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Kettlebell Routines For Beginners

If you have spent any amount of time in the traditional strength training world–by which I pretty much mean that you have used barbells and dumbbells, and Monday was national bench press day for you and everyone else–you probably have a pretty good idea of what most beginner’s routines look like.

For my part, if I went to the store right now and bought a copy of Muscle and Fitness Magazine, I’m fairly certain I can approximate whatever beginner’s routine is in that issue. It might be good old 5×5 for strength, or 3×10 for bench press, or full body workouts three times a week with 20 total sets per training session.

But if you decide to take up kettlebell lifting, most people aren’t as sure. They don’t have a point of reference where they think, “Well, all the kettlebell magazines say to do this many of that movement.”

Not only is the idea of reps and sets potentially confusing, but many people don’t even know what movements they can do with a kettlebell. They just pick one up and treat it like a dumbbell. This isn’t the worst thing in the world, but it isn’t the best either.

So, where to start?

A quick word on kettlebell instruction

First, I recommend getting a couple of lessons from a kettlebell instructor. On the record, I think that most kettlebell certifications are way too expensive and extremely overvalued. I say this as an instructor myself. I could have done just fine with my certification.

So when I say to seek a kettlebell teacher, I’m not necessarily talking about finding someone who has been certified. Try and find someone who has been using kettlebells for a couple of years and has gotten the results that you would like to achieve for yourself.

Find out if they have been injured by kettlebells. Find out what they would do differently if they were starting again. If you are satisfied with their answers, take some instruction. Don’t do anything they tell you if it causes you pain or more discomfort than you normally associate with exercise.

Sample kettlebell routines

Unfortunately, many popular kettlebell workouts are based around products, produced by people who are financially married to one idea of the “right” way to use kettlebells.

I will let you filter through the politics and nonsense by yourself. Below, I would like to objectively introduce you to three workouts protocols that I have used myself, with varying degrees of success.

1. Enter The Kettlebell

This has become the standard beginners program for the RKC community, led by Pavel Tsatsouline, who also authored this book.

ETK teaches the kettlebell swing, the turkish get up, and the military press. The Program Minimum comprises swings and get ups. Once a beginner has put in enough time on the PM, they move on.

The next benchmark for the program is the Rite of Passage–100 snatches with the 24 kilo kettlebell, and military pressing ladders of 5x(1,2,3,4,5)–that is five sets of 15 total presses.

Then comes the Secret Service Snatch Test. This is 200 snatches in 10 minutes with a 24 kilo kettlebell for men. I used to think this was extremely difficult, but it’s actually pretty easy to get to if you train smart and don’t snatch when it feels uncomfortable.

You’re also supposed to get to the point where you can military press the kettlebell closest to half your bodyweight.

I had pretty good results with ETK. At the time I thought it was fantastic because I hadn’t found anything better yet. It kept me happy and my progress was decent.

Return of The Kettlebell

Also by Pavel. RTK is an advanced program. I would not say that you can’t try it before completing the requirements of ETK, for reasons I’ll explain soon. But it is definitely helpful to be familiar with the movements from ETK before going further.

RTK simply adds a kettlebell and introduces the double snatch and clean and jerk long cycle. So why does this make it an advanced program? Once you’ve tried double kettlebell work, you’ll understand. RTK requires you to lift more, and to move two weights through the air at speed, not just one.

I had better results with RTK than I did with ETK. At the time I was told that this was the best way to build muscle. At the time, I had no reason to suspect that it was anything but true.

Gym Movement

Gym movement is not a kettlebell program. It is a way of lifting that can make any program better. Instantly. I know, I know, that sounds silly. I thought it was pretty ridiculous myself until I started trying it.

The basic premise of GM is that you can determine which exercises or movements are best for you. This is done by range of motion muscle testing. The premise I work off of when I am doing Gym Movement workouts is that I am the only one qualified to know what is best for my body. That if I follow anyone else’s program to the letter with reps, sets, and movement, I’ll eventually break myself.

Teaching people to liberate themselves from trainers goes against the grain of the fitness industry. Most personal trainers and health organizations make their money keeping trainees reliant on them, not independent of them. The most money is made when trainers pretend that the information gap between them and the man on the street is profound.

It isn’t. I say this as someone who has tried the programs and has spent the last year experimenting with GM. I had some wonderful experiences on the kettlebell programs I tried, and I made some great progress. I’m not saying you can’t.

But if we’re really talking about Russian kettlebells and exercise routines for beginners, there is no better investment someone can make than learning how to determine what is good for their body, not what someone else says is good. Maybe that other person is right, but they won’t be right all the time. They’re not you. They’re not qualified to lead you at all times. Only you are.

I have no more allegiance to Gym Movement than I do to the RKC system. I do what works. GM is currently what is working the best for me. When I find something better I’ll do that.

Find out what beginner kettlebell routines work for you. If you are curious about the Gym Movement protocol, the best demonstrations are currently in Adam Glass’s and Brad Nelson’s Grip and Rip 2.1 DVD. Update: no longer on the market.

Enjoy yourself, make the progress you deserve, and figure out for yourself whether you’re doing anything wrong in your lifting. You only get to be a kettlebell beginner once if you do it safely! Picking the right kettlebell beginner routine will give you a better shot at longevity in your training. Have fun!


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