We bet most people are interested in kettlebells for only one reason: it looks pretty darn cool!
A black cannonball with a cast iron handle,
no other training tool can match its old-school, back-to-basics appeal.
While the coolness factor is a good reason to start using one, there are many other reasons to keep doing kettlebell workouts for an extended period of time and make it a regular part of your workouts.
Whether you want to get started with your first kettlebell tomorrow, or want a quick refresher on everything that makes kettlebells indispensable; this blog is full of information you can apply to make immediate progress with your workout.
Part of the mystique of the kettlebell lies in its humble origins. Kettlebells were first used in 18th-century Russia, where they served as counterweights to weigh grain and other dry goods.
It wasn’t long before farmers began challenging each other to lift the heaviest kettlebells. As a result, the weights eventually ended up in the hands of the strongest men during their circus acts.
After World War II, the Soviet Red Army began using kettlebells to train their soldiers. By the 1970s, weightlifting with kettlebells had become the official sport of the Soviet Union. Kettlebells have become increasingly popular since the turn of the century, and they can now be found in every gym.
The anatomy of a kettlebell
The kettlebell consists of a bell, handle and “horns.” The bell itself is the round, cannonball-shaped weight. The handle connects to the kettlebell by sloping down at both ends, called the horns.
This design makes the kettlebell unique. Unlike a dumbbell, where a handle is the connection and is in the middle of two equally weighted weights, the center of gravity of a kettlebell is shifted relative to the handle – the center of gravity is several inches away from the handle.
The kettlebell can be grasped by the handle, the horns or by the end of the bell. Holding the kettlebell by the handle will be most common, but exercises such as the squat are more user-friendly if you grab the horns to perform the exercise. For a greater grip challenge in a movement such as rows, you can choose to hold the kettlebell by the bell itself. This requires your hand to squeeze harder to prevent the kettlebell from slipping.
The benefits of kettlebell training
The main thing that differentiates the kettlebell from the dumbbell is the location of the weight loading. In fact, the center of gravity of a kettlebell is six to 20 inches from the handle (when you grip the handle). This makes it more difficult to control the weight.
In addition, this ensures that virtually every exercise you do with it – from classic strength movements like presses and squats to more unique kettlebell exercises like swings and snatches – requires better form and more muscle activation than when using a dumbbell.
Squatting with the kettlebell in front of your body, for example, forces you to lean back more, improving the shape of your squat. In other words, the kettlebell encourages you to perform the exercise perfectly. And if you can’t, because, for example, you arch your back or turn to one side, you’ll notice right away when your form is not optimal.
In an overhead press movement with a kettlebell, your body tends to lean back. To avoid this, your torso must tighten properly. You should also tighten your core properly during a swing movement; you do this to prevent your lower back from becoming dangerously round at the bottom of the movement. With every exercise you do, you can count on your torso having to work harder to stabilize your body and perform the exercise safely. It is not optional to do this as with other free weights or machines.
Improved athletic ability
If you are an athlete of any kind, training with a kettlebell simulates the constantly shifting center of gravity you encounter on the field or mat better than most other methods of strength training.
Other objects, whether a ball, an obstacle or an opponent, are rarely stationary during a game. Using kettlebells teaches your body to stabilize itself and also exert strength despite the many different movements.
Plus, with exercises like swings, clean and jerks and snatches, you build strength that translates directly to your sport. In fact, with kettlebells you can also train explosive movements very well.
The handle of the kettlebell, combined with the shifting load, requires your fingers, hands and forearms to work harder to control the weight than with a dumbbell.
While some manufacturers promote a thick handle, a narrower one will make it easier to perform more complex movements, increasing your training options.
Because grip is important in most sports and for strength gains in general, kettlebells are a very appropriate tool.
Easy to carry
Kettlebells are very easy to travel with, they won’t roll around in the back of your car like dumbbells, and they wouldn’t look out of place on a beach or in the park. Moreover, unlike dumbbells, you really only need a single kettlebell to do a great workout. There are super many exercises you can do with one weight. Often with dumbbells you need a larger selection to do your workout. With kettlebells, you may need two weight steps to train your entire body.
A 2013 study from the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse examined the effects of kettlebell training on healthy male and female volunteers ages 19 to 25, all of whom had experience with strength training.
The subjects first had their strength, endurance and balance tested with conventional exercises and then continued training with kettlebells for eight weeks, training many different movements such as swings, snatches, cleans and presses. Then the same conventional exercises were used to measure progress.
The result? Subjects’ strength had improved, but especially core strength increased by 70%. Endurance increased by 13.8%. Participants’ balance ability also improved significantly. This is especially valuable for older adults beginning strength training, according to the researchers.
How to choose a Kettlebell
There are several types of kettlebells. Some are coated with rubber to protect floors from shocks and scratches. Others are specifically designed for kettlebell lifting competitions, have a straight handle and are uniform in size regardless of weight.
Some new kettlebells are adjustable and can be loaded with plates, this allows you to set one kettlebell as different weights. The classic kettlebell, however, is a solid weight made of cast iron and has a round bell and curved handle. This is the type we recommend for most applications.
There are also so-called user-friendly kettlebells with hollow bells, but they are very unnecessary if you know how to lift a kettlebell with proper technique. In addition, these kettlebells are often of poor quality.
Plate-loaded kettlebells may seem convenient and cost-effective, but they also often present problems. In fact, they increase the risk of injury. A plate hitting your forearm hurts more than a round object. In addition, it is very dangerous if you don’t load the plates correctly, if they fly away you just have to hope you don’t hit anything or anyone.
Competition kettlebells are obviously ideal if you have ambitions to compete, for example. Although the handle is great for elevators such as the clean, jerk and snatch, the classic kettlebell model offers more options due to its more rounded handle. You can always use two hands with a conventional kettlebell, even one with a small handle.
Safety and weight
A safety tip: do not use a kettlebell with a handle that is too thick. A handle just over an inch in diameter is enough to work on your grip, but not so demanding to hold that it causes unnecessary fatigue. When you perform an exercise like the swing, you may be doing hundreds of repetitions in a workout, as opposed to four sets of eight”, or some other standard set-and-rep schedule you would use with conventional exercises. You should not lose your grip, because this is very counterproductive from a technical point of view. Once someone’s grip is overstretched, you see a whole series of problems develop.
As for weight to start with, men can invest in one or two 16-pound kettlebells. This weight can provide many challenges for a wide range of exercises. For women, an 8-pound kettlebell will give you great value for money. As you get stronger you can easily move up in weight.
Wondering what exercises you can do with a kettlebell? Then take a look at our blog on the 7 best exercises with kettlebells for beginners.