How to use kettlebells to build strength in later life – with 7 moves to master

Kettlebells offer a multitude of strength and cardio benefits. Here are the moves you need to know.

If you want an exercise routine that combines cardio and strength training, then I suggest learning how to use kettlebells. A workout with these weights can reap the benefits of both forms of exercise.

Kettlebells have a long, rich history of making people strong. It’s hard to say who invented them, but the concept dates back to ancient Greece. They became popular in Russia and the word “girya” (translating as kettlebell) was mentioned as early as 1704. It wasn’t until 1998 that trainer Pavel Tsatsouline introduced them to the US and Europe.  

Kettlebells are now more mainstream, and people have become aware of how powerful they can be. In fact, if you want to get strong, lose weight, improve mobility, and keep fit, a kettlebell can be all you’ll ever need.

Two men working out in a gym using kettlebellsCredit: Shutterstock / PeopleImages.com – Yuri A
Kettlebell workouts are great for maintaining muscle mass in later life

Benefits of learning how to use kettlebells

Both cardio exercise and strength training have their benefits. Combined – as they can be with a kettlebell – they’re even more effective.

With a kettlebell, you have the power to become strong, toned, and healthy. Heart and lung condition will be improved, and you’ll find many everyday tasks, such as climbing the stairs or walking briskly, a lot easier.  

You’ll build and maintain muscle mass, which is important as we age. This helps protect against many age-related diseases such as osteoporosis. Joints are protected and we become more flexible, keeping us mobile.  

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Common questions when using kettlebells

What weight kettlebell do I need? 

In the UK, kettlebells come in kilogram weights. When you first start, you’ll need light bells to ensure you learn the moves properly before lifting heavier. Bells weighing between 8kg (1st 4lb) and 10kg (1st 8lb) are best.

However, once you’re confident, it’s best to use heavier weights, particularly for moves like swings or deadlifts. Believe it or not, it’s easier to swing a heavier bell than a lighter one.  

Everyone is different, and heavy for one person might be light for another, so always pay attention to your body and how you feel.

As a guide for women over 50, a 12kg (1st 12oz) bell is a good weight for most moves, with a slightly lighter weight (10kg (1st 8lb) or less) for pressing overhead. A lot of ladies will be able to use a 16kg (2st 7lb) bell with relative ease and will get more from their workouts as a result.  

For men, a 20kg (3st 2lb) bell is a good standard to aspire to, aiming to get to 24kg (3st 11lb) if strong. Again, lighter weights might be needed for pressing overhead, such as 16kg (2st 7lb). You’ll notice kettlebells come with a big jump between weights. This is a good thing, as it means you must become fully proficient on one weight bell before you move to the next.  

Different coloured and weights of kettlebells lined up on a gym floorCredit: Shutterstock / Alan Sau
Kettlebells come in different weights

How long should a kettlebell workout be?  

Kettlebell workouts can vary in length according to exercise selection and weights used.

If you go to a kettlebell class, these will often be an hour. They will use lighter bells and be more cardio focused, meaning an hour is achievable.

However, if you want to use kettlebells for strength (with the added cardio benefits already mentioned), then 20-30 minutes is sufficient. It might not sound like a lot, but such is their efficacy that you won’t need more than that, between two and four times per week.  

How to use kettlebells: 7 key exercises

Before you start exercising with kettlebells, you need to master the hip hinge, which forms the basis for a lot of kettlebell moves. You don’t need a weight to perform it.

  • Standing straight, locate the creases in your hips (just beneath your hipbones) with your fingers. 
  • Keeping your fingers in place, push your hips backwards so you fold on top of your fingers. 
  • Once your hips are back all the way, bend your knees slightly so you push back even further. 
  • You should feel a strong pull in your hamstrings at the back of your legs. If you don’t, push back more.  
  • Your shins should be vertical. 

To start with, you can practise hip hinging by pushing back against a wall. Once you’re confident in that, step away from the wall and try again.  

And once you’re happy you’ve mastered the hip hinge, get going with the seven kettlebell exercises below.

