Do you want to lose weight and build muscle while taking it easy on your joints? Looking to improve your speed and performance during Olympic-based lifting movements like the clean and press? Have you ever heard of a kettlebell?
Although it sounds like something you would find inside of a farm, the kettlebell is actually a popular piece of fitness equipment that has hit the main stream within the last 15 years here in the United States. Although it is now a piece of standard equipment in gyms across the country and featured in fitness videos on YouTube, the kettlebell was helping people achieve fitness success long before it reached our shores.
Let’s take a look at everything you need to know about the kettlebell. We’ll discuss its history, how kettlebells can be superior to dumbbells, and the top 5 kettlebell exercises for muscle building, fat burning, and performance enhancement.
Quick History of the Kettlebell
The kettlebell as we would recognize it today was created in Russia. This is something you may already know but what may surprise you is how long ago the kettlebell was invented. According to KettbellsUSA, the Russian kettlebell was invented more than 350 years ago as a counterweight measuring tool.
If you dig a little deeper, you’ll find there is a debate about when and where the original kettlebell was invented (notice how I said Russian kettlebell above). Some researchers point to Greek culture while others point to Chinese monks. While the shape and size were different, it was the swinging motion of the weight that is the center of focus.
Regardless of where it originated, we know that the Russians didn’t start using the kettlebell as a fitness tool until the late 1800s. Modern kettlebell lifting became the official national sport in Russia in the 1940s and eventually made their way to the United States.
Although Russian kettlebells have been in the States for decades, it wasn’t until the last 10 to 15 years that kettlebells exploded in popularity. Now, they are a must for any serious Olympic-style lifter. In fact, they are so versatile that anyone can use them and this includes older people or those going through rehabilitation.
Let’s jump into the benefits of the kettlebell for the modern fitness enthusiast.
Benefits of the Kettlebell
- The kettlebell is a heavy weight, regardless of its size and shape so obviously, one of the benefits that you’d expect is an increase in strength. This was demonstrated in a study published in the Journal of Strength Conditioning Research but what’s incredible about the kettlebell that the study pointed out is its versatility, which allows for improvements in explosive and overall strength levels. What’s more, the kettlebell gives you more options for strength training exercises than traditional fitness tools such as the barbell. You’re increasing strength but you’re also improving several other variables at the same time, which I point out below. (3)
Build Lean Mass
- Just like with strength, when you are moving through a resistance training program, you’re bound to increase the amount of lean muscle tissue on your frame. To continue with the point above, the kettlebell allows for a vast number of functional training options. Outside of your basic bench press or squat, the kettlebell is designed for power, speed, and strength. You can use a kettlebell to perform movements that enhance total body function as a whole. This is what makes them a superior fitness tool.
Enhance Aerobic Capacity
- A study from the American Council on Exercise had subjects performing kettlebell-only workouts for a total of eight weeks. At the conclusion of the study, subjects displayed an obvious improvement in strength and body composition but their aerobic capacity, or endurance, had also skyrocketed. Since kettlebells can be used to perform total body exercises such as the Turkish Get-up, you’re not only challenging your strength but also your endurance levels. It’s not surprising then that subjects in that study showed a vast improvement in aerobic capacity.
- Another surprise from the ACE study was how much the balance and coordination of the subjects improve after the eight-week trial. Due to the level of complexity with total body exercises, the entire body must be engaged in order to complete each phase of the movement. Kettlebells directly challenge an individual’s proprioception and the result is an improvement in overall balance.
Boost Complete Core Strength
- One of the things I love about using kettlebells in my own workouts is how much your entire core is working. I’m not just talking about the front abdominal muscles. Your core is made up of your abdominals, obliques, lower back, and to an extent, hip flexors. Kettlebells challenge your core from every angle, allowing for fast improvements and a decreased risk of injuries related to a weak core or midsection.
