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Core Fitness Training

Designing Kettlebell Workouts


Read Gregg's general guidelines for Strength Training and Kettlebell Workouts by clicking these links.

Read about how to use kettlebells to develop Optimum Health

For individual help in designing workouts or learning kettlebell exercises, contact:

Gregg Althen, Certified Russian Kettlebell Instructor
Owner of Core Fitness Training
Novato, CA
USA, 94947



Lifting weights is safe for people of all ages and abilities who are willing to follow these guidelines:

  • Your workout area must have adequate space and an uncluttered floor with good traction.
  • Do not stretch prior to a strength workout (I know, I know - this is counter to everything you've ever heard).
    • Static stretching deforms and weakens your muscles -- not a good idea right before a strength workout, eh?
    • The best pre-workout warm-up is to use a battery of joint mobilization exercises to increase circulation in your connective tissues.
  • Never use mirrors -- your focus must be internal, not external.
  • Always wear shoes with thin, flat soles or go barefoot when working out.
    • There are important neurological reflexes in your feet that detect when you are bearing weight.
    • These reflexes protect you by helping tighten your legs and other supporting musculature.
    • Shoes with thick soles dampen these reflexes.
  • Exercising with perfect form is your best protection against injury.
  • MOST IMPORTANT: Never train to failure on any exercise.
    • Injuries occur when your stabilizing muscles become fatigued and you lose your form.
    • Always quit BEFORE your form goes. Rest a while, then continue training.
  • Be mindful of any injuries you have or have had in the past, and consult a physician before beginning a training program.
  • Be mindful of your current level of conditioning, and do not overextend yourself in any single workout. Build gradually.
  • If you ever feel unsafe performing an exercise, simply reduce the amount of weight you are working with, or quit altogether and seek help with your technique.
One Size Does NOT Fit All

No two people are alike in their strengths, weaknesses, goals, or body types. It would be futile to attempt to design a single workout to fit the myriad people who use kettlebells, so bear in mind that everything you will read below for Beginners, Intermediates, and Advanced students is merely an example; only the tip of the ice berg.

There are countless variations and combinations of exercises that can be performed, and perhaps the most basic program that would be effective would consist of some joint and muscular mobility exercises combined with one kettlebell pull (such as a swing or snatch) and one kettlebell press (such as a side press or military press).

Workouts can be designed to fit into 15 minute intervals 4-5 days per week, 40 minute intervals 2-4 times per week, or anything in between. Your own primary goals, whether they be to improve strength, lose weight, develop endurance, etc., determine how your program should be designed.

Sample Workout for Beginners

Plain and simple: at the beginning, your main objective is to develop good technique so that you can then increase your workload without fear of injuring yourself. Lift kettlebells 3 days per week for 30 minutes at the beginning.

First 2-4 Weeks -- Perfect your technique in the swing and military press

  1. Joint Mobilization Exercises - no warm-up is necessary before a kettlebell workout because the human body possess a number of mechanisms that immediately prepare it at even the mere hint of exercise. Your body is programmed to raise its core temperature, shunt more blood to the arms and legs, and cease or diminish digestive and other processes at the first sign of exercise. If you are accustomed to using a warm-up, gradually wean yourself of your need for it. Begin with 20 minutes, then 15, then 10, 5, down to zero.
  2. Deadlifts - perform 20 repetitions broken into 3-5 sets. Practice perfect lifting alignment using the deadlift. Make sure that your shins are vertical, your tailbone is high, and your head is up, looking forward. Deadlifts are performed slowly and with maximum tension, and they represent your opportunity to master the back, hip, and knee alignment that are the basis for all ballistic kettlebell exercises (swings, cleans, and snatches).
  3. Military Press - perform 2-3 sets of 3-5 repetitions. Mix in some Palm Strike Press to begin activating your lat during pressing motions. Integrate your entire body into each repetition -- begin by creating a solid, immovable base with your feet and legs. Before lifting the bell, inhale fully, crush the handle of the bell, and either hold your breath or use power breathing as you press the bell out and up. Keep your eye on the weight at all times.
  4. Swings - aim for 30-80 repetitions broken up into as many sets as you need. Begin with 2-hand swings and progress to 1-hand swings when you are ready. Swings are performed explosively and with no hesitation between repetitions. It is critical that you synchronize your breathing with the motion of the kettlebell (preferably you will inhale on the backswing - see Images) and use your hips to drive the kettlebell forward and up. It's helpful to visualize performing a standing vertical jump as you perform each repetition.

Week 2-8 -- Incorporate cleans

  1. Joint Mobilization Exercises. See notes above.
  2. Swings. Perform 1 set of kettlebell swings or passes to loosen up.
  3. Military Press. See notes above. Remember that you can increase the repetitions to a maximum of 5 or 6 per set. Beyond that, you should increase the number of sets or the weight, not the reps.
  4. Ballistics. Aim for 60-100 ballistic movements, using any combination of 2-hand swings, 1-hand swings, and cleans. Cut the total number of repetitions into as many sets as you need. Never train to failure on any set, but instead focus on your technique. You're going to need it as you move to intermediate and advanced workouts!!!


