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In looks alone, kettlebells seem as dated as the handlebar mustaches worn by the strongmen who tossed them around in sideshow acts of yore. Surely, today’s more modern training tools — barbells, BOSU balls and butt-blasting machines — are an improvement over the crude, awkward design of the kettlebell. That was the prevailing thought for decades, and the implement all but disappeared from the fitness scene.
Yet a funny thing happened on the way to obscurity: Kettlebells made a dramatic comeback, not just as a strength builder but also as a tool for cutting up. Personal trainers now tout today’s sleek colorful kettlebells as a fast route to a tight and toned physique, and plenty of scientific research lends support to the ultimate effectiveness of kettlebell training. For instance, studies conducted at the University of Wisconsin-LaCrosse found that kettlebell training burned up to 20 calories a minute. In addition, subjects saw significant improvements in aerobic capacity (13.8 percent), dynamic balance (7 percent) and core strength (an impressive 70 percent jump).
Oxygen sought out leading kettlebell expert Alex Isaly to construct a killer routine exclusively for our readers. Isaly’s workout is designed for efficiency and intensity, blending kettlebell moves with plyometrics and high-intensity intervals to burn fat and build strength. “Kettlebells break the notion of needing 30 to 60 minutes to achieve a solid full-body workout,” says Isaly, head trainer for KettleWorX, a training system available in gyms nationwide and on DVD. “This routine uses the muscles of the upper and lower body while engaging the abdominals and lower back for stability, making the best use of your limited time, thus training smarter, not longer.”
With nothing more than a light-to-moderately weighted kettlebell (5 to 15 pounds), a floor mat and your mettle, you can burn up to 400 calories and engage all the major muscles of your body in a mere 20 minutes. Do this program two to four times a week or every once in a while as a change-up to your current routine. You’ll see results in just six weeks.
Lateral Lunge and Swing
Ready: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart, abs engaged. Hold the kettlebell handle with both hands, elbows straight.
Set: Step to your left and bend your left knee while keeping your right leg mostly straight. Swing the kettlebell down and through your legs, keeping your back straight and your abs tight.
Go! Push through your heels, drive your hips forward and swing the kettlebell forward and up to shoulder height as you step your left foot back to the start. Continue, alternating sides rhythmically.
Ready: Get into a push-up position with your legs together, your hips in line with your ankles, your abs engaged and your hands just outside shoulder-width apart.
Set: Contract your core to keep your hips from sagging or rising toward the ceiling.
Go! Bring your right knee in toward your chest, then your left, alternating quickly using an even pace as if you’re running in place with your hands on the ground.
Squat, Curl, Press
Ready: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart and grasp the kettlebell with your right hand, holding it alongside your thigh.
Set: Keep your weight in your heels as you squat down, pressing your hips back.
Go! When your quads are parallel to the floor (or as deep as you can go), push through your heels to return to the standing position, simultaneously curling the kettlebell toward your right shoulder. Once standing, press the kettlebell straight up toward the ceiling. Reverse the movement to return to the start and complete one repetition. Do 30 seconds each side.
Ready, Set, Go! Run quickly in place on the balls of your feet, bringing your knees to hip height while driving your arms front to back.
Ready: Hold a kettlebell at your side in your left hand. Stand with your feet slightly wider than hip-width apart and pivot your right toes to the right.
Set: Raise the kettlebell up over your left shoulder with your arm straight and your wrist, elbow and shoulder stacked. Extend your right arm along your side.
Go! Keeping your left arm straight and perpendicular to the floor, slowly bend to the right and reach your right hand toward the ground, keeping your hips square. When you’ve come as low as you can, reverse the motion and rise back to the start. Do 30 seconds on each side.
Ready: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart or slightly wider.
Set: Lower into a shallow squat by bending at the knees and hips.
Go! Jump up vertically as high as possible. Land softly, touching down first on the balls of your feet, then into your heels, then bending your knees and hips, readying for the next rep. Continue, using a steady pace.
Ready: Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Hold the kettlebell in your right hand in front of your right thigh, palm facing rearward.
Set: Squat down as you lower the kettlebell between your legs.
Reach your left hand and grab the kettlebell from your right hand. Stand up and curl the kettlebell toward your left shoulder, keeping your wrist tight and straight. Continue, alternating sides with each squat.
Ready: Stand with your feet together, arms at your sides.
Set: Bend your elbows and raise your fists in front of your shoulders.
Go! Jump your feet apart while simultaneously punching your fists straight up toward the ceiling to full extension. Jump your feet back together and bring your arms down to complete one rep.
As a gym-goer, you’re surely familiar with dumbbells but might be less so with kettlebells. Dumbbells and kettlebells have one main distinction: their distribution of weight. While dumbbells put equal weight on either side of your hand, kettlebells center the weight at one end of the implement. This makes dumbbells easier to handle but, at the same time, less challenging from a balance perspective. A kettlebell may take some getting used to, but it can provide unique angles of resistance not possible with traditional dumbbells. Never picked up a ’bell? Here’s what you need to know:
• You can adjust the difficulty of your workout just by how you hold the kettlebell. To make a move easier, hold the ’bell so it rests on your wrist and is more stable; make it harder by holding the ’bell away from your body, challenging your stabilization.
• Don’t allow the ’bell to rotate in your palm because it will diminish the benefits you get from stabilization. Start with a light kettlebell — 5 to 10 pounds at most — for your first couple of workouts to perfect your form. Never use ’bells heavier than 20 pounds, Alex Isaly says, because going heavier puts you at risk of injury when doing dynamic moves.
• Always engage your core when doing any kettlebell exercise. When you let your midsection relax, your form will likely slip, and that could set you up for injury.