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The bowling ball-shaped, cast-iron weight with a handle, known as a kettlebell, is fast becoming an exercise staple for fitness-minded people who are short on time. Increased strength, weight loss, and toned muscles are all results that can be accomplished in less time with kettlebells than with other common exercises, such as running or traditional weight lifting. “Because your heart rate is as high as it would be if you were running, you’re using high-intensity interval training (HIIT), which means you’re burning more fat and calories. The higher your heart rate, the more calories burned,” according to Holly Del Rosso, a Certified Personal Trainer and fitness expert in New York City and San Francisco.

Why are kettlebells effective?

There are several reasons that kettlebells work so well, one being that the unusual circular shape does not distribute weight evenly, and therefore constantly throws your body off balance. In order to maintain balance and stability throughout your workout, the core must be constantly engaged. This is a primary reason kettlebells target the stomach muscles so well. Even if certain moves focus on the legs or arms, the ever-important core keeps working throughout a kettlebell routine, which tones abdominal and oblique muscles. Additionally, many kettlebell exercises are known as compound movements, which means more than one muscle group is engaged at the same time. “You’re getting your heart rate elevated while lifting weight, so you’re burning more fat as you’re building muscle,” says Del Rosso.

What are some other benefits of kettlebells?

  • Improve posture and coordination
  • Increase strength, flexibility, and conditioning to enhance your abilities for other activities and sports
  • Save time by incorporating strength, balance, cardio, and endurance all in one session
  • Save money on gym memberships, personal trainers, and expensive workout equipment because all you need is one kettlebell

How much should a kettlebell weigh?

Many women start with a kettlebell that weighs between 8 kg and 12 kg (18 lb and 26 lb). For men, the range is 16 kg to 20 kg (35 lb to 44 lb). It is important to remember that kettlebell exercises are different from dumbbells, where the weight is often isolated to one area. A kettlebell beginner may be capable of lifting a heavier weight, simply because the moves often involve the entire body. When legs and core assist the arms to help push a kettlebell overhead, the movement becomes more manageable. Alternately, acquiring two bells is not a bad option for a beginner. Owning one low-to-moderate weighted kettlebell and one heavier bell provides the opportunity to switch off, depending on the difficulty of each move.

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Beginning a kettlebell exercise routine.

Perhaps the best way to start a kettlebell program is to meet with a trainer who can show you how to safely complete a series of exercises. A trainer can even set up a program you can follow at home at your leisure. Additionally, there are countless instructional YouTube videos that can teach and guide you through kettlebell routines for beginners or more advanced users. One example is a YouTube channel called “BodyFit by Amy.” Amy leads you through various kettlebell moves that will get your heart pumping and engage your muscles with time-efficient programs that last anywhere from 10 to 45 minutes. They can be viewed on an iPad or even a phone, making it easy to participate in a kettlebell class from any location.

Standard kettlebell moves everyone should learn.

Deadlift

Place the kettlebell on the floor directly in front of you. Turn your feet slightly out and stand with feet a bit wider than shoulder-length apart. Keeping your back straight and eyes up, squat down and grab the kettlebell by the handle. Stand up while pushing down through your heels and keeping your chest up. Squeeze your glutes at the top while pulling the kettelbell up to chin level, then place the kettlebell back in its original position on the floor in the same way you picked it up off the ground. Voila.

Swing

This is a classic move, and one that has been said to burn as many as 100 calories in 10 minutes, if done repeatedly. Stand the same way you did for the kettlebell deadlift. Pick the kettlebell up and allow it to swing gently back and forth between your legs. Slightly bend your knees, keeping in mind that this is not a squat. The whole movement happens with a hinge at the hips. As you bend slightly forward, keeping your back straight and eyes up, swing the ball up forcefully to about chin level and squeeze your butt at the top. Then allow it to swing back through your legs. Repeat.

Goblet Squat

Grab the kettlebell by the handle (or bell itself, if that feels more comfortable), and squat down with your toes pointing out slightly. Hold the bell in front of your chest. Slowly stand up while squeezing your glutes and lifting the kettlebell over your head. Then, slowly return to the starting position and do it again. Another option is to stand up and twist your upper body to the left as your raise the bell overhead. Alternate by doing this on the right to work the obliques.

Roman Twist

Sit the on floor with your knees slightly bent and feet on the ground. With the kettlebell on the floor on your left near your hips, lean back slightly, grab the kettlebell by the handle with both hands and lift it over your stomach and to your right, allowing it to just slightly touch the floor before returning it back to the other side. Keep going back and forth to tone your abdominal and oblique muscles.

Lunge Press

Place your feet about hip-width apart and hold kettlebell by the handle at chest level. Start by lunging your left leg forward as you simultaneously lower the bell down to hip level as a bicep curl. Then stand back up and bring bell back to chest height. As you lunge, both knees bend as one leg steps forward and the other leg remains planted on the ground. Then, switch to the other side.

All of these moves, plus other kettlebell exercises, work multiple muscle groups at once, targeting legs, arms, abdominals, glutes, back, chest, and shoulders. This is how the magic happens. When multiple muscle groups are activated, you ratchet up your heart rate to burn calories, while also improving strength, stamina, endurance, and power—all in less time than it takes to work single muscle groups or do cardio all on its own.

The American Council on Exercise (ACE) conducted a study on the science of kettlebells. With the help of research gurus from the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse Exercise and Health Program, they set out to determine the calorie burn from kettlebell workouts. John Porcari, Ph.D., and Chad Schnettler, M.S., enlisted 10 volunteers, men and women, ages 29 to 46 years. They all had previous experience using kettlebells. The results, published in ACE FitnessMatters in January/February 2010, showed that during a 20-minute kettlebell routine, an average of 272 calories was burned. This insanely high number further supports the fact that kettlebells can provide results in shorter periods of time than some other popular exercises.

Diet is also important.

Eating a healthy diet is important regardless of your exercise routine, fitness level, or weight-loss goals. Cutting out foods that are high in sugar or fat are no brainers, but it can be challenging to maintain a strict diet for a long period of time. “Do not base your workouts on calories burned,” according to Dr. Rachel Girrens,a chiropractor at ICT Muscle & Joint Clinic in Wichita, KS. “Your body is way too complicated a system to simplify the thousands of enzymatic reactions happening every second.”

In order to make eating changes you can stick with for life, try to focus on eating healthy meals as often as possible, but not beating yourself up for the occasional piece of cake, bowl of ice cream, or plate of nachos. As you embark on a new (or re-started) exercise program, include foods that are healthy and gratifying. “Your body needs proper fuel to get you through the day and especially for challenging activities such as a kettlebell workout,” says Dr. Girrens. “Eat a heavily plant-based diet with whole foods, fruits, quality protein sources, and plenty of water,” she adds. Find a meal plan that works, while also allowing you to achieve your goals. Slipping into those skinny jeans, glancing into a full-length mirror, or stepping on the scale will let you know if your diet is working, or if you need to make modifications.

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