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Are Kettlebells the Ultimate Weights?
They help you strengthen your muscles and your heart. They're also a practical option for a home gym. What can they not do?
In 2019, I felt like I’d reached a new level on my fitness journey. I was in the best shape of my life. That summer, I was setting personal records on my 5K times, rolling through boxing workouts withand dreaming of dunking a basketball again at age 38 (I eventually hurt myself doing box jumps, and the dream died).
But to what did I owe this feeling? What was I doing differently?
The answer: kettlebell interval training.
I felt like kettlebells gave me an extra edge in my training. Unfortunately, the box jump injury affected my groin and lower back, and I ended up curtailing the kettlebells heading into the pandemic. I never got back to them.
This year, I’m planning on incorporating more kettlebell training into my fitness routine (don’t call it a new year’s resolution). I believe they offer a unique fitness proposition you should consider for your workouts, too.
What makes kettlebells so great?
Kettlebells can do it all: strength, cardio and interval training. They’ve been around since 19th-century Russia, but have reemerged in recent years. With their rise in popularity, they’ve become the subject of numerous studies. Check out these takeaways from recent research:
Kettlebell training can promote healthy aging (hi, we’re over 40 here). A 2022 study of a group of adults aged 59-79 examined the outcomes of three months of kettlebell training on grip strength (an overall indicator of health) and other measures. The study found “Kettlebell training resulted in a large clinically important increase in grip strength, with significant improvements in cardiovascular capacity, lean muscle mass, lower limb strength and endurance, and functional capacity.”
The kettlebell swing is unique movement that works your lower back in different ways than other exercises, according to a 2012 study. The study said, “quantitative analysis provides an insight into why many individuals credit kettlebell swings with restoring and enhancing back health and function, although a few find that they irritate tissues.” Translation: kettlebell swings can be good for your back, but you should probably stop if they make you painfully sore.
Kettlebell interval training can significantly increase your “Vo2 max,” the maximum amount of oxygen your body can use during exercise. By increasing your Vo2 max, you’re increasing your aerobic fitness. A 2011 study compared the effects of kettlebell interval training (15 seconds work, 15 seconds rest), with circuit weight training on a group of female college soccer players. The group using kettlebell interval training increased their Vo2 max by six percent. This is probably why I felt the interval training helped my 5K time!
A 2013 study by the American Council on Exercise looked at all aspects of kettlebell training, and found “In addition to the predictable strength gains, kettlebell training was also shown to markedly increase aerobic capacity, improve dynamic balance and dramatically increase core strength.”
But there’s more…
As noted in the studies above, kettlebell training can make you stronger and increase your aerobic performance. Their utility in interval training is what sets them apart for me.
Exercises like the swing and the snatch can be used in straightforward intervals as a form of anerobic exercise. What is anerobic exercise? From a 2017 study:
Anaerobic exercise has been defined by the ACSM as intense physical activity of very short duration, fueled by the energy sources within the contracting muscles and independent of the use of inhaled oxygen as an energy source. Without the use of oxygen, our cells revert to the formation of ATP via glycolysis and fermentation. This process produces significantly less ATP than its aerobic counterpart and leads to the build-up of lactic acid. Exercises typically thought of as anaerobic consist of fast twitch muscles and include sprinting, high-intensity interval training (HIIT), power-lifting, etc.
OK, that’s complicated. Basically, when you do a high-intensity activity, your body’s all out of oxygen, so it uses sugar for an energy source. As noted in the same study, this type of training is also beneficial for your cardiovascular system. In addition, HIIT-style training burns more calories than traditional aerobic training, like running or cycling.
But enough with the science. Kettlebells also have several practical benefits:
They are a low-cost option compared to other home gym equipment. You could start with one kettlebell.
They don’t take up a lot of space. If you’re living in a small space, they are great option, though you’ll want to be careful with those swings!
They’re portable. You can take them to the park or to your grandmother’s house.
They’re not just for swings. You can do any number of strength training exercises with kettlebells, including ones you might use dumbbells for. I prefer them for goblet squats, for example.
💬 Already using kettlebells? Tell us what you love about them in the comments!
Start with the swing
As with any form of exercise, there's potential for injury with kettlebells. Just like with barbells or dumbbells, though, when done with the proper form, kettlebells are generally safe.
When I first saw videos of kettlebell training on YouTube, I thought it looked technically challenging and awkward. I felt a bit intimidated, but I persevered. I primarily use kettlebells for exercises that I can incorporate into HIIT-style training, like swings and snatches. My snatch form is still not perfect, but I’ve never injured myself in all the years I’d done it.
I recommend you start with the easiest and most ubiquitous exercise, the swing. It’s a good beginner’s exercise, and safe when done correctly (as long as you don’t do the “American” version). I believe it can be safely learned through videos, as I did. You’ll want to start by adding a few sets of swings to your strength workouts.
One key tip: choose a kettlebell that’s the appropriate for your training level. Don’t try to overdo it. You don’t have to start super heavy. My first kettlebell weighed 20 pounds.
Once you’ve mastered the swing, you can start exploring other movements. If you feel like you can’t get the form on the swing down from watching videos, seek professional guidance from a professional who is certified in kettlebell training.
How to Incorporate Kettlebell Intervals Into Your Workouts
Once you’ve mastered the swing movement, you’re ready for intervals.
There’s a couple of popular interval methods for kettlebell training. Some people will do them “tabata” style: 8 sets of 20 seconds work, 10 seconds rest, followed by a minute of rest. A full tabata workout would be four sets. This is a bit much for a beginner.
Another popular method for kettlebell intervals is simply doing sets of 15 seconds work, 15 seconds rest (like the soccer player study noted above). I like these, as they can be done until you tire and your form breaks down. With this method, you can build up the number intervals over time. When you’re just starting out, this is a great option. You could start with a lower number of sets, like 10.
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A few tips for interval training:
When you tire, you will compromise your form. This is your cue to stop. You may notice the kettlebell is slowing down, for example, or feel like you’re losing a bit of control. There’s no reason to push for more when you’re just starting out with this form of workout. Build up the number of intervals slowly.
You’ll need good interval timer from your device’s app store. I don’t recommend using your watch for this. If you graduate to more complex moves over time, like the snatch, you risk breaking your watch.
Kettlebell intervals are great as a standalone workout, especially when you’re short on time. But they can also be added to the end of an existing strength or cross-training workout. They’re very flexible!