You may have passed by it in the weight room countless times, stashed in the corner with the other strange-looking equipment. Maybe you've watched the more daring gym-goers swinging it around, while thinking something along the lines of, "Nope, nope, nope." Although it may seem a little daunting from a distance, we promise that the kettlebell isn't as confusing or scary as it looks. When used correctly and consistently, it's a highly versatile and effective strength training tool for people of all fitness levels.
Usually made from cast iron or cast steel, the kettlebell is a ball-shaped weight with a single handle. Unlike regular weights—which are usually lifted and lowered in slow, controlled movements—many kettlebell exercises incorporate faster, more explosive movements. As a result, kettlebell workouts deliver a double benefit of cardio and strength, while also helping to improve flexibility and balance.
Trainer Michael Blauner loves using kettlebells in his clients' workouts, because they allow for more mobility in the joints and personal adjustments can be easily made. "Everyone's biomechanics are unique, and a free-moving weight like a kettlebell allows for wrist mobility, which in turns transfers to safe joint mobility," he says.
How do you know what size (weight) with which to start? Kettlebell instructor Greg Brookes points out that one of the biggest misconceptions about kettlebells is that you should choose the same weight as you would use with free weights. "Kettlebell training is different from dumbbell training," he writes on his website. "All kettlebell exercises are based on full-body movements, so unlike dumbbell training, there are no isolation-based exercises […] Kettlebell exercises use hundreds of muscles at a time, meaning you are able to lift more weight but also condition the body quicker."
Brookes recommends that women who are new to strength training should start with an 8kg (15-pound) kettlebell, or 12kg (25 pounds) if they have some strength experience, and then gradually work their way up to 16kg (35 pounds). For men, he suggests starting with 12kg (25 pounds) for beginners, or 16kg (35 pounds) for those with some strength experience, working up to 24kg (53 pounds) over time.
You don't have to be a certain age, weight or fitness level to start reaping the benefits of the versatile kettlebell. We asked some trainers to share their favorite moves and you might be surprised at the myriad of ways that a single tool can shape, strengthen and sculpt your muscles.
Hold the kettlebell with an underhand grip and hoist it above your head, fully extending your arm and allowing the weight to rest on the back of your wrist.
Maintaining a stable shoulder and core, begin walking.
Try walking 30 steps at first and then switch arms. Maintain an upright posture throughout.
"This is one of my favorites because it works the stabilizing muscles in the shoulder, which we often neglect in traditional push/pull exercises," says Haschen. "This exercise also requires considerable core strength and is a great addition to circuit training."
Reps: Start with 30 steps, work up to 80 Muscles worked: Deltoids, rhomboids, trapezius, rotator cuff, serratus anterior, obliques
Begin holding the kettlebell in one hand, lifting it overhead with your shoulder and elbow locked out and your palm forward. Your feet should be wider than hip distance apart, with your knees and toes pointing out at about 45 degrees.
Keeping your eyes focused on the kettlebell overhead, push your hip out toward the side with the kettlebell overhead. Bending at the hip, slowly lean down and reach to touch the floor with your other hand.
Pause, then come back to standing by straightening at the hip and bringing your hips back under your shoulders. Keep your chest, head and eyes facing the kettlebell at all times.
"The kettlebell windmill is great for thoracic spine twisting and opening, hip hinging and shoulder stability," says Williams. "It's also great for stretching, as it will open up your thoracic spine, pecs, piriformis and hamstrings. It's not necessary to go fast or heavy to get the most from this exercise. You will certainly get core strengthening, as well as some shoulder strengthening."
Reps: 3 sets of 5 on each side Muscles worked: Abdominals, obliques, hip flexors, glutes, trapezius, deltoids
Hold the kettlebell in your right hand with your left arm extended out for balance. Keeping a neutral spine, hinge forward at the hips as far as you can while keeping a flat back, as if you were performing a deadlift.
As you stand back up, powerfully pull the kettlebell up toward your shoulder, leading with your elbow. From here, keep your elbow close to your sides, so you're in the starting position of a pressing motion.
Press the dumbbell overhead and then release it back to your starting position for your next rep.
"I love this move because it gets your heart rate up, so it can be used at the end of a circuit during metabolic conditioning workouts, or as part of a full-body workout," says Mathews. "You don't need to go super heavy on this one, since you'll be moving pretty quickly. I usually start with a 10kg kettlebell and assess from there."
