Updated: May 3
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Why Train with a Kettlebell | A Brief Overview of the Benefits
What possible good can a cannonball with a handle protruding from it do for me? This is a fair question and I imagine that many people, on clapping eyes on a kettlebell for the first time, have probably wondered the same thing.
As exercise equipment goes the kettlebell is quite unassuming and it really doesn’t look like a fitness tool at all. I remember the first time I saw a kettlebell, back when I was serving in the Royal Marines, I had no idea what it was for; initially I assumed they were either decadent paper weights or oversized doorstops.
But the kettlebell not only is a piece of exercise equipment, and a hefty one at that, it’s brilliant at developing whole-body fitness, superior strength and physical functionality.
What makes the kettlebell such a good training tool?
Unlike conventional weights, such as dumbbells, barbells or machines, the kettlebell – because of its unique shape – does not align with the body’s centre of mass. By this I mean, when we perform, say, a barbell shoulder press, or a bicep curl, we can get ‘under’ the weight and centre it so as to stabilise the platform from which we lift. This we cannot do with a kettlebell because the weight is situated outside of our centre of mass.
Why is this a good thing? You may well ask.
Well, for starters, when the weight is positioned on the outside of the body it ‘pulls’ us off balance. To avoid going the way of a Jenga stack we are required to activate many more muscles just to keep the kettlebell in position (if you don’t believe me try a single arm press with a dumbbell and then with a kettlebell).
One of the primary muscle groups used to stabilise the kettlebell during lifts is the core. Throughout any kettlebell session the core must remain actively engaged. It is for this reason why after thirty minutes of swinging, pressing and pumping it can feel like as if you’ve been wrung like a rag.
Another benefit is what I like to call body strength synchronicity. How can I best describe this term?
Have you ever seen one of those carpet-carrying graffitied meatheads at the gym with huge biceps and a hulking chest but a puny pair of pin legs? I bet you have because gyms the world over are rife with them. Well, the meathead is the embodiment (literally) of what is to have strength imbalances.
Yes they might be able to curl 100kgs and bench twice as much, but put them through a series of exercises that requires the synchronisation and harmonisation of force applied through complex movements and their true strength will show.
Remember: just like any team, you’re only as strong as your weakest muscle.
Training with a kettlebell can breakdown imbalances and bring about strength synchronicity. It does this because, when performing classic exercises – such as the snatch, Turkish get-up and longcycle – the whole body is required to work together, as one, to execute the movement. Any weakness or overly pronounced imbalances will impede performance and inhibit the trainer form completing the lift.
Another benefit worth consideration is how the kettlebell can promote cardiovascular fitness. Traditionally a kettlebell exercise is performed continuously for a pre-specified period of time – 10-plus-minutes – much like an AMRAP. Consequently, to sustain the necessary physical output, the cardiovascular system is engaged to ‘feed’ the working muscles.
This accounts for why, after 10-minutes of alternate arm clean to press, you will be left gasping for breath and sweating like you’ve just ran 5k.
Over time training with a kettlebell will forge a body that is both as strong on the inside as it is on the outside while also breaking down imbalances and bringing about whole-body fitness.
More benefits of kettlebell training include
Superior muscular endurance
Improved cardiovascular performance
Enhanced proprioceptive sensitivity
Cast iron core strength
Augmented mental toughness
And palms as rough as tree bark (though some won’t see this as a benefit)
Kettlebell Training Methodology
In truth, there’s no right or wrong way to approach kettlebell training. Kettlebells can be used either as your primary training tool or to supplement static exercises. You can complete one, two, three or four kettlebell sessions a week.
The methodology that you implement – the number of weekly sessions and duration of each session – should be tailored to suit your current physicality and fitness goals.
You’ve got to find what best works for you, and the only way to do that is to try out different approaches. If your interest in kettlebells is merely about bringing a bit of diversity to your pre-existing regime, you might require only a couple of short sessions per week – perhaps an AMRAP or EMOM session.
However, if you are keen to enter a Girevoy competition, or you aspire to win the coveted crown of ‘Master of Sports’, then of course you’re going to have invest a lot more time into kettlebell training.
One thing’s for sure, though, the best kettlebell methodology doesn’t involve hours of gruelling training.
