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First and foremost, the elephant in the room needs to be addressed. They are not kettleballs, cowbells, cattle balls, cattle bells or kettle bells. They are kettlebells! One word, three syllables, kettlebell. And you’ve probably even heard some other fancy names used to describe these centuries-old training tools.
But that’s not the point here today. The point IS, if you haven’t used kettlebells in the past, you are missing out and it’s time you rethought your workout strategies.
In the big picture, you would have to travel far and wide to find a tool equivalent to a kettlebell. Due to their unique shape and design, they give you a workout like none other.
Not only can they build you a solid body, but they can also improve your cardiovascular strength, flexibility and balance all at the same time. You’d be hard-pressed to find another tool that can do all of this in one fell swoop. But the kettlebell can!
Once upon a time in Russia, there were these markets where merchants would set up shop and sell goods to droves of pedestrians. Life was simple and life was good.
Dried goods, such as grains, would be placed on a scale where a counterweight was used to estimate the amount you were purchasing. This counterweight was a kettlebell!
As time went on, kettlebells got used as anchors to tie ropes to and prevent tents at these markets from blowing away. If you look hard enough, you may even see this happening at outdoor markets to this very day.
It is also said that one evening when some workers were breaking down the tents, a slight scuffle broke out. When one worker started hurling a kettlebell at another, a popular exercise called a swing was born.
Fast forward to the present moment, and kettlebells can be found in everything from local gyms to colleges to chiropractic clinics to households. They have stood the test of time, but it wasn’t until the early 2000s that they really started to gain momentum in the states.
Sizing Them Up
Have you ever heard of a pood? Unless you are Russian or were alive hundreds of years ago and lived in Russia, you probably haven’t. A pood is a measure of weight that consists of 16 kilograms (kg). In the English system, this would be approximately 35 lbs.
The pood was the common weight used in reference to kettlebells. If you could shank a 2 or 3 pood kettlebell off the ground and hoist it over your head in a single bound, you were considered a pretty bad dude. And the same can be said about you if you could do that today!
Of course, nowadays, there is no shortage of kettlebell weights to choose from. This is largely due to their rise in popularity, especially with females. You can find them in sizes from 4 to over 106 lbs.
But what you will often notice is they range in 4-kg increments. That was how they first started being produced as they rose in popularity. However, it is pure fantasy if you think you can easily jump up in 4-kg increments when you are adding weight.
For some exercises, you can. But for others you can’t. Luckily, there are plenty of options available now that run the gamut of weights.
You just might have to do some additional research to find the weight you are looking for. Also know that anything is possible and you can definitely find yourself a kettlebell that works best for you and satisfies your needs.
And for quick reference, 1 kg is equal to 2.2 lbs. So, a 4-kg kettlebell is equal to about 9 lbs. Once you start using kettlebells on the reg, you end up memorizing the weights in both kilograms and pounds. And most companies have the weights listed in pounds and kilos for ease of use.
TYPES OF KETTLEBELLS
Here’s where you need to take caution. Kettlebells either have a glossy, shiny finish on them or a powder coat. Although both can benefit you, there are precautions you need to take into consideration.
The shiny type can get slippery really fast when you are working out and sweating. This causes a multi-faceted problem. First of all, the bell can slip out of your hand and flatten a passerby at the gym.
Or it can land on your foot and make mashed potatoes out of your bones. Both of those cases are extreme, but definitely possible.
Secondly, if you ARE able to maintain your grip, wet hands will cause you to over-grip the handle to prevent it from flying out of your hand. This, in turn, can tear the skin on your palms to smithereens. Then you have to take a break from your workouts to let your hands heal and you lose valuable training time.
You can avoid these pitfalls altogether by reaching for powder-coat kettlebells.
Sure, you can use chalk, but it’s messy and it can be cumbersome to apply. You are better served going with the powder-coat style and just wipe sweat from your hands in between sets with a towel.
Benefits OF KETTLEBELL TRAINING
You already learned a little bit about the benefits above, but there is more to the story. The kettlebell is shaped like a cannonball with a semi-circular handle fused right to the top. And due to this ball-like shape, that’s where people got the genius idea to come up with all the faux “ball” names.
At any rate, the reason kettlebells do what they do is because the weight is extended out from the handle. This causes a different type of resistance than a dumbbell or other types of free weights.
The end result is you get a higher amount of muscle recruitment while doing exercises and you also have the ability to quickly and seamlessly move from one drill to another. When you combine two or more exercises it is called a complex, and these babies really get you in shape fast.
And right at the heart of all of this is your core. You always have to keep your core muscles tight and engaged with kettlebell training to prevent back injury and ensure proper force production.
Lastly, here is something that’s not often addressed with kettlebells. In order to get stronger, obviously you have to move a resistance that is heavy enough to spark muscle growth (hypertrophy).
If you are doing say, a set of military presses with dumbbells, you have to grip the weights pretty hard when you start going heavier. This somewhat limits how heavy you can go.
