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The reason kettlebells are sometimes used as doorstops isn’t because of their lack of efficacy. In fact, the best kettlebells are perhaps some of the most versatile pieces of equipment you can have in your home gym, because they work to build strength, conditioning, heck, I’ve even used one to work knots out of my upper back! 

If you’re looking to add some variety to your routine, I invite you to leave the land of bent-over double delt flies and mirror assisted single arm curls, and enter a land of sweat and soreness with this kettlebell cardio workout.

To paraphrase Pavel Tsatsouline: It’s time to enter the kettlebell.

Why Use Kettlebells for Cardio? 

There are many kettlebell benefits. First, you can perform just about any kind of cardio workout with a single kettlebell: Tabata, EMOMs, AMRAPs, supersets, and kettlebell circuits.

A full body kettlebell workout taxes virtually every muscle group in your entire body and energy system your body has. Whereas with dumbbells or barbells with weight plates, you tend to need a lot of variety, with kettlebells, you can get away with just one or two: a light one and a heavy one. Having just one or two bells means you can work the gamut of the best kettlebell exercises from Turkish get ups to kettlebell snatches. 

What Kettlebell Weight Should I Use? 

You should choose something a little bit lighter than you think for these kinds of HIIT workouts (heavy weights aren’t needed to elicit the benefits of HIIT programs1). Your muscular endurance will fail if you aren’t used to working in these high-intensity ranges with short rest periods.

Man holding kettlebell

Basically, we don’t want your muscles to fatigue before you finish the cardiovascular phase of the workout. If you have an adjustable kettlebell, you can easily move up or down in weight based on how you feel. Otherwise, it’s best to start light.

RELATED: Our Picks for the Best Adjustable Kettlebells

Best Kettlebell Cardio Exercises

These can all be done with a dumbbell rather than a kettlebell, but then you don’t get to have the fun of whipping the weight around.

These mostly involve a lot of hip extension and posterior chain activation. Most people have weak hamstrings (and the associated problems with them2), so this should be seen as a positive trait for these exercises to have.

Kettlebell Swings

Why Do Them: For simple full-body training, the kettlebell swing is on the top of the charts. Your entire body will hurt if you push these hard, from your hamstrings to your traps. The ease of doing double hand swings is one of the great reasons to own a kettlebell versus a dumbbell.

Don’t exaggerate the range of motion in either direction. There is no need to bend into a deep squat or get your back parallel to the ground at the bottom, and you don’t need to use your upper body to “lift” the weight up above shoulder height at the top (this is one of the things I hate seeing most in the gym). 

Just dip down enough at the start to get enough leverage to “throw” the weight, and let the kettlebell naturally decelerate and come to a stop at the top.

How to Do Them:

  1. Start with your feet shoulder width apart in a standing position.
  2. Hold the kettlebell with both hands with your arms straight down in front of you.
  3. Initiate the motion by pushing your hips back behind you and slightly bending your knees.
  4. Drive your feet into the ground and think about “jumping” without actually leaving the ground.
  5. Impart that force into the kettlebell and squeeze your upper back muscles.
  6. Throw the weight in front of you and finish tall.
  7. Allow the weight to come back down.
  8. Reverse direction at the bottom and repeat.
Russian kettlebell swing

Alternating Kettlebell Lunges

Why Do Them: Lunges are a classic leg day exercise for lighting up your glutes, hamstrings, and quads. Adding weight to them makes them even better! And what better weight to have than the kettlebell you’ve already started using?

How to Do Them:

  1. Hold the weight in the “goblet” position.
  2. Keeping a tall torso, extend your left leg behind you while bending the right leg.
  3. When your right leg is at about a 90-degree angle, reverse direction and bring your left leg back under you.
  4. You are now back at a normal standing position.
  5. Switch legs and repeat.
kettlebell front rack reverse lunge

Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift

Why Do Them: All of the former Soviet states have some sort of brutal exercise associated with them (I think this is why Rambo was fighting communism). Here we are using our kettlebell training plan to mimic the barbell move Nicu Vlad accidentally invented while visiting America (no villagers were impaled in the process).

