Neurology, neuroplasticity, neuro-centric movement is really starting to take off and become trendy. But also, it may be that any term with the prefix “neuro” in it can be a bit scary or off-putting for you, which I can respect and appreciate. My hope and intention of this whole kettle bell series is that, coming to Stroller Warriors as a runner-- you’re starting to shift from thinking about training as a chore, accessory, or checklist item-- to a much broader and inclusive form of neural expansion. That expansion happens with the kettlebell, which is just a tool- a tool for play. In its essence and innocence, there’s no wrong or right way to play! Consider neural expansion, or “neuroplasticity,” as synonymous to play. That’s not so scary after-all.
Let’s check out some fun ways to play with leg-driven exercises with our kettlebell. Remember we have the squat and deadlift. We can think of squatting as anything where we’re holding a load ON the upper body (with the exception of the good morning). You may have heard of front squats, back squats, goblet squats, overhead squats, split squats, and even compass lunges (where you’re stepping out at various angles as if you’re in the center of a compass). All of these variations can be done as uni-lateral (with one weight on one side) and bi-lateral (a weight in each hand). This is where the element of play can make kettlebell training anything you make it!
The other leg-centric skill/drill is deadlifting. I love deadlifting! It’s so elemental to being human: lift a dead weight from the ground. The definition is in the name. I love when things are as simple as that! Deadlifting comes in as many sorts and forms as squatting. (There’s that theme of play I keep coming back to!) I think you can be more gracious with your deadlifting application right away than most other kettlebell exercises because I know you’re already doing them IRL (in real life) as a parent and caregiver! Especially when it comes to adding in rotations. Rotations? In a loaded workout? Absolutely! When we think of lifting, the first images that come to mind are barbell squats, bices curls, sit-ups…these moves are done in the front-to-back (frontal) plane. But, when you are creating space in the joints as a precursor to your training, rotations are safe, effective, doable, and add a new element of variety!
How many times have you picked up a limp toddler from the floor or out of their car seat, rotated, and placed them ever so carefully into a stroller or carried them to bed? That’s a hybrid move! You’re squatting, lunging, rotating, AND deadlifting! You’re already doing these things. Intentionally playing around with them in your kettlebell sessions gives your nervous system more successful reps under controlled conditions. When they surface unexpectedly outside of your workout, your brain goes: “oh, this is familiar. I have the wiring for this. I got you.” And you just do it. Because you’ve practiced it, you’ve felt good doing it, you can own it! No injury. No problem. No worries.
If you’ve done barbell or dumbbell squats and deadlifts, you might find kettlebells to be more fun simply through the design of the bell. Its liveliness compared to the rigidity of the aforementioned comes from the center of gravity being in the center of the bell, as opposed to displaced on either side like in the barbell and dumbbell. Simply put, you have more options with the kettlebell. Personally, in the long run, I’ve felt there’s more control in using a kettlebell for more traditional lifts.
We can’t leave the article without mapping a place to start squatting your kettlebell. We’ll put them together with deadlifts in a quick workout after we’ve looked at the basic “how-tos,” in a follow-up piece.
Here’s your template for the front squat:
For the front squat, you have to get the bell onto the front of your body, up into the rack. If you review the clean and press piece in this series, or have already been putting it into practice, then you know how to clean the bell up into the rack. If not, no problem! We can use two hands to help cheat-curl the bell up into the rack position. The rack is just the term for holding your bell by the handle, with the ball on the outside of your forearm. That forearm is directly in front of your biceps on the same side. Hold the weight low in the rack, let your traps stretch and sink your shoulder down. Think of supporting the load it with your core/torso. If you try to muscle the bell into place and hang on only using your hand and arm, you’ll fatigue quickly. We want to be able to hold a relatively heavy load, since your legs are really very strong. We don’t want to over-burden the low back, neck, and arm.
I mentioned using two hands to cheat-curl the bell into the rack. Here’s how to do that:
- Start with your bell on the ground (away from living things and pricey flooring).
- Hinge at the hips like you would for your swing (hips go BACK FIRST).
- Then slightly bend at your knees so you can reach your hands to the weight.
- Let’s use the right hand to rack to the right side.
- Hook grip over the top of your handle with your right hand.
- Use your left hand to come behind and to the back side of the handle
(It should look like you’re holding your own hand, with the right hand on the bell and your left hand over the top of your right hand).
- Push your heels into the ground and start pulling the bell upward, like you’re zipping up a really long coat, meaning the bell stays close and snug to your body without hitting it.
- The left hand helps to pull AND keep the load close, and then direct the bell into the ‘V’ of your forearm and biceps.
- NO BENT WRISTS-- The forearm is an extension of the wrist: “There are no wrists in kettlebells.”
There you have it. The bell is racked and we’re ready to squat!
I will tell you right now, that with the load on the front of your body, you will feel it trying to pull you forward and down. Fight it with your whole core: brace your abs, stay tall through your back, pull up through your pelvic floor.
