A kettlebell may just look like a cannonball with a handle on it, true. But this piece can be deceptively useful to all athletes, including runners. Kettlebell exercises can build strength, encourage core stability, improve your run form, and challenge your range of motion all with one tool.
These are all qualities that every runner can benefit from, from the first time 5k racer to an ultramarathoner.
Just like when working with dumbbells or a barbell, a kettlebell can be used to build strength. Common exercises like lunges, deadlifts, bent rows, and shoulder presses can all use a kettlebell to add weight to the movement, getting progressively heavier as you develop strength.
Building strength can only help your running, especially when you’ve been training for a while and need a new stimulus.
The glutes are the big powerhouse of running, and many of the most common kettlebell exercises either directly work the glutes, or at the very least require them to remain engaged throughout the movement.
For example, the kettlebell swing finishes each repetition with the weight extended in front of you. Your hips are pushed forward and your glutes are squeezed for that second before the weight falls back for the next set up.
A Romanian deadlift with the kettlebell not only challenges your balance but also recruits your glutes. First to pull you through the movement and then propel you back to standing. You should definitely feel them firing!
The dynamic nature of certain movements like the swing are also great for developing power. When you have to suddenly jump up on a curb or over a rock, you use power to propel yourself. A swing requires you to propel the kettlebell’s weight upward (using those glutes!).
This translates to the same power needed for those occasional jumps on the run.
Kettlebell exercises offer awesome opportunities to work on core engagement and stability. Whether it’s held in the middle of the body in what’s called a “goblet hold”, or on one side of the body in a “rack position,” having to hold the weight encourages engagement in your core. That way you aren’t tipping forward or leaning to one side.
Who doesn’t want that extra bit of core work during their workout?
As runners, we spend a lot of time on one foot. In fact, running is a unilateral movement, meaning one side at a time. When fatigue sets in during a run, runners will sometimes start slumping or rotating from side to side. This can lead to a whole host of problems and injuries.
To develop the core stability all runners need, kettlebell exercises like the swing, lunge, single arm shoulder press, or goblet squat are all excellent options. Each exercise mentioned demands that you keep your core engaged and stable through the movement to maintain your balance and upright position.
Let your core relax while holding a kettlebell in the goblet hold, and you’ll quickly realize your mistake. Try the same check-in of turning your core “off and on” during a run and you’ll see the similarity.
We need to be mindful of our posture not only when out on the road and trail, but also in our day to day activities. Whether working at a desk, carrying around a backpack, or training in the gym, your posture matters. Hunching over at work all day and then going to the gym to hunch over your phone between reps won’t help you at all.
Instead, take the time to focus on standing tall with your weight evenly distributed on both feet. This stance will be the same used for movements like a kettlebell squat or deadlift.
Imagine yourself holding a kettlebell in both hands at chest height, right in front of your body. For example, at the top of the squat we just mentioned. Or at the start of the overhead press. Are your shoulders slouched forward and your back rounded?
No way! If they were, you’d tip forward and fall on your face.
Your shoulder blades are engaged and pulled back and down. The lats are engaged to support the weight. These two cues – shoulders back and down, lats engaged – are the same ones you want to employ while running. By doing so, you’re encouraging a solid arm swing that moves straight forward and back. This prevents your torso from over-rotating and helps propel you forward.
When running, we repeat the same stride over and over for miles (or hours!) at a time. This can result in short, tight hip flexors. Over time, this can shorten your stride, reduce your power output, and lead to more of a shuffling movement than a strong stride.
To counteract this, using kettlebells in exercises to engage the glutes and extend the hip flexors can significantly improve your running form. Think of your hips in the finishing position of kettlebell deadlift. Your hips pushed forward, glutes squeezed.
That hip forward position is the same one that should be seen at the end of every single running stride, right before your leg snaps back to take the next step.
Dynamic movements like the kettlebell swing can do wonders to challenge our range of motion under load. Rather than passively stretching the lats and shoulders, use the weight of the kettlebell at the top of the swing to create a little more range with each repetition.
As you bring the weight overhead at the top of the swing, you get another chance to engage your lats while also bringing your shoulders into rotation with your arms up by your ears. Talk about a lot going on!
If your shoulders or pecs are tight and don’t allow your arms to travel up as far as you’d expect, then you know you’ve got some work to do on your upper body mobility.
As mentioned in the previous section, your hips also get a great dose of extension in many of our favorite kettlebell movements like the lunge, swing, and deadlift. Every time you lunge forward, your rear leg gets to hit end range of motion. Moving through this position opens your hip up further.
Bonus – holding a kettlebell in the goblet hold (both hands in front of your chest) during the lunge will get your core firing to keep you upright and stable.
Each time you hinge forward in a kettlebell swing, your hamstrings get a stretch through their full range of motion as well. As you work through the repetitions of a workout featuring swings, don’t be surprised to feel yourself able to swing back just a bit farther as your hamstrings loosen up and create more space.
Just don’t forget to roll out those hamstrings at the end of your workout to avoid some major soreness!
Being able to use a single piece of equipment for a workout that will challenge your whole body is pretty handy. You can use the same kettlebell for a circuit of the swing, a lunge, a squat, and maybe even a push press.
Not a bad deal, right? Of course, you can change up the weights throughout the workout if you have multiple kettlebells available to you. If you don’t, a single one will do the trick!
Many of the most popular kettlebell exercises are also compound movements, meaning they work multiple muscles at once. For example, a kettlebell deadlift recruits your hamstrings, glutes, and lats throughout the movement. This way you can avoid doing separate, isolated exercises for each muscle group.
Not only does it save you time, but it also teaches your body to move functionally. Running isn’t done one muscle at a time. It’s a whole system of cooperating movements – so why not train that way?
Now it’s time to put all this information to use in one of our favorite kettlebell workouts. All three movements used – the swing, the push press, and the lunge- have been mentioned above and how they benefit your running. Time to put your new knowledge to use!
Bonus! This is a follow-along workout so all you have to do is grab your kettlebell, push play, and get to work!
Warm up with either a few minutes of running or our favorite dynamic warm up.
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