There’s a funky piece of exercise equipment popping up at health clubs and sporting-goods stores. Shaped like a metal cannonball with a handle, the kettlebell, which has been used in Russia for hundreds of years, has recently become popular on the U.S. fitness scene—so popular, in fact, that kettlebells-only gyms have opened across the country.
This deceptively simple piece of equipment is used much differently from a dumbbell. When training, you hold the kettlebell in one or both hands and generally move it at the same time you move your body. These full-body exercises tap into more muscles than conventional weight lifting does, and your muscles have to work harder to keep you balanced. Plus, the dynamic movements raise your heart rate.
“The exercises combine cardiovascular activity with strength training, so you get two workouts in one,” says Sarah Lurie, owner and founder of Iron Core Kettlebell Strength and Conditioning in San Diego. Another bonus? “You burn more calories than you would in a traditional strength workout,” Lurie says.
Just how many calories can you burn in a kettlebell session? A small study by researchers at St. Cloud State University in Minnesota reported that people who did a 14- to 22-minute kettlebell workout expended as many calories as if they had run a 10- to 12-minute mile or exercised on a stair stepper. Another study compared the energy expenditure of a traditional circuit strength-training workout with that of a light kettlebell workout, each lasting 30 minutes; the kettlebell training burned about 60 percent more calories, says study author Michele Olson, PhD, an exercise scientist at Auburn University in Montgomery, Alabama.
“If you keep the repetitions high, limit rest between exercises to one minute and do moves that involve momentum, the calorie burn will be similar to other high-intensity activities like running and spinning,” Olson says. With that kind of regimen, a 140-pound woman will burn about 350 calories in a 40-minute workout.
Many kettlebell moves rely on squatlike motions, which are particularly good at stimulating the hip muscles and bones. “To protect hips from fractures later in life, you need to do exercises that build and maintain bone density,” Olson says.
Your sense of balance, which tends to decline with age, can also be improved with this kind of training. Unlike a dumbbell, which is solid, a kettlebell has two parts of unequal weight: a light handle and a heavier ball. “Because of this, the kettlebell naturally swings like a pendulum. To keep your balance while handling this potentially unstable piece of equipment, you need to rely on your glutes, abs, back, shoulders and forearm muscles,” Olson says.
You can pick up a kettlebell at a sporting-goods store or visit gofit.net, where a 7-pounder costs about $25. If you’re new to strength training, start with a 7- or 10-pound bell; if you’ve already been working out regularly with weights, go for 15 pounds. That may sound heavy, but remember that when you do kettlebell training, your lower body propels many of the exercises, so you can use a bigger load than you normally might. Also, some of the moves can be more difficult to control if you’re using a light weight.
The following DVDs are suitable for beginners and intermediate-level exercisers: Gin Miller’s Calorie Burner Workout with Kettlebells, amazon.com; 10 Minute Solution: Kettlebell Ultimate Fat Burner, with Michele Olson, PhD, collagevideo.com; Kettlebells the Iron Core Way, with Sarah Lurie, budovideos.com.
Here are some pointers for efficient and safe kettlebell workouts:
Keep the bell close to your body Because you use momentum in many of the moves, there’s a tendency to let the bell move away from your body. Holding it near you will help keep it from banging into your forearm in certain exercises.
Grip the handle tightly (use more force than you would with a dumbbell) to prevent the bell from getting away from you or banging into your body.
Engage your abs Keep your back safe by contracting your abdominal muscles in every exercise.
Power moves with your lower body To avoid overusing your arms and straining your back and shoulders, focus on driving the movement with your hips and shifting your weight from heels to toes.
Give yourself space You need more room to move the kettlebell than you would a dumbbell. Make sure you have at least six feet on all sides and clear people, pets and objects from the area.
Originally published in the June 2010 issue of More.