Active Voice: Can Kettlebells Do It All?
By John P. Porcari, Ph.D., FACSM

Active Voice is a column by experts in science, medicine and allied health. The viewpoints expressed do not necessarily reflect positions or policies of ACSM.

John P. Porcari, Ph.D., FACSM, is Professor and Director of the Clinical Exercise Physiology Program in the Department of Exercise and Sport Science at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse. His research centers on assessing new exercise equipment for physical training applications with cardiac patients. He presented research related to this commentary at ACSM’s Annual Meeting and World Congress on Exercise is Medicine™, held in Baltimore in June 2010.

To me, the mention of kettlebell training evokes the vision a singlet-clad, mustachioed weightlifter in a dark gymnasium extending a weight overhead. That vision may not be that far-fetched, as kettlebells are thought to have originated in Russia during the early 1700s. In recent years, they have grown in popularity as part of individual and group fitness classes.

First of all, what is a kettlebell? A kettlebell looks like a cannonball with a hooped handle on the top. They are typically made of cast iron and historically looked rather rudimentary. Nowadays, as their popularity has grown, they come in a variety of colors and often have a plastic coating. Kettlebells range in weight from 5-175 pounds, with the original version weighing 1 Pood (approximately 16 kg or 35 lbs).

Kettlebell training has grown in popularity recently, as individuals search for something different and unique as well as an exercise regimen that addresses many aspects of fitness simultaneously. Advocates of kettlebell training claim that using kettlebells can increase muscular strength and endurance, improve flexibility, promote core stability, improve balance and increase aerobic capacity, all at the same time. Any time a training regimen promises to cure everything but the common cold, my antennae go up. It also suggests that it is time to do a study. So we did.

It seems obvious that using kettlebells can increase muscular strength and endurance. Thus, our study instead focused on the heart rate, oxygen consumption and caloric expenditure responses to a typical kettlebell workout. We found that HR and VO2 values were easily within ACSM guidelines for providing an aerobic training effect, and the number of calories burned was similar to jogging at 6 miles per hour or biking at 15 miles per hour. This is unusual for an activity that is viewed primarily as a weight training regimen. What makes kettlebells unique is the amount of muscle mass involved in the movements. Most movements involve the legs, the core and the upper body, so there is truly a “total body workout.” Additionally, since the weight is typically moved through a wide range of motion, the workout mimics many real-world activities, and should have some functional carryover to everyday tasks.

A word of warning: there is a great deal of technique involved in performing kettlebell training properly. Many movements involve lifting the weight off the floor and/or swinging the weight. Before buying a kettlebell and working out on your own, we recommend that you consult a physician or a certified fitness professional. Proper form is key! The biggest mistake people make is using a weight that is too heavy for them. This makes it impossible to use proper form, which can be dangerous for the back, neck and just about every joint in the body.

Several of my friends do kettlebell training and absolutely love it. They even get their spouses and kids involved. If you are up for something unique and challenging, you may want to give it a try.