Deconstructing Kettlebells

Kettlebells have been around since Tsarist Russia (1700's to give perspective) and only really made an impact in the United States in the late 1990's.  The kettlebell offers an incredible amount of versatility in training the body for stability, mobility, strength, cardio, conditioning, and explosive power! 

But many folks that I have had the pleasure of working with have initially expressed some concerns about using the kettlebell. Whether it was a previous bad experience, fear of injury, or just plain lack of understanding - the kettlebell has intimidated more than a few folks along the way. This post is about deconstructing the kettlebell by learning some of the beginner concepts associated with kettlebells and hopefully opening up your world to another tool in your fitness toolbox! 

Full disclosure - I have learned from the "Russian" school of thought on kettlebells. I acquired my RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge - Level One Certification) from Dragondoor before the split. I acquired my RKC- Level Two Certification from Dragondoor in 2014. Working with an individual with extensive kettlebell experience is critical when learning how to effectively use & program with kettlebells.

Let's start with basic understanding of the bell's anatomy. The bell has three main sections to it; the body, the horns, and the handle.

  The kettlebell's unique body allows for an offset center of gravity to challenge the participant with many movements when compared to using dumbbells.

The kettlebell's unique body allows for an offset center of gravity to challenge the participant with many movements when compared to using dumbbells.

Kettlebells come in many different sizes. Widely used in Kilograms, I have also put together the poundage associated with the more commonly used weights for kettlebells. Check out the conversion chart for bells in kilos and pounds.

"What is the best weight for me?" Is a common question I get. The answer depends on the movement, the strength level, and the skill level of the participant.  The point of it all is to do the movement correct first, then add load. That is incredibly hard for the ego but will go a looooooonnnngggggg way in the development of a solid practice.

How we hold the kettlebell will drastically change how the weight feels for a particular lift. The offset nature of the kettlebell provides opportunities for some movements to be quite challenging. Conversely, the kettlebell allows opportunities to make some ballistic movements much more of a reality.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Let's take a look at how we can hold a kettlebell and identify when and why we apply this grip.

Double Handed along the handle

 Deadlift position - two hands along the handle

Deadlift position - two hands along the handle

 Two handed swing. Same grip but the bell starts out in front of feet.

Two handed swing. Same grip but the bell starts out in front of feet.

This grip provides a symmetrical grip on the handle and is used for deadlifts, swings, and helps bring the bell off the ground for some other movements.

 

Single Hand along the handle

This grip is used for swings, cleans, pulls, and snatches and is also used to get to the rack position, pressing patterns, and rowing patterns. This single hand approach challenges the core to engage as the kettlebell will alter the participant's center of gravity.

 

Rack Position along the handle

 The rack position. Notice the opposing hand is tense and raised to help balance the weight.

The rack position. Notice the opposing hand is tense and raised to help balance the weight.

The rack position is the rest position for many lifts and is critical for catching a clean, holding a front squat, or starting an overhead press. The bell rests in the natural "V" created by the upper arm and forearm. The wrist is in a neutral position. The thumb is close to the clavicle (collarbone) and the upper arm is firm against the ribcage. For female clients, we want to adjust slightly for anatomy and this may cause the elbow and hand to flare slightly to the outside.

 

Suitcase Hold along the handle

The suitcase hold is used for farmer carries, walking lunges, deadlift variations, and squatting patterns. When in a suitcase hold, press the upper arm into the lats and pack the shoulder down and in. We want to avoid shrugging the shoulder in this hold.

 Suitcase hold. 

Suitcase hold. 

 

Overhead Hold along the handle

 Overhead position. Strong grip, neutral wrist, and fully extended elbow while keeping the shoulder packed.

Overhead position. Strong grip, neutral wrist, and fully extended elbow while keeping the shoulder packed.

The overhead position is utilized at the top of an overhead press, snatch, bent press, windmill and the get up (aka Turkish Get Up). When in this position, the grip is held firm, the shoulder is packed, and the body is holding tension throughout - meaning the quads, the glutes, the midsection, and opposing arm are "tight". This of your body like a piece of steel, not an overcooked noodle and we will be on point.

 

Ipsilateral Hold along the handle

Ipsilateral is a word that may come in handy for Scrabble or Words with Friends. The root "Ipsi" refers to same side. So for single leg lifts (deadlifts and pistols) an ipsilateral hold would be on the same side of the leg that is the prime mover. As shown by the kettlebell in the right hand while the right leg is performing a single-leg deadlift.

 Ipsilateral Hold along the handle

Ipsilateral Hold along the handle

 

Contralateral Hold along the handle

 Contralateral Hold along the handle

Contralateral Hold along the handle

Contralateral is the opposite of ipsilateral. The root "contra" refers to the opposing side. So for single leg lifts (deadlifts and pistols) an contralateral hold would be on the opposite side of the leg that is the prime mover. As shown by the kettlebell in the left hand while the right leg is performing a single-leg deadlift.

 

Packed Shoulder

 A. Packed shoulder down and into the torso.

A. Packed shoulder down and into the torso.

 B. Unpacked, or loose shoulder promotes instability.

B. Unpacked, or loose shoulder promotes instability.

Packing the shoulder is not necessarily a grip, but for many of the hand positions shown, without a packed shoulder - you will not get too far in your kettlebell practice. A packed shoulder is drawing the shoulder down and into the socket. This is done to promote stability and help minimize the risk of injury. Picture A shows a packed shoulder and Picture B shows a loose shoulder. Learning how to pack a shoulder can be practiced on the ground as shown (with or without weight) and you will feel the muscles of the upper back, the lats, and arm engage.

 

Goblet Hold along the horns

 Goblet hold along the horns

Goblet hold along the horns

The goblet hold is done by holding the bell right-side-up and grabbing the horns. In addition, we want to pack the shoulders, and draw the upper arms against the torso. The kettlebell should not rest against the torso nor should it be excessively far off the torso either. The goblet squat uses this hold.

 

 

Bottoms Up along the handle (one hand)

The single-arm bottoms up hold is the most taxing hold shown. To hold the bell along the handle (not the curve between the handle and horns, is no joking matter. It will challenge far more than just the grip and forearm as you will require whole body tension to maintain. Initially, keep the free hand close to the bell as a "spotter" to help guide the kettlebell. This is an advance hold and should not be tried until you have establish some level of comfort with the other holds and several of the base movements of kettlebell training. Bottoms up holds can be used in lieu of traditional overhead and rack holds. Lastly, you will find that the weight of the bell will likely need to come down at least two sizes to accomplish.

 

 
 Single-Arm bottoms up hold (shown in the rack)

Single-Arm bottoms up hold (shown in the rack)

Bottoms Up along the horns

 Bottoms Up hold along the horns.

Bottoms Up hold along the horns.

Grabbing the bell along the horns with thumbs pointed down. Lift the bell and twist the bell so the body is now above the horns and held inverted. Do not let the bell rest on the torso but challenge the grip by holding the bell in place with your hands. Halos and squats are two movements that use this hold.

 

 

Understanding what the kettlebell is and how to hold it properly is the first step in your kettlebell journey. Over course of the next several weeks we will continue deconstructing the kettlebell with some of the essential lifts. Check out the homepage and find us via our many social media outlets and sign up for our complimentary weekly motivation newsletter! If you are looking for programming and/or nutritional planning - b3 is your one stop shop. 

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