For many guys, kettlebells are preferable to dumbbells because they more closely mimic and strengthen the movement patterns of daily life. They’re tailor-made for compound and rotational moves, force the user to maintain proper posture and squatting form, and kettlebell moves generally can be done in less space than those with their dumbbell counterparts.
Since the load of the ball is in the front of the handle, kettlebells allow you to work through a greater range of motion, improving mobility and flexibility. Plus, even though kettlebells don’t have the back-to-the-future novelty they had when they became commonplace in gyms a few years ago, they still help break the monotony of another dumbbell and barbell workout.
Pete Williams is a NASM certified personal trainer and the author or co-author of a number of books on performance and training.
Overhead Rotational Squats
The goblet squat is a signature kettlebell move, and with good reason; the weight acts as a natural counterbalance. But an overhead rotational squat might be more valuable since it mimics the overhead lifting of everyday life. Start with a kettlebell in your right hand and your right arm straight.
The kettlebell should be directly over the right shoulder. Squat as you rotate your shoulders to the right and reach down to touch your right foot with your left hand. Reverse the pattern to return to the starting position. Repeat on the other side.
This tests and builds your lumbar stability while improving coordination. Bend at the hips and grab the handle with one hand. Push you hips back and lift your chest, then pull the weight straight up and push your hips forward. Lower the weight to the floor, return to starting position, and repeat.
This familiar exercise that builds strength in your hamstrings, glutes, and back is more challenging with kettlebells. Grab one in each hand at your sides. Shift the hips back and lower the kettlebells as far as you can while keeping your back straight. Don’t think of this exercise as bending forward; think of it as sitting back, but with your torso moving forward instead of staying upright.
One Arm, One Leg Kettlebell Row
This develops upper-back strength along with hip stability. Stand on one leg, grasping a stable surface in front of you (such as a dumbbell rack) with one hand. Bend by dropping your chest and lifting the leg opposite your free hand to create a “T” with your body. Grab the handle with your free hand. Pull it to the side of your waist and lower it. Perform the designated number of reps with one arm, then repeat with the opposite arm and leg.
This move was named after farmers who carry two buckets of milk or water. Not only will you look more like a farmer carrying kettlebells than 45-pound plates, you’ll get more benefit. Kettlebells have handles more similar to a bucket than a plate or dumbbell, so they more closely mimic the motion. Not only that, kettlebells force you to walk with proper posture. Squat at the hips between a pair of kettlebells—don’t bend at the back—and lift the kettlebells. Start with an easy distance (10 to 20 yards) working up to longer ones.
A variation on the farmer’s carry, this involves picking up just one kettlebell as you might a heavy suitcase. To lift, squat at the hips alongside the kettlebell, lift it like a suitcase and walk. Start with an easy distance (10 to 20 yards) working up to longer ones. Not only will you improve your strength and endurance, you’ll also improve your grip.
Though typically executed with one or two dumbbells, the kettlebell seems more appropriate for this popular tricep-blasting move. Lie supine on a flat bench holding a kettlebell by the handle in each hand. Arms should be straight and over your chest or eyes. Keeping your upper arms in the same position, lower the dumbbells until your elbows are bent at 90 degrees. Now pull your arms back to the starting position, straightening your elbows on the way up.
You might not need—or want—a more difficult burpee, but the man maker is such an exercise. Start in push-up position, grabbing the handles of kettlebells. Perform a push-up and then a one-armed row with each hand. Perform another push-up, then bring the legs forward into squat position (like a burpee). From here, you can release the kettlebells and jump (like a burpee). For a greater degree of difficulty, swing the kettlebells to the rack position before finishing the squat and cleaning the kettlebells overhead.
One-Arm Bottoms-Up Press
This strengthens and stabilizes the shoulders, forcing you to activate the stabilizer muscles around the rotator cuff and labrum to hold the kettlebell in position. Start by holding a kettlebell by the handle with the bottom facing up and your arm in a 90-degree angle to your side. Your fist should be at eye level. Press the kettlebell up until the arm is fully extended.
This only works if you know how to juggle, use the lightest kettlebells, watch your feet, and attempt only on a padded floor for when they inevitably drop. Juggle in the familiar cascade motion with the handles up and grabbing the balls. If you’re an advanced juggler and have mastered the snatching motion, snatch the handles. Juggling with kettlebells improves balance while blitzing your arms, especially the forearms.