If you could only purchase one weight, make it a kettlebell for your one-stop-shop to strength training. Here’s why exercising with one is so effective.
Nothing kills motivation more than walking into the weights room to see that everyone is using the equipment you were after. The resistance machines are full, every free weight bench is taken – so it’s either treadmill or retreat, right? Well, if you explore one of the neglected corners of the gym (or your garden shed for that matter), you may well find a brilliant alternative to your standard weight workouts: the kettlebell.
While dumbbells and barbells are popular and effective weight training options, they’re definitely not the only method of building muscle. Think of kettlebells – those spherical weights with the big handle – as your one-stop-strength-shop. A single kettlebell can provide a full-body workout in just 40 minutes or less – with dozens of exercise options and no extra faff.
So, what makes kettlebells so effective?
It’s an all-in-one piece of equipment
“The thing about kettlebells is that they genuinely do offer a full-body workout,” explains personal trainer Hannah Lewin. “The kettlebell off-sets gravity, which allows you to use a lot of your body muscle during each exercise. A kettlebell swing, for instance, uses your quads, hamstrings, glutes, lats and all your stabilising muscles as well, such as your core. You get really good bang for your buck with just one piece of equipment.”
There are so many exercises you can do with a single kettlebell. Just do a quick Google search and you’ll find over 50 exercises – ranging from good mornings and single arm deadlifts, to Turkish get ups and kettlebell snatches. For Lewin, one of the main benefits of using kettlebells is that they “save you quite a lot of time. I do many of my workouts with one or two kettlebells - you can swap, swing, or deadlift them. You can get all your movement patterns in with just one piece of equipment. I just love using them.”
They do more than just strength train
Because you tend to use one kettlebell at a time, you’re naturally working on your core power, balance, flexibility and coordination – all of which are crucial to everyday fitness, as well as strength training. A 2012 study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that doing kettlebell swings increased both maximum and explosive strength in athletes, while a study conducted by the American Council on Exercise found that general kettlebell training can increase aerobic capacity, improve dynamic balance, and dramatically increase core strength.
Kettlebells require every part of your body to switch on in order to help you complete the move. If your core is not activated, you can’t get a weight into the air during a clean and press without putting untold pressure on your back. You need balance and pelvic floor strength to complete a set of kettlebell swings, while coordination is crucial for getting through any heavy weights session safely.
One person who knows all about strength and conditioning is Laura Hoggins – a certified trainer, author and director of The Foundry. She says that “kettlebells are an incredibly versatile piece of kit that can be used to develop strength and stability. Once you have mastered good form in various functional movement patterns (for example, a knee-dominant pattern such as a squat or a hip-dominant hip hinge such as a deadlift), kettlebells are a great way to progressively overload by adding controlled external load.”
They’re made for compound movements
Weight training exercises fall into two kinds of movement: isolation or compound. Isolated movements work very specific muscles to target areas that might otherwise be overlooked, but for overall fitness or upper body strength, you want to be working more than one muscle at once – these are compound moves. Not only do compound exercises help to improve strength and flexibility, but they’re also necessary for building muscle, elevating your heart rate and improving intramuscular coordination.
Kettlebells are ideal for compound exercises – a swing (swinging the kettlebell between your legs while hinging at the hips), for example, uses your quads, hamstrings, glutes, core, shoulders and back muscles while kettlebell thrusters (going from a squat to standing with the weight above your head) work the quads, hamstrings, glutes, triceps, pectorals, deltoids and biceps. Even a kettlebell halo (circling your shoulder girdle with the weight) activates your traps, lats, deltoids and core.
Hit cardio and conditioning at the same time
By doing compound movements such as kettlebell swings, you’re getting your strength work in while getting your cardio too – effectively, you’re getting two workouts in one. Walimbwa explains that they’re a great tool for spiking heart rate “very quickly due to their functionality”; they don’t require any effort to set up, but they do get us working hard to move them from point A to B. Exercises such as swings are a total body movement that increase your heart rate and breathing - increasing your VO2 max (the amount of oxygen the body takes in during exercise) and generally giving your heart a good workout.
Hoggins is also a fan of kettlebells for their cardio qualities. “Kettlebells are an excellent conditioning tool. Utilising higher rep ranges and ballistic movements with appropriate rest has big cardiovascular benefits.”
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Miranda Larbi is the editor of Strong Women and Strong Women Training Club. A qualified personal trainer and vegan runner, she can usually be found training for the next marathon, seeking out vegan treats or cycling across London on a pond-green Tokyo bike.