When it comes to movement, I’m greedy. I want it all. It’s easy to get caught up in the novelty of different forms of exercise, never really getting anywhere. But if you’re conscientious you can move thoughtfully between modalities and get proficient and strong at many different skills. Further, those skills will speak to and enhance one another.
Kettlebells are versatile and highly effective for building strength, so if you enjoy them but are limited in time or otherwise don’t want to think too much about your workout, you can’t really go wrong with them. Still, most kettlebell practitioners that I’ve worked with could use a little something extra. Specifically, bodyweight training.
Stimulate your curiosity with some unique accessory work. Play with different modalities to break from the routine. Or maybe you’re totally satisfied by your kettlebell training, but you travel a lot and don’t always have access to your (very heavy) toolkit. Whatever your situation, there’s incredible value to adding bodyweight training into your rotation.
THE MINDSET OF A KETTLEBELL ENTHUSIAST
The phrase I’ve heard most consistently within the kettlebell community is “grease the groove.” Pavel Tsatsouline coined this phrase, and it’s a solid one. Basically: practice a movement at the highest quality you can, often, and you’ll get much stronger at that movement thanks to the neurological “groove” you’ll get into. This is a mantra I repeat often, in virtually all of my physical pursuits. I want good movement to become second nature.
Another phrase within the kettlebell community is “an inch wide and a mile deep.” That is, within your training you should stick to a narrow set of movements. With kettlebells, that usually means get ups, swings, cleans, snatches, presses, squats, and loaded carries.
That’s where I deviate. “An inch wide and a mile deep” has not been adequate for my needs and goals. While kettlebells have indeed done that better for me than barbells, CrossFit, or running — none of those forms of training have provided the whole solution. To continue with my personal goals, I had to keep diversifying. My personal philosophy has followed more closely to another common phrase I hear in fitness: “You should only exercise the muscles you intend to keep.” I intend to keep them all.
WHY VARIETY MATTERS
Kettlebells cover a lot of ground in terms of muscular and neurological impact, this is true. But they aren’t the whole picture. Otherwise a well-practiced girevik or girevichka (kettlebell man/woman, respectively) would be able to nail a handstand, pistol, muscle up, or pole vault with no extra training. But that is not common. While kettlebells can help somewhat with all these skills, you do actually have to practice those skills directly in order to get them right.
Professional athletes need to practice a very specific set of skills, as do trainers who instruct within a particular modality. But for the everyday athlete, a limited scope means limited strength. Also known as imbalance. This can lead to pain, dysfunction, and ultimately a limited shelf life as an active mover.
Even if I were to concede that kettlebells train all muscles (which is a stretch), the fact remains that it does not do so in a balanced way. Some muscles get more training than others through kettlebells, so training with the same exercises indefinitely which will only increase the imbalances in your body.
And what about mobility? Position-specific stability? Climbing, jumping, quadrupedal work? Kettlebells are helpful, but they ARE NOT THE THING. You have to practice the other things, too — if you care about them, that is.
I do. If you’re reading this, that probably means you do, too. So let’s play!
Coach Dan John says that adding kettlebell goblet squats and loaded carries will instantly change any program for the better, and I agree. But he also spoke of the reality that the most efficient workouts are the least effective for the individual performing them. This is true in the case of fat loss, which was his primary point, but is also true about the mental challenge of fresh movement forms. The more time you practice at movements where you are inefficient, the more cumulative work you are doing and the more you are learning. This does not mean flailing around wildly, but planning a purposeful practice.
Since teaching kettlebells is a central part of my job, I certainly do want to maintain those skills. But I also want to continue expanding the my strength and its applications. Which is how I ended up putting together some GMB-based bodyweight movements for use specifically as part of a kettlebell training program.
There are three main ways I have utilized these movements. I follow closely along with the GMB 5P ideal when working on my programming, so I’ll use some of that terminology here.
1) PREP. As warmup before specific kettlebell movements, I’ll perform the associated bodyweight movements.
2) PRACTICE, PUSH, and PLAY. Often, I’ll alternate doing a kettlebell movement with a similar or opposite bodyweight movement. For instance, a set of swings followed by a set of frogger.
3) As a standalone workout. For travel, or on the training days in between heavy kettlebell days, I’ll perform all the related bodyweight exercises as its own workout.
