A Whole Gym in One Handle

Kettlebell workouts are short, sweet and effective

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Fitness trainer Peter Wolf of Medford demonstrates kettlebell technique. Photography by David Gibb Photography.

Seemingly graceless and clumsy in design, these cannonballs with handles use weight, momentum and leverage to provide a low impact, aerobic, total body workout in under an hour. Because kettlebell exercises require the use of multiple joints in movements that engage all the larger muscles of the body, they tend to burn calories faster than isolation moves that focus on one muscle. Kettlebell routines target all aspects of fitness, including strength, endurance and power.

“A kettlebell workout has the most bang for the buck in terms of time spent,” says Peter Wolf, a kettlebell expert who teaches fitness classes at Crossfit Potential in Talent. “It provides the most benefits compared with any other exercise style. Some people like to say, ‘It’s a whole gym in one handle.’ If your goals are more general fitness and strength, kettlebells are a great way to go.”

Kettlebells are compact, inexpensive, virtually indestructible and can be used anywhere. Dynamic routines are anything but boring and range from beginner levels to more advanced abilities. So effective are these workouts, they are increasingly utilized in sports conditioning, martial arts and for achieving functional fitness.

Shorter workouts, better results

Although we love being fit, most of us don’t want to spend hours in the gym. The appeal of the kettlebell workout is that it can be short and very effective. “Traditional strength training can be time consuming,” Wolf admits. “It requires a lot of the time in the gym doing multiple sets with a lot of different equipment. It can also be very stressful on joints and ligaments because of the repetitions. With kettlebells, you don’t need a lot of time, space or equipment.”

The workouts use full-body movements consisting of swinging, lifting and balancing weighted kettlebells, which generate fat-burning, aerobic exertion. Unlike most strength training, which isolates single muscle groups and requires quick bursts of energy, the constant full-body motion of kettlebell training achieves an effective cardio workout at the same time. Stabilizing the weights while pressing them overhead, doing squats and other full-range motions are what improve flexibility, strength and balance.

The lean and sleek kettlebell physique

Wolf says that unlike traditional bodybuilding exercises which use repetitive movements to increase the size of a particular muscle, “Kettlebells work the whole body, using a lot of legs and a lot of core strength. It’s your body against the bell, so in that way, you don’t need a certain weight for your biceps, or another weight for the shoulders or legs.”

For many fitness enthusiasts, the lean, fit, kettlebell physique has replaced the desire for the more muscle-bound bodybuilder shape. While the Arnold-esque build may be impressive, most athletes recognize that bulky muscles are more hindrance than help when it comes to speed, agility and endurance. “Kettlebells increase strength without the bulk,” Wolf confirms. “The reason for that is the ballistic nature of the swing. You’re stimulating your connective tissues as you’re using them to stretch and recoil. They can make you strong, but you don’t get the mass.”

Not just for men anymore

These strange-looking cast iron balls with handles originated in Russia in the 1700s where they were first used as counterweights on farm equipment. Russian field workers soon realized that handling them improved their physical conditioning. Popularity grew for this unusual form of strength training, and by the 1940s, kettlebell lifting became Russia’s national sport. The Russian Olympic team, from figure skaters to deadlifters, has incorporated their use into their training regimen.

Though it may have been buff and burley men who popularized these devices, Wolf says that judging by his classes, women have embraced the kettlebell workout, not only for fitness, but for the added benefit of weight loss.

Jacksonville resident Kyleen Brodie struggled to control her weight while working at a local bakery. “I didn’t want to do a crash diet,” she said. “I wanted to do something where I could get healthy and strong.” Dissatisfied with her gym workouts, she lacked the overall fitness and endurance to keep up with her husband, who is an avid backpacker. “I felt good about going to the gym, but after spending a half-hour on the elliptical machine, I never saw any real results. We do some crazy backpacking trips and I wanted to be able to enjoy those 20-mile hikes. That’s when I started talking to Peter about kettlebells.”

Brodie’s focus going into it was core, stability and increasing strength, along with the weight loss. “We also talked about nutrition, and once you start working out and seeing the effects, it makes you a lot more conscious about what you eat, so I did change my eating habits, but it wasn’t anything drastic.” That was five years ago. Since then, Brodie has lost 25 pounds. “Now my level of fitness has improved, my self-confidence and my entire outlook on what I’m capable of doing has also.” Brodie is now six-months pregnant. “I feel great and I will continue my workouts through the whole pregnancy,” she says. “It has really strengthened my core and improved my stability, plus I’m still gaining strength.”

