Subbing in the Kettlebell


It’s no secret that working out with kettlebells is an effective way to burn calories, improve strength, and add some fun variety to workouts. If you don’t already know why you should incorporate kettlebells into your training, click here to read my first article about this heavy hunk of iron.

Aside from the many kettlebell-specific exercises, like swings and snatches, there are a few traditional strength exercises that I actually prefer to use a kettlebell for.

1. Deadlifts

The kettlebell is hands-down one of the best tools for teaching this compound move. For one, it’s less intimidating than a barbell. Even an extremely heavy kettlebell can appear like a small piece of gym equipment when you compare it to a barbell in a squat rack. This can make a new exerciser more comfortable with even trying such a challenging (and in their minds) risky exercise.

Additionally, because the kettlebell is so compact, you can deadlift with the weight in-between your feet directly under your body. This changes the position of load relative to your center of gravity and can help protect the low back during deadlifts since the weight isn’t out in front. It can also help groove the proper form of sending the hips back since you’ll have to reach in between the heels just to get to the kettlebell.

2. Overhead Press

Personally, I only use the kettlebell for single-arm overhead pressing, but that's only because I find most people do better pressing single-arm (however, it could be used for bilateral as well). When holding the weight for a press, the bell of the kettlebell will rest on the outside of the wrist. This can be uncomfortable on the wrist if the kettlebell isn't positioned correctly, which is great for teaching proper mechanics with immediate feedback.

There are also additional benefits to using the kettlebell for overhead pressing. Rather than a dumbbell press where the weight is in the center of your hand, the weight is actually outside of the hand. So throughout the press, it requires more shoulder stability to keep the arm close to the body in the ideal position. Not only do you have to work on shoulder stability, which is vital to keep any exerciser healthy as they do more challenging workouts, but you also don’t need as much weight to make this movement challenging.

A lot of people can’t handle excessive loads overhead because of shoulder range of motion or thoracic spine restrictions, but still want to work on shoulder strength – this is an effective exercise to do just that.

To really challenge shoulder stability, try this variation.

It should be noted that some clients will not like the feeling of the kettlebell on their wrist. In that case, just stick to dumbbells.

3. Bent-Over Rows

As dumbbells get heavier, they also get bigger. Duh. But for some exercises, like a bent-over row, I find that the large dumbbells don’t allow me to get as much range of motion during the row. This is why I like using a kettlebell instead. The bulky part of the weight is much lower than a dumbbell, allowing you to get full range of motion without bruising my ribs.

Having the kettlebell’s center of mass outside of the hand definitely makes the row more challenging on the grip. This can be a good thing, since improving grip strength is an important aspect of strength and conditioning (it can also be a not so great thing since the forearm and grip will become the limiting factor so program appropriately).

Disclaimer: I only prefer the kettlebell for Single-arm bench-supported bent-over rows. I find using them for the two-arm standing bent-over row can be unnecessarily taxing on the lower back.

4. Carries

Kettlebells are my preferred tool for carries for the same reason as the rows and overhead press. Often when holding a heavy dumbbell at my sides, the bulkiness of the weight interferes with my stride. Additionally, using a kettlebell for an overhead carry adds extra instability at the shoulder that creates a better training effect.

Not only can they perfectly sub in for dumbbells, there are certain types of carries that can only be done with kettlebells. For example, the racked and bottoms-up carries (see video below) are unique in their stress on the muscles attached to the shoulder blade and a great addition to any program.

As you can see, the kettlebell isn't just a glorified dumbbell, but rather a valuable training tool that can add additional benefit to many common exercises. However, when using kettlebells effectively, the devil is in the details.

If you want to reap all the benefits of kettlebell training, then you need to learn the basics of coaching and cueing this world-class tool so you don't invite injury or leave valuable results on the table. If you're ready to master the basics of the bell, then you'll want to sign up for our Axiom Kettlebell Certification right away. Click here to learn more and register today.

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