Something about kettlebells has always been intimidating to me. They look like cannonballs with handles and they’re less intuitive than traditional free weights, so at the gym I’m more inclined to gravitate toward the dumbbells. Bicep curls and shoulder presses I can manage, but I never even know where to begin with the dumbbells’ oddly shaped cousin.
Turns out, they’re pretty versatile. Not only do they lend themselves to traditional weight training exercises like squats and clean-and-thrusts, but kettlebells open the door to a range of momentum-powered moves that center around core strength and overall body sculpting. After taking personal trainer Kathryn Tice’s beginners’ kettlebell class last Thursday evening at Smith Aquatic & Fitness Center, I’m still hobbling around on sore quads and can confirm that yes, in fact, these funny looking little tools will work just about every muscle in your body.
Tice’s class is one of the newest offered at Smith, and for once it was clear that I wasn’t the only newbie. As she demonstrated the first of three sets of moves we’d spend the next hour sweating through, Tice explained the difference between her class and other weightlifting workouts.
“With kettlebells we get both cardiovascular endurance and strength training, so you get a lot more bang for your buck,” Tice said. “You’re using momentum and inertia and all that stuff from physics that you forgot about.”
Having weaseled my way out of high school PE by joining a weightlifting class with the football team and having spent countless hours in the gym during my college crew days, I’m not entirely unfamiliar with the concept of picking up heavy things for fun. But the moves I’m used to doing focus on one or two muscle groups at a time, and involve basic arm and leg movements. So when Tice stood in front of the room and showed me and my six classmates how to grasp the kettlebell with both hands, swing it with straight arms from chest level down through our legs and back up, I was both intrigued and skeptical. It doesn’t exactly look like an exercise move. But after about 15 reps with my 20-pound weight, my arms were shaking and my entire core was burning.
My fellow rookies and I exchanged empathetic looks in the mirror as we tried our hands at swings and windmills for the first time, and we all let out a collective groan when Tice instructed us to drop to the mats for a fourth set of 60-second planks. We stuck to standard planks during the class, but Tice said to expect more advanced moves in her Friday morning class at Carver Recreation Center, like side planks with 20-pound kettlebells in the air. Gulp.
“A lot of core work is unilateral,” Tice said after the class. “But with kettlebells your core has to stabilize you, and keep you from shifting around, more so than free weights.”
Free weights will always have a place in my workout repertoire, and if pure strength and bulk are what you’re after, look no further than dumbbells and barbells. But kettlebell workouts, which Tice said tend to be faster-paced and more focused on power, may be more appealing if your goals are gaining power, burning fat, and building endurance.