Many of you may know that one of my favourite training tools is the kettlebell. Kettlebells are incredibly versatile and, because of their holistic nature, they recruit many different muscles for practically every exercise.
What Exactly ARE Kettlebells – And Why Are They So Good?
Kettlebells are actually an old Russian measuring tool that farmers used to use at the markets to weight their produce. One “pood” weighed 16kg, one and a half pood weighed 24kg and so on. Legend has it that the farmers used to lift, swing and even juggle the kettlebells whilst waiting around at the markets, eventually turning it into a competition and people outside of the farming community started to use the poods for getting stronger. The Russian army eventually started using kettlebells for training their soldiers.
A kettlebell basically looks like a cannonball with a handle and consists of:
- The main body
- The horns
- The handle
The shape of the kettlebell is very different to that of dumbbells, which lends itself to a more diverse, and challenging, scope of exercises. The centre of mass extends beyond your hand, because most of the weight is at the end – on the main body of the bell. Because of this unique shape kettlebells can be used in a variety of different ways; they can be swung by holding the handle (with either both hands, or a single hand), but can also be held in different positions to add extra weight to movements such as squats or lunges, holding them upside down, for example, will feel very different to right way up. They can be pressed above the head, held to the chest, held in rack, held at the side and many more combinations.
Virtually every movement you perform with the kettlebell engages the core, which is why it is so good for developing strength in that area of the body. They are a very holistic tool, meaning that you work several muscles during any particular exercise, not just one in isolation (although, of course, you can perform isolated exercises if you choose, but this is not using kettlebells to their best advantage).
Because there are many ballistic movements that you can perform with kettlebells, for example, swings, cleans, snatches, this means that they are also an excellent tool for improving cardiovascular health, increasing heart rate and raising metabolic rate, with no impact on joints. In fact, another benefit of training with kettlebells is that they are fantastic for increasing and improving joint mobility and developing overall flexibility.
The main movement required for kettlebell training is the hip hinge. This is critical to get right. This means bowing forward from the hips, keeping the back in a neutral spine, and the knees soft, and then coming back up to a straight position, snapping the hips and tightening the glutes so that the legs straighten and the back is in a tall, upright position. Done correctly this creates a powerful posterior chain, building strength from the feet, up through the knees, the hips, glutes and back. The whole core should be involved in the movement. Unfortunately there are many “guides” available on the internet as well as YouTube videos and magazines that do not illustrate this movement very well, employing a squat rather than a hip hinge and not engaging the core at all. I have seen many people exercising incorrectly with kettlebells and it makes me shudder because for one thing they won’t be seeing the true benefits that kettlebell training has to offer plus it is a sure-fire way to end up with an injury.
Many people are afraid that lifting kettlebells will hurt, or damage their back – especially if they have already experienced a back injury – but if the movements are performed correctly, and therefore safely, you will develop a strong posterior chain, which will both protect and strengthen the back. This is why it is so important to learn kettlebell technique properly. A weak back can be strengthened by proper training, or worsened by poor technique or failing to do any kind of strength training.
Like many people before me, I have suffered from ill-health, injuries and poor fitness – especially around my core. At the age of 23 I injured my right sacro-iliac joint in my lower back lifting my car battery out of my mini, slipping on the ice and twisting. It was an injury to last several years. Three subsequent pregnancies (one of them being twins), a C-section and lifting babies and small children further impacted my back health and meant that exercising was extremely challenging. I couldn’t do any quick movements, which meant that I was limited to doing exercises such as Pilates. Although this was helpful to a degree, I didn’t feel it was enough and it was quite frustrating. My abdominal muscles were non-existent after the C-section – I had no strength there whatsoever!
Fast forward several years… As my children grew older, and I was no longer lifting and carrying them, I was able to do more physically, but I was always plagued with lower back pain, to the extent that sometimes just standing in shops was really painful as I had a constant ache and dragging feeling in my lower back, abs and pelvic floor. My core strength never seemed to improve despite trying many different programs such as Holistix, yoga and Pilates but, although I was more flexible, nothing really seemed to help get me really fit, or strengthen my core to the degree that was necessary to alleviate the pain.
