It looks remarkably like a cannonball with a handle and dates back to 18th century Russia. Meet the kettlebell. Used consistently over centuries by the Russian military, it’s now shrugged off its iron (literally) curtain image and has reinvented itself as the trendiest new fitness tool going.
Kettlebells chime well with the austere boot camp ethic that has sweated its way through the workout world. Tough, uncompromising and offering apparently miraculous results, it’s no wonder they are flying (well, being lugged off) the shelves.
Celebrities love them and it’s not just macho types like Sylvester Stallone and Matthew McConaughey but the likes of Jennifer Lopez, Penelope Cruz, Jennifer Aniston and Geri Halliwell. Top football clubs Chelsea and Liverpool factor them into their training and physiotherapists use them regularly in rehabilitation.
On the face of it, the kettlebell isn’t terribly impressive. So it’s a bit of cast iron. So what? What’s the difference between swinging a kettlebell around and hefting barbells or free weights?
‘Unlike a dumbbell or barbell, the kettlebell’s centre of mass is offset from the handle,’ explains trainer Jamie Lloyd. ‘This means the weight constantly pulls against your hand and requires not only strength and coordination when exercising with it but also the use of the other muscles through your arms, shoulders plus your core stabiliser muscles. You use around 600 muscles in a workout and exercise your cardio-vascular system too – it’s definitely a total body workout.’
Contrary to first impressions, you don’t have to be super strong to train with kettlebells. The bells (also known as poods) come in different sizes and weights, starting with a positively featherweight 4kg and going right up to a muscle crunching 48kg. Unlike standard weights, which are lifted carefully and slowly, kettlebells are flung around with seemingly gay abandon. You swing them, pump them and pass them from hand to hand. It’s a monster workout and some trainers reckon that an hour of kettlebells will shed a mammoth 1,500 calories (compared with around 300-400 for normal weightlifting or an aerobics class).
‘A kettlebell class will supercharge your fitness and melt your unwanted fat,’ enthuses Lloyd. ‘You’ll bust your belly fat, lose your love handles and feel fantastic, energised and strong. Keep it up for 30 days and you can drop a dress size and improve your confidence no end.’
Inevitably there are some risks involved with kettlebells, as there are with any free weights. But Lloyd insists these can be minimised by having proper instruction. ‘It’s always best to get some proper training when you start out – two or three one-to-one sessions or a workshop will get you off to the right start.’ Once you’ve learned good technique, however, he points out that the training can actually help prevent injuries. ‘Learning to move and lift properly carries over into daily life,’ he says. ‘Your risk of injuring yourself from bending over to pick up something, or playing sport reduces dramatically.’
However Ken Liu, personal trainer and corrective exercise specialist is cautious of over hyping the kettlebell. ‘Don’t get me wrong, I love kettlebells but they won’t replace barbells, bodyweight or a multitude of other forms of training,’ he warns. ‘They should only be part of your training regime.’
He is also sceptical of some of the more florid claims for kettlebells. ‘They won’t turn you into a superhuman. Bullets won’t bounce off you. Flying? Not unless you check your kettlebells in as hand luggage.’
Shame. Even so, if the heavy metal workout can shift my dead weight and give me Penelope Cruz’s body, that would be superhuman enough for me.
Five reasons to swing a kettlebell
1. Toned arms, legs and the handshake from hell.
2. Rock hard abs and trim taut buttocks.
3. Melt fat – you continue to burn calories even after your workout.
4. Core muscle work can help prevent back pain.
5. Their cool tough bootcamp image. Dumbells? Pah!