Swing ’em, snatch ’em, or clean ’em. Kettlebells are popular in bootcamps and strength-training classes worldwide. And rightly so: They build your chain of posterior muscles — your back, glutes, hamstrings, and calves — while also burning fat, enhancing body awareness, and improving core stability.
Many of us, though, stick to the same kettlebell movements and are missing out on a host of unsung benefits. “When it comes to getting started, the basics are excellent, but what truly transforms someone’s strength is thinking a step or two outside of the proverbial box,” says John Wolf, an expert in unconventional training methodologies — kettlebells, sandbags, club swinging, and mace training, to name a few — who oversees fitness education and programming at Onnit Academy Gym in Austin, Texas.
Working with kettlebells is, by virtue of throwing around a ballistic weight, a dynamic form of exercise.
It’s all too easy, though, to stay within the sagittal plane (with front-to-back motions), while neglecting side-to-side and rotational moves. Incorporating multiplanar kettlebell exercises challenges your body in new and important ways, improving not only strength and conditioning, but also mobility and range of motion.
“When you start to explore how else your body can function, you develop a more diverse movement palette and increase the ranges of motion you can move safely within; you become more physically resilient,” says Wolf, who designed this workout.
Mixing up your training also engages your mind because you have to pay attention. If you can swing in your sleep, you might find that you zone out doing the exercise or get bored more easily than you used to.
Changing the movement by swinging side to side instead of front to back may be the trick to reengage your attention and interest. By recruiting your muscles and your brain simultaneously, these next-gen kettlebell moves (or any new-to-you exercises, for that matter) can manifest major neuroplastic changes, including sharper thinking and increased creativity, both in and out of the gym.
This workout is designed to be accessible for all, even those new to kettlebell training. As with any new practice, start slow and use a light weight. Assess how your body responds to each movement, advancing in small increments each session.
Approach this workout with a mindset of purposeful exploration rather than a focus on maximizing effort or number of repetitions.
“We all express ourselves through our movement whether we do so consciously or not. As we develop greater proficiency with our bodies, we reap the rewards both mentally and emotionally,” says Wolf. “If we move in new ways, we think in new ways.”
Perform each of the four drills in a circuit format for four rounds with a 3/3/3 tempo: Use a three-second lifting phase, a three-second isometric hold, and then a three-second lowering phase. Rest for one minute between rounds.
Why It Works: This hip-hinge variation allows you to practice the hinge movement at various tempos, maximizing the work your glutes and hamstrings do and keeping your back muscles engaged the entire time — a skill that carries over nicely to all other swing and clean variations.
How to Do It
- Grab the kettlebell with both hands by the horns (near the base of the handle) and place the base against your chest as you stand in a tall neutral stance, feet hip width apart.
- Actively roll your shoulders back and down to set a proud chest as you brace your abdominal muscles to stabilize your lower back.
- Pushing your butt backward, fold your upper body forward as a counterbalance.
- Keep your shins vertical and your head in line with the rest of your spine.
- Keep a slight bend in your knees and make sure your shoulders stay higher than your hips at all times. (Your shoulders and hips can be nearly horizontal, but avoid inverting them.)
- Lift yourself back to the start position and repeat for 10 rep
Coaching Point: Hang out at the bottom position of this drill and see if you can actively shift more of the work back into the glutes and hamstrings.
Bridged Persian Press
Why It Works: This press pays huge strength dividends while introducing a relatively simple rotational variable. This move will blast your glutes and challenge your core.
How to Do It
- While seated on the floor, use an underhand grip to place two kettlebells on your lap.
- Lie back and position the kettlebells against your forearms, wrists straight, with your upper arms on the floor and fists facing the ceiling.
- Draw your feet as close to your glutes as you comfortably can, squeeze your glutes, and drive your heels into the ground, elevating your hips until your body is straight from your knees to the back of your shoulders. Tuck your pelvis under slightly to avoid arching the lower back.
- Press the kettlebells toward the ceiling over your sternum, and rotate your hands so palms are facing each other to maintain balance of the kettlebells while externally rotating the shoulders.
- Lower back to start position and repeat for 10 reps.
Coaching Point: If you find the bells are hard to balance as you press them, they are probably floating diagonally upward above your face. Think about pressing them downward over your bellybutton to maintain a strong alignment.
Modified Sumo Squat
Why It Works: This sumo-squat variation trains the hips to maintain external rotation, enhancing hip function, while the knees and ankles are also mobilized through a greater range. All of this translates into better full-body mobility.
How to Do It
- Hold a single kettlebell by the horns with two hands at chest height. Keep your elbows close to your body and actively set your shoulders back and down, your chest proud. Set your heels slightly wider than hip width apart and turn your toes out as far as you comfortably can without compromising form, aiming for at least 45 degrees.
- Sink your hips downward, focusing on moving your tailbone straight down toward the floor and keeping your hips aligned between your heels, if possible.
- Actively press your knees outward, making sure they track in the same direction as your toes, while maintaining a vertical chest.
- Return to the start position, keeping shoulders stacked over your hips, and repeat for 10 reps.
Coaching Point: If you aren’t able to line up the outsides of your knees with the outsides of your feet, turn your toes in until you can. Upon your descent into the squat, imagine your back sliding down a wall to maintain an upright posture.
Goblet Shinbox Extension
Why It Works: Poor rotary function of the hips contributes to back and knee issues. This drill focuses on improving internal rotation and extension, which are two all-too-common limitations. Done right, this drill will work your butt better than almost any other exercise.
How to Do It
- Sit with your knees up to your chest, feet slightly wider than hip width apart on the floor in front of you, and hold a kettlebell at chest height.
- Drop your knees to your right side and onto the floor; knees should form a 90-degree angle with the shins. Focus on sitting tall in this posture. Keep your wrists straight and elbows close to the body as you hold the kettlebell against your chest.
- While maintaining an upright posture, push your shins and knees downward into the floor (or mat) and squeeze your glutes to extend your hips and elevate your torso. Get as tall as possible, keeping the tailbone tucked.
- Return to the seated position while keeping your shoulders over your hips to maximize engagement with your glutes. Avoid plopping down to the floor by controlling the lower part of the range of motion. Repeat for five reps per side.
Coaching Point: Focus on the lowering portion of the drill to get the most benefit. If your hips are not happy in the full, seated position, then work the top half of the range only until you develop a greater range of motion.
Photography by Chad Holder