By Dr. Mercola
Use of kettlebells as a fitness tool goes back to the 1700s, when Russian strong-men began using them during training.
A kettlebell consist of a cast-iron ball and handle, and kettlebell exercises involve movements that throw off your center of gravity, forcing you to use multiple muscle groups, including your core, to maintain your balance.
Kettlebell workouts not only help improve your aerobic capacity, it's also an anaerobic workout, which is important for your cardiovascular system as well as for building strength, speed, and muscle mass.
Research has also shown that kettlebell workouts send calorie burning into overdrive. In the video above, fitness trainer Jill Rodriguez demonstrates several basic kettlebell techniques, including:
- Basic Kettlebell Swing
- Russian Swing
- American Swing
- Sumo Squat
Proper form is really essential for avoiding injury, so I recommend spending an hour or so with a personal trainer to learn the correct techniques, or do so by enrolling in a beginner group class.
Following are five common mistakes made by inexperienced beginners that could hamper your fitness goals, or worse, lead to injury.
Mistake #1: Using a Weight That Is Too Light, or Too Heavy
Women are generally advised to start with a kettlebell weighing between 8-15 pounds, while men can typically start with a 15-25-pound version. That said, your ideal weight is going to be a highly individual thing.
As noted by Lee Boyce, owner of Boyce Training Systems in Toronto, Canada,1 too light a weight will not allow you to activate your muscles. In his experience, most people can handle a 25-pound kettlebell.
On the other hand, many go straight for the heaviest bell, and if you're not using proper form, your risk of injury can go up exponentially... The following suggestions can help you determine the ideal weight of your kettlebell:
- Practice the basic movements without any weight when you're starting out, or use something that is very light, such as a small water bottle. This will allow you to get a feel for the movement so you can tell if you're doing it incorrectly due to too-heavy a weight later on
- Start with the lightest weight and work your way up. The weight should be heavy enough to engage your muscles, but not so heavy that you lose your form
Mistake #2: Failing to Engage Your Core and Lower Body
Kettlebell exercises are dynamic, whole-body exercises that incorporate cardiovascular, resistance, and range-of-motion training into one workout—provided you're doing them correctly. Many make the mistake of using their upper body strength rather than engaging their entire body, and this defeats the purpose of using a kettlebell in the first place To address this mistake, practice kettlebell swings until you get the feel of how it engages your entire body. When done correctly, you should feel the transfer of power from your legs and core to your upper body. As noted in the featured article:
"Many kettlebell exercises are designed to target many muscles in your body—especially your glutes and hamstrings. But some people let their arms do the heavy lifting. Swinging with your arms only totally defeats the purpose of these exercises... Focus on the motion of your lower body, which should be the driving force behind exercises like the kettlebell swing. Thrust your hips forward so that your arms naturally move away from your body—you'll be less likely to rely just on your arms to complete the move."
Also avoid complicated moves when first starting out. As noted in the featured article,2 "performing a complicated move without knowing the proper technique is a one-way ticket to injury."
Mistake #3: Focusing on Number of Reps at the Expense of Form
Whole-body coordination is key for most kettlebell exercises, and since you're using multiple muscle groups, you may tire sooner than you might suspect. This will usually result in loss of form, so keep in mind that quality matters more than quantity if you want optimal results. Kettlebell trainers typically recommend limiting yourself to 5-10 repetitions per exercise to start, focusing on maintaining proper form throughout rather than pumping out as many reps as you can. Once your strength increases, you can increase the number of repetitions.
Mistake #4: Swinging the Kettlebell Too Fast
Again, control and coordination are key, and lack of control when swinging the weight can easily result in pulling a muscle. As a general rule, the faster you go, the more your form will suffer. In a previous Huffington Post article, Alex Orlov writes:3
"A slower, controlled movement will strengthen stability muscles and larger muscle groups at the same time... [I]t's just as important to control the kettlebell on the way down as it is on the way up. Movements like the halo rely exclusively your ability to control the kettlebell as you pass it around your head using your core and shoulders for stability."
Also keep in mind that since kettlebells throw you off-center, you typically cannot employ the same lifting techniques as you would with dumbbells. Some exercises can be done using either dumbbells or kettlebells, such as presses or curls, but others require a whole different technique. If you're not sure how to perform the exercise properly, please check with a trainer. This is particularly true for more advanced moves, which may require specific timing or hand positioning in order to be safe and effective.
