As a personal trainer, a big part of my job is teaching people how to perform challenging exercises like the kettlebell figure 8 properly so they can reap the benefits and reduce their risk of injury.
Kettlebell figure 8s are a dynamic exercise that trains multiple muscle groups (glutes, hamstrings, quads, back, etc.), improves muscle coordination, builds grip strength, and promotes core and shoulder stability. The activity can improve proprioception (awareness of one’s body and movements).
The problem with this movement is that it is challenging, and there are plenty of mistakes that trainees could make to hinder their results and put themselves at risk of injury.
Kettlebell Figure 8: Anatomy Overview
The kettlebell figure 8 is a challenging and effective movement that works multiple muscles at once. These muscles include:
The core musculature (abs, transverse abdominis, obliques, etc.) plays a crucial role in figure 8s. These muscles flex isometrically (contract without changing position) to stabilize the torso and help maintain a safer spinal position.
Your obliques are also involved when you twist your torso from side to side to pass the kettlebell between your legs from one hand to the other.
“Kettlebell figure 8s are a core blaster that’ll have your abs, obliques, and back extensors working overtime to stabilize the trunk, rotate the torso and bend in different directions repeatedly.”
-Matthew Magnante, fitness and health writer/ACE-certified PT
The glutes consist of three muscles: gluteus maximus, gluteus minimus, and gluteus medius. All three muscles are involved in the kettlebell figure 8 because they are responsible for hip extension, abduction, external/internal thigh rotation, and pelvic stability.
During the exercise, the glutes primarily support the midsection to offer stability and produce force to help with the upward swing of the kettlebell.
The hamstrings are a group of three muscles that make up the back of the thighs and are primarily responsible for knee flexion, hip extension (working along with the glutes), and pelvic stability.
These muscles assist the glutes with hip stability and help swing the kettlebell upward on each rep.
The quadriceps, also known as the quads, are large muscles that make up the front of your thighs and are primarily responsible for knee extension (straightening of the legs).
The quad muscles include the rectus femoris, vastus intermedius, vastus medialis, and vastus lateralis.
These muscles promote knee stability and can even help stabilize the hips (thanks to the rectus femoris which crosses the hip joint).
The shoulders, also known as deltoids, are another major muscle group with a crucial role in figure 8s. The shoulders control the motion of the kettlebell as it moves from one hand to the other.
The back muscles (latissimus dorsi, erector spinae, trapezius, and other muscles) are also involved in the figure 8, primarily to provide torso support and keep the spine in a safer position.
The lats also produce some of the force needed to move the kettlebell from one side to the other.
Kettlebells come with a thicker handle, which makes them more challenging to grip for extended periods. On top of that, figure 8s requires passing the weight from hand to hand, which adds a layer of difficulty by forcing trainees to squeeze the handle multiple times during a set which challenges forearm strength and endurance.
Benefits Of Figure 8s With A Kettlebell
The benefits of performing kettlebell figure 8s include:
Improves Core Stability
The core musculature plays a significant role during kettlebell figure 8s because these muscles keep the torso stable, and the obliques support torso rotation as the weight passes from one side to the other.
Core stability is a movement capacity that most people are lacking, but is incredibly important for injury prevention during exercise and daily life activities. Including kettlebell figure 8s in your program is a great way to start building up your core stability.
Enhances Grip Strength
Kettlebells typically have thicker handles, making them more challenging to grip. This is amplified in figure 8s because the weight moves from hand to hand multiple times, forcing trainees to re-grip the weight.
Including kettlebell figure 8s in your training program can help improve your grip strength and build bigger forearms.
Increases Lower Body Strength
The figure 8 targets the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps, all of which must contract isometrically (contract without changing position) to maintain a strong body position.
Additionally, the posterior chain muscles (muscles on the backside of your body) produce some force to help with the forward swing of the kettlebell, providing an additional stimulus for strength and growth.
Encourages Shoulder Stability
The shoulders play a significant role in figure 8s because they guide the weight from side to side and keep it stable. This training stimulus is excellent for strengthening the shoulder muscles and promoting stability.
Improves Muscle Coordination
Kettlebell figure 8s are highly beneficial because they force multiple major muscle groups to work together.
The posterior chain, core, and back keep you stable and the shoulders, glutes, and obliques actively contribute during each rep. This complex movement promotes muscle coordination, which is valuable during other strength exercises and athletic activities.
