Doing the same workout repeatedly can get tedious, but a sure-fire way to plus up your ordinary sweat session is to add some weights. You’ve likely used standard dumbbells in the past, but if you’re really looking to shake things up, reach for a set of kettlebells. These ball-shaped weights can help challenge your whole body in new ways, and for many exercises, you only need one of them. Ahead, learn all about kettlebells, how to make sure you’re using them correctly, and find some exercises to get started.
Meet the Expert
What is a Kettlebell?
In the simplest terms, a kettlebell is a weight with a handle. “Picture a cannonball with a handle on top,” says Amanda Murdock, an ACE-certified trainer and FitXR's global head of content.
Unlike dumbbells, which have equal weights on either side of the bar, kettlebells have all their weight directly below the handle. “A kettlebell’s center of mass is approximately 6-8 inches outside your grip and sits directly below the handle, so they have an offset center of mass,” explains Joe Masiello, CSCS, MES Co-founder of Focus Integrated Fitness and Focus Personal Training Institute in New York City, and Byrdie Advisory Board Member. “A dumbbell handle and load is situated over the palm and evenly centered with your hand. A kettlebell’s load rests behind your wrist.”
It doesn’t mean one is necessarily better than the other; instead, you can use both to challenge your muscles in different ways.
What Are the Benefits of Using a Kettlebell?
“Kettlebell exercises combine cardio, strength, and mobility for super effective and efficient workouts,” says Murdock. “Thinking of a kettlebell as a weighted pendulum, with a constantly shifting center of gravity, is key to maximizing their impact.“
Both Murdock and Masiello say that while you can use both kettlebells and dumbbells to do many of the same exercises, a kettlebell’s unbalanced weight makes certain movements harder because your body has to work to stabilize the weight. Kettlebell exercises are often used for more ballistic movements, where you accelerate the weight quickly (think of clean, swings, and snatches).
“When kettlebells are used to train heavy and fast, you activate type two (fast-twitch) muscle fibers,” adds Masiello. “These are the muscle fibers that provide you with short bursts of speed and strength. Fast muscular contractions over a prolonged period of time are also useful for conditioning and burning calories.”
Because of their shape, Masiello says that kettlebells allow you to move or “flow” easily from one exercise to the next, making them a great tool to use for total body conditioning.
How Much Weight Should You Start With?
Murdock and Masiello suggest women start with 8kg (or 18lb) kettlebells, and Masiello suggests men start with 16 kg or 33 lb ones. Murdock also notes that kettlebells generally come in kilograms and not pounds (1 kg lb is 2.2 lbs), so make sure to pay attention to the numbers. She also says if you’re doing regular strength training, you can probably start with a 12 kg (26 lbs) or 16 kg (35 lbs) kettlebell, and you can go up in weight as your strength increases.
How to Make Sure You're Lifting Correctly
Like with any exercise or strength training, proper form is important for maximizing effectiveness and preventing injury. For exercises with resistance like kettlebells, Masiello emphasizes that the most important thing is to be mindful of your body position at all times. Other things to keep in mind include:
- Watch your wrists: “The rack position is the typical starting position for any kettlebell overhead press or finishing position for movements such as the clean. It’s where the weight can rest comfortably without stressing the muscles, and it’s the position from which you can transition to another kettlebell movement.” The weight is in front of your chest in the rack position, but the offset nature of the kettlebell’s position can cause your wrist to excessive extension. “Keep your wrists neutral, knuckles facing the ceiling, and elbow under the weight,” advises Masiello. If you’re experiencing wrist and elbow pain, you’re likely not using proper positioning.
- Use your whole body: Even though you may be tempted to focus on lifting or swinging with your upper body, Murdock says you should also activate your glutes and core to ensure you get a full-body workout. Similar to when your parents nag you about using your legs when carrying something heavy, use your lower body to support the movements while using kettlebells, or you could strain or cause other upper-body injuries. Murdock adds to keep yourself grounded with your feet flat on the floor, and if you’re doing swings, use your hips instead of your arms to drive the weight forward.
- More is not always better: and that goes for both weight and reps. Ensure you choose the right weight for your current abilities; you can always start lighter and increase the weight later or as needed. Also, “focus on the quality of reps, not quantity, as it’s easier to start relying on momentum rather than your own power in a movement,” says Murdock.
- Keep your eyes on the kettlebell: “Your gaze should always follow the bell, so follow its movement rather than looking in a mirror to check form, for example. Following the bell is correct!” says Murdock.
- Maintain control: When swinging a kettlebell, use caution as swinging too fast could lead to an injury like a pulled muscle. Plus, “you don’t want that heavy kettlebell to smash into someone or something around you,” warns Murdock.
If you’re ready to give kettlebells a try, here, Murdock and Masiello suggest a few exercises to help you get into the swing of things.
Reverse Lunge to Press
- Grab a lighter kettlebell and place it in a racked position (over your wrist and at your shoulder).
- Stand with your feet hip-width apart.
- Step back with the leg on the side, not holding the kettlebell into a reverse lunge with both knees bent at 90 degrees.
- Step back to your starting position, and press the kettlebell straight overhead with your core engaged.
- Repeat one the same side, switch the kettlebell to your other hand to reverse, always step back with the leg on the side that is not holding the kettlebell.