It was only after qualifying as a personal trainer that I discovered kettlebell training. I undertook specialist training and became a certified Extreme Kettlebell Instructor. And wow! What a difference kettlebells made to my overall strength, cardiovascular fitness and specifically my core! Within a few months I was no longer experiencing lower back pain and at age 52 I am now the fittest, healthiest and strongest I have ever been in my life.
Two years ago I tore the meniscus on my right knee (cartilage at the side and rear of the kneecap), and developed a Baker’s cyst behind the kneecap. I subsequently found myself unable to run, had difficulty even walking my dogs and was extremely limited in the type of high intensity/high impact moves I could perform. However, I was able to continue with kettlebell training, which actually provided relief from the symptoms. The ballistic actions via the swing movements meant that the lymphatic system was draining excess fluid away from the cyst, and so relieving the pain. It also meant that I was able to continue strengthening the muscles around the knee to enable better functionality. I had ultrasound to break up the cyst, but nothing could be done about the torn meniscus – surgery was not recommended as the consultant said that it doesn’t actually make much difference a year down the line and I could end up with less mobility than I currently had.
So I continued with my kettlebell training, which I had started to implement every day and, paired with the right nutrition, my knee is now completed rehabilitated, without surgery, to the extent that I am able to go running again, high intensity/high impact movements are no problem at all and my squats are even better than they were before!
As you can see from my personal experiences, training with kettlebells means that you can perform high intensity exercise without the high impact, which so many people are worried about, particularly if you suffer from knee issues, ankle issues, back issues etc… It is the perfect exercise choice for getting back into a training routine, and is great to use for rehabilitation purposes.
However, it seems to be a very common theme that women – and particularly ageing women – gravitate towards “gentle” exercise such as yoga or Pilates, and whilst these are certainly an important part of a weekly routine, they are not enough to provide overall fitness, improve your cardiovascular health or ward off diseases such as osteoporosis and osteopenia. Including a strength and resistance program into your regular weekly routine is essential if you want to maintain the ability to move well and perform basic functions into your golden years. Studies have shown that even women in their eighties improved their bone density and muscular strength when they took up strength training, leading to a vast improvement in their day to day functionality. It just goes to show that it’s never too late – but always better to start sooner rather than later!
Kettlebell Training Provides A Myriad Of Benefits:
- Fat loss – because kettlebells are great for both strength development and cardio endurance, they are excellent tools for helping to burn fat rather than glucose. This is particularly true when performing a workout in a fasted state. The high intensity element of kettlebell training means that you keep burning long after the workout is actually finished – for up to 24 hours or more. High intensity training has also been shown to reduce visceral fat (that’s the fat that surrounds your organs, that you don’t want too much of. Accumulation of visceral fat can lead to conditions such as Non-Alcoholic fatty Liver Disease (NAFLD).
- Increased lean muscle tissue – strength and resistance training imposes a Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demand (SAID), which means that it rebuilds muscles stronger than they were before to be ready for the next time they are subjected to the demand put upon them. More muscle tissue also means more metabolically active tissue, which helps to raise your metabolic rate overall. More muscle tissue prevents conditions such as osteopenia (muscle wasting). Training with kettlebells can help you to build a lean, athletic body.
- Improved bone density – strength and resistance training increases bone density, which is important, particularly for women, as this helps to prevent conditions such as osteoporosis (bone crumbling).
- Better cardiovascular health – your heart rate is accelerated during a kettlebell workout, without putting any strain on your joints, which means that you are utilising and improving your heart and lungs. Most people are surprised at how breathless they can become during a kettlebell workout because they are not jumping about and yet they are working hard enough to raise the heart rate significantly.
- Better joint health – although kettlebell training is high intensity, it is low impact, which means that there is no jumping or repetitive strain being placed on your joints. In fact, joint health improves with this type of training because the joints are lubricated, the lymphatic system is draining the system properly and muscles, tendons and cartilage are all being strengthened around the joints.
