The Iron Truth about Kettlebell TrainingFind Out If This Fitness Trend Is Right for You
-- By Nicole Nichols, Fitness Instructor & Health Educator
Kettlebells were practically unheard of in North America until recently, but now exercising with a bowling-ball-shaped weight with a handle is the newest fitness trend. Used by fitness enthusiasts, collegiate athletes, and pro sports teams alike, more and more people are becoming curious about kettlebells. Here’s what you need to know.
What are kettlebells?
Kettlebells have been around for ages. Made out of cast iron, they’re cannonball-shaped weights with a single handle on top. Although they look really different from the free weights and machines that occupy most gyms, they are “one of the best and most efficient fitness tools you can use,” according to Henry Marshall, a NSCA-certified personal trainer and IKFF- and AOS-certified kettlebell trainer. Marshall explains that although kettlebells originated in Russia and continue to be popular in Eastern Europe, “American strongmen like Eugene Sandow and the Saxton Brothers trained with them in the early 1900s, too.”
What are the benefits of kettlebells?
The purported benefits of kettlebells appeal to people of all fitness levels, ages and genders. Somewhere along the way, says Marshall, “the fitness industry lost the real definition of ‘fit’ and replaced traditional full-body exercises with isolation exercises. Lately though, this cosmetic type of training is being replaced with movement-based training, which some call functional fitness training.” That’s what kettlebells provide, and individuals who want a more practical and traditional style of training are turning to kettlebells. Proponents of kettlebells, including Marshall, say that the benefits of kettlebell training are many. Kettlebells offer:
- Full-body conditioning. “The body learns to work as one synergistic unit linked strongly together,” he says.
- Big results by spending less time in the gym. “Because kettlebell training involves multiple muscle groups and energy systems at once.”
- Increased resistance to injury
- The ability to work aerobically and anaerobically simultaneously.
- Improved mobility and range of motion
- Increased strength without increase of mass. Kettlebell exercisers are lean and toned, not bulky—a benefit that appeals to women and men alike.
- Enhanced performance in athletics and everyday functioning
- Major calorie burning (In a recent study conducted by the highly respected American Council on Exercise, participants burned approximately 20 calories per minute--that's 1,200 calories per hour.)
Most commercial gyms do not have kettlebells, but small boutique gyms and independent trainers offer group classes and individual instruction. The best way start using kettlebells is to find a trainer or instructor with a kettlebell teaching certification. The most common and reputable certifying bodies, which train kettlebell experts around the world, are:
- American Kettlebell Club (AKC)
- Canada's Agatsu and Kettlebell Training Academy
- Art of Strength
- Crossfit, which incorporates kettlebells along with other equipment and training techniques
- International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation (IKFF)
- Russian Kettlebell Challenge Academy (RKC)
Because kettlebell lifts are more subtle than traditional weight training exercises, it takes coordination and kinesthetic (body) awareness to perfect the exercises. A single exercise consists of multiple joints and muscle groups moving simultaneously, often in ways that are new and unfamiliar to most people. And because the movements are different than traditional strength exercises, they take practice—and professional attention—to master. When done wrong, there is more risk than just dropping the weight on your toes or bumping yourself, as Scott alludes to. Bad form could seriously injure your joints, neck, back and spine. The bottom line is to be safe—and learn how to use kettlebells from the pros.
Marshall couldn't agree more. He also recommends seeking advice from a certified trainer before even picking up a kettlebell on your own. A kettlebell instructor will teach you how to move correctly, he says. "Through correct movement comes an intrinsic action in which your mind becomes one with the movement, so that you no longer think about the action," he explains in a very Zen-like way. "Similar to riding a bike, once you learn you never forget."
How much do kettlebells weigh and where do you get them?
There are kettlebells from two pounds to 106 pounds and beyond, according to Marshall. Naturally, you should start with a lower weight until your skills improve enough to try a higher weight without risk. Men usually start with a kettlebell that weighs between 25 and 35 pounds, while women tend to begin with a 12 to 26 pound kettlebell, depending on their fitness level. Scott says that lighter kettlebells are not recommended for most people. "It is necessary to have a kettlebell that's heavy enough to engage your hamstrings and glutes during the swing, the most basic kettlebell exercise." Even though smaller kettlebells exist, even in the five to 10 pound range, these would be "totally inappropriate" for many exercises, according to Scott. Although it seems counterintuitive, a weight that is too light may encourage improper form. But more importantly, you'll derive little to no benefit from using such a lightweight kettlebell.
It's challenging for a novice to pick out a high-quality and comfortable kettlebell since they often don't know what to look for. "There are a lot of companies making cheap kettlebells, and they either have a weird handle shape or rough handles," says Scott, who once bought a cheap kettlebell from Craigslist that badly tore up her hands. She recommends that you look for a kettlebell that is smooth and basically feels good in your hand. For clients who have been using kettlebells in a group or private training setting for a while, it's easier to find the right fit since they know from their instructor what "feels right." So once you have some experience using them, comfort, shape and fit is important in selecting kettlebells for at-home use.
Scott recommends vendors such as Agatsu and Dragon Door. Both Marshall and Scott consider Art of Strength's kettlebells to be of high quality as well.
So if you're ready to open your mind (and body) to give kettlebells a try, you just might find yourself in the best shape of your life!
Editor's Note: Special thanks to Henry Marshall (pictured below left, performing the "windmill") and Patty Scott (pictured below right, performing a kettlebell "swing") for being excellent resources for this article! To view a short instructional video that Scott has created to demonstrate the form of the two-hand swing, click here.
This article has been reviewed and approved by SparkPeople fitness Coach and ACE-Certified Personal Trainer, Dean Anderson.