Whether you’ve been training for many years or are just beginning your fitness journey, kettlebells are a fun and versatile piece of equipment to add to your workouts. Kettlebells can be used for strength training and ballistic exercises — so you can get your heart rate up with some cardio while simultaneously improving your strength, endurance, flexibility, grip, and mobility!
This article breaks down how to use kettlebells safely. You’ll learn:
- The basic anatomy of a kettlebell
- How to select your kettlebell weight
- Essential safety tips
- 5 beginner kettlebell exercises
While we’re going to cover a lot of the basics here, if you’re just starting then I always recommend learning the proper technique from a certified kettlebell instructor. Many now offer online training options, and they can provide video feedback to help ensure you progress safely and confidently.
Kettlebells for Beginners: The Basics
The unique shape and uneven weight of the kettlebell make it a super effective functional training tool. You can take advantage of its structure to have fun with dynamic movements that may not be possible or safe with other equipment, like dumbbells or barbells.
The Anatomy of a Kettlebell
While there are many different types, styles, and even colors of kettlebells, they all share the same basic anatomy.
- Handle: The top part of the handle, this is commonly used to control movement.
- Corners: The curved portion on each side of the handle where it starts to turn down toward the bell.
- Horns: The two connection points where each side of the handle meets the bell.
- Window: The opening between the handle and the bell. Windows can be different sizes depending on the kettlebell style and manufacturer.
- Bell: The center of mass on the kettlebell. The bell is typically spherical.
- Base: The flat portion at the bottom of the bell that allows it to stand upright.
Fully utilizing the handle, corners, horns, and bell allows for a variety of training techniques (e.g., bottoms-up kettlebell training).
There are two main types of kettlebell:
- Competition-style kettlebells are made of steel and are all the same size regardless of their weight.
- Classic kettlebells are made of cast iron, and the size of the bell increases as its weight increases. Classic kettlebells also range in handle sizes, and the variety of handle thicknesses helps to work the grip.
Kettlebell weights usually increase in increments of 5 lbs or 4 kg, depending on the type.
Interested in learning more about kettlebell sport? Here’s the scoop.
How to Choose Your Kettlebell Weight
When you’re just starting, it can be tricky to know what size kettlebell to start with. Ideally, try to work with two different weights so you can perform a larger range of exercises and variations: a lighter weight (8–16kg) will be useful for exercises like kettlebell overhead presses or Turkish get-ups, while a medium-to-heavy one (12–20kg) may work better for squats and deadlifts.
To select a weight that is manageable for all movements, you need to test out the bell first so you don’t over- or underestimate your strength. Start on the lower end of the spectrum and work your way up to a heavier weight, rather than vice versa.
And remember: Choosing a kettlebell will depend on several factors, such as your age, strength, fitness level, and personal goals. Listen to your body about what weight challenges you without setting you up for form that can put your safety at risk.
4 Tips for Training Safely with Kettlebells
There are four important safety tips beginners should keep in mind during their kettlebell workouts.
Safety Tip #1: Always Be Aware of Your Surroundings
When you’re picking out a spot to train, find a non-slip training area where you’re not afraid to drop a kettlebell. Make sure the space around you is clear — don’t leave your equipment out!
Safety Tip #2: Select Footwear Wisely
Being able to anchor your feet into the ground is important in kettlebell technique. Ideally, you’ll want to train either barefoot or while wearing shoes with flat, thin soles where your toes have room to spread.
Safety Tip #3: Practice Proper Form
Treat every kettlebell as if it weighs 100 pounds. Practice proper form when picking it up and setting it down! (We don’t want any injuries here.)
Safety Tip #4: Don’t Force It
The kettlebell can have a mind of its own. If it’s falling, don’t try to force the rep. Simply guide the kettlebell to fall as softly as possible, and move quickly out of the way if necessary.
5 Best Kettlebell Exercises for Beginners
Many of the functional movements in kettlebell training have carryover in everyday activities, such as picking something up off the floor, sitting down and standing back up, hauling in groceries… the list goes on. By learning how to perform these basic movements efficiently and appropriately (this is where working with a certified kettlebell instructor may come in handy), you can improve your strength and stability, reduce your risk of injury, and enjoy the crossover benefits in daily life.
The following five movements are fantastic functional exercises for anyone learning how to use a kettlebell.
1. The Kettlebell Deadlift
The deadlift is a hip-hinge movement that helps build muscle in your glutes, hamstrings, and core while giving you the basis you need for kettlebell swings, which you’ll see next. Plus, there are tons of kettlebell deadlift variations you can take advantage of.
How to Do a Kettlebell Deadlift:
- Stand with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed slightly out (30 degrees or so). The kettlebell should be directly between your feet, in line with the front of your ankles.
- Hinge your hips back.
- As you reach for the kettlebell, keep your shoulders directly above your hands, elbows straight, and eyes on the horizon.
- Grab the handle tight (imagine you’re trying to break the handle in half).
- Imagine pushing your feet through the ground as you squeeze your glutes and extend your legs. Exhale with a hiss on the way up.
- At the top of the deadlift, you should be standing tall with tensed abs, quads, and glutes. Keep your shoulders down and away from your ears.
- Hinge at the hips to return the bell to the ground.
2. The Kettlebell Swing
The kettlebell swing is the foundation of kettlebell training. It can improve your athletic performance, boost your strength and cardiovascular endurance, and make you feel like a badass!