Mistake #5: Wearing Inappropriate Footwear
Some trainers frown on wearing thick, cushioned running shoes during kettlebell exercises, as it can hamper your ability to move your feet, ankles, and lower legs naturally and freely. DailyBurn kettlebell trainer Cody Storey recommends doing your kettlebell workout either barefoot or wearing thin-soled footwear.4
Going shoeless allows your foot to flex and absorb shock, and if you're doing your exercises outdoors, you will also benefit from grounding with the earth (an activity that is also known as "earthing"). The earth is negatively charged, so when you ground, you're connecting your body to a negatively charged supply of energy. And since the earth has a greater negative charge than your body, you end up absorbing electrons from it through the soles of your feet. The grounding effect is one of the most potent antioxidants we know of and may have an anti-inflammatory effect on your body It won't work indoors though, as you have to be directly connected to the earth.
Kettlebells Is a Great Way to Boost Calorie Burning
Research shows that kettlebell exercises are excellent for burning calories and increasing explosive strength. They also help strengthen your posterior muscle chain, which includes your lower back, glues, calves, and hamstrings. In one study5 sponsored by the American Council on Exercise (ACE), participants' ability to burn calories went "off the charts" when they using kettlebells in a high-intensity interval training (HIIT) format, which allows you to get an intense workout in a short amount of time.
They used 10 volunteers, ranging in age from 29 to 46, who were experienced with kettlebells, and asked them to do a workout consisting of swinging a kettlebell one-handed between their legs and over their head in what's known as a "snatch" motion. The 20-minute interval workout entailed:
"Following a basic warm-up, subjects did 15 seconds of one-armed snatches, first with their dominant hand, then after a 15-second rest period, they performed another 15 seconds of snatches with the other hand. The workout continued like that, with intervals of 15 seconds of work and 15 seconds of rest, for 20 minutes, followed by a five-minute cool-down."
During the workout, participants burned an average of 13.6 calories per minute aerobically, plus another 6.6 calories per minute anaerobically. This means they burned more than 20 calories per minute, which equates to running at a speed of six-minutes per mile. The only other exercise that could match this would be cross-country skiing up-hill at a fast pace, according to the lead researcher, John Porcari, Ph.D. Other research has shown that regular kettlebell workouts can:
- Enhance back health and function6
- Improve muscle strength, including both maximum and explosive strength7
- Improve postural reactions to sudden movements, which might, for instance, help you avoid a low back injury if you fall or jerk suddenly
- Reduce pain in your neck, shoulders, and low back8
More Kettlebell Workouts
In this video, fitness trainer Darin Steen demonstrates a Kettlebell Squat Jump. This is just one of more than a dozen other kettle bell exercise videos available for free in my fitness library. Another resource is Kathy Smith's Kettlebell Solution, which includes four 20-minute workouts, including Upper Body, Core, Buns and Thighs, and Fat Burning, plus two kettlebells made from a soft, lightweight material as opposed to the typical heavier, rigid cast iron (a lighter, softer weight means less chance of an injury for you, so you can exercise without worry). This is a simple way to try out an effective kettlebell workout in the comfort of your own home.
Rounding Out Your Exercise Program
Kettlebells are inexpensive and easy to incorporate into fitness routines of all levels—including high intensity Peak Fitness regimens. For optimal health and fitness though, I recommend incorporating a variety of exercises, paying careful attention to daily non-exercise movement. Ideally, you want to stay active and on your feet for the majority of the day, with sitting interrupting your activity rather than the other way around. A well-rounded fitness program will typically involve a little bit of all of the following on a regular basis:
- Sit Down as Little as Possible. The research is quite clear on this point: the more you sit, the greater the risks to your health. And this applies even if you exercise regularly and are very fit! The key is to keep moving all day long. For ideas on how to incorporate more movement into your day, please see my interview with Dr. James Levine, author of the book Get Up!: Why Your Chair Is Killing You and What You Can Do About It.
In addition to limiting your sitting as much as you possibly can, I also recommend challenging yourself to walk 7,000-10,000 steps per day. This is over and above your regular fitness program and standing up during work. Consider one of the new fitness trackers that can monitor your steps and your sleep.
- High-Intensity Interval Training(HIIT): This is when you alternate short bursts of high-intensity exercise with gentle recovery periods.
- Core Exercises: Your body has 29 core muscles located mostly in your back, abdomen, and pelvis. This group of muscles provides the foundation for movement throughout your entire body, and strengthening them can help protect and support your back, make your spine and body less prone to injury and help you gain greater balance and stability.
- Stretching: My favorite type of stretching is active isolated stretches developed by Aaron Mattes. With Active Isolated Stretching, you hold each stretch for only two seconds, which works with your body's natural physiological makeup to improve circulation and increase the elasticity of muscle joints. This technique also allows your body to repair itself and prepare for daily activity. You can also use devices like the Power Plate to help you stretch.
- Strength Training: Rounding out your exercise program with a one-set strength training routine will ensure that you're really optimizing the possible health benefits of a regular exercise program. You can also turn it into a high intensity exercise by slowing it down. For more information about using super slow weight training as a form of high intensity interval exercise, please see my interview with Dr. Doug McGuff.