How to Get Started Training With Kettlebells
Last Updated: Jan 16, 2015
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Maybe you’ve seen a few kettlebells lurking in the corner of your gym but were too afraid to pick one up, much less try to wield one as part of your fitness routine. Shaped like a cannonball with a handle, kettlebells are pretty ominous-looking -- especially the larger ones -- but they’re nothing to fear. If you’re ready to ramp up your workout and really see results, you’ll want to learn how to use them. But before you pick up a 35-pound bell and start swinging it around, ensure that you know what you’re doing. The information in the following slides will help you get a handle on kettlebell training.
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START WITH A BRIEF HISTORY OF KETTLEBELL TRAINING
Archeological records report the use of kettlebells as far back as ancient Greece. In the early 18th century, kettlebells arrived in Russia, where they were initially used as counterweights for weighing dry goods at markets. Vendors began swinging and lifting the weights to display their strength, which cemented their use as a tool for improving fitness. Almost 300 years later, kettlebells were introduced to North America by Pavel Tsatouline, a former Soviet special forces physical training instructor known as “the modern king of kettlebells.” Tsatouline authored a well-received article on kettlebells in a popular American strength publication, after which Dragon Door Publications partnered with Tsatouline to manufacture kettlebells in the U.S. In 2002, “Rolling Stone” magazine listed kettlebells as the “Hot Weight of the Year.” And now you can find kettlebells in nearly every gym across America.
Related: A Closer Look at Kettlebells
LEARN THE BASICS OF KETTLEBELL TRAINING
Made out of cast iron or steel, kettlebells come in a variety of sizes -- from as light as five pounds to more than 100 pounds. Traditionally, kettlebells are measured in “poods.” One pood is equal to 16 kilograms, or about 35 pounds. You may hear kettlebells referred to in poods, but they’re also labeled in kilograms or in both pounds and kilograms. Hundreds of different exercises can be performed with kettlebells to build strength, stamina, cardiovascular endurance and power -- as well as to improve mobility and flexibility. Common kettlebell exercises involve swinging, pressing or squatting one or two kettlebells.
Related: Kettlebell Training for Beginners
REAP THE BENEFITS OF TRAINING WITH KETTLEBELLS
With just one or two kettlebells, you can begin to get in the best shape of your life. Multiple studies show that training with kettlebells improves several markers of fitness. A study published in the August 2012 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research showed that six weeks of twice-weekly kettlebell training improves maximal and explosive strength. According to a study by the American Council on Exercise, kettlebell training builds cardiovascular fitness and aids in weight loss. “In 25 years of athletics, with competition at the national and international level, I truly haven’t seen anything that actually transforms the body in such a rapid fashion,” says Christopher Campbell, a StrongFirst Level II kettlebell instructor. Best of all, kettlebell training can produce these results in a fraction of the time of traditional workouts that include separate weight-training and cardio portions, kettlebell instructor Michael Shade told “ACE FitnessMatters” magazine.
Related: 13 Benefits of Weightlifting That No One Tells You About
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FIND THE BEST PLACE TO LEARN
Although you can easily pick up a kettlebell or two at your local fitness superstore and start throwing them around at home, unless you have vast knowledge of weightlifting and body mechanics, you may be setting yourself up for injury. A certified kettlebell instructor has received hours of hands-on training and testing on technique and safe-movement standards. “You have a guarantee of sorts if that individual is certified,” says kettlebell instructor Christopher Campbell. Finding a certified instructor isn’t hard these days, with kettlebell-specific training gyms popping up in every U.S. city. If you choose to go it alone, however, kettlebell instructor and StrongFirst barbell coach Chris C.C. Clark suggests being careful about watching user-submitted online videos that may not be created by experts. Instead, he suggest finding quality training resources on reputable sites such as Dragon Door.
Related: Alternatives to a Kettlebell Swing
CHOOSE A QUALITY GYM
Depending on where you live, there might be several kettlebell gyms (or gyms offering kettlebell classes) in your area. After you’ve determined that the trainers are certified, kettlebell instructor Christopher Campbell recommends that people take a few more steps to ensure that they’re choosing the right gym and instructor for them. “Talk to friends, take a look at reviews and testimonials and sit in on a workout. If only for five minutes, sit in on a workout and get an idea of what the atmosphere is like.” Campbell says you should feel a level of comfort in the atmosphere and like the way the instructor communicates with the class and the way the gym members communicate with each other. “Are the gym members smiling? Are there some jokes in between movements? Is there a sense of camaraderie, a sense of friendliness?” If so, that’s a good sign, Campbell says.
