“Take care of your body. It’s the only place you have to live.” — Jim Rohn
I first wrote about how much I love kettlebells over a year ago. I was tremendously moved when (count ’em) five people told me they became inspired to use them too.
I know, I know, that’s hardly Oprah-level numbers. But taking up a whole new exercise regime requires determination, courage and spirit.
This post salutes those who took the leap – really, my favourite people in the world. I hope suggestions here help continue the love affair. Everyone else is, of course, also welcome.
Tell me again
A kettlebell is a spherical piece of weighted workout equipment with a flat bottom for resting on the ground, and a welded handle shaped like an old-fashioned kettle. They originated more than 300 years ago in Russia and are still used in their military training.
The centre of gravity in a kettlebell is different than that of dumbbells. This allows for ballistic movements, making them a rare two-in-one exercise that is both resistance training and cardiovascular.
Unlike hand weights that isolate smaller muscles, kettlebell exercises often work multiple large muscle groups at the same time. Instead of getting that funny disproportionate shape sometimes seen in weightlifters, kettlebells help your body take on symmetry, harmony and grace.
Because kettlebells are considered “functional exercise”, your everyday movements become easier, your back straighter and you feel stronger all over.
Using kettlebells is a fast and furious workout. I’m done in 20 to 30 minutes including resting intervals, excluding warm up and cool down.
Within a few minutes, your heart will be racing and you’ll taste the salt from your sweat. Yet the moves (if using the correct weight) are not so difficult that you can’t actually do them. Even when you think it’s not working – trust me, it’s working.
You’ll feel it the next day. Remember when using weights to take the next day off to let muscles recover.
For someone who was chronically sick as a child, more bookish than sporty all my life, and moved primarily by art and thoughts and ideas, I can actually say that I am the happiest after working out with heavy weights. The euphoria after a tough session is unbeatable.
Choose a kettlebell made of cast iron. You can get prettier ones in colourful vinyl filled with sand, but these have a different feel and effect. Cast iron is the real deal.
Women generally start with 8kg, and men with 12kg (you need only one). There is no shame in starting lower or, for that matter, staying low and only raising repetitions. Don’t compare this with hand weights – kettlebells are used ballistically and the weight feels far heavier in motion.
Don’t look in the mirror when working out, especially when doing any coordinating moves, like switching single-arm swings. Focus on your breathing, your core and the movements.
There are different schools of thought regarding footwear and gloves. I prefer bare feet, though my current gym requires wearing footwear. Some think using sports gloves prevent “feeling” the kettlebell, but I wear mine. Some use a cut-off sock or wrap tape around the hand as a a barrier for calluses, or dust powder to prevent slippage when sweaty.
Between back to back travels (and laziness) I had stopped working out. Then I plugged in my old workout music, and whoa-hey! I was pumped to get going again. Likewise, when it’s getting too same-old same-old, a change of soundtrack is reinvigorating. Music helps. A lot.
But really, as long as you have a non-slippery surface and a kettlebell, you’re good to go. In an age of snazzy, complicated gizmos, there’s something humble about that.
• I’m not a doctor! Please check with one before starting any exercise programme.
Interval training – bursts of intense workout followed by rest, before repeating – is more effective than exercising at a steady pace. Shorter spells allow for more exertion.
You can start with:
20 seconds workout + 40 seconds rest + repeat
Moving on to:
30 seconds workout + 30 seconds rest + repeat
40 seconds workout + 20 seconds rest + repeat (I don’t do this often).
For those interested: Tabata training is 20 seconds workout + 10 seconds rest x 8, total 4 minutes. And you really go for it in those 20 active seconds each time.
I sometimes use a free app on my iPhone called Swing Timer that you set according to your needs, and it beeps at the start and end of each round. A regular clock with a second hand works just as well.
Some days I’m more intuitive than clock-driven. I push flat out, then stop and catch my breath, before starting again.
Warm up by walking, jogging, and passing-the-kettlebell-around-the-body.
During the “rest” periods in interval training, don’t collapse or stay still. Keep moving lightly – walk around, or tap the kettlebell with alternate toes. Kettlebell trainer and author Lauren Brooks recommends performing joint mobility exercises here, such as turning your neck from side to side, or rotating your knees in their sockets clockwise then anti-clockwise.
Likewise, at the end of a workout, especially a gruelling one, don’t stop suddenly. This can cause blood pooling. It’s why you’ll hear of marathon runners fainting after completing a run. You need to cool down. At the end of a kettlebell workout, I walk for 5-10 minutes, getting slower and slower as the minutes wind down. The harder the workout, the longer the cool down.
Always stop or switch to a lower weight when you start losing good form. Poor form is inefficient and can cause strain.
Unlike cardio, which uses energy only during the time of exercising, resistance (weight) training keeps burning for hours – even days – after. The larger the muscle groups activated, the more effectively this happens. Hooray! These four basic kettlebell moves cover all key areas.
• I highly recommend learning from a qualified trainer to ensure correct form!
(1) Kettlebell Swing
The swing is the star of kettlebell moves. You can stick to only this move and get a spectacular workout, as Tracy Reifkind did in her 40s, losing 120lbs/55kg in a year. Master the swing, and you’ll understand why it’s addictive.
