You may think slinging large, heavy weights doesn’t scream “fast on your feet,” but the truth is kettlebells can complement your running routine in so many ways—including making you stronger, speedier, and more powerful.
Strength training, in general, gives runners an edge and helps you stay healthy. “Many running injuries can result from muscular imbalances, which can often be aided with strength training,” says Whitney Biaggi, a certified trainer and kettlebell and run coach based in Brooklyn. Plus, the stronger your muscles are, the easier it should be to fire on all cylinders and propel forward with each step, while handling the demands of many miles.
While you could grab dumbbells and resistance bands to build strength, kettlebells bring unique and potent benefits to runners, making them a prime choice for cross-training. Research published in the Journal of Human Kinetics in 2019 shows that kettlebell training improves aerobic capacity (or how efficiently you use oxygen), as well as power and strength, leading to better fitness and performance.
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The kettlebell’s shape (a ball with a handle on top) makes it stand out from other free weights. In many exercises, like racked squats, the bell has an offset center of gravity, so it ups the stability challenge, Biaggi says. In moves like the kettlebell swing, the heaviest load is farther away from your body, which offers an extra stabilization challenge to your core, as it works harder to keep you upright.
To convince you to start swinging, here’s what runners gain from kettlebell training.
4 Benefits of Kettlebell Training for Runners
1. Kettlebells strengthen running muscles
These weights target what Biaggi calls the “work-horse muscles” of the body, or the muscles that power your runs: glutes, hamstrings, core, and quads. They especially strengthen the hips, she adds, which helps stabilize the pelvis, improve posture and alignment, and help you maintain strong running form.
Research backs her up: A study published in the International Journal of Sports Physical Therapy in 2015 shows that kettlebell swings sufficiently activate and strengthen the hip extensors—mainly the glute max (the biggest muscle of the backside) and glute med (a smaller, yet still crucial butt muscle). The move also fires up the hamstrings, building strength in the back of the upper legs.
Another study, by the American Council on Exercise, found healthy, relatively fit participants who did two hour-long kettlebell workouts per week for eight weeks improved aerobic capacity and dynamic balance, and increased core strength—by a whopping 70%. They tested this by evaluating how long subjects could hold a plank.
2. You get low-impact cardio
While running, you essentially jump from one leg to the other, causing high impact, says Jenna Langhans, kettlebell-certified coach at Reload in NYC. That’s why it’s key to have low-impact training on your schedule, too. Both feet never have to leave the ground during kettlebell training, but you can still spike your heart rate. The dynamic, total-body movements bells are known for—swings, snatches, cleans, and more—put some serious demands on your cardiovascular system. The same Journal of Human Kinetics study shows that high-intensity kettlebell exercises, specifically snatches, can provide an alternative to traditional circuit-based resistance training to significantly boost aerobic fitness.
3. You’ll improve power
Kettlebells increase muscular power or the ability to move weight with speed, which is key to running faster with less effort. A study published in 2017 in the International Journal of Kinesiology & Sports Science found that kettlebell swings—which teach you to quickly contract muscles with a force similar to what you might need to power up a hill—increases vertical jump power. A Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research study from 2013 also confirmed that 10 weeks of kettlebell training improved power, as well as strength.
4. Kettlebells are versatile
The dynamic nature of kettlebells means you can use them to train in different planes of motion, Biaggi says. Running involves forward movement, so you want strength and power in that direction. But you also want to build strength side-to-side and rotationally. “Moving through various planes of motion can improve mobility and flexibility and overall readiness as a runner,” Biaggi says.
What’s more: You can easily vary the intensity of kettlebell workouts based on the moves, weight, or time, Langhans says, which makes them accessible for runners’ training plans. Whether you’re looking for a high-intensity interval session, strength/power building, or muscular endurance, kettlebells can help you hit those goals.
How to Do a Kettlebell Swing
If you’ve heard of kettlebell training, you’ve probably heard about the swing. It’s one of the most traditional kettlebell moves and has plenty of benefits for runners. “It trains explosive power, is low-impact, trains the posterior chain [back of the body], hip extension, and the core, and it also trains endurance and aerobic capacity,” says Langhans.
To do it properly, first set up for success:
Start with a lighter kettlebell than you think you need, around 6 to 12 kilograms (about 13 to 26 pounds) for beginners. Then stand about arm’s length from the bell, feet slightly wider than hip-width apart. Push hips back, hinging, and reach for the bell. (Hinge like in a deadlift, not a squat.) Tip the bell toward you. Arms should be straight, shoulders down and back, lats engaged, and knees just slightly bent.
Inhale and draw the bell back between the legs, until it’s behind you and just under your hips. (Keep the bell close to your lower half, not to the floor.) Then, drive feet into floor and engage glutes to power the bell forward and up, swinging to chest height on an exhale. The top position should look like a plank, core engaged. (Make sure you don’t lean back at the top.) Let gravity bring the bell back down, between legs, and hinge at the hips again. Repeat.
Kettlebell Workout for Runners
Try this kettlebell workout from Biaggi on your next strength day. If you’re not training for a specific race, incorporating strength training at least two days a week is a sweet spot to see results. If you are training for a race, Biaggi suggests subbing a kettlebell workout into a strength day in your training plan. For this workout, limit rest between exercises. Rest 1 to 2 minutes between supersets. Do 3 rounds of each superset.
See instructions above. Do 8–10 reps.
Start by standing with a heavy kettlebell in left hand, down by side. Maintain a tall posture with shoulders down and back, chest tall, and core engaged. Slowly walk forward. Turn around and walk back to start. Go for 30–60 seconds.
Single-Leg Deadlift + Row
Stand on left foot with kettlebell in right hand by side. Keep back flat, core engaged, and hinge at hips, lowering weight and torso to floor. Hold the single-leg deadlift, and perform a row, pulling right elbow up, weight to ribcage. Straighten arm. Then drive through left foot to stand up. Repeat for 5–8 reps. Switch sides.
1/4 Turkish Get-Up
Lie faceup. Hold a kettlebell in left hand, arm extended, bell right over shoulder. Place right arm on floor, bend left knee and plant foot on floor, and straighten right leg out—all placed at a 45-degree angle from torso. Keep eyes on bell, arm straight, bell over shoulder, and sit up on a diagonal, coming onto right forearm. Lower down. Repeat for 3–5 reps. Switch sides.
Offset Squat + Press
Stand with feet shoulder-width apart, toes turned slightly out. Hold kettlebell in right hand, racked at shoulder. Send hips down and back for a squat. Then drive feet into floor to stand up as you press the bell straight up overhead. Lower bell to shoulder. Repeat for 5–8 reps. Switch sides.
Goblet Lateral Lunge
Stand with feet hip-width apart, holding the kettlebell at chest, with both hands. Take a big step to the right with right foot, bending knee and sending hips back. Keep left leg straight. Drive through right foot to stand back up. Repeat on left side. Continue alternating for 5-8 reps per side.