- Due to its unique design, the kettlebell offers you a means of moving a great deal of weight without worrying about putting too much pressure on the wrists. This is especially important for older people who want to improve their body composition. It’s also helpful for lifters who are recovering from injury.
Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells
After reading the benefits of the kettlebells, you may be wondering why someone couldn’t simply use dumbbells to achieve the same results. Sure, dumbbells can be used in some kettlebell exercises; however, there are distinct differences between these two fitness tools.
Have you ever watched someone perform a kettlebell swing? From the bottom to the top of the movement, your body has to be on point. Your forcing weight from the ground to the air. Your body is fighting to stay balanced as you launch this weight into the air with perform form then bringing it back down with the same energy. Can you imagine doing that movement with anything other than a kettlebell?
Yes, some exercises can definitely be interchanged between kettlebell and dumbbell but the Olympic lifts that require speed, power, and flexibility are not one of them. Kettlebells are designed to be easy to grip while your body moves through ballistic and speed-based exercises.
Continuing with the point above, outside of Olympic lifting, kettlebells offer more variation for total body exercises. Dumbbells, especially ones that require individual weight plates to be attached and secured, can become problematic and even dangerous. The Turkish Get-Up, for example, is a complicated movement on its own. When adding weight into the equation, you don’t want to have to worry about the fitness tool in your hand.
Speaking of tools in hand, the kettlebell may offer greater wrist support than dumbbells during certain exercises. One in particular would be the clean and press. The wrist motion with a dumbbell is too “jerky” and for those with prior complications with wrist mobility, a dumbbell may aggravate old issues. A kettlebell, on the other hand, may allow for smooth transitioning with certain exercises without placing the wrist in a compromising position.
Better Long-Term Investment
Due to the large number of total body exercises that can be safely performed with kettlebells, moving up in weight may not happen as quickly as it would with a dumbbell-based exercise. For example, once you perform a biceps curl with a dumbbell, you may feel the need to increase the weight immediately. When you are performing a total body movement that can only be done with a kettlebell, that need to increase the weight is less likely to be there as it is a total body movement, not an isolation exercise where weight can be upgraded quickly.
In other words, you may only need a few kettlebells where you may need an entire set of dumbbells. One other note that I have is that kettlebells seem to have a better overall build, decreasing the chance of breaking or splitting. This is a great long-term investment for your money.
The Top 5 Kettlebell Exercises
By this point, you’ve heard enough about kettlebells and you’re eager to jump into a workout that captures all of the benefits we discussed above. Let’s review my favorite kettlebell exercises that are sure to boost strength, build muscle, improve balance, and spike endurance.
- An excellent starter exercise, the alternating single arm swing will be a proper introduction to the basic feel of a kettlebell-based exercise.
- The kettlebell leap incorporates power with plyometrics and it’s the next level up in kettlebell movements.
- When you’re ready to start feeling the total body burn of kettlebells, you’ll want to start with a kettlebell squat press.
- Combining two of my favorite things, the cross crawl with a kettlebell is going to wake up your core and hip flexors. Read more about the benefits of crawling and get a free crawling workout.
- An exercise I mentioned above, the Turkish Get-Up is an advanced movement that challenges every muscle in the body.
Are you an avid user of kettlebells? What benefits have you noticed compared to using dumbbells? Never used a kettlebell before? What questions do you have for me so I can improve your kettlebell experience? Let me know in the comments below!
1. “What Is a Kettlebell?” Kettlebells USA®, www.kettlebellsusa.com/what-is-a-kettlebell.
2. “Kettlebell.” Wikipedia, Wikimedia Foundation, 16 Oct. 2017, en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Kettlebell.
3. Lake JP, Lauder MA. Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2228-33. doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31825c2c9b.
4. Beltz, Nick, et al. “ACE Sponsored Research Study: Kettlebells Kick Butt.” ACE Fitness, www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/3172/ace-sponsored-research-study-kettlebells-kick-butt.