This is evidenced in the training regime of arguably the greatest kettlebell lifter of all time, Ivan Denisov, who, in the world of Girevoy sports, is MMA’s equivalent of Fedor Emelianenko or boxing’s Mike Tyson. Basically, Denisov is the undisputed king of kettlebell lifting and he has amassed an unparalleled list of achievements.
Yet his weekly training regime is strikingly simple.
During physiological testing at a sports science laboratory in Australia, where a team of researchers were trying to learn more about the physiology of top-level athletes, Denisov disclosed a rudimentary outline of his weekly training strategy. In preparation for the biathlon competition, which requires the athlete to jerk and snatch for 10-minutes each, he follows a tried and tested regime which includes:
1. Jerk and jerk assistance work
2. Snatch and snatch assistance work
4. Jerk and jerk assistance work
5. Snatch and snatch assistance work
Assuming a logical weekly format, 1 corresponds to Monday, 2 to Tuesday and so on through to Saturday – presumably resting on Sundays. As for training times and session durations no such information was divulged.
But by all accounts, a top-level kettlebell athlete will usually participate in two sessions per day each lasting for between 30-minutes to 1-hour. The sessions consist of high intensity training – maximal lifts and 10-minute AMRAPs – and lots of technique work.
Denisov places huge emphasis on the importance of striving always for perfect technique. Flawless form, he maintains, can be the difference between winning and losing. In fact, Denisov, after failing to ‘get the jerk numbers’ he believed he should have during a competition, identified a minor flaw in his technique when reviewing the event video. He noticed that his second dip on the jerk wasn’t quite low enough. He has since polished out this blemish.
The long and short of it is you’ve got to experiment with different session and see what works best for you. Also, you must first make clear what your fitness and training goals are. The brief sketch of the workout above is that of an elite level athlete preparing for a competition.
If your goals are a bit more modest then you would probably more than benefit from the 6-Week Training Programme below.
Training Time and Session Frequency
Following on from above, to experience fitness and strength gains, and to develop kettlebell handling competency, it is perhaps best to aim for two weekly sessions.
However, they don’t necessarily have to be 30-minutes in duration.
For example, after, say, a 5k run or row, you could work through a 10-minute kettlebell clean to press AMRAP. By doing so you would engage pretty much every muscle in your body. In addition, you’d begin to master one of the all-time classic kettlebell exercises which also happens to work the major muscle groups: the single arm clean to press is like 10 exercises in one.
If you followed this method, bolting a 10-minute kettlebell AMRAP onto the end of all your weekly training sessions, you would soon be enjoying some serious fitness rewards. Furthermore, you’d probably see a body compositional shift in favour of more defined muscles and reduced subcutaneous fat.
In saying that, though, good training practice would necessitate a balance between high-intensity and more controlled technical sessions. By adhering to correct training principals you could reduce your chances of sustaining an injury while improving your lifting technique – which in turn can also reduce injury susceptibility.
So, in a nutshell, mix high-intensity and controlled kettlebell sessions perhaps implementing of 2 X 15-minute high-intensity and 1 X 30-minute technical skill development. Alternatively follow the 6-Week Training Programme provided.
3 Kettlebell FAQs
FAQ #1: What kettlebell weight should I start off with?
The basic rule-of-thumb when purchasing your first kettlebell is males should start off with about a 12 or 16kg and females either a 6 or 8kg. Remember, you will only need one kettlebell at the start; using two requires considerable experience.
With your shiny new bell it is best to learn two simple exercises – such as the swing and squat to overhead press – and practice them for a couple of weeks until you become used to the way it moves.
If you have only ever trained with static weights, it’s likely that you’ll find kettlebell movements quite unconventional and at first awkward. And unlike static weight training kettlebells require considerably more skill and proficiency to handle.
But when you develop confidence, and after mastering a range of different exercises, consider increasing weight or doubling up.
FAQ #2: What makes the kettlebell so good?
Due to its design the kettlebell, unlike, say, dumbbells, cables or exercise machines, destabilises the body through the execution of the movement. When you swing a kettlebell it pulls you forward and throws you back.
This might not sound like an attribute, but it is. For when you are destabilised you are forced to engage the core and recruit a myriad synergist muscles to prevent yourself from losing balance.
