Kettlebells have been getting more and more popular lately, and with good reason. They’re compact, fun, and offer a full body strength and endurance workout comparable to what you can get from an Olympic weight set and power rack without as big of an investment.
So, What’s a Kettlebell?
Likely you’ve seen them or heard of them – they look like cannonballs with handles, and have been popularized by Russian trainer and martial artist, Pavel Tsatsouline. Kettlebells are generally used to perform ballistic movements that train not only strength, but also flexibility and the cardiovascular system. The variety of workouts utilizing kettlebells offers total-body strength. From your grip to your legs you’ll feel worked all over from just a few minutes of working with them. Because of their handle and unusual shape, they have some special properties – like momentum. Swinging a kettlebell requires focus and all your primary and stabilizer muscles.
Being solid metal they aren’t cheap. If you can’t afford kettlebells, can’t justify the cost, or are like me and have a complex against having a fixed-weight piece of equipment, there are alternatives. There are several adjustable-weight kettlebells, many that even allow you to use your own plates. If you’re feeling a little DIY you can make your own with PVC, a basketball and some sand or concrete, or you can make a t-handle or d-handle. Many of the movements can be mimicked with a dumbbell, too. However, certain kettlebell movements just can’t be done without a proper, comfortable handle.
Benefits of Using Kettlebells
Kettlebells demand your full attention and engage your entire body, offering a full body workout that can be done relatively quickly.
The movements in kettlebell exercises work multiple muscle groups, increase endurance and power creating functional strength. Sure, kettlebells could be used to do curls, but who would want to?
Versatility & Portability
Want to workout on the road? At work? Want to go for a hike but want some added pack weight? Try a kettlebell. Being so dense they can pack a lot of weight despite being small. Being so little they can turn pretty much any movement into a workout.
Kettlebell workouts are hard, there’s no way around that. The difficulty, intensity and engagement of the entire body turns your body into an efficient, strong, fat burning machine.
This list is by no means a complete list of things you can do with a kettlebell, but these are a few of my favorites. Correct form is essential, so be sure to read the descriptions and watch the videos before you try them (or, ideally, have someone who knows their way around a kettlebell show you.)
The Two-Arm Swing
Popularized by Tim Ferris’ Four Hour Body, the swing is a basic, but excellent workout. You can do it with one hand or two and it works everything from your shoulders to your thighs. You begin with your feet shoulder width apart and toes pointed slightly out, the weight in between your feet or slightly behind them. Squatting down, you grab the kettlebell and quickly stand up while pushing your hips forward. The kettlebell will swing up – the movement driven primarily by your core and lower body with a bit of help from your shoulders. When you reach the top of the movement, pull the kettlebell down to the start position.
Deceptively challenging, the Turkish Get-Up is one of the most fun and difficult movements. To begin lay on your back while holding the kettlebell straight up in the air with one hand. The kettlebell should be resting against your forearm and your elbow should be kept locked during the entire motion. Make sure you keep your eyes up on the kettlebell. Carefully prop yourself up on your free hand and bring your opposite (side with kettlebell in hand) knee up. Put your free-side’s knee on the ground, and your kettlebell-side’s foot on the ground bringing yourself into somewhat of a kneeling lunge position, and finish by standing up – kettlebell arm still up in the air.
Clean and Press
Begin by picking up the kettlebell like you are doing to do a swing – squat down with it between your feet and grab it one handed then drive it upward with your hips and legs. When you lift the kettlebell, keep your elbow in so the kettlebell will wind up at your shoulder. As the kettlebell reaches the shoulder dip down, slightly bending your knees to get your elbow underneath the kettlebell and then press it up. Lower the kettlebell back down to the start position.
You will be doing a very similar movement to the Clean & Press except with slight variations and much faster – so please be cautious! The snatch also begins the same as the kettlebell swing – as the kettlebell is coming up bend your elbows a little. Once the kettlebell reaches chest height you will reverse pull the kettlebell using primarily your shoulders and lats. The kettlebell will flip over your hand to rest on the top of your wrist / forearm. Once the kettlebell is higher than your head you push through to extend your arm fully in a strong upward punching motion. This movement is particularly technical so be extra careful doing this one.
These are just a handful of exercises you can do with kettlebells, really the options are almost limitless. Any exercise that can be done with a dumbbell can also be done with kettlebells, so feel free to experiment with more familiar exercises like the bench press or squat. If you’re not ready to invest in buying your own kettlebells or making your own DIY version, most big box gyms are beginning to offer them for use or at least offering kettlebell classes. Do you have any other kettlebell training advice to offer? Share it with us in the comments!
Photo Credit: Mr. Vincent Freeman