I’d never been in a gym with publicly accessible kettlebells until 2010. That’s when I signed a short-lived membership with Powerhouse Gym, and spent hours at a time on the elliptical trying to burn through several years of aggregated energy-drink sugar weight. It was from this vantage point that I was treated to an unobstructed view of these two European dudes who trained exclusively with kettlebells.
I was taken aback by how jacked they had become while solely training with what I considered to be a glorified water bucket — just with the water replaced by several pounds of iron. “Can I see one of those?” I finally asked one of the guys.
“Sure!” he said, as he handed over his kettlebell.
I inspected the 30-pound kettlebell, shook my head and handed it back to him. “Do you guys do anything besides train with these?” I asked suspiciously.
“Just these,” the man smiled. “You should join us sometime!”
I never did join them, but I did recently drink the Kool-Aid and purchase a Bowflex SelectTech 840 Kettlebell, mostly because I’m an absolute sucker for everything Bowflex releases in their SelectTech series. At this stage of life, I’m looking to optimize my training time, and the kettlebell swing has had borderline miracles attributed to it. Some people have gone so far as to refer to it as the ultimate exercise for both muscle gain and weight loss, along with it being lauded as the exercise you should choose if you were forced to only perform one exercise for the rest of your life.
For decades, I’ve been hearing that title assigned to the barbell squat, but as I’m getting older — and also after having endured a few too many back injuries as the result of squats and deadlifts — I’m highly receptive to proposed alternatives. That’s why I’m about to start swinging in a way that I don’t need to be reluctant to discuss with my family.
Where did the kettlebell even come from?
Mentions of kettlebells in American newspapers are sparse prior to 1950, where they’re usually listed as for-sale items alongside other pieces of exercise equipment, or introduced without further description alongside dumbbells in 1920s laments as to how young women are working out with strength-training equipment as opposed to “better and older methods of hard work.”
In terms of the recent kettlebell craze, its popularity exploded in 2002 and 2003 thanks to Pavel Tsatsouline — a prominent fitness instructor raised in the former Soviet Union — who sprang the full battery of ages-old Russian kettlebell training techniques on the American public. Tsatsouline authored many books explaining his fitness philosophy, and the kettlebell was a centerpiece of several of those published works. Early coverage of Tsatsouline and the kettlebell focused on the ability of kettlebells to replicate the patterns in which people are likely to interact with weight in real-world settings, which better prepares the muscles to deal with objects that are less stable.
What specifically makes kettlebell swings so great?
Let’s start by discussing the performance benefits. A study was conducted to see what the difference in muscle performance was between a group of athletes who performed kettlebell swings (12 sets at 30 seconds apiece, with 30 seconds of rest in between sets) in comparison with a set of athletes who regularly trained by executing four to eight sets of three to six jump squats with loads ranging from 60 percent of their one-rep squat maxes to 0 percent loads, which represent bodyweight jump squats. At the end of the training series, the kettlebell training group experienced a maximum strength increase of around 10 percent, and an explosive strength increase of roughly 20 percent.
These numbers weren’t significantly different from the effects of training with jump squats, indicating that kettlebell swings were an adequate alternative to riskier training methods requiring heavier weights.
Another study examined the muscles worked by kettlebell swings in comparison to other kettlebell movements using electromyography testing, and it found that the kettlebell swing strongly worked all of the muscles of the posterior chain, including the lower back, the glutes, the hamstrings and the rear of the shoulders. A different study further demonstrated how the kettlebell swing was effective at keeping the abdominals and other core muscles engaged throughout the movement.
Does this mean if I do 100 kettlebell swings every day, I’d be super fit like those European dudes from your Powerhouse Gym?
Anecdotally, a gentleman who performed 100 kettlebell swings each day for a month lost 4.5 pounds. But he already possessed quite a bit of muscle mass prior to installing the swings in his training regimen, so it’s difficult to know what to credit the swings with aside from his weight loss.
Realistically, you can complete 100 kettlebell swings in anywhere from two to five minutes depending upon your pacing and how you choose to break up your workout routine. However, a more precise study identified a calories-burned-per-swing average of one calorie per swing. If this holds up, then an average person performing 100 kettlebell swings daily is going to burn an additional 100 calories by performing an exercise that simultaneously develops strength in nearly all of the muscles that reinforce the body.
So will 100 kettlebell swings per day make you fit in a general sense? The answer is, “Probably.” Doing 100 kettlebell swings each day will certainly boost your fitness level well above that of the average person who does nothing at all. But the beauty is, no one is asking you to limit your training to 100 kettlebell swings each day, or even requiring you to do as many as 100 kettlebell swings daily. Basically, you can drop kettlebell swings into your workout at whatever moments you believe them to be the most consequential.
All of which is to say, swing away!