For women who are fearful of adding bulk by overdeveloping muscles with strength training, kettlebells produce a lean and defined look that projects confidence, robust health and fitness. Danielle Reynolds wanted that look for her upcoming wedding day. “I started out training a year before my wedding because I wanted to get the extra weight off and look better,” she says. She admits to her old-school thinking about workouts using exercise machines, free weights and cardio equipment before she tried kettle bells, but that has all changed. “During my training with Peter, I lost 30 pounds and have kept it off, and my body fat took a huge drop,” she says. “I started out with about 38% body fat and now I’m down to 25%. I love the efficiency of the full-body workout you can do in such a short amount of time.”

In addition to improving her strength, stamina and flexibility, Reynolds appreciates the kettlebells’ versatility. “What’s so cool about it is that in our class, I’m the youngest at 29 and then there’s a lady who is 65 and we do the same workout. There is a whole variety of us as far as age, shape and ability, and we all get a good workout. It’s awesome.”

Learn before you lift

Wolf says that while he would never discourage anyone from coming to the gym, a kettlebell workout is something you can do at home with a minimum of time and space and still get great results. “I would say though, unless you have an athletic background or experience with explosive lifting, like with martial arts or yoga, it’s best if you can get some hands-on training in the beginning. Some of the moves require specific techniques to do them correctly.”

Although many how-to videos are readily available online and on DVD, Wolf cautions that not all videos demonstrate the correct form and techniques, so the beginner may not get the best introduction to the kettlebell experience. “For instance, for someone watching a video of the kettlebell swing, you might assume that the arms are lifting the bell up that the swing is coming from the upper body but, done correctly, the swing is actually emphasizing the lower part of the body-driven movement.” In the beginning, he says, it’s worth getting an expert’s opinion about which videos are best or ideally, getting some class time or one-on-one instruction with a qualified trainer to avoid injuries or learning bad habits. “An instructor can work on special exercises to improve grip strength to avoid irritation or injury. Another risk is trying to do too much too soon,” he says.

Experts advise new users to proceed with caution when lifting kettlebells overhead, and to develop an awareness of your strength and your ability to control the weight. One slip or drop can mean injury as the weighted part is very close to the head and shoulders. Wolf agrees, “It’s important to stay focused during workouts and not get distracted, even more so than if you were working out with machines or even dumbbells which can be more easily controlled.”

Although there are scales online to help determine the correct weight to start with, Wolf recommends working with an experienced instructor to make this determination initially. “The starting weight for men, generally, is 35 pounds and generally for women, is 18 pounds. But these weights are only if you don’t have any restrictions or previous injuries. If you’re an experienced lifter and you have some weight training experience, it’s very likely you can work with a heavier bell safely, but you would want to have the basic skill set first. Then you can work the weight up from there.” For additional information on kettlebells, Wolf suggests visiting www.strongfirst.com.

When it comes to working out, who doesn’t want to spend less time getting more fit? “It’s easy to talk yourself out of going to the gym when you know you’re going to have to spend hours there,” Brodie says, “but with kettlebells you can accomplish more in a half-hour than what would take an hour or more with other workout methods.”

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Before you begin

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Intense workouts require intense focus so if you’re considering using kettlebells for the first time, experts suggest the following in order to avoid any possible dangers associated with kettlebell training. Check with your doctor first to make sure this type of exercise is appropriate for you.

 

  • Look for a credentialed kettlebell trainer. Whether you plan to work out at home or take a class, learning proper form and technique can prevent injury and improve results. Contact a local gym or check with a fitness association such as the Register of Kettlebell Professionals, the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation or the American Council on Exercise for recommendations.

 

  •  Plan your workout space based on your height plus 1 foot. A 6-foot man needs a clear 7-foot by 7-foot space to allow for the length of his kettlebell in full-swing. A swooping bell can do as much damage as a wrecking ball to other equipment, walls or furniture.

 

  • Plan your workout according to your ability. Match the length and difficulty level of your routine to your level of fitness. Start with a lighter-weight kettlebell when learning the basic movement patterns, then increase to a heavier weight as your confidence and control improve. Muscle fatigue can cause loss of control, resulting in injury. The high energy-burn of kettlebell training makes longer workouts unnecessary, so 20 minutes to a half-hour is adequate. Don’t skip proper warmup and cool-down.

 

  •  Stay focused during your workout. The potential danger of losing control of the bell or stopping in mid-swing can create an intense pull, and possibly even tear, a shoulder
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