Kettlebells look like cannonballs with handles
And a workout with them will strengthen you in ways nothing else can. If you were to purchase one piece of home gym equipment, I’d choose kettlebells. A kettlebell workout is a total body workout, it’s strengthening, it increases core strength and increases your ability to generate power. For such a really simple piece of equipment, it can have dramatic impact on your physical fitness.
So what is a kettlebell and where did they come from?
I first saw kettlebells at a trade show back in about 2005. I had never even heard of them. I asked some of my GYROTONIC® trainer friends if they had used them and a Master Trainer who was living in New York told me she absolutely loved them and thought they were a great compliment to GYROTONIC®.
Training out of a gym in San Francisco in 2008, I finally had a chance to become a certified trainer. While I’m only teaching GYROTONIC® right now, I do a kettlebell workout for myself weekly.
There are primarily two types of kettlelbells, cast and filled. The difference between the two is the cast bells are different sizes depending on the weight, while the filled bells are of identical size no matter the weight. The two types of bells originate with the two primary leaders of the kettlebell movement in the US, Valery Fedorenko and Pavel Tsatsouline.
Pavel is the leader of the “hard” style of training and the cast bells come from his “school” of training. The style of the bell matches the style of the training. It’s more traditional and comes from the Russian military.
Valery is the leader of the competitive style of training and uses the filled bells. The filled bells allow the practitioner to know the feel of the bells regardless of the weight. Very helpful when you’re doing hundreds of repetitions of an overhead snatch!
While it’s possible to use a kettlebell for basic weight training, like overhead presses and bicep curls, you’d be missing the point of the shape of the bell. By having an offset handle you’re able to swing the bell in a way that’s impossible with any other type of training equipment. This allows you to use the kettlebell to generate power through the entire body.
There are essentially three groups of exercises you can perform with kettlebells: strength, vertical pulls and swings.
The strength exercises are the most like exercises done with dumbbells but almost nothing with kettlebells in done in isolation. (A bicep curl is an example of an exercise in isolation.) While you can do basic exercises like squats and deadlifts, the real beauty of the kettlebell system comes out in exercises like windmill and turkish get-ups. These are complex, multi-planar motions that use the entire body. The require strength, balance, coordination and flexibility. Among the strength exercises, the turkish get-up is the gold standard in kettlebell training.
Vertical pull exercises are the most similar to olympic power lifting. These include pull cleans and pull snatches. Usually these exercises are done with a barbell. But with the unique shape of the bell, you can do these exercise with both arms or just with one. That changes the center of gravity and changes how your body organizes motion considerably.
Swing exercises are the meat and potatoes of kettlebell training. There’s the basic swing, the swing clean and the swing snatch as the foundations. And there are a great number of variations of each of these. The design of the bells also allows what are called “complexes”, when you blend several different exercises into a smooth seamless and multiplanar motions.
Because of the power involved in kettlebell workouts, one thing that seems to get missed in people’s mindsets is how good kettlebells are for posture. If you look at the photo filmstrip or video of a basic swing above, you’ll see that at the top of the swing, you’ll be about as upright as you could possibly be. Your shoulders will be back, your core will be drawn in, your legs will be engaged and powerful under you and your head will be lined up over your shoulders, all of which will strengthen you against the main postural failings of our sedentary and desk driven lives, upper and lower crossed syndromes.
A word of advice
Too often, I’ve seen personal trainers with no formal training in kettlebells use them with their clients only “parroting” what they’ve seen other trainers do. This isn’t good for the client as the lack of proper training can lead to injury. If you want to do this great tool with a personal trainer, ask how they were certified. While there are multiple certification courses, the names you want to look for are World Kettlebell Club, Dragon Door, Kettlebell Concepts and Kettlebell Athletics.