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Kettlebells, made famous by Russian strongmen, are now found in gyms almost everywhere. But many exercise enthusiasts don't recognize their potential.

Made famous by power lifters in the former Soviet Union, kettlebells have come to be associated with hard core workouts But because they come in all weight ranges, chances are there is a kettlebell that would be a useful workout tool for you.

What Are Kettlebells?

A kettlebell is a cast-iron weight that resembles a cannonball with a hand grip. Sometimes known by the Russian term girya, kettlebells traditionally were cast in multiples of a weight unit known as a pood, equivalent to about 35 pounds or 16 kilos.

Kettlebells were developed by the Czarist army as a training tool in the 1700's. They were first used in international weight lifting competitions about 1940, and they have been a fixture of elite training gyms in the United States since the 1950's. Pavel Tsatsouline developed the first kettlebell training certification program in 2000.

How Do Kettlebells Differ from Dumbbells?

Exercisers grip kettlebells on their handles. Dumbbells are gripped on a slippery bar connecting the two "bells." The center of gravity of the kettlebell is always in the bell itself, so if it is dropped, it falls straight down, usually away from the body of the person using it in exercise. The center of gravity of the dumbbell is always on the hand, and if the dumbbell is not picked up properly, various muscles must compensate for the weight of the bell or it will fall, possibly back on the person using it.

Exercising with Kettlebells

The basic movements for kettlebells engage all the muscles of the body at the same time. Snatching a kettlebell from the bench, or swinging the kettlebell with one hand, or the clean and jerk (the clean consisting of removing the kettlebell off the floor to a position in front of the chest, and the jerk consisting of raising the kettlebell to a position over the head so that the arms are fully extended and stationary), all require action of multiple muscle groups. A workout with a kettlebell resembles real-world activities such as shoveling snow, or farm or garden work, and builds up lower back, legs, arms, and grip strength.

Burning Calories with Kettlebells

Kettlebell workouts are high-intensity exercise. Because of the different forces placed on different muscle groups, the body burns glucose both aerobically (with oxygen) and anaerobically (without oxygen) after just a minute or so into the routine. The aerobic component of a kettlebell workout encourages the burning of free fatty acids, reducing their concentration in the bloodstream. The muscles that have to exert the most effort to support the kettlebell burn glucose anaerobically, at a rate approximately 30 times greater than normal. This process produces the "burn" felt in some muscle groups during the workout, and it also primes muscles to soak up sugar from the bloodstream when the workout is over--a special benefit for diabetics.

Are Kettlebells Safe for Me?

Not everyone should use kettlebells. If you have recent lower back problems, or if you have recently torn shoulder muscles or chronically stiff joints, kettlebells are not for you. It is also a good idea to spend some weeks or months strengthening core muscles before using kettlebells of 1 pood (35 pounds/16 kilos) or heavier.

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