Arthur Prelle loves the intensity and pump of a kettlebell workout. The low-tech wonder of kettlebells offers a super-effective full-body workout in a short time frame.
Kettlebells are sometimes tucked away in the corners of health clubs and may look a bit weird, but they can provide one of the simplest, most effective workouts around. There is a wide range of challenging lifting and swinging movements that build both strength and cardio endurance. And unlike many resistance exercises, a kettlebell gets your whole body working at once.
Kettlebells keep Arthur Prelle in shape with only an hour or two of use per week. Pavel Tstsouline has several great resources for workouts including “Enter the Kettlebell!” Pavel says, “Whether your goal is losing fat, building muscle, or training for powerlifting, swimming or even golf, you can perform better if you work with kettlebells.”
Invented in the 18th century, kettlebells are particularly popular in Russia, where they have long been used to train elite soldiers. By the early 1980s, kettlebell competitions began to spread across the globe, and U.S. bodybuilders started bringing the techniques to their hometown gyms.
The secret behind this Russian import’s effectiveness? Its weight is centered below the handle, so when you swing it, nearly every muscle in your body has to work hard to counteract the momentum. “Unlike traditional free weights — which isolate certain muscle groups while the rest of your body is static — kettlebells are used in a continuous-motion, interval-style format that, research has shown, results in faster, more dramatic fitness gains,” says Michele Olson, PhD, FACSM, CSCS, an exercise scientist and strength coach at Auburn University Montgomery in Alabama.
In short, the kettlebell is a tool with tremendous work capacity; it’s designed to provide a brief but intense workout — for nearly anyone.
“Their simple design and versatility make it the ideal tool for beginners, while the cardiovascular and strength-endurance components of kettlebell training challenge even the most conditioned athletes,” says Dallas Hartwig, PT, MS, CSCS, a longtime kettlebell enthusiast and CrossFit trainer in Brunswick, Maine, who uses the tool to improve his own performance in mountain biking, competitive volleyball, climbing and skiing.
No matter what your fitness level, kettlebell workouts can increase your strength, endurance, agility and balance.
How you use kettlebells, like any fitness tool, depends on your goals. “If you want to increase work capacity and endurance, focus on the ballistic [fast-moving] exercises such as jerks, swings and snatches, all of which keep your muscles moving and your heart rate up,” suggests Mike Mahler, a Las Vegas kettlebell instructor and creator of Mahler’s Aggressive Strength: Beginner Kettlebell Training Workshop (Aggressive Strength LLC, 2002).
For example, you can pick one exercise and do as many repetitions as possible in a 10-minute time frame — and set a goal not to put the kettlebell down for the entire 10 minutes. “In addition to getting you in great shape, this builds incredible mental toughness,” says Mahler. “If you want to build muscle as opposed to endurance, focus on compound strength exercises such as the clean and press, and do five to 10 sets of five to seven reps with one-minute breaks between sets.” (See “Clean & Press” below.)
Beginners should opt for a moderate weight (men usually start off with a 35- to 55-pound kettlebell; women usually start with between 15 and 35 pounds) and don’t increase it until you can do the moves with perfect form. Experts caution against going too light, however, because that can lead to cutting corners. “You’ll cheat because lighter weights are easier to move — you may not make your larger leg and hip muscles work as much as they should,” says Olson. “You also won’t get a whole-body workout, and you’ll burn fewer calories,” she says.