by Lauren Brooks, RKC
Come on ladies! Are you sick of watching men do pull-ups and you can’t even do one? I know I was! As a fitness coach I stay current with the latest developments. I am always looking for workouts to stay in shape that are not only effective, but also fun. Since most of my clients are more concerned with having a lean physique than with developing real strength, it’s been a challenge to convince them that training for strength is an excellent way to become leaner.
Many women have the illusion that if they even glance at free weights, they will end up looking like Arnold’s long lost twin sister. As a result, women flock to aerobics classes and exercise machines every year with the hope of discovering the holy grail of fat loss. I do not have to tell you what the end result is. Think I am being too harsh? Go to an aerobics class today and take a mental note of the class. Now go back in a month and take a look at the results. See what I mean? Results that are noticeable do not come from just cardiovascular exercise. Make no mistake about it, the best way to get a lean, sexy, and a well defined physique is with heavy weights and low reps. Why? Read the rest of the article to find out. I am also going to go over what I believe is the most effective form of weight training for women and what it did for me. By the time you get to the end of this article, you will be over the irrational fear that lifting heavy weights makes women bulky. You will have a plan of action to develop a body that is super strong and conditioned — the body you have always wanted. Lets get started!
Many woman who insist on training with light or medium weights and doing many reps end up building Sarcosplasmic Hypertrophy, common in body building, is bloated, soft and useless muscle. Sarcoplasmic Hypertrophy involves the growth of the sarcoplasm and non contractile proteins that do not directly contribute to muscular force production. Filament area density decreases while cross-sectional area increases, without a significant increase in strength. Proper strength training leads to gains in Myofibrillar Hypertrophy which is referred to as strong and dense muscle. This type of hypertrophy occurs due to an increase in myosin-actin filaments. Contractile proteins are synthesized and filament density increases (Zatsiorsky 1995). Using lower reps and heavy weights is the best way to achieve the lean physique. Moreover, you will actually have strength that works; strength that will let you achieve that pull up you’ve always wanted. And don’t worry, most women do not have the testosterone levels to achieve the big bulky muscles. Men have 10 to 15 times the amount of testosterone women posses. Men still have to work very hard to put on muscle. In order to build big bulky muscles you have to have the right amount of testosterone levels, an increased caloric intake, and a regimen that includes lots of volume. Lots of volume can mean 5-10 sets per exercise, which then leads to increased volume of sarcoplasmic fluid inside the cell and between the cells.
So what is the best way to develop real strength? I am firmly convinced it is kettlebell training. When I discovered kettlebells, I was hooked immediately and stopped training with dumbbells and machines. After training with only kettlebells 2-3 times a week for 10 weeks, I lost about 4-5% of my body fat. I am 5’3 and was 118 pounds with 18% body fat. Now I’m 112 lb, much stronger and more conditioned and have a body fat of 13%. I look better now than I did in college. I was amazed and so were my clients and other trainers; they begged me to teach them what I was doing.
The first kettlebell exercise I start my clients with is the swing. The swing is the foundation of Russian Kettlebell training. It teaches (a) the hip thrust that is powerful and explosive, (b) compressed breathing, and (c) how to generate force quickly. This exercise gives you the skills necessary to excel in all Kettlebell lifts. Spend a lot of time perfecting your swings. Here is how to get started:
Most woman start with an 8kg weight and men with a 16kg kettlebell. Some woman can start with a 12kg.
1. Take a natural squat stance making sure your knees are aligned with your ankles.
- Keep your head up and looking straight forward
- Keep a straight back- even when bending forward from hips
- Sit back rather than dip down
2. Keep weight on your heels during swings until the top of the movement; you may shift your weight on your entire foot if that feels more comfortable.
- Maintain your balance at all times.
- At the bottom position you should feel your hamstrings stretch.
3. Explode the hips while keeping your arms straight and loose. The power comes from your legs not your arms. (Do not try and muscle the swing). Keep your shoulders down.
