If you belong to a gym or health club, you may have wondered about those cast-iron or steel balls called kettlebells, which look like small cannonballs with a thick metal looped handle on top. Or you may have seen them for sale in a sporting goods store. Why would someone want to work out with kettlebells instead of free weights or a medicine ball?

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What Are Kettlebells?

First used in the 18th century and still used to train athletes in Russia and Eastern Europe, kettlebells are becoming popular in the United States. They weigh anywhere from 4 to 75 pounds or more, vary in diameter and are very compact.

Working Out With Kettlebells

For most exercises, you lift just one kettlebell; for others you hold one in each hand. Standard exercises include the deadlift, single- or double-arm swing, single-arm row and shoulder press. Kettlebells can give you a more dynamic workout than regular hand weights, resistance machines or medicine balls because, besides lifting them, you also swing them, which works more muscle groups, especially your “core” muscles.

Studies have shown that such workouts not only build muscle strength and endurance, but also improve coordination and balance. And if you use lighter weights, work up to faster movements and don’t rest for long between exercises, you can also get a cardiovascular workout.

Depending on which exercises you do and how intensely, kettlebell workouts can be very demanding and burn as many calories as using an elliptical trainer or stationary bike. According to enthusiasts, kettlebells can replace all your other exercise equipment and workouts and produce twice the results in half the time. That’s overselling them.

Avoiding Injury With Kettlebells

“Dynamic” workouts sound great, but moving a weight multi-directionally is harder and riskier than just lifting it up and down or having your movements guided by resistance machines at the gym. It’s best to start out by taking a class or working with an experienced trainer to learn how to use kettlebells properly. Many DVDs, websites and YouTube videos demonstrate workouts, as does this downloadable article: acefitness.org/getfit/studies/kettlebells012010.pdf.

The key is to start out slowly with light weights to get a feel for the movements and swing the kettlebells in a controlled manner. Swinging kettlebells incorrectly or too strenuously can tear a muscle, tendon or ligament, or cause a neck or back injury. If you have had an injury or have any biomechanical problem, talk to your doctor or a physical therapist before using kettlebells (or any other exercise device). And if you use them for fast-paced workouts, make sure you’re fit enough for intense cardiovascular exercise.

Bottom line: Kettlebells can be a good addition to your strength-training and aerobics workouts, once you learn how to handle them.

Double-arm Swing

Kettlebells Exercise - Masterfile Image

1. Stand with your legs apart in a half squat, holding a kettlebell with both hands.

2. Keeping your back straight and abs tucked in, swing the weight to hip level so that it pulls you up to standing, then swing it back between your legs.

3. Gradually swing it higher until it reaches shoulder level. Thrust up with your hips and legs to power the swing.

4. Repeat 12 times, for two or three sets.

Adapted from the University of California, Berkeley Wellness Letter (March 2012)

Publication Review By: the Editorial Staff at Healthcommunities.com

Published: 15 Feb 2012

Last Modified: 09 Mar 2015