The Romanian deadlift is a great lower-body movement that targets the glutes and hamstrings. It may not fall under one of the best ab exercises, but it does work core strength and stability.

How to Do Them:

  1. Hold the kettlebell in the same way you would to begin a kettlebell swing.
  2. Push your hips back and bend your knees slightly.
  3. Allow the weight to travel straight down your quads, past your knees, and to your shins.
  4. Try to keep the kettlebell in light contact with your body the whole way down.
  5. When the kettlebell is just past the knee, abruptly stand and squeeze your glutes to finish the lockout.
  6. Repeat.
kettlbell romanian deadlift

Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Why Do Them: This is one of the simplest squatting variations out there, and pretty much all the best personal training apps and professionals make good use of them. These actually may hit your abs harder than your legs. Because of the ergonomics, goblet squats can also be pushed for super high reps more comfortably than barbell variations.

How to Do Them:

  1. Hold the kettlebell by each horn and put your hand just under your chin (so the weight is touching your chest).
  2. Drop straight down into a squat.
  3. Fight the weight pulling you forward and remain erect.
  4. Stand straight up and finish tall.

RELATED: How to Do Kettlebell Squat Variations

kettlebell goblet squat

Kettlebell High Pull

Why Do Them: Largely owing to my lack of athleticism getting in the way of doing serious Olympic weightlifting, I really love the high pull. 

The raw explosivity gives a unique strain on the hamstrings, and “power shrug” move at the top is one of the best ways I know of to build muscle on the upper back3.

If you’ve ever had to start up an old, cranky lawn mower, then you know exactly how to perform this lift.

How to Do Them:

  1. Start from a single arm hang position (just hold the weight in front of you with one arm).
  2. Dip down by pushing your hips back and bending your knees slightly.
  3. Using some coordination, throw your hips, knees, and ankle up into triple extension, and pull the weight straight up in the air.
  4. Really squeeze your shoulder blade and engage your trapezius, but don’t “catch” the weight in the air and keep pulling; just like the swing, this ends when the momentum dies.
  5. Gently allow the weight to return to its starting position (don’t let it whoop you on the way down, now).
  6. Repeat with the opposite arm.
kettlebell high pull

Kettlebell Clean and Press

Why Do Them: One step up from the swing on the hierarchy of kettlebell training, the clean and press offers all the benefits of the swing and high pull without quite being as much of a pain as the kettlebell snatch.

You are going to perform a kettlebell high pull, but you are going to catch it in the rack position. You can do this by being a monster and just throwing it higher up, or you can learn to dip your body down.

The version below uses the “power clean” catch rather than the “squat clean” catch, as well as a “power jerk” for the press. Life was so much more fun before we had to qualify all these things.

How to Do Them:

  1. Start from a single arm hang position (just hold the weight in front of you with one arm).
  2. Dip down by pushing your hips back and bending your knees slightly.
  3. Using some coordination, throw your hips, knees, and ankle up into triple extension, and pull the weight straight up in the air.
  4. While the weight is “floating” at the top, bend your knees as little as possible and bring your body under the weight.
  5. Flip the kettlebell over onto your forearm when you catch it. You are now in the rack position.
  6. Using your leg, toss the weight up over your head, pressing with your arm as you do.
  7. Just like when you caught the clean, dip down as little as you need to to “catch” the weight with a straight arm.
  8. Gracefully return the weight to your rack position, then gracefully return the weight to your waist.
  9. Repeat with both arms.

RELATED: Master the Kettlebell Clean

kettlebell clean and press

Kettlebell Cardio Circuit

kettlebell cardio workout

I like to call this protocol the “Double Reverse Tabata,” partially because it’s kind of what it is, and partially because it sounds like a sweet tag team wrestling move you would have seen in NJPW in the 90s.

This is a workout program with three separate three-week cycles. You can put them together into a nine-week program, or just pick the one that fits your fitness level the best and stick with it. The work/rest protocols are below:

  • Weeks 1-3: :20 work, :40 rest
  • Weeks 4-6: :30 work, :30 rest
  • Weeks 7-9: :40 work, :20 rest

No matter which protocol you choose, the workout will be 24 minutes long. The following uses the times from Week 1-3.

