If you’ve set foot in a gym recently you’ve likely caught sight of the Russian girya, or kettlebell. Thanks to an uptick in CrossFit-based fitness programs, these ball-shaped weights with their horn-shaped handles have surged in popularity. If you’ve been intimidated to pick one up, you’re not alone. Because kettlebells are often used in full-body exercises that can involve swinging—and thus a quick tweak to the back—it’s especially important to learn the basics before you get started. Once you do, you’ll find they’re easy to use and can accelerate results no matter where you are with your fitness.
Here, Alex Isaly, lead trainer for the popular KettleWorX program, offers some practical “do’s and don’ts” on using these unique weights.
Do select the proper kettlebell weight
“For someone new to kettlebell training I would recommend going with a much lighter kettlebell,” says Isaly. “To get all the benefits of kettlebell training you don’t need to go super heavy. Remember, when using a kettlebell you will be engaging more muscles than you would during traditional weight training. It’s important that you choose a weight that will challenge you, but will also allow you to precisely master each exercise without compromising proper form.”
Don’t slack on your form
The key thing to remember with kettlebell training is that it’s better to use a lighter weight and do the exercise correctly than it is to use a heaver bell. “It is extremely important to maintain proper form and technique when using kettlebells,” stresses Isaly. “This is essential not only to avoid injury, but to make the exercise as efficient as possible, which leads to faster gains.”
Don’t underestimate the workout
You may run six hours a week, surf, do yoga, or ride your bike as much as a pro cyclist does—but even the fittest athletes can still get a great workout in a super short amount time with kettlebells. In one continuous 20-minute session (like the ones offered by KettleWorX), a person can burn 200 calories. They’ll also work muscle groups they didn’t even know they had.
Do prepare to sweat
This workout is no joke. If you’re doing things correctly and challenging yourself, you’ll be sweating up a storm just minutes after swinging your first weight. “By adding kettlebells to your fitness program you will increase your cardiovascular fitness, while at the same time increase your strength and range of motion,” says Isaly. “You will also burn more calories by incorporating more muscles into each movement. It’s great for both athletes and home users.”
Don’t lift the kettlebell like a dumbbell
While dumbbells are usually lifted in a curling motion, kettlebells with their “horn-shaped” handles and weighted bells allow them be swung and moved in multiple directions, increasing your range of motion. According to Isaly, the unique design also keeps the resistance of the weight offset and away from the body, which challenges your muscles to work harder and more effectively. “Kettlebell training is more functional versus the isolated, single-plane movements typical of traditional weight training exercises,” he explains. “Many kettlebell exercises simulate movements that your body performs during normal daily activities, like picking up an object off the ground. These movements activate multiple muscle groups in the arms, legs, and back all at once.”
Do learn the basic moves
According to Isaly, there are three moves that every kettlebell user should master. For cardio, learn the “kettlebell swing” to increase your VO2 max and strengthen your upper and lower back. Master the “Turkish half getup” to engage your entire core area. And for resistance, perfect the “squat with shoulder press.” See below for Isaly’s breakdown of each individual move.
Targeted muscles: Shoulders, legs, glutes, hips, and back—improves cardio
How to do it: Start with your feet spread a bit wider than your hips. Grab the kettlebell with both hands, with your hands towards your body. Drive your hips back, maintaining a slight bend in your knees, without fully squatting. Then drive your hips forward, swinging the kettlebell up to head height. Here, the kettlebell should reach zero gravity. Then pause for a moment and use your shoulders, core, and hips to guide it back down in a fluid motion.
Turkish half getup
Targeted muscles: Abs, arms, back, and legs—engages entire core area
How to do it: Lie on your back with the kettlebell in your right hand. Hold the kettlebell straight up, over your shoulder, towards the ceiling. Bring your right knee to a bent position with your foot flat on the ground (the same knee as the raised hand), and put your opposite arm straight out on the floor, palm up. Use your abs to lift yourself to a sitting position on the floor, keeping your right arm straight, as the kettlebell rises up towards the ceiling. As you lift your upper body, use your left arm for balance. Once you are in the sitting position, continue to lift your torso up towards the ceiling, squeezing your glutes and contracting your abs at the same time. Reverse the movements back to the starting position. Don’t forget to switch sides to balance the exercise.
Squat with shoulder press
Targeted muscles: Shoulders, legs, glutes, arms, back, and core—good for resistance training
How to do it: Hold the kettlebell close to your chest with both hands, keeping your elbows close to your body. Stand up straight. To begin the squat, put your weight in your heels and squat down pushing your hips back until your quads are parallel with the ground. While lowering into the squat, make sure you keep your back straight and your chest up. Stand up strong, flexing your legs and glutes for maximum power. As you move back to a standing position, press the kettlebell straight up towards the ceiling. Keep your core engaged throughout the move.