How to Do a Figure Eight

Proper Form, Variations, and Common Mistakes

Also Known As: Kettlebell figure eight

Targets: Full body

Equipment Needed: Kettlebell

Level: Intermediate

The figure eight is a kettlebell exercise that works several muscle groups throughout the body at the same time. Most versions of the exercise work primarily the back (glutes and erector spinae), hamstrings, quadriceps, and biceps. You'll also engage muscles in the calves, upper back, shoulders.

The extent to which the core is engaged depends on the variation that you choose. Some variations put more of the workload in the back muscles while others also engage the rectus abdominis, internal and external obliques.

Benefits

There are a few good reasons to include the kettlebell figure eight in your workout routine. One of the most compelling reasons is that it is a full-body exercise. Choosing exercises that engage multiple muscles throughout the body helps you to be more efficient at the gym. For example, instead of doing separate exercises for the back, the abs, the legs, and the arms, you can do a variation of the figure eight that works all of these areas at the same time.

Next, exercise physiologists are learning that kettlebell training may offer several unique benefits, especially when compared to traditional weight lifting and other forms of exercise such as circuit workouts, or high-intensity interval training (HIIT workouts).

Less Equipment

One study compared kettlebell training to traditional strength training; the type of training that employs a wider range of equipment, such as a weight bench, barbells, dumbbells, and other tools. Researchers noted that there are major restrictions to traditional training, such as cost, the fact that it takes up a large footprint in a gymnasium, and that equipment may be intimidating to novice users.

Researchers concluded that kettlebell training can enhance strength and power without the need for traditional equipment. Researchers added, however, that proper instruction is needed when learning kettlebell exercises and that more research is needed to fully understand how kettlebell training compares to traditional weight training.

Improves Aerobic Power and Muscle Strength

One published study explored the ways that kettlebell training may improve both aerobic power and muscular strength in the same way as resistance circuit-based training. Many exercisers find resistance circuit-based training appealing because it can increase several variables at the same time—that is, it produces improvements in strength, muscular endurance, and aerobic conditioning simultaneously.

The study authors concluded that kettlebell training can be as effective as the resistance circuit based training. These authors also noted cost and accessibility as unique benefits of kettlebells.

"Considering that traditional strength training devices (barbells) and exercise facilities (gyms) could be expensive and keep beginners away, kettlebell exercise may be a more affordable and accessible strength and aerobic training alternative to increase and maintain physical fitness related to cardiorespiratory health and power and strength performance, with low cost (for coach and/or practitioners) because it requires less equipment and restricted physical space."

Journal of Human Kinetics, March 2019

Improved Glucose Tolerance

One small preliminary study compared the use of kettlebells to other types of training for the purpose of improved glucose control. Elevated fasting blood glucose and insulin insensitivity can lead to many health complications, including the development of cardiovascular disease and type 2 diabetes.

For the study, researchers worked with six sedentary men. Study participants had their blood glucose and insulin levels measured after either a kettlebell workout, a high-intensity interval running workout, or no exercise at all.

Researchers found that both kettlebell and high-intensity interval running exercise significantly lowered blood glucose. Additionally, there was no significant difference in blood glucose or insulin concentration between kettlebell training and high-intensity interval running. Study authors concluded that a bout of kettlebell exercise is as effective as high intensity interval running at improving glucose tolerance in sedentary young men.

This information may be helpful for sedentary individuals who would like to start an exercise program to reduce their risk for disease but are intimidated by trendy HIIT workouts. Study results suggest that doing a kettlebell routine at home or in the gym may provide similar benefits.

It should be noted, however, that not all researchers agree that kettlebells have an edge over traditional training—either strength training or cardiovascular training. One large scientific literature review was published in BMC Sports Science, Medicine and Rehabilitation. The authors examined a large body of kettlebell research noting that much of it is small in scope and poor quality. They suggested that much more research is needed to fully understand the benefits of kettlebells, especially as compared to other training modalities.

Step-By-Step Instructions

Before you try this or any exercise, you should be in good health. Always seek the guidance of your healthcare provider if you are new to exercise or if you are coming back to exercise after an injury, pregnancy, or illness. You can also work with a qualified fitness trainer to get form tips and exercise advice.

You should have some experience working with kettlebells before you attempt this move. Many experts suggest that you master the kettlebell swing before you attempt the kettlebell figure eight—especially if you plan to try the the variations that use greater momentum.

When you are first attempting the figure eight, use a smaller kettlebell. As you become more comfortable with the move, add more weight.

figure 8
Verywell / Ben Goldstein

Start with the feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart. You can adjust your foot stance once you do a few repetitions. You'll need enough space between your legs so that you can swing the kettlebell completely through your legs.