Lateral Lunge to Row
- Stand with your feet close together with a lighter kettlebell in your left hand.
- Step to the side with the right leg, push your hips back and lower your butt to perform a lateral lunge.
- Bring the kettlebell inside the left foot and slightly across your body. Step your right leg back to stand.
- Then, step back with your left leg, hinge forward at the hips, and place your right forearm on your right thigh.
- Perform one row with your left hand by pulling your elbow back until your hand and the kettlebell is close to your chest.
- Step back up to stand.
- Repeat before switching sides and doing it again.
- Hold kettlebells in the rack position.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart.
- Drop into a quarter squat and explode back to starting position while pressing the kettlebells overhead until your arms are fully extended.
- If you are lifting heavier loads, your heels may slightly come off the ground when you are exploding up, which is okay. It’s a natural extension of the movement, says Masiello.
Kettlebell Front Squat
- Hold a kettlebell(s) in a racked position
- Keep your feet flat on the floor, shoulder-width apart, and maintain your weight over the center of your feet.
- Maintain a neutral spine throughout (avoid bending forward or rounding of the spine)
- Descend into a squat until your thighs are just below parallel (hip crease just below the top of knee)
- Drive your hips up and return to a standing position.
Goblet Clean to Squat
- Using a heavier kettlebell, stand with your feet hip-width apart and the kettlebell between your feet.
- Hinge forward from the hips (keep your back flat) and grab the handle with both hands.
- Driving up through your legs, lift the kettlebell to your chest with power, catching the bottom of the handle with both hands.
- Lower your butt down into a deep squat, pushing your hips back, and holding the kettlebell at your chest.
- Drop the kettlebell back to the ground as your hands shift back to the top of the handle.
Kettlebell Lunge Pass-Through
- Start in a standing tall position while holding the kettlebell in your left hand. Maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
- Step forward with your right foot into a lunge position.
- At the bottom of the lunge (the left knee of your trailing leg should be close to the ground but not touching the ground), pass the kettlebell under your front leg to the opposite hand.
- Press through the ground with the right (front) foot and return to a standing position.
- Repeat, this time passing the kettlebell from your right hand to your left, under your left leg.
Kettlebell Romanian Deadlift
- Grasp the kettlebell by the handle with both hands and stand with feet hip-width apart.
- Initiate the movement by pushing your hips back while hinging forward from the hips. Slowly lower the kettlebell towards the ground.
- Your back should remain neutral and maintain a slight bend in your knees as you hinge forward. Arms should remain straight (elbows extended). This is not a squat, so most of the movement should come from the hips.
- The kettlebell should not move away from your body. Keep it as close to the front of your legs/shins as possible throughout the movement.
- The end range of the movement should be where your hands are just below your knees, depending on your flexibility. If you feel any discomfort, limit the range before that point.
- Reverse the movement by driving the hips forward and returning to a tall standing position with knees fully extended (no bend).
Kettlebell Push Up
- Place the kettlebell with the handle parallel to the top of the mat.
- Come into a plank position with both hands on the kettlebell.
- Engage your core and lower your body down to the kettlebell by bending your elbows.
- Push back up into plank position with your hands on the handle and repeat.
- Modify this by doing it on your knees for a gentler version, or make it harder by doing a push-up with one hand on the kettlebell and the other on the mat.
- Murdocks says you can make the classic kettlebell swing more challenging by swinging one kettlebell while holding another one at your side in your non-working hand.
- Stand with feet shoulder-width apart and hold a kettlebell in your right hand with your arm extended down.
- Place another kettlebell (lighter if needed) in your left hand, with your arm extended at your side.
- Hinge forward at the hips and swing the kettlebell in your right hand between your legs.
- With your glutes engaged, thrust your hips forward as you swing the kettlebell in your right arm up straight in front of you to your chest. Keep your left arm extended at your side the whole time.
- Do 8-10 reps and switch.
Kettlebell Half Getups
- Lie on your back. The kettlebell should be near the shoulder you will start with (right).
- Roll to your right side, grasp the kettlebell handle with both hands.
- With a firm grip on the kettlebell, roll onto your back while keeping the kettlebell close to the armpit of the right shoulder.
- While on your back, press the kettlebell directly over your shoulder. Your arm should be locked out with the kettlebell balanced over your shoulder.
- Sit up by rolling onto the opposite arm, elbow, and forearm while keeping the arm holding the kettlebell straight and the kettlebell balanced over your shoulder. Your feet do not come off the floor.
- You should now be sitting up, with the kettlebell in your right hand balanced over your shoulder, the left hand on the ground, the right leg bent, and the left leg straight.
- Lift your hips into a full bridge position. Hold for a count, then lower.
- Lower your body back to the ground while maintaining a balance of the kettlebell over your shoulder.
- Repeat movement.
- Throughout the movement, push the kettlebell towards the ceiling, keep it balanced over your shoulder and keep your eye on the weight, advises Masiello.
Meigh NJ, Keogh JWL, Schram B, Hing WA. Kettlebell training in clinical practice: a scoping review. BMC Sports Sci Med Rehabil. 2019;11:19. Published 2019 Sep 3. doi:10.1186/s13102-019-0130-z