Kettlebell Training - The Basics

Side Squat with Kettlebell Curl
Side Squat with Kettlebell Curl. Ben Goldstein

Walk into any gym and you'll probably see a set of kettlebells, maybe sitting in a corner next to other odd-looking equipment like BOSUs, battle ropes, and medicine balls.

If you watch someone use a kettlebell, you've probably seen them swing it up and down, maybe wondered why they would do such a thing. What is the benefit of swinging a weight that looks like, well, a kettle?

There are plenty of benefits to kettlebell training and one of the main ones is this: Many kettlebell exercises are dynamic, often ballistic, meaning fast lifts rather than the slow and controlled strength training most of us are used to doing.

These types of exercises get your heart rate up in a whole different way than cardio. Not only that, these movements challenge almost every muscle in your body. Even better, kettlebell training is so different from what most of us are used to, it can actually be kind of fun.

While there is a learning curve with kettlebell training, anyone can do it, even beginners. If you've been doing the same workouts, kettlebell training can breathe new life into your exercise routine. Learn what you need to know about kettlebell training.

What is Kettlebell Training?

Kettlebells are cast iron weights ranging from 5 lbs to over 100 lbs, shaped like a ball with a handle for easy gripping.

The kettlebell originated in Russia and was popular in the U.S. decades ago, but has hit a resurgence in the last few years with a flurry of classes, videos, and books. The reason? Kettlebells offer a different kind of training using dynamic moves targeting almost every aspect of fitness – Endurance, strength, balance, agility and cardio endurance.

People love it because it's challenging, efficient and you only need one piece of equipment.

The idea is to hold the kettlebell in one or both hands and go through a variety of exercises like the two arm swing, the snatch, the loaded carry and the high pull.

Some movements have you changing the weight from hand to hand as the weight swings up or as you move laterally, requiring you to stabilize the body and engage the core in a whole new way.

Other moves require power from the legs and hips to move the weight, giving you integrated whole body movements that are often missing with other types of training.

Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells

You may wonder, isn’t a kettlebell just like a dumbbell? In some respects they’re the same but, what makes the kettlebell different is how it’s shaped. It may look like an ordinary weight, but the u-shaped handle actually changes how the weight works with your body.

With a dumbbell, the center of gravity lies in your hand but, with the kettlebell, the center of gravity lies outside of your hand, which means it can change depending on how you’re holding it and moving it.

The momentum of many kettlebell movements (a big no-no in traditional strength training), creates centrifugal force, focusing more attention on the muscles used for deceleration and stabilization. This type of multi-directional movement mimics real life movements such as swinging a suitcase to put it in an overhead bin, for example.

Dumbbells are great for building muscle and strength with slow, controlled movements while kettlebell training involves the entire body and focuses on endurance, power and dynamic movements.

The Benefits of Kettlebell Training

Almost any exerciser can benefit from kettlebell training.

In fact, the American Council on Exercise commissioned a study to find out just how effective kettlebell training is.

After 8 weeks of kettlebell exercises, researchers saw significant improvement in endurance, balance, and core strength. The greatest improvement was in the core where strength increased a whopping 70 percent.

Other benefits include:

  • Improved coordination and agility.
  • Better posture and alignment – Many exercises work the postural muscles in a functional way.
  • It's time efficient – You train multiple fitness components in the same session including cardio, strength, balance, stability, power, and endurance
  • The exercises are functional and weight bearing which helps increase bone density and keep the body strong for daily tasks.
  • You become more efficient at other types of exercise.
  • Increased power development and endurance, which is great for a variety of sports.
  • It can help protect athletes from injuries – Many injuries happen when you're moving fast and have to come to a stop (a.k.a., eccentric deceleration). Kettlebell exercises actually train the body in eccentric deceleration, which can translate to a healthier, stronger body on the court or field.
  • Improved back pain - One interesting study published in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that kettlebell training offered some unique loading patterns we don't see with traditional strength training. Because the lower back is activated during swings, this actually enhances the functioning and health of the lower back.
  • Simplicity – the exercises are simple, the workouts are straightforward and you only need one piece of equipment, although you may need a variety of weights.

Precautions

All of this sounds great, but there are some drawbacks such as:

  • Tough for beginners - If you're new to exercise, swinging a kettlebell is not where you want to start. You need to have a very strong foundation before testing your balance and core strength with a heavy weight. However, you can use a kettlebell like a dumbbell for static exercises like deadlifts, rows or squats.
  • Requires training and practice - The key to kettlebell training is using a heavy weight - Heavy enough that you have to use the power of your hips and legs to help push or swing the weight up. It's very easy to hurt your back if you don't use good technique, so get some guidance from an expert and start with a lighter weight,
  • Risk of injury - The real injury risk often comes from doing the moves wrong rather than the exercises themselves. Again, this is why it's important to get some instruction for the more dynamic exercises.

If you're interested in getting started with kettlebell training, it's best to take a class or get some guidance from an experienced instructor to get detailed breakdowns of the exercises. Many of the swinging movements may be unfamiliar and a professional can help with your form and in choosing your weights.

If that isn't an option, videos are another good choice. Try "The Ultimate Kettlebell Workouts for Beginners" which offers instructions for basic kettlebell movements as well as workouts that involve a variety of kettlebell combinations.

Sources:

Jay K, Frisch D, Hansen K, et al. Kettlebell training for musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health: a randomized controlled trial. Scandinavian Journal of Work, Environment & Health. 2011;37(3):196-203.

Kettlebell Swing, Snatch, and Bottoms-Up Carry: Back and... : The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. LWW. http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2012/01000/Kettlebell_Swing,_Snatch,_and_Bottoms_Up_Carry_.3.aspx. Accessed June 27, 2017.

Kettlebells Kick Butt. ACE Fit | Fitness Information. https://www.acefitness.org/acefit/expert-insight-article/47/3233/kettlebells-kick-butt/.

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