Given the choice between a) using high-tech, high-end weight machines, ellipticals and treadmills worth tens of thousands of dollars or b) swinging an industrial-looking, 35-pound hunk of cast iron back and forth, most of us would go with option A.
But that heavy, bell-shaped object — the kettlebell — offers a workout that is superior in many respects. Unlike workout machines, with their limited ranges of motion, kettlebells allow you to engage your full body, imitating the natural way we use our muscles and helping to develop explosive energy.
“Get one kettlebell, and you can go through a workout that is extremely intense and can help make you stronger and more conditioned,” says Daniel Sawaya, owner of Tucson, Arizona-based Evolution Fitness Systems, a gym that specializes in kettlebell workouts. “We have the ability to hit all the energy systems with one little tool.”
Plus, kettlebell workouts are intense, initially leaving most guys catching their breath after just 20 minutes of effort. “Even someone who is pretty fit can get a heck of a workout in about 20 to 30 minutes,” says Sawaya, a certified strength and conditioning specialist who is also a certified kettlebell instructor.
Not sure what to do with an odd, bell-shaped weight with a handle? You’re not alone: Except in strongman circles, kettlebells were largely ignored in the United States until a Russian fitness instructor brought the device into the mainstream in the early 2000s. The kettlebell, the origin of which has been traced back to 18th-century Russia, was actually originally used as a counterbalance to weigh dry goods. Eventually some enterprising Russians found out it could serve double-duty as a weight-lifting tool.
A 35-pound kettlebell is a good starting weight for most guys. Sawaya tells his clients to try to avoid kettlebells with complicated swivel heads and bearings, which are prone to breakage. Lighter materials, such as sand, make kettlebells overly bulky, so it’s a good idea to stick with cast iron, which, for a quality kettlebell, costs about $1.50 to $2 a pound.
One of the kettlebell’s greatest assets — its infinite range of motion — also ends up being one of its greatest liabilities, as it offers a near-limitless potential to screw things up with bad form. It’s best to learn technique from an expert, but Sawaya says it’s possible to pick up the basic technique by watching instructional videos.
“I recommend that anyone, anywhere, meet with someone who knows what he's doing to show you at least how to use the equipment correctly before getting started. But there are some really good online videos out there if someone just wants to try it out,” Sawaya says.
Nothing aggravates a back injury more than bending over and swinging a 35-pound weight back and forth with bad form, so if you’ve got a preexisting condition or old injuries, have a qualified trainer help you.
A good indication that trainers know what they’re doing is if they have Russian kettlebell challenge certification.
Fat-burning kettlebell swing
The kettlebell swing is the fundamental kettlebell workout, but it packs a wallop, providing an intense cardio workout and hitting the hamstring and the glutes, two muscles often neglected by office workers and many other Americans. By strengthening these neglected muscles, the kettlebell swing can help with posture and other movement issues.
To perform a kettlebell swing, pick up the kettlebell with your palms facing your body and plant your feet slightly more than shoulder-width apart. The basic motion is to start with a slight squat and lean slightly forward, keeping your back arched. Then raise your torso and thrust your hips forward, swinging the kettlebell forward and returning to the starting position as the kettlebell swings back down. After a few sequential thrusts, the kettlebell will be coming up to just below eye level.
Once you’ve got the basic form down, it’s time to use it in a workout. Try starting with a 35-pound kettlebell.
1. Set a timer for 10 minutes.
2. Do 10 kettlebell swings.
3. Take a 15-second break.
4. Repeat steps 2 and 3 until the timer runs out.
Gradually increase the timer to 20 minutes, all while making sure not to lose good form throughout the entire workout, and you’ll improve your body composition and cardiovascular health, Sawaya says. Once you hit that 20-minute mark, bump up the weight of the kettlebell and start over again at 10 minutes.
For this workout, you’ll need to learn two other moves: the goblet squat and Turkish get-up.
For the goblet squat, pick up a kettlebell, plant your legs shoulder-width apart with your toes pointing slightly outward. Swing the kettlebell up to chest level, grab the sides of the kettlebell handle with both hands and pull the weight close to your chest. With your back arched, drop into a squat until your thighs are beyond the point at which they are parallel to the ground. Gradually come back up, keeping your knees in line with your toes.
The Turkish get-up is a little more complicated, so begin with no weight at all. Starting on your right side, pick up the kettlebell with your right arm (if starting with no weight, then pretend you’re picking up a kettlebell) and roll onto your back. Pull your right foot toward your butt, foot flat on the floor, and extend your right arm straight up until it is fully extended and above your chest. Your eyes should stay on this upright kettlebell at all times. Then push off on your left forearm to lift your back slightly off the ground. Extend your left arm so your palm is on the ground and you’re sitting more upright. Using your right foot and left palm to support your body weight, lift your hips off the ground and pull your left leg under your body until you’re kneeling on your left knee with your right foot flat on the ground in front of you. Keeping the kettlebell completely vertical, stand up. Reverse the process until you’re back flat on the ground.
Once you’ve nailed down the basic moves, put them all together to develop a full-body-strength workout. You can use a lighter weight when you’re doing the Turkish get-up.
1. Begin with a Turkish get-up with your right arm.
2. Switch to a Turkish get-up with your left arm.
3. Stand up and do 10 goblet squats.
4. Finish the set with 20 kettlebell swings.
5. Repeat 5 to 10 times.