Kettlebells: Adding extra weight to your workout

Could kettlebells – they look like a cannonball with an iron hoop attached – be the answer to ramping up your workout?

Iron kettlebells were first used hundreds of years ago, by Russian strongmen, who used the weights as a way to build strength, balance, flexibility and endurance. And it seems they may have been onto something. 

Research shows that using kettlebells during a workout can help boost your aerobic capacity, improve your core strength and dynamic balance.

“Kettlebells are a great addition to any intermediate or advanced exercise program,” agrees personal trainer Amelia Phillips. “The exercises combine strength and fitness, so you [can] get more out of each workout.”

According to Phillips, a kettlebell workout will give you:

Functional strength

The movement patterns mimic everyday life activities such as lifting, bending, and rotating, which helps strengthen your muscles in a functional way, compared with just using weights machines.

Range of motion

Kettlebell exercises can take your joints through their full range of motion, helping increase flexibility and prevent tightness. This is one of the reasons why correct technique is very important.
High 5 after workout

Combines strength and cardio

Many of the exercises, such as 'swings', can help get you both stronger and fitter, in a time-efficient way.

Joint Stability

Kettlebells can help strengthen the stabilising muscles that support your joints. Due to the unusual shape of the bell, your stabilisers have to work harder to control the load on your joints compared with a dumbbell, where the weight is evenly distributed. 

One study found that using kettlebells can increase core strength by around 70 per cent.  A separate small study suggests that certain kettlebell exercises can help strengthen the spine in a unique way, which may help some people with back pain issues.

How to get started

If you're new to using kettlebells it’s a good idea to have a few sessions with a qualified trainer first so you learn the correct fundamental moves. 

Weight 

“The weight you use in a kettlebell workout is often heavier than you think,” says Phillips. “A woman will usually use between 10-16kg kettlebells (for single arm work use 4-8kg) for optimum results.”

Men should start off with a kettlebell weighing roughly 16kg.  

Three Beginner’s kettlebell exercises

1. Deadlift

Kettlebell deadlift
  • Place your kettlebell on the floor just in front of you. 
  • Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes turned out. 
  • Squat down, pick up the kettlebell with both hands and then, keeping your chest and back straight, stand up. 
  • Tighten your bottom muscles when you’re standing up and then squat back down. 
  • Repeat ten times. 

2. Swing

Kettlebell swing
  • Place your kettlebell on the floor just in front of you. 
  • Stand with your feet slightly wider than shoulder-width apart, with your toes turned out. 
  • Squat down, pick up the kettlebell with both hands and then, keeping your chest and back straight, stand up. 
  • Once you are upright, swing the kettlebell two inches in front of you.
  • Bend at the hips while bending your knees and pushing the kettlebell backwards between your legs. 
  • Swing the kettlebell forward again until your arms are parallel with the floor. 
  • Repeat this swinging motion ten times.

3. One arm high pull

One arm high pull
  • Place your kettlebell on the floor just in front of you. 
  • Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. 
  • Bend your knees and pick up the kettlebell with your right hand with your palm facing towards you. 
  • Bend forward and lower the kettlebell back between your legs.
  • Then, as you extend your legs to rise to standing, push the kettlebell out in front of your body until it’s about level with your right ear. 
  • Repeat ten times and then do the same with your left hand.

How to avoid injury

If you are new to kettlebells don’t try and learn off You Tube! Go to a class or book in for a PT session and ask your qualified trainer to show you.  

Phillips also recommends that you pay close attention to maintaining a neutral spine and engaging your core muscles. “It's easy for your core to fatigue or switch off which puts extra strain on your back,” she says. And if you have problems maintaining a stable core, it may be best to focus on doing exercises which expressly strengthen this area before commencing a kettlebell workout.”

If you're time poor, but want to achieve a leaner, stronger body, then head for the kettlebells the next time you're at the gym. Or find an outdoor kettlebell class and you may discover even more benefits: a workout combined with the great outdoors could have you firing on all cylinders.
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