Intro: How to Warm Up for a Kettlebell Workout
My purpose with this instructable is to provide a detailed, step-by-step instruction on how to warm-up properly before a kettlebell workout. A lot of people use kettlebells for fitness training. They are excellent tools for developing strength, power, stability and stamina, as well as overall health. Proper warm-up prior to an exercise session can increase power and mobility, and reduce the risk of injury.
This instructable is for advice only. It should not be construed as a suitable substitute for one-on-one coaching or for common sense. I am not a workout physiologist, kinesiologist or strength and conditioning coach. I am not certified in any way to teach kettlebell. I have been kettlebelling for over six years without injury, and I worked as a Special Forces Medic for three years. I have incorporated my knowledge of anatomy and physiology into my kettlebell practice, to prevent injuries, and this instructable is simply to share what has worked for me.
By its very nature, kettlebell exercise involves some risk of injury. The kettlebell is a heavy piece of metal and most kettlebell movements involve accelerating it and then decelerating it rapidly. If you pick up a kettlebell you accept responsibility for all actions and consequences with that kettlebell. I assume that you have some basic understanding of how to grip the kettlebell, how to squat, and how to swing. I assume that you have an awareness of your own fitness level and will exercise the common sense to tailor any workouts accordingly.
I also bear no responsibility for brain damage suffered as a result of the terrible music in these videos. I don't get to decide what music is played at the gym.
What you will need:
A Kettlebell: It should be heavy enough to provide resistance when you lift it, but light enough for you to hold it over your head safely.
Room to Swing: An open area with a flat surface, generally free of obstacles. The surface should be somewhat forgiving, but not soft. Dirt, packed sand, rubber floor matting, and lawn work well. Concrete and wrestling mats do not.
Suitable footwear: Shoes should be stable with flat soles. Cushioned soles do not work well as your feet may shift during dynamic movements. My preference is to kettlebell barefoot or using minimalist footwear. Do not wear steel toed boots. They will not significantly protect your foot if you drop the kettlebell on it, and they will slow your feet down if you have to bail the kettlebell and get your feet out of the way.
Workout clothes: should be loose and provide ample movement in the hips. Cargo shorts or fatigue pants work well.
Optional: Music of your choice.
Step 1: Background
The reason why I use a dynamic warm-up rather than static stretching to prepare for kettlebell is that the kettlebell is a dynamic exercise. As stated above, moving the kettlebell involves accelerating it and decelerating it through space. The force of the kettlebell's inertia is directly translated into force on the body, especially the shoulder and the lower back. Above is a picture of me performing a kettlebell swing at the bottom of the swing. The picture on the top is a proper catch, with head up, eyes level, chest up and lower back strongly curved.
Below that on the left is a picture of a low back injury waiting to happen. The head is down, chest collapsed, shoulders rounded forward, low back rounded in a vulnerable position, knees too straight.
The next two pictures are a kettlebell shoulder press. The first is a proper press, with head up, torso upright, midsection tight, shoulders sunk in their sockets. The second is improper, with the shoulder out of position, the hips and the spine is twisted and bent into a vulnerable position.
Protecting the joints through these movements involves priming and activating the muscles that support and protect these joints. Warm-up for these exercises should focus on activating the muscles of the core to maintain posture, and the muscles of the rotator cuff to keep the shoulder firmly engaged in the socket throughout the range of motion (ROM). My warm-up routine involves seven exercises which progressively increase in difficulty and intensity of activation of the targeted muscles. These exercises are:
- Reach for the Sky
- Bent Over Tabletop
- Plank Series
- Air Squat
- Kettlebell Deadlift
- Kettlebell Halo
- Kettlebell Turkish Getup
When performed one after the other the whole routine takes about 5-6 minutes.
How to Use this Instruction
Take each exercise step-by-step and learn it thoroughly. Pay close attention to the performance points and concentrate more on perfecting your form than on "getting through" the exercise. Take your time.
Step 2: Exercise 1: Reach for the Sky
This exercise activates the muscles of the midsection to maintain an upright posture and a strong lumbar curve; and the muscles of the rotator cuff to keep the shoulders tightly engaged at the top of their ROM.
