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The Whys and Hows of the One Kettlebell Workout

Senior RKC Chris White Kettlebell Swing

A common request after the HKC is, "Can you give me more workout ideas?"

I think that there is a minimum effective dose for each movement of the HKC Three (swing, goblet squat and Turkish get-up).

Swings: 75-250 a day
Goblet squats: 15-25 a day
Turkish get-ups: 1-10 each side a day. (RKC Team Leader Chris White reminds us, "Just doing ONE TGU slowly over five minutes is as instructive as anything you can do".)

If we add push-ups (15-25 a day), we might have a routine that will provide fitness, longevity, health and performance.

Yet, the devil is in the details.

How much equipment do you have?

Surprisingly often, many people just have ONE kettlebell. Or, in a large group, each client will only have one appropriate kettlebell.

There is a real need in this industry for "One Kettlebell Workouts", and I love them. I enjoy driving to a park, meeting with friends, walking a bit with my kettlebell, training, and then enjoying a nice picnic. I keep this tradition alive every weekday morning when people join me to workout at 9:30.

This article explores the many options available with One Kettlebell Workouts.

Most people want "workouts." Though "training sessions" is probably a better term. We need to spread out our fingers a bit and look at programming.

I always talk about programming as the Four Twos:
  • Two decades
  • Two weeks
  • Tomorrow
  • Today
I always ask the client or athlete to look ahead twenty years. The checks you write with your body with "Hold my beer and watch this" activities will be hard to pay twenty years from now. "Just because you can, doesn’t mean you should," the best lesson of Jurassic Park, is also wise programming advice.

Most people can follow a diet or program for about two weeks. I’m actually exaggerating—with diets, it is barely two hours! But, can we still look ahead two weeks and identify the issues and problems which will lead to missed workouts or bad food and beverage choices. How can we proactively deal with this?

Tomorrow is my favorite. I always tell people, "Tomorrow is going to be the greatest workout of my life. I will destroy all records, leave myself in a sweaty mess, vomit often and have one near death experience." Today, I will do the fundamental human movements with appropriate reps, sets and load and strive for mastery of movement.

Then, tomorrow comes around and once again I tell everyone, "Tomorrow is going to be the greatest workout of my life. I will destroy all records, leave myself in a sweaty mess, vomit often and have one near death experience."

But, tomorrow never comes!!!

In the programming section of the HKC manual, we find three important terms in program design:
  • Volume
  • Intensity
  • Density
Intensity has many definitions—the Nautilus machine people gave us one, Soviet percentage tables gave us another, and yet another one came from red-faced people screaming. The upside of single kettlebell work is that you can put these different definitions aside, you only have to choose one kettlebell!

Volume is the total load. In Olympic lifting, volume is simply calculated by reps times sets times load. A nice thing about single kettlebell work is that you only need to count the total reps, because the load never changes. Spending time to examine volume is often the first clue in determining Minimum Effective Dose, and working with the "less is more" philosophy many excellent coaches and trainers live by.

Density is the amount of work done over time. If the same amount of work is done in half the time, then density has increased. I like specific workouts because—as we will see with the "Humane Burpee"—we can see progress simply by timing the efforts. With the same load and same exercises, completing the workout in less time means progress.

When discussing progression with single kettlebell workouts, density is truly the most important of the three terms.

Let’s first look at swing-focused workouts. One quick hint: don’t let the press dictate kettlebell selection, especially with women. Recently, my group all traveled the Rite of Passage. On one heavy workout, one of our females just picked up a 28kg kettlebell and did five minutes of swings. She thought she’d chosen a 20kg kettlebell, and didn’t notice it was actually a full eight kilos heavier.

Afterwards, she realized that she had been underestimating her load for swings. She had built up to the 16kg kettlebell in the ROP, but could easily use more for swings and goblet squats.

The workouts in this article are only for two-hand swings, but feel free to adapt them as appropriate. Moreover, as one person told me not long ago, "Just do 30 seconds of swings, 30 seconds of ‘fast-and-loose’ and try to add minutes when you can."