Kettlebell Exercise Circuit:

4 Rounds: 

  • 20 seconds of kettlebell swings
  • 40 seconds of rest
  • 20 seconds of goblet squats
  • 40 seconds of rest
  • 20 seconds of kettlebell swings
  • 40 seconds of rest
  • 20 seconds of kettlebell clean and press
  • 40 seconds of rest
  • 20 seconds of kettlebell swings
  • 40 seconds of rest
  • 20 seconds of alternating kettlebell lunges
  • 40 seconds of rest

*You can always sub out any of the above movements for the movements outlined in this workout.

If you’re thinking “that’s a lot of swings” you would be correct. Embrace it. 

Don’t rush to increase your work phase if the first round or two is easy. The accumulated fatigue will really build up (and hopefully build muscle4). Change to an increased work period when the reps you get in the fourth round are about the same as your first round.

Kettlebell Cardio Workout: Final Thoughts 

For overall body and explosivity, there aren’t many other tools as simple and effective as the kettlebell. If you have limited space and are tired of doing bodyweight workouts all the time, consider investing in this timeless piece, largely considered to be some of the best home gym equipment.

Kettlebell Cardio Workout: FAQs

Is a kettlebell workout good cardio?

Full-body kettlebell training combines strength training with a sick cardiovascular workout.

This isn’t going to be like a steady state treadmill session; a 20-minute kettlebell workout will leave you questioning all of your life choices and wondering how a single kettlebell can bring such an inhuman amount of pain into your life.

So, yes, a kettlebell workout is great cardio.

What kettlebell exercises are cardio?

You can make any kettlebell training good for cardio if you do enough of the movements! Some we particularly like include kettlebell swings, kettlebell lunges, kettlebell Romanian deadlifts, and kettlebell clean-and-presses.

The way to get your heart rate up is to either move your body through space, or move some other object through space (like a kettlebell). The full-body nature of kettlebell circuit training means you get to do both of these things.

Is 20 minutes of kettlebells enough?

Depending who you are, 20 minutes might not even be enough to do a warm-up, or it can be more work than you are ready to handle. Take things slow and worry about what you are accomplishing, not about whether what you are doing is “enough.”

Your muscles and your cardiovascular system may progress at different paces, but if you keep consistent you will continue to get better. Think of it like doing 20 pushups every morning; it’s not going to help you do 100 pushups if you never change.

References

1. Atakan MM, Li Y, Koşar ŞN, Turnagöl HH, Yan X. Evidence-Based Effects of High-Intensity Interval Training on Exercise Capacity and Health: A Review with Historical Perspective. Int J Environ Res Public Health. 2021 Jul 5;18(13):7201. doi: 10.3390/ijerph18137201. PMID: 34281138; PMCID: PMC8294064.

2. Jandre Reis FJ, Macedo AR. Influence of Hamstring Tightness in Pelvic, Lumbar and Trunk Range of Motion in Low Back Pain and Asymptomatic Volunteers during Forward Bending. Asian Spine J. 2015 Aug;9(4):535-40. doi: 10.4184/asj.2015.9.4.535. Epub 2015 Jul 28. PMID: 26240711; PMCID: PMC4522442.

3. Nagao H, Ishii Y. Characteristics of the Shrug Motion and Trapezius Muscle Activity During the Power Clean. J Strength Cond Res. 2021 Dec 1;35(12):3288-3295. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000003355. PMID: 31453932.

4. Schoenfeld BJ, Peterson MD, Ogborn D, Contreras B, Sonmez GT. Effects of Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training on Muscle Strength and Hypertrophy in Well-Trained Men. J Strength Cond Res. 2015 Oct;29(10):2954-63. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000958. PMID: 25853914.

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The reason kettlebells are sometimes used as doorstops isn’t because of their lack of efficacy. In fact, the best kettlebells are perhaps some of the most versatile pieces of equipment you can have in your home gym, because they work to build strength, conditioning, heck, I’ve even used one to work knots out of my upper back! If you’re looking to add some variety to your routine, I invite you to leave the land of bent-over double delt flies and mirror assisted single arm curls,  » Read more about: The Best Kettlebell Cardio Workout, And Why You Should Do It   » Read more

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