In December of 2020, I got in a life-changing car accident. I broke two bones in my foot, four ribs and, most notably, my patella. At the time, the agony was excruciating but it ended up filling me with a sense of gratefulness that I had never felt before.
Even though at the time I couldn’t walk, I was overjoyed to be breathing. Every leaf on every tree was beautiful, and the time spent with my family while recovering is something I was thankful for every day.
Physical therapy was the most exciting part of my day and I attended sessions three times a week. I enjoyed the small progress I made and looked forward to working on the complicated path back to walking. We take it for granted every day, but walking is surprisingly complex. It takes a strong core, balanced hamstrings and quads, and ankle flexion. The doctors told me they didn’t know if I’d ever be able to properly walk again, let alone run. But I started running six months after the accident, and I slowly returned to cycling in 2022.
During rehab and the ever since, kettlebell training has been integral to regaining my strength and, ultimately, getting me back to walking, running and cycling. Kettlebells are also my favorite for exercise because the movements are simply more fun than regular dumbbell movements. These movements also come with a distinct set of physical benefits which any cyclist can benefit from.
To learn the best kettlebell exercises specifically for cyclists, I talked to cycling coach Art O’Connor of WUKAR training. O'Connor raced mountain bikes for the Sobe-Cannondale team in the 1990s and has coached the likes of Keegan Swenson and Sofia Gomez Villafañe.
The biggest advantage of kettlebells, in his opinion, is that they come in kilogram increments, meaning that you need to “master the weight before moving up. Mastering your progression is important and can take a lot of the guesswork out of your training.”
Here are four essential kettlebell exercises and their benefits for cyclists. These basic movements help create a more dynamic, fun weight room experience, build strength, prevent injury and help keep you cycling long into old age.
Kettlebell Dead Bug
Core strength is essential for injury prevention, stability and cycling efficiency. All kettlebell exercises require core strength because you’re operating under a load - the same as you are in cycling. It's the core that keeps the body stable and good core strength provides a solid platform to push from while on the bike.
Try the dead bug exercise without a kettlebell, to master the movement before adding the weight. This exercise requires you to hold a kettlebell above your face, so make sure you start with a small weight and don’t increase until you feel you’ve mastered the movement at that weight.
- Lay on your back on a mat with your arms extended straight over your chest at a perpendicular angle. If you're doing this with a kettlebell, you'll be holding the weight with both hands in front of you.
- Lower the right arm above your head while, at the same time you lower the opposite, the left, leg. Return to the starting position before repeating the movement on the other side. If you're doing this with a weight, lift your shoulder blades from the mat but hold your arms straight and steady while your lower and raise your legs, one at a time.
- “Pull your toes towards yourself when lowering your legs," O'Connor advised. And. “keep tension in the trunk throughout”.
- Start with three sets of 20 reps (10 on each side).
The kettlebell swing is the granddaddy of all KB exercises. It works your posterior chain, and it’s essential to work your hamstrings and glutes in the quad-heavy sport of cycling. Balancing the strength in your muscle groups is one of the best things you can do for injury prevention and longevity.
While Kettlebell swings seem simple, the movement is a bit complex and good form trumps heavy weight. Here's how to achieve good form:
- Stand shoulder width apart with both hands on the kettlebell between your feet.
- Pick up the kettlebell as you would a deadlift. Keep a straight back and an engaged core.
- Begin swinging the kettlebell in a straight line, stopping at your shoulders.
- It is a hip-hinge movement, where your power should be coming from your hips. It’s easy to accidentally turn a swing into KB squats.
- Tuck your chin and gaze forward throughout the movement. Watch your form in a mirror if you can, or get one-on-one training to make sure you’re doing it right.
- Do three sets of 10 swings.
O'Connor likes to say that cyclists have “angry, short hip flexors," when compared to other athletes. Sitting all day to then go sit on your bike makes your hips tight and stiff. The cossack squat is aimed to relieve some of that by engaging your medial glutes, your main external rotators. If you see a buddy with knees pointing in towards their top tube, it’s a sure sign they have tight hip flexors, O'Connor commented. The Cossack Squats will help with that.
Try this exercise without kettlebells before using weight.
- Hold the kettlebell close to your chest, with hands on each side of the weight.
- Place your feet wider than shoulder width.
- With a straight back, shift your weight to one side and slowly bend the knee, lowering into a single leg side squat. Stop once your hip is slightly lower than your knee. Throughout this movement, the other leg should be kept straight. As you lower, your non-engaged foot should be moving up on your heel until your toes are pointing almost straight up.
- Push yourself back up, return to standing straight and repeat the movement on the other side.
- Do three sets of 10 squats on each leg.
Bulgarian Split Squats
Bulgarian split squats are an exercise that everyone hates, but they love what they do for them. They are great for addressing single leg imbalances—an important concern for any cyclist—and building your glute strength. They’re a lot like lunges but hurt more.
- Stand 2 to 3 feet in front of a bench, facing away from the bench.
- Hold a kettlebell in each hand at your sides or one kettlebell with two hand sin front of you like in the Cossack Squat above.
- Place the top of your back foot on top of the bench behind you.
- Keep your shoulders and hips square, and your core engaged.
- Lean slightly forward and lower down slowly until your front leg forms a right angle—into a forward lunge position.
- Push up through the front foot until you return to the starting position, and repeat on the other side.
- Do three sets of 10 squats on each leg.