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What is a kettlebell? How to use the weight-training tool to get a full-body workout

Are kettlebells more effective than dumbbells? It depends what your goals are. Here's everything you need to know.
The unique shape of a kettlebell is one of the reasons why it's so effective.Today Illustration / Getty Images

Whether you exercise at a gym or have stocked up on some fitness equipment to get your workout in at home, there's a good chance you've come across kettlebells. They are fairly commonplace in most gyms and boutique fitness studios — and make for an accessible and highly effective workout at home, too.

But many people shy away from kettlebells. If you've never picked one up before, they can be intimidating. And since people tend to be more familiar with dumbbells, they stick with what they know. But it's worth taking the time to give them a try: Kettlebells allow you to get a cardio and strength workout at the same time, torching calories and cutting down on your workout time.

If you do an online search for kettlebells (or scan the weight rack at the gym), you'll see that they go from 2 pounds all the way up to 100 pounds or more. When I first added one to my own home gym, I ordered a 5-pounder because I wanted to start slow as a beginner. This is the weight I would recommend if you’re just starting out, too. Considering adding a kettlebell to your online cart? Here's what you need to know:

What is a kettlebell?

Kettlebells look like a cannonball with a handle, or a ball with a flat base connected to a handle, and are typically made of cast iron or cast steel. The unique shape of a kettlebell is one of the reasons why it's so effective. They have an odd center of gravity that requires you to recruit your stabilizing muscles to do traditional exercise moves.

They’re a great piece of workout equipment to use to burn a lot of calories in a short amount of time. One study found that during a twenty-minute kettlebell workout, participants were burning about 20 calories a minute. (That's like running a six-minute mile.) Which means you can slash the length of your workout and get in a solid sweat in less time.

They’re easy to use at home because you only need one for an effective workout. You can hide it behind your couch, under your bed or tuck it in the corner of a closet.

How to use a kettlebell

Kettlebells are a great investment for your home gym because they give you a lot of bang for your buck. Not only are they a strength-training tool, but they also allow you to get in a cardiovascular workout while you're at it. The cardio comes from the swinging motion you can perform with the weight. It's important to note that they can be stressful on the joints though, so they’re not intended to be used for high repetitions.

You don’t need a lot of space to exercise with a kettlebell. Many of the workout moves allow you to be stationary on a mat or in a small section of your home that allows for movements like swings, squats and overhