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A Closer Look at Kettlebells

If you've spent any time in a gym, you've probably seen plenty of fitness fads revolving around some new or redesigned piece of exercise equipment. You've probably also noticed it isn't long before this new piece of equipment disappears from the gym, or if you found yourself owning one, is relegated to the basement.

But one piece of exercise equipment has been around for hundreds of years and is still actively used in gyms and in the homes of fitness buffs: the kettlebell. And its continued existence and increasing popularity are not only due to its functionality, but also its combination of cardio and strength training.

While you may know the kettlebell as that strange cannonball-shaped weight you've seen but never tried, don't be put off by it. It's nowhere near as intimidating as you imagined. Keep reading to find out why it maintains a place of respect in the gym.

When we're talking total body, the kettlebell is one of the best pieces of equipment in the gym.

Chris Marhefka, founder of Body By Boris Fitness and Training

A Brief History of the Kettlebell

The style and techniques of kettlebell lifting used today come directly from Russia. The original purpose of these weights was not strength training, though. They were intended as counterweights for grains and produce, using poods as the unit of measurement. Kettlebells continues to be measured in poods, with one pood equaling approximately 36 pounds, or about 16 kilograms.

Over time, people noted that those who regularly handled the counterweights developed significant strength and realized these weights could be used for physical fitness as well.

In 1948, elite Soviet military forces began regularly using the kettlebell as a key piece of equipment in their physical training arsenal. That same year, kettlebell lifting became the Soviet Union's national sport. But it wasn't until 1985 that rules, regulations and weight categories were fully established, followed by the first national kettlebell championship in Lipetsk, Russia.

Why It's an Effective Fitness Tool

The Russians aren't alone in their appreciation of the kettlebell's fitness benefits, however.

Annie Galovich, the fitness manager at Equinox in Greenwich Village, New York, and a certified kettlebell trainer, says the kettlebell has grown in popularity because it's fun to work with and provides a total body workout.

"It feels purposeful," Galovich says. "You pick something up, and it feels applicable, using almost every muscle in your body."

When used correctly, the kettlebell can stimulate every muscle fiber in the body and provide the two-in-one combination of pure strength and cardio training. And it has advantages the dumbbell just doesn't.

"The kettlebell isn't in the center of mass like a dumbbell is in your hand, so it generates force from the ground and strengthens your core," Galovich says.

The kettlebell’s exercise range generally follows the pattern of the pick-up, deadlift, snatch and swing. In other words, the pick-up from the floor, the deadlift by folding your core and legs, and then unfolding for lift off, snatching by positioning your arm and hand in preparation for the final motion, the kettlebell swing.

Galovich recommends incorporating kettlebells into the beginning of workouts after an appropriate warm-up, as it incorporates the entire body and increases your heart rate.

Before You Swing That Kettlebell

Kettlebells are, by nature, designed for intense, total-body movements with a lot of force and can be used in almost any exercise. But the kettlebell is no fad. It needs no marketing and promises no overnight answers. Instead, it offers the opportunity for rigorous training and exercises.

Chris Marhefka, founder and president of Body By Boris Fitness and Training in Gainesville, Fla., specializes in group training boot camps and has found the kettlebell to be one of the most effective pieces of fitness equipment — when used properly.

"People can abuse the kettlebell because it moves smoothly with the body," Marhefka said. "But it adds instability, engaging your core and a lot of different muscle fibers, so users need to be cautious of form."

Marhefka credits the rise in popularity of training with kettlebells to their simplicity and efficiency.

"Kettlebells have been around for a long time, but we've seen a big spike in functional training with boot camps and crossfit training," Marhefka said. "Kettlebells really fit into this shift in functional training because of their multipurpose capabilities."

Marhefka says it's important to learn how to properly use kettlebells before you start training with them. There's a greater chance of injury when using kettlebells than dumbbells because everything is free moving. Additionally, people tend to use heavier weights when using kettlebells, increasing their risk of injury.

Kettlebells are most effective at targeting the muscles along the posterior chain — the muscles on the back side of your body. When standing with the knees slightly bent in a half-squat, kettlebell exercises create a push in energy through the legs and up through the back producing a total body movement that lifts every muscle away from the ground.

Kettlebells Are Here to Stay

As more people tap into the idea that fitness needs to be a priority, they'll find that kettlebells aren't intimidating after all and will learn how to successfully use them.

"We've taken on a mentality of total body conditioning," Marhefka says. "And when we're talking total body, the kettlebell is one of the best pieces of equipment in the gym."

And unlike those latest and greatest fitness fads, the kettlebell is one piece of equipment that is not going anywhere — except when you're swinging it, of course.

What Do YOU Think?

Have you trained with kettlebells before? Are they part of your regular routine? What are your favorite kettlebell exercises? Or have you never tried them before? After reading this, do you think you'll give them a try? Share your thoughts in the comments below!

The 2 Best Kettlebell Exercises

  1. Kettlebell Swing An aerobically intense strength and conditioning exercise, the Kettlebell Swing is one of the most popular exercises with the kettlebell.

HOW TO DO IT: Stand with your knees slightly bent and your butt out, grab the kettlebell between your legs and thrust it forward and up with your arms straight. As you come up, load your hamstrings and clench your glutes. Do this all in one motion, driving through the heels.

Tips Look forward to prevent hurting your lower back. Start with 10 to 15 reps, using 25 percent of your body weight.

  1. Turkish Get-Up This exercise combines multiple movements and exercises into one. Its difficulty level surpasses that of the kettlebell swing, and so do the results.

HOW TO DO IT: Lie on the floor with your arm stretched toward the ceiling and holding the kettlebell. Place your opposite hand on the ground away from your body and pick up your knee.

Slide into a modified side plank position and step up into a lunge. Drive up, holding the kettlebell over your head. Reverse the movement back to the ground, switch the kettlebell to the other hand and repeat.

Tips Start slowly until all the movements are one smooth motion. Start with eight reps on each arm, using a kettlebell about 10 percent of your body weight.

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About the Author

Tyler Rutstein started freelance writing in 2011. He has been published in "Tennis Life Magazine" and on Rutstein holds a Bachelor of Arts in journalism from the University of Florida.

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