigh bones with a rock for the marrow, to hoisting up a prey’s carcass for transport, can be simulated with a kettleball. For best results, try all the movements (see link below). Because the kettlebell exercises engage your entire body, a kettlebell user can expect dry heaves, debilitating soreness, and sweat coming from every pore. In short, all the signs of a fantastic, Primal workout!

Cronfeld, steve caddy, ~ggvic~ Flickr Photos (CC)

Further Reading:

The Prison Workout

10 Ways to Get Primal

Intro to CrossFit

Clubbells

The Sandbag Workout

Build Your Own Slosh Tube

Medicine Ball Workout

Here’s a Nice Video of Multiple Kettlebell Exercises in a Single Routine

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102 Comments on "Kettlebellin’ for Strength"

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Methuselah - Pay Now Live Later

Great summary – thanks Mark. I’ve been thinking about KBs for a while now but my main problem is that it seems like unlike with my adjustable dumbells, I would need a separate KB for each progressive weight, making nuanced training less feasible unless I have a full set (e.g. choosing to do a different number of reps or sets.) Should I be thinking in different terms when using kettlebells, or just accept that I will need a lot of them if I want to train exlusively that way?

Son of Grok
Son of Grok
8 years 2 days ago

I have recently developed an interest in kettlebells per some of the other fitness blogs i frequent. I have just had a hard time justifying the cost for the hunk of metal that I would only throw in once every several weeks. Kettlebells certainly are not cheap. I think I will pick one up this weekend though and finally throw the kettlebell workout into my routine that i have been waiting for.

Jason Peck
8 years 2 days ago

Love kettlebells. If you’re on a budget I recommend the adjustable ones from US Kettlebells. I usually do a kettlebell circuit workout 2-3x a week and have definitely noticed an increase in strength in the past month since I started focusing only on kettlebells. Turkish getups are hell, pure hell, but very satisfying.

FatFighter
8 years 2 days ago

I fell in love with the kettlebell this summer after we used them in my Boot Camp class. It is such a great total body workout! The swings are my favorite – I wear a heart rate monitor and yes, those swings definitely get your heart going (and burn those pesky calories!!!). Now, the Turkish get up – that one I am still mastering. It takes a lot of coordination and concentration.

Minnie
Minnie
8 years 2 days ago

Big fan of the kettlebell, not a big fan of the kettlebell video. Why? Just try doing those exercises in front of a computer screen and/or television. It’s like the Nintendo Wii, slippery hands and you’ve just broken a $900 plasma screen!

RobIzsa
8 years 2 days ago

As the owner of Crossfit Morris County and also a PE teacher, the kettlebell is an important training device. I use them as a stand alone tool or in conjunction with other training modalities. Snatches, swings, clean and presses combined with sprints and bodyweight moves can give anyone a killer workout in a short time.

Jen
Jen
8 years 2 days ago

Wow! Those videos are pretty intense. I would use caution though on these workouts. It does not appear that the people doing these highly intensive workouts are beginners by any means. Very cool.

Nancy R.
Nancy R.
8 years 2 days ago

I love kettlebells too. They’re a great addition to the fitness arsenal. I’ve found that over time I’m using them more and more because for me, they’re really fun. Way hard, but fun. It also seems like when I started training with them, I made strength gains more quickly than before. Definitely give ’em a try!

pierre
8 years 2 days ago

Methuselah (Metushelakh); With kettlebells, as with other times when you have only one weight but want to increase your workload, you can do ‘ladders’. Pavel Tsasouline explains them in his “power to the people”, “Enter the Kettlebell” and “beyond bodybuilding”, or check out the forums on dragondoor.com. you can also ask an awful lot of yourself with the same weight kettlebell by tweaking the move just a bit every few times you do it, perhaps pressing from a different angle, slowing down at different parts of the movement, reversing the grip, grasping from the sphere when pressing, juggling, etc.

dragonmamma
dragonmamma
8 years 2 days ago

I wanted a new toy for my birthday next week, and I kept vacillating between getting a kettlebell or a medicine ball. Finally wound up getting a medicine ball for various reasons, but I still hope to get a kettlebell someday when I have excess money lying around.

DR
8 years 2 days ago

Nice into to kettlebellin’

You picked three of my favorite exercises to showcase. Especially the swings.

Nothing better to get your body primed for a great workout.

But I have to admit that the kettlebell community has become a little too cultish in the past few years.

It’s still a great tool and part of a great workout, but all of the courses, certifications and kettlebell accessories have made kettlebells seem less Russian and more So. Cal.

I am already seeing more used KBs showing up on Craigslist as the novelty wears off.

Too bad, it’s a great workout

DaveC - DaveGetsFit
8 years 2 days ago

As Darth Vader would say: “Now the circle is complete.” About 14 months ago, I was reading posts on the Dragon Door forum when someone (Rif) put in a link to Mark’s “A Case Against Cardio” post. I’ve been an “Apple” ever since.

I would second the warning about maintaining good form. I injured myself doing snatches which set me back a good while.

RonD
RonD
8 years 2 days ago
Any balistic movement using weights is very technical, whether kettlebells or barbells. Snatches and Cleans and presses for kettlebells are equivalent to the olympic lifts with barbells. I first tried kettlebells about a year ago and allowing my ego to take over, I promptly tweaked my left shoulder doing snatches, which took 6 mos to heal. Enter the Kettlebell by Pavel T spends nearly half the book on technique. I re-began kettlebell training nearly 5 mos ago with a gym base of doing primarily dead lifts and cleans and presses over the last 2 years. I started doing basic swings… Read more »
Grounded Fitness
8 years 2 days ago

WEIRD. i just got done with a kettlbell workout. its still sitting right next to me.

