Forget bodyweight and dumbbells. Leave the squat bar where it is. Kettlebells are incredible pieces of equipment that can be used for a host of exercises, and they can work wonders at improving your body image and self-believe, as writer Adrianne Webster has been finding out.
Gymtimidation is nothing new or unique but post-lockdown, my fitness anxiety was out of control. My heart was in my throat first time I stepped into my local gym after restrictions eased, and it wasn’t just from being surrounded by so many sweaty, puffing people.
Covid risks aside, I felt weak. After months of being isolated, my mental and physical health had taken a tumble and here I was: depressed, tired all the time and in desperate need of exercise motivation.
I knew from past experience that exercise could help to pull me through dark, depressive episodes and so, I donned my best lycra and set about working towards a ‘good’ place. The only snag was knowing where to start.
I developed a detail plan which I stuck to religiously, and soon I was going to the gym three, four, even five times a week. Before long, however, I fell into familiar traps: my healthy eating had become obsessively ‘clean’ and I grew bored of my gym time.
Scrolling through Instagram and Pinterest, I’d save and pin images of my ideal body type (often, nothing like my actual body shape) and felt a sense of disgust in myself when I wasn’t seeing changes soon enough. I started to feel the old feelings of depression creep back in.
Finding inspiration through TikTok
Then, one night after work while doing my nightly TikTok scrolling, I ended up in a kettlebell hole on Kelly Matthews’ account, where she shares accessible yet effective conditioning workouts using kettlebells.
One of her most viewed videos, Full Body Kettlebell Burner, shows you how to do moves like a classic kettlebell swing, bent over row, cleans (where you lift and hold one of the kettlebells on one side) and squats, working every muscle group in the body.
Coming across Matthews’ account was a revelation. She looked like a fitter version of me! I have naturally muscular legs that I’ve always wanted to slim down (thanks, 2000s diet culture) but here Matthews was, proudly showing off her toned thighs, sculpted arms and broad, shapely shoulders. The broadness of my shoulders had always irked me, thanks to hours spent swimming in my teens, but these workouts showed that broad shoulders were a benefit, and something to wear with pride.
Saving a few of Matthews’ videos to my phone, I turned up at the gym the next day raring to go and ready to test out my new workout. I went through my usual routine, and then towards the end, I picked up a couple of 8kg kettlebells and headed to the tucked away section to test out some swings and squats.
Within minutes, I was red in the face from exerting a ton of energy… but I could do it! I felt powerful, strong and confident. In the shower after, my body positively vibrated with that post-workout feeling of smashing it. I was eager to keep trying out my new-found exercises next time I hit the gym.
Building self-esteem as well as strength
Over the next few weeks, I started to feel my confidence – and muscles – grow. Gone were the thoughts of wanting to make myself feel smaller. Now, I was all about those #gains.
If you want to feel good in your body and get stronger, then kettlebells are a fantastic tool to use at the gym, says Steph Plunkett, one of the coaches at London’s women-only gym, StrongHer: “Kettlebells are good for conditioning any area of the body depending on how they are used. They can be used well for full-body functional movements.
“Start low and stay there until you feel completely comfortable and know you are moving in the correct way. You can start to slowly move up the weights in the moves you are comfortable in.”
She explains that the key is to increase the weight little by little, getting comfortable with what you’re swinging before increasing. She tells Stylist: “Don’t be scared of going back down the weights when trying a new or more difficult move.”
The exertion of some kettlebell exercises, like the swings and the presses, meant that any stressful or anxious thoughts didn’t have space in my brain to breathe – they were pushed out. All I could focus on was the rhythmic swing of the bell in my hand, the air as I breathed out and heaved the weight above my head, the sweat as it trickled down my lip. Each workout was like a moving meditation, bringing me closer to myself.
Mandy Wong Oultram, an award-winning PT and nutrition coach at FlexFit, agrees that the mental benefits are something to shout about: “There’s an abundance of evidence out there that shows that weight training can help increase self-esteem and self-efficacy, reduce anxiety as well as boost your mood.
“Weight training develops more than just muscle. It also promotes the release of mood-boosting endorphins, which can play a role in a positive mood. This helps you overcome challenges, work toward a goal, and appreciate your body’s strength. Believing that you’re able to succeed at or perform a task can greatly improve your confidence.”
Physical benefits of kettlebell training
The physical benefits are fantastic, too. My legs, bum, stomach and upper arms started to take a shape I’d never seen before, no matter how much I’d killed myself in the gym in the past. That’s because it’s thought that exercises using kettlebells can help access muscles that aren’t used in a lot of traditional exercises.
A kettlebell can activate the entire posterior chain of muscles in a way that dumbbells can’t. A 2016 study even found that kettlebell training is effective in lower back pain treatment, so can be better for your back than weights like deadlifts.
Kettlebells are also a great way to work on functional strength – the type that we use in our everyday life, like lifting shopping bags or kids (or in my case, two cats). Exercises like squats, cleans and holds help build the muscles to support these everyday movements, which might explain why going about life just felt like a complete breeze after I started training this way.
How to get started using kettlebells
As with all workouts, it’s important to make sure your form is right so you don’t injure yourself, so if you’re not sure what you’re doing, ask one of the members of staff at your gym to help you. But most importantly, don’t be put off by how scary the free weights section can be.
As Plunkett says: “Don’t be scared to give it a go, make sure you are working in your weight range and have fun trying different movements from your standard weight training.”
At 5ft 11in and a size nine in shoes, I’d spent my whole life up until this point trying to make myself smaller… trying to be less than and punish and starve myself into being a fraction of the person I was meant to be.
Kettlebell training helped me realise my strength, the power there was to be had in being muscular, strong, a force to be reckoned with. When I struggle to push the kettlebell above my head and finally manage it, I feel incredible.
Steph Plunkett’s top four kettlebell exercises for full-body strength
Great for: strengthening of glutes, hamstrings, quadriceps, and muscles of the lower as well as upper body.
- Start standing with your feet hip-width apart with your weight shifted back in your heels.
- Hinge at your hips and push into your heels as you bend to grab the kettlebell with both hands, making sure your back stays flat.
- Drive your hips forward and lift the kettlebell as you stand up, keeping your weight pushed through your heels.
Round the world
Great for: forearms, abs and glutes
- Stand with your feet about shoulder width apart and holding the kettlebell with both hands in front of your pelvis, rotate the kettlebell around your body, changing hands in the front and back.
- Remember to focus on your posture and keep your core strong.
Great for: core, shoulders, quads, hamstrings, glutes and back
- With your back straight and feet shoulder-width apart, lower into a half-squat and pick up the kettlebell with both hands facing your body.
- Holding in your core and with a slight bend in the knees, push from the heels and straighten your legs as you explosively swing the kettlebell up to chest height.
- As you swing it back down, return to the half-squat position and then go again.
Great for: core and arms
- Starting with your kettlebell between your feet, bend the knees slightly and hinge at the waist to pick up your weight and reach it to the centre of your chest and then back to the floor.
- Repeat for multiple reps. The goblet clean will help set you up for a full goblet squat.
If you’ve got kettlebells at home, have a go at some of our workout videos which can be done using kettlebells or dumbbells.
Images: author’s own