Kettlebells (or girva, as they are called in Russian) are traditional Russian cast-iron weights that look like a cannonball with a handle. They have become a popular exercise tool in the United States largely because of the enthusiasm and effective marketing by strength and flexibility coach Pavel Tsatsouline and kettlebell lifting record holder Valery Fedorenko.
Though kettlebell lifting competitions are relatively new in the United States, they have historical significance in other parts of the world. Recently, kettlebell training has been “discovered” by U.S. athletes and particularly mixed martial arts fighters.
Kettlebell workouts are designed to increase strength, endurance, agility, and balance. Both the muscle and cardiovascular systems are challenged through dynamic total-body movements. They are used by both men and women.
Commonly asked questions are . . .
What makes kettlebells different than dumbbells or barbells?
All are free-weights used for strength training, muscle building, and all-around fitness. However, since practically any KB exercise can also be executed with a dumbbell, it is reasonable to ask why you should use a kettlebell instead?
The kettlebell shape (remember the “cannonball with a handle” description) makes the weight displacement different from a dumbbell's. The off-center weight of a kettlebell makes it more unwieldy, requiring the use of more stabilizing muscles to control it. By the nature of their design, nearly all kettlebell lifts are compound movements that work the body as a whole, rather than isolating muscles. Common kettlebell lifts also tend to work muscles through a longer range of motion, which improves flexibility.
So while barbells and dumbbells are certainly good free-weights, keep in mind that the unique unwieldiness of kettlebell training is precisely the reason many athletes use them today. When comparing dumbbells to kettlebells, it really comes down to being a matter of personal preference.
Why has kettlebell training become so popular with women?
Many of the most common kettlebell exercises, such as swings, cleans, windmills, and snatches, really work the hips, hamstrings, glutes, and waistline. And when done in higher repetitions they are great cardiovascular exercise. Combined with proper nutrition, KB workouts will burn off fat better than almost anything you can think of. And they are fun to use.
Are they safe?
Get some instruction from a good DVD video or coach/teacher. Kettlebell lifting is somewhat different than lifting other free-weights. I am not aware of any reported serious injuries, but you sure wouldn’t want to bonk yourself on the head or drop one on your foot. Ideally, some sessions with a competent instructor is a good way to go, although I've seen some excellent video instruction, too. Either way, once you know and practice proper form, kettlebells are certainly no riskier than lifting other free weights such as barbells and dumbbells.
Are they appropriate for seniors?
Used properly, all free weights are senior friendly. Good judgment is the key to safe, successful kettlebell training, just as it is with barbells and dumbbells. But always consult with your doctor before starting any exercise/fitness program. Then begin with modest efforts, perfect your form, and gradually work up. If a particular lift or exercise irritates an existing problem area - don't do that exercise. It is really a common sense issue.
What sizes do they come in?
The common kettlebell weights follow:
What weight should a beginner buy?
Most kettlebell exercises can be done with a single bell. Or they can be done with a pair of bells of the same weight. Most people start with a single KB and many continue lifting singles.
Next, you must consider your present strength and fitness level when deciding what weight to start with. A rule of thumb is that handling a kettlebell will be more challenging than a dumbbell of the same weight. Most of the companies selling KBs offer beginner guidelines for what weight(s) to buy. I would rely on their advice.
As your strength grows you can buy a heavier bell and sell the lighter one or keep it for higher repetition work.
Best of all, if you can attend a KB training workshop before you buy, or find a trainer nearby, you can try out different weights at the same time you are receiving some coaching.
What is good kettlebell design?
The Handle should be cast with the bell. Not welded. There shouldn’t be ridges in the handle and the finish should be fairly smooth but not slick. Epoxy finishes look nice but can chip easily. A slightly wider handle gives you more space for two handed drills. And a wider base is good for floor exercises.
I have used both Dragon Door and Troy kettlebells and liked both. It would be unfair for me to comment on brands I have not used. But I will say that some kettlebells I've seen in department and sporting goods stores appeared to be second rate.
Bottom line: Kettlebells are fun and effective! They take up very little storage space, and when combined with some bodyweight exercises and/or resistance-bands. . . well, who needs to pay dues for gym membership?