We’re willing to bet that most people get interested in the kettlebell for one reason: it looks damn cool.
A black cannonball with a cast-iron handle, no other training tool can match its old-school, back-to-basics appeal.
And while the cool factor is a good enough reason to start using one, there are many others that will inspire you to stick with kettlebell training long-term and make it a regular part of your workouts.
Whether you’re looking to get started with your first kettlebell tomorrow, or you want a quick refresher course on everything that makes kettlebells indispensable, look no further than the guide that follows, which covers everything you need to know to start making gains right away.
How Kettlebells Work
The kettlebell comprises a bell, handle, and “horns.” The bell itself is the round, cannon-ball shaped weight. The handle connects to the kettlebell by sloping downward at each end, called the horns.
This design is what makes kettlebells unique. Unlike a dumbbell, in which a handle connects two evenly-weighted bells and lies level in the center between them, a kettlebell’s center of gravity is offset from its handle—it rests several inches away.
The kettlebell can be grasped by the handle, horns, or its bell end. Gripping the kettlebell by its handle will be your mainstay, but exercises like the squat are more user-friendly if you grasp the horns to do it.
For a greater grip challenge on a move like rowing, you may choose to hold the kettlebell by the bell itself, which will force your hand to squeeze harder to prevent slipping.
A 2013 study by the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse examined the effects of kettlebell training on healthy male and female volunteers, ages 19 to 25—all of whom were experienced in strength training.
The subjects had their strength, aerobic capacity, and balance tested with conventional exercises first and then spent eight weeks training with kettlebells, performing lifts that included swings, snatches, cleans, and presses. Afterward, the same battery of conventional lifts were used to measure progress.
The result? The subjects’ strength improved, but core strength in particular jumped 70%. Aerobic capacity increased 13.8%. The participants’ ability to balance also improved significantly, which the researchers cited as being especially valuable to older adults who take up strength training.
The History of Kettlebells
Part of the kettlebell’s mystique lies in its humble origins. Kettlebells debuted in 18th-century Russia, where they were used as counterweights to measure grain and other dry goods.
It wasn’t long before farmers started challenging each other to lift the heaviest ones, and kettlebells eventually found their way into the hands of circus strongmen.
After World War II, the Soviet Red Army adopted kettlebells as a means of training its soldiers, and in the 1970s, kettlebell lifting had grown to become the official sport of the Soviet Union.
While kettlebells have been available in the United States since the 1940s, they’ve enjoyed a resurgence in popularity since the turn of the century and are now widely available in gyms and for sale online and in stores.
The Benefits of Kettlebell Workouts
The main thing that distinguishes the kettlebell from its dumbbell cousin is the off-set nature of the load. A kettlebell’s center of gravity lies six to eight inches away from your grip (when gripping the handle, anyway), and that makes it harder to control.
As a result, practically any exercise you do with it—from conventional strength movements like presses and squats to more unique kettlebell exercises like swings and snatches—is going to require stricter form and more muscle activation than you could get away with using a dumbbell.
Consider an overhead press for example. “It’s funny how, with barbells and dumbbells, so many people are happy to press to where their elbows are bent 90 degrees,” says Shane Heins, Director of Fitness Education for the Onnit Academy. “But with the kettlebell, everybody instinctively wants to press up to lockout, because the off-set load acts as a counter-weight, pulling their shoulder back.”
In other words, the kettlebell encourages you to do the exercise perfectly. And if you can’t—say, you arch your back or twist to one side in an effort to complete the lift—you know immediately when your form has broken (or if you don’t, a skilled trainer or training partner who’s watching you will).
Squatting with the kettlebell held in front of your body forces you to sit back more on the descent, improving the mechanics of your squat pattern.
That paves the way for you to perform more advanced (and arguably more glamorous) exercises properly when you graduate to them—such as a heavy barbell back squat.
Improved Core Strength
As stated above, pressing a kettlebell overhead will create the tendency to flare your ribs or lean back, so you have to lock your core in that much more to prevent it.
In a swing, you have to brace your core to prevent your lower back from rounding dangerously at the bottom of the movement. On any exercise you do, you can count on your core having to fire harder to stabilize your body and ensure safety—it’s not optional as it can be with other free weights or machines.
If you’re an athlete of any kind, kettlebell training better simulates the constantly shifting center of gravity you encounter on the field, mat, or court than most conventional lifting does.
Other objects, whether a ball, obstacle, or opposing player, rarely stand still during competition. Using kettlebells teaches your body to stabilize itself and produce force despite the chaos of movement.
Furthermore, exercises like swings, clean and jerks, and snatches (the latter two are more user-friendly when done with kettlebells than a loaded barbell) build power that translates directly to sports.
If your training lacks explosive movements, kettlebells are a good place to start training them.
Greater Grip Strength
The kettlebell handle, coupled with the displaced load, requires your fingers, hands, and forearms to work harder to control it than they would on a dumbbell.
While some manufacturers promote a thick handle, a narrower one will make it easier to perform more complex movements, which increases your training options (more on this later under “How To Choose A Kettlebell”).
As grip strength is important in most sports as well as for overall strength gain in general, kettlebells are an exceptional tool.
Stronger Cardiovascular Endurance
Most kettlebell exercises integrate the entire body, and many, such as classics like the clean and press and snatch, involve lifting the weight from the floor to overhead. Working muscles across the body over such a wide range of motion creates tremendous demand on the heart.
As a result, many athletes use kettlebells as a cornerstone of their conditioning programs.
Next to exercise bands and a suspension trainer, kettlebells are the easiest training tool to travel with. They won’t roll around in the back of your car like dumbbells might, and they wouldn’t look out of place on a beach or at the park.