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Movement over Muscle. Principles of Kettlebell Training.

The trainer at the gym refused to take me to the free-weights section.

Signing up for a trial training at my potential new gym, I wanted to train with barbells. I had been training with kettlebells for a while and was ready to increase the weights I was lifting.

However, despite my explicit wish to train with free weights, the trainer sat me down on weight machines, telling me I should stay with them for at least four weeks before moving to the free weights section.

And he told me that despite my telling him that I was already strength training at home, which would suggest that I wasn’t a complete noob and knew at the least the basics of how to move my body.

I never went back to that gym.

Throughout my strength training journey, I never got deep into the bodybuilding style of lifting. I only flirted with bodybuilding briefly but became bored quickly with the concept of training primarily for aesthetics.

As a runner, I always trained for performance and what my body can do. Less for how it looked. Therefore, naturally, I have always trained movement patterns instead of muscles.

And you should too.

Why you need to train movements instead of muscle.

Your body is meant to move. Lifting objects off the ground, carrying them around, throwing things, running, and hiking are all movements your ancestors engaged in.

And all of these movements require that your body moves as a unit.

So why do we train muscles?

If we want to develop true functional strength and muscle, we should be training movements. Focusing on training movements allows you to develop a strong and agile body and not only look good on stage.

Plus, if you focus on including all seven fundamental movement patterns described below, you significantly reduce your risk of developing muscle imbalances.

Why reduce and not eliminate?

Well, because you still need to program your workouts intelligently. But I am getting ahead of myself.

First, look at the six fundamental movement patterns you must focus on.

What are the basic movement patterns?

“The best workout to hit your glutes,” “do this to grow your biceps,” and “the one exercise everyone needs to do.”

There is no shortage of exercises and workouts designed to grow a particular muscle group. Some even go so far as to say that specific exercises are a “must-do” for everyone. Quite frankly, this is nonsense.

There is not a single exercise that is an absolute necessity.

However, everyone must include these six foundational human movement patterns in their program.

  1. Squat
  2. Hinge
  3. Push
  4. Pull
  5. Carry 
  6. Anti-rotation

Legendary strength coach Dan John describes the first five fundamental movement patterns in this article. After listening to Andrew Huberman’s podcast with Dr. Andy Galpin, I added anti-rotation. Let’s look at a few example exercises for each category you can do with kettlebells.

Squat: The most common exercises are the goblet squat and the front squat. However, the split squat and pistol squat also fall under this category.

Hinge: Hinging is the fundamental movement pattern for all kettlebell ballistics. The swing, clean, and snatch are all hinging movements. 

Push: The most commonly used kettlebell push is the military press. However, the push-press, jerk, and floor press are other examples. 

Pull: Rows fall under the pulling category. Think renegade rows or bent-over rows. 

Carry: Heavy carries are one of my favorite exercises. The execution is simple. Just pick something up and walk around. Great variations are the farmer’s, waiter’s, and rack walk.

Anti-rotation: Any movement where your body fights rotation falls under this category. Examples are the one-arm swing, the hand-to-hand-swing, renegade rows, or one-sided suitcase deadlifts. 

As you can see, some exercises fall into multiple categories. One movement that checks the box for almost every category is the turkish get-up. I include it in my own training almost daily. 

How to design your kettlebell program to include the basic human movement patterns.

When designing your program, include exercises that cover all basic human movement patterns. You will notice that you don’t need 20 different exercises.

Here’s an example day from my routine where I focus on the grinds.

  1. TGU: I always do them first in my workouts, either with light weights only as a warm-up or progressing to heavy singles if I am focused on building strength in this exercise
  2. Squat: I prefer the double kettlebell front squat, but I will do a few warm-up sets with the goblet squats.
  3. Military Press: I prefer the double military press. 
  4. Gorilla Row: I prefer the unsupported variation, where you don’t return the kettlebell to the ground. 
  5. Farmers Walk: I love farmer’s walks the most, but I occasionally switch it up with rack walks and waiters’ walks.

There’s not much hip hingeing in this workout, although there is some when cleaning the bells for the military press. The turkish get-up also involves a hinging movement.

On other days I focus more on the ballistics, and an example workout would look like this:

  1. TGU: No change here to the grinding-focused days.
  2. Alternating Swings: Depending on my goal for the day, I vary the weight and the number of repetitions.
  3. Double Clean: The kettlebell clean is not only a critical move to master to set up a great press, but it is also a fantastic exercise in its own right. I love doing double cleans, but I also include the single clean occasionally.
  4. Snatch: Again, depending on my goal for the day, I will go light and do more repetitions or go a little heavier and do only a few repetitions.
  5. Farmers Walk: I love to have a scaffold to wrap my workouts in, so farmer’s walks are also the final exercise on ballistic-focused days. 

Of course, you could include all exercises in one workout. How you structure your workouts depends on your particular circumstances and goals.

Make sure to include all of the six fundamental movement patterns when structuring your week, and you’re good to go 😉.

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