Muscles used in the kettlebell swing:
Abdominals, glutes, lower back, quadriceps, hamstrings, lats, delts.
It’s easier to see the video than describe this particular move, but here are some notes:
- The move back is not a squat, it’s a hinge from the hips.
- When you hike the kettlebell down, keep it above your knees. Go too below this and you’ll put strain on your lower back.
- The swing up is powered by your core. It’s an explosive move – when you hit the peak of the swing, pop out your hips, pull in your abs and glutes, and breathe out quick and hard.
Here’s Delaine Ross showing how to get the swing right, including single-arm swings:
(2) Kettlebell Squat
- Stand with feet hip-width apart.
- Squat deep, as if sitting down on a low stool behind you, bottom below knee height.
- Don’t let knees buckle towards each other as you go down.
- Power back up from the thighs.
- Now do it holding the horns of a kettlebell under your chin.
Muscles used in the kettlebell squat:
Quadriceps, glutes, hamstrings, calves, core.
Watch Lauren Brooks demonstrate the goblet squat:
(3) Kettlebell clean and press
This involves two moves:
Clean: hiking the kettlebell from the ground to the rack position – hand by your collarbone, shoulder down, elbow against body. The clean seems similar to the swing (hike part), but the bell here stays close to your body, not swung with your arm out. It’s easier to do this move without gloves.
Press: raising the kettlebell from the rack position to above your head, elbow straight, close to ear. Bend at the knees to help power up the move.
Muscles used for kettlebell clean and press:
Hamstrings, quadriceps, lats, traps, abdominals, lower back, glutes, delts, triceps.
Lauren Brooks shows how to clean:
Functionally Aware Fitness shows how to clean and press:
(4) Kettlebell lunges
There are endless variations on doing lunges with kettlebells. Each variety works slightly different muscle groups, so change them up. Forward lunges are tougher than backward lunges.
Muscles used in kettlebell lunges:
Quadriceps, hamstrings, glutes, lower back. And depending on how you’re employing your arms: biceps, triceps, lats, traps, delts.
Here’s Greg Brookes demonstrating reverse lunge with the kettlebell in the rack position:
There are endless moves with a kettlebell – row, deadlift, snatch, or the Turkish get-up when you’re feeling brave – so there’s never a reason to get bored.
As it’s (tragically) not advised to use weights two days in a row, utilise the break between workouts with other sports or walking, cycling, yoga, stability/balance, etc.
(1) Swing it 300!
Some days, especially if you’re feeling slow, it’s easiest to stick to only the swing. Aim for 300. Set the timer for whatever works best – 20 seconds workout with 40 seconds rest, say. Then do as many swings as you can in each of those 20-second slots (I usually manage 15). At the end of 20 minutes, you’ll have done 300.
Try: 15 swings with one arm, then 15 with the other. Or alternate every other swing.
In my case, the first three rounds seem super easy. I wonder – why am I only doing 20 seconds’ worth? I can easily do a minute here! But then come round 4, and certainly by round 5, I am gasping for air while turning an unbecoming shade of purple.
(2) Count it down
This one is inspired by Alwyn Cosgrove in Women’s Health magazine, though mine is the wussier version (with no apologies) – 15 sets of kettlebell swings and kettlebell goblet squats, totalling 120 of each by the end. Repeat if you’re a badass.
Set 1: 15 swings, 15 squats – then 20 seconds rest
Set 2: 14 swings, 14 squats – then 20 seconds rest
Set 3: 13 swings, 13 squats – then 20 seconds rest
And so on, until you’re down to 1 swing and 1 squat.
This is easy to grasp and simple to remember, while being super effective. Love!
(3) Watch a video
Like this one – a fun, speedy (but not easy), 6-move workout by Ryan Raw. It’s inspiring to see the muscle groups activated during the exercises.
♦ Many thanks to my trainer, Kashif Ansari, Head Trainer at Gold’s Gym, Bandra West, for his help with this post (and for pushing me until I cry – but in a good way).
“I saw the angel in the marble, and carved until I set him free.” — Michelangelo
Kettlebells are available at sporting goods shops and online. In London, I bought mine from amazon (read all the reviews to evaluate the smoothness of handles and general feel when buying online). In Dhaka, I went to Body & Sports, 57B Kemal Ataturk Avenue, Banani; now also available at DIT 2 Market, Gulshan.
I’ve mentioned the exercise video by Lauren Brooks in an earlier post, but I also love her book: Kettlebells For Women. Are the exercises different for men and women? Not at all, but men can get rather macho and showy, so I prefer the non-hysterical demos by women. Lorna Kleidman also has a book called Body Sculpting with Kettlebells For Women, but unless you’re a nerd like me, you don’t need both books as they cover similar ground. I’d choose Brooks over Kleidman for the description of the individual moves, though Kleidman’s programme is easier to understand (I make up my own now).
I followed Tracy Reifkind’s programme from her book The Swing! when I first started using kettlebells a few years back. She generously covers it on video on her blog tracysfoodandthought.blogspot.com too.