You’ve seen them in the hands of everyone from fit moms to buff jocks at your gym — yet you’re still hesitant to pick one up. While kettlebells have become a go-to piece of workout equipment for many, they can be tricky to master — and even cause damage — if you don’t know how to use them properly.
Kettlebells are thought to have come from Russia in the 1800s, but some believe they date back to Spartan times when handles were placed into cinderblocks in order to help move them around. Since, the spherical weights have rolled into the fitness world, popularized in America by former Soviet Special Force trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline, who believed that with a kettlebell you can do the same things you can with a dumbbell, only better.
“For many purposes, a weight is a weight is a weight,” says Keith Wittenstein, Level 4 CrossFit coach, CrossFit HQ seminar trainer and senior coach at CrossFit Solace in New York City. “However, kettlebells differ from dumbbells by virtue of the fact that the center of mass is located away from the hand in a kettlebell.” This is what makes the tea-kettle-without-a-spout shaped weight ideal for dynamic swinging exercises, he says.
And with that ability comes countless multi-joint exercises you can perform. “There’s an extended library of motions and how you can link them together using a kettlebell,” says Dasha Libin Anderson, MS, NASM, NASC, MKC, M-KBI, author of Kettlebell Kickboxing: Every Women’s Guide to Getting Health, Sexy, and Strong.
Let Me See Your Hips Swing
Every exercise stems from the basic kettlebell swing, which, contrary to the way it looks isn’t a swing powered but the arms, but is rather great for developing strength in the posterior chain — back, shoulders, hamstrings and glutes. That is as long as it’s performed safe and correctly. “It’s not a squat,” says Libin Anderson. “It’s a hinge.”
The biggest thing to watch out for when swinging the bell? Never rounding your back. “If you can’t keep your back straight, as you pick up, put down, or swing the kettlebell, then you have no business picking up the weight,” says Wittenstein. “Maintaining your posture at all times when working with weights is crucial. Period.”
Swing, check! Still not totally convinced you should switch your normal routine? Read on to learn why you might want to give this dynamic training a try.
5 Reasons to Start Kettlebell Training
1. It’s incredible exercise.
When you swing kettlebells, your heart rate can come up as quick and as elevated as it would from any form of jump training, Libin Anderson explains. According to a study from the American Council on Exercise (ACE), you can even burn up 20 calories a minute, depending on how hard you’re working. That’s equivalent to (if not more than) what you might accomplish in a cardio class. Plus, these cast iron weights help solve the debate of “Do I do cardio or strength today?” With kettlebells, you get both.
2. It tends to be easier on the body.
Kettlebell routines generally flow from one exercise to the next similar to the vinyasa flows you might see in a yoga class. If done correctly, the smooth transitions make it feel more natural for your body to perform the steps. “There is nothing wrong with plyometrics at all, but if done incorrectly, jumping can sometimes break down the joints,” says Libin Anderson. “Kettlebells, because of the fluid swinging movement used to move them, they don’t affect the joints as much.”
3. It’s functional training.
What exactly does that mean? “Kettlebells are great conditioning tools for developing cardio respiratory and muscular endurance,” says Wittenstein. They recruit the use of mobility and coordination, too when you do things like switch the kettlebell from one hand to the other. “Therefore, routines work motor and balance skills more than traditional weights,” says Libin Anderson. This might be one form of exercise where you can’t totally turn your brain off!
4. It can be worked into other exercise forms.
We’re talking everything from strength and power routines, to HIIT, Tabata and even traditional cardio training like running. “You’re not going to do crazy lifts like cleans and jerks with a barbell in the middle of your Tabata set,” says Libin Anderson. “With kettlebells though, you can.” Thanks to their size and versatility, swings find there way into all types of exercise regimens and classes.
5. Kettlebells easily fit in your home.
It’s not likely you have a bench and barbell in your living room next to the fireplace. Not only is there probably no room, it’s just not practical and would look ridiculous, right? With kettlebells, you just need one weight in order to recreate the same heart rate spike you’d get on a five-minute run, explains Libin Anderson.
Worth the Weight
One of the most important things when kettlebell training is choosing the correct weight. “For males, I’d start with at least 25 pounds and no more than 45 or 55 pounds. And for women, a 15-pound bell or anywhere up to 35 or 40 pounds if you’re comfortable with a double-arm swing with that.” If you’re not sure the correct weight for you, simply hold one by the handle straight out in front of you with both arms parallel to the floor. If you can do that easily, it’s probably too light. The kettlebell should be too heavy to comfortably lift in front of you, says Anderson. Choose your weight and you don’t need anything else but your body to work out at home. “It’s also a great conversation starter sitting in the corner when you have guests over,” says Libin Anderson.