What is the bell? It is hard to miss! Kettlebells look somewhat like a cannonball with a handle. In essence, bells are simply a weight that you can swing. Both the shape of the bell and the fact that you typically use momentum (versus lifting slowly and with control) means the workout is fundamentally different than when using dumbbells. The momentum required makes the workout both cardiovascular and strength based. The shape of the bell adds an additional stabilization and core challenge, and the exercises require both strength and explosiveness, which means you have to move with power.
Why do I love the bell?
Mostly because it provides that “all over sweaty” feeling that is usually reserved for post cardio while also being a strength workout. Strength is good! Strength will help you have better posture, protect your back, walk with confidence, perform every day activities with ease, improve bone strength, and improve your athletic achievements.
Strength training fuels every other goal, from fat loss to athletic performance. It makes progress more efficient and results easier to maintain. Strength training — in some iteration — should be considered a “non-negotiable” for everyone at every age. (Don’t want to use bells? Use dumbbells. Don’t want to lift alone? Get a trainer or join a class. Don’t want to use weights? Start with body-weight strength exercises like push-ups. Find what works for you!)
Also, I love that the kettlebell provides a simple (but absolutely not easy) way to mix up your routine. Never underestimate the importance of variety; boredom is the kiss of workout death!
Some great kettlebell exercises:
The swing: Start standing with both hands holding one bell, feet slightly wider than hip-distance apart. Chest out. Hinge forward at your hips so the bell moves between your legs — don’t round through your back.
Use the power from your hips, legs, and core — NOT JUST YOUR LOWER BACK — to swing the bell forward and up to shoulder height. (Some kettlebell styles involve swinging overhead. I suggest trying that only once you have mastered this version.)
Control your arms and the bell to swing it back between your legs and up again. The motion is continuous. Your arms stay straight as you move. The motion is a hip hinge. See the description below if you are unsure what a “hinge” is.
Now, swinging is a staple of bell training, but not a necessity. If you are worried about the momentum required (if you have a history of back injuries, etc.) there are multiple killer exercises where the goal is actually to keep the bell stable (i.e., no momentum). These stability-type exercises are great for wrist and core strength.
Sample stability bell exercise
Lunge and shoulder press, bell up: Start in a lunge position with your right leg forward. Hold the bell in your right hand, bell up. (This position is great for wrist strength — a weak link for most of us.) Bend down into the lunge. Engage your front bum muscle to come up from the lunge while simultaneously pressing the bell towards the ceiling. Make sure to keep the bell stable and your wrist straight! Repeat 10 times. Switch sides!
Lunge pass through: Start in a lunge position with your right leg forward and the bell in your right hand and arm straight. Keep your body absolutely still — use core — as you lift the bell to the side (preferably up to shoulder height, but progress up to that). Then, as you lower down into the lunge, pass the bell under your legs and grab it with your left hand. As you stand up from the lunge raise the bell out to the left side. Again, be absolutely still in your torso — don’t shift side to side. Lower and pass to the right hand. Repeat this passing process 10 times. Switch legs.
As with everything, there are pros and cons. Kettlebells are an advanced training tool; exercises are inherently intense, and in the wrong hands kettlebells can be dangerous. If you are curious about the bell, I suggest taking a few one-on-one lessons to learn proper form. This is especially true if you have lower back issues — the swing motion is potentially detrimental. Before attempting the swing, master the basic hip hinge and strengthen your core with staples such as the bird dog. Done correctly, kettlebell exercises offer an intense full-body challenge; done incorrectly they are a recipe for a fitness disaster.
Basic hip hinge: Stand with your feet hip distance apart. Micro bend your knees. Hold a light dumbbell in each hand. Keep your chest out. (To regress the exercise even further, use a dowel rod vs dumbbells.) The angle of your knees should not change as you hinge at your hips to bring your chest forward. DO NOT round your back or bend your knees. The motion is a hinge at your hips. Feel your sit bones widen at the back as you hinge forward. Once at the bottom think about using your entire posterior chain (back of your legs and bum) and your core to pull yourself to standing.
Bird dog: On your hands and knees. place a water bottle or foam roller on your back. Without shifting straighten your opposite arm and leg. Think about using your core to keep your nonmoving limbs stable.
If you are looking for a small piece of equipment to add to your home gym — and you have a base of fitness and are not rehabbing an injury — the bell might be that piece! If you’re bored of your current group exercise class, try one that uses the bell. Many studios have incorporated them into their boot camp and/or sculpt classes.