I love them. gets the heart rate up, builds muscle, strengthens core, swinging around a giant ball of awesome. what more could you want?

Kelly Turner
http://www.groundedfitness.com

Jedi (France)
Jedi (France)
8 years 1 day ago
Thanks for this advice, I have been wanting to get into kettlebells but have been questioning if it wasn’t just another fad and no different from BBs and DBs. Now I need to find out where to buy them in France. On another note I have an unrelated question for exprienced apples (sorry this is my first post and I actually have loads of questions)… I have beeing following a pretty primal lifestyle for around a year (and once my marathon is ove rin 6 weeks) I am quitting endurance stuff apart from long distance hiking which I love. I… Read more »
mm
mm
6 years 1 month ago
In many tribes women did hunt like men. It’s only in some tribes that men were assigned a special role as large game hunters to compensate for the fact that they could not become pregnant (a huge social problem if you live in a simple hunter-gatherer society and you want to maintain equality of the sexes – even in tribes where men did equal or the majority of childrearing this was still a problem) However, in some tribes men’s special roles weren’t related to hunting but more to mystical/folklore/religious things like exclusively being in charge of appeasing the gods, or… Read more »
Phillip
Phillip
8 years 1 day ago
Thank you for posting information about kettlebells. They are in line with a primal lifestyle. Many of us kettlebells users are devoted readers to MDA and Arthur DeVany. There has been incredible discussion and literature about how to use kettlebells since Pavel Tsatsouline introduced them in the early 2000s. Go to russiankettlebells.com for more information. Essentially you can use kettlebells for either strength AND cardio. Results? You have runners dropping their 5K times and you have powerlifters increasing their deadlifters after incorporating kettlebells into their training. The key seems to be the ballistic nature of the movements. I am functionally… Read more »
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[…] out this great post on Mark Sisson’s Daily Apple Blog on kettelbells. There are some great youTube videos that […]

Ryan
Ryan
8 years 1 day ago

Last night at my CF affiliate we had to do 48 turkish get ups and 72 sumo deadlift high pulls, both with kettlebells (and 96 jumping pullups sans kbs), it was awful, and I blame Mark for having posted this and jinxing me. TGUs are the devil.

WxHerk
WxHerk
8 years 1 day ago
I found this site from a post on the dragondoor forum. I’ve been using KettleBells for almost six years. I own 10 KBs and couldn’t be happier with them. As has already been pointed out, they don’t take up much space and one KB can deliver a HECK of a workout. I fly for the military and have carried them as far away as Guam so that I’d have a workout tool available. As has already been noted, the Kettlebell can easily hurt you. A competent training guide is a must. I highly recommend Pavel’s DVDs and Books. He puts… Read more »
LN
LN
8 years 1 day ago

I second Jason’s recommendation of the adjustable kettlebell from U.S. Kettlebell. It’s a well-made product and perfect for first-timers. They offer two models, each with its own range of weights. I bought the lighter version — perfect for my needs. (I’m a 50-year-old female.) It’s a wonderful form of exercise, and very paleo! / LN

PS: I’m not affiliated in any way with the manufacturer.

Son of Grok
Son of Grok
8 years 10 hours ago

I broke down and bought a kettlebell. Time to get primal!

Peggie L.
Peggie L.
7 years 11 months ago

OMG. I love seeing this article. I absolutely LOVE KBs. Anthony at Art of Strength has great video routines and they can also be downloaded on your ipod.

Great stuff Mark.

Leon
Leon
7 years 11 months ago

Great to see you showcasing KBs. I have been using them for over a year. I have been lifting fairly regularly for about 20 years now (I am 54) and prefer them to barbell workouts. My overall strength is as good (maybe even better) and my areobic capacity is definitely better. My resting pulse is down almost 10 points in the past year. One thing though…. when you do swings with a kettlebell, they don’t need to go above chest high or at most eye level. There is no reason to have them go over your head.

Son of Grok
Son of Grok
7 years 11 months ago

Ok so I did my first kettlebell excercise a couple days ago… and I am still sore!

trackback
7 years 11 months ago
[…] The kettlebell is a primal piece of workout gear. It’s a cannonball with a handle, plain and simple. There are a variety of weights and sizes to choose from, and there are even a few lines of “rubberized,” colorful kettlebells due to the growing popularity of kettlebell workouts in southern California.But what are kettlebell exercises good for? Strength and weight loss training to begin with. Kettlebell training incorporates fluid, intense motion to work the core, lower back, lower body, and shoulder muscles. It combines the endurance of a cardiovascular workout with the power of strength training. It requires concentration… Read more »
Tom
7 years 11 months ago

Found a twitter which delivers the daily WOD, sometimes with Kettlebells: http://twitter.com/crossfitsms

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[…] Kettlebellin’ for Strength […]

jack
7 years 10 months ago

I love them. I’m into sport since years, and it is by far the best workout you can do to lose weight, getting ripped and develop strength.
I train everyday in my attic. I love my daily session routine.

Chris
Chris
7 years 10 months ago

If you guys think a kettlebell is primal then check out clubbells. They are even more versatile in the movements possible.

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pjnoir
pjnoir
7 years 4 months ago

Kettlebells will last forever, you children will get them from you. No need to join a health club or buy a dreadmill. KB is strength and CARDIO. Do buy a heart rate monitor (polar f4) and you will be amazed how hard you are working and burning calories. And the swing is very addicting so “Grease the Groove”

pjnoir
pjnoir
7 years 4 months ago

Oh and they are NOT like Jane fonda workout videos. Get away from the TV- its not view along kind of thing.

Joanne of Open Mind Required
7 years 3 months ago

FYI: The first video was removed from YouTube by the user.

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