Breathing is also paramount in squatting as well as deadlifting. You must sniff in to create intra-abdominal pressure from the INSIDE of your core as well. This makes for a strong back, core, and squat. It’s like giving yourself your own personal weight belt to protect your spine! That’s an important and valuable skill. And you can learn it with practicing front squats.
- We have the bell racked.
- We have the core braced, to include the breath.
- Now let’s squat!
Don’t collapse like an accordion as you squat! Keep a long spine. Keep your head tall. Your eyes can be fixed straight, or slightly down as you squat down. Eye reflexes work like that: if you look down, your body wants to reflexively go down by firing flexor muscles. Just be careful not to also flex your head neck and spine. Eye tracking is a nuance that can enhance your lifting- IF you can tolerate it. If it’s too confusing, look on the floor in front & center of you-- about as tall as you are. That’s a good rule of thumb for stability.
I like to think about bone rhythms as I squat. Sounds fancy. It’s just taking into consideration what’s happening at your joints, to move your bones. Muscles are attached to bones. So shifting focus from muscle to bones or joints might help you feel as comfortable with squatting as it did me. Let’s just look at the hip joint for now.
When you squat down, the hip, being a ball in socket joint, will roll back and down. Of course, in the beginning of your squat training journey, we want to focus on keeping your knees behind your toes. I like to think that my shins stay vertical, as if they are in snow-skiing boots with a very slight shift forward of the shins. You really must have the ankle mobility, and core strength to go deep into a front squat. You can play with depths and load as you progress. But I recommend that you stop your front squat just before your thighs are parallel to the floor. “Why not parallel?” you may be thinking. That’s a common axiom. But the pressure on the knee in a beginner is best kept slightly above, or slightly below parallel. As you get stronger, more mobile, and comfortable in front squatting a kettlebell, you can play with depths.
Once you’re in the bottom of your squat, (some refer to it as “the hole”), we reverse to standing. Simple enough because squatting is primitive. If you need to breathe here, take another quick sniff in to keep the pressure in your core. And, just as the hip rolls down and back as you descend into the hole, it will roll up and forward as you stand. Bone rhythms can really help simplify your lifting! That’s exactly why I like them. There are a lot of muscle moving and things happening! But thinking of just one spot, doing one thing, helps your brain focus.
If you’re having trouble staying upright in your front squat, practice face-the-wall squats without a weight. They are as simple as they sound:
Face a wall
- Step in as close as you feel comfortable, maybe two feet from it in the beginning.
- Keep both of your feet fully on the floor
- Hinge back at your hips to initiate the move
- Keep your chest high, your head up, and your eyes forward
- Descend as low as you feel you safely can without falling backward
- Edge yourself in closer or out farther, depending on what you feel you need
- The goal is to get to just above parallel with your thighs, like you would for your loaded front squat away from the wall
If you’re not used to squatting technically correct, your low back is going to light up trying to keep you stable and upright facing the wall. That’s a good thing! That’s exactly what should be happening. Maybe front squats aren’t even in your arsenal yet, and face the wall squats are your newest challenge. That’s awesome! I would rather see you comfortable working in a butt-to-heels, toes-to-wall squat, than any kind of loaded front squat. There’s more value to the mobility and strength in this kind of intentional squatting progression. I commend you for checking your ego and letting the learning happen instead. It will take you farther, longer.
If face-the-wall squats challenged you, then that’s your front squat for now! Work them until you own them! And then cycle back to them throughout your lifelong fitness journey! You can replace “front squat” with “face-the-wall squat” anywhere you see it in programming!
Here’s something to get you started right now with some things we’ve already learned from earlier in the series. We’ll come back to deadlifts and another workout with them, in the next kettlebells for Stroller Warriors article!
- 5 Face-the-wall squats (No additional weight. Body weight only)
- 5 two-hand swings
-S hake out your legs, take a breath
**Repeat for four sets**
- 5 front squats with the bell racked on the Right side
- 5 front squats with the bell racked on the Left side
- 10 two hand swings
- 5 clean and presses with the bell on the right side
- 5 clean and presses with the bell on the left side
- 10 two-hand swings
**Repeat for three sets** If possible, use a 15lb kettlebell
Keep your 15lb bell for this kettlebell flow, where you’ll be moving from one drill to the next without resting your bell
- Start on your non-dominant side, I’ll use the left side to start for simplicity sake.
- Swing left, clean left, press left, reverse get-up, get-up, snatch, lower the bell to the front rack, front squat, dump the bell to a swing hike, switch hands at the top of that swing.
- Repeat on the right: swing, clean, press, reverse get-up, get-up, snatch, lower to the rack, front squat, dump the bell
- Rest or swing switch directly back over to the left side.
**Shoot for a total of six times running through the chain of drills, going back and forth or side-to side the entire set. Meaning, not three runs on the left THEN three runs on the right. The swing to switch will help keep you keep count**
Be sure to stretch your hip flexors and shoulders with your favorite stretching drills!
See you next time for deadlifts! Have fun playing!
Sara C. has been contributing her fitness and kettlebell knowledge to the Stroller Warriors community! Thank you!
Need a refresher? Please take a moment to read Sara's previous pieces about Kettlebells: