The Kettlebell is the best strength/endurance tool ever invented. If you want total body conditioning, core strength, stability, coordination, balance, cardio, power production, posture, muscle building or fat loss, kettlebell training is a great option to pursue.
But how do you even hold a kettlebell? In my previous article I discussed the ways I teach my students to hold a kettlebell with two hands. But now I am going to teach you all the ways I teach students to hold one kettlebell with one hand.
These positions are all great for unilateral training and can also be used for bilateral training because if you have two hands you can use two kettlebells.
And if you thought there’s just one or two ways to do it, you would be wrong. I teach 9 different positions to hold a kettlebell with one hand. Some are very common and others are rarely used, but when you have been training with kettlebells for as long as I have you develop a large toolbox of options.
A quick note before we get started. Many exercises use two positions. You start with one, transition to another and then return to the first. Knowing the names of the positions will help you learn these exercises faster and also perform them better.
Sumo is the standard position. The kettlebell is held by the handle and the ball is either in mid-air or supported by the ground. Both the bell and the arm holding it remain in between the legs.
To be more accurate, the bell is in between the two parallel lines that pass through your heels. This is important because sometimes the kettlebell will be on the ground beneath you (such as in a Kettlebell Deadlift or Dead Clean). And sometimes the kettlebell will start on the ground in front of you (such as in a Kettlebell Swing or a Snatch).
This is one of the two options for starting an exercise with the kettlebell on the ground. Here is something you should remember:
All Hinge Ballistics will start in some variation of the Sumo position.
This is as opposed to Squat Ballistics which will generally start in the rack position (discussed later).
Your most common hinge ballistics are the Swing and the Clean. But many other exercises will use this position such as Hinges and Rows (horizontal pulls).
In the suitcase position you are still holding the bell by the handle, but it is outside of your leg.
This is a really good position for developing functional core strength and stability, particularly on the sides (obliques) which tend to be an area of the core that is weak on many people (especially those with back pain).
This position works well with a hinge (called a suitcase deadlift), gait patterns (suitcase walking or marching) and some row variations.
As a side note, when you do the suitcase carry on both sides simultaneously the name is changed to a farmer’s carry.
This is the standard rack position – so much so that I will always refer to this simply as the “rack.”
The kettlebell is at chest height and you are holding the handle. But the weight is supported on your forearm which is in turn supported by your torso. A common coaching cue that we use to help people find this position is to make the kettlebell, forearm, and torso become “one.”
Females will have a slightly different rack position than males. The reason is that we don’t want to apply pressure to breasts for health reasons. To avoid this issue, females should keep the forearm further to the outside.
This is the start position for your Squat Ballistics, such as the Push Press and Jerk.
This is also the starting position of some important grinds such as the Kettlebell Military Press, which is one of the most important (and most fun) exercises that you can do with a kettlebell. It is also a great position for doing squats.
On a final note, to get into the other three standing rack positions you start from the front rack and then transition into them.
In this rack variation you bring the forearm out to the side of the body so that the back of your arm (tricep) is supported by your lat (the large back muscle that comes to the side of your shoulder blade).
I only teach (in fact have only learned) one exercise that uses this position. But that exercise is so great that it is worth learning – in fact many call it the king of all lifts – the Bent Press.
Learning the Bent Press is too in-depth for this article but I highly suggest reading the book Taming the Bent Press by Dave Whitley. You can also look up a StrongFirst Level 2 instructor who has been tested on their ability to teach this lift. [Full disclosure: this is the kettlebell certification that I maintain.]
I most often teach this exercise as what not to do. It is not uncommon for new students to end up here when they are supposed to be in the front rack.
It is not a dangerous position – it is just not a strong one. Which is why it is wrong to use it for an exercise like a military press. In fact, it is not part of the curriculum of StrongFirst at all (whose focus is on strength if it is not obvious from the name).
However, there is a shoulder exercise called the Arnold Press – which is a great bodybuilding exercise invented by Arnold Schwarzenegger (who knows a thing or two about bodybuilding) that starts in that position. It is usually done with dumbbells but it works very well with kettlebells and there are good reasons to use this exercise.
