Your Guide to Kettlebells

What is that cannonball looking thing with a handle? You know, that thing that sits in the corner in the gym that barely gets touched?

Is it a weapon?

Is it some weird kind of toy?

I’m sure that’s how most of you felt when you first saw a kettlebell.  

At first, it can be intimidating because it is not a standard piece of equipment.  It is an old school, no-nonsense exercise tool.  

It is a badass piece of cast iron.

If you want to learn how to train with kettlebells or want a reminder why they are so important, look no further. By the end of this article you’ll have all the information you need to include kettlebells in your fitness routine, and know how to perform the most effective kettlebell exercises to blast fat and build muscle.

History of Kettlebells

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The kettlebell was invented in Soviet Russia as an agricultural tool.  They were used as counterweights in the measure of grain and other commodities.  A humble beginning for an important device.

Eventually men, as we are wont to do, started used the kettlebell in strength contests.  They would see who could lift the biggest over their head, and eventually they found their way into the hands of strongmen.

By the 1970s the Red Army adopted kettlebells as a means of training their soldiers.


Anatomy of a Kettlebell

The kettlebell has three main parts: the bell, the handle and the “horns”.

The bell is the cannonball shaped sphere of cast iron where the vast majority of the weight resides. The handle is parallel to the kettlebell and it is where you normally place your hands.  The horns are the two sides of the handle, which slope down and connect to the bell.  

This design is the kettlebell’s strongest and most unique quality. Unlike a dumbbell a kettlebell’s center of gravity is offset from its handle.

The kettlebell can be held by the handle, horns, or its bell end. Gripping the kettlebell by its handle will be your mainstay, but exercises like the squat are more user-friendly if you grasp the horns to do it.

Why You Should Kettlebell Train

Better Form

The main thing that distinguishes the kettlebell from its balanced cousins the dumbbell and barbell is the offset nature of its center of gravity.  That makes it harder to control, and provides a bigger challenge. As with everything in life, the bigger the challenge the bigger the reward.

This offset nature forces you to utilize perfect form and muscle activation.  You cannot get away with a cheating during a kettlebell movement like you could with a dumbbell. 

The kettlebell makes you perform the exercise perfectly.  If you sway, arch your back or bend too far in either direction you know immediately that your form is broken.  It creates the solid base of strength and balance needed to “graduate” onto harder, more glamorous exercises.

A Stronger Core

When people overhead press with a dumbbell or barbell they have the tendency to lean back and flare their ribs.  With a kettlebell you cannot do this, your core must be perfectly locked and your lats engaged.  Once again, this is due to the offset nature of the kettlebell. 

During a swing you must contract your core to keep your spine straight, and prevent your lower back from arching.  Your core must fire and stabilize your hips, pelvis and spine. 

A 2013 study at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse backed up this claim. They used young male and female athletes and their subjects. They were all aged between 19 and 25.

The subjects had their strength, aerobic capacity, and balance tested with conventional exercises first and then spent eight weeks training only with kettlebells.  Afterward, the same conventional lifts were used to measure progress.

The subjects’ core strength increased by 70%! Aerobic capacity increased by almost 14%. The research also noted great improvements in balance, which is immensely valuable for adults. 

The Best Kettlebell Exercises

1. Kettlebell Swing

This is the grand daddy of all Kettlebell movements.  It works nearly your entire body, with your glutes, hamstrings and core being the prime movers.  The swing should be studied and learned SLOWLY.  There is no sense in jumping in if you are not confident in your ability to generate force with your hips. 

Follow this link to read a specific tutorial on the swing.

2. Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Hold the horns.  Keep the bell at your sternum and lift your chest up, allowing your shoulder blades to squeeze together.  Keep your elbows close to your ribs and take a deep breath.

With your entire weight in your heels sink your butt back and down into the ground.  Go as low as you can. Press your weight through your heels to lift yourself back up.


3. Kettlebell Overhead Press

Stand tall holding the kettlebell in one hand at shoulder level. Dig your feet into the ground like someone was about to push you. Take a deep breath and squeeze your abs and glutes as if someone was about to punch you.

Stand up tall and make yourself long. Press the weight overhead, keeping it directly above your elbow until your arm is completely locked out. 

To lower the kettlebell engage your lats, and imagine yourself doing a pull up as you slowly bring the kettlebell back to its starting position.

4. Kettlebell Deadlift

Place the kettlebell directly between your feet and stand with feet hip width(ish) apart.  Bend at the knees and push your butt back as you keep your spine straight.  Lower until you can grasp the handle.

Dig your heels into the ground and take a deep breath.  Contract your glutes as you drive your heels into the ground and raise the bell with a straight spine. 

Now you know the basics.  It's time to incorporate these movements into your regularly schedule fitness program.  But you knew that....

The kettlebell is an indispensable tool for increasing strength, athleticism and burning fat.  The high pace of a kettlebell swing incinerates fat and forces your metabolism to go into overdrive.  Kettlebells should be included in everyone's fitness and training program. 

Possibly the most important part of including kettlebells in your training program is that they are FUN! If you're not enjoying a workout then why are you doing it?

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