Kettlebells: New life to an old workout

It seems like every week someone in the fitness industry is touting a new magic bullet; some new diet or workout or gizmo that is guaranteed to give you amazing results in no time at all.  It’s understandable, then, that people have become skeptical of this sort of claim. But now comes the ancient kettlebell workout — with its attendant claims of superior improvements in strength, balance and cardiovascular health in shorter periods of time. Can these claims be true? A growing body of scientific research suggests yes.

What is Kettlebell Training?

The kettlebell is a medieval-looking weight that closely resembles a cannonball, but with a flattened bottom and a thick, rounded handle. Although the precise origins of the kettlebell are a bit cloudy, the two most likely possibilities are that it was developed in either the Scottish Highlands or Russia in the 1700s, when the word first showed up in a Russian dictionary. The shape of the kettlebell allows for a unique set of exercises that feature fast, swinging movements and typically incorporate multiple muscle groups at once. (Gerard Butler used kettlebells in preparation for his role as King Leonidas in “300.”) A prime example of the dynamic nature of kettlebell exercises is the single-arm swing, which works the hips, legs, shoulders and lower back all in one move. To perform this exercise, place the kettlebell on the floor between your feet, which should be about shoulder width apart. Squat down, keeping your back and trunk straight and grab the handle with an overhand grip. Pick the kettlebell up so that it is hanging slightly above knee level and dip down to place the weight under your hips. Straighten your body and extend your legs to generate enough momentum to swing the kettlebell above your head. Control the return swing and allow the kettlebell to go behind you again. From here, you can either perform another rep or slowly place the weight back on the floor from a squatting position.

Does it Work?

The promises of strength and balance improvements are fairly straightforward and there’s every logical reason to assume that a kettlebell workout would hold true in those respects. Compound movements, like those used in kettlebell workouts, will naturally build strength, and strength training will improve balance. The swinging motions of kettlebells will challenge, and as a result improve, balance more than traditional weightlifting techniques. But what about the weight loss and cardiovascular benefits associated with kettlebells? Science seems to largely agree with these claims, according to an independent study conducted by the American Council on Exercise. The focus of this study was to challenge and test the claim that exercisers didn’t have to spend 30 minutes lifting and 30 minutes on the treadmill if they spent just 20 minutes working with kettlebells. To do this, ACE recruited 10 volunteers who were experienced with kettlebells and subjected them to an intense 20-minute workout and monitored their heart rate, lactic acid levels and calories burned. At the end of the workout bouts, the subjects burned an average of 400 calories in those 20 minutes through both aerobic and anaerobic channels. This result is roughly equivalent to running a six-minute mile. The subjects’ heart rates also shot clear up to about 93 percent of their maximum. To put this number in perspective, consider that a typical workout is performed at about 70 percent maximum heart rate. Based on their findings, ACE researchers concluded that a typical kettlebell workout met all of the qualifications to achieve improvements in both strength and cardiovascular capacity, meaning that it could be an effective method of weight loss.


Although this all sounds great, remember that there is no such thing as a magic bullet. No one approach to fitness is a cure-all and some of the claims attached to kettlebells — such as that they can increase running speeds and cause drastic changes in body composition “in just minutes a day” — should always be taken with a healthy dose of skepticism. The nature of kettlebell training can leave plenty of room for injury if your form isn’t perfect or if your muscles are weak. To limit the risk of injury, work with a qualified professional to learn the proper form and you may need to work your way up to kettlebells with other types of strength training. Even once you have begun your transition to kettlebells, start slow and stick with light weights. Have you worked with kettlebells? Please share your experience with us in the comments.