If you want to tone up before the end of lockdown, there’s one humble bit of fitness kit that studies show can help boost abdominal strength, aerobic capacity as well as increase lower-body strength – especially for beginners.
“Kettlebells have emerged as the lockdown hero of 2020,” says Luke Barnsley, a trainer on the fitness app Fiit. He says they might look “tough” but “underneath that exterior lurks a lifelong tool that can help you with virtually every component of your physical fitness”.
But such is its power to transform (especially now gyms are closed), there has been a national shortage. Over the summer they were totally sold out, and even now they are in demand: John Lewis reported sales increasing by 292 per cent during the first week of November.
Why we all needs weights
The primary reason kettlebells are good for us is because they add in weight training into our home workouts. “Weight training should be a key part of anyone’s training schedule,” Jane Hart, co-founder of Get Me Fit, the fitness instructors platform, confirms. “Not only for the obvious improvement in your muscle strength, calorie burning and metabolic rate, but weight training is also essential for maintaining good bone density. As we age our bone density reduces, so building a regular weight training session is essential to counteract this part of the ageing process.” Multiple studies have shown that midlifers and older adults who lift weights also have better mobility, mental sharpness and metabolic health.
Why kettlebells work you so hard
But kettlebells trump other weights, such as dumbbells, because of their handle, meaning you can swing them. “A major advantage is that most kettlebell exercises tend to make the body move in multiple planes of movement,” Dr Richard Blagrove, Lecturer in Physiology at Loughborough University, explains. “Because exercises usually involve gripping the kettlebell with one hand, so muscles in the trunk and upper limb need to work harder to maintain posture and control movement patterns, compared to training with a barbell that weighs the same.”
Many personal trainers recommend their clients buy a kettlebell as an essential bit of kit. “Because of the shape of a kettlebell (most of the load is positioned below the handle so the end of the lever arm is heavier), they can be used for swinging type exercises, such as the kettlebell swing, that are ‘ballistic’ and explosive in nature,” Dr Blagrove explains. “These types of exercise develop rapid eccentric (muscle lengthening) control in wide ranges of motion that can contribute towards strength development.”
A study by Wisconsin University found that twice-weekly, hour-long kettlebell classes produced a 70 per cent boost in abdominal core strength, and also a marked increase in the aerobic capacity of participants. Meanwhile a trial in The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research found that beginners trying out a kettlebell swing improved lower-body strength by 10 per cent and power by 20 per cent after five weeks.
He adds that even if strength is not your primary goal, kettlebells can help with cardio goals, too. “Light to moderate weight kettlebells can provide a useful means of overloading some basic exercises beyond simply using bodyweight.”
As personal trainer Caroline Bragg says: “You can be very creative with kettlebells and that allows the workouts to be fun and effective in a relatively short space of time.”
Moves for beginners
Hart recommends three basic moves for beginners. “Kettlebell swings are always a favourite because they combine resistance and cardio in one movement,” she says. “Place your feet a little wider than shoulder width apart and your kettlebell between your feet. Grip the top of the handle with both hands, then push your hips back and bend your knees. Your starting position is with your arms reaching back between your legs, then thrust your hips forward until your hands and kettlebell reach chest height in a powerful explosive movement. Swing back between legs to the start position then repeat. For beginners aim for three sets of 10-15 reps.”
Next up is a goblet squat – essentially hugging a kettlebell as you squat. “Start holding either side of the kettlebell handle at chest height, a few inches in front of your chest,” Hart says. “Keeping your feet hip width apart, engage your core, bend your knees and lower down as far as you comfortably can, keeping your body tall and back straight. Then, pushing through your heels power back up to standing. Repeat these reps 10-15 times for three sets.”
Finally, try a kettlebell row to work back muscles. “Start with a light weight for this one,” Hart says. “Take a big step forward with your left leg, as if you are lunging, then lean your left elbow on your bent leg for support. Keeping your core engaged, hips square to the front and your back straight, lean forward, lift back the kettlebell in your right bent arm, pull back and squeeze your shoulder blades. Lower your arm back in a controlled movement to the start position and repeat 10-15 times. Repeat on the opposite side. Repeat a full set 2-3 times.”