If you haven’t before, pick up a kettlebell. The sensation of holding one—it's basically a cannonball with a thick U-shape handle on top of it—is totally different from holding a dumbbell. A dumbbell’s handle is centered between two equal masses, so balancing a dumbbell is very easy. A kettlebell? Not so much. Grab the handle protruding from the top of the cast-iron sphere, lift it up, and you quickly realize that it requires a lot more work to balance the kettlebell’s offset weight.
This makes kettlebells great tools for full-body, functional training, the antithesis of isolated exercises like dumbbell curls or chest presses. Functional kettlebell training can be made even more effective, though, by linking together disparate movements in hybrid workout routines.
Challenge yourself with kettlebell swings that transition into goblet squats. Set up by resting a kettlebell on the floor at arm’s length in front of you. Tilt the handle of the bell toward you, wrap both hands around the top of the handle, and push your butt back like you’re getting ready to do a squat, going until your chest is almost parallel to the floor. Then aggressively throw the bell behind you as if you’re snapping a football. You’ll feel a serious hamstring stretch. Keep a big chest as you push your feet into the ground and explosively drive your hips forward, which will make the kettlebell shoot back between your legs. The kettlebell’s momentum will help it float upward toward the ceiling. Try to minimize the amount of arm strength you use as you start to stand up. Too often, people yank the kettlebell up with their arms, and the bell ends up above their chest line, which is where its swing should peak. Instead, focus on fully extending your knees, hips, and torso as you stand up. When you’re fully extended and standing, pull the kettlebell, now at the peak of its swing, in toward your chest. Move your hands to the sides of the handle, tuck your elbows in, and do a squat, holding the kettlebell at chest level as you drop. When your elbows touch the insides of your knees, stand back up, again focusing on fully extending your body. Then move your hands back to the top of the kettlebell’s handle before throwing the bell back between your legs and behind you. Keep cycling through these movements for as long as you’re comfortable.
Then move to a kettlebell clean-to-press. This has the same setup as the above exercise, but now you have two bells, so you’ll want to assume a slightly wider stance. Throw the bells behind you, and then drive your hips forward to make the kettlebells come back through your legs. As the kettlebells swing between your thighs, pull them up and into your torso. The movement will sort of look like a cowboy drawing guns from his belt holsters. At this point, the kettlebells should be sitting in a triangle-shaped wedge (“rack position”) in front of your chest. Standing tall, engage your abdomen muscles before slightly rotating the kettlebells so that your palms are facing you. Quickly dip your elbows down before pressing the weight above your head. On the way up, let your hands rotate so your palms are facing away from you. As you bring the kettlebells back down, rotate your palms back toward you. At the end of the press, your elbows tight against your sides, flip your hands inward and down. Basically, you’re dropping the kettlebells for an instant before regaining your grip so that you can hang onto the tops of the handles. Throw the kettlebells behind you, and you’re back at the start of the movement.
A sumo deadlift high pull is another solid full-body move to do with a kettlebell. With a stance slightly wider than shoulder width, set a bell directly between your feet and wrap both hands around the top of its handle. Pull out any slack in your arms as you sit backwards and push your heels into the ground. Your chest should be hovering just over the top of the kettlebell. Straighten out your back, puff out your chest, and look at the ground a few feet in front of the kettlebell. Pushing your hips forward and stand up with the kettlebell until you’re fully extended. Immediately shrug your shoulders, lifting the kettlebell slightly with your traps, and then pull the kettlebell straight up until its handle is in line with your chin. (Don’t whack yourself on the chin—it really hurts.) At this point, your elbows should be cocked up and out, like you’re imitating a chicken flapping its wings. Hold this position for a second before lowering the weight back down and getting back into the sumo deadlift position.
One last hybrid kettlebell exercise to try is a front rack lunge. Standing, pull two kettlebells up to your chest and hold them in rack position. Now tuck your ribs and feel your abs engage. Don't confuse tucking your ribs with dropping your elbows. Drop your elbows and you’ll lose a firm upper-back position, which will cause stress on your lower back and disengage your upper back. Keep everything above your hips clean and tight as you start to do lunges. Step forward with one leg, slightly shift your weight onto that front leg without leaning forward, and turn into that leg as you lower yourself to the floor. When your back knee grazes the ground, stand back up while keeping your weight over the front leg. Finish by bringing your back foot in line with your other foot and standing tall. Do the same with the opposite leg and keep switching between the two.
These four, full-body hybrid kettlebell exercise are great alternatives to a steady diet of dumbbell lifts.
Photos by Corey Jenkins / Getty Images