Kettlebell Training - The Basics

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

"You want me to do what?" That’s what my client, Maria* said the first time I handed her a kettlebell and told her she was going to swing it up and and down. "I thought you said to never, ever use momentum when I’m lifting weights," she said, rolling her eyes to let me know just how many times I’d said that to her. "Yes, I know I said that, but this is a different kind of training."

It’s not surprising she thought I was crazy, but it only took a few kettlebell exercises to change her mind.

The dynamic, sometimes ballistic movements got her heart rate up, challenged every muscle in her entire body and were so different from her normal routine, she was actually having fun. 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 swings (e.g., the one-arm swing), presses (e.g., clean, push and press) or pulling motions (e.g., 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 the 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.

Just a few 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
  • Low risk of injury when you use good form and the right weights
  • Simplicity – the exercises are simple, the workouts are straightforward and you only need one piece of equipment

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.

These videos offer instructions for basic kettlebell movements as well as workouts that involve a variety of kettlebell combinations.

For more, check out this step by step guide to kettlebell exercises and learn more about how you can get started with kettlebell training.

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