A few years ago, I was asked to write about the 10,000 Swing Challenge. Basically, for twenty days, add 500 swings per workout. If you swing four times a week, it will take five weeks to do 10,000 swings. Since we usually had sessions five times a week, it only took us four weeks. "Yay" for us!

The simplest version of a 500 swing workout is the following combination of swings and goblet squats. It adds up to 100 swings, so just swim through this for a total of 5 giant sets:
Swing 10 reps
One goblet squat
Swing 15 reps
Two goblet squats
Swing 25 reps
Three goblet squats
Swing 50 reps
An interesting version with the Turkish get-up will really get your heart pumping (groundwork seems to oddly increase HR):
Swing 10 reps
One TGU, weight in left hand
Swing 15 reps
One TGU, weight in right hand
Swing 25 reps
Two TGUs, one left and one right
Swing 50 reps

A small note: I always go "left first" when it comes to any one hand, one leg or one foot movement. That way, I never need to remember what to do next. Ignore this at your own peril with large groups.
Get Up No Kettlebell Renee Geist

Certainly, we could do push-ups, pull-ups or even nothing between sets of swings. In our fourth 10,000 Swing Challenge, we found that this variation saved our grip with heavier kettlebells:
15 swings
Goblet squat/TGU/whatever
35 swings
Goblet squat/TGU/whatever

Repeat for an additional nine times for ten total giant sets. This variation allowed us to use heavier kettlebells, and it also doubles the longer rest periods.

As I go through these variations, many people will ask about "rest." With workouts focused on density, FINISH the workout and stop when necessary for the first few times. I think that natural rest periods trump programmed rest periods. If a strong man is using a light kettlebell, he might not need to take even a single break.

Rest periods are the ultimate "it depends" variables.

I love combining the swing and push-up. Getting up and down seems to be as hard as the two movements! I asked my friends to come up with their favorite variations…and here they are!

Workout Option #1

Repeat for 15 minutes:
Swings for 20 seconds
Push-ups: 6 reps
Rest: 30 seconds

Each workout, increase push-ups by one rep.

Workout Option #2

At the top of the minute:
20 swings, 10 push-ups, rest the remainder of the minute
20 swings, 9 push-ups, rest
... and so on down to 20 swings, 1 push-up

If you want to work out for 15 minutes, start with 20 swings and 15 push-ups. Next time you do the workout, do 21 swings at the top of each minute.

Workout Option #3
20 swings
Gather yourself
10 push-ups

Note: Instead of time, add sets

Workout Option #4
20 swings
20 push-ups
20 swings
15 push-ups
20 swings
10 push-ups
20 swings
5 push-ups
20 swings
(100 swings, 50 pushups, 0 fluff)

Workout Option #5
20 swings
8-10 push-ups
30 second plank
1 minute various hip stretches
Repeat for 20 minutes

Now, adding the goblet squat turns everything on its head. As we go through the next section, I tend to do things in this order:
  1. Swing
  2. Goblet squat
  3. Push-up
Also in this next section, we will tend to do swings for ten or fifteen reps, goblet squats for about five, but NEVER more than ten reps, and the same for push-ups—usually five, but never more than ten.

My favorite workout in the next section is the "Humane Burpee." Dan Martin gave us this name and I can’t think of a better term. You can certainly make this workout harder or easier, but just try the basic example first.

Be sure to follow the advice above about goblet squat and push-up reps. We want the reps to descend as we move through the "Humane Burpee", hence the name "Humane".
15 swings
5 goblet squats
5 push-ups

15 swings
4 goblet squats
4 push-ups

15 swings
3 goblet squats
3 push-ups

15 swings
2 goblet squats
2 push-ups

15 swings
1 goblet squat
1 push-up

This comes out to 75 swings, 15 goblet squats and 15 push-ups. The real exercise challenge seems to be popping up and down to the ground for push-ups. Most of us don’t take any rest at all through the workout, but feel free to stop when necessary.

To make it harder, just increase the goblet squat and push-up reps to ten. 10-8-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 gives you 55 total reps, plenty of work for a single day, and in many cases too much.

I have three other valuable variations...