Related: How to Find a Gym Buddy
WEAR COMFORTABLE CLOTHING
One of the perks of kettlebell training is that you need very little equipment and no specialized clothing -- just shorts and a T-shirt, says kettlebell instructor Chris C.C. Clark. Many people like to work out with kettlebells barefoot because they can “grip” the ground with their toes. If you prefer to wear shoes, however, avoid anything with a thick, cushy sole (like many running shoes and cross-trainers have) because it minimizes transmission of power through the body and absorbs energy. Shoes with elevated heels are also to be avoided because they shift your body weight forward and prohibit full engagement of the glutes and hamstrings. On his CrossFit I35 website, kettlebell instructor Scott Lofquist says your best choices are Vibram FiveFingers, Chuck Taylors or Adidas Sambas.
Related: Editors’ Picks for Fitness Gear
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PICK A KETTLEBELL SIZE THAT’S RIGHT FOR YOU
The size of kettlebell you start with depends on several factors, including your gender, current fitness level, exercises you’ll be doing and any injuries you might have. If you begin as recommended by training with a certified kettlebell instructor, he’ll be able to advise you on suitable sizes. On his website, certified Russian kettlebell instructor Mark Riverside suggests that women who are older or out of shape begin with a 15-pound kettlebell, while older or out-of-shape men begin with a 26-pound bell. For those in average to good shape who have some experience weightlifting, Riverside recommends that women choose an 18-pound bell and men choose a 35-pound bell. Men and women in excellent shape who are experienced in weightlifting can start with bells weighing 44 pounds and 26 pounds, respectively, says Riverside.
Related: What Size Kettlebell Is Right for Me?
MANAGE YOUR EXPECTATIONS OF A TYPICAL KETTLEBELL CLASS
As with any exercise modality, classes will depend on the instructor and the facility. For example, kettlebell instructor Christopher Campbell says that classes at his facility -- Rhino Fit, in Santa Fe, New Mexico -- involve mostly kettlebell work, but also include some body-weight exercises and the use of other equipment like jump ropes and medicine balls. Chris C.C. Clark, a kettlebell instructor who trains individuals in Atlanta, Ga., says he only uses kettlebells and barbells in his coaching sessions. However, some sort of dynamic warm-up emphasizing the muscles to be targeted in the workout should be standard. The warm-up should be followed by a workout that includes several different exercises performed in an interval-type fashion, with a period of work followed by a period of rest. This ramps up your heart rate and is more effective than steady-state exercise. Some classes may also offer an instructional period explaining the exercises that you’ll be performing.
Related: 10 Core-Strengthening Kettlebell Moves
START WITH BASIC KETTLEBELL EXERCISES
Most kettlebell exercises involve swinging the bell, pressing it overhead or squatting with it in some fashion. "The Russian kettlebell swing is one of our foundational ballistic movements," explains kettlebell instructor Chris C.C. Clark. To perform the move, you’ll hold onto the kettlebell with one or two hands and swing it between your legs using a hip-hinging motion so it ends up at eye level with your arms extended parallel to the floor. The goblet squat is another foundational movement in which you hike the kettlebell up to chest height, cradling it in both hands, then perform a series of squats. Other basic movements you might encounter include the sumo deadlift, single-arm clean and press and the Turkish get-up.
Related: 9 Fat-Torching Kettlebell Moves
PRACTICE PROPER KETTLEBELL FORM
“Within the kettlebell world, quality of movement surpasses anything else,” says kettlebell instructor Christopher Campbell. According to Campbell, the most important aspects of proper body positions are a neutral spine and a proper hip hinge. “Think of Miss Manners’ proper posture and you’ll have a neutral spine,” Campbell says. To achieve a proper hinge, kettlebell instructor Chris C.C. Clark has his students put their forefingers on their hips and push back as if they were sitting into a chair. "I have them practice that movement over and over again so that they really get that hip-hinging motion down," Clark says. “With a hinge and a neutral spine, you’re well on your way to proper technique and safety,” ensures Campbell.
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WATCH OUT FOR POTENTIAL INJURIES
It’s important to ease into any new routine slowly, especially one like kettlebell training that involves weight and lots of repetitions. A good instructor will ensure that you have proper technique before adding a load, but you have to be mindful of your own body and what you can do. “There are so few injuries in my gym because I take my time, I urge my people to take their time and I urge my people to step away from something they’re not ready for,” says kettlebell instructor Christopher Campbell. Even so, injuries do happen, and the shoulders and elbows are most at risk, warns Campbell. “Absolutely, positively take your time. Don’t be afraid to go slow for the first couple of months. Strength and fitness -- that’s a lifelong journey, so take it slow,” he says.
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WHAT DO YOU THINK?
By now, you’re probably feeling a lot less intimidated and pretty excited about trying something new that has the potential to kick up your fitness level a notch or three. How do you plan to get started? Will you seek out a certified instructor, or do you plan to go it alone? Have you already tried a class? What did you think? Share your experiences with the rest of the Livestrong community in the comments section below.
Related: 12 Reasons to Start Training with Kettlebells
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