No matter what, without fail, the second I use a kettlebell while working out, I’m getting a strange look from someone. Seriously. Every. Single. Time.
Now, it’s not particularly surprising, considering just how strange and awkward the workout instrument actually is. The thing looks like a mini bowling ball with a luggage handle on top. It doesn’t exactly fit the norm when you compare it to dumbells or barbell weights. I mean, if you’ve never used it before, it’s easy to have a kind of curious apprehension around it. One of my best friends calls them “the evil little suckers” because the handle looks like a baby’s pacifier ring.
In the CrossFit world, however, they’re pretty much a staple. In fact, more and more fitness groups are bringing kettlebells into the fold, making them increasingly more common depending on the places you go.
Kettlebells, for all their weirdness, offer a workout experience that is wholly different from using dumbbell weights. Unlike some of the other gym tools, kettlebells are used for explosive bursts of strength in the workout, combining strength, cardio, and flexibility all in one while simultaneously improving your core muscles. Yeah. It does all of that. Still, it’s undeniably a strange-looking device and not at all what you’d expect while you’re working out at the gym. Where exactly did they come from and what was it that brought them into the mainstream fitness limelight?
Interestingly, kettlebells have, themselves, been around for quite a bit of time. They spent much of their existence largely in the Baltic States. Pretty much since the beginning, the kettlebell and dumbbell have been like two estranged brothers during their initial manufacturing. Where the dumbbells traveled west, the kettlebell journeyed east. There’s a lot of speculation on where the kettlebell first came from (some say Russia while others argue Mongolia) but what is proven is that they are well known as tools for Russian farmers that needed a counterweight for their equipment. Eventually, they started being used more for fitness than farming, only growing more popular with time.
By the 40s, Russia had officially made kettlebell lifting a national sport, and eventually, all of the Olympic sports team, military, and special forces began following suit. Since then, they have become more and more widely acknowledged as a viable exercise tool by the mainstream, even starting to show up in corporate and high-end apartment gyms.
Personally, I never actually used these things until after a started doing CrossFit. I had known about them as a concept prior, but it was mostly from those super tacky (and probably scammy) infomercials. There, you’d see a bunch of men and women all smiling as they swung the kettlebell around like it was the best thing in their life.
Now, initially, I had the same reaction as many of the people that look at me do. I wondered how exactly a kettlebell was worth my time when I had dumbbells and barbells.
Looking past the mainstream and getting into the science, I came across the “Russian Kettlebell Challenge”. There, I watched training from the Pavel Tsatsouline, a famous kettlebell expert and a nationally ranked lifter throughout all of Russia. From there, I saw the training of elite special forces and how their lifts were much easier variants of the more classical Olympic lifts… USING Kettlebells!
It was kind of mind-blowing (especially at the time) to see the best of the best using what I thought were cheap marketing tools to achieve results not too dissimilar from Olympic athletes. Not only that, but the moves they were doing with the kettlebells were so much easier, by simply cueing correctly, anyone could do them.
Now, I will take credit for realizing that, while the kettlebell was certainly a great way to lose weight, it was also amazing in regards to teaching someone the proper speed at which to use their hips. This was something that was borderline essential for sports that required speed or power. It’s also why CrossFit was the first to take the fitness tool in with open arms here in the US. In fact, many of the kettlebell hip movements are near dead ringers for much of what CrossFit teaches its students.
Now, if you just listen to the mainstream’s understanding of kettlebell workouts, they differ from free weights or machines largely because of the way in which you move the weight. For machines, they operate by moving the weight along a set path. Because they are tied to a machine, the muscle group being affected is practically isolated in the workout, as you don’t have to actively use your core. On the other end, dumbbells have a tighter center of gravity compared to kettlebells, utilizing major muscle groups as opposed to real-life muscles that the kettlebell strengthens.
And while much of this certainly is true, many people still feel unsure about including them in their workout routine. Personally, I believe that no matter what your goals are, including kettlebells into your routine will drastically improve your chances of achieving them.
Below are some of the valuable reasons why:
#1. THEY WORK
Let’s get this one out of the way first. If you needed it said any clearer, kettlebell training is the real deal. (Trust me, I’m just as surprised as you!) When they were first making their way into the western fitness regimen, a lot of people (again, myself included) didn’t understand them and were just turned off at how vastly different they looked compared to every other piece of fitness equipment. Now, after personally using them, I can confidently say that they are easily one of the top 10 fitness tools of all time and can offer radical improvements to your strength as well as endurance. None of this is a dig at barbells or dumbbells. All are great in their own way. Simply include kettlebells in with your other setup for a more complete workout.