  1. Tilt the torso forward, hinging at the hips, so that you can pick up kettlebell and keep it 8–12 inches off the ground. Keep the legs slightly bent and hips back.
  2. Place the kettlebell in your right hand with the handle positioned vertically (drawing an imaginary line that would extend between your legs).
  3. Swing the kettlebell between your legs and behind the left leg while bringing the left hand behind the outside of the left leg to meet the kettlebell.
  4. Pass the kettlebell from the right hand to the left hand and keep the bell moving in a circular path around the left leg.
  5. The left hand (still holding the kettlebell) comes around to the front and begins another circle behind the right leg.
  6. Swing the kettlebell between your legs and behind the right leg while bringing the right hand behind the outside of the right leg to meet the kettlebell.
  7. Pass the kettlebell from the left hand to the right hand and keep the bell moving in a circular path around the right leg.
  8. You'll eventually end up with the kettlebell in your right hand in the starting position.
  9. Continue the pattern of figure eights around the left leg and the right passing the bell from hand to hand.

Be sure that you maintain a solid stance throughout this move. Keep the weight balanced equally between both feet, back strong, and shoulders away from your ears. Control the swing: use enough momentum to keep the kettlebell moving, but not so much that your stance wobbles.

When you first begin, do the kettlebell figure eight for 30 seconds, then rest for 30 seconds. Repeat 2–4 times.

Common Mistakes

There are a few common blunders to watch for when doing the figure eight.

Jerky Movements

During the figure eight exercise, you want to use a fluid continuous movement. That is, there should be no pause when passing the kettlebell from hand to hand. This requires plenty of practice to gain coordination and control. Beginners may struggle to keep the bell moving and should use a light kettlebell until they feel comfortable during the hand-off stage of this exercise.

Slumped Back

It's important to stay strong through the core—including the back—as you do this movement. Depending on the variation of the exercise that you use, you may feel most of the workload in the lower back or you may feel it throughout the entire torso, including the abs. Keep the back relatively flat and avoid slumping or curving the back into a C-shape. If you find yourself slumping, reduce the weight and try again.

Modifications and Variations

There are a few different ways to make this movement harder or easier.

Need a Modification?

The easiest way to make this exercise easier is to use less weight. If you don't have a kettlebell, you can use a dumbbell but it is harder to pass from hand to hand. You can also practice this move by doing just 2-3 full figure eights, then stand up to rest. Repeat several times to help improve your coordination and control.

Up for a Challenge?

There are several variations to the kettlebell figure eight. Most of them involve adding a movement to the middle of the figure eight before you begin circling the weight behind your second leg.

Hold

Some exercisers stand up fully in the middle and end of each repetition. You lift and hold the kettlebell at chest height to engage the upper body.

To do this variation, begin the exercise as you would when performing the basic move. After you bring the kettlebell behind and around the left leg, stand up fully. Bring the kettlebell up close to the chest and hold it in both hands for just a second.

Then begin the second part of the figure eight, circling the kettlebell around the right leg. Again, come to a standing position after completing the right leg circle, holding the kettlebell at chest height. Try to keep the figure eight fluid and movement continuous.

Shoulder Press

To work the upper body even more, add a shoulder press to the exercise.

To do this variation, do the same version as indicated above with the hold. Complete a full kettlebell circle around the left leg and come up to stand, but instead of moving the kettlebell into both hands, keep it in the left hand and move right into a shoulder press on that side. Engage through the core, keep the chest and back strong, and lift the kettlebell so that your left arm is fully extended above your left shoulder. At the top of the movement, the palm faces forward.

Bring the weight back to the chest, then back down towards the floor to begin the next figure eight circle around the right leg. When you finish the circle around the right leg, you'll complete a shoulder press on the right. Continue this pattern alternating figure eight leg circles and shoulder presses.

Boxing Moves

MMA fighters and boxers often use kettlebells for training. Some of these athletes will add a boxing move in the middle of each figure eight at the same place where you would add a hold or a shoulder press. It's best to use a lighter weight for this option.

To do this variation, do the same exercise as indicated above with the hold. Complete a full kettlebell circle around the left leg and come up to stand. Continuing the fluid motion, bring the left arm into an uppercut. Then bring the kettlebell down in front of the body, and continue the rest of the figure eight. After circling around the right leg, bring the right arm into an uppercut (while holding the kettlebell). Continue moving through the figure eights, placing an uppercut after each leg circle.

This same variation can be performed with other boxing moves such as the jab or hook.

Safety and Precautions

This exercise may not be appropriate for some people with lower back problems. If you have a history of back problems speak with your healthcare provider or your physical therapist before attempting this move. You may also want to work with a trainer to make sure that you maintain good form.

Also, those with shoulder problems should exercise caution when performing different variations of this movement. Speak with your physical therapist to make sure that the exercise is appropriate for you.

Lastly, women who are pregnant and people with obesity may have a hard time passing the kettlebell around the back of their legs. Other exercises, such as a standing hay baler may be more appropriate.

Try It Out

Incorporate the figure eight into one of these workouts that emphasize the core.

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Article Sources
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