Kettlebells are the cannonball-shaped workout tools you should add to your routine if you want to get a leaner, tighter figure without spending much time. If you’ve seen these handled weights at your gym but avoided them because you didn’t know what to use them for, you’ve come to the right place.
We quizzed Lorna Kleidman, three-time kettlebell sport world champion, kettlebell instructor in New York City, author of Body Sculpting With Kettlebells for Women, and creator of two upcoming kettlebell workout DVDs, on the ins and outs of shaping up with kettlebells.
A former gym rat who spent as much as two hours a day going to different fitness classes, Kleidman discovered kettlebell workouts six years ago and was able to cut her workout time by nearly two-thirds even as her body became leaner than ever.
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Here are her seven reasons why you should make kettlebell training part of your workout routine:
1. They’ll help you get a celebrity body.
Worried these weights will make your body look like one of the Russian bodybuilders who originally started working with them? Svelte and strong fans of kettlebell workouts include Jessica Biel, Jennifer Lopez, Jennifer Aniston, Penelope Cruz, Kim Cattrall, and Kim Basinger.
2. You’ll have an easier time performing daily activities.
Working out with a kettlebell is the definition of what fitness pros call a “functional” workout. That means it works your muscles in the same way as when you do everyday activities, like picking up a toddler, carrying your laptop bag, hoisting a gallon of milk, or lugging a heavy grocery bag.
If swinging a weight around instead of holding it in your hand like a dumbbell seems intimidating, think of it like a heavier version of your purse, which carries the weight on the end of its strap, says Kleidman. We bet your purse or work bag will feel a lot lighter after a few kettlebell sessions anyway.
3. You’ll fire up more muscles with each swing.
One of the biggest mistakes novices make with kettlebell training is not taking a session or two with a certified trainer. The trainer can help you to learn proper form as well as be more creative with the movements, says Kleidman. Sure, you can hold the weight in front of your chest as you do squats or lunges or use it to do arm curls, but if that’s all you do, you’ll be missing out on all the incredible three-dimensional movements it’s made for—and the effects those exercises can have on your body.
One major difference between traditional weights and kettlebells is that while you try to avoid “cheating” by using momentum in everyday dumbbell moves, kettlebells are all about creating—and controlling—momentum. By swinging the bell in different patterns, and then controlling the momentum to change directions, you tap into big powerhouse muscles (like your legs and butt) and smaller stability muscles (like your abs) throughout the workout. If you’re looking for inspiration and instruction, book a couple of sessions with a qualified instructor or buy a kettlebell workout book or DVD.
Make sure you start off with a total-body warm-up. Getting the blood flowing to your muscles is essential for any workout, but more than ever when you’re swinging an iron ball around. Kleidman recommends going beyond walking or jogging to get your cardiovascular system and your muscles and joints loosened up. She recommends doing some shoulder rolls, squats, lunges, plank holds or push-ups (on knees, if necessary), and jumping jacks before starting the kettlebell portion of your workout.
4. You’ll lose more weight while slashing workout time.
Kettlebell workouts can tighten and tone your whole body, but the dynamic all-muscles-on-deck movements also burn a heck of a lot of calories—on par with running a 6-minute mile, according to researchers at the University of Wisconsin–La Crosse, who evaluated the energy output of a typical kettlebell session. In their tests, exercisers burned about 20 calories a minute, or 400 in a 20-minute session.
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5. You’ll realize you’re stronger than you thought you were.
You might have never reached for a dumbbell heavier than 5 pounds before, but Kleidman suggests women start with a 15-pounder and a 25- to 30-pounder when you switch to kettlebells. You’ll want to use the heavier weight when the power is coming from your legs (like with the swing, once you get the hang of it) and the lighter weight during a move where your arms are emphasized, such as presses or a halo movement around your head. When you’re combining momentum with the strength of multiple muscle groups, you can lift more weight than you think you can. After all, you probably wouldn’t think twice before picking up a 40-pound toddler.
6. Your posture will improve.
Using so many muscle groups in conjunction means your core has to stay engaged 360 degrees to stabilize each and every movement. Good form is essential in kettlebell workouts, so stop and rest if you feel like yours is deteriorating. The number one thing to keep in mind is that the whole structure of your back and abs should unconsciously stay straight, as though you’re wearing a stiff corset. Any forward bending you do should come from your hips or the crease at the top of your leg, rather than from an arched back. Signals that you need to stop your workout include feeling like you can’t hold onto the kettlebell securely (hint: skip the hand lotion pre-workout) or your arm shaking excessively in an over-the-head position.
7. You’ll boost your rear and flatten your abs in one move.
The kettlebell swing is the foundation for many other kettlebell exercises, and it simultaneously firms your butt and your abs.
Here’s how to do it: Standing with your feet hip-width apart, your hips and knees slightly bent, and your back and arms straight, pick up the kettlebell by the handle with both hands, knuckles facing forward. Hinge forward from the hips and swing the bell back between your legs, then exhale, straighten your legs, and pop your hips and pelvis forward to propel the kettlebell upward to about chest height (that’s the butt-toning part). As you lower the kettlebell, your abs will contract—like a built-in crunch. Continue with one fluid movement as you lower back to the start and repeat.
(It’s OK to start with smaller swings to build the momentum until you get the hang of the movement and can swing it to chest height.) Once you’re comfortable with the movement, try to swing the kettlebell with one hand, alternating hands with each rep (both hands come to the handle on the upswing, and one releases as you swing down).