When it comes to working out, there’s nothing quite like the kettlebell to get the job done. In fact, when most people ask me what they can do to get in shape, I say “buy a kettlebell.” A kettlebell is a big round cast-iron looking ball with a handle. They are extremely versatile and you can find them as light as five pounds and as heavy as one hundred. The great thing about a kettlebell is that you can do practically anything with it: cardio, strength-training, flexibility, core training, balance and stabilization—the possibilities are endless. You can push it, press it, pull it; squat it, lunge it, clean it; snatch it, crunch it row it; and you can thrust it, jerk it, and swing it. There are high pulls, low pulls, farmer carries and windmills. And who can forget the “love it but hate it” Turkish Getup? You can clearly entertain—or torture—yourself for a while. You can work out with one for an hour or for ten minutes, and no matter what you do, you’re going to feel it when you’re done.
What’s the difference between kettlebells and dumbbells?
The difference between a kettlebell and a dumbbell is the way the kettlebell carries its weight. A dumbbell has an equal amount of weight on each side of the handle. The kettlebell? Well, it’s just a round ball of iron. You end up using twice as many stabilizing muscles (think wrists, forearms, shoulders) just holding onto the handle than you’d ever use with a dumbbell. Also, because of its shape, you can actually “swing” the bell—getting your cardio workout in for the day. The swing is the most popular kettlebell exercise and I know some people who won’t go one workout without performing one hundred or more swings!
So how do you start?
First—if you’re new to working out, just like any new fitness program, you need to consult with a doctor to make sure you’re in good physical form. Then you need to get a bell. If you belong to a gym, there’s a possibility your gym may have a few. If not, or if you don’t belong to a gym, kettlebells are really easy to find. Most sporting goods stores sell them and I’ve seen many at Target and Walmart. Expect to pay about $2 per pound. And I’d suggest starting with a 20-25 pound bell. If you have zero previous strength training, start with a 15 pounder. You are your best judge.
Once you’ve got a bell, where should you start? I asked some of my closest kettlebell-loving friends what they thought were some of the basic “can’t live without” exercises. They replied with the same moves: the squat, swing, lunge, and the ¼ turk. So that’s exactly where we’ll start.
- The SQUAT: The squat can be one of the most beneficial of all exercises. The squat forces every single major muscle group to come together and push a heavy load. Your core stabilizes the entire body, the legs bear the workload, and the upper body holds the weight in place. Done right, the squat can re-shape your whole body. Simply hold the bell at chest height and bend from the waist so that the butt pushes back (like you’re sitting in an invisible chair) and bring your elbows to your bent knees. Keep your belly braced to support your low back and to work your core. Keep your chest lifted and keep your weight in your heels. Push though your heels back to standing and repeat. Point to remember: keep your knees in line with your ankles. If your knees come out over your toes (you can’t look down and see your toes), chances are you’re putting the weight in your knees and not your major muscle groups. You will likely set yourself up for major injury this way!
- The SWING: Stand with your feet outside of your hips and your toes slightly turned out. Hold the bell (with relaxed arms) in front of you. Bend your knees and pretend like you’re sitting back in that same invisible chair (as if you are getting ready to squat), and then swing the bell through your legs, using your hips to transfer the weight from your legs all the way up and out through the bell. You should swing the bell to shoulder height (see picture below) and never actually use your arms to lift the bell. Keep your back flat, chest lifted, and core tight to avoid lower back pain. Once you’ve got the motion down, aim for 2-3 sets of 20-30 swings. You can perform these whenever you want to add a little bit of cardio AND strength training to your routine. Point to remember: the motion of the swing always starts with the HIPS. As Shakira says, “hips don’t lie,” and they’ll move that bell for you too.
Where do you go from here?
Once you think you have the basics, set up a routine. Try to use the kettlebell an average of three times per week. It’s up to you on sets and repetitions. You may want to try 3 sets of each exercise and 15-20 repetitions. If you want more of a cardio feel, do 20 reps of each exercise and then repeat for up to 45 minutes. Keep your technique solid and the moves quick. You can challenge yourself by seeing how many times you can get through the workout in 45 minutes or you can even try to advance in weight!
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