1. Deadlift

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Woman performing a kettlebell deadlift exercises shot against an oatmeal coloramaCredit: Saga Exceptional

How to do it:

  1. Place a heavy kettlebell between your feet with the handle roughly in line with your ankles. 
  2. Hinge your hips backwards, then bend your knees until your hands meet the handle.  
  3. Grip the handle tightly to ensure your shoulders and back muscles are engaged (think about trying to snap the handle). 
  4. Keeping a firm grip, stand upright.  
  5. Lower the bell, using the same hinging motion, and repeat.  

Coaching points:

  • Don’t shrug your shoulders or pull the bell upright with your arms.  

2. Kettlebell swing

Woman performing a kettlebell swing exercise shot against an oatmeal coloramaCredit: Saga Exceptional

How to do it:

  1. Place a kettlebell on the ground, roughly one of your feet’s length in front of you.  
  2. Hinge your hips backwards, then bend your knees until your hands meet the handle of the bell.  
  3. Grip the handle tightly to ensure your shoulders and back muscles are engaged (think about trying to snap the handle). 
  4. Take a sharp breath in and hike the bell back between your legs. 
  5. In one fluid motion, swing the bell up, squeezing the glute muscles and snapping the hips. 
  6. Allow the bell to float momentarily (don’t let go!) before it swings back between the legs. 
  7. Repeat. 

Coaching points:

  • Keep the shoulders away from the ears (they aren’t friends) and focus on the leg movement rather than pulling the bell up with your hands. 
  • Allow yourself plenty of practice with a light bell before trying heavier. 
  • Never swing a heavy bell higher than shoulder height.  

3. One-handed kettlebell swing

Woman performing a single-handed kettlebell swing, shot against an oatmeal coloramaCredit: Saga Exceptional

How to do it:

  1. Follow all the points above for the kettlebell swing, but before you hike the bell back, take one hand off the handle.  
  2. Focus on keeping your hips facing forwards – don’t twist.  
  3. If you’re going to swap hands while the bell is in motion, always “swap at the top”, never try to switch hands with the bell between your legs.  

Why I love kettlebells

When I’m not penning articles like this one as Saga Exceptional’s fitness writer, I’m delivering kettlebell classes in my other role as a personal trainer.

In 2020, I undertook my StrongFirst Girya level 1 training. StrongFirst is an elite school of strength training, with kettlebells as its primary focus.  

The training was in-depth and opened my eyes to the many uses of a kettlebell. It culminated in a weekend in which my kettlebell skills and teaching ability were both tested. Strong First requires you to recertify every two years, and in May 2022 I achieved my level 2.  

Training under Strong First gave me so much confidence and knowledge that I went on to open my own kettlebell club, where I train women three times a week.

I love kettlebells because of their versatility. There’s not much you can’t use them for, and they’re a lot of fun. People can find them daunting, because some of the moves look a little bit complex, but I always tell my class: “It’s like riding a bike.” If you learn the moves properly, they’re safe and effective, and once you’ve got it, you’ve got it.  

4. Kettlebell squat

Kettle Bell Exercises shot against an oatmeal coloramaCredit: Saga Exceptional

How to do it:

  1. Stand with feet slightly wider than hip width apart, a kettlebell on the floor between your feet.  
  2. Grip the bell by the horns (the sides of the handle) and hold it in the middle of your chest (not on it). 
  3. Take a deep breath in, then bend your knees and lower yourself down until your knees are level with your hips or slightly below.  
  4. Push through your feet and drive upright, squeezing the glutes as you do so.  
  5. Repeat. 

Coaching points:

  • When doing a squat, it can be helpful to think about lowering yourself underwater, then driving up and out.  

5. Kettlebell clean

Kettle Bell Exercises shot against an oatmeal coloramaCredit: Saga Exceptional

How to do it:

  1. Follow the setup points for the one-handed swing but keep your hand towards the inside corner of the handle.  
  2. Hike the bell back but instead of swinging it, rotate your elbow and wrist so you ‘catch’ the bell on the outside of your arm.  
  3. Keep the bell close to you – don’t let it swing out.  
  4. Your elbow should be by your ribs, thumb near your collarbone, forearm in a straight line. This is known as the rack position. 
  5. Reverse the move to bring the bell back to the floor. 

