You’ve breached the barbells and dominated dumbbells, but if you’re still steering clear of kettlebells you’re missing out on arguably the best burn at the gym. “When performed correctly, all kettlebell exercises are full-body moves, so you’re using more muscles and burning more calories,” says Toronto-based strength coach Chris Lopez, StrongFirst Level II kettlebell instructor and owner of KettlebellWorkouts.com.
What makes these weights so beneficial is also what makes them look so goofy: the handles. Think about a baseball bat, says trainer Jason C. Brown, creator and owner of certification program Kettlebell Athletics. Holding a dumbbell is like choking up — the center of gravity is always inside your grip. With its handle, though, a kettlebell is more like holding the bat by the end, which delivers a very different swing. “Kettlebells create a longer lever arm, which requires you to use more force to move an equal weight the same distance,” Brown says.
This recruits more muscles, challenges inter- and intra-muscular coordination, and generally delivers one hell of a burn. But which size should you reach for? In general, Lopez recommends going anywhere from 5 to 15 pounds lighter on a kettlebell than you would a dumbbell. But resistance is assistance, so going too light or too heavy can compromise technique — not to mention increase your risk of injury with the added momentum of most moves, Brown adds. Translation: Every move requires its own weight. Here’s how to pin that kettlebell weight down for 11 of the most common moves.
Ditch your idea of an ultra-heavy deadlift. “There are no guys doing a one-rep max for a kettlebell deadlift,” Brown says. Instead, this is viewed as a fundamental move — a way to refine your technique as you work up to the swing. The general rule of thumb is the more joints involved, the heavier the kettlebell weight you can use. The deadlift is a multijoint move, so the average guy can probably handle 32 kg/70 lbs here to start, Brown says.
A swing is just a high-speed deadlift — you’re using the same muscles with a little more emphasis on the abs to control the momentum, Lopez explains. Unlike a deadlift, though, the high speed of the swing requires you to control the weight, so opt for lighter than you would a deadlift. Lopez' suggested starting weight: 16 kg/35 lbs or 20 kg/44 lbs.
“The single-arm swing puts more emphasis on the core because, in addition to being a high-speed hinge movement, you also now have to resist rotation since you're only loaded on one side,” Lopez explains. Not only are your shoulders and abs working hard to keep you stable, but there’s more challenge to your grip since all the weight is in one hand. Drop down one weight level from your double-arm, Lopez says (that’s 12 kg/26 lbs or 16 kg/44 lbs).
This weight depends on what you’re using the move for. “Most use a goblet squat solely as a mobility exercise — they get low and do a hip pry. But others use it as a strength move,” Brown explains. For strength, most guys can probably handle 32 kg/70 lbs, but as a hip opener you don’t need to go quite as heavy — 24 kg/53 lbs.
The clean delivers a lot more strength-building benefits than you may think. “It teaches a powerful hip snap and can be a great bicep and pec builder — but it's difficult to master the clean unless you really have your swing dialed-in,” Lopez says. A 16 kg/35 lb kettlebell is a good start while you’re learning to guide the kettlebell into the rack position without banging your forearm. But Brown says most gym rats can probably handle a bit heavier, around 24 kg/53 lbs.
”Because you're able to transfer power from your lower body to your upper body, the push press allows you to accommodate more load than a standard strict military press,” Lopez explains. A solid starting weight: 16 kg/35 lbs to 20 kg/44 lbs.
This move involves a lot more than just lying down and standing up with a weight overhead. “The get-up is known in most training circles as the perfect exercise because the whole move — all 14 steps — includes every possible human movement pattern,” Lopez explains. Form is crucial here, so master the moves before you add weight. Lopez actually makes clients ace all 14 steps while balancing their shoe on their fist before they're allowed to try it with a kettlebell (you can opt for a two-pound dumbbell to save face at the gym). When you feel confident that you have the form down sans resistance, reach for a 12 kg/26 lb kettlebell. Since form is so imperative here, Lopez says you shouldn’t move up a weight until you’re able to maintain perfect verticality with your arm, keep the elbow fully locked throughout all 14 steps, and feel comfortable going slow (most people rush due to discomfort).
This move is deceivingly difficult. But because it doesn’t require swinging momentum or extension, a carry has a lower risk of injury than other kettlebell moves, which means you can go a bit heavier. Grab a kettlebell that’s the equivalent of half your bodyweight to carry in each hand, Brown recommends.
Often called the Czar of kettlebell exercises, the snatch is not a beginner move. You need to have a dialed-in kettlebell swing and be able to manage a bell overhead, Lopez points out. Put your ego aside on this one. Because of the technical demands of the snatch, Lopez advises starting light at 12 kg/24 lbs or 16 kg/35 lbs.
“Like the push press, the power is transferred from the lower body, so most people can accommodate a little more weight on a thruster than they would on a strict overhead press,” Lopez says. He recommends starting with 16 kg/35 lbs.
This is one move where lighter is always better. “Your pelvis is locked, so all the rotation in this move is from the lumbar spine. Too much weight and you’ll do serious damage to the lower back,” Brown says. This move can deliver a burn without any added weight, but if you want to use some resistance, limit yourself to a 4 kg/9 lb or 6 kg/13 lb kettlebell.
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