Training for Trackers- The Kettlebell

As the weather continues to improve it is time to train more outside. Classic strengthening can get a little more challenging outdoors because you don’t have access to a wide variety of equipment that you might in a gym. A little creativity will help you meet the training demands for building strength before the season gets here. Tracking bucks does not require a body builder’s physique, a power lifter’s strength or an Olympic lifter’s technique. What it does require is a certain amount of strength to get it done. What is it? It is chasing a buck up and down mountains for multiple days, killing him, dragging him out and getting him loaded in the truck. The strength demands are simple, but they are dynamic and variable. To account for this, in the past you’ve read about my use of a dragging log and a sandbag for my home outdoor gym, now you can add a kettlebell to the list

Kettlebells have been around for centuries in a variety of forms, especially in Europe. They became much more popular in the US when Pavel Tsatouline arrived from Russia in 1998 and started training folks here using them. The kettlebell’s unique design allows a number of movements to be performed that cannot be done as effectively with standard dumbbells or a barbell. They come in a variety of weights, but a nearly endless number of different training routines can be performed with just a couple of kettlebells.

It is possible to use the kettlebell (KB) to load many standard gym exercises like lunges, squats, presses and deadlifts; there are also a variety of other exercises that the KB can be used for a lot of standing movements using one or both arms. These exercises more closely resemble the functional movements that we humans encounter on a regular basis than many typical gym movements. They also demand a lot of grip and wrist strength to control, something we don’t always get with other types of training. Lastly, the shape and sometimes-uneven loading involved in using kettlebells engages more firing of the core musculature to stabilize the body. I typically like to use my KB for Swings, Turkish Get-Ups and Loaded Carry movements.

The KB Swing is a ballistic movement that requires strict attention to form. With an appropriate weight, the swing is used to train the posterior chain in a manner similar to the deadlift on a more dynamic level. The kettlebell is swung from back and between the thighs (just below the groin) and accelerated to somewhere between the upper abdomen and shoulders, with arms nearly straight. The return movement is quick but controlled and leads right into the next swing without stopping. The key to a good kettlebell swing is effectively thrusting with the gluteal muscles, not bending too much at the knees and sending the weight forward, as opposed to squatting the weight, or lifting with the arms. The spine must be held still and stiff throughout, hinging at the hips. Swings can sometimes be referred to as Russian (KB to about chest height) or American (KB nearly overhead). I prefer the Russian version myself and feel it is safer.

Swings should be built up over time in both number or repetitions and weight. Eventually they can be performed with very high repetitions; this will build muscular endurance of the type we need for long days in the woods. High reps in this case might be over 100 swings, all done with quality form. I usually start with 3 sets of 10 swings and work my way up to 10 sets of 10 over the course of 6 weeks in the summer. Another version of the swing is performed by using a single arm at a lighter weight, which will increase the core strength aspect of the training.

My second favorite kettlebell movement is the Turkish Get-Up. This is a compound movement, requiring focus on form. A single KB is pressed to the sky and held there as you get up from the floor off your back into a lunge, then up to a standing position, with the arm still overhead. You then reverse the movement to return to lying on the floor on your back. This maneuver trains shoulder strength and stabilization a bit more than the sandbag get-up I normally do. Both have their places in my training plan. I usually target 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps on each side for a session, 1-2 sessions per week.

Lastly, Loaded Carry exercises with the kettlebell are a great addition to a well-rounded training plan. I’ve covered them here before, but I highly recommend the Suitcase Carry (KB in one hand) working up to half your bodyweight and the Farmer’s Carry with weight in each hand. Focus on keeping a strong core with these exercises. As you feel comfortable and gain strength, reduce the weight and move up to a Rack Carry (at the shoulder) or an Overhead Carry (above your head). Carries should be performed for time, building from 10 up to 90 seconds per set, with 3-5 sets per side.

For my home gym right now, I have kettlebells that weigh 12, 16 and 36 kilograms that cover most of my needs. Find a kettlebell and start learning these movements to really accelerate your strength and stability. Some coaching might be beneficial to ensure correct form. Consider adding some KB work as part of your strength program in addition to your regular cardiovascular exercise routine. The gains you make will be felt in your hiking and biking all summer, as well as your hunting this fall.

Stay after 'em!

Matt is an avid outdoorsman, Physical Therapist and Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist in northern VT. Contact him at Please consult a physician before beginning any new exercise/nutrition program.