Coaching points:

  • When thinking about the direction the bell must travel, it can be helpful to think of zipping up your coat with your thumb. 

6. Kettlebell press

Kettle Bell Exercises shot against an oatmeal coloramaCredit: Saga Exceptional

How to do it:

  1. From the rack position, grip the handle of the bell tightly.  
  2. Take a deep breath in and extend your arm, driving the kettlebell upright.  
  3. Your knuckles should be facing the ceiling, elbow facing out.  
  4. Pause at the top, then carefully lower the weight back down to the starting position.  

Coaching points:

  • Resist the urge to either bend your knees to help the weight up, or to bend them to catch the weight coming back down.  
  • You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe – make sure your feet are planted firmly and your whole body is tensed before you press.  

7. Kettlebell snatch

Kettle Bell Exercises shot against an oatmeal coloramaCredit: Saga Exceptional

This is an advanced kettlebell move and should be attempted only if you’re competent in all the other moves first. Ideally, learn this move from a fully qualified kettlebell instructor.   

How to do it:

  1. Follow the setup for a one-handed swing.  
  2. Hike the bell back between the legs but this time, instead of swinging up and out, keep it as close to you as possible, letting it come up and over your head. 
  3. The bell should “float”, driven by momentum of the hips and legs, then finally the triceps and shoulder are used to “punch” it into the air.  
  4. From the top position, flick the wrist down, letting the bell reverse its path, swinging back between the legs.  
  5. Repeat, building momentum as you go.  

Coaching points:

  • Don’t over-grip the handle – it needs to move through the hand and you will tear your skin if you squeeze too hard.  

Kettlebell workout for beginners

Once you’ve mastered the moves above, it’s time to try putting them into a workout!

Be sure to warm up before starting this kettlebell circuit. You could do five minutes cardio exercise on a machine such as a rower or treadmill if in the gym, or some bodyweight exercises such as squats, marching and arm swings, if at home.  

Then you’re ready to try this beginner’s kettlebell circuit:

  1. Deadlift x 10
  2. Two-handed swing x 10
  3. One-handed swing x 10 (5 on each side)
  4. Clean x 10 (5 on each side)
  5. Press x 10 (5 on each side)

Repeat the circuit between three and eight times, adding more rounds as you become stronger. Rest for 20-30 seconds between each move, and three minutes between each round.

Progression: kettlebell ladder workout

A ladder increases and decreases repetitions as it goes along.

As above, warm up first, then do the following kettlebell exercises. Rest 15 seconds between moves, and 90 seconds between rounds.  

Round 1

  1. Deadlift – 5 reps 
  2. Squat – 5 reps 
  3. Two-handed swing – 5 reps 
  4. Press on left side – 1 rep
  5. Press on right side – 1 rep 

Round 2

  1. Deadlift – 4 reps 
  2. Squat – 4 reps 
  3. Two-handed swing – 4 reps 
  4. Press on left side – 2 reps 
  5. Press on right side – 2 reps 

Round 3

  • Deadlift – 3 reps 
  • Squat – 3 reps 
  • Two-handed swing – 3 reps
  • Press on left side – 3 reps 
  • Press on right side – 3 reps 

Round 4  

  • Deadlift – 2 reps 
  • Squat – 2 reps 
  • Two-handed swing – 2 reps 
  • Press on left side – 4 reps 
  • Press on right side – 4 reps 

 Round 5  

  • Deadlift – 1 rep 
  • Squat – 1 rep 
  • Two-handed swing – 1 rep 
  • Press on left side – 5 reps  
  • Press on right side – 5 reps 
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Becky Fuller

Written by Becky Fuller she/her

Updated:

Becky Fuller is a fully qualified Personal Trainer, specialising in strength and conditioning for over 50s. Becky’s focus is helping people to become stronger both in body and mind, and to move well without pain. Becky also has many years’ experience working as a freelance journalist, writing for a wide variety of publications such as Screen Rant, Geek Feed, and Daily Actor. She also regularly reviews theatre productions for UKTW.

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