If you've spent any time in a health club -- or flipping through television advertisements -- you've probably seen plenty of fitness fads revolving around some new or redesigned piece of exercise equipment. You've probably also noticed it isn't long before this new piece of equipment disappears from the gym or, if you found yourself owning one, is relegated to the basement and buried beneath old clothes.
But one piece of exercise equipment has been around for hundreds of years and is still actively used in health clubs and in the homes of fitness buffs: the kettlebell. And its continued existence and increasing popularity are not only because of its functionality, but it also offers the combination of cardio and strength training.
While you may know the kettlebell as that strange cannonball-shaped weight you've seen but never tried, don't be put off by it. Learn more about this fundamental piece of fitness equipment. You'll see it's nowhere near as intimidating as you imagined and find out why it maintains a place of respect in the gym.
When we're talking total body, the kettlebell is one of the best pieces of equipment in the gym.
Chris Marhefka, founder and president of Body By Boris Fitness and Training, Gainesville, Florida
How It Began
The style and techniques of kettlebell lifting used today come directly from the Russian culture. The original purpose of these weights was not strength training, though. They were actually intended as counterweights for grains and produce on farms and in markets, using poods as the weight measurement. In fact, the kettlebell continues to be measured in poods today, with 1 pood equaling approximately 36 lbs., or about 16 kg.
Over time, people noted that those who regularly handled the counterweights developed significant strength and body conditioning and realized these weights could be used for physical fitness as well. In 1948, elite Soviet military forces began regularly using the kettlebell as a key piece of equipment in their physical training arsenal. It was also in 1948 that kettlebell lifting became the Soviet Union's national sport. But it wasn't until 1985 that rules, regulations and weight categories were fully established, followed by the first national kettlebell championship in Lipetsk, Russia.
An Effective Fitness Tool
The Russians aren't alone in their appreciation of the kettlebell's fitness benefits, however.
Annie Galovich, the fitness manager at Equinox in Greenwich Village, New York, and a certified kettlebell trainer, says the kettlebell has grown in popularity because it's fun to work with and provides a total body workout.
"It feels purposeful," Galovich said. "You pick something up and it feels applicable, using almost every muscle in your body."
When used correctly, the kettlebell can stimulate every muscle fiber in the body and provide the two-in-one combination of pure strength and cardio training. Furthermore, it has features and advantages the dumbbell does not. Its shape and functionality create total body movements in which users can incorporate their legs based off a clean and press; that is, lifting the kettlebell from the floor to the shoulder, staying along the body, then straight up from the shoulder to above the head.
"It's like a purse," Galovich said. "The kettlebell isn't in the center of mass like a dumbbell is in your hand, so it generates force from the ground and strengthens your core."
The kettlebell’s exercise range generally follows the pattern of the pick-up, deadlift, snatch and swing; in other words, the pick-up from the floor, the deadlift by folding your core and legs and then unfolding for liftoff, and the snatch by positioning your arm and hand in preparation for the final motion, the kettlebell swing. This creates a total body movement from the calf muscles through the core and up the back.
Because of its efficiency and flexibility, the kettlebell is an effective resource in the gym for both men and women. It can tone every muscle, build the muscles and really work your core, Galovich says.
Galovich recommends incorporating kettlebells into the beginning of workouts after an appropriate warm-up because it incorporates the entire body and does increase heart rate.
Kettlebells are, by nature, designed for intense, total body movements with a lot of force and can be substituted for almost any exercise. Where marketers of many fitness fads portray them as a quick and easy path to lean perfection, the kettlebell is no fad. It needs no marketing and promises no overnight answers. Instead, it offers the opportunity for rigorous training and exercises.
Chris Marhefka, founder and president of Body By Boris Fitness and Training in Gainesville, Florida, specializes in group training boot camps and has found the kettlebell to be one of the most effective pieces of fitness equipment -- when used properly.
"People can abuse the kettlebell because it moves smoothly with the body," Marhefka said. "But it adds instability, engaging your core and a lot of different muscle fibers, so users need to be cautious of form."
Marhefka credits the rise in popularity of training with kettlebells to their simplicity and efficiency.
"Kettlebells have been around for a long time, but we've seen a big spike in functional training with boot camps and crossfit training," Marhefka said. "Kettlebells really fit into this shift in functional training because of their multipurpose capabilities."
Marhefka says it is important to learn how to properly use kettlebells before you start training with them. There is a greater chance of injury when using kettlebells than dumbbells or traditional weights because everything is free moving. Additionally, people tend to use heavier weights when using kettlebells, increasing their risk of injury.
Kettlebells are most effective at targeting the muscles along the posterior chain, the muscles in the upper back and down to the hamstrings. When standing with the knees slightly bent in a half-squat, kettlebell exercises create a push in energy through the legs and up through the back producing a total body movement that lifts every muscle away from the ground.
Total Body Conditioning
Kettlebell enthusiasts expect the equipment to remain a mainstay in the military and training gyms. As more people tap into the idea that fitness needs to be a priority, they'll find that kettlebells aren't intimidating after all and will learn how to successfully use them.
"We've taken on a mentality of total body conditioning," Marhefka says. "And when we're talking total body, the kettlebell is one of the best pieces of equipment in the gym."
And unlike those latest and greatest fitness fads, the kettlebell is one piece of equipment that is not going anywhere -- except when you're swinging it, of course.