First off, kettlebells have nothing to do with cows or any other type of farm animals. They are weights with handles that you may or may not have seen lying around your gym.
In his book The Russian Kettlebell Challenge: Xtreme Fitness for Hard Living Comrades, author and strongman Pavel Tsatsouline describes the kettlebell as “a cast iron weight that looks like a basketball with a suitcase handle.”
Invented in Russia and used for decades by strongmen, kettlebells offer users a wider range of motion than dumbbells that sit in the palm of the hand, and they also better simulate the way we carry things in our daily lives, say teachers and students who’ve gotten hooked on the workouts.
In recent years, these strange-looking weights have been working their way into a variety of American workouts for men and women, ranging from intense Kettlebell Kombat workouts at SWAT Fitness gyms in Tucson to Kettlenetics Slim & Tone workout DVDs and dance class routines by Michelle Khai in Miami. As more people fall in love with the workouts, some teachers are tailoring their classes for specific groups, from extreme training for law enforcement officers and firefighters to softer workouts for consumers who just want to be in better shape to deal with whatever life throws at them.
Americans are new to using the weights in exercise classes, says Khai, who discovered kettlebells as part of a college project and incorporated them into her teaching. IDEA, a 22,000-member organization of fitness instructors, has only now begun adding kettlebell workouts and demonstrations to its annual conference.
Kettlebell workouts work for just about everyone looking to get started exercising or to change their routines, says Lorna Kleidman, a former student of Khai’s who now teaches in New York.
“You shouldn’t try it if you have an acute injury, obviously, but it can be appropriate for all populations,” Khai says. “My 85-year-old grandmother wanted to try, and she had no problem with the 4-pound kettlebell.”
The workouts are catching on because they work the whole body at once without stressing the joints, providing both cardio and strength training that serves all of us as we move about our daily lives and helping us lessen the danger from falls and accidents as we age, Khai says.
What to Expect
To get started properly, you need a good teacher, whether it’s in a class setting, in a personal training session or with a DVD workout kit like Khai’s Kettlenetics Slim & Tone, which incorporates dance moves into the workout and comes with a 4-pound kettlebell suitable for beginners.
Kettlebell workouts run about an hour, the length of a typical aerobics class or personal training session. For beginners, classes typically start with mastering the swings, says Don Holland, owner of SWAT Fitness in Tucson, which is key if users are to be safe and enjoy the maximum benefit of the kettlebell. Newbies start with small swings and work up to wide, controlled moves designed to improve coordination and range of motion.
Unlike with free weights, exercisers use one kettlebell rather than a pair. Kettlebells range in weight from the 4-pounders to over 100 pounds for serious competitors, Holland says. In classes, users begin with somewhere around 18 pounds and increase the weight as they master the moves. This may sound heavier than we're used to with free weights, but in kettlebell classes, students use only one weight, often with both hands to grip it, and the swinging movements allow us to begin with more weight than we might otherwise.
Just like any other workout regimen, kettlebells are safest and work best when exercisers learn to use them properly from the beginning.
Once students have learned the swings, teachers incorporate various moves designed to get the heart rate up, improve coordination and strength, and tone various parts of the body. While kettlebell workouts contribute to overall toning, Khai says, many people find the fastest and most noticeable improvement comes in the butt and hamstring areas, a phenomenon she calls “bell butt.”
Many of the moves mimic tasks we perform in our daily lives, from swinging grocery bags to lifting babies from the floor to pulling ourselves up after a fall. Performing these moves with the kettlebells works all the muscle groups, Holland says.
Because the kettlebell has a handle, it allows for more free-flowing movement than a dumbbell that sits in the palm, Kleidman says, so when you do the swings during a workout, the handle moves and engages the body’s core and muscle groups as the user controls the movement.
“Whatever weight is in your hand, say it’s 15 pounds, people will think at first it’s too heavy because they rarely use 15-pound dumbbells,” Kleidman says. “But when you start moving in the smallest of the swings, once that pendulum starts moving, it cuts the weight in half. With a little swing, it feels lighter. We don’t use it like a dumbbell; we use more curvy patterns and we follow and control the momentum.”
Susan Fulton’s exercise of choice was always swimming, combined with fairly regular weight training sessions at the gym. She never saw herself as coordinated, and she still doesn’t, she says.
During the past half-decade, life got hectic for the 45-year-old South Florida resident who is in the process of adopting a child. As work and personal life got busier, trips to the pool and the gym gradually dropped off until she realized she was out of the exercise habit. She resolved to begin again, joining a gym about two years ago.
At her local gym, while doing a weightlifting routine that was becoming increasingly boring, she would notice Khai teaching kettlebell classes.
“I thought ‘Here I am lifting weights, and I’ve been doing the same workout for the last six months without varying it,’” she says. “Kettlebells seemed like they could be different and challenging at the same time.”
So Fulton signed up for personal training sessions with Khai three times a week. During the first year, she says, she lost 10 pounds without even trying, and she loves the workouts because Khai varies the routine each time so training never gets boring. Even more importantly, with parents who have both recently had knee and back surgery, Fulton wants to improve her coordination and balance.
“When I started, I couldn’t really move my hip and I had tendonitis in my arm — all that disappeared,” she says. “My legs are more flexible too — now I can pick up babies with a single hand. I need to stay in shape so I can pick up my new baby girl.”
Most of us who try kettlebell workouts at the gym or at home using a DVD are likely aiming for improved fitness to perform our daily tasks. But a few ambitious athletes among us have a chance to go further with an annual international competition designed to test skills and endurance with the weights.
Kleidman is a native New Yorker who worked as a professional dancer in her 20s, then took up step aerobics and later learned boxing. After she and her husband moved to Florida in 2005, she was struggling to find a gym with classes and a trainer that she liked when she discovered Khai’s kettlebell training classes. She fell in love with the sport and trained for about 18 months with Khai, who then referred her to Russian coach Dmitri Sataev, who specializes in time-specific lift training for athletes who compete in the sport.
Kleidman, now in her early 40s, felt driven to take the next step and trained with Sataev for competitive lifting. In December of 2007, she traveled to the Girevoy Sport Championships in San Diego and became the first American to win the International Master of Kettlebell Sport title.
Competitive Kettlebell athletes are judged by how many repetitions, or “snatches,” they can do in a fixed time period. Kleidman’s title came after she did 193 snatches in 10 minutes. During the competition, Kleidman, who competed with athletes from around the world, also won a gold medal in her age class and a silver medal for her weight class.
Also in 2007, Kleidman and her husband moved back to New York, where she established kettlebell classes. In her classes — trainers recommend two or three workouts a week — Kleidman knows most people are more interested in standing taller and moving more gracefully than they are in winning medals.
“It’s all about functional training — training you can apply to real life.”
For more information about Michelle Khai’s Kettlenetics Slim & Tone program, visit her website.