Fitness novices have likely heard about kettlebells, but have had little experience with them. Kettlebells are the older version of dumbbells. Before there were large popular gyms, people would workout with ergonomically appropriate heavy items. In many communities throughout the world, scrap iron was available. Long story short, as people learned about progressive resistance as a form of exercise, the kettlebell became a favored piece of equipment.
For decades, the kettlebell fell from popularity because of the manufacturing of sleek standard dumbbells. A resurgence of kettlebell use happened during the Cold War. Incredibly strong, built, and competitive athletes emerged from the Soviet block who used kettlebells for training. These athletes demonstrated the versatility of kettlebells in achieving amazing athletic prowess.
In recent years, gym equipment manufacturers have created kettlebell styles that mimic older construction, or have appeal in circles like the class fitness and Cross Fit communities. The truth is, with the right type of program, kettlebell exercises for beginners can be as effective as any other type of free weight workout.
What is a Kettlebell?
A kettlebell is a solid hunk of iron that has a thick and rounded handle. The scope of the various patented kettlebell styles now available are mind-boggling. Bell shapes are usually spherical and have flat bases. They are manufactured in five, or ten-pound increments. Many gyms feature multiple bell stacks that range from five, to more than one hundred pounds.
The main difference between a kettlebell and a dumbbell is how it is held. When a person grips a dumbbell, the weight is distributed equally on both sides of the palms. For this reason, a great deal of forearm and shoulder stability is required to use them. When a person grips a kettlebell, the weight is always perceived as “hanging.” This is due to the handles, which swivel easily in the palms. Also, the weight is not distributed on the sides of the hands.
Another way to understand the function that is achieved through a kettlebell’s construction, is imagining that the hands weigh as much as the bell being held. The bell moves naturally with the swinging, raising, pushing, and pulling of the arms. Instead of only working the arm and shoulder joints for stability, it requires activation of a large percentage of the body’s secondary stabilizer muscles. This includes core muscles.
Depending on the targeted fitness audience, kettlebells can appear very different in style. Some are plain hunks of iron with extremely thick grips. These are appropriate for “hardcore” gym environments where dropping, clanging, and ballistic movements are performed. Other bells can have features like rubber and plastic coatings, soft palm grips, and themed bell shapes. These are more suited for home, fitness class, occupational therapy, and ability-specific environments.
Beginner Kettlebell Exercises
Front Goblet Squats
Hold a kettlebell with both hands at chest level. Grip the handle with palms facing slightly upward. The hands should look as if they could reach and pound a table, or hold a large cup (goblet). Stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Slowly squat by forcing your hips and glutes back. As you return to a standing position, exhale and tighten your core muscle. Keep your head up, your back arched, and your eyes looking forward.
- Do not use tremendous force in the grip. This will fatigue your upper back and shoulders too quickly. The focus of this exercise is on the core and lower body.
- Use a box seat, bench, or Swiss ball to gauge a comfortable range for the squat.
Standing Front Raises (Russian Swing)
One of the key functions of a kettlebell is it ability to swing easily in arcs that match body movements. The standing front raise is a wonderful exercise that works virtually every muscle in the body.
First, stand upright with your feet a little wider than your shoulders. Hold a light kettlebell in front of your body with both hands. Your arms should be straight. Slowly squat down until your upper legs are parallel to the floor. At this point, the kettlebell should be lightly touching the floor, and you should be looking straight ahead. Using the strength of your hips, glutes, and legs, stand up forcefully. You should notice that the kettlebell naturally follows the same path, but wants to gravitate out and away from the body.
As you become accustomed to the motion, repeat the squat with greater force. The kettlebell will activate the upper back and shoulders, and will reach a point where it almost feels “weightless” as it rotates in your palms. This smooth motion should feel like you are swing-throwing a bucket of water over a high wall. Experiment with gradually heavier weights as you learn to activate the muscles producing the lifting forces.
- Beginners will get the sensation that the kettlebell could fly out of their hands. Really, a light grip produces a surprisingly safe and secure arrangement.
- When the weight increases, there will be a tendency to let the bell swing back between the legs. During the squat phase, think about the weight dropping straight down.
- Maintain an arched back, and accentuate the squat. When you stand, think about “popping” the hips up and forward.
- Inhale during the squat phase. Exhale strongly during the standing phase.
- These raises can also be performed using separate hands. This is known as the Statue of Liberty exercise.
Kettlebell Get-Up (Modified Sandows)
Eugene Sandow was a famous strongman. He was noted for being able to lift heavy and awkward objects above his head. He did this with amazing control of his entire body that made each lift look perfectly natural. Kettlebells can be used in a similar, but much safer way.
There are hundreds of variations on this exercise. Some include a very regimented series of motions that target certain muscle groups. The idea of a get-up is adding weight to an ultra-natural movement. One of the most fundamental human movements is going from a seated, or lying position into a full standing one. Adding a kettlebell to this maneuver is highly effective in overall body conditioning.
Most people who love this exercise start by lying on the floor. One arm holds a light kettlebell straight up. Bend one leg to begin a sit-up that eventually ends in a seated position. At this point, the kettlebell should be directly overhead. Keep the kettlebell raised, while moving into a squatting position. Come to a full, strong, standing posture.
- The trick to this exercise is never allowing your hips to be higher than your torso.
- Use all available body parts to come to a standing position. This includes free hands, knees, etc.
- Return to the floor, and repeat. Always keep the kettlebell elevated.
- Five to ten repetitions of this exercise will make it evident why, with heavy weights, it can easily become an advanced fitness and athletic training exercise.
Kettlebell exercises for beginners can be very fun and effective. Safety is the most important thing to think about as a program is adopted. Though strength, flexibility, and motivation can increase dramatically with a new kettlebell exercise regimen, never use bells that are too heavy!