4. Lock out the hips and knees at the top position. This is where you develop the power to swing the kettlebell.
- Squeeze the glutes tight every time you thrust
- Brace your abs to protect your spine.
5. Your breathing should be a power inhale to your abdomen in through the nose at the bottom of the swing. As you snap your hips you let out a little fast breath bracing your spine (like you would with power punches)
Start out by doing 3-5 sets of 15 swings with a lighter bell. When you can do this without overtaxing yourself, move on to a heavier kettlebell. If you’re seeking to get your heart rate up, this is for you. If you are doing the swings correctly your glutes will be sore the next day.
There are many variations with swings you can do once you get it down. There are two-handed swings, alternating swings, double swing (if you have two kettlebells; take a wider stance for this or say bye-bye to knee caps), walking swings, high swings, and so much more. Here are four other exercises you can add to your workout once you feel ready to move on.
The Turkish get-up is an excellent exercise for shoulder stability, flexibility, and resilience. This is a very slow drill. Keep in mind to breathe shallowly and keep your abs pressurized through out the set.
1. Lie on your back and press the kettlebell (KB) in the air
- Elbow must be locked through the duration of the set
- Keep the handle at the base of the palm and your wrist tight
2. Roll to your side and sit up keeping your eyes on the bell
3. Use your free elbow to prop yourself up and get on one knee
4. Carefully stand up
5. Slowly reverse the movement and return to the floor (keeping your eye on the KB at all times)
The clean is not only an exercise but a safe means to get the KBs to your shoulders for other drills.
Get in the same stance and pick the KB off the floor as you would for a swing.
1. Keeping your arm loose: the KB is lifted with your hip thrust.
2. Keep your elbow in and quickly flip your elbow under when the bell has almost reached your shoulder. Do not pull with your arm or try and cheat curl it up to your shoulder! The power is from your hip thrust.
3. Right before the KB has landed on your forearm, quickly dipping your knees and getting under it will take away the impact.
4. When returning the KB to the bottom position, keep your arm very loose. Swing it back between your legs and repeat.
The front squat is an outstanding leg strength, back, abs, and flexibility developer. This is by far the most practical of all squatting movements. It can be done with one or two KBs.
1. Clean the kettlebell and let it rest in the crook of your elbow.
Hint: Never release all the air in your abdominal cavity at one time.
Front squat, 2 kettlebells
Front squat, 1 kettlebell
The one-legged deadlift is a great exercise that strengthens the hamstrings, glutes, and is important for both athletic power and back safety. It will teach you the very valuable skill of overall tension and staying tight.
1. Have two KB on the ground side by side with enough room for your foot to fit between them.
2. Grip the ground with your toes and keep the muscles around your ankle and on the bottom of your foot tight.
3. Hinge over at your hips with a semi-squat and grab the KB’s. (Eyes are looking straight).
4. Tense the glute of the loaded leg and brace the abs for that imaginary punch.
5. Staying very tight throughout the body, push straight down with your leg and squeeze the bells off the ground.
6. Try to maintain a straight spine. Do not attempt to recover lost balance by fidgeting; this could injure your knee.
Here is a sample program to get you started with the five exercises you just learned. Just to keep it simple for beginners, I would recommend 1 minute rests between each set. If you become very fatigue to where you lose your form, I advise you to stop immediately or go down to a lighter weight. If you are looking for higher intensity do one set of each exercise without stopping, then take a 1-2 minute break after all are completed and repeat 3-5 times.
One Arm Clean 3×6 on each arm
Front Squat 3×8
Two Arm Swing 3×20
Turkish-Get Up 2×3 per side
One-Legged Dead Lifts 3×5 per leg
One Arm Swing 2×15 on each arm
Double Clean 2×5
Double Front Squat 2×5
Turkish-Get Up 2×3 per side
Alternating Swings 3×15 per arm
So there you have it. Real strength and power exercises with weights for women and men that will get you that lean physique and real strength. Don’t be surprised if your athletic performance improves after 4 weeks of adding this type of training in to your life. There are endless possibilities of fun and extremely difficult things you can do with kettlebells. Last important thing is to always play it safe! While its good to push your body to the limits, it’s imperative to know when you are over exerting yourself. If you have any questions feel free to contact me at Lauren@socaltrainer.com.
