For climbers, kettlebell training is a killer way to build grip strength, core stability, and upper-body endurance. Compared to traditional weightlifting, it forces you to use muscle groups in concert as opposed to in isolation—mimicking climbing movement. Kettlebells are also convenient: you can stash one in your closet or van, and get thrashed in a quick 20-minute workout. Adding even one kettlebell circuit per week (read on for a four-exercise circuit) can boost strength, though you could also fit it in multiple times, after sessions at the gym.
Step 1: Select Your Kettlebell
A good starting weight for athletic men is typically 35–44 pounds; for athletic women, it’s 26–35 pounds. This should allow you to practice the exercises without risking injury. Once comfortable with the motions, you can increase the weight. (If purchasing just one kettlebell, go heavier, as a lighter kettlebell will be less useful in the long run.)
Step 2: Do Your Homework
Like climbing, kettlebell use is a technical exercise that requires practice. This training guide describes proper form for four kettlebell workouts; for a primer on proper overall technique, visit strongfirst.com.
Step 3: Understand the Kettlebell
When you are swinging a kettlebell with a single, independent arm, your body must compensate for the lack of stability in the equipment, which is why kettlebells are great for core work. As with any weightlifting exercise, kettlebells are also self-limiting, meaning that as you become fatigued, your form crumbles—an indicator to stop and rest.
Step 4: Warm Up with Body Rotations
Stand straight with broad shoulders and feet hip-distance apart. Swing a kettlebell in a circle around your hips, passing it from hand to hand in front of and then behind your body. Do 20–30 rotations in each direction.
Exercise 1: One-Arm Swing
1. Start with the kettlebell slightly in front of you. The swing is the foundational exercise—proper form will carry over to the other drills.
2. From a deadlift position with the bell between your legs, and your feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart, pick the bell up off the ground. Keep a straight back and stand up powerfully through the knees and hips. Engage your unweighted arm, flagging it out to the side as you complete the swing.
3. Think not in terms of lifting the kettlebell with your arm, but rather using your arm to transfer explosive energy from your legs and trunk up through the weight. If you execute the move correctly, the kettlebell will be in line with your arm for the entire swing. Do 40 reps total—20 on each side.
Exercise 2: Clean and Press
1. Begin as for a one-arm swing, but as you straighten your knees and back, pull the kettlebell toward your body with control.
2. Rotate the bell to the back side of your palm, landing in a clean position with your elbow bent and the bell resting on your forearm and bicep.
3. From here, press the kettlebell overhead as you rotate your palm to face away from your body, and then lower your arm back down and float the kettlebell between your legs to complete the rep. Again, you may flag or wrap the unweighted arm. Do 10 reps on each arm.
Exercise 3: Snatch
1. Continue the clean swing past shoulder height, keeping the bell close to your body in a zipping-up-the-jacket motion. Atop the snatch, you should be in an upright plank position—quads, glutes, and core engaged and tight. The kettlebell should rotate to the back of your palm to rest on your outer forearm; your unweighted arm can either flag to the side or wrap around your lower back.
2. Lower through a clean position, where your elbow bends, your palm rotates toward your body, and the bell rests in the V between your forearm and bicep.
3. Float the kettlebell between your legs to set up for another rep. Do 10 reps on each arm.
Exercise 4: Squat
1. Swing the kettlebell into the clean position and squat to just below parallel to the floor—never deeper—with your feet hip-distance apart or slightly wider.
2. Stand back up, with your back and neck straight, and eyes forward.
3. You can repeat the clean each time for an added burn, or hold the kettlebell in the clean position throughout the squats. Do 10 reps on each arm.
Similarities Between Kettlebells and Climbing
According to Steve Bechtel, a climbing trainer and owner of the Elemental gym in Lander, Wyoming, kettlebells are among the best supplemental workouts for targeting climbing fitness. “When climbing, you’ll be in an isometric position, then explode for the next hold, [then] hold an isometric position, set up, and explode for the next hold,” says Bechtel. “[This] is very much the cycle of a lot of kettlebell work.”
Kettlebells are a highly technical exercise, just as climbing is a highly technical sport: As you hone your form, each drill becomes progressively easier and requires less exertion—just like that fussy move on your project’s crux. Bechtel in fact often refers to kettlebell work as “practicing” rather than “training.”
“People are forced to work technique and drill their style, rather than just see how many pullups and pushups they can do,” he says. “I like the idea of getting better and better technique and getting less fatigued by the same level of work. That’s what you want—to climb 5.13 without getting tired.”
Kettlebell circuit training is designed to give you the greatest burn possible, building both explosive power and endurance. To maximize the workout, power through the entire circuit in one push—after all, it’s only four exercises! Rest two to three minutes between circuits, completing three or four total circuits per session. If you have access to multiple kettlebells of varying weights, increase the weight for the second and third sets, and then drop back down to your starting weight for the final burn. Here’s a sample progression in pounds: 35, 40, 45, 35.
Bennett Slavsky is a kettlebell enthusiast with a climbing obsession. He is currently based in Lander, Wyoming.
Model: Amanda Sempert, Elemental Performance + Fitness