These days, exercise regimens tend to involve multiple dumbbells, barbells and machines. Exercise tools are great for their very specific functions, but that’s the problem, they can be too specific. Many people don’t have time or access to go to a gym full of these tools. For those stuck in this predicament, there is a solution: kettlebells.
Kettlebells are probably the most versatile exercise tools out there. Originally from Russia, they look like big round cannonballs, only with a cast iron handle on the top. The size and the weight of kettlebells range, but on average they are at least 25 to 30 pounds.
The main kettlebell exercise, and the most beneficial of all of its uses, is the kettlebell swing. To do it, stand with the kettlebell between your feet, which should be set a bit wider than the shoulders, and turned outward at a 45-degree angle. Bend down as if to do a squat and pick up the kettlebell. Stand and squat again, this time swinging it between your legs and behind your feet. Using momentum, stand again, swinging the kettlebell in front of you at shoulder level, and then repeat for as many repetitions as you desire. Be sure to keep your back straight the entire time to avoid injury.
What makes this exercise so great is the swing works the entire body. The swinging pulls the arms and shoulders while squatting gives the hamstrings, quadriceps and glutes their own workouts.
If you’re looking for a way to build abdominal muscles without straining yourself on dozens of crunches, the kettlebell swing will stretch your back and your abdominals. And if you want to focus on the arms more, try one-handed swings.
There’s also a cardio and endurance aspect to the swing. The swing works the muscles, but a long set — anywhere from 30 to 75 swings — can test your stamina and cardiovascular strength. When I first started using them, even with a relatively low weight (30 pounds), it was hard to do more than two dozen swings.
A caveat: If your core muscles — your abdomen, back and obliques — are not particularly strong, there is a chance of injury when swinging. It would behoove kettlebell users to develop these muscles before trying swings. But, if your core is strong, then kettlebells can be a great way to burn fat and build muscle in that area — plus it helps build a good posture. If you tend to slouch, some sets of kettlebell swings will surely change that. For me, sitting in front of my laptop for much of the day, kettlebell training helped keep my back straighter.
What makes a kettlebell so great is that, thanks to its simple design, working out with one is more akin to outdoor labor, such as yardwork, as opposed to the isolated muscle exercises that tend to be found in strength training. The tool evolved out of rural Russia after all. There’s a sense of practicality and applicability to each kettlebell exercise. That’s partly why they’ve been adopted by a number of exercise programs such as Crossfit.
But kettlebells are great weights for more than just swings. Another full body exercise — although not as endurance-focused as swings — is the Turkish getup. Lying down on your back, hold the kettlebell in your right hand, arm straight ahead. Pull your right foot back so it’s bent while turning onto your left side. Push up and stand, all while holding the kettlebell overhead. It might not sound like much, but it is an excellent strength training exercise for the upper body.
Then more familiar weight exercises can be adapted to kettlebells as well, such as clean and presses, deadlifts and snatches. The trick is to remember, thanks to the handle, the center of gravity on kettlebells is different — so you’ll have to adjust to handle the shift in momentum.
The biggest challenge with kettlebells is just getting used to how different they are from regular weights. They’re highly practical, but not immediately accessible.
If time or money presents an obstacle for exercise, go with kettlebells. They’re excellent all-around tools that can work the entire body. As long as your form is good, working out with these is nothing but beneficial.
Nicholas Slayton is a junior majoring in print and digital journalism. His column “Way of the Body” runs Tuesdays.