Zatsiorsky,V. (1995) Science and Practice of Strength Training. Human Kinetics.
Lauren Brooks is a fitness and strength trainer in San Diego, CA. Lauren earned her B.S. in Kinesiology with an Emphasis in Fitness, Nutrition, and Health from San Diego State University. Lauren Brooks is Certified by American Council on Exercise and Russian Kettlebell Challenge. She is available for online nutrition and program designs as well as private and group sessions. You can contact her at Lauren@socaltrainer.com or go to www.SoCaltrainer.com
Also check out Brooks’ new DVD, The Ultimate Body Sculpt and Conditioning with Kettlebells.
I’ve only had this DVD a while and already I’m recommending it to just about everyone who wants to get started with kettlebells, and/or to women who are looking for a quick, efficient workout that builds real-world strength and fitness. Brooks offers a comprehensive introduction to some basic kettlebell movements along with some bodyweight exercises such as pushups, mountain climbers and squat thrusts (aka burpees).
The DVD offers clear instruction with safety tips that cover the basics of good form. Brooks provides helpful verbal cues on exercises, e.g. when doing the clean, the thumb points behind you. She describes what each exercise does, and shows variations for beginners, such as squatting to a bench instead of full depth. She gives starting weights are given for both women and men; and recommends a fairly respectable starting amount for both total newbies and stronger women. There are two workouts plus a joint mobility section. For the quick workout, there is a timer graphic that effectively demonstrates how little time it actually takes to get an excellent and challenging workout. Rest times are filled with little factoid screens describing Brooks’ qualifications and experience.
Although most of the information is gender neutral, Lauren is a big inspiration for women. It’s great to see a DVD address issues such as modifying the one-arm kettlebell clean to accommodate breasts, and Brooks includes some material that describes her pregnancy experiences with kettlebells. She used them almost till the end of her pregnancy, and recommends most pregnant women continue kettlebell training in moderation. Brooks shows photos of herself with her child, and during pregnancy, to emphasize this message. Brooks’ costar is a woman in her 50s who’s had two children by C-section. Both Brooks and her workout partner provide a powerful demonstration of what a difference good nutrition and physical training can make in helping women stay lean and fit. Brooks and her costar are fabulous poster girls for heavy, intense training and healthy eating.
If you enjoyed reading this article on this site, and want to learn more about kettlebell training, Mike Mahler’s DVD Mahler’s Aggressive Strength: Kettlebell Solution for Size and Strength is a great addition to your instructional video library. While lighter ballistic exercises with kettlebells are standard fare, heavy kettlebell work requires a high level of technique. Expert kettlebell instructor and strength coach Mahler presents several key exercises for building strength and skill in working with heavy kettlebells. The format is simple: Mahler on a beach with a kettlebell or two, talking through each exercise in detail. Exercises are divided into primary and secondary, and cover many of the basics such as double swings and presses, along with more advanced variations such as the double windmill. Two particularly great and less-known exercises included are the Sots press (an overhead press from the bottom of a squat position, and impressive to watch Mahler perform with the heavy kettlebells) and the Turkish getup. There is a very useful discussion of technique for this latter exercise, much more so than just about anywhere else I’ve found so far. Often the instructions for a Turkish getup are “hold a weight overhead and get up any way you can.” Mahler breaks the technique for this and other exercises down into carefully organized pieces, demonstrating small refinements that make big differences. There is also a user guide for this DVD that suggests training programs so that lifters can apply the exercises to their own needs. Also be sure to sign up for Mahler’s regular free email newsletter.