However, if you are doing a military press with a kettlebell, you can rest the handle on the inside of your palm and literally open your fingers. That gives you the ability to push higher weights up without your grip going first.
Now that you have a better understanding of kettlebells, you need to learn a little something about the actual exercises you can do with them. As mentioned above, you can do common exercises like cleans, presses, squats, rows and lunges, but they really only scratch the surface.
There is a whole other world of exercises out there that free weights won’t allow you to do. At least, they won’t allow you to get the same effect that you would with kettlebells. Some of these exercises include:
- High pulls
- Turkish get-ups
- Bent presses
- Deck squats
These are not your ordinary biceps curls and overhead triceps exercises. Kettlebells are not designed for isolation drills that only require one joint range of motion. And that’s why they are so effective. You are always using multiple muscle groups, which lights up your body like a Christmas tree!
You end up building a high amount of lean muscle mass while melting away tufts of fat, faster than you can even keep track of. The trick is to always aim for 90% quality or better with every drill you do. Because if you don’t, a kettlebell can put you in traction just as fast as it can turn you into a slab of granite.
Take the swing, for example. This is arguably the most popular kettlebell exercise. And sadly, it’s also one of the most poorly executed. You will see people arching their backs, rocking on their feet, raising the kettlebell way above their heads and doing what’s often called a “squing.”
You can pretty much picture the scene with a squing. It’s a hybrid of a squat and swing, but it’s poor mechanics. Here is the correct way to do a swing. This is going to be pretty detailed so pay attention…
Stand with the kettlebell an arm’s reach in front of you and space your feet about shoulder-width apart. Bend at the hips and push your butt backward as you reach down and grasp the handle with your hands right next to each other.
Form a straight line from the back of your head to your tailbone and look forward. Tighten your lats and pull your shoulder blades down and inward (this is called packing your shoulders). Rip the kettlebell off the floor as you stay in a low position and “hike” it back between your legs.
Once it stops moving, fire your hips forward and come to a standing position. Allow the kettlebell to rise until your arms are about parallel to the floor. The bottom of the bell should be facing forward at this point, not down toward the floor.
Squeeze your glutes, quads, abs and lats forcefully for a split second and then begin the descent.
Let the kettlebell start to drop on its own but maintain the tension in your lats. Collapse your arms right against the sides of your ribcage and let the bell pass right under your crotch as you move into a hip hinge.
You should now be in the starting position you were in when you first ripped the bell from the floor. Snap your hips forward again and repeat the exercise.
When doing swings, always make sure that your shoulders are higher than your hips and your hips are higher than your knees. This is where the squing often occurs.
Also, never pull the kettlebell up and decelerate it with your arms. This is another mistake that is often made. Just use your hands and arms as guides that keep the bell moving through a smooth, arcing motion.
Slinging one kettlebell around town will definitely get the job done with your body. But when you feel you are ready, you can also reach for two!
Doubles training is similar to using one kettlebell, but since you are using two at the same time, the game changes slightly. Another learning curve begins and you have to pay strict attention to what you are doing.
That being said, once you have the basics down with single-kettlebell drills, you just have to apply them to doubles. So, in essence, you pick up faster and are able to get advanced in a shorter amount of time.
You can do double swings, double cleans, double squats, double high pulls, double snatches, renegade rows and a host of other exercises. Just like anything else, you need to learn the basics and move on from there.
Final Words of Wisdom
Here is something you want to take into serious consideration when you are doing kettlebell training. Although it is not mandatory, it is highly recommended that you train barefoot.
Why? Well, do you remember the swing from above? That is a good example of a drill where being barefoot can make or break your form. When you are barefoot, you can sprawl your toes outward and grip the floor with your feet. Think of this as rooting your feet to the ground like they often do in yoga class.
Regardless if you are doing a press, swing, snatch or doubles, being barefoot will improve your stability and force production, making your experience safer and more effective.
If you are opposed to going barefoot or are not allowed to in your facility, don’t sweat it. Your next best option would be to wear a minimalist shoe. You can find them as thin as 1 mm these days.
But if that doesn’t tickle your fancy, the last option would be a pair of skater shoes that have a hard-rubber sole.
The main goal here is you want your foot to be as close and parallel to the ground as possible when you use kettlebells. Those fancy workout shoes with the thick, elevated heels are THE worst thing you could ever wear. Leave them on the shelf for the next person to buy.
Another thing to mention is that the hip hinge you do with swings is universal with all kettlebell drills. When you do a clean, a swing, a hand switch and so on, you still default to the exact same backward motion.
If nothing else, learn how to do a perfect hip hinge. Then all the exercises you ever do going forward will come to you a lot easier.
Lastly, always remember that kettlebell training is not about ego. It doesn’t impress anyone with the amount of weight you can move around with bad form.
Take your time, start off light and always master your movement patterns first. Then once your confidence levels are high, you can start upping the load. With that, go have some fun and make the most out of every workout you do.