Kettlebells 101: Benefits, Exercises, and Safety Tips
Last updated on : February 06 2023
Kettlebells have become increasingly popular as a versatile tool for strength training and cardio workouts in recent years.
With a handle on top, these cast iron bells have been used for centuries by athletes and fitness enthusiasts to improve power, endurance, and balance.
Whether you're a seasoned athlete looking to enhance your performance or just starting your fitness journey, kettlebells offer a unique and effective way to achieve your goals.
Click on the links below to find out everything you need to know about kettlebells.
1. What Are Kettlebells And How To Use Them
Kettlebells are a highly useful tool for fat loss and body toning. They increase core strength and target muscles that dumbbells or barbells can’t reach. Increased strength, fat loss and a general sense of feeling stronger and fitter are some of the benefits.
Kettlebells look like cast iron bowling balls with a handle. They come in various sizes and weights. They are also colorful, painted in colors from blues, to blacks to pinks. You might consider them cute looking because somehow they are.
Increase In Popularity
Kettlebells have seen a marked increase in popularity recently, why?
Probably because they pose less of a threat to other equipment in the gym and are quickly adopted, especially by women, and because they are a form of resistance training that is effective for fat loss.
People who mostly did cardio before, see fast results with kettlebells. The results are quick because kettlebells provide resistance training, leading to greater fat loss and better overall strength than cardio offers alone.
The Difference To Other Hand-Held Free Weights
A bicep curl with a dumbbell exercises the biceps and maybe 1 or 2 surrounding muscles. However, a snatch with a kettlebell works your core, back, thighs, legs, and shoulder muscles in just one move.
The increased range of motion in a kettlebell exercise provides a thorough full-body workout. This type of workout engages more muscles and burns a high number of calories.
There is also a lot more you can do with a single kettlebell than any other hand-held weight. You can lift, swing, jerk, and more. And you can substitute certain moves for others to achieve similar results.
This variety makes training more accessible and more effective. A barbell curl works the bicep and not much else - quite unlike the range achieved with a kettlebell.
Research shows that Olympians trained with kettlebells. However, their kettlebells were carved of stone and not made in iron. They were thick pieces of equipment, unlike the cool looking and effective kettlebells we have today.
Word Of Warning
Speak with your doctor before starting on any new activity like kettlebells. Seek advice from a trained professional whenever necessary. Be aware of the risks associated with increased and new physical activity on your health.
2. Benefits and Dangers of Kettlebells
Swings, snatches, cleans, and drop squats make up the bulk of kettlebell training exercises. The key to all these moves is the hip drive, which provides the power needed to move the weight through its ranges.
However, unlike conventional training with dumbbells, kettlebells train the core - muscles which are often neglected by most people. Plus there are many squatting and swinging movements designed to tone the stomach, thighs, and buttocks. Other moves work the back, shoulders, arms, and legs.
That’s basically what kettlebell training is, resistance training without dumbbells, barbells, cables, or other gym equipment. And with the added benefit of working your core.
Easily shed excess fat - Kettlebell training is beneficial for shedding excess fat. They provide harder workouts than cardio alone and engage more muscles. Net result - more calories burned, faster fat loss, and a toned, fit and beautiful body.
Time saver - You don't need as much time for an effective workout. The average kettlebell routine ranges from 20 to 45 minutes depending on your strength and stamina. Thirty minutes with a kettlebell is as effective as a 60-minute run if done with intensity. And the afterburn effect has your body burning calories furiously for up to 8 or 12 hours.
Quickly adopted by women - Many women, who are intimidated by weight equipment such as dumbbells and barbells, take to kettlebells more readily. Kettlebells look the part, and they come in a range of colors too.
Simple to use - Kettlebells are simple pieces of equipment and just about anybody can understand the basics quickly. Unlike most other gym equipment with ropes, ratchets, and levers, kettlebells only have one handle to grab.
However, given the benefits, it's easy to ignore that kettlebells can be dangerous if misused. Make sure you keep to the proper form to avoid pulling a muscle or straining a ligament. Consult with a trainer if you are in any doubt.
There are many mistakes that people make when training with kettlebells.
Ignoring the fundamentals - Not all moves are equal, and beginners need to start with the more straightforward exercises. Jumping to advanced use without practice and training is a recipe for injury.
Not training progressively - You need to build muscle and improve stability before you add heavier weights (or more difficult exercises) to your routine. Your body needs to accustom itself to weight training slowly and methodically. If you can’t hold a kettlebell above your head in a stable manner, then you are not ready to use it.
Using kettlebells that are too light - It's essential to train progressively, but not to start with weights that are too light. 35lbs for men and 16lbs for women is an excellent place to start. If you can handle these weights through the range of required motions with stability, then anything lighter is not optimal. If necessary, train with fewer reps to start and progress from that point.
