Meet the kettlebell
The simple kettlebell is little more than an iron ball with a handle. Perhaps you’ve seen one at your local gym. It may not look like much, but don’t let its simplicity fool you; start swinging one around and you’ll discover how effective they can be in creating a great workout. Why has this harmless-looking weight made such an impact on all forms of fitness training throughout the world?
A unique shape for a unique workout
There are three parts of a kettlebell. The ball is the weight itself, the handle is the top of the loop where you grip it and the horns are the sides of the handle.
Because of their shape, kettlebells lend themselves to dynamic workouts better than a dumbbell. A kettlebell can of course be used for regular strength training like slow, grinding sets of shoulder presses. Where they really shine, however, is in more dynamic conditioning circuits where you transition from one movement to another quickly with minimal rest.
Because the weight is not evenly distributed like a dumbbell, using a kettlebell develops a strong grip and a stable, adaptable trunk. Because most kettlebell movements are dynamic rather than static or supported on a bench, your postural muscles work hard to transfer power from hips to weight. Additionally, many kettlebell movements involve twists or only work one side of the body at a time, working your obliques and deep stabilizer muscles.
The holy grail of human movement
In contrast to the isolation exercises commonly used with dumbbells, most kettlebell training emphasizes functional, full-body movements that radiate power from the big muscles at the center of your body towards your extremities.
The core movement of kettlebell training is hip extension (going from a hips-back position to standing), powered by the large muscles of your butt, the glutes. Located at the center of your body, they control the large hip joint. These muscles are uniquely prominent in humans; they are what enable us to walk and stand upright, run efficiently, and sprint powerfully. Almost by default, a person with active glutes and strong hip extension is visibly fit and strong in a way that is applicable to real life. Unfortunately, time spent sitting leads them to deactivate, and weaker muscles then take over when we lift weights or run, which leads to injuries or chronic back pain.
If you want to be healthy, fast or strong, learn to use your glutes. If you want to lose weight, the glutes, as the biggest muscle group in the body, will burn more calories faster than any other.
The move that made kettlebells famous, and the one that lays the foundation for all other kettlebell movements, is the swing, which is the purest form of hip extension.
The kettlebell swing
This is a relatively simple movement that a lot of people do wrong. Done correctly, it trains you to maintain a stable posture while driving a lot of power through the hips, which is the most essential human movement pattern, used in walking, running, jumping and lifting weights.
1. Stand with feet shoulder width apart facing a kettlebell.
2. Bend at the hips, pushing them back as far as possible. Arch your back and try to tilt the front of your pelvis down while sticking your chest up and forward. Looking forward will help keep your chest up.
3. Now reach for the kettlebell, grasp it by the handle, and pull your shoulder blades down your back.
1. Take a deep breath, hold it and compress by contracting your abs.
2. Pull the kettlebell back between your legs like hiking a football.
3. Squeeze your glutes and drive your hips forward. This causes you to stand tall. The momentum of driving your hips forward will propel the kettlebell up. Exhale in a controlled hiss; you want to stay tight.
4. Without lifting with the arms, let the weight swing up to chest level.
5. At the top of the movement, you should be standing tall, not leaning back or arching your spine. Contract your abs like you’re about to get punched in the gut and squeeze your glutes like you’re pinching a coin between your cheeks.
6. Let the kettlebell fall on its own between your legs. Inhale.
7. Push your hips back like you’re sitting in a chair while keeping your chest up until the kettlebell is as far back as possible. Then squeeze your glutes and do another rep.
Aim to do 5 sets of 20 perfect swings at a given weight before moving up.
Khaled Allen is a fitness and health consultant for Body & Seoul Martial Arts & Fitness Center. For more of his writings, go to www.khaledallen.com. — Ed.