Kettlebells. There they were in the fitness aisle of my local big box store: cute little candy-colored cannonballs with handles on them. I was drawn to them immediately — adorable pink weights that conjured images of me as an exercise goddess in a sunny meadow, smiling and doing arm workouts with ease (in slow motion, of course). Then I lifted one of the weights from the shelf and discovered — record scratch — they're no creampuffs, they're heavy workout tools! But apparently they're all the rage.
How do kettlebells improve fitness?
Kettlebells have been used for centuries, most famously by 19th-century strongmen. Today the weights (which range from 8 to 105 pounds) are featured in exercise classes, gyms, and fitness equipment stores, and for good reason: they work several muscle groups at a time. Holding a lot of weight by a handle engages your arm, leg, shoulder, back, and abdominal muscles. The pull on your muscles helps to strengthen them. The pull on your bones helps stimulate new bone cell growth.
Using kettlebells can also improve your posture. "With the weight in front of you, your back muscles have to straighten up more to counteract the force of the kettlebell pulling you forward," explains Nancy Capparelli, a senior physical therapist at Harvard-affiliated Beth Israel Deaconess Medical Center.
Swinging a kettlebell also challenges your balance and helps to improve it.
Along with benefits, kettlebells have some risks. One is obvious: dropping the weight on your foot (nothing a goddess would do, but I might by accident). Other pitfalls: lifting too much too soon or lifting a kettlebell the wrong way can lead to muscle strains, rotator cuff tears, and falls.
If you have the bone-thinning disease osteoporosis or its precursor state osteopenia, lifting a heavy kettlebell may increase your risk for fractures, caution some experts. If you're at risk for falling, using a kettlebell can add to your risk.
Should you try kettlebells?
Using kettlebells should be safe for healthy people as long as they:
- Use the appropriate weight. "It depends on the person. Someone who's five feet tall and 90 pounds will typically use a lighter kettlebell than someone who's six feet tall and 200 pounds," Capparelli says.
- Learn the proper form from an expert first. "You need to know exactly what to do with the kettlebell and which exercises are appropriate. Otherwise you'll increase your risk for injury, even with a lighter kettlebell," Capparelli warns.
It helps to use a kettlebell with a handle wide enough to grip with two hands. Another tip: wear weight-lifting gloves, since the kettlebell handle can get slippery.
Typical beginner kettlebell exercises include:
The farmer's walk. Pick up one kettlebell on each side, pinch your shoulders down and back, and walk a distance of 20 feet (across a gym) four times.
The suitcase carry. Pick up a kettlebell with one hand (like you're carrying a suitcase) and walk a distance of 20 feet (across a gym) four times. Don't lean to the side. Repeat the exercise while carrying the kettlebell on the other side.
The goblet carry. "Pick up the kettlebell with two hands and hold it in front of you as if you're taking a sip from it," Capparelli says. "Then walk 20 feet back and forth a few times. That works your arm muscles, shoulders, biceps, and upper back muscles."
The kettlebell swing. Hold a kettlebell with both hands, arms extended down in front of you so the kettlebell hangs between your legs. Lean forward, shift your weight onto your heels, and swing the kettlebell back between your legs. Then stand up as you swing the kettlebell forward to chest height. Repeat 10 times.
If kettlebells inspire your own images of weightlifting success (meadow optional), try just picking one up in a store or at the gym first to see if you're interested. Even after my reality check, I am definitely intrigued. But I'll get some guidance first to avoid accidents and injury.
There are lots of kettlebell classes at local gyms and YMCAs. There are even kettlebell videos online. You can also check out the Kettlebell Workout in the Harvard Special Health Report Strength and Power Training for All Ages.
For me, adding kettlebells to a workout makes sense: anything that draws me to exercise is a winner. And getting a multi-muscle workout with one small (and pretty) tool is a dream come true.