Treating kettlebells like dumbbells - You can’t use kettlebells for bicep curls or other exercises that suit only dumbbells. Kettlebells train your core, thighs, butt and other muscles in a range of specific activities and motions. Use kettlebells for the kettlebell exercises and not for dumbbell or barbell exercises.
Too complicated workouts - for best results keep your workouts simple with a few different moves at your skill level. But keep the intensity high, and your focus on the correct form.
Incorrect form - unlike standard weights, the range of kettlebell movements increases the possibility of a strained ligament or muscle tear if done wrong. Regular dumbbells and barbells have more defined moves, so they are generally safer than kettlebells. Understand the proper form required for each exercise and stick to it religiously.
These are the most common errors that people make. Avoid them to get the most out of your kettlebell exercise routine and to avoid injury.
3. Should Women Use Kettlebells?
The answer is simple - YES.
Women tend to do too much cardio and not enough muscle toning and shaping - in other words, we don't do enough resistance training.
Resistance training is beneficial in improving our overall health. It strengthens bones, makes muscles and ligaments stronger, slows down the aging process, and improves our immune systems. A cardiovascular workout while useful is not enough to achieve all these benefits.
Kettlebell training is a form of resistance training. It strengthens our core, shreds our fat, increases our stamina, and improves our muscle tone. Moreover, it is the perfect solution when we are short of time. An intense 30-minute kettlebell session burns fat for hours and leaves us feeling refreshed and confident.
Many women who have trained with kettlebells report losing pounds of body weight in no time. They feel stronger and fitter. Even normal body aches and menstrual cramps diminished.
Kettlebell training effectively targets our thighs, butt, legs, hips, and waist - need I say more? Oh, yes we also find kettlebells better to use than other weights on offer at the gym and are not intimidated using them.
So if you're unsatisfied with your body, or you want firm, toned buttocks and legs, then look no further than a kettlebell. It’s all you need.
4. Putting Together A Kettlebell Training Routine
With kettlebells, there are varying levels of difficulty for beginners, intermediate and advanced.
You need to find the exercises that are just right for you. Don’t skip straight to the advanced moves risking an injury that will put you out of action for months - progress slowly and steadily instead and follow the fundamental principles below.
Progressive training is crucial - stick to the exercise complexity for your level and don't use weights that are too heavy until you are ready. Pace yourself slowly but ensure you progress over time.
Watch your repetitions - Don’t aim for muscle failure instead aim for about 12 to 15 reps using various weights and different moves - try to make each session a full-body workout.
Training to failure too often puts your body under stress. Use it sparingly to get maximum results.
Always maintain proper form - For most exercises, there is a jerk to lift, followed by a swing and a pause at the end of the movement and back again. Understand the proper form and stick to it rigidly otherwise you run a high risk of injury.
Mix up your routine - Don't do the same exercises day in and day out. Keep your body guessing by adding variation at least monthly otherwise your results are likely to taper off. Add more reps, change the sets, use new moves, different weights, etc.
Train barefoot on a hard floor - It's better to do kettlebell exercises barefoot. Because the load-bearing force needs a solid base to disperse, and most shoes have soles that are too soft or allow your feet to move around too much in them. Try your exercises barefoot to see the difference.
If your floor is too cold, you can use a thin exercise mat, and of course, wear shoes if your gym requires you to - remembering however that barefoot is better.
As a bonus - keep yourself motivated with a journal that records your routines, how many sets and reps, etc. A journal is important because it will show you how much you have progressed.
As you learn new techniques add them to your journal and rotate them into your routine. Use your journal to revive older methods you haven't used for a while, increase the weight, and it will seem like a whole new workout to your body.
Here are some example exercises to get you going.
Beginner Level - Two-handed kettlebell swing
This exercise targets the shoulders, back, legs, hips, and glutes. It is the most popular of all kettlebell moves and is perfect for beginners.
Stand straight with feet just wider than your hips. Hold the kettlebell handle in both hands and with your palms facing downwards. Slightly bend your knees but do not go all the way to a half-squat.
In one smooth motion, drive your hips forward and swing the kettlebell up to chest level. Keep your arms straight. Then lower the kettlebell down between your legs.
Engage your core and gluteus muscles to control the swing. Ensure that the force of this movement comes from the hips, and not the arms.
Aim for 12-15 reps.
Watch the video here.
Intermediate Level - Kettlebell figure-8
This exercise targets the arms, back, and abs and is an intermediate level exercise.
Start with your legs slightly wider than your hips. Next, assume a quarter squat position. Maintain a straight back and keep your chest up.
