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6 Ways to Improve Cardiovascular Fitness with Kettlebells

Kettlebells are one of the most versatile exercise tools out there. If we’re talking bang for your buck, kettlebell training is at the top of the list. With one portable and relatively inexpensive tool, you can increase strength, coordination, stability, balance, power, speed, mobility, and cardiovascular fitness.

Now let’s hone in on that last component, which is always on everyone’s mind: cardio! Whether you love it or hate it, cardiovascular exercise is a crucial component of any fitness regimen. If you can’t walk up the stairs or run down the street without getting out of breath, can you really consider yourself “fit”? The beauty of using a kettlebell to get your cardio in is that lifting kettlebells is low-impact, can be done anywhere, and there is absolutely no running involved.

Let’s explore 6 different ways you can utilize kettlebells to get your blood pumping and strengthen that heart muscle.

  1. Marathon and half marathon sets

Since they have a handle and can sit in the rack position, kettlebells are perfect for long duration sets, which is what sets them apart from most weighted implements. With a light to medium kettlebell, 30 minute (half marathon) to 60 minute (marathon) sets can be completed, without setting the kettlebell down but taking as many hand switches as needed. This type of long duration cardio can be compared to going on a long run, and can build a great base level of cardiovascular fitness.

A dynamic kettlebell exercise should be used for the half marathon or marathon sets that is well-practiced and not at risk of completely fatiguing the lifter. Single arm lifts are going to be safest and most effective for long sets. Some of the best exercises for long duration are the swing, clean & jerk, clean & press, clean to squat, clean to squat to press, and half snatch.

  1. Flows

One of the most fun ways to utilize a kettlebell is in a “flow” format, where the lifter strings together multiple movements that transition smoothly from one to the next. Flows can range from low intensity to high intensity, depending on the kettlebell weight, repetition range, and speed. For low intensity cardio, use a light bell and flow continuously for 10-20 minutes without setting the bell down. For high intensity cardio, increase the weight and move explosively for 1-2 minute sets with rest in between. The best part about flowing with a kettlebell is being as creative as you like with the movements!

Sample low intensity flow workout:

Repeat the series Swing-Clean-Squat-Press-Snatch-Windmill for 1 minute on each side x 5-8 sets without setting the kettlebell down (10-16 minutes total). Use one lightweight kettlebell.

Sample high intensity flow workout:
Complete one repetition of the series Swing-Clean-Squat-Press-Snatch with a pair of medium to heavy kettlebells. Rest 20-30 seconds and repeat for 5-10 rounds.

  1. Sprint sets

While building an aerobic base of cardiovascular fitness is important, if you want to build your anaerobic capacity, you will need to sprint! Kettlebells can be a great tool for explosive power. Utilize one simple movement for sprint sets, so the focus can be on moving as quickly as possible. Some of the best kettlebell power movements are the two arm swing, single arm swing, clean & press (single or double), and snatch (single or double). Go for bursts of all out effort for 20-30 seconds, then take a full recovery of 1-2 minutes between sets. As you adapt to the work, you can increase the number of rounds you complete.

Sample sprint workout:

Complete a 20 second sprint of two arm swings, rest 1 minute, then repeat for 5-10 rounds.

4. Interval training

While similar to the sprint interval training, this version of interval training will build strength endurance in addition to anaerobic capacity. Utilize an equal work to rest ratio of 1-2 minutes x 4-10 sets. The intensity should be about 85-90% of maximal heart rate. Almost any kettlebell exercise can be utilized here, as long as the intensity is high enough. This type of interval training is very common when preparing for kettlebell competitions, and works especially well when using the clean & jerk. As you adapt to the work, you can increase the number of rounds you complete.

Sample interval workout:

Complete 1 minute on, 1 minute off x 6 sets of clean & jerk (or clean & press). The number of repetitions you complete per minute should remain fairly constant until the last 2 sets, which is when you will increase pace by 1-2 repetitions. Use one kettlebell for the beginner version of this workout; two kettlebells for the advanced version.

  1. Competition length set

The competition length kettlebell set is high intensity but relatively short duration; it can be compared to running a mile for time. The set length can be anywhere from 5 to 10 minutes long, with the goal being to maximize the number of repetitions. The sets lend themselves better to lifts with “rest positions” and endurance technique strategies, especially as you go past 5 minutes. Besides building an amazing level of cardiovascular conditioning, this type of training is builds an incredibly tough mental state. Most people go into a longer set like this thinking there is no way they can complete the time, and end up surprising themselves by proving they were able to do something they didn’t think they could do. You can imagine how that might transfer over to anything else you do in life, whether physical or mental!

Sample competition workout:
Set a clock for 5 minutes and complete as many Clean & Jerk repetitions as you can. Alternatively, set a clock for 8 minutes and complete as many Snatch repetitions as you can (with only ONE hand switch at 4 minutes).

  1. Circuit training:

Ever asked someone if what they do for cardio and they responded with “I just lift weights faster” (a la Jen Sinkler)? Well if not, now you have a clever way to respond when you use this type of aerobic weight training to build up your cardiovascular fitness. Set up 5-10 stations with various kettlebell weight training exercises (it could be anything!). Use a light to medium weight that you can move quickly with and maintain good form for the entire time interval, which could be 30 seconds to 1 minute long. Switch immediately to the next station and continue for 3-5 rounds.

Sample circuit training:
Move for 30 seconds at each of the following stations, with minimal rest between exercises: Goblet squat, Swing, Farmer carry, Turkish get up, Clean & press (30 seconds PER SIDE). Complete 3-5 rounds (option to rest 1-2 minutes between rounds).


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