It's no secret that kettlebell workouts are fiercely challenging — they also pack a whole lot of potential benefits, from slimming your waistline to building muscular strength and endurance and even cardiovascular fitness. The secret? You have to be willing to put in some time with the "bells."
In general, a safe rate of weight loss — with kettlebells or anything else — is about 1 to 2 pounds per week.
Calories Burned During Kettlebell Workouts
As with any other type of exercise, the number of calories you burn during a kettlebell workout depends on many factors, including your body weight, your body composition (percentage of fat versus muscle) and the intensity of the workout.
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But if you've put in the kettlebell skill-building and conditioning practice necessary to build up to an intense kettlebell workout, you can look forward to some impressive results. According to a small study commissioned by the American Council on Exercise and published in the January/February 2010 issue of its newsletter, 10 volunteer subjects all burned at least 20.2 calories per minute during an intense kettlebell workout. That's equivalent to running at a pace of 6 mph.
Your Rate of Weight Loss
Once you make the decision to lose weight, it's tempting to think that faster is better. But too-fast weight loss, achieved through diet and exercise choices that you can't sustain over the long term, tends to result in a yo-yo effect: First your weight goes down, but as soon as you revert back to old habits, it goes back up again.
As the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention points out, healthy weight loss is about making ongoing lifestyle changes that you can sustain over the long term. That tends to result in a gradual (but sustainable) weight loss of 1 to 2 pounds per week, which the CDC says makes it more likely that you'll keep the weight off.
You can break that down into quantifiable goals for your kettlebell-oriented weight loss program. To lose weight at the rate of 1 pound per week, you need to establish a calorie deficit of about 3,500 calories per week. In other words, you need to burn 3,500 calories more than you consume over the course of a week.
Read more: 10 of the Most Common Weight Loss Mistakes
Striking the Right Balance
If you could do hour-long kettlebell workouts at the pace demonstrated in the ACE study, you'd burn about 1,200 calories in each workout, meaning that eating a calorie-appropriate diet and doing three kettlebell workouts a week is all you'd need to do to establish a calorie deficit of 3,600 calories — losing just over a pound of fat a week.
But the subjects in the study only did 20-minute workouts, and there's a reason for that. When you work out that intensely, your muscles reach fatigue more quickly, and sustaining the same level of effort past that point of fatigue is a good recipe for injury. You can prolong your workouts by making them less intense, but then you won't burn as many calories per minute.
Putting that into perspective, three 20-minute kettlebell workouts per week is a much more realistic goal — although if you're brand new to working out it's a good idea to start with three shorter workouts or just one or two 20-minute workouts, then gradually ramp up the intensity, duration and/or frequency as your body adapts.
That brings you closer to 400 calories burned in each workout — if you do three per week, that adds up to 1,200 calories burned, so you need to create an additional 2,300-calorie deficit to meet your goals.
Because intense kettlebell workouts build muscle, you might want to supplement your weight checks with other methods of tracking your body composition. Noting how your clothing fits and taking body circumference measurements are among the simplest ways to track your percentage of body fat versus lean tissue; you might just find yourself losing inches while the number on the scale stays the same.
Diet and Cardio Count Too
The key to managing that extra calorie deficit lies in your other lifestyle choices — which is why making sustainable, long-term choices is the key to a truly successful weight loss plan.
One of the best changes you can make is including more cardiovascular exercise in your week, both to burn calories and guarantee important health benefits. This can be as serious as training to run a 5K or a half-marathon, or it could mean taking group fitness classes or going for a walk, hike or bike ride most days after work.
Consider walking as an example, because it's free and requires nothing more than appropriate shoes and a little space. According to estimates from Harvard Health Publishing, if you weigh 185 pounds you can burn about 350 calories in an hour of brisk walking at 3.5 mph. If you manage to take about three long walks per week, that adds up to about 1,050 extra calories burned, for a total deficit of 2,250 — now you're getting closer to that 3,500-calorie deficit goal.
You can get the rest of the way by tweaking your diet. You should never starve yourself to lose weight; your body needs the nutrients from a balanced diet to stay healthy and strong, and to fuel all that physical activity you've added to your lifestyle.
But if you start with eating the Department of Health and Human Services estimated calorie needs according to your age, sex and physical activity level, that'll put you on track to maintain your weight. If you then make the already discussed increases to your physical activity and trim a modest 200 calories per day off your calorie intake, that'll round out the 3,500-calorie deficit you're looking for — and put you on track for lifestyle and weight loss habits that you can continue over the long term.
When you plan your meals, make sure the focus stays on eating nutrient-rich foods such as whole grains, lots of fruits and vegetables, healthy fats and high-quality protein sources. Limit your intake of added sugars, unhealthy saturated and trans fats, and added sodium. This will help ensure that your body gets the nutrients it needs.
- American Council on Exercise: "Kettlebells: Twice the Results in Half the Time?"
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention: "Losing Weight"
- Harvard Health Publishing: "Calories Burned in 30 Minutes for People of Three Different Weights"
- Mayo Clinic: "Aerobic Exercise: Top 10 Reasons to Get Physical"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Appendix 2. Estimated Calorie Needs Per Day, by Age, Sex, and Physical Activity Level"
- Health.gov: "Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2015-2020: Chapter 1. Key Elements of Healthy Eating Patterns"