The Health and Fitness Benefits of Kettlebell Training

How Kettlebells Improve Your Fitness

kettlebell training
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If I were a betting person, I'd bet you probably have some working knowledge of kettlebells. While kettlebells have actually been around for hundreds of years, the oddly-shaped piece of strength training equipment burst onto the fitness scene with exponentially increased popularity around 2010. And for good reason - not only can kettlebells enhance a user's strength but they can also increase cardiovascular health, making the equipment a double-duty workout.

What's So Special About Kettlebells?

There are two things that set kettlebells apart from dumbbells, barbells and other pieces of traditional strength equipment. First, the kettlebell shape is important. Kettlebells consist of a weighted ball or bell with a handle attached on top. Unlike a dumbbell that's equally weighted on each side of the handle, the kettlebell's bell creates an uneven distribution of weight that's harder to control. In other words, the bell weighs more than the handle, and is located beneath the handle. During exercises, the bell moves independently from the handle (it might rock side-to-side or swing up and down), rather than with the handle, as a dumbbell does.

Second, the shape of the kettlebell makes it possible to pull, push, press or swing the piece of equipment. The most interesting of these movements is the swing - it's during swinging exercises that the kettlebell's uneven shape becomes particularly demanding.

Research Confirms Kettlebell Benefits

The most talked-about research on kettlebells was released in 2010 by the American Council on Exercise (ACE). The Council performed a study in conjunction with the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse Exercise and Health Program to gauge information on calories burned during a kettlebell workout, as well as the aerobic (cardiovascular) effect of the workout.

Researchers specifically focused on these two effects because while you might assume that a weighted piece of equipment could enhance strength, you might not assume it could also improve cardiovascular health or burn calories at a rate similar to traditional cardiovascular workouts.

The results were impressive: A 20-minute interval-training kettlebell snatch routine (a full-body kettlebell swing and press exercise) had participants burning calories at a rate of approximately 20 calories per minute - a rate almost off the charts. And it was clear much of the calorie burn was due to study participants' increased heart rate throughout the routine - participants worked at an average of 94% maximum heart rate. That's more than enough to experience increases in aerobic capacity over time.

ACE followed up the first study with a second study in 2013 to gauge kettlebell benefits over time. This study split participants into two groups - a kettlebell training group and a non-exercise control group. The kettlebell group participated in two workouts per week over the course of eight weeks. At the end of the study, all participants saw marked increases in:

  • aerobic capacity
  • leg press strength
  • grip strength
  • dynamic balance
  • core strength

Core strength and dynamic balance were particularly surprising and encouraging benefits of the training method. Core strength actually increased by 70% due to the additional control required when lifting, swinging and pressing the kettlebells.

Focus on Proper Form

While kettlebells are an efficient and effective piece of workout equipment that can improve almost all markers of health and fitness, it's important to note that form is incredibly important. A 2012 study found that the kettlebell swing, in particular, can place a significant amount of load on the lumbar spine, which could cause irritation or pain in some participants.

Before picking up a kettlebell and starting your workout, it's advised that you work with a certified kettlebell instructor to master form and ensure your own safety.

Exercises Do Matter

The benefits of kettlebell training depend on the types of exercises you perform. For instance, a kettlebell biceps curl isn't going to challenge you much more than a dumbbell biceps curl. The true benefits of the kettlebell come when you put its unique properties to work during full-body dynamic exercises, such as swings and snatches. Rather than simply switching out your dumbbells for kettlebells, try working with a trainer to perform a kettlebell-specific workout routine.

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