#2. IMPROVED STRENGTH AND ENDURANCE
It doesn’t matter if neither is your intended goal, kettlebell training offers up improvement with both in spades. By balancing the extreme contractions from strength with relaxation from endurance, kettlebells build up both in a way you couldn’t get from a focus on either. It switches between peak contraction and controlled relaxation, literally giving you the best of both worlds.
#3. IMPROVED CORE WORKOUT
Speaking about endurance, kettlebell workouts drastically improve your core. This is done by way of stimulating intense abdominal contractions as you perform the explosive conditioning movements. Basically, even as you’re working your arms and legs, you’re also working your abs. Because of the tight contractions and sequenced breathing, you get a great conditioning workout as well.
#4. IMPROVED STABILIZING MUSCLES
As mentioned earlier, because the kettlebell’s shape is so… odd, it offers an additional workout from your stabilizing muscles that dumbbells -and even barbells- can’t match. In addition, Olympic athletes also use them to lift much easier and with a more forgiving learning curve. This is because it puts less stress on either the wrists or the shoulders. As a result, doing front squats using a kettlebell, as well as one-arm kettlebell snatches, are much easier than their barbell or dumbbell alternatives.
#5. PRETTY MUCH IMPROVES EVERYTHING AT ONCE
This isn’t even hyperbole or an exaggeration. With kettlebell training, you’re using your muscles to stimulate strength, your core and hips to give explosive speed, improved breathing for greater endurance, and because this is happening all at once, awesome cardio conditioning. You could do any other workout and enjoy the benefits of one of those things, but you’re going to be hard-pressed to find anything outside of the kettlebells that offers it all at once.
Even if you’re not trying to hit Olympic-level fitness, using kettlebells can get your heart pumping faster and stronger, your muscle fibers stronger and more capable, and any body fat to just melt right off of you.
#6. MORE WITH LESS
The methodology that follows kettlebell usage is very different from that of the more standardized fitness tools we use here in the west. For example, whereas dumbbells or barbells have you perform a certain number of reps, adding weights in order to see more muscle growth, the same is not necessarily true for kettlebells. While you can increase the weight of a kettlebell if a movement becomes easier, you can also increase the number of reps or perform a more difficult variant. This means that, with one 10lb kettlebell, you can get the same intense workout, with more and difficult reps, as you would with a 25lb kettlebell you’d use for shorter and more simplified reps.
#7. IMPROVE JOINT STRENGTH & FLEXIBILITY
Another area kettlebells absolutely succeed in is flexibility and joint strength. Even the simplest swing offers tremendous benefits to your hamstrings. These benefits are only further exacerbated with more complicated movements like the windmill or single-leg deadlift.
#8. IT’S JUST FUN
Then there’s just the fact that kettlebells are just fun to play with. Again, they’re so different from what you expect a workout tool to look like, that you kind of imagine it as something of a toy. And, while I make a point to emphasize that it is NOT a toy (you could seriously get hurt being reckless), it is more “fun” to use than the more boring-looking barbels or dumbells.
#9. OFFERS YOU SPACE AT THE GYM
Kind of a slight offshoot of the last point. Because you are essentially swinging a small bowling ball all over the place, you’re probably not going to want for space when at the gym. Seriously. Every time I go, I always manage to “magically” get a wide enough berth cast around me as I do my thing. It’s the strangest thing. It’s like they think the kettlebell will accidentally fly out of my hands or something. (Again, that CAN happen so never use a kettlebell that is too heavy. I’m making a point)
#10. HISTORICAL PRECEDENCE
Finally, if you look throughout the world, in virtually all societies and cultures over the centuries, they’ve all had something fairly reminiscent of the kettlebell. If you go to the Shaolin Kung Fun training in China or the Martial Arts training in Japan, just as an easy example, they use similarly based tools. Not only is this super cool, but it also kind of means it’s a proven system, no?
For me personally, my journey from huge skeptic to avid fan is one I will always hold on to. Kettlebells are something that has made a permanent place in my home and are something I plan to use pretty much every day. If you’re trying to lose body fat, gain lean muscle, or improve your hip movements, there really isn’t a singular tool out there that does all of that.
I love working out and so that means I’m never dropping my barbell or dumbbells solely for the kettlebell. However, if you are anyone looking to improve their physical body, be it beginner or gym head, there isn’t anything I can honestly recommend more.