The Kettlebell Leg Workout for Climbers

The Kettlebell Leg Workout is a bit misleading--kettlebells might be the holy grail for the posterior chain, legs, and cardio. Whereas traditional barbell squats and deadlifts concentrate on strength building, kettlebells add more of a power component with the additional movement of a ballistic object. I split my rock climbing cross-training 50/50 between barbell work and kettlebell work.

The power required for exercises like the swing (power = strength output over time) makes them ideal for improving vertical jump as well as vertical falling, all without actual impact. It's a match in heaven for boulderers and knee rehab patients.

[To give you perspective on weight and progressions in the exercises below, I'm 5'4", 118lb, and female]

Single-Leg Deadlift

Good for glute and hamstring strength, posterior mobility, stability. As opposed to a barbell deadlift, a single-leg deadlift forces fast-twitch stabilizing muscles to work simultaneously with large strength muscles. It's very functional and analogous to muscle activation required during rock climbing. Most rock climbers will benefit from more leg stability.

How

  • Grab the handle of the kettlebell in one arm
  • Pack your shoulder--don't let it round down
  • Plant your opposite foot and hinge at the hip like those wooden bobbing bird toys, keeping your head, shoulders, hips, knee, and toe in a straight line (similar to a Warrior III pose)
  • Keep your hips parallel to the ground. They'll want to rotate so your opposite hip raises toward the sky
  • Concentrate on contracting your glutes and hamstrings on the way up, rather than pulling up with your back
  • If you don't have mobility to touch the kettlebell to the ground, go as far as your hamstrings will allow. Don't sag your shoulder or round your upper back
  • Don't touch your toe to the ground at the top of the motion when you're standing upright--try to hold stability
  • Make it harder: do it on a foam pad or balancing on a bosu ball

Weight: I use 16-18kg/36-40lb.

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 1 teeter-totter and back
  • 1 set = 6-8 reps each side (12-16 total)
  • 3 sets

One-Handed Swing

Good for: like the squat, there's too many benefits to list. The swing adds coordination and plyometrics to the standard barbell squat. By using a ballistic object, gravity adds weight, making a 20kg/44lb kettlebell weigh upwards of 100lb.

The swing is one of the best ACL rehab and vertical jump exercises (basketball, volleyball). It mimics jumping and landing without the associated impact, and it's overloaded more than your bodyweight. You need to take that ballistic missile at its heaviest/fastest point low point, slow it to a stop, and reverse that direction powerfully, within 1 second timeframe.

I prefer the one-handed Russian swing because it works your grip strength more and it's been shown to require 20-50% more core, glute, and lat contraction compared to a two-handed swing.

How

  • There's a lot going on in the swing, and many variations out there. This is my preferred variation. For the basics see this great article.
  • Stand 1ft+ behind a kettlebell and grab it with one hand
  • Squat hinge, pushing your butt back with bent knees, and hike the kettlebell between your legs
  • Explode with your glutes and hamstrings, causing the kettlebell to swing in front of you
  • Concentrate on squeezing your glutes at the top of the swing, when your legs are straight and the kettlebell is weightless
  • On the way down, don't start hinging until the last moment. Your arm will hit your chest or boobs and you'll be forced to hinge
  • Your legs should be maximally engaged for like 1 second--the stopping and exploding motion is compressed to the lowest point of the swing. It's not a slow-stop to slow-push
  • You can switch hands at the weightless apex of the swing
  • Keep your free arm bent to your side, like you're running. Use your core and glutes to prevent rotation, rather than using your free arm as a lever
  • Don't use your arms to get the kettlebell higher. Arms are just there to prevent the kettlebell from becoming a free projectile
  • Don't hike the kettlebell much above 90 degrees at your shoulders. It should go as far as your butt explodes it, not overhead (this is the Russian variation)
  • Don't try to control the swing. Again, it's not an arm exercise. Your arms shouldn't feel tired at all

You need to increase weight to get the right form. I would start in a mirror without a kettlebell to practice the motion, then rather quickly add weight. Too light of a kettlebell and you'll feel it's either too fluid (you're not dancing ballet) or you're actually jumping off the ground.

Is it safe for your back? Like the squat, yes. It's an excellent exercise for your back. Get the right form down with an engaged core and neutral spine, and don't start with high intensity intervals where your form degrades. When I started, my lower back actually hurt in a good way. My trunk was my weak link, it got stronger, and I haven't felt muscle soreness since my first few workouts.

Kick it up: overspeed swings takes the swing a notch further by emphasizing the downward, eccentric motion. You force the kettlebell down, requiring more power to stop and reverse the kettlebell. It's a really gnarly addition that will roast your posterior and increase your vertical jump / falling ability.

