8 Kettlebell Exercises For Strong, Powerful Legs
You would be hard pressed to find any gym or workout studio without a few kettlebells lying around. This functional and efficient piece of equipment can turn lower-body exercises into an intense, muscle-building workout. Kettlebell exercises are great for all parts of your body, but they really give your legs a serious challenge, which is key to building strength for runners.
Certified personal trainer and kettlebell instructor, Lynda Lippin, says that kettlebells offer a killer leg workout while still engaging your entire body, particularly the core muscles. Plus, one recent study shows that strengthening these lower-body powerhouse muscles can improve your running performance and protect against injuries.
That’s why strength-focused resistance training should be cycled into your training, says Paul Kostas, a certified personal trainer and Director of Personal Training at Brooklyn Athletic Club. “This helps strengthen the muscles, tendons, and ligaments that surround the joints (ankles, knees, hips) that take a beating from logging kilometres on the road,” he adds.
But it’s not just injury prevention that should motivate you to swing a kettlebell. Power-boosting exercises like these below will increase the strength in your legs in a way that running doesn’t, says Kostas. “Running increases your ability to run more; but when you add in strength training, you’re able to complement the endurance training with resistance, not mimic more of the same stimulus,” he explains. That will give you more oomph when you push off, strengthen your stride, and ultimately, make you a better, faster runner.
Since running is a unilateral sport, Kostas says to focus some of your training on unilateral movements (i.e., lunges and step-ups). This allows you to recruit more of your core muscles, which adds to trunk stability. It also helps you stay upright, rather than collapse your torso forward when fatigue sets in.
How to Choose the Right Kettlebell Weight:
Before you get started, you need to know how to pick the right weight for you. A good starting kettlebell weight for women is between between 8 and 12 kilograms. Men can aim for a range of 15 to 20 kilos. This is just an average, which means, you may start with a lower weight or jump up to the next size. As with any other workout routine, if any of the exercises feel uncomfortable or cause pain, stop doing them, and consult your doctor or an expert.
How to Use This List:
These kettlebell exercises, demonstrated by Lindsey Clayton, certified personal trainer and instructor at Barry’s Bootcamp, target both both the quadriceps (thigh muscles) and hamstrings (muscles along the backs of your thighs). While certain movements will place a greater emphasis on one area of the leg, all of these exercises challenge your lower body.
The first four exercises target your quads and the next four target your hamstrings. One of the many benefits of using kettlebells for legs is that you can create many different circuits with these exercises.
To focus on quads one day and hamstrings the next, Kostas says to choose all four quad-dominant exercises then all four hamstring exercises and perform 10 to 15 reps of each in a circuit and repeat 3 times through. Alternatively, you can do AMRAP (as many reps as possible) for 30 seconds per exercise, then 30 seconds of rest, and cycle through the circuit.
For a total lower body workout, choose any three quad exercises and any three hamstring exercises, arrange them in a circuit alternating one with the other, and complete for reps or time (for example: Goblet Squat, Kettlebell Swing, Alternating Lateral Lunge, Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift. Step-Up, Deadlift). Perform 10 to 15 reps of each exercise in a circuit and repeat 3 times. Or do AMRAP for 30 seconds per exercise, rest for 30 seconds, and cycle through the circuit. This will take exactly 18 minutes.
If you’re in season (training for a race), consider doing a kettlebell leg workout one to two days per week. Otherwise, feel free to do a leg workout two to three times a week.
Kettlebell Exercises for Quads
1. Goblet Squat
Grab the kettlebell by the handles (or the “horns”) and flip it so the bell (or weight) is on top. Hold it at your chest with elbows flared out slightly from body. Stand with feet just wider than hip-width apart, then send hips back to drop into a squat, keeping spine straight and chest lifted. Pretend you are going to sit in a low chair with great posture. Push through heels and stand back up. Repeat.
You can put a twist on the Goblet Squat by elevating your heels. Lauren Lobert, D.P.T., certified strength and conditioning specialist and owner of APEX Physical Therapy, calls these “Pulse Squats With Heels Elevated.” You can use folded towels or the horns of a kettlebell on its side to lift the heels with toes on the ground. With kettlebell at your chest, squat down. Rise back up halfway, then continue to pulse in the mid-range of the squat.
2. Forward Lunge
Take a kettlebell by the horns and flip it so the bell is on top. Hold it at your chest and stand tall with feet at hip width. Take a large step forward with the right foot and lower down until the left knee is almost touching the floor and right knee is at a 90-degree angle. Press through right heel to push back up to the starting position. Repeat with other leg.
3. Alternating Lateral Lunge
Grab a kettlebell by the horns and flip it so the bell is on top. Hold it at chest level and stand with legs parallel, feet at hip width. With right leg, take a wide step to the right, sending hips back and bending right knee but keeping the left leg straight. Push off the right leg to come back to the starting position. Repeat with left leg, then continue to alternate.
Hold a kettlebell with right hand like a suitcase. Stand to the left of a stair, step, or box (kettlebell should be closest to the step). Step up with right leg—you want to focus on pushing yourself up with the right leg, not launching yourself up with left foot. As you get onto the step, march your left leg up toward your chest. Slowly and in a controlled fashion, lower yourself back to the ground. Complete reps, then repeat on other side.
Kettlebell Exercises for Hamstrings
1. Single-Leg Romanian Deadlift
Start standing with kettlebell in left hand. Shift weight to right leg, and with a soft bend in right knee, tip forward by hinging at the hips as the kettlebell falls toward the ground. Keep your back straight as left leg lifts straight back behind you. Only lower until you feel a slight pull in your right hamstrings; you don’t have to lower weight to ground. Stand back up, squeezing your glutes. “If you want to do heavier weight, or you’re having problems with balance, hold onto something with your other hand,” recommends Lobert. Repeat on other leg.
2. Kettlebell Swing
Stand tall with feet slightly wider than hips, kettlebell a few inches in front of feet. Keeping a straight spine, bend knees and send hips back to lower and grab the kettlebell horns with both hands. Pull shoulders back and lift chest. Bend knees and hips further to swing kettlebell back between your legs (like hiking a football), then thrust hips forward to stand tall, swinging the kettlebell up in front of chest, stopping at shoulder height as you squeeze glutes. “This is a fast movement, so stay in control,” says Lippon. Follow the kettlebell with your gaze, and allow it to float back between your legs to repeat. You can also perform this exercise with one arm.
3. Weighted Bridge
Lie faceup with knees bent and feet hip-width apart and on the floor. Make sure your spine is long, with a heavy tailbone. “Do not push your lower back down and tuck your tail,” says Lippin. Holding kettlebell lightly on top of your pelvis, press through heels to lift hips straight up. Make sure to keep spine straight and abs pulled in. You should feel your butt and the back of your legs engage. Lower back to the starting position and repeat.
Stand tall with feet slightly wider than hips. Keeping a straight spine, bend knees slightly and send hips back to pick up kettlebell with both hands by the handle. Pull shoulders back and lift chest, and keep weight towards heels. Rise back up and repeat.
All images: Julia Hembree Smith