Begin with your feet shoulder width apart, bent over with your back straight, resting hands on knees. Reach for the sky with both hands, interlocking your fingers, and trying to drive your head and shoulders toward the ceiling. Hold the top position, flexing all your muscles as you breath out strongly under tension for 5 - 10 seconds. Recover to hands on knees. Repeat 3 - 5 times.
- Feet parallel and shoulder width apart.
- Knees straight but not locked, muscles of the legs contracted firmly.
- Glutes contracted to drive the hips forward, directly about the heels.
- Core should be tight. Concentrate on contracting all the muscles of the midsection.
- Chest should be upright and pressed forward.
- Hands intertwined, elbows locked, shoulder blades squeezed to the rear.
- Arms should be behind the ears. Do not thrust head forward, draw shoulders back so that they are directly in line with hips and heels.
- Reach head towards the heavens.
- Purse lips and breathe out strongly and slowly, concentrating on flexing your midsection as if you were preparing to take a punch to the gut.
- In the relaxed position, keep your back flat.
Step 3: Exercise 2: Bent Over Tabletop
This exercise primes and activates the muscles of the low back and midsection, as well as stretching the hamstrings and activating them to fire strongly in the bottom of a swing.
Begin with feet together, heels and toes together, legs straight and knees locked. Bend over and touch your toes, or as low as you can reach. Without extending your hips upwards, raise your torso so that your lower back is straight and flat, with head up and chest extended. Breathe out slowly under tension for 5 - 10 seconds before relaxing back to rounded back. Repeat 3 - 5 times.
- Keep knees locked and feet together.
- When bending down, actively contract the abs to drive hands and chest as low as they will go.
- Concentrate on keeping your hips low when you come to flat back.
- You should feel tension in your lower back as you raise your torso.
- Keep hands at your chest, or reach behind you and feel the flexion in your low back.
- Beware flexing your head up too hard as that can cause cramps in the neck.
Step 4: Exercise 3: Plank Series
This exercise primes the muscles of the core to control the angle of the hips and low back through their full ROM. It also activates the rotator cuffs to protect the shoulders under load through their full ROM as well.
- Begin in the front leaning rest position. Feet approximately 12 inches apart, hands shoulder width apart. Knees should be locked, hips engaged, core tight, and shoulders drawn into their sockets, shoulder blades drawn back and together, chest forward and head up with eyes ahead. Heels, hips and shoulders should be in line. Flex and breathe out slowly under tension for 5 - 10 seconds.
- Drive the hips down to the ground, contracting the glutes and low back, relaxing the abs. Push the chest up and out, sink the shoulder blades back and stretch the head up. Flex and breathe out slowly under tension for 5 - 10 seconds.
- Return to plank and repeat step one.
- Bend at the waste, driving hips toward the sky. Drop heals towards the ground, keeping legs locked. Actively contract your abs to bend your hips toward your thighs, and your chest toward the ground. Pinch shoulder blades together, draw shoulders in tight. Ears should be forward of arms, but do not thrust the head forward, draw the shoulders back. Flex and breathe out slowly under tension for 5 - 10 seconds.
- Return to plank.
- The point of this is to generate total body tension throughout the range of motion. Don't just get to each position. Drive your hips there.
- Thrust your hips both down and up.
- Flex strongly in each position, and breathe under tension. You will have to do the same thing standing upright during kettlebell swings.
- It helps to try to grip the floor with your finger tips as if you were going to tear chunks out of it.
- Imagine someone punching you in the stomach and sides the whole time and keep your midsection tight.
Step 5: Exercise 4: Squat Series
This exercise is a staple of any workout routine. Here we are doing it with no resistance other than bodyweight, and for very low reps, concentrating on form.
- Start with feet shoulder width apart, feet slightly turned outwards. Stand tall with legs straight but no locked, glutes contracted, hips engaged and directly over heels, midsection firmly engaged, chest up, shoulders relaxed, head up and eyes forward.
