When it comes to combining cardio and strength, using kettlebells is arguably the best way to get the job done. In fact, numerous studies state that kettlebell training not only has positive effects on cardiovascular fitness, but also on muscular strength and power. Plus, experts agree that the weight offers many benefits for fitness beginners and advanced athletes alike.
Here, three Aaptiv trainers discuss everything that kettlebells can and can’t do for your fitness regimen. But, before we get into that, let’s answer the question: Where did kettlebells come from?
A Brief History of the Kettlebell
Most experts generally agree that the first record of the kettlebell was approximately 350 years ago in the Russian dictionary. Kettlebells were actually initially used as counterweights when weighing out dry goods on market scales. According to Kettlebells USA, the kettlebell was first used for weight lifting under the guidance of Dr. Vladislav Krayevsky, a figure widely recognized by the fitness community as the “forefather of the modern fitness gym.” Kettlebells continued to be used for athletics by Russia and later by the Soviet Union, eventually making their way to Europe and North America.
The Different Types of Kettlebells
Kettlebells come in many brands, colors, and sizes, but there are primarily two different types: cast iron and competition kettlebells. According to Aaptiv Trainer Kenta Seki, cast iron kettlebells have larger handles, which makes them more ideal for the general public, beginner lifters, and for use during exercises that require two hands on the handle.
Competition kettlebells, on the other hand, have a regulated size and dimension—their handles are usually smaller than those of cast iron kettlebells. “This allows them to be the same across the board. They are ideal for people looking to compete in kettlebell competitions or do exercises involving one hand at a time,” Seki states. While both kettlebells are constructed slightly differently, their functionalities largely remain the same.
The Benefits of Working Out With Kettlebells
Kettlebells are lauded by many for their ability to provide strength training and cardiovascular exercise simultaneously—and effectively too. A 2011 study conducted by San Jose State University found that the participants who did four weeks of kettlebell training improved their aerobic capacity. Moreover, due to the nature of kettlebell exercises, they often require more muscle engagement than any other equipment.
According to Aaptiv Trainer Mary O., what makes kettlebells so beneficial is their uneven weight distribution. “Because the weight distribution of a kettlebell is uneven, at any given point you are challenging your strength, balance, power, core, and even flexibility. Additionally, you are recruiting multiple muscle groups to perform a single move.” This also helps those who are new to kettlebell training, as it accelerates their muscle growth, she says.
Seki agrees, adding that because you recruit many different muscle groups, your heart rate spikes faster and your body burns more calories than many other forms of exercise. “Plus, they’re fun, and the constant movement can help keep you focused,” he says.
Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells
Since kettlebells do have so many pros, many people often assume they’re more beneficial to train with than dumbbells. But, according to Seki, one isn’t necessarily better than the other. “What makes kettlebell training different than dumbbell training is the weight is distributed differently in your hand. Because a kettlebell’s weight is an extension of your hand (instead of inside of it), you are forced to work with a different center of gravity,” he says.
Aaptiv Trainer Ackeem Emmons believes that kettlebells can be more beneficial, stating, “I think kettlebells are better than dumbbells for various reasons. The simple design makes it easier for various grips. By simply ‘racking’ the kettlebell—[this is a position in which you’re holding the kettlebell’s handle so that its weight lies on the back of your hands and wrists]—you develop wrist, and forearm strength. Plus, your center of gravity can be manipulated when doing a goblet squat, front squat, suitcase squat, and a sumo squat with kettlebells.”
Generally, while kettlebells do have more pronounced benefits, it’s hard to say that they’re better to use than dumbbells. At the end of the day, it all depends on which equipment suits your needs for where you are in your fitness journey.
Getting Started With Kettlebells
According to Emmons, an easy way to incorporate kettlebells into a cardio or strength routine is to bookend your workout with them. “If you are a stronger runner, strength train before your cardio to learn how to perform when fatigued,” he says. “If you’re more of a lifter, try implementing HIIT circuits with the kettlebell.”
Emmons recommends testing any compound movement with dumbbells first before attempting it with kettlebells. Some compound movements he lists as his favorite are the Turkish get up and kettlebell windmills. “These complex movements really help you develop a strong core and foundation for other kettlebell related exercises,” he says.
Seki adds, “You can also always start by trying some of our kettlebell classes in the Aaptiv app! We have an ever-growing library of classes that incorporate kettlebells, and each class has a different focus and theme.”
In terms of trying to decide which weight to use, Seki says that it primarily depends on your strength, experience, and which exercise you’re doing. “Generally, if you can comfortably hold your kettlebell straight out in front of you with both hands and your arms straight, then it’s probably too light,” he says. “Most gyms recommend the starting weight to be 15lbs for women and 25lbs for men.”
While kettlebells can be an excellent addition to any strength training routine, they can actually cause serious injury if used incorrectly. Form is key during any strength exercise, but especially while using kettlebells to avoid injuring yourself and others. For this reason, Mary O. stresses the importance of choosing the right weight to get used to the weight, grip, and shape of the kettlebell. She also adds that mastering the hip hinge is a key, especially for swinging, and that you will build your grip strength over time, so don’t stress if your hands get tired.
Seki agrees, stating that you should always choose the appropriate weight for your strength and experience level. Also, “Make sure [that] your workout area is safe and clear, and always be aware of others in a public space,” he adds. Of course form is important, so he stresses the importance of maintaining a straight spine and engaged core. Also, he suggests consulting a trainer or researching online if a kettlebell exercise doesn’t feel right to you or you’re not sure how to do it.
Kettlebells can be a great catalyst for building strength and cardiovascular fitness, but only when performed properly. Master the basic moves, and start with lighter weights, says Mary O., gradually increasing as your training progresses.
Ready to include kettlebells into your training? Get started with the kettlebell-specific strength classes in the Aaptiv app.