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

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87 thoughts on “Kettlebellin’ for Strength”

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  1. 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?

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

  4. 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.

  5. 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!

  6. 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.

  7. 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.

  8. 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!

  9. 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 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.

  10. 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.

  11. 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

  12. 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.

  13. 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 and get ups with a 12kg (25lb), graduated to a 16kg after about a month (5-6 days a week) even though I probably could have done more. I added snatches to my workout after extensive practice during the first month, and now after 5 months I can do Turkish Get Ups with a 24kg (53lb) for 5 minutes continuous alternating arms, and 240 snatches in 10 min with a 16kg, and 160 reps with a 20kg. I include 100 yd sprint intervals and rarely spend more than 15-20 mins for my nearly daily workout. I go to the gym once every week or two to test my max deadlifts and cleans and, probably due to a tremendous increase in grip and core strength have actually increased my deads from 315lb to 365lb unassisted. I am an injury-free 48, and 165lbs last testing at 11% bf. I am totally sold on kettlebells at a training method, but you really need to approach this as very technical training and take baby steps regardless of how much gym time you may have. Don’t let ego send you straight to the chiropractor. Cheers.

  14. 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 do hill sprints for HIIT BUT if we are meant to be mimicing our primal ancestors, I am not convinced that, as a woman, primal women would have done much sprinting apart from the rare running froim danger. Women were, as I understand it,more into gathering and later cooking etc… any thoughts? I mean up to now I lift heavier than a bunch of guys in my gym and don’t distinguish between male and female training but should we?

    1. 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 teaching the future generations about the tribes’ myths and cultural history… While in other tribes, only men could become warriors, or only men could hunt certain large game (like the Inuit where only men go out whaling… I don’t envy them considering the mortality rate associated with hunting whales on small, fragile canoes)

  15. 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 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 stronger than my running days. My flexibility has improved, blood pressure dropped, and my cardio seems pretty good. Good stuff.

  16. 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.

  17. 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 it simply and effectively.

    Even better: Find a list of kettlebell instructors on They are known as RKCs. They’ve been through Pavel’s extremely demanding course. Several wash out of each class; if a person is designated RKC, he or she is very competent at not only instructing the KB but also assessing a person’s form and movement.

    I’m not an RKC or a fitness professional of any type. I’m just a guy who’s gotten tremendous results with the kettlebell. It really is a strength and a cardio workout all in one.

    Best of fortune!


  18. 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.

  19. 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.

  20. 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.

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

  22. 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.

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

  24. 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”

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

  26. 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.

  27. 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.

    1. Agreed!

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

  28. I love that song. I think I’m gonna play it on a loop while I try to do it myself.

  29. 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.

  30. 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!

  31. 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?

  32. 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


  33. 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

  34. 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.