- Improved flexibility – many kettlebell exercises will help to improve your flexibility, without you even realising this is happening. Because the joints are more lubricated this enables better mobility generally. Increased mobility means being able to move the body into positions far more easily and increasing your range of motion. Improvement in joints, mobility and flexibility leads to better functionality and less aches and pains generally in your daily life.
- Core strength – this is a biggie! Virtually every movement that is made with the kettlebell will help to increase your core strength. From the more ballistic movements such as swings, cleans and snatches, to pure strength moves such as squats, presses and windmills. Plus there are also dedicated abdominal exercises to further develop those muscles.
- Better mental health – kettlebells are not only great for improving your physical health but research shows that exercise has a positive effect on brain health. From the endorphins produced during and after exercise (feel good hormones), to improved self-confidence, self-esteem and body image. Exercise has been shown to improve symptoms of anxiety and depression and kettlebell training is no exception in helping to alleviate these conditions.
- Pelvic floor muscles – after pregnancy and childbirth, or even just as we age, women can suffer from issues with their pelvic floor muscles. This can have a devastating impact on everyday life. Exercise can sometimes be difficult because of worries that there will be a lack of control over the bladder. Kettlebell training will help to strengthen and repair the pelvic floor – without you even trying!
- Back problems – many people are worried that training with kettlebells will put a strain on their back, and that this will either cause an injury or worsen an existing one. Whilst it is, of course, important to make sure that an existing injury is not such that ANY kind of lifting will aggravate it, kettlebells are actually exceptionally good for strengthening the back and are often used as rehabilitation tools after injury. The most important caveat to this is that exercises MUST be learnt properly and practiced often to ensure correct technique at all times. A kettlebell that is used improperly can, of course, cause injury to the back and to other areas of the body, the same way that any other form of exercise can be injurous when not performed in the correct manner.
- Small area, minimal equipment – kettlebell training can be performed in a small room with only one or two kettlebells. You don’t have to go to a gym or be in a large hall for exercises to be effective. Workouts can be short and yet very intense, in fact the longest you will ever need is probably half an hour. Working the muscles for too long can be counter-productive. The important thing is to make every movement count, to use as heavy a kettlebell as you safely can, and to push yourself to increase your intensity.
(If this list of amazing benefits doesn’t inspire you to purchase a kettlebell, and learn how to use it properly, I don’t know what will!!)
When I started training with kettlebells it was quite frustrating because the workouts offered online were either not performed correctly, or were too advanced for me, and so it was with this in mind that I developed my own online course. “The Kettlebell Cure” provides complete beginners with all the knowledge needed for safe and effective kettlebell training. It is aimed at both men and women, of all ages and abilities, who are interested in improving their health and fitness, and are determined to be able to move to the best of their ability as they age. Each of the lessons comprises a video demonstration, accompanied by a PDF file, that demonstrates how to perform each exercise correctly, techniques you can utilize to ensure good form, and also how NOT to perform an exercise! Kettlebells are an extremely effective tool for developing strength, mobility, flexibility and endurance, but if they are used incorrectly they are also extremely effective at causing injury! As with any gym equipment, you MUST familiarise yourself with how to use them properly. The reason that “The Kettlebell Cure” has come into fruition is to help people develop the proper technique to avoid injuries and to perform every exercise correctly, safely and effectively, because I believe that everyone can train with kettlebells.
- If you have never done any strength or resistance training before but would like to start now then this course is for you.
- If you are scared that you will “bulk up” then be scared no more – developing a bodybuilders physique takes incredible dedication, specific nutrition and specific training (and sometimes a helping hand via exogenous substances!).
- If you are afraid that you won’t be able to lift “heavy weights” then set those fears aside because nobody starts with a heavy weight. You will decide on the weight that is right for you based on the suggestions and advice given in the course. As you progress you WILL be able to lift heavier weights – and you will be surprised at how quickly this will happen! Don’t be afraid of that progression, it is a necessary and important part of your improvement and development with your training.
Remember – everyone was once a beginner. If I can do it – so can you!
If you would like to learn how to train with kettlebells then you can purchase “The Kettlebell Cure” by clicking here.