I’m often asked by friends, workout partners, and clients if kettlebell training is enough. Can that odd-shaped exercise tool improve my fitness in any meaningful way? And if so, in what ways can it improve my fitness?
If you’ve asked the same or similar questions concerning the effectiveness of the kettlebell method, this article is for you. In addition to answering the question is kettlebell training enough?, I’ll outline some of the best ways to integrate kettlebells into your exercise routine.
Also, we’ll consider optimal workout times and how to combine kettlebells with other training methods. But first, . . .
Is kettlebell training enough
The answer to that question depends on a couple of factors. First, what is your training goal? I only ask because, as I point out in the key takeaways below, kettlebells cannot increase maximal strength. So, if your training goal is to post an ego-inflating one-repetition max, then the answer is no, kettlebell training isn’t enough.
On the other end of the fitness spectrum, if your goal is to complete an aerobic endurance event – such as a marathon or triathlon – kettlebells would be of little use. Certainly not as the primary training method. Though they would be beneficial as supplementary training for strengthening connective tissues and building physical robustness. These two qualities help to reduce injury risk.
But, if your fitness goal resides somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, say, to maintain a respectable level of strength, endurance, and stamina, kettlebells might just be enough. Pavel Tsatsouline, who is the fount of all kettlebell training knowledge, maintains that regular use of kettlebells can promote complete fitness conditioning. In answer to the question ‘Why kettlebells?’ he fires back with the following list of reasons:
Kettlebells are suitable for men, women, the young and old – so ‘long as they are tough and have no health restrictions.’
Kettlebells are perfect for group workouts, especially in a law enforcement setting.
Kettlebells can deliver similar results to plyometrics training.
They are a ‘great tool for improving’ your ‘ability to expertly absorb shocks.’
Kettlebells are superior grip strength developers.
They can forge ‘best-at-show muscles, like biceps and pecs.’
Kettlebells can strengthen connective tissues, especially along the posterior chain.
Kettlebells how many times a week?
Another factor that determines if kettlebell training is enough, has to do with how frequently they are used. Picking up your bells once in a blue moon is unlikely to advance your fitness in any meaningful way. In fact, if that’s the only exercise you do across a 30-day mesocycle cycle, your fitness won’t advance at all.
As self-development guru James Clear points out, to reap the sweet rewards of any worthwhile habit, you’ve got to do it consistently. For most habits (and Clear regularly refers to exercise as being one of the most important), that means doing it every day. ‘It’s remarkable the body you can build if you don’t stop training,’ he tells us, in the closing chapter of the brilliant book Atomic Habits.
And if you plan to build that body solely with kettlebells (and I advise against that), then you will need to implement a 5 to 7-day-a-week training routine.
Is a 30 minute kettlebell workout enough?
The answer to this question follows a similar line of reasoning to the one above. Your concern should not necessarily be about the duration of a single workout, but about the frequency of the workouts. Remember Clear’s advice on how to derive a positive outcome from habits?
For example, if you perform just one 30-minute kettlebell session a week, month, or year then the answer is a resounding no, that’s not enough. Not by a long chalk! For any training intervention to yield a physiological response, it must be habituated as part of a regular exercise program.
To get the most out of kettlebell training, you should sprinkle sessions across your week. Instead of just doing one 30-minute kettlebell workout, it would be better by far to do three 10-minute workouts – or even six 5-minute sessions.
A benefit of shorter workouts is that you can sustain a higher intensity. Daniel Liberman, professor of human biology at Harvard (serious kudos!), formulates a convincing argument that high-intensity training (typically contracted to HI or HIT) is the fast lane on the fitness superhighway (Exercised | The Science of Physical Activity, Rest & Health).
Maintaining meaningful output for 30-minutes is tough going. New exercisers and the uninitiated are unlikely to last that long. (I’ve been training with kettlebells for nearly two decades now and the mere thought of a 30-minute EMOM makes my muscles ache.) However, new exercisers stand a better chance of sustaining high intensity for 5 to 10 minutes.
Optimal kettlebell workout duration
But as far as the optimal session duration goes, 30 minutes is more than sufficient to stimulate the cardio-respiratory system and activate every major muscle group worth mentioning. I have a ‘go-to’ 30-minute full-body kettlebell workout that packs a serious punch. It consists of a single exercise – the long cycle – and the EMOM (every minute on the minute) training method.
At the start of each minute (which is referred to as a ‘round’), I complete four reps. The remaining seconds in the minute are taken as rest. After every ten rounds, I’ll increase the reps by one. Below is a list of the outcomes that I’ve identified from this workout.
Engages all the muscles of the posterior chain.
Elevates heart rate and respiration. (The last time I completed the workout, I measured my heart rate at four time points: 5-minutes before starting the workout (56 bpm), 10-minutes after starting (128 bpm), after 20-minutes (156 bpm), and after 30-minutes (187 bpm).)
Develops a range of fitness components – specifically strength and muscle endurance.
Consumes calories like they’re going out of fashion (I’m always ravishingly hungry after my 30-minute EMOM workout).
Enhances physical functionality (the long cycle is arguably the most demanding kettlebell exercise).
Noticeable increase of muscular definition in the legs, torso, and shoulders.