Proprioception, the awareness of different body parts and how they move through space, can improve from complex exercises like the figure 8.
Combining the somewhat complex movement pattern with a rigid stance forces trainees to be more mindful and pay close attention to their knees, hips, back, shoulders, and body position.
How To Do A Kettlebell Figure 8
Here is how to perform the figure 8 properly:
- Stand tall with a kettlebell in front of you.
- Have your feet slightly more than hip-width apart with your toes pointing forward and out. The stance should be comfortable to maintain your balance during the activity.
- Descend into a squat by bending your knees and pushing your buttocks back, and grab the kettlebell with your right hand.
- With your back neutral, push through your heels to extend your knees. Your working arm should be straight but not locked out.
- Take a deep breath, engage your abs, and swing the kettlebell straight forward.
- As the weight swings back, move it between your legs and pass it from your left hand to the right, guiding it behind your right leg. Hinge at the hips as the weight swings back to maintain a neutral spine and drive your hips forward to stand up as the weight moves in the opposite direction.
- Immediately guide the kettlebell back, moving it through your legs and passing it from your right hand to your left.
- Continue alternating, flexing and extending your hips, and moving the kettlebell from one hand to the other in between your legs. The movement pattern should resemble the number 8, hence the activity’s name.
- Breathe steadily as you do reps, and think of the arm supporting the weight as a pendulum.
5 Common Mistakes With Kettlebell Figure 8s
It can take time to fully master the technique for kettlebell figure 8s but here are some mistakes to avoid:
Mistake #1: Poor Posture
Poor posture during figure 8s often comes in the form of rounding the back and shoulders, which places significant stress on the spine and increases the risk of injury.
How to Fix
Change how you see the kettlebell figure 8. Instead of solely focusing on moving the weight between your legs in a number 8 pattern, see the movement as a controlled hip hinge, where you also happen to pass a kettlebell from one hand to the other.
Follow the same rules you would during any hip hinge––buttocks back, spine neutral, and keeping the tension in your hamstrings and glutes.
Mistake #2: Using the Arms to Lift the Weight
Similar to the kettlebell swing, using the arms to move the weight means you’re missing the point of the exercise. While using your arms to move the weight isn’t necessarily dangerous, it prevents you from taking full advantage of the movement and reaping all the benefits.
How to Fix
Think of the arm supporting the kettlebell as a pendulum. The only muscle group that should engage to some degree is the shoulder, but most of the movement should come from the momentum you create as you bend and extend your hips.
Mistake #3: Standing too Upright
Standing too upright presents two issues. First, it makes it difficult to pass the kettlebell between the legs and move it from one hand to the other.
Second, it increases the risk of your back rounding as you attempt to get the weight low enough to pass between your legs. This can put unnecessary stress on the spine, making it more difficult to create the necessary hip drive to thrust the kettlebell forward.
How to Fix
Allow your hips and knees to flex as the kettlebell moves backward. Doing so allows you to keep tension on your lower body (glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps) instead of the spine and sets the stage for a hip extension to swing the weight forward.
Mistake #4: Using a Narrow Stance
Similar to the previous mistake, a narrow stance simply makes the exercise more difficult (not in a beneficial way) because there is less space for the kettlebell to move between your legs.
How to Fix
Assume a wider stance that creates a stable position and allows you to freely move the kettlebell between your legs without fear of hitting your groin or the inside of your thighs.
Mistake #5: Losing Control of the Kettlebell
The kettlebell figure 8 requires a firm grasp on the weight at all times and control of the range of motion. Using a kettlebell that is too heavy or moving the body excessively increases strain on your joints and surrounding musculature and could lead to injury.
How to Fix
Grip the kettlebell firmly throughout each set. You can even practice moving the weight from one hand to the other to gain experience with the movement pattern.
Additionally, start with slow reps, focusing on your position and grip with a load you can control.
Best Kettlebells For Figure 8s
The Gymreapers kettlebells are ideal for figure 8s and many other kettlebell movements because they are durable, affordable, and versatile.
You can pick from multiple weights, ranging from 4 to 40 kilograms (9 to 88 lbs), providing the perfect load for any exercise.
Additionally, these kettlebells come with smooth handles, which reduce friction and lower the risk of calluses that often occurs on dynamic movements like the figure 8.
To top it off, the Gymreapers kettlebells have a slick design with kilogram and pound imprints to quickly identify how much weight you’ve picked up in case you have several of them.