Kettlebell Training and Fitness for Average Joes (Like Me!)

Paul S. Chun • Tuesday, August 11, 2020 • Tokyo, Japan

Whether you're coming from a different form of training and fitness that didn't work for you or you've been inactive for quite a while, kettlebell training is something that the average Jane and Joe can benefit from greatly.

In this post, I'll talk about my path as a fitness non-junkie to training with kettlebells and what kinds of training you can expect to get into as an average, non-obsessing exerciser.

One Average Joe's Path to Kettlebell Training

I wish I had a story about my journey into kettlebells being a life-altering epiphany, but truth be told, it was based on not wanting to pay a monthly gym membership fee and not much else.

When I did my first kettlebell swing, I was working as a software developer in Berlin. I wish I could say that it was a mind-blowing experience but it wasn't even close. Kettlebells were readily available among all different kinds of free weights at my local gym, so I decided to give them a try, and while they did a number on my muscles, there was no rosy, falling-in-love feeling that so many other trainers seem to describe.

It's not that I don't like exercise or anything like that. I was no slouch with sports as a kid. I played loads of basketball and captained my high school track and field team, but that was followed with over a decade of sitting in front of a computer, usually with a carby snack, and trading in my fitness and flexibility for complex challenges in programming. Then I found myself in my early thirties recovering from a ruptured Achilles tendon and wondering what the future holds in store for my well-being.

Paul S. Chun doing a high jump in high school

Like many office workers, I'd convinced myself that a gym membership and somewhat regular attendance would keep me in shape. And maybe this setup works great for others, but it didn't really work for me. I'd find myself constantly in between being in the shape I wanted to be and being the slob who let himself go, which is unfortunately my default orientation. Most of my gym sessions ended up making me sore or tired because I'd work myself hard knowing that I'd made the time investment in going to and from the gym, and motivation levels would sink because I'd feel so destroyed the next morning.

So when my gym membership contract ran out, I bought a kettlebell. I didn't do it on a whim - I read a book from kettlebell legend Pavel Tsatsouline and followed his advice (which you can learn about in my blog post on which size kettlebell to buy). Though I'd swing a 12kg bell in the gym for just ten minutes and that left me plenty sore, I went with his recommendation to buy a 16kg bell for home.

Once I had my kettlebell at home, things changed completely. I looked forward to playing with it whenever I could, and could literally feel myself getting stronger - much stronger than during my on-off gym routine that preceded it.

Kettlebell Exercises for the Average Jane and Joe

So you bought your kettlebell and you're ready to get going. Perfect! Now what?

The one resource I'd recommend heartily is the book I mentioned earlier, Pavel Tsatsouline's Enter the Kettlebell!, which is something you might be able to find at your local library or at an associated service like Overdrive (I did!) for free. If not, it's most certainly on Amazon.

Pavel's video version of this information is also pretty easy to find on YouTube.

He'll run through some basics that you should plan on mastering before you get started with your first exercise, which is the heralded kettlebell swing.

Essential Exercise 1 of 2: The Kettlebell Swing

This humble exercise works so many muscles that a lot of people talk about the regiment where it's their one exclusive exercise. Tim Ferris, author of The 4-Hour Body, is one of those proponents, describing this compound exercise as "the king of exercises" in his 2011 blog post, The Perfect Posterior: Kettlebell Swings and Cheap Alternatives.

There are so many resources for perfecting this exercise, the first of which you should know about being Pavel's book and video, that I refuse to contribute more to the Internet. I'll include a video that shows perfect form for the kettlebell swing, because form is one thing that should be taught by a professional and not an average Joe.

Essential Exercise 2 of 2: The Turkish Get-Up

The Turkish get-up is the other kettlebell exercise whose praises are constantly sung on the Internet.

It's a bit of a complicated and involved exercise, but as with the kettlebell swing, it works so many different muscles that, just like with the swing, many experts would recommend it as the one exercise they'd recommend if people could do just one exercise. But just how involved is it?

