Kettlebell High Intensity Interval Training – The Science Behind The Hype

Authored by guest writer Brian Williams EP-C. Please see author bio below.

Do you enjoy circuit or interval training, but want to try something different? Do you want to get away from the same old boring cardio routine, but maybe you feel intimidated to try any type of high-intensity exercise. Well, let me introduce you to kettlebell high-intensity interval training or better known as KB-HIIT!


Now, don’t let the name intimidate you. This regime has been researched and found to be taxing on the cardiovascular and respiratory systems, but still less physically straining than sprint interval cycling, a more common form of high-intensity exercise. What’s more, with the guidelines below I will show you how to safely and effectively workout from the privacy of your own home.

My colleague, Robert R. Kraemer and I conducted a study that was recently published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. We discovered that KB-HIIT had more significant effects on cardiorespiratory fitness training when compared to sprint interval cycling. The study was not a training based study, but more of an “acute response” based study to assess the potential effects a KB-HIIT regimen could have. This means we measured the immediate response as opposed to long-term effects of KB-HIIT compared to sprint interval cycling.

The format of the regimen included four kettlebell exercises: sumo squat, swing, clean & press, and sumo deadlift. There was a diversity in experience among the participants with kettlebells and resistance training, but as a whole, they were considered “very active”. This measurement was based on their reported physical activity history and baseline cardiorespiratory fitness level (measured via VO2max).

How it’s done

The frequency and duration of the kettlebell exercises followed the Tabata format, a popular interval training format based off of 20 seconds of work to 10 seconds rest better known as the “work-to-rest ratio”. In the study, each exercise is performed two times for 20 seconds before moving on to the next exercise until all four exercises are completed. This counts as one total circuit. Each circuit takes 4 minutes to complete. In the study, we had the participants perform three circuits. This means each participant did a minimum of 12 minutes per session. Depending on the participant, more could be performed if desired.

The prescribed order of the exercises should be taken into account. 1) sumo squat, 2) swing, 3) clean & press, and 4) sumo deadlift. This is designed so the larger muscle groups are being used first and the more dynamic exercises (e.g., swings, clean & press) are used in the middle. This allows for muscle and cardiorespiratory fatigue to be better tolerated. Ultimately, this aids in an improvement in anaerobic threshold.

Cadence is Key

Kettlebell exercises, especially swings, snatches, and clean & press, involve dynamic, multi-joint movements. This means proper form and cadence is key. With the KB-HIIT, shoot for a 40 to 44 beat per minute cadence (yeah using a metronome and/or timer will help)– 2 beats per lifting phase and 2 beats per lowering phase for the sumo squat, clean & press, and sumo deadlift – 1 beat per lifting phase and 1 beat per lowering for swings. Once you are familiar with each exercise, you should then begin training using the Tabata format. To ensure progressive overload, once you become comfortable with the regimen, use heavier weights and/or add additional circuits.

The results…

The study found that the KB-HIIT could stimulate an average caloric expenditure of 145 calories, a heart rate of 149 beats per minute, and oxygen uptake level of 23 ml/kg/min, all within the span of only 12 mins. Based on different respiratory measures, the KB-HIIT regimen was also found to be less physically straining on the respiratory system compared to the sprint interval cycling. This means it provided a lesser perceived effort in comparison with sprint interval cycling.

With the sprint interval cycling the participants did an “all-out effort” sprint interval for 30 seconds against a prescribed resistance. They then did a slower cycle period against no resistance until the next sprint. The participants only did three sprints, but this was taxing enough to fatigue them. However, although the participants were physically fatigued by the sprint interval cycling, on average during a comparable duration (e.g., 12 minutes) to the KB-HIIT the sprint interval cycling only stimulated a caloric expenditure of 122 calories, heart rate of 140 beats per minute, and oxygen uptake level of 20 ml/kg/min.

The major benefits of KB-HIIT is that it proved superior to sprint interval cycling, it’s effective in increasing cardiorespiratory response, it’s time-efficient, and requires the use of only one kettlebell.

Safety first

That being said, there are a few “cons’ when training with kettlebells. The first one is that it requires a large enough area to accommodate the full range of motion for each exercise. It’s also not unheard of to drop a kettlebell when performing some of the more dynamic movements. Without proper protective flooring, this could result in a damaged kettlebell or floor. Most importantly, you need to familiarize yourself with the kettlebell exercises. Choosing the appropriate weight for each exercise and ensuring proper form are necessary to prevent injury. Be sure to consult with a professional before attempting.

The Workout:

Perform each exercise for 20 seconds two times before moving on to the next exercises. After each 20 seconds of exercise rest 10 seconds. Once you’ve complete all four exercises (two times each) that’s one circuit. Complete three circuits for a total of 12 minutes of exercise. Add more circuits as needed.

  1. Kettlebell Sumo Squat
  2. Kettlebell Swings
  3. Kettlebell Clean & Press
  4. Kettlebell Sumo Deadlift


Author Bio:

Brian M. Williams EP-C has over 10 years of experience working in the fitness and wellness industry. This includes training a multitude of various adult health-populations, consulting with top exercise professionals and facilities, management at two university-based fitness facilities, and teaching various university-level courses related to personal health, fitness, and exercise science. Currently, he is a full-time instructor of Kinesiology at Southeastern Louisiana University.

Brian is a professional member of the American College of Sports Medicine (ACSM). He is a certified Exercise Physiologist and has obtained his “Exercise is Medicine” Level-2 certificate within the ACSM. His credentials also include a group exercise instructor certificate with the Aerobics and Fitness Association of America.

The future is now (a comment from

I’m proud to call Brian my friend. He is at the forefront of research in the fitness industry. It’s individuals like Brian that continually progress and improve our knowledge of fitness. Without them doing what they do fitness magazines, blogs, and everything else produced for the masses would not be possible.

As Brian’s study shows, you don’t need rows of expensive cardio equipment to get a safe and effective workout. That’s what the big name equipment manufacturers want you to believe. With the rise of osteoporosis, heart disease, and other preventable diseases, strength and resistance training are more important now more than ever. The method prescribed above lowers the barriers of entry into strength training. This makes it easier for average individuals and even the aging populace to prevent or even reverse many diseases that plague us today. That’s truly why we do this.

Thank you, Brian, for your contribution and congrats on your recent publication in the JSCR! I look forward to working more with you in the future.

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