For those involved in the hardcore fitness movement, there appear to be two camps: those who like kettlebells and those who love them! Whereas these implements were more of a novelty 10 years ago, now racks of kettlebells are available in nearly every major health club chain. Is this just another fad, or perhaps a solid trend destined to continue for decades to come?
To be clear, a kettlebell is a single round weight with a U-shaped handle attached to it; the bottom of the weight (opposite the handle) is flat so that it stands upright. The first kettlebells for fitness had extremely thick handles that made them especially durable. This design was especially important for track and field athletes, such as discus throwers and shot putters, who used them outside for throwing. Newer versions, especially the ones often sold in sporting goods stores, often have thinner handles and are made from a variety of materials such as rubber.
Kettlebells have been around for hundreds of years, first being used in markets as counterweights. Compared to dumbbells, having the handle positioned further from the center of mass of the weight makes them easier to throw and to perform swinging movements.
Swinging exercises, especially those in which the weight travels between the legs, are a mainstay of many “boot camp” workouts and are often performed for high reps – sometimes hundreds of reps in a single workout! Kettlebell swings can be used to help strengthen the lower back and also to rehabilitate lower back injuries.
One study involving 40 adults with musculoskeletal pain symptoms participated in a two-month exercise program using kettlebells. Here is what the researchers concluded: “Worksite intervention using kettlebell training reduces pain in the neck/shoulders and low back and improves muscle strength of the low back among adults from occupations with a high prevalence of reported musculoskeletal pain symptoms.”
If you want to train at home and have no equipment other than kettlebells, here is a short and simple home general fitness circuit that works the legs, upper body pulling and pushing muscles, and finishes with a kettlebell swing for muscular endurance:
A1. Kettlebell Goblet Squat, 3 x 12-15, 4010, rest 15 seconds
A2. Kettlebell Upright Row, 3 x 8-10, 3011, rest 15 seconds
A3. Kettlebell One-Arm Press, 3 x 8-10, 3010, rest 15 seconds
A4. Kettlebell Swing, Two Arms, 3 x 15-20, 10X0, rest 120 seconds
An advanced workout would contain more exercises, including some of the popular core/stability exercises such as the Turkish Get-Up. Here is an example:
A. Kettlebell Goblet Squat, 2 x 12-15, 4010, rest 60 seconds
B. Kettlebell Turkish Get-Up, 2 x 2, 6/2/12/2, rest 60 seconds
C1. Kettlebell Upright Row, 3 x 8-10, 3011, rest 15 seconds
C2. Kettlebell One-Arm Press, 3 x 8-10, 3010, rest 60 seconds
D1. Kettlebell Horizontal One-Arm Row, 3 x 8-10, 3011, rest 15 seconds
D2. Kettlebell Push-Up, 3 x 8-10, 3011, rest 60 seconds
E1. Kettlebell Forward Lunge, 3 x 8-10, 3010, rest 15 seconds
E2. Kettlebell Swing, Two-Arms, 3 x 15-20, 10X0, rest 60 seconds
Kettlebells are a versatile tool, but they are not effective for developing high levels of strength. Most strongmen and powerlifters will prefer to use heavy dumbbells for auxiliary work as they are more stable than kettlebells, enabling them to use heavier weights. A powerlifter who can bench press 300 pounds might be able to handle a pair 100-pound dumbbells in the same exercise, but they would use considerably less weight with kettlebells. Also, the thick handles and unique design make it hard to perform many exercises (or even get into the position to even start some exercises).
With that background, rather than trying to design a total body workout with just kettlebells, use them as part of a workout. For general fitness, you could use kettlebells for dynamic exercises such as one-arm snatches and swings; then exercises that you would want to perform at a higher intensity, such as incline bench presses and one-arm rows. For leg work, you could perform forward lunges or step-ups with either dumbbells or kettlebells. Here is an example:
A1. Kettlebell One-Arm Snatch, 3 x 6-8, 11X1, rest 30 seconds
A2. Dumbbell Step-Up, 3 x 10-12, 2010, rest 60 seconds
B1. Kettlebell Upright Row, 3 x 8-10, 3011, rest 30 seconds
B2. Dumbbell Incline Press, 45 Degrees, 3 x 8-10, 3010, rest 60 seconds
C1. Dumbbell One-Arm Row, 3 x 8-10, 3011, rest 30 seconds
C2. Kettlebell Lateral Raise, 3 x 8-10, 3011, rest 60 seconds
D. Kettlebell Swing, Two-Arms, 2 x 15-20, 10X0, rest 60 seconds
If you enjoy kettlebell training and want to show off your talents, consider that kettlebells are also used as a sport, with the first competition being held in 1948. The primary Russian organization for kettlebell lifting is the Russian Kettlebell Sport Federation, and competitions are held in the US (such as with the Arnold Sports Festival held in Columbus, Ohio). Listed in the Who’s Who of kettlebell champions is Sergey Mishin, a 10-time world champion from Russia who snatched a 70.5-pound kettlebell (32-kilos) for 102 reps with each arm and jerked it 170 times with each arm.
Although it would be a stretch to say that kettlebells are all you need for a total athletic or physical fitness training program, there’s no denying that they can be a valuable training tool. Take kettlebells out for a swing and see what they can do for you.