Kettlebell training comes with a fairly steep learning curve. But in exchange for that period of learning, you can reap many benefits, including a spectacular calorie burn, improved cardiorespiratory fitness and greater strength and endurance.
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The best way to choose the appropriate kettlebell weight is by trying out a few, although you can also get a rough idea by simulating kettlebell exercises with a dumbbell. In general, many men can start with a 35-pound kettlebell for ballistic movements, while women can start with an 18-pound weight.
Choosing the Right Kettlebell Weight
Ultimately, there is no one-size-fits-all starting weight for kettlebell training; choosing the right weight depends not only on your strength and athleticism, but also on your attention to technique. Scratch a dozen experts and you'll get at least several different answers about starting weights, with the most honest being "it depends."
To make finding your starting weight even more challenging is that, even though kettlebells are now much more mainstream than they used to be, they still don't have the same breadth and depth of strength standards and fitness testing that you'll find for more conventional exercises such as bench presses or squats.
With that said, if you dig deep enough for a "starting weight" recommendation, most kettlebell-oriented sources — from the "unconventional training" experts at Onnit Academy to the online kettlebell store Kettlebells USA — agree that for ballistic (swinging) exercises, a 35-pound weight is an ideal starting place for most men, and an 18-pound weight is ideal for many women. You can adjust this weight up or down if you consider yourself to be unusually athletic or sedentary.
Kettlebells USA recommends starting with a weight that you can press overhead eight to 10 times if you're doing controlled overhead movements, such as Turkish get-ups and windmills. This is an excellent starting place, because it greatly reduces the risk of injury — or distraction — from holding a too-heavy weight overhead as you work through complex, full-body movements.
Playing Kettlebell Detective
Although the weights just mentioned are excellent guidelines to start from, it's important to remember that they're only a rough guideline — and the ideal starting weight for you might be very different from what you see listed.
If you're shopping for a home gym, the easiest — and most expensive — solution is to buy a set, so that you have a variety of weights available as you try out different exercises, or spend the money for a day pass to a gym with a good kettlebell set and "shop" through their options to see which weights you should use for ballistic and overhead exercises.
If you don't want to buy a full set, you always have the option of trotting down to your local fitness equipment store, warming up with a few brisk laps around the store, and then (carefully!) getting down to business in their kettlebell section to see which weights suit you best.
Not interested in a very public workout? You can get an idea of which weights work for you by mimicking a couple of the most common kettlebell exercises with dumbbells, either at home or in the gym. Working out with dumbbells has a very different feel from kettlebells, because the dumbbell's weight is distributed in line with its handle, whereas, with kettlebells, the weight is off-center from the handle — but the substitution can give you a good idea of where to start.
Starter Kettlebell Exercises
If you're trying the dumbbell-as-kettlebell routine, there are two tests you can do to help pin down your perfect starting weight. The first and easiest is to select a weight that you can safely use for controlled overhead movements, such as the kettlebell windmill or Turkish get-ups.
Just head for the dumbbell rack and, starting with a weight that's a little lighter than what you think you can handle, hunt and peck until you've found a weight that you can press overhead eight to 10 times with good technique, but still find challenging. That's your starter weight for overhead movements.
For ballistic movements, you're going to have to go in and try out a two-handed kettlebell swing. But before you do that, you need to master a basic movement known as the hip hinge.
Hip Hinge Instructions
- Stand with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Focus on maintaining good core posture: Chest up and open, shoulder blades back and down.
- Place the outside edges of your hands against your hip crease on each side.
- Maintain that core posture — chest open, shoulders down — as you soften your knees and press back with your hands, sending your hips backward.
- Let your torso tilt forward with your hips as the fulcrum — almost like the hinge on a door.
- Reverse the motion by smoothly driving your hips forward, as if you were trying to "pop" your hands off the front of your pelvis. However, do not hyperextend your lower back; stop when you reach upright posture again.
The hip hinge is the integral driver behind kettlebell swings — so once you've mastered that, it's time to grab a dumbbell and start testing what sort of weight you're comfortable swinging. If you were using a kettlebell, you'd hold it in an overhand grip with both hands on the handle.