Keep in mind that the kettlebell swing is a ballistic exercise meant to be executed fast.
How to Do a Kettlebell Swing:
- Stand with your feet a bit wider than shoulder-width apart and your toes pointed slightly out. The kettlebell should be about a foot in front of you.
- Hinge your hips back, keeping your shins vertical and spine neutral, and reach out to tip the kettlebell handle toward you. Keep your gaze on the horizon.
- Hook your fingers around the handle with a loose grip.
- Inhale as you hike the kettlebell back between your legs. Keep your shoulders and hips still; the kettlebell should swing like a pendulum back between your legs until your forearms touch your inner thighs.
- Initiate the forward swing by snapping your hips and standing up straight, tensing your glutes, quads, and core. Allow the momentum of the bell to bring it no higher than chest level. Exhale with a hiss on the way up, finishing your tight-lipped exhalation as the bell reaches chest height.
- As the bell falls naturally back down, keep your shoulders packed and wait until the point where it feels like your arms will hit you before you hinge your hips back to start another rep.
Learn how to improve your kettlebell swing with these 5 training tips.
3. The Goblet Squat
Goblet squats are a fantastic lower-body exercise to develop strong glutes, strengthen your quads and calves, increase mobility, and improve flexibility.
How to Do a Kettlebell Goblet Squat:
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the kettlebell by the horns close to your chest.
- To squat, send your hips back and bend at your knees, as if you were going to sit on a curb. Your knees and hips should flex equally, with your knees tracking over your toes.
- Keep your chest upright and your spine neutral.
- Squat down as far as you can without your back curving or pelvis tilting under.
- To stand, press through your heels and imagine pushing your feet through the ground as hard as possible. Exhale, letting out a small grunt to actively pull up on your pelvic floor muscles as you breathe out. (You can also try saying “up!”)
- Stand up to full hip extension with your head tall and spine long, as if there were a string pulling you up by the top of your skull.
4. The Farmer’s Carry
This exercise is a powerhouse movement that works your entire body. Carries can help you:
- Stabilize your gait.
- Enhance balance and stability.
- Gain strength applicable to everyday activities.
- Improve general endurance.
- Boost grip strength.
There are several types of weighted carry you can accomplish with kettlebells (e.g., suitcase carries, racked carries, overhead carries, one-arm carries), but today we’ll start with the most basic: the farmer’s carry.
How to Do a Farmer’s Carry with Kettlebells:
- Stand between two kettlebells with your feet hip-width apart. The bells should be placed just outside of your ankles, handles parallel to your legs.
- Hinge back and grab the handles, and use your deadlift movement to stand back up.
- Think about your postural alignment: Stand tall with your ribs over your hips and your core engaged.
- Start walking slowly, making sure to properly transfer your weight heel to toe with each step. Don’t let your arms and hands rest on your sides, and keep your shoulders down and away from your ears (no shrugging!).
You can perform the farmer’s carry either for time or distance. If the target is time, start by setting a timer for 30 seconds, increasing the time gradually as you build up strength. If you choose to go by distance, try starting with 20 meters. Remember, your goal is NOT to cover the distance in the shortest possible time, but rather to keep the best form you can.
5. The Turkish Get-up
With the Turkish get-up (TGU), keep it simple, fun, and unrushed. Make sure to pause and check your pace, space, and eye position at every step. The TGU is a total-body workout that will challenge your core, shoulder stability, mobility, and overall resilience.
How to Do a Turkish Get-Up with a Kettlebell:
- Start by lying in a fetal position on your right side, kettlebell on the ground near you. Reach your right hand through the kettlebell window and grasp the handle.
- Roll onto your back, keeping the elbow of the loaded arm on the floor, and lift the kettlebell to a vertical forearm position. Your right knee should be bent, with your right foot flat on the ground (think knee up, bell up).
- Extend your left arm and leg, pressing them into the floor at a 45-degree angle from your body.
- With a neutral wrist, press the kettlebell up until your right arm is fully extended with wrist, elbow, and shoulder in alignment. Keep your shoulder packed.
- Keeping your eyes on the kettlebell, press into the ground with your right foot, and start coming up onto the opposite hip and elbow. Press up onto your left hand. Your left leg should remain on the ground.
- With a low sweep, bring your left leg under and behind you, knee bent to the floor, eyes still locked on the kettlebell.
- Push your hand through the floor to bring your torso up to a lunge position, loaded arm still locked vertically and shoulder packed.
- Look straight ahead and push yourself up from the lunge to a standing position.
- Now, reverse all the steps!
- On the way down, take a big step back so you leave enough space for your leg sweep, lunge to the ground, then “windshield wipe” the back leg, allowing the body to hinge back to the ground.
- As soon as your hand touches the ground again, move your gaze back to the kettlebell and keep it there until you’re back to the starting position.
- Repeat on the opposite side.
Ready to take your kettlebell workout up a level and try something new? Check out this step-by-step guide on how to do a kettlebell snatch.
At the End of the Day…
Kettlebells are for everybody, regardless of size, shape, age, or experience. While these five exercises are the basics, they can become the building blocks of a robust kettlebell training program.
Working with a certified instructor or personal trainer will help you master these skills, and taking videos while you train can be a great tool to make sure your movements follow the cues we reviewed here.
At the end of the day, have fun and enjoy the versatility of kettlebell training!