Leg Day Observer

The one piece of equipment you need to achieve strength, cardio, and health

Kettlebells are a deceptively simple way to get fit.

Originally Published: 
CrossFit athlete Rick Loomis performs a Russian Kettlebell swing.
Al Bello/Getty Images

Lift long or well enough and eventually, someone will offer you a kettlebell to swing.

An old piece of equipment that’s new to some gyms, the bulb-shaped weights have been touted, since their re-introduction to the wider world of fitness a few decades ago, as a singular solution to strength, cardio, and health. Seemingly Russian in origin, kettlebells sit at the junction of muscle power and aerobic capacity.

They’re not so much mysterious as they are an overchoice: How, exactly, do we make the most of them? What weight is best? What are the exercises?

Meet the kettlebell — Kettlebells differ from dumbbells since their center of mass is held at one end, about half an inch from the handle. This allows them, when swung, to act as an extension of the body. That lopsided center of gravity makes kettlebells perfect for ballistic — aka very fast — movements, since they can non-awkwardly travel several planes. (Try to swing a dumbbell up and forward and see what happens. Actually, don’t.) This is the difference: most weights don’t get moved very quickly.

Often referred to as descending from Russian girya weights, kettlebells were used by strongmen there in the 18th century, and there’s also evidence of similar arm weights used earlier in other societies. The haltere of ancient Greece — basically rocks with handles cut out — are the best and oldest examples.

Kettlebells shaped as Russian President Vladimir Putin's head.

Anton Novoderezhkin\TASS via Getty Images

But while kettlebells are the oldest weights at a gym and have been consistently popular in Russia, they’ve only recently become a hit here. This recent domestic resurgence is due mostly to Pavel Tsatsouline, a Minsk native and self-proclaimed former Russian special forces instructor who wrote a series of prominent articles and books on kettlebell training in the late 90s and 2000s that were gobbled up by coaches and trainers.

What kettlebell to use and why

As befitting a Soviet staple, kettlebells are cheap: once you have one, the workouts are basically free. Prices went up during the pandemic, but have fallen back to normal now that there’s no longer a run on the stock. Gym outfitters like Rogue used to be the best bet for a good one, but big-box retailers like Target have plenty of variety, and you can even buy kettlebells on eBay.

The consensus advice from kettlebell trainers is to get a heavy-weight kettlebell. A representative article and handy, if strangely-worded chart, can be found here. Having two kettlebells is ideal and allows for more exercises, but lifters can get by with one for a while.

An ice swimmer lifts a kettlebell near the Siberian city of Novosibirsk.

Kirill Kukhmar\TASS via Getty Images

The recommendations —men should swing a minimum of 35 lbs. and women and minimum of 18 lbs. — are helpful, but skew fairly heavy, since most people who write about kettlebells with authority are doing so for an adapted — aka strong — audience. Lifters should use a weight that feels heavy but which isn’t so heavy that they have to stop after only a few reps. Volume is an important part of kettlebell training.

A kettlebell can be used for both ballistic and slow movements. On slow movements, sometimes called grinders, the weight is pretty traditional: it’ll get held like a goblet on squats, or by one arm, to the side, on a static marches. There is also a litany of barbell-type movements: there may be hundreds of kettlebell exercises.

The list of ballistic lifts and those that approximate Olympic weightlifting movements is a long one, and grows if a lifter has a pair of kettlebells they can work with. But generally, kettlebell training is a short-hand for two exercises, the get-up and the swing.

Two ways to use kettlebells for exercise

A get-up, often called the Turkish get-up, is an exercise where a lifter begins lying down with a kettlebell raised above them in one hand. With the weight held in place, the lifter, in a series of steps, goes from lying to seated, then to a glute bridge, then to a sort of kneel, then to a lunge, then standing upright.

Done correctly, it’s a full-body exercise that targets:

  • Shoulders
  • The core
  • Back muscles
  • Glutes

The range of movement and balance required builds up proprioception, strength, and mobility. It’s tough to do right. Lifters can work up to a get-up by starting off with a shoe — really — and then move to a light kettlebell, and then to the standard recommendation. A lifter who can do get-ups with a 50 lb. kettlebell is doing all right.