Reps: 10 on each side Muscles worked: Hamstrings, deltoids, core
Begin by sitting on your mat, with knees bent and heels supporting your feet.
Recline back so that your body is angled about 45 degrees.
Keeping your lower body still, grab the kettlebell and twist your body from side to side, using your core muscles to stabilize the motion. The more you lean back, the more challenging this exercise becomes.
Begin with the kettlebell against your chest and resting against your wrist, with your elbow by your side and your wrist in a neutral position.
Grip tightly and squeeze your glutes as you push the weight toward the ceiling until your elbow is locked out.
Slowly lower back to the starting position and repeat.
If you're struggling to get the weight over your head, you can slightly bend your knees and go into a quarter squat first to help drive the kettlebell up. Due to the unstable nature of the kettlebell while lifting, McLean recommends going five or 10 pounds lighter than your usual dumbbell shoulder press weight.
Evans uses plastic kettlebells in her deep-water fitness class. Her favorite exercise is the one-handed run.
Start with the kettlebell in one hand. From a vertical position in the water, run down to the other end of the pool.
To make it even more challenging, do a high-knee run in that vertical position and pass the bell from hand to hand.
"Anyone can do kettlebell workouts on land, but putting them in the pool is a completely different workout," says Evans. "The resistance of the water makes it challenging to stay balanced, especially with the weight on only one side."
Lying on your back, grab a kettlebell with both hands, then roll onto your back and transfer it to one hand.
With your knuckles pointed to the ceiling, extend the kettlebell straight up over your chest.
Slowly lower until your elbow hits a 90-degree angle. If needed, stabilize yourself with the other arm by pressing your palm into the floor.
"This is one of my favorites because it's a great way to work the chest and triceps at home without needing a bench and a bar," says Shuler. "Pressing upward with only one side of the body engages the core to keep the body centered, while the shoulder and chest muscles work to keep the weight of the kettlebell in line, and the triceps are recruited to assist with the lift."
Reps: 4 to 8 reps for 2 to 3 sets to achieve muscular strength, or 8 to 12 reps for 2 to 3 sets to achieve muscular endurance Muscles worked: Chest, triceps, shoulders, abs
Lower into a front squat the same way you would with a barbell.
Rise back to a standing position with control.
"Even though you would perform less weight with the kettlebells than you would with a barbell, the weight is concentrated right by your chest, so it encourages a lot more abdominal action and makes it easier to focus on a powerful hip extension at the top," says Li.
Reps: 10 Muscles worked: Glutes, quads, hamstrings and abdominals, plus the back muscles/spinal extensors and shoulder muscles indirectly
Start by holding a kettlebell in your right hand while lying on your back. Bend your right knee and place your foot flat on the floor. Keep your right arm straight and locked out so you don't compromise your shoulder. Your left arm should be out to the side.
Extend the kettlebell high above your head. Crunch up and roll to your left elbow, while keeping your right arm straight and locked out. As you rise, push down on your right heel.
While rolling onto your left elbow, shift your weight onto your left hand so you can stabilize yourself as you lock your left elbow out. You will now be in a seated position.
With your right arm still straight and locked out, push your left hand into the floor. Lift your butt and hips off the floor without moving your feet. Everything should be tight and engaged.
Keeping your right arm locked out and your chest up, sweep your left leg all the way behind you until your knee touches the ground.
Your left leg is now back behind your body and you should have a neutral spine. Your right arm remains locked into place throughout the entirety of this movement. Push up through your right heel and come to a standing position.
Perform all of these steps backwards to get back to the starting position and then repeat.
"This exercise may seem intimidating, but it's one of the most effective core training exercises out there," says Dunne. "It's my favorite because it requires all of your 'major playing' muscles to work together. When you engage all of these major muscles, you can burn a lot of calories quickly. The other reason I love this exercise is that it forces you to think through the movements, so your brain gets a workout, too."
Reps: 4 per side Muscles worked: Triceps, anterior deltoid, anconeus
A lifelong Cincinnatian, Melissa earned a Bachelor of Arts in English Literature from University of Cincinnati before breaking into online writing in 2000. As a Digital Journalist for SparkPeople, she enjoys helping others meet their wellness goals by writing about all aspects of healthy living. An avid runner and group fitness addict, Melissa lives in Loveland with her guitarist husband and three feisty daughters.