Marks Daily Apple
Serving up health and fitness insights (daily, of course) with a side of irreverence.
25 Sep

Kettlebellin’ for Strength

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


The Sandbag Workout

Build Your Own Slosh Tube

Medicine Ball Workout

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

You want comments? We got comments:

Imagine you’re George Clooney. Take a moment to admire your grooming and wit. Okay, now imagine someone walks up to you and asks, “What’s your name?” You say, “I’m George Clooney.” Or maybe you say, “I’m the Clooninator!” You don’t say “I’m George of George Clooney Sells Movies Blog” and you certainly don’t say, “I’m Clooney Weight Loss Plan”. So while spam is technically meat, it ain’t anywhere near Primal. Please nickname yourself something your friends would call you.

  1. 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 wrote on May 22nd, 2009
  2. Oh and they are NOT like Jane fonda workout videos. Get away from the TV- its not view along kind of thing.

    pjnoir wrote on May 22nd, 2009
  3. FYI: The first video was removed from YouTube by the user.

    Joanne of Open Mind Required wrote on June 18th, 2009
  4. Interesting out take on kettlebells, but they are definitely worth a go. I would recommend them to anyone. Using them for core strength and stability is ideal.

    Truth About Abs wrote on July 28th, 2009
  5. Interesting videos. Only one of the three videos is of what I would call good and effective kettlebell practice. The CLean and Press is well executed. The swing and TGU not so much.

    Sandy Sommer, RKC wrote on October 10th, 2009
    • Agreed!

      The form displayed in the vids was not the best to be honest. Always seek out instruction before using KB’s.

      Pete wrote on August 11th, 2010
  6. I love that song. I think I’m gonna play it on a loop while I try to do it myself.

    The M wrote on May 18th, 2010
  7. Kettlebells are a great tool. I love them so much I dedicated an entire website to one (see my link). I dropped about 26lbs in 2 months after buying my first 35lbs kettlebell and going crazy with it 3 times a week. It was hard work but damn fun. Give them a try if you are looking for something to use as resistance cardio.

    nathan wrote on May 30th, 2010
  8. Kettlebells are a very attractive option if you are new to exercise but be careful. Speaking as someone who was 77lbs heavier 18 months ago and not exercising at all, I found myself using them before I had the required flexibility and core strength. The result was limited gains and back ache. I have now regressed to mastering the basic drills (face the wall squat, box squat, plank etc)along with stretching to improve flexibility. I need to master the drills before I pick up a bell which I should have done in the first place! I’m sure eventually I will reap the rewards of the kettlebell!

    23niner wrote on August 21st, 2010
  9. I just got a Kettlebell yesterday – so excited, but also doing a whole lot of research before my first basic swing workout ’cause I want my form to be right.

    Is it kind of crazy that I based my decision of what size kettlebell to buy on the weight of my almost-9-month-old baby?

    Family Grokumentarian wrote on August 26th, 2010
  10. Here is a great pdf about buying kettlebells, and also the great kettlebells at excellent prices, best i’ve seen so far. enjoy.

    Sergio wrote on September 20th, 2010
  11. Hi Mark

    Great piece!

    Where did you come across the second picture of the handsome stud in the green trousers? I recognice him from somewhere ;-D


    Dennis wrote on February 9th, 2011
  12. You can get kettelbells on ebay for around $27 for + shipping $10-15 on ebay. I purchased a 25 and 30 pounder for $27 each + shipping

    Bill wrote on February 11th, 2011
  13. Just got my first kettlebell today. 16kg iron one. My first workout was gooooood. Double hand swings, single hand swings, some rows, presses, then repeat.

    Do you think it would work to have heavy and light days so that you can increase training? Maybe do the same exercises 4 or 5 days a week, but one day with 16kg +, then the others with 12kg.

    Jon wrote on February 25th, 2011

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