- Begin the movement by bending slightly at the waist so that your hips move back behind your heels. Your knees will simultaneously take up a slight bend. Slowly, in a controlled fashion, continue to drive your hips back, keeping your chest as upright as possible. Continue to bend at the waist keeping your low back flat. Since your hips are (most likely) heavier than your upper body you will need to extend your chest and arms as far as you can to counter-balance your hips extending so far behind your heels. At about the point where your thigh bones become parallel to the ground you will need to bring your hips forward closer to your heels while you bend your knees. Try to squat down until you are sitting on your calves.
- At the bottom of your squat your heels should be flat, knees bent to maximum, shins almost but not quite vertical, low back flat or only slightly curved, core tight, chest up and arms extended forward for balance. Keeping your core tight, engage your glutes and drive your hips backwards. At the same time keep your chest upright and flex your low back to keep it flat and return to the good lumbar curve.
- Concentrate on folding at the hips like a jack-knife. If you think about bending your knees they will come forward of your toes, which will prime your legs to engage the muscles of the quads rather than the more powerful glutes.
- Using your hands like a karate chop to push back on that crease where your leg joins your torso can help reinforce this (see pictures above).
- You should feel like you are going to fall over backwards if your hips are fare enough back. Practice sitting back into a chair to get the feel of this.
- Keep your midsection tight and chest up throughout. This is more a flexibility issue than strength for most people, so it takes time to teach your muscles the new movement pattern.
- Keep your heels on the ground at all times. Again, this is more a matter of flexibility than strength. Don't try to learn this all at once, practice it over the course of weeks and months so your body has time to internalize the movement pattern.
Step 6: Exercise 5: the Deadlift
The deadlift is the first time we pick up a kettlebell. It builds on the squat's activation of legs, hips and midsection, by adding the resistance of the kettlebell, and necessitating the stabilization of the shoulder girdle.
- Stand with your feet slightly more than shoulder width apart as for the squat, the kettlebell between your feet. The handle should be parallel to a line drawn between the heels, just about midfoot.
- Bend at the hips, taking a slight bend in the knees and squat, keeping your hips well back and your torso up.
- As you squat you will feel yourself falling backwards if your hips are far enough back. When you are low enough to grasp the kettlebell handle, grip it firmly with midsection contracted, arms straight, elbows locked, shoulders firmly engaged in the sockets, head up, eyes forward.
- Pause for a second to feel the balance. Your hips should be far enough back that the kettlebell is the only thing preventing you from falling backwards.
- Lift the kettlebell by, contracting your core and glutes while breathing out strongly under tension. Concentrate on driving your chest up and forward, with shoulders engaged, and shoulder blades pinched backwards.
- Pause at the top of the movement and contract legs, mid-section and upper body strongly and thoroughly.
- Recover the kettlebell by bending at the hips and knees. Concentrate on shooting your hips back, keep your core tight as if you were taking a punch in the gut.
- When gripping the kettlebell feel the balance point. Your back should be flat as in the tabletop exercise, with your hips back as far as they can go.
- Think about sitting back towards a chair that is just a little bit too far behind you.
- The kettlebell needs to be heavy enough that it can actually counter the weight of your hips behind your heels.
- When you drive upwards to lift the kettlebells, flex the core first, and then the glutes.
- Imagine that someone has placed a walnut between your butt cheeks, and you are going to smash it by pinching it with your glutes.
- Practice the deadlift rigorously and regularly.
Step 7: Exercise 6: Kettlebell Halo
This exercise engages the shoulders throughout their full ROM under very high resistance. The core and legs must also be engaged firmly to maintain posture.
- Begin a deadlift, but instead of gripping the handle, turn your hands thumbs down, palms to the rear, and grip the horns. Your thumbs should be inside the loop of the handle with index fingers against the ball.
- Lift the bell as a deadlift, but give it a little thrust with your hips and rack the kettlebell against your chest, handle down, ball up.
- Turn the kettlebell around your head, keeping your elbows tight and close. Your elbows should be 90 degree angles at all times. When the kettlebell is behind your head, it will be ball down, handle up.
- Rotate the kettlebell around your head three times one way, and three times the other.
- Set the kettlebell down as with the deadlift.
- The kettlebell should be heavy enough to provide strong resistance but not to overwhelm your shoulders.