The overspeed swing requires 2 hands. You actively force the kettlebell down by literally pushing it down at its apex, when your arms are parallel to the ground. You can also girth hitch a rubber exercise band around the handle and stand on it. Both variations are demonstrated here.

Weight: I use 18-20kg/40-44lb, ~1/3 my body weight. Working up to 1/2 body weight is pretty gnarly! Work up slowly.

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 1 swing
  • 1 set = 6-8 reps per arm (12-16 total reps), switching hands at the apex
  • 3-8 sets depending on workout and circuit

Swing to Squat

Good for absolutely burning your posterior chain and cardio; excellent plyometric workout without the impact. If you think you got a good workout from the swing, you'll never know what hit you with this one.

How

  • Start with a 2-handed swing (see above). Do a couple swings to get momentum
  • On the third swing, explode, but bend your arms to bring the kettlebell straight up close to your body. At the top, you should be pulling the kettlebell straight up to the sky
  • When the kettlebell is at chin level (your legs should just reach straight at the same time), release the kettlebell, letting it continue its upward journey
  • Catch the kettlebell in a squat position, ideally when your legs are bent at 45 degrees. This means that the moment you release the kettlebell and it's free, you start squatting
  • Explode out of the bottom of the squat, use that dynamic upward movement to switch from holding the bottom of the bell to the handle
  • Use the dynamic downward momentum to start a single swing, then do a single catch-squat, then a single swing, etc.
  • You're alternating a hip hinge swing with a squat

Weight: I use about 2-4kg stepped down from my regular swing weight

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 1 swing + 1 squat
  • 1 set = 6-8 reps
  • 3-8 sets depending on workout and circuit

Eccentric Squat to Explode

Good for plyometrics, vertical jump, ACL rehab for falling

How

  • Grab a kettlebell with 2 hands with straight arms
  • Drop slowly into a squat, concentrating the eccentric movement
  • Keep your shoulderblades contracted and chest open; don't round your shoulders
  • At the bottom of the squat, explode as quickly as you can upward

Weight: I use 20-22kg/44-48lbs. Use as high of a weight as you can with good form. The explosive part of the squat may feel slow, but remember you're moving close to 1.5x your body weight. You want to be exploding/jumping as hard as you can without any vertical takeoff--if you're actually leaving the ground, increase weight.

Reps/Sets

  • 1 rep = 1 squat
  • 1 set = 6-8 reps
  • 3-8 sets depending on workout and circuit

Sample Circuits

Oh, the possibilities! I say that with a sinister laugh. Kettlebell leg workouts are incredibly effective and grueling.

The after-climbing circuit. If you're looking to supplement climbing and don't want to devote a whole session to it, I typically do a superset of any of any 2 of the above exercises for 3 sets. Example:

  • 6-8 one-handed kettlebell swings, each side (12-16 reps)
  • 6-8 swing-to-squats
  • Repeat 3 times

The whole kettlebell posterior workout. These exercises are perfect for high-intensity interval training (HIIT). Just make sure you're comfortable with form so that your form doesn't degrade when you get tired. A typical HIIT workout is:

[ [ (1 set + minimal rest) x 8 ] + 5min rest ] x 3. Example:

  • 10-12 swings + about 15sec rest
  • 10-12 swings + about 15sec rest
  • 10-12 swings + about 15sec rest
  • 10-12 swings + about 15sec rest
  • 10-12 swings + about 15sec rest
  • 10-12 swings + about 15sec rest
  • 10-12 swings + about 15sec rest
  • 10-12 swings + about 15sec rest
  • 5min rest
  • Repeat the above 3 times

Variations: Doing just swings gets very boring. I'll alternate every other set of swings, then one set of swing-to-squats, and maybe throw in a set of explosive squats.

I prefer doing HIIT workouts based on my heartrate rather than timing. I wear a heartrate monitor and watch it rather than a stopwatch. I'll do a single set of 10-12 swings, where my heartrate will often jump past 170, then pace until my heartrate drops below 160, and start the next set. That way you're never too tired or working yourself into anaerobic territory.

Limit workouts to 2x/week max. Plyometrics are very neurologically taxing. If you're building up to get stronger, do 2x workouts per week. To maintain, I do 1x workout a week.

If I've convinced you...

If you're especially interested in swings, power, and technique, Simple and Sinister is the book to read. It's only 100 pages and written by Pavel Tsatsouline, father of the kettlebell.


The Caveats

Kettlebells are great and safe, but if you're unsure about your particular ability, especially if you're injured, consult The Internet, a Physical Therapist, Doctor, or someone who has more degrees in medicinal fields than I do (which is none).


More Kettlebell Series


If you're a recovering ACL-er

See my 5-part series on ACL surgery, rehab, and training