Start with the kettlebell in your left hand, swing it around the outside of your left leg, then back to the center. Continuing the movement pass the kettlebell to your right hand. Repeat the swing around your right leg and back to the center.
Aim to keep this figure-8 going for 1 or 2 minutes.
Intermediate Level - Kettlebell Russian Twist
The Russian twist targets the abs and obliques and is an intermediate level exercise. Try it as a more effective version of a traditional crunch.
Your starting position is comfortably on the floor with your knees bent, ready for a traditional crunch. Then, with the kettlebell held close to your chest, lean back by 45 degrees.
Begin rotating your torso slowly from left to right while moving the kettlebell from left to right in sync with this motion.
Maintain proper form with absolutely no jerky movements, and you will have your abs burning.
Aim for 12-15 reps.
Watch the video here.
Advanced Level - Kettlebell Snatch
This exercise targets the shoulders, chest, and back and is an advanced level exercise.
Hold the kettlebell between your feet with knees bent. In one explosive motion, raise the kettlebell to reach your chest level. Ensure your elbows tucked in and that you lift yourself to your toes.
Next, raise the weight overhead and hold on to the handle tight. Bring the kettlebell back to the starting position.
Completing the above steps is one repetition, and you should aim for 8 to 10 reps. For variety, perform the exercise with one arm, repeat with the other to complete a single rep.
Personal Trainers And Other Help
A personal trainer can put together a routine for you, and help you maintain it. If you can’t afford a personal trainer, you can turn to an exercise DVD or classes. See below for advice on these.
5. Should I Use Kettlebell Training Videos?
In short, provided you can find the right video the answer is yes. It's yes because we learn better by watching, even though there might be excellent text and picture-based articles to help.
A DVD or download makes things simpler. You can teach yourself the techniques and methods just by watching the experts. The videos are often entertaining with models working out to routines you can easily follow. Catchy workout music makes it entertaining and fun, maybe taking your mind off the pain of the workout.
However, be aware of what you buy. Kettlebells have taken the world by storm - right up there with Zumba, kickboxing, and pole dancing. And so there are numerous DVDs, books, magazines, and other publications flooding the market, catering to recent kettlebell fanatics. And most should probably be avoided.
Considerations - what to look out for in a training video
Firstly, don't go through infomercials as these tend to be hyped up and more focussed on getting your money than improving your fitness levels. An excellent kettlebell training video will not need an infomercial to sell it.
Instead, try Amazon to see what videos are getting the best reviews. If existing buyers say that a particular kettlebell video is excellent, it is probably worth looking at twice.
Examine the cover and description of the video. Is it serious? It's better to go for a video solely on kettlebell training, not for instance on aerobic exercises using kettlebells.
Also, you want a video that focuses on the execution and techniques of the kettlebell drills. It must take the subject seriously. If necessary, you can tone down the workouts when you are at home. What matters is that the information it contains is accurate and amongst the best available.
Look at the trainer’s credentials to judge their level of expertise. Often trainers will have degrees or certification in sports science. Check these if necessary.
Make sure the instructors look like the part. A lean and fit instructor shows that he has the knowledge and discipline needed to train you.
Follow these simple tips to find an affordable video that will guide you through your kettlebell journey.
6. Should I Join Kettlebell Classes?
There is no right or wrong answer to this question. The fact is it doesn't matter where you train provided you do the correct exercises with the right intensity, and regularly enough.
If you love working out in groups and have the personality for it, then join a class to keep you motivated and to learn. Kettlebell classes with a good instructor motivate you to work out often and teach you the correct form and intensity. If necessary you can take this knowledge home with you if you ever decide to train alone - you don't have to commit to classes forever.
If you do join a class, ensure the instructor is duly certified. You want to learn and be guided by someone with adequate knowledge and experience professionally as kettlebells can be dangerous and quickly lead to injury.
Also, ensure you join a class that matches your proficiency. If you are entirely new to kettlebells, then enter a beginners class to learn the ropes, and progress from there.
Lastly, we've mentioned before that its best to perform kettlebell exercises barefoot. If you join a class, understand whether they'll let you do your workouts barefoot.
There is no downside to classes if they are run professionally with adequately trained instructors and an eye on safety. If you can't find kettlebell classes that meet these minimum requirements then skip them and instead train by yourself or at a gym.
In the end, it doesn't matter if you train in a class, at home, or at the gym. Your body does not care about the surroundings. It only responds to the workouts, how effective they are, and how regularly you do them.
Exercise is supposed to be a habit. Try and get some daily.
7. Buying A Kettlebell - Things To Look Out For
Given how versatile kettlebells are, buying your own, for home use is much cheaper than a gym membership.