- Keep your core and hips tight and engaged. This will keep your posture straight.
- Move slowly and smoothly. Keep the kettlebell close to your head, but do not drag it across your shoulders, chest or back.
- Throughout the whole movement keep the shoulders sucked into their sockets.
Step 8: Exercise 7A: the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
This is the final step of warming up, but it is quite complicated and needs to be practiced step-by-step in its own right. It engages every muscle in the body, especially the midsection and the shoulder girdle, lifting the kettlebell in an irregular movement pattern. This forces the arms and midsection to stabilize the weight at every angle of movement.
- Begin by lying on your back with the kettlebell in one hand. The arm that holds the kettlebell should be perfectly straight. Shoulder sucked in, elbow locked, wrist perfectly straight. The kettlebell will rest on the back of your forearm, and the weight will try to bend the wrist so that the hand bends backwards. Resist this by curling the hand forward, flexing the muscles of the front of the forearm.
- You can begin with the kettlebell on your chest and press it up, or you can begin with the kettlebell on the floor next to your shoulder and use both hands to draw the kettlebell onto your bicep before pressing it up.
Step 9: Exercise 7B: the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
2. Draw up the knee on the same side as the kettlebell and plant your foot as firmly as you can. Engage your core and shoulder to press the kettlebell up.
Step 10: Exercise 7C: the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
3. Flex the core to drive the chest up so that you rise up on one elbow. Your hips will rotate so that the side of the kettlebell will rise up. Keep the arm straight and upright, shoulder tight, elbow locked, wrist straightened by contracting the muscles of the forearm.
- This is the first part of the movement in which the kettlebell is supported by the shoulder. Keep the arm upright so that the kettlebell balances. If it gets too far off center one way or the other it will be too hard to keep it upright.
- If the kettlebell starts to get off center, and you feel it pull at your shoulder, dump it. Just let it go rather than strain your rotator cough.
Step 11: Exercise 7D: the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
4. From the lounging position on your elbow, straighten the arm that is on the ground, pushing yourself up into a half-sitting position. Both arms will be completely locked.
- Experiment with this portion of the movement, keeping your shoulder underneath the weight so that the weight drives directly down. Keep the shoulder sucked into its socket.
- Keep your eyes on the kettlebell at all times!
Step 12: Exercise 7E: the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
5. Lift your hips so that you are supporting your weight on one hand and two feet. The arm and leg on the side opposite from the kettlebell, are both locked.
- You may have to reposition the foot that is on the kettlebell side before bridging up.
- Try to draw a straight line from the kettlebell, straight through the arm, to the shoulder, through the other shoulder, to the opposite shoulder and through the other arm straight into the ground.
- Try to grip the ground with your downward hand, as if you were going to rip a chunk out of it.
- Keep your eyes on the kettlebell at all times!
Step 13: Exercise 7F: the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
6. This is the trickiest part of the movement. Take the straight leg, the one on the opposite side from the kettlebell, and sweep it back under your hips so that it is behind you. Your weight will now be on the kettlebell side foot, the other knee, and the other hand. These should all be in a line with each other.
- Practice this step several times, concentrate on the line of force running from the kettlebell hand to the opposite hand.
- Work on balancing on the hand and the foot as the other foot sweeps underneath.
- Keep your eyes on the kettlebell at all times!
Step 14: Exercise 7G: the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
7. Press off with the downward hand, and brace the core until you are in a kneeling position. Keep your posture as straight as possible.
- You should feel the line of force running from the kettlebell hand to the opposite knee.
- Keep the shoulder sucked into its socket and upright, balanced.
- Tighten your core to keep your posture upright.
- Keep your eyes on the kettlebell at all times!
Step 15: Exercise 7H: the Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up
8. Straighten both legs into a modified lunge position, and then step into a standing position, feet shoulder width apart. Drive your shoulders and the kettlebell toward the sky.
Recover by reversing all steps back to the ground.
- This exercise is easiest if you try to pose epically at every point.
- Keep your eyes on the kettlebell at all times!
Step 16: Put It All Together.
When you have mastered every step, put them all together one after the other.
Now you are warmed up and ready to workout.