Goblet Squat

This variation is called "Slurpees" (though I am not sure why!):
10 or 15 swings
5 goblet squats
10 mountain climbers (count a rep every time the left foot hits the ground)

Let the goblet squats descend (5-4-3-2-1) on each consecutive set to give you a total of 50-75 swings, 15 goblet squats and a lot of heart pounding.

"Hornees" are the first of our loaded carries. A horn walk is simply walking around with the kettlebell held by the horns at your chest. It keeps the tension high.
10 or 15 swings
5 goblet squats
Horn walk for an appropriate distance.

Again, let the goblet squats descend (5-4-3-2-1) on each consecutive set to give you a total of 50-75 swings, 15 goblet squats and an "interesting feeling" in the whole region of muscles that squeeze things together.

Bearpees are great for group workouts:
10 or 15 swings
5 goblet squats
Bear crawl

Again, descend with the goblet squats (5-4-3-2-1). In a group, have the participants pair up and share the same kettlebell. Space them about 60 feet apart. You will soon see a lot of racing and the participants will quickly learn that they were underestimating the bear crawl.

Once we get moving with horn walks and bear crawls, it is time to add loaded carries to our basic work.

I’ve named the loaded carry workouts after the birds of the raptor family. The naming idea started off as a joke about how we were picking things up and moving them, but we soon found that it was a nice way of organizing the workouts.

The Sparrow Hawk or Sparhawk

You will be doing goblet squats and suitcase carries. Suitcase carries are like farmer walks, but you only load one side…as if you are carrying a single suitcase.
8 goblet squats, then march away with the kettlebell in the left hand for about 60 feet (the length of the gym is best)
7 goblet squats, then march back to the starting location with the kettlebell in the right hand
6 goblet squats, left hand suitcase walk
5 goblet squats, right hand walk
4 goblet squats, left hand walk
3 goblet squats, right hand walk
2 goblet squats, left hand walk
1 goblet squat, finished

This variation adds up to 36 squats while you are under load for about three minutes. Your anti-rotation muscles will be working overtime with the asymmetrically loaded walks, and then they will have to join in to support the squats. You get the benefits of squatting—which includes mobility and flexibility work—plus the additional boon of three minutes of time under tension.

Next, consider the "Cook Drill" from Gray Cook, P.T., founder of the Functional Movement System.

Here’s how it works:

Standing, hold a kettlebell in the rack.

Now press the kettlebell straight overhead and walk (waiter walk). Your arm should be completely straight, and your shoulder "packed" (pull it down and away from your ear).

If you feel your arm start to wobble or your core starts to shift, then you’ve lost integrity. When that happens, bring the weight back to the rack position. Hold the kettlebell in the rack position and continue to walk until you feel yourself losing integrity again. At that point, release the weight to your side so you’re holding it like a suitcase. Once you can’t hold the kettlebell in that position, switch hands and start from the beginning.

Gray recommends practicing this for up to 15 minutes, but going for a total distance of about 400 meters is plenty. What am I saying? We did that ONCE! Even though we usually don’t practice this drill for very long or very often, this is a great drill all by itself.

Want more?

Try the CookED Drill variation:
Left hand waiter walk until nearing loss of integrity
10 swings
Left hand rack walk until nearing loss of integrity
10 swings
Left hand suitcase carry until nearing loss of integrity
10 swings
Repeat with the right hand

Sixty swings only!!!

Sure, do it again or even three times, if you wish!

Sometimes, like the 10,000 Swing Challenge, you might want to choose a month and complete a challenge.

Most of the time, I do something like this daily:
  • Naked (unweighted) Turkish get-ups for five minutes
  • Mobility sequence
  • Practice a few hip hinge drills and a few additional prying goblet squat movements
  • Pick a "One Kettlebell Workout" listed above, and time it, if appropriate Turkish get-ups, one to five per side
  • Sparhawk, Cook drill or CookED drill as a finisher
  • Come back and do it again tomorrow!

Dan John thumbnailMaster RKC, Dan John is the author of numerous fitness titles including the best selling Never Let Go and Easy Strength. Dan has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.

Dan spends his work life blending weekly workshops and lectures with full-time writing, and is also an online religious studies instructor for Columbia College of Missouri. As a Fulbright Scholar, he toured the Middle East exploring the foundations of religious education systems. For more information visit