Not long ago Kettlebells were a little-known piece of gear used only by Russian musclemen. But today, kettlebell exercises provide the ultimate combination of cardio, power, coordination, and stability all packed into one neat movement. Here is a breakdown of how you can use them to get fit.
A few days ago, a friend of mine sent me a photo of a kettlebell she had just bought and asked me how much she should tip the delivery person for dropping it off at her front door. I was going to respond and say that the tip she should offer was something like "Did you know you just got a great workout carrying that up the sidewalk?" But ... I refrained from being that guy yet again.
Even so, the exchange did reminded me that kettlebells are an awesome fitness tool that everyone—yes, even delivery people—can benefit from.
What is a kettlebell?
A kettlebell is a weight that resembles an old-timey cast-iron kettle (hence the name). But I have also seen it referred to as a "cannonball with a handle."
I've seen kettlebells referred to as 'cannonballs with handles.'
Legend has it that kettlebells were originally used by Russian strongmen. The history is somewhat unclear, but according to Kettlebells USA, the Russian Kettlebell as we know it today originated approximately 350 years ago. The first appearance of the word in a Russian dictionary appeared in 1704.
The Russians measured items in “poods” back then. A pood is 16.38 kg or 36.11 pounds. This unit of measure can be traced back to the 12th century, but you may still hear people use this term if they are serious kettlebell nerds ... I mean, enthusiasts. For our purposes, I'll stick with more modern terms.
Kettlebell sizes usually range from about 4 pounds to 175 pounds, but because a kettlebell is shaped differently than a dumbbell, a 4-pound (or 1.8 kg) kettlebell can effectively feel a bit heavier. This is because the kettlebell’s center of mass is often extended farther out from your body, which is why kettlebells can be so effective at improving your strength, balance, and power.
Also, kettlebell exercises usually involve some momentum. Working out with something that swings and gains momentum means you work your entire body, including your stabilizers and primary muscles.
Because executing kettlebell movements involves leverage and a little bit of balance, kettlebells engage several muscle groups at once, not to mention engaging your concentration and coordination. This makes kettlebells extra beneficial. It also explains why they demand more focus than other resistance training methods.
Due to their relatively small but incredibly dense size—as the delivery person demonstrated to my friend—they're pretty portable. You can take them to a park or even on a road-trip with the added bonus that anytime you move them from place to place, you're getting a workout!
And beyond the external benefits, a study in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that the acute hormonal response to the kettlebell swing exercise created an extremely significant rise in growth hormone and testosterone, two key muscle-building hormones in women and men.
How to use a kettlebell safely
Along with benefits, kettlebells have some risks. Be sure to start with a lighter weight kettlebell and spend some time educating yourself on the proper usage before you get carried away.
Obviously, dropping a kettlebell on your foot is not advised. But also, lifting too much too soon or lifting a kettlebell the wrong way can lead to muscle strains, tears, and falls.
For nearly every kettlebell exercise you do, concentrate on keeping your feet planted and your weight back toward your heels. This grounded body position will ensure that your body has a strong foundation, which is the basis of all good form.
Avoid lifting a kettlebell directly over your head. Compared to a dumbbell or barbell, it is much easier for your grip to slip or for you to drop the weight. If you don’t feel like you have a tight grip on your kettlebell, try wearing gloves with rubber on the palms.
You need to protect your lower back when using a kettlebell. Whether you’re picking it off the ground or swinging it up in the air, never slouch or collapse your lower back. The power and force behind all your kettlebell movements should be generated by your hips and legs, not by your spine.
And finally, it's handy to pretend that you don’t have a wrist when you do many of these kettlebell exercises. Keep a neutral wrist position (straight in line with your forearm). The kettlebell, along with gravity, will to try and pull your wrist out of neutral position and backward, ending with your palm facing up toward the ceiling. I was coached to respond to this movement by “motorcycling my wrist forward,” which has kept me safe so far.
Pick up one kettlebell in each hand, pinch your shoulder blades down and back, keep your neck long and relaxed, and then walk until your grip starts to fatigue or your back starts to hunch. This is a basic load-bearing exercise.
Pick up a kettlebell in one hand (like you are carrying a suitcase) and walk as far as you can without starting to lean to the kettlebell side. When your grip gets fatigued or you start to lean, change hands and repeat.
To perform the goblet carry, simply walk forward and backward while holding an upside-down kettlebell close to your chest.
I suggest doing all three of these load-bearing exercises a few times per week. As Katy Bowman explains in her article It’s the Great Load Lesson, Charlie Brown:
Loads not only vary in terms of which tissues are strained. Some loads create a greater demand for energy (calories) because they require more work. The more balanced the load (like a backpack), the less energy it takes to carry.
So, mix it up and keep your tissues guessing.
Now let’s move on to some strength exercises.
Stand up straight, holding the kettlebell upside down in front of your chest with both hands. Keep your elbows close to your body and your feet at least hip-width apart. Start squatting by driving your hips back and then down. Remember to keep your thighs parallel with the ground and your shins perpendicular to the ground. Return to the starting position and repeat.
Clean and Press
This is an Olympic lift which is usually done with a barbell, but the kettlebell works well, too.
Pick the kettlebell up off the ground with one hand and let it swing between your legs. Lift the kettlebell, using a pulling motion (like you are starting a lawnmower). Immediately transition to an uppercut punching motion, which results in the kettlebell resting between your forearm and biceps (the Rack Position). Then press the kettlebell straight up, until your arm is straight. Then lower the kettlebell back through the Rack Position and smoothly back into a swing.
The kettlebell does not turn upside down during the exercise. The handle will always be on the top with the bell hanging toward the ground.
Lie down on your back while holding the kettlebell straight up in the air with your left hand. Keep your elbow locked and the kettlebell resting against your forearm. Prop yourself up on your free right hand while bringing your left foot toward your buttocks. Then put your right knee and left foot on the ground, so that you’re in a half-kneel. With the kettlebell are straight up, get all the way up into a standing position. Get back down to the ground and switch hands to do it again.
Always keep your eyes on the kettlebell. This will help with safety and form.
And the one you were all waiting for ...
Start with your feet about hip-width apart and the kettlebell on the floor slightly in front of you and between your feet. Bending slightly at the knees, hinge at the hips and grasp the kettlebell with both hands. Pull it back between your legs to create some swinging momentum. Then drive your hips forwards and straighten your back to swing the kettlebell up and out in front of your torso, to about chin height. Let the bell swing back between your legs and repeat this movement.
Quick and dirty kettlebell workout
Here is a quick and effective kettlebell workout you can try the next time you have a kettlebell handy and some energy to burn. Complete just 3-5 rounds of this circuit to help develop both strength and cardiovascular endurance:
Warm-up for 5-10 minutes (I like Sun Salutations)
Do 10 kettlebell swings with a light weight
Do 30 seconds of all-out cardio like jump rope, jumping jacks, burpees, or running on the spot with high kees
Do 10 kettlebell swings with a heavier weight
Do 30 seconds of cardio again
Hold front plank, side plank, and back plank for 15 seconds each
Rest for 1 minute, and then return to step 1
All of these kettlebell exercises are great. The kettlebell swing, in particular, is a marvelous movement for raising your heart rate (similar to a cardio workout), firming your glutes, strengthening your hamstrings, and improving the stability of your low back.
You might go as far as to say that kettlebell exercises provide the ultimate combination of cardio, power, coordination, and stability all packed into one neat movement.