Kettlebells are said to have originated in Russia where a metal counterweight of approximately 16 kg (known as a “Pood”) was used to weigh crops in the 18th century. With farmers lugging and carrying the weight, known as a “girya”, across fields several times throughout the day, they became fitter, stronger, and healthier.
It was in 1704 that the word “girya” (meaning Handle Bell or Kettlebell in Russian) was published in the Russian dictionary. But it was not until the late 19th century that they were used for recreational and competition purposes, in a similar way that they are used today.
Typical kettlebell sport exercises like Kettlebell Snatches and Kettlebell Clean and Jerk are designed to build strength and endurance, particularly in the lower back, legs, and shoulders, as well as increasing grip strength. Exercises used in kettlebell sports work several muscles simultaneously and due to the types of movements performed with them, athletes often repeat the same motion continuously for several minutes or with short breaks.
This combination makes most kettlebell exercises partially aerobic and more like high-intensity interval training than traditional weightlifting or strength training.
The fact that kettlebells are shaped like a cannonball with a handle has a couple of biomechanical consequences:
- The weight’s center of mass is located outside the hand that is carrying it. This makes it harder to stabilize, especially for the core, forearm muscles, and depending on the movement, the shoulder.
- The handle allows the athlete to swing the weight, making the kettlebell a unique tool for ballistic exercises, i.e., exercises where the weight is rapidly accelerated and decelerated.
These characteristics make the kettlebell a versatile tool to build strength, power, muscular endurance, cardio, and even flexibility through a wide array of full-body exercises.
How to use kettlebells to reach your goals
Kettlebells are a great tool to use if weight loss is your goal. They can be used as part of circuit and HIIT style workouts and within a wide variety of exercises to get your heart rate up and your body moving to burn extra calories and fat. Keeping or even gaining additional muscle while consuming fewer calories has clear health benefits if your goal is to reduce your weight by burning fat.
Since both arms are moved independently from one another, you will always have to stabilize them during any kettlebell exercise. You will also build a lot of grip and core strength, especially when using ballistic movements such as the Kettlebell Swing.
By pressing one or two bells overhead, deadlifting, cleaning, rowing, and squatting them, you can develop a well-rounded muscular physique. Kettlebells will allow you to build your legs, shoulders, core, and even the muscles of your forearms through a wide array of full-body exercises.
Kettlebells allow for the same freedom of movement as dumbbells, but more importantly, they can be a lot of fun. With this one piece of equipment, you can add many variations to your training.
There are numerous ways to swing, squat, press, and row a kettlebell without ever letting it rest on the floor. The countless possibilities to chain different exercises together make kettlebell training a very engaging and coordinatively challenging form of fitness training.
Like the majority of exercises that use weights, kettlebells can be dangerous if used incorrectly or to those who have back or shoulder problems, or a weak core. However, if done properly, they are very beneficial to health and offer improved mobility, range of motion, agility, cardiovascular endurance, mental toughness, and increased strength.
The kettlebell is constantly in motion around your body and training with poor form places a great amount of pressure on your back and your joints and makes serious injuries more likely.
If your goal is to build some major muscle or lift heavy, kettlebells will likely not be your strength training tool of choice. Kettlebells are traditionally progressed in 4 kg increments, which makes it more difficult to progress to a higher weight when compared to a barbell or dumbbell. In some cases, you can find kettlebells that progress in smaller increments, however, most kettlebell programs are designed to be performed with a limited range of weights. Instead, a barbell or dumbbells might be the better option as you can progress the weight in smaller increments.
As with any weightlifting tool, make sure to pick it up in a safe and appropriate manner by using the proper form. Avoid bending and straightening your spine while moving weight. Always use a hinging movement from your hips and knees while bracing your core when picking up or putting down a kettlebell.
If you are learning on the go, try a couple of exercises in the mirror, or even record a video of yourself that you can watch back, to ensure that you are always in the correct position – this may be the most time-consuming part of your workout, but it will be worth it in the end.
Finding the appropriate weight is the most important part, so the first step to using kettlebells safely is picking the right weight. You should use an educated guess to try and gauge which weight is right for you before beginning your workout.
Remember you are trying to push yourself without injury. If you are unsure, consult a trainer where possible.
As with all training equipment, make sure to focus on improving the quality of your exercise execution with the kettlebell first, and maintain that quality of movement throughout higher repetitions or set ranges.
If the quality of movement is maintained, progress to a heavier kettlebell and repeat the process. This is an implementation of progressive overload, the essential training principle to ensure your progress when training.
Ready to train with kettlebells?
Adding kettlebells to your training is a great way to add variety to your workout while at the same burning lots of energy, all while working on your strength and coordination.
The benefits of kettlebell training are being discovered by people of all walks of life, from special forces members to rehab patients. By picking up your own kettlebell(s), you will become part of that ever-growing group of kettlebell athletes.