The One Tool At The Gym You’re Definitely Using Wrong (And How To Fix That!)

The One Tool At The Gym You’re Definitely Using Wrong (And How To Fix That!) Hero Image
Photo: Courtesy of Dasha Libin

By now we have all heard of kettlebells (not kettle-balls), and by now most likely you have heard about the awesome health benefits of using them. One of the first studies from the American Council on Exercise showed that a kettlebell workout can burn up to 300 calories in under 20 minutes! Since then, other research has shown the strength, power, alignment, and weight-loss benefits of these amazing tools. But despite the weights’ amazing accessibility (you can find a kettlebell in almost any gym), people are still misusing them, misunderstanding their unique characteristics, and not using them for all they’re worth.

Here’s the truth: Much like yoga, Pilates, and boxing, kettlebells are an art form. Kettlebells have flows, sequences, single exercises, and combinations. They have a distinct breathing and building structure. There is a mind-body connection when you use the weight correctly; in fact, working out with kettlebells is a form of meditation.

What’s more, kettlebell workouts can be tailored toward performance enhancement (improving your skills in a specific sport), and they fortify and balance your body, shoring you up against injuries. Plus, kettlebells are fun!

Why People Need Kettlebells Today

In the early 1900s, people worldwide were active between six and ten hours a day. Today, most of us make our livings with our minds instead of our bodies. We drive to work, we drive to run errands, and we often drive to our weekend outings. We sit all day at work, and we also commonly entertain ourselves by sitting (in front of a TV, laptop, tablet … you get the idea). It seems natural, but it’s not. Our bodies are designed to move. In truth, the more we stay static, the more we are hurting ourselves, becoming sedentary, weak, out-of-shape, uncoordinated, and overweight.

Our bodies are made to move. To push, pull, crawl, walk, jump, squat, hinge, throw, turn, twist, stretch, kick, run, hop, and roll. But when was the last time you did any of those things? A survey by the Institute for Medicine and Public Health revealed that adults spend an average of 55 hours a week sitting in a chair, whether they’re watching television, using a computer or tablet, driving, or reading.

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Worse still, women are often more sedentary than men because they tend to hold less physically active jobs than men do. It’s also common for women to spend less of their leisure time playing sports, especially when they get older. Having said that, to succeed, you need an approach that’s built around the modern lifestyle; you also need a results-proven approach, one that works with time constraints and your individual needs. The moral of the story here is simple: For all of the reasons I just mentioned and for all of your own personal goals, you have no right not to train your body. You have no right not to move your body and explore all of its amazing potential.

That’s why I love kettlebells so much. According to a 2010 American Council of Exercise study, 20 minutes of kettlebell exercise can burn up to 272 calories. That’s expending a phenomenal 20.2 calories per minute, the equivalent of running a six-minute mile.

It’s simple; kettlebell exercises burn more calories in less time compared to traditional workout regimens. One of the reasons is that training with a kettlebell requires you to engage multiple muscle groups at once. Kettlebells are also key for ballistic motions, swinging moves that are higher-intensity than regular weightlifting movements. In short, a kettlebell workout can produce the same feeling as sprinting or jumping, but with far less impact on the joints.

One more reason I love kbs so much: They straddle the line between strength-training and cardio and give you the benefits of both at once. The term cardio is often interchangeable with aerobic exercise, generally a steady-state, low-to-intermediate-intensity exercise regimen that uses fat as its energy fuel—which is a quicker-burning fuel than carbs. Think jogging, fast walking, hiking, using an elliptical machine, or taking a slower-paced aerobics class. While this form of exercise begins to use mostly fat as fuel approximately 25 minutes into the workout, it has little effect on fat-burning as soon as you finish exercising.

In contrast with cardio, strength training, or anaerobic exercise, a kettlebell workout has an incredible metabolic effect on the body immediately after the session is complete and for up to 28 hours afterward. Kettlebells also help your body build up lean muscle; this muscle starts to eat away at the fat because muscle tissue is more metabolically active and therefore requires more energy (calories) to live. Basically, when you have lean muscle tissue, your body burns more energy, or calories, throughout the day—it’s a wonderful by-product of kettlebell exercises.

Sadly, most people—even trainers!—don’t know how to use kettlebells correctly. If you see someone squatting at the knees during a kettlebell swing, and he’s going into a slight backbend at the top of the swing, he’s executing the motion incorrectly. That’s why mastering the biomechanics of the art form is so important. Kettlebells are a great tool for helping you focus on and stay present through your workout. A kettlebell routine can serve as your daily meditation. The first step is mastering the standard swing. Here’s a step-by-step breakdown of the first move every kettlebell fan must master.

  1. With both hands, pick up the kettlebell by the handle and sit back in a hinge (not a squat!), bending first and more deeply at the hips than the knees.
  2. From the hinged position, swing the kettlebell back and behind your knees.
  3. Swing the kettlebell up to shoulder level with your arms straight as you thrust your hips forward and raise your torso back into the standing position. Keep your glutes engaged and prevent your shoulders and back from curving into a backbend. Remember that this exercise is for your back body, not your arms; the kettlebell should feel weightless through the entire motion.
  4. Continue without stopping back down into your hinge and repeat steps 1 through 3. Create a nonstop fluid motion of the swing, with the kettlebell going behind the knees and back up to shoulder height.

Remember: All of your swinging motions will come from this form, so practice and try to execute each step as instructed. If you are not following the protocol, you are not doing a kettlebell swing, and you are not getting the benefit. So no squatting or arm lifts; use your hinge and the power generated by your hips as well as the stability of your core—nothing else!


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