"Kettlebell" Swing Instructions
There's a reason that you generally do kettlebell swings with kettlebells instead of dumbbells. The feel and momentum are entirely different, so the hardest part of this exercise may be figuring out how to hold the dumbbell and then remembering that it will feel different when you return to do it with a kettlebell.
You have two options for holding the weight: Either hold one end of the dumbbell in both hands so that the free end hangs straight down when your arms dangle in front of you, or hold the dumbbell handle in both hands, palms facing in and stacked. If you take the former approach, be very careful to make sure the bottom end of the weight clears the floor consistently.
- Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Let your hands hang in front of you.
- Soften your knees and hinge forward at the hips as you previously practiced, letting the weight swing between your thighs.
- Drive forward with your hips, straightening your knees and letting your torso swing upright. If you do this properly, the weight will naturally swing up to abdomen or chest level as a result of your hip drive — not pulling or lifting with your arms.
- Let your arms swing naturally back down, forearms contacting your inner thighs as you immediately sink back into the hip hinge, starting another repetition.
- When you're ready to stop the motion, let the kettlebell swing back between your thighs, then naturally forward again, but don't add momentum with the hip drive. This makes it easier to stop its swing and then, depending on the weight, either carry it to the rack or squat to lower it to the floor.
Why Buy a Kettlebell?
Are you wondering whether kettlebells are worth the effort and the expense? Unfailingly, the best exercises are the ones you're actually willing to do and that you can use proper form on. So, if you find that you dislike kettlebells, or if you're not willing to invest a little time and money into a coaching session or other learning resources to ensure you develop proper form, they're probably not the right choice for you.
But if you do like kettlebells, they can provide numerous benefits. In an excerpt from his 2013 Human Kinetics book, Kettlebell Training, champion athlete Steve Cotter identifies just a few reasons he feels people should train with kettlebells, including their affordability, the versatility of motions they can accommodate, the way they encourage athletic movement and their fun, unique nature that requires full engagement of both body and mind.
But there's scientific confirmation for the benefits of kettlebell training, too. In a small, independent study that was commissioned and published by the American Council on Exercise in 2010, researchers from the University of Wisconsin, LaCrosse evaluated 10 volunteers and found that they burned at least 20.2 calories per minute during a kettlebell workout — roughly equivalent to running a six-minute mile.
In a separate ACE-sponsored study, published in a March 2013 issue of their ACE Certified News, researchers at the same university evaluated a group of 30 volunteers who either underwent an eight-week period of training with kettlebells or did not, with the latter acting as a control group. The group that did undergo the eight weeks of twice-weekly kettlebell classes showed some remarkable adaptations: a 13.8 percent increase in aerobic capacity, a 70 percent increase in abdominal core strength, plus significant increases in their leg-press strength, grip strength and dynamic balance.
Kettlebell Training for Health
If those reasons aren't enough to motivate you to put in that detective work and find the right kettlebell weight for you, consider this: The U.S. Department of Health and Human Services recommends that, in order to maintain optimal health, you do full-body strength-training for all your major muscle groups at least twice a week, along with 150 minutes of moderate-intensity cardio or 75 minutes of vigorous cardio in the same week-long time period. If you can double that amount of cardio, you'll enjoy even more benefits.
Kettlebell training certainly counts toward that strength-training requirement — but as Cotter points out in his book excerpt, it also challenges your cardiorespiratory system at the same time, so once you've found the appropriate kettlebell weight, you can effectively kill two birds with one stone.
And if nothing else, kettlebell training can be great fun, inspiring confidence, functional full-body strength and athletic movement, even if you don't think of yourself as an athlete. Just make sure you give it a chance with actual kettlebells — not dumbbell substitutes — and, if at all possible, take a one-on-one training or group class with a coach to make sure you're using the correct form.
- Kettlebells USA: "What Size Kettlebell Should I Buy?"
- American Council on Exercise: "Kettlebells: Twice the Results in Half the Time?"
- American Council on Exercise: "ACE Sponsored Research Study: Kettlebells Kick Butt"
- Onnit Academy: "What Is the Best Kettlebell Weight to Start With?"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Getting in on the Kettlebell Craze"
- Human Kinetics: "Seven Reasons Why People Should Train With Kettlebells"