It's time to take back the kettlebell. These days, it's normal to see even strong-looking guys and girls doing squatty, bent-backed swings with weights that look like softballs. What do you think that freaky front delt raise is doing for you, kids? The answer: Not much.
A kettlebell shouldn't look or feel nice. You shouldn't be able to just pick it up and play with it. At Onnit, we demand that our bells be black, ugly, and heavy enough to make you think twice before disturbing their slumber.
More than with any other implement, weight keeps you honest when it comes to kettlebells. You don't tiptoe up to a beast like our 90-pound Sasquatch Primal Bell in 2.5-pound increments, preserving all of your bad habits and cheating technique all the way. You start at the bottom, let it teach you the ropes, and then gradually earn the right to do more with it than you could before.
When you do that, you'll quickly discover, like we did, that battling with a beast makes you better at every part of your physical, mental, and spiritual journey. It's strength, conditioning, coordination, power training, and overall weakness eradication. It's functional by just about any definition, but will also reward you with beastly gains—especially once you progress to single-arm movements like cleans and front squats.
The two routines here can start your workout or end your workout. They can also just be your workout.
Somewhere, your beast is waiting. Here's what to do when you meet it.
Step 1. Taming the Beast
There it is, on the ground in front of you. You've taken the obligatory mean-muggin' selfie next to it. What now? Just do what you know how to do—or at least what you thought you knew how to do.
Front squatting 90 pounds may not sound like much of a feat, but make no mistake: Three sets of goblet squats with a big bell or equivalent dumbbell is definitely a big deal. Having that counterbalance out in front of you means you'll instantly squat deeper than you've probably ever gone with a barbell on your back, and with superior form to boot.
More depth, more muscle activation, and a wicked biceps pump from holding the horns—what could be better? Just wait until you wake up the next morning rubbing your hams and feeling like you gave birth to a sasquatch.
The workout is deceivingly simple: a superset of pushes, a superset of pulls, and an explosive finisher. But the devil is in the details. Keep the first two pairs of movements slow and controlled, especially during the eccentric (lowering) portions of the lift.
Onnit's in-house strength coach Joe DeFranco is such a fan of timing eccentrics (see his 3-Week Strength Reboot for an example). There's a lot of strength and muscle to be gained in the simple act of lowering a weight. Don't waste it!
Once you're ready, get into a silverback position, put both hands on the bell, and let it rip.
- Maintain good spinal alignment and a strong hip hinge at the bottom of the swing.
- Power through to a tight, straight standing position, where your back is ramrod straight and your abs and butt are clenched for all they're worth.
- Don't worry about how high you swing; proper form is more important.
Do that, and the bell will teach you the rest.
Step 2. Slaying the Beast
Once you and the beast are on friendly terms, it's time to turn the tables and show it who's boss. To do that, you're going to dive into some advanced movements that take advantage of the kettlebell's unique design.
First stop: The single-kettlebell front squat in a rack position, a movement that's almost impossible to replicate with a barbell or dumbbell. Many find this movement even more difficult than a double-kettlebell front squat or barbell front squat, because the weight is so damned determined to topple you over like a building being demolished.
You'll need to generate incredible tension from head to toe to get out of the hole, and your upper back, biceps, obliques, and deep core muscles will feel the beating as much as your legs—in a good way. This is your new favorite squat.
If you're a heavy lifter who measures your worth by how much you can move using both arms and legs at the same time, you may find yourself scoffing at these single-limb movements. The suitcase deadlift kindly requests you reconsider your stance. It's another high-tension act, like the single-arm squat, but with even more gravity working against you and far less mechanical advantage helping you.
You may think you know what an "antirotation" ab exercise feels like, but once you've got that bell a few inches off the ground, you'll really know. If any doubt remains, just walk across the gym holding it at your side at the end of each rep.
Rest long enough to catch your breath before you march into the final battle, a superset of single-kettlebell cleans and alternating hand-to-hand swings. The rep range may look measly at 8 per set, but few athletes can hit all of the reps the first time they try. Both movements demand the ability to control the trajectory of the bell precisely—no mean feat with 90 pounds.
If you find the weight is slamming into your biceps at the top of the cleans or dragging you out of a strict hip hinge at the bottom of the swings, you're not ready yet. Spend more time taming your two-handed swings and mix in some singles and low-rep sets of these new movements as practice. Take as much time as necessary to build up to 4 sets of 8.
Ready for Anything
These two routines cover the full range of fundamental human movements and test all of your body's energy systems. Don't rush through them. If it takes you months to get proficient, just settle in and enjoy the ride.
Then, once you're feeling beastly in both routines, test yourself by doing something big and ambitious. Climb a mountain. Run an obstacle race. Sign up for a powerlifting competition. Face a challenge worthy of the one you've just overcome, and see what your time with the beast has really given you.