In so doing you will not only work a wider range of muscles, but also develop functional physicality.
FAQ #3: Can you lose weight with kettlebells?
The short answer: Yes, you can burn fat and thus lose weight with kettlebell training.
Unlike conventional weight training, which is comparatively static and tends to focus on isolation movements (bicep curls, bench press, etc., etc.), kettlebell exercises are highly functional and engage a broad range of muscle groups.
As a consequence the cardiovascular system is forced to ‘feed’ these muscles throughout the duration of the session – in fact, studies have shown that after a high-intense kettlebell session the body continues to burn fat for up to 30-minutes.
When the cardiovascular system is ‘switched on’, so to speak, this in turn encourages the body to utilise latent fat stores for energy.
It is this characteristic that makes kettlebells the preferred weapon of choice for those fighting fat. And the kettlebell is not only great at burning the blob, it’s also brilliant at building and sculpting muscle.
If you decide to introduce kettlebells into you training regime, and use them regularly ensuing to mix high-intense with technical sessions (more on this below), it likely that you will see a noticeable spike in lean muscle mass and a decrease in subcutaneous fat.
6-Week Kettlebell Training Programme
This 6-week progressive programme has been designed and crafted to suit people who are just starting out on their kettlebell journey but also possess a modicum of bell handling competency.
It is not suitable for the complete novice. If you have never touched a kettlebell in your life you would be wise, before embarking on this programme, firstly to acquaint yourself with two or three core kettlebell exercises. Once you can competently swing, squat and press a kettlebell come back.
If you have, however, dabbled in a spot of kettlebell lifting in the past, or you occasionally pick one up in the gym when you’ve got bored of bicep curls, this programme could enable you take your training to the next level.
The programme aims to bring about the following outcomes:
Improved kettlebell handling confidence
Improved lifting technique
Improved whole-body strength and muscular endurance
Reduced body fat
That, right there, is a desirable list of health and fitness outcomes. However, emphasis must be placed on participation and persistence. If the programme is approached with a laissez-faire attitude and extensive durations of inactivity intersperse the weeks, it is unlikely that the above list of benefits will be enjoyed.
Thus, the programme ought to be followed as closely as possible. In addition, it is important that you select the correct weight kettlebell. If the bell weight is too light, again, you will impede improvement as your physicality will not be sufficiently stimulated.
By contrast, if the weight is too heavy you will significantly increase injury susceptibility. So, it’s important to get the weight just right. There’s no hard and fast rule regarding beginner kettlebell weights. But typically woman are advised to start with either an 8/10/12kg and men 12/16/20kg (for a more extensive overview on weight selection see FAQ #1: What kettlebell weight should I start off with?).
A quick word on the principals of training
As part of any training programme you should always observe correct training principals. This means every session should begin with a whole-body warm-up and conclude with a cool-down and stretch.
These principles have been included into the programme. However, due to limited space, the suggestions are very simplistic – though will suffice. Thus, it is advisable that you incorporate your own warm-up, cool-down and stretches into the programme.
For a detailed and comprehensive overview of training principals see our other article: Essential Training Principals.
Also, if you are unsure of how to perform any of the exercises, detailed explanations and video tutorials can be found in the following article: 10 Killer Kettlebell Exercises.
(Please note: the guide is supposed only to represent a generic outline of how kettlebell training programme could be structured. Also, before embarking on any training programme, you should first seek medical clearance from your doctor.)
From this article you should have acquired the necessary knowledge and tools to implement a comprehensive kettlebell programme – either of your own design of the example provided.
Either way, if you introduce kettlebell training into your regime, it stands to reason that you will enjoy a noticeable improvement both in general fitness and strength.
In addition, you will begin to develop proficiency in handling what is arguable the single most effective exercise equipment available.
In doing so you will take your training to a level that conventional weights cannot help you to ascend.
All that’s required of you is persistence, consistent participation and a willingness to build you repertoire of kettlebell exercises.
If you can satisfy those basic requirements the benefits outlined in the introduction could be yours for the taking.
(As we are very interested in user experience here at Hungry4Fitness, we would be very grateful if you could take a few seconds out of your day to leave a comment. Thanks in advance!)
Adam Priest, former Royal Marines Commando, is a personal trainer, lecturer, boxing and Thai boxing enthusiast