When you are in a Rush...

Assuming you have mastered the 1-arm Clean and Jerk, you can use this sinlge exercise to get a total-body workout in just a few minutes. You'll get both pulling and pushing action so that nothing is left out.

  1. 1-arm Clean & Jerk. Perform 3 sets with each arm, proceeding with each set until you are mildly fatigued. Never compromise your form.
For Intermediate Students - My own favorite workout

I assume that by this point, you have mastered the basic kettlebell skills - deadlifts, swings, cleans, military presses, and perhaps you've done some work on snatches and the side press. Now, it's time to start increasing your strength and endurance by increasing the weight and/or the repetitions, and de-emphasizing deadlifts in favor of more advanced exercises or more difficult routines.

I will not go into extensive detail on proper form here. MAKE SURE YOUR FORM IS CORRECT BEFORE PROCEEDING.

My own favorite workout consists of one set of warm-up passes, then a high-tension circuit consisting of 2-3 sets of 2-3 exercises, followed by a ballistics on the clock. If I really want to emphasize strength, I might choose to do two high-tension circuits, and then minimize the ballistics or move them to a different day. I'll explain:

  1. (1-2 minutes) Kettlebell Passes - perform a mixture of behind-the-back passes and underleg, figure-8 passes. Make sure to keep your head up during the figure-8 passes. These drills are excellent for activating all the stabilizer muscles in your back, ribs, and abdominals, and they take the place of deadlifts for emphasizing correct knee, hip, and spinal alignment. Peform enough reps to achieve a light sweat/fatigue.
  2. (20-25 minutes) High-tension Circuit - choose 2-3 of the following exercises including at least one pull and at least one press. Pulls include 1-legged deadlifts and squats. Presses include military press, side press, windmill, or get-ups. Use the heaviest weight you can handle with good form. I always include front squats in this circuit becuase they help me maintain groin flexibility -- an area where I would struggle otherwise. I rotate the press that I choose every 6 weeks or so, and choose between the pistol and 1-legged deadlifts each workout. My philosophy is that squats attack a particular weakness of mine so I stick with them, and then I can rotate the other exercises as I see fit.
  3. (10 minutes) Ballistics on the clock - It doesn't get much simpler than this. I perform 10 sets of 10 high swings, starting each set on the minute. This works out to be about 30 seconds of swinging and 30 seconds of rest. If your swings are lower, you'll have a little more time to rest within each 1 minute window. This type of workout has been demonstrated to have the greatest impact on your endurance, and on your hormones. Simple and devastatingly effective. Sometimes I replace the 10 high swings with sets of 6 double cleans, or 8 snatches. Regardless of the specific exercise, keep yourself on the clock.
  4. (Relax!) Zero Tension Drills - During technical exercises such as presses, squats, and even passes, your goal is to maintain total body tension. When finished with your workout, and even between sets of your workout, your goal is to create minimum tension. By opening your jaw and fists, gently bouncing with your knees, and breathing deeply through your nose, you should be able to completely relax your body. These techniques are great any time, but they are particularly effective when performed back-to-back with high-tension, weight-bearing exercises. Your goal is to develop greater and greater control of your nervous system -- remember, the difference between you and me and a world-class athlete is their uncanny ability to totally contract and then totally relax all the right muscles at exactly the right times. Total workout time: 30-40 minutes
Sample Advanced Workout

To say that you're ready for an "advanced workout" can mean many different things. The kettlebell competition held by the Russian military, for example, consists of the same exercises you have already done (snatches and clean&jerks), but simply with higher weights for higher repetitions and with less rest. The competition is certainly one example of an advanced workout. On the other hand, an advanced workout may consist of technically more challenging drills such as the bent presses and 2-hands anyhow, or simply heavier weight on the side and military presses. Regardless, suffice it to say that most people do not ever need to proceed beyond the intermediate workouts. If, however, you are a competitive athlete or you simply have an unstoppable drive to see how far you can push yourself, read on:

Again, no matter how advanced you are, the SAFETY PRINCIPLES outlined above still apply.

My theory on advanced workouts: Hit hard but keep them brief. Choose difficult, heavy exercises and perform a few sets of low reps. Then finish with a demanding ballistic routine. Total workout time should be 30 minutes or less. Here's an example.

  1. Medium Swings. Perform 2 sets of the swings with moderate weight to loosen up.
  2. Turkish Get-ups or heavy 1 kb or 2-kb windmills. Perform 2-3 sets of 5 reps or fewer.
  3. 2-kb Clean & Jerk. Work heavy and work hard, but never compromise your form.
  4. Continuous Ballistic Drill - use a light bell and a combination of passes, cleans, swings, and snatches to keep a kettlebell in constant motion for anwhere from 2-12 minutes. You can even incorporate some kettlebell releases and juggling if you are outdoors or have an appropriate surface. Begin with passes, go to snatches, then back to swings, then passes again, etc. Alternate more demanding motions with easier ones.
  5. Practice Zero Tension. See notes above.
  6. Hit the Showers! You just did an advanced kettlebell workout! Total workout time: 25-30 minutes

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