How to use kettlebells | 5 essential kettlebell lifts for a great workout

Mixing things up and trying something different helps keep exercise interesting and the body stimulated. Whether you’re tired of your current routine, or you’re on the hunt for a new class to try out, a kettlebell workout makes a great alternative to your traditional barbell and dumbbell focused classes.

If you’re unsure of where to start with kettlebells, you’re in the right place. We’ve put together five essential lifts that you can incorporate into your gym plan or combine into a single routine for a great at-home workout.

The history of kettlebells

The popularity of kettlebells (or "girya" in Russian) were first introduced to the Western world in the early 20th century by Russian fitness pioneer Pavel Tsatsouline. Tsatsouline helped popularise kettlebell training as an effective method for building strength and improving overall fitness.

Today, kettlebell exercises are used in gym and home workouts worldwide. Their unique shape and weight distribution challenges your balance and stability whilst engaging your core during a lift, setting them apart from traditional dumbbells and barbells.

Unrivalled functional training

If you enjoy lifting but struggle to see the practical health benefits of your current routine, kettlebells are perfect for you. Because of their unique shape, kettlebells add a functional element to your weightlifting routine that you can’t get with dumbbells or a barbell.

Kettlebell exercises are dynamic and multi-jointed, mimicking the real-life movements you’ll make on a day-to-day basis. They focus on strengthening the muscles around your joints to promote longevity and fluid movement.

They’re also highly versatile, allowing you to target various muscle groups while improving your balance and coordination. Whether you're aiming for increased muscle mass, weight loss, or building all round fitness, incorporating kettlebells into your routine is a fun and effective way to mix up your workout routine and achieve your long-term fitness goals.

Before you start

Kettlebells can be difficult to use if you’re new to the gym or used to working out with dumbbells and barbells. Working with a personal trainer is a great way to stay safe and really hone your form before trying some of the more difficult exercises on your own.

If you are new to kettlebells, it’s important you concentrate on form. We recommend starting out with our beginner exercises before moving on to their intermediate and advanced variations.

New to the gym?

If you’re new to the gym or haven’t done much weightlifting before, kettlebells can be a bit intimidating. If you’re looking for something a bit more accessible, there’s plenty of other weightlifting exercises you can do to build muscle in the gym or with weights at home.

Why you should be using kettlebells 

Kettlebells are incredibly accessible and can be purchased for use at-home. Their centralised weight and handle allow you to perform more mobile lifts that target multiple muscle groups at once, making them great for getting a quick but effective workout if you’re in a hurry.

Take a look at the five exercises we’ve put together below to help get you started with kettlebells.

How to do a kettlebell row

Difficulty: Beginner (single) and intermediate (double)

Area targeted: Arms, shoulders, core, back

Rows are a great way to target the rear of your shoulders and upper back. The advantage of using a kettlebell over a barbell to do these is that you have greater control over where your hands and arms are positioned during each rep. Both the single and double variation of this exercise use the same formula. If you only have one kettlebell at home, use your free hand to brace yourself against the back of a chair.

Start by gently bending your knees and your torso at the hips so your back is almost parallel to the ground. Remember to brace your core and knees to create a stable base. Your arms should be loosely hanging straight down towards the ground, cradling your weights. Remember to keep your back neutral at all times. With thumbs pointing inwards, raise the kettlebells up towards your side, twisting your hands so your thumbs point downwards as you go.

For maximum results, inhale as you lower the weight down, and exhale as you brace your core to lift the weight up. When performed correctly, you will feel your shoulder blades squeezing with each rep.

How to do a kettlebell squat

Difficulty: Beginner (sumo and goblet), intermediate (front rack) and advanced (pistol)

Area targeted: Legs, back and core

Kettlebells are great for squats because they’re round and easy to handle. Unlike a traditional barbell squat, you can cradle a kettlebell in your hands, between your legs or against your biceps without issue. If you’re a beginner or it’s your first time using kettlebells, we recommend you start with either the sumo or the goblet squat before progressing.

The fundamentals of squatting with a kettlebell are the same as squatting with a barbell or dumbbell. Bend gently at the knees, keep your weight in your heels and ensure your spine remains neutral at all times. Lifting should be done through the hips and legs, not the back. If you feel your back rounding at any point, you’re lifting too heavy or you’re squatting too low. Focus on driving up through the legs with each rep.

For detailed instructions on how to perform all four of these exercises, take a look at the video below.

How to do a kettlebell clean and press

Difficulty: Beginner (clean and push press) and advanced (split jerk)

Area targeted: Hips, shoulders, arms and core

These variations on the clean and press are all about using your legs, hips and glutes to drive the kettlebell from the ground up.

The clean and push press involves raising the kettlebell up and resting it against the forearm. For the second part of the movement, use your hips and glutes to drive your arm into a straight and upright position, pressing the kettlebell up above your shoulder.

For the strict press, keep your legs and back straight before raising the kettlebell. For the push-press variation, bend your knees slightly and use this position to generate additional upward force.

The last variation is the split jerk. This involves a fast movement that generates enough force to quickly drive the kettlebell up. Start with straight legs and your arm bent at the elbow with your hand cradling the kettlebell against the front of your shoulder. From here, dip down gently and drive upwards, splitting the legs as you do so to land in a semi-lunge position whilst pressing the kettlebell above the shoulder with a straight arm.

How to do a kettlebell swing

Difficulty: Beginner (Russian), intermediate (single arm) and advanced (alternating arm)

Area targeted: Back, hips and posterior chain muscles

Kettlebell swings are all about maintaining a stable base and driving through the hips to create consistent momentum. They’re a great way to target the posterior chain muscles in your back and strengthen your hips using a powerful driving motion. When you finish, make sure you maintain a stable base until the kettlebell has stopped moving.

Start with your feet a hips width apart and the kettlebell between them on the floor in front of you. Place both hands over the kettlebell and bend your knees slightly, making sure to keep your spine neutral at all times. Swing the kettlebell back through your legs whilst leaning forwards before driving your back up into a straight position and the kettlebell up to shoulder height in front of you. This should all be done with a neutral spine using the thrusting power generated in your hips.

For the single arm variation, place your loose hand behind your back or out of the way and repeat the exercise using one arm. The alternating arm variation is the same, however, you will need to transfer the kettlebell to your opposite hand right as it approaches the top of its arc around the shoulder area. We recommend using a lighter kettlebell to perfect your form first.

How to do a Turkish get up

Difficulty: Advanced

Area targeted: Shoulders, core, triceps, glutes, legs

The Turkish get up is an advanced lift that requires a lot of coordination to perform. If you’re a beginner, we recommend you start this lift without any weight to get a hang of the movements involved. The Turkish get up is split into two halves to make perfecting your form easier. These are the “sit up” and the “stand up”.

Start by laying in a side sleeper position. Roll over onto your back and press the kettlebell in one hand with a straight arm above your shoulder. Place your other arm out with your hand on the floor for support and sit up, making sure to keep the kettlebell raised above the shoulder.

Next, from this seated position, keep your arm extended above you and thrust your hips up, keeping your free arm in position to support your weight. Next, bring your opposite leg back underneath the body so you’re in a kneeling position and draw your free arm towards the body to form a lunge position.

Finally, stand all the way up and reverse the movement to complete one rep. We recommend watching the video below and mastering the sequence of movements before attempting this one with a kettlebell.

Last updated Tuesday 24 October 2023

First published on Thursday 20 July 2023