CrossFit athlete Rick Loomis performs a Russian Kettlebell swing.

Al Bello/Getty Images

Kettlebell swings are the trademark exercise. For these, a lifter starts off with the weight held in front of their hips, then, with a hip hinge, swings the weight back and then forward, like a pendulum. The weight goes up in the air as if being thrown. Then it floats and comes down.

There are variants — one-arm and two — and disagreements over how high the weight should be thrown. In each case the lifter hinges back at the hips and planks at the top, squeezing their glutes and their quads. When done right, the swing doesn’t look like a squat: the hamstrings and glutes take all the weight, and the legs and back drive the way up.

Time under tension strengthens core and lat muscles, and banging out repetitions can improve both grip and conditioning. Swings just about do it all. Some powerlifters and sprinters train kettlebells swings to improve their speed and explosivity. Regular folks can use them to get stronger and faster.

Much of the exercise’s value comes from the hinge. Dr. Stuart McGill, an expert on spine biomechanics and a professor emeritus at the University of Waterloo, tells Inverse he prescribes hinging as a way to “build pain-free capacity,” and help people in pain return to the weight room. Hinging forward to bend down — as opposed to folding over — avoids stress on the spine, McGill explains, and is a more natural expression of its natural curvature.

Adding swings to daily reminders to hinge is not automatic — more work is involved when a movement is loaded. But kettlebell work is helpful enough that McGill is a fan. Rehabbing lifters can work with light kettlebells to start as they build up new patterns. This video is a handy resource for form.

What is the best kettlebell program?

There are fewer kettlebell-specific programs than barbell-based powerlifting programs. Kettlebell work is a little more casual than loading up a barbell with weights: do enough swings and get-ups, and you’ll get a pretty good workout. Since kettlebells are so compact and can be picked up any time, lifters can just use them casually and get a bit of a stimulus.

But lifters who want results should approach kettlebell work like barbell training, in the sense that for both, load and volume are key, as is having a good program. Swings should be done right, and regularly. Tsatsouline’s Simple and Sinister program is the default: it’s very well designed and is deceptively simple. Lifters do 100 swings, and five get-ups per arm, a few times a week. Many stick with it for years.

A man performs squats while holding a kettlebell.

Brent Lewis/The Denver Post via Getty Images

Trainer Dan John’s 10,000 swing program is a bit more demanding — and optimistic. John, a prominent trainer and excellent authority on all things fitness, thought up an even more simple and punishing program a few years ago: swing a kettlebell 500 times a day, five times a week, for a month.

John prescribes reaching the magic Malcolm Gladwell number through an “undulating cluster” of 100 swings — 10 swings, then 15, then 25, then 50 — with a 53 or 35 lb. kB. The workouts are brutal but worth it. In addition to building up strength and athleticism, they’ll probably fix your posture. A revised program from last year allows for a bit more variety, and lower weights.

In a sense, John’s program is a graduate-level approach to the swing and shows how transformative a single movement can be. Advanced lifters who want some variety will find high-volume swings as demanding as barbell work. Those who want to stick with their programs can still get their kettlebell fix. Jim Wendler’s timeless 5-3-1 powerlifting program recommends regular swings to help lifters get bigger and better-conditioned.

Which is wild — everyone loves them. But it makes sense. Kettlebells are straightforward, not very expensive, and do just about everything. Swinging one the right way is fun and addicting. One kettlebell and two exercises are all most people need to get in serious shape. And when you get stronger, you just push up the weight.

LEG DAY OBSERVER is an exploratory look at fitness, the companion to GQ.com’s Snake America vintage column, and a home for all things Leg Day. Due to the complicated nature of the human body, these columns are meant to be taken as introductory prompts for further research and not as directives. Read past editions of Leg Day Observer for more thoughtful approaches to lifting and eating.

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