Look out for these things.
Cheaper is not always better - and since these are lifetime investments, it's worth paying more to get a model with the correct attributes.
Good kettlebells come with durable, sturdy, and high-quality construction. Usually all in one solid piece. If the kettlebell has wobbly handles or looks low quality then skip that model.
Smooth handles - It's better to purchase kettlebells with handles that are smooth because your hands move on the grip while exercising. A rough kept handle will cause chafing and abrasions to your hands - particularly in the area between the thumb and forefinger.
The distance between bell and handle - Check the gap between the grip and weight and that it matches your hand size comfortably. It needs to fit because many kettlebell exercises flip the bell to the back of your hand. Too big or small a distance will put unnecessary pressure on your wrist and could cause injury to your wrist joint over the long term.
A good quality covering - Make sure the kettlebell has a good quality paint or surface that won't chip or flake over time. A cracked surface looks bad and causes rough patches that irritate your hands when exercising. You also don't want a speck of loose paint falling in your eye during your workout.
A flat and heavy base - The base of the kettlebell needs to be perfectly flat and in solid iron to ensure stability and a low center of gravity. Many kettlebell exercises need the kettlebell to be on the floor - hence the requirement for the flat base.
Iron not plastic - Buy a kettlebell made from metal, not from plastic. Plastic is not environmentally friendly, plus it makes for lousy exercise equipment, deteriorating over time. It's also not likely to be stable enough or with a good center of gravity for active exercising.
The correct weight - Lastly, how heavy should I buy? How heavy depends entirely on your strength level. We think the minimum weight for a man should be 35lb or 16kg and for a woman, 18lb or 8kg.
If your budget allows, get kettlebells in different weights to give you the flexibility you need as your training progresses.
Remember that kettlebells last a lifetime so it's worth spending a little more to get the best quality you can afford.
Use the above advice to put together a kettlebell routine that suits your level of competency, and allows you to progress with intensity. Vary the routine regularly to ensure you keep challenged and don't plateau. Aim to have full-body workouts for each time you exercise, and to do so at least a few times a week.
You’ll want to include lunges, twists, snatches, squats, lifts, rows, and presses in every routine. These exercises work the large muscle groups in your shoulders, back, legs, and core together with many smaller groups.
Working more muscles burns more calories. Keep the intensity high because this is the best way to shed fat fast. If your workout is intense, you will be lean, toned, and extremely fit in no time. Your metabolic rate will be high, and your fat-burning will last for hours.
When you reach this point, you'll feel fantastic and full of pride. And your body will be a reflection of what you are - determined, healthy and a success.
9. Frequently Asked Questions
Here are the questions most frequently asked by our readers.
1. What are kettlebells, and how are they different from traditional weights?
Kettlebells are cast iron weights shaped like a ball with a top handle. They differ from conventional weights in that they allow for a broader range of motion, making it possible to perform a more comprehensive range of exercises that target multiple muscle groups.
2. What are the benefits of using kettlebells for strength training?
Kettlebells offer a unique workout experience that can help to improve power, endurance, balance, and flexibility. They also provide a cardiovascular workout and can help to burn fat and build muscle simultaneously.
3. Is it safe to use kettlebells?
Kettlebells are safe to use when you follow proper form and technique. Nevertheless, we recommend starting with lighter weights and working with a certified kettlebell instructor to learn the appropriate form.
4. How do I choose the right kettlebell weight?
The right kettlebell weight will depend on your fitness level and the exercises you plan to perform. As a general rule, start with a lighter weight and gradually increase as you progress. It is best to consult with a certified kettlebell instructor for personalized recommendations.
5. What exercises can you perform with kettlebells?
You can use kettlebells for various exercises, including swings, squats, deadlifts, presses, and rows. More advanced exercises, such as Turkish get-ups and snatches, can also be performed with kettlebells.
6. Can kettlebells be used for cardio workouts?
Yes, you can use kettlebells for cardio workouts. Swings, snatches, and other high-intensity exercises can help to get your heart rate up and improve cardiovascular endurance.
7. Do I need any special equipment to use kettlebells?
No, you do not need any special equipment to use kettlebells. A flat surface, such as a mat or towel, is recommended for safety and to protect the floor.
8. Are there any precautions I should take before starting a kettlebell workout?
It is essential to consult with a doctor before starting a new exercise routine, especially if you have any pre-existing medical conditions. You should also begin with lighter weights and work with a certified kettlebell instructor to learn proper form and technique.
About The Author - Ben Rose
Ben is the co-founder of TrainerAcademy.org. He is a certified personal trainer with 10+ years of experience in the fitness industry. Among other disciplines, he is an expert in sports conditioning and strength training.
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