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Kettlebells for More Fat Loss

Kettlebells are one of my favorite tools for torching fat. After this article, they may be yours, too!

Kettlebells for More Fat Loss

Kettlebell training has made a real comeback in the last few years. Although it may seem like a new and trendy weight-training device, they have a long history dating back several hundreds of years in Russia.

Kettlebells resemble cannonballs with a handle attached to them. They were originally used in Russia as handled counterweights to weigh out dry goods on market scales. Soon people started showing off by lifting them and throwing them around for entertainment and they eventually were put to use for weight lifting. They were used by Russian athletes and military for training and in 1948, they became the Soviet Union's national sport.

One exercise in particular—the Kettlebell Swing—has become one of my favorite exercises to do for cardio. You should know by now that that when I say cardio, I am referring to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) style cardio. Because it is essentially a full body exercise, mainly involving the lower body, but also obviously involving the upper body to some degree it's great to burn up body fat. As you'll see below, several studies support this claim.

Since the kettlebell swing requires somewhat of an explosive movement from the hips and knees, it is particularly good for Power HIIT. It's also great for cardioacceleration—especially since you can drag it with you to any station in the gym and do the swing with very little room. That's right.  Do a set of bench presses and then bang out 60-90 seconds of kettlebell swings instead of sitting around with your glutes parked on the bench between sets.

How to Do the Kettlebell Swing

It's a simple exercise to do when you know how to do it correctly. Stand with a shoulder-width stance while holding a kettle between your legs with both hands using an overhand grip. Keeping your back flat and your head up, squat down allowing the kettlebell to lower between your legs. Immediately drive your heels through the floor to explosively extend at the hips and knees to stand upright as the kettlebell swings in front of you to about face height. Once the kettlebell reaches its max height, control it back down as you go right into the squat position again and then reverse the direction to extend back up swinging the kettlebell up. Continue swinging in this manner until the time period is up.

Note that the momentum is NOT generated by the arms. The hands simply hold on to the kettlebell so that the arms can control its path. The arms don't do much other than go along for the ride. The momentum should be generated by the explosive extensions of the hips and knees, which is performed by the hamstrings, glutes, and quads. Think of really pushing your pelvis forward as you extend up. This will drive the kettlebell forward and the arms will keep it moving in an arc.

I suggest you start out light and as you get more comfortable with the swing and it becomes easy to do, gradually increase the weight.

To see the kettlebell swing in action, watch the video below:

Kettlebell Swings Are Great for Fat Loss

Although I'd never tell you to replace your entire gym of barbells, dumbbells, and resistance machines with just kettlebells—as some fitness "experts" have—I am telling you that incorporating kettlebells into your current training regimen can be beneficial. Two studies from Truman State University show that the kettlebell exercise is fairly comparable to running for cardio.

The first study was published in a 2010 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. They reported that kettlebell swings raised heart rate up to over 85% of their max heart rate. That's comparable to a good run! 

Their next study was presented at the 2011 Annual Meeting of the National Strength and Conditioning Association. This time they actually put the kettlebell swing and running on a treadmill head to head. They found that heart rate increased similarly when the subjects did the kettlebell swing or ran on the treadmill. They did report, however, that treadmill running increased calorie burn a bit more than the kettlebell swing did.

Jim's Take-Home Message

Kettlebell swings appear to make a good alternative to running, either on a treadmill or outdoors. Although the study showed that running burns slightly more calories, this fact has little impact on the effectiveness of the kettlebell swing for burning off body fat. That's because the kettlebell swing involves weight, which means that it will keep calorie burn higher for longer after the workout is over than running will. Remember, this is one of the main reasons why HIIT (high-intensity interval training) works better than steady state. It's because you burn up more body fat in the many hours that you are not working out as compared to the hour or so that you work out. Plus, I recommend that you do kettlebell swings HIIT style.

Are Kettlebells Good for Building Strength?

While I may use kettlebells for one or two specific exercises, there are kettlebell proponents who are so enamored with kettlebells that that's the ONLY lifting that they do. There are even a few strength coaches that only prescribe kettlebell training to their athletes. They actually claim that it trumps freeweight training with traditional dumbbells and barbells. While kettlebells do offer unique exercises that can be done with them, the belief that they are better than barbells and dumbbells is a bit extreme, and recent research from California State University, Fullerton shows why.

The Cal State researchers had weight-trained subjects follow a 6-week strength training program using either just kettlebell exercises or barbell exercises. The kettlebell group used a 35-pound kettlebell to do a periodized kettlebell workout routine that included kettlebell swings, accelerated swings, and goblet squats. The barbell group followed a periodized routine using 80% of their 1 rep max on each exercise for the high pull, power clean and squat. These exercises were chosen to best match the exercises for each group.

They reported in a 2012 issue of the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research that the group using typical free-weight barbells increased their strength significantly more than the group using kettlebells.

For squats, the barbell group increased their one-rep max by almost 15%, while the kettlebell group increased their squat strength by less than 5%. The barbell group also increased their power clean strength by 10% and their vertical jump height by 4%, while the kettlebell group increased their numbers by only 4% and 1% respectively, however, these differences were not statistically significant.

Jim's Take-Home Message

This study shows that typical free-weight training leads to better improvements in strength and power than kettlebell training. Some kettlebell proponents have complained that the study was limited because the subjects stuck to just using a 35-pound kettlebell for all 6 weeks. However, the barbell group also stuck to 80% of their one-rep max for all six weeks. Plus, that is the very problem with kettlebells, you are limited to the amount of weight that you can use, as well as the variety of weights that are available in kettlebells. If you want to increase your muscle strength and power then you need to use equipment that allows you to load on the maximum amount of weight, and allows you to make small adjustments in weight used without limitations.

Of course, kettlebells also have a place in a strength-training program, alongside barbells, dumbbells, cables, machines, bands, suspension training, etc.

The real key to making the best progress is to not limit the tools you use to just one type, such as a kettlebell, or even a barbell. That would be similar to a carpenter using only a hammer to build a house. While the hammer is great for banging nails in place, it sucks for cutting wood. Use as many tools as possible for the best results. Use kettlebells for variety especially on explosive exercises, such as snatches and cleans, or when combining weights with cardio, such as with kettlebell swings.


Hulsey, J. L., et al. Comparison of kettlebell swings and treadmill running at equivalent RPE values. Annual Meeting of the National Strength and Conditioning Association, 2011.

Farra, R. E., et al. Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research 24(4):1034-1036, 2010.

Otto, W. H., et al. Effects of Weightlifting vs. Kettlebell Training on Vertical Jump, Strength, and Body Composition. J Strength Cond Res., in press, 2012.

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