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Kettlebells: The No-Machine Strength Workout

This unique piece of equipment provides effective total-body training in a short amount of time
Written by 
Holly St. Lifer
Canyon Ranch Reviewer: 

Exercising with kettlebells—weights that look like cannonballs with handles—tones muscle, increases your cardiovascular fitness and improves your posture and balance. As if that wasn’t enough, a typical kettlebell routine is done in less than half an hour—a great option if you’re short on time. Of course, we understand that trying an unfamiliar piece of exercise equipment like a kettlebell can feel intimidating. But remember: Doing so is actually an effective strategy for challenging your muscles in new ways. Plus, when you switch things up, your workouts won’t feel as stale.

The kettlebell is made up of a heavier ball and a lighter handle, requiring you to use multiple muscle groups, including the stabilizers in your core, to continuously control the bell's shifting center of gravity. This helps you build strength with each exercise. Swinging, holding and lifting kettlebells also elevates your heart rate, adding a cardio element. In fact, a 20-minute kettlebell workout can burn almost 300 calories, the equivalent of running at a six-minute-mile pace for the same amount of time.

If you’re new to strength training altogether, start with a 10-pound kettlebell. But if you’re already comfortable using 8- to 10-pound dumbbells, opt for a 14- or 15-pound bell. Starting with a light kettlebell can help you master your form before taking on more weight. If you’re unable to control the kettlebell and maintain proper form during the exercise, the weight is likely too heavy for you.

Beginners should start with simple exercises like the four described below; aim to burn the most calories by moving from one exercise to the next, with only a short rest in between. More advanced kettlebell movements are best learned from a qualified instructor, so signing up for a class or a personal training session is a great way to enhance your workout when you’re ready.


Figure 8

What It Does: Strengthens your abdominals while challenging your thighs and shoulders

How to Do It: Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, knees bent at about 45 degrees. Keep your back flat and chest lifted. Your body weight should stay in your heels as you maintain this position throughout the entire exercise. Start with the kettlebell on the floor between your feet. Grab the handle with both hands and lift the weight just a couple feet off the floor. Release your left hand and swing the kettle bell around the outside of your right leg, behind you and under your pelvis, where you’ll switch hands and continue the movement out and around your left leg, behind you and under your pelvis. That's one full figure 8, or one rep. Perform 10 reps; complete two sets. 

Be careful not to…stop and start. The movement should be slow and controlled but fluid in order to maintain a balanced workout. 


Front Squat

What It Does: Targets your quad muscles and also works your hamstrings, calves, glutes and lower back

How to Do It: Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, knees soft, and hold the ball part of the kettlebell with both hands at chest level, the handle facing the floor and your elbows against your sides. Engage your core as you slowly squat down, keeping your back flat and your chest lifted, until your thighs are parallel to the floor. Pause here for a moment and then return to your starting position. Perform 10 reps; complete two sets.

Be careful not to…lean too far forward as you squat. While you may naturally tilt forward slightly, shifting your torso too much could strain your lower back.


Kettlebell Swing

What It Does: Targets the hips, glutes, quads and lower back

How to Do It: Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, knees soft, the kettlebell on the floor between your feet. Squat down until your thighs are nearly parallel to the floor, keeping your chest lifted. Slightly bend forward, keeping your back flat, and grab the handle of a kettlebell with both hands. Squeeze your glutes to bring your pelvis forward and swing the kettlebell up to shoulder height as you come to a standing position. As the kettlebell begins to arc back down, bend your knees and squat, swinging the weight between your legs, leaning forward with a flat back. That's one rep. Perform 15 to 20 reps; complete two sets. 

Be careful not to…use your arms for power. Use the strength of your legs and core to help you propel the kettlebell in order to prevent lower back injury.


Windmill

What It Does: Works your abdominals, hamstrings, glutes, lower and upper back, shoulders and triceps

How to Do It: Grab the handle of a kettlebell with your right hand and stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart, the toes of your left foot pointed slightly outward and your left knee slightly bent. Raise the kettlebell up to your right shoulder with your palm facing left, then press it overhead, keeping your eyes on the weight. Shift your hips to the right and slowly bend your torso to the left until it’s at a 90-degree angle with the floor. As you bend, your right arm should remain straight as you hold the kettlebell toward the ceiling and your left arm should be extended straight down in front of your left ankle. Pause, then return to start, keeping your right arm extended overhead, your hips shifting back to center. Perform five to 10 reps before lowering the weight, then repeat on the other side. Complete two sets.

Be careful not to…let your pelvis swing behind you as you shift your hips and lower your torso. If your pelvis sinks backward, you might lose balance and place strain on your back.   


More:

Medicine Ball: The No-Machine Strength Workout
Dumbbells: The No-Machine Strength Workout
Body Bar: The No-Machine Strength Workout
Resistance Bands: The No-Machine Strength Workout

Reference(s) 
American Council on Exercise
National Strength and Conditioning Association
About the author 
Holly St. Lifer is a health, fitness, nutrition and human interest writer whose work has appeared in AARP, Health, Ladies' Home Journal, Prevention and other publications. She also teaches magazine writing at New York University.