Another exercise you could do that would use this position is a kettlebell bicep curl. But, however, I recommend against this one, and not because bicep curls are “bad” – they are a great exercise especially if one of your goals is bigger biceps (it just shouldn’t be your “only” exercise). Because this is not the optimal tool, the bell will bang repeatedly on your wrist with no way of “catching” it while it floats such as in a clean or a snatch. If you want to do bicep curls you are better off using a dumbbell or my favorite tool for curls an EZ Curl Bar.
This is another rarely used rack position for a specific purpose. I learned this one from Jeff Martone – who has a few excellent books on kettlebell training. I highly recommend his book Kettlebell Rx.
In this position you bring the kettlebell around your body so it rests on your upper back, similar to where a barbell would rest for back squats.
You hold the handle to keep the weight from moving around in a position that is awkward but not unsafe.
Unsafe is a great reason to not do something, but awkward is fine – if you have a good reason.
Usually the reason this is used is if a WOD (a CrossFit term for Workout Of the Day) calls for barbell back squats and there is no barbell available. [Full disclosure: I am not a CrossFit coach, and don’t teach CrossFit.]
The barbell back squat (particularly the “low bar” version) is a special exercise – and in my opinion one of the most valuable exercises out there for many goals.
That being said it is not a necessary exercise that you cannot do without. If you don’t have a barbell then I would rather swap it out for a different exercise than attempt to replicate it with a kettlebell.
That doesn’t mean there aren’t uses for this position. But you will probably never need this one – I rarely use it with myself or clients. And you would be better served mastering the basics – meaning the front rack, instead of trying to find uses for this rack.
In fact, you have no business working with any of the other standing rack positions until you have mastered the front rack.
This position is used while laying on your back on the floor. The kettlebell rests on your forearm – which should be vertical – and your forearm is supported by having your elbow on the floor, not by leaning your forearm on your torso (which is only possible if your forearm is not vertical).
This position is important for floor presses and the Turkish Get-Up. The Turkish Get-Up is one of the most important exercises you can do with a kettlebell.
While this position is extremely valuable, people with experience with barbells and dumbbells often want to do a “Bench Press” with a kettlebell.
While some purists might tell you that you should absolutely not use a kettlebell for it – I cannot see a problem. If there were some dangerous reason why you couldn’t do a bench press with a kettlebell the same would almost definitely apply to the floor press.
I consider laying back on a bench a variation of the floor rack.
In this position the arm is completely straight with the kettlebell resting on the back of the forearm.
This is the finish position for many exercises – like presses, jerks, and snatches.
I consider the finish position of the floor press, where you are laying on the ground, a variation of this position – meaning that you also maintain this position throughout most of the Turkish Get-Up (which moves you through 3 more variations of the overhead position).
The other place this position is used extensively is in carries.
By the Bell
The final position we address here is holding the kettlebell not by the handle at all but by the bell. Meaning that your hand will be under the ball and it will sit on top like a waiter carrying a tray.
I most commonly teach this as the finish position of a drill called “The hand to hand clean” which I learned from an excellent book, Enter the Kettlebell by Pavel Tsatsouline, who gives credit for the drill to Jeff Martone.
The purpose of this drill is to “tame the arc” meaning teach you to keep the arc of the kettlebell under control instead of letting it pull your forward. To execute this you pull back slightly, let go of the handle of the kettlebell, and then the ball of the bell should float up where you can comfortably catch it.
But there are other ways to get into this position and there is a press variant called the “waiter’s press” which is done by pressing the kettlebell by holding the bell in this position.
If you ever get bored with kettlebell training you have no imagination.
One of the reasons I love kettlebell training is that it is fun – because there are so many unique positions that you can use the kettlebell for to achieve different effects on your body.
Try out some of these positions and exercises listed here. One or more should help open up lots of variety in your kettlebell training.
If you have any questions on the positions send me an email - David@magenfitness.com
And if you are looking for some great kettlebell workouts you can find 18 of them (and 18 bodyweight workouts as well) in my free eBook Double H’ai Workouts.
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