In the thirteen years since I received my RKC certification as a kettlebell instructor, I have seen some interesting evolutions in kettlebell training. When I started the RKC program, probably at least 70 percent of us had never touched a kettlebell before. We went through a wide variety of different drills back then, and I was amazed by the incredible versatility and effectiveness of such a simple instrument.
When you do anything new, you can learn a lot of lessons not just as a student, but also as a teacher. I saw that many students needed to slow down, focus, and be more thoughtful about their movement. I realized they would reap greater benefit from skilled practice of a few exercises, rather than just learning a large number of exercises.
Those few exercises became the six that we see in today’s curriculums:
- Goblet squat
- Turkish get up
- Front squat
- Clean and press
Reducing the number of drills was a smart move. I see students now emerging with greater skills than I possessed after attending my first course. However, the downside is that people think the value of kettlebells lies in only a small number of exercises.
The truth is, owning those foundations allows you to add deeper layers to your movement and strength practice. Adding these more advanced kettlebell drills to the foundational exercises you already know will broaden the scope and enhance the core of your training.
Renegade rows expose weaknesses in stability and strength like few other drills. Any exercise that can make you feel absolutely spent after just five reps must be doing a lot to your body.
Renegade rows are an amazing plank, work cross patterns, stabilize the shoulder, self-correct bracing, teach how to pack the shoulder, and develop force through the whole body. See, I told you they achieve a lot. You need to make them a constant in your strength training practice, not a drill that makes the occasional cameo.
Single Leg Deadlifts
Single leg deadlifts are good accessory work for swings. They require lower leg, pelvis, and core stability in an unstable load pattern. All these qualities are essential for optimal performance in the swing. We can hide compensations in these three areas during a regular swing, but they become highly exposed during the single leg deadlift.
If for no other reason, you should do single leg deadlifts because they don’t lie about your movement. People think of them as only a “stability” exercise, but stability and strength are interrelated. How much strength do you think you can demonstrate if your stability is terrible?
Heavy Single Arm Squats
Heavy can be a relative term. I define heavy as a weight that you could do five, maybe six, but not seven repetitions in a row.
Why heavy single arm front squats as opposed to doing doubles? Because they train both strength and stability. Spinal expert Dr. Stuart McGill speaks at great lengths about the value of learning to resist movement as much as producing it. Few drills allow us to do both under an appreciable load like single arm front squats do.
If done correctly, you are not just squatting up and down, but resisting rotation. Watch the pelvis, feet, and torso when performing heavy single arm front squats. Often you will feel or see a weird “wiggle” or even the complete inability to resist these forces. That means your body has more strength “leakages” than you may have thought. Oh, and these single kettlebell squats will drive up your squat numbers, too.
If you already do get ups, you might not see the need for windmills, but there are differences. The most obvious is range of motion. The standing position in the windmill allows us to get far deeper into our lateral system. This not only serves as an important dynamic stretch, but also lights up one of the most important muscle groups in our body, the obliques. Weak or dormant obliques can wreak havoc in your movement and decrease your ability to develop full-body strength.
Windmills are sly in that they teach us how to perform a hip hinge in something other than the sagittal plane. The sagittal what? We have three planes of motion, and in movement outside of the gym we regularly use all three. Unfortunately, most gym-based functional fitness programs only work the sagittal plane, which means they aren’t all that functional. Performing windmills is a simple way to work the hip hinge in a different plane of motion.
Alternating Presses and Rows
Athletes are often shocked at how much their trunk gets torched during these motions. These drills are great for those who want to improve their pressing, squatting, and deadlifting numbers.
Cross-patterning exercises like dead bugs and crawling are great for the nervous system and teaching the body real-life movement. One of the simplest ways of applying these same concepts to strength work is by integrating alternating arm movements into presses and rows at different positions. These exercises also show areas in which people are compensating and losing the tension that helps them develop great strength.
Functional Training Uncovers Weakness
I am recovering from three recent spinal surgeries. My focus on finding weaknesses in my movement has caused my recovery prognosis to go from two years to one after just three months of smart training. To shave off nine months of recovery in just three months of training is a powerful thing.
These exercises complement the core kettlebell movements. Integrating them into your training plan will help you find and fix the weaknesses in your own movement, and give you a truly functional training system.
More on the Magic of Kettlebells:
- The Kettlebell Swing: Mindful Prescription for Low-Back Rehab
- Power, Precision, and Balance: A Triple-Threat Kettlebell Workout
- Grip It: Coaching Cues for Stronger Kettlebell Lifts
- New on Breaking Muscle Today
Teaser photo courtesy of Craig Marker.