Incredulity is a normal response when being presented with such an impressive list of (self-reported) outcomes, especially when weighed against the simplicity of the session. ‘Surely,’ I hear the sceptic scoff, ‘performing 150 reps of the same exercise for 30 minutes cannot possibly confer all those benefits?’ I won’t attempt to convince you. Instead, I’ll encourage you to give the workout a whirl and find out for yourself.
For new trainers or those just starting out on their kettlebell journey, 30 minutes might be a bit ambitious – to begin with. I recommend that beginners and the uninitiated practice a couple of kettlebell movements each week. Once you’ve established a solid base of core exercises, begin building up to 30 minutes.
Related: Learn more about kettlebells with these 5 Frequently Asked Questions
Is kettlebell training enough to . . .
In this section, I aim to answer a range of is kettlebell training enough type questions. We’ll consider if kettlebells alone possess the power to build muscle, enhance aesthetics, and – the most popular question of all – burn fat!
Concluding this section, we’ll wrap up the article with key takeaways. This offers a concise snapshot of the main points of our conversation. You’ll also find links to other related content, such as workouts, training programs, and essential reading material.
Related: Could you complete the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge?
Can kettlebells build muscle?
Kettlebell training offers a novel way to build muscle that is not only aesthetically pleasing but also physically functional. Because kettlebell exercises travel through a longer range of motion, are performed in high rep sets, and displace your centre of gravity, they cause greater overload. And, as Pavel points out, ‘greater overload through a longer range of motion equals greater muscle mass,’ (The Russian Kettlebell Challenge).
The same cannot be said about conventional exercise equipment – dumbbells and machines. While these tools can help sculpt a defined physique, they do not promote the range of fitness components that kettlebell training does. Also, because they are typically used in isolation movements – biceps curls, triceps extension, chest flys and the like – they are not as effective at stimulating testosterone production.
As Arnold Schwarzenegger argues in his Encyclopedia of Modern Bodybuilding, big compound free weight movements – such as snatches, goblet squats, and the long cycle – are best at increasing testosterone levels. And he goes on to say, ‘With more testosterone in your system you get stronger and can build larger muscles more easily.’
Related: Start stirring the testosterone with this Kettlebell Strength Workout
Can kettlebells tone your body?
You bet they can! Kettlebells are arguably one of the most effective exercise tools for toning and sculpting that much-coveted beach-worthy body. But how though?
Well, we’ve already considered the mechanisms through which kettlebells encourage muscle growth: maximal stimulation, overload, and testosterone production. In the quest for tonality, these are some of the most important steps you can take.
But there’s another step you must take that’s of equal importance. And kettlebells can help. It’s to that step we now turn.
Related: Discover more Kettlebell Training Benefits
Can kettlebells help lose weight?
Kettlebell drills such as snatches, swings, jerks, and the dreaded long cycle exert a high metabolic cost. This is a consequence of the many muscles they engage and the high quantities of energy they consume. Not surprising when you think about the physical effort required to repeatedly throw around that stubborn lump of iron. None of this comes cheap. But who’s going to foot the bill?
It’s our fat reserves that pick up the tab – or at least most of it. Fat fuels the muscles during exercise and pays for the post-workout energy deficit. It’s these factors that make multi-functional kettlebell movements ‘the premier method for controlling body composition,’ (The Russian Kettlebell Challenge).
Related: Learn more about the weight-loss power of kettlebells
Is kettlebell training enough key takeaways
Kettlebell training can be a sufficient source of resistance training. That is, if you only have access to a couple of kettlebells (or just one), you can activate all the major muscle groups. (This single kettlebell full-body workout substantiates that claim.)
Kettlebells are not enough if your objective is to increase maximal strength. Due to their limited weight ranges (rare is it that you’ll find a kettlebell that exceeds 32kg) they are not suitable for advancing one-repetition max personal bests. In addition, kettlebells are typically used in volume – that is, performing high numbers of reps. All Girevoy Sports competitions are a test of endurance – usually, the girevik attempts to perform as many reps as possible of a classic kettlebell exercise (snatch, jerk, or long cycle) in 10 minutes. This method of training is not conducive to developing maximal strength.
Performing a few sets on a range of simple exercises with a light- to moderate-weight kettlebell may be enough to enhance muscular endurance in those that are untrained. To elicit the equivalent adaptations in advanced trainers, both the intensity of the workouts and the complexity of the exercises will have to be higher.
If high-intensity training methods such as AMRAPs, EMOMs, and circuits are occasionally applied to your kettlebell workouts, they can stimulate the cardiorespiratory system. However, maintaining the necessary output needed to engage your heart and lungs requires considerable kettlebell handling skills. Also, you need to develop the requisite muscular endurance to sustain protracted output. Thus, new exercisers will likely have to get their cardio training from somewhere else. (This article will point you in the right direction: Cardiovascular Exercises | Benefits & Best Exercises.)
Kettlebell training is certainly an effective way of building functional fitness and extreme muscle endurance. However, it is best to balance your kettlebell workouts with other forms of training. Relying on a single exercise method can restrict physical development and increase your risk of succumbing to an overuse injury. As Aristotle once wisely reminded us, moderation is best in all things – even kettlebell training.
Related: Are you ready to start this 6-Week Kettlebell Training Program?