It's so involved, that kettlebell trainer Lauren Brooks literally had to split up the instructions into four different videos:

I'd like to note that you could literally end your learning here and just perfect these two exercises and be set for fitness. Don't believe me? Pavel Tsatsouline pioneered a program that he calls Simple & Sinister (often abbreviated S&S online) which is "just" these two exercises performed daily: 100 one-arm swings done over 5 minutes (10 swings per arm, alternating every thirty seconds) and 10 Turkish get-ups done within 10 minutes. Learn more about it on the article addressing Simple & Sinister on his website, StrongFirst.

Hungry For More Exercises? Try Kettlebell Cleans, Presses and Snatches

So you've mastered the swing and the get-up, and you've done so many swings (including the 300 kettlebell swings for 30 days challenge) that you just need something else to do with it.

First of all: congratulations! Having done an exercise so many times to the point of both mastery and boredom is something that I personally never got to while in a gym, so consider this to be a major milestone for your fitness regiment if you're anything like me!

Now that you're deep into sinister territory, Pavel's other exercises in his book and video are the clean, press and snatch.

Kettlebell Cleans

I assume you followed Pavel's advice on how to do a proper clean. What he doesn't exactly address is how to prevent it from banging onto your wrist. If you run into this problem like I did, here's a video that helps you correct it.

Kettlebell Presses

Chances are that you have some idea on how to perform a shoulder press. Pavel's most notable advice is to focus on imagining that you've got your hand on a metal rod and that you're pressing your entire body down. This makes you tense more of your body up for a fuller exercise per rep.

Kettlebell Snatches

The exercise that Pavel himself calls the "Czar of the kettlebell lifts" is also notorious for being hard on the body when performed incorrectly. If you feel the bell banging the back of your wrists when performing these exercises, which you hopefully worked up to per Pavel's recommendations, then the main piece of helpful advice to avoid it is to punch up. Here's a video that demonstrates that.

Rounding Out Your Fitness: Focusing on Muscle Growth

Obviously, if muscle growth is your goal, you'll want to figure out how to make it happen with your kettlebell. I have an entire other post dedicated to the topic of building muscles with kettlebells if you're interested in learning more, but the main exercises to add to your arsenal would be a variation of a squat (front squat/rack squat and the goblet squat are popular variations), and the kettlebell clean/jerk cycle, also known as the long cycle.

Extra Credit: NerdFitness' Kettlebell for Beginners Program

First off, if you haven't mastered the above exercises, master them first. Remember, your goal is to have an exercise regiment that works in the first place for the average Joe, and the above exercises are more than enough to help accomplish that.

But if you're dying for more, I really liked NerdFitness' approach, which they detail in their piece The 20 Minute Beginner Kettlebell Workout. I have no idea why NerdFitness thinks this is geared towards beginners, because this is a pretty intense program that is strongly anaerobic, though with swings it dips into aerobic territory as well.

Passive Strength Building: Greasing the Groove

If you're the average gym-goer, then you're probably used to squeezing your entire workout into a certain time frame. Pavel's challenge to that, greasing the groove, is basically the complete opposite of your gym time: picking up the kettlebell and doing a set in passing as opposed to doing it as part of a structured exercise plan. The idea is to be as fresh as possible while doing as much work as possible.

For example, if you work on a computer and have a kettlebell close by, then you might get in a set after coming back from the bathroom but before getting back in your seat. A few trips to the bathroom means that, over the course of the day, you've actually done more work than you would have done in your time-restricted trip to the gym, and you probably haven't destroyed yourself the way you would if you time-boxed your workout.

This is a technique that can be used with any exercise, kettlebell or otherwise, but lends itself extremely well to kettlebell exercises.

If you have the means and a liberal enough office culture and skin thick enough to be the "kettlebell person," I'd recommend having a kettlebell in the office just for greasing the groove.

Cool Information. Now What?

If you made it this far and still haven't purchased a kettlebell, but are thinking about it, I can strongly recommend ordering one and trading in your seldom-used gym membership privileges for more time, cash in your wallet and a fitter body. Feel free to eat up my bandwidth and keep coming back to this as a reference, and for keeping track of your progress, you can of course use Elbower.