In sharing this, I’m starting with some particular assumptions. Those are:
- You understand the basics of the kettlebell movements discussed. This is not a tutorial on how to use a kettlebell. Although there are many online resources, I highly recommend working with a professional directly. Either through personal training or kettlebell-focused classes. If you’re in North Carolina, I humbly recommend my gym.
- You are a thoughtful individual who understands and practices the concept of auto-regulation. That means listening to your body and practicing these movements slowly. If you are practicing these movements on your own, you need to approach them with humility and mindfulness. If you are a high-intensity workout junkie, this is probably not ideal for you.
- You understand that movement is a journey. It is extremely important that you separate the ideas of practice and competition. You are not trying to CONQUER the movement, but rather to learn from it. Constantly. It never ends. The videos and descriptions provided are in no way comprehensive. All of these movements demonstrated are works in progress themselves. Though I am a teacher, I am first and foremost a student myself — and my movement is most certainly not perfect. Since there are many movements shown, I’ve tried to keep descriptions brief. Think of this as an intro, and if you need further instruction check out the programs available through GMB. Or attend an event or contact a trainer in your area.
There’s just no substitute for good one-on-one coaching. The internet has made it possible to connect people over great distances, but most online coaching is still in experimental stages and needs a lot more work to even come close to matching the experience of working with a professional in person.
KETTLEBELL EXERCISES AND COMPLEMENTARY BODYWEIGHT MOVEMENTS
Swings. The exercise most strongly associated with the kettlebell.
– Frogger. A nearly perfect opposite. Fast-paced, heavy swings alternated with a slow, deliberate frogger makes me feel like I’m made out of solid steel, while also being fluid and malleable.
– Broad jumps. Jumping has long been a challenge for me. But it’s a great thing to alternate with the explosive kettlebell movements if only because it’s the practical application of a strong hip pop. Jump squats also work well if space is limited.
– Bridge. For my money and time, nothing else opens the body up for get ups quite like a good bridge.
– High monkey. Stability work along with a good bit of exploration of the tension/relaxation spectrum. Perfect for get ups.
Cleans and Presses
– Inverted press. Ideal for working on your press and rack position without weight. Obviously, though, you need a bit of hamstring and low back mobility to make it happen. If you don’t have it, make sure you’re making time to mobilize, as well.
– Reverse row sit back*. Get some slow pull in with your push work.
– Turnouts. Helps make sure your squat range of motion is solid and warm. Do this consistently enough and you’ll achieve an incredibly deep squat.
– Superman reach. A slight variation of the back hollow. Heavy goblet squats always give me a feeling of being a little too compacted, and I like to open up in response.
– Pump (especially 1-arm version). Another near-perfect opposite. Take it slow, though. Your focus should be on stability and control, not rushing to the hardest version.
– Supine hip circle. I tagged this one onto snatches just to make myself do it more often. But really it helps with all the things.
Bonus: Bent press
– 3 pt bridge. For obvious reasons. Gets that rotation through the spine and engagement through the hips.
A word on the rack position and presses more generally.
I’ve been working with parallettes quite a bit. And I must say, if you’re serious about getting a fantastic press with a strong rack position — you need to do the GMB P1 program. Nothing that I’ve tried in my 37 years has so dramatically increased the strength and stability of my T-spine, shoulders, and arms quite like this program.
This is the first place I send people who are plateaued with their press, if they’re open to it. It’s training magic.
KETTLEBELL WORKOUT, SANS KETTLEBELLS
I prefer to train with purpose in virtually everything I do. Even when it’s playtime in the gym, I gravitate towards playing with those movements that are still in the realm of my goals. So when I travel, or if it’s a lighter workout day, I like to have a rough sketch of things I can work on ready to go. That’s how I ended up combining all my kettlebell/bodyweight exercises into a single workout for easy reference. Give it a try and let me know what you think!
Warm up: 1-2 rounds
– Pulling prep* 8
– Bear walk 2 mins
– Squatting heel raise 12
– Wrist work (always a good idea)
Block 1: 2-3 rounds
– Turnouts 8/8
– Superman reach 8
– Supine hip circle 4/4/4/4
– Pump (especially 1-arm version) 8 (or 4/4)
Block 2: 3-5 rounds
– Frogger 2 mins
– Broad jump 6 (or squat jump if space is limited)
– High monkey 2 mins
– Reverse row sit back* 3
– Inverted press 3
– Bridge 3
Ponder: ~1 min each of
– Bench-assisted lunge stretch
– 3 pt bridge
* = equipment required. If not available, just skip this item.