Kettlebells are one of the hot, “new” training tools on the market today. Walk the aisles of any Walmart and you can find colorful rubber-coated bells in a range of light weights. In gyms around the globe, these things — basically a steel ball with a big handle welded on the top– are becoming very popular. Their weights range up to 150 pounds each.
Originally used as counter-weights in Russian markets, the kettlebell first came into use as an exercise aid about 300 years ago. A hundred years ago, the strongmen of the day regularly used them in training and performance. They were common for a number of years, but saw a substantial drop in popularity in this country concurrent with the rise of machine training.
It wasn’t until very late in the 20th century that they made a comeback, when a former Soviet trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline, “introduced” America to kettlebell training. Today his two books — Enter The Kettlebell (Dragon Door Publications, 2006) and The Russian Kettlebell Challenge (Dragon Door Publications, 2001) — are the two most-read books on the subject.
Although a sophisticated observer can easily see that kettlebells are simply a tool, and not a revolution, they are widely touted as the latter. Several trainers and fitness centers have hopped on board with kettlebell-only classes and programs. There are numerous kettlebell coaching certifications, and dozens of books and DVDs showing us how to get incredibly fit using these tools.
The bottom line is that the kettlebell can make you work differently than a traditional weight. The bell has a profound effect on one’s center of gravity when doing standard exercises such as the swing and the snatch. Where a dumbbell is balanced, with the weight easily controllable by the hand, the offset handle on the kettlebell effectively acts as an additional arm joint, and thus demands of the user more balance, better grip, and smoother movement than does dumbbell work.
The greatest benefit to most exercisers is the core involvement required in almost every kettlebell exercise. Add to this the full-body nature of many of these exercises, and you can see why research supports the use of these tools in both strength-building and fat-loss. Are kettlebells the way, the truth and the light? No. Should they be an intergral piece of your training plan? Yes.
Getting started is requires a bit of a learning curve, but I’ll argue that any exercise that’s easy to learn is less effective than a complex one. Start with the easier exercises such as swings and cleans, then as your strength improves advance to harder ones like the get-up and the snatch. Most people working in a home gym can get away with just one kettlebell, as most of the exercises are done one hand at a time.
My advice is to stay away from the really light ones, which tend to be substantially less effective, and start with a 15 to 25 pounder. Most women who train in our facility work up to using 35 pound or more for most of their exercises, and most men can handle 45 to 50.
Kettlebells are not new, not revolutionary, and will not correct your bad habits. They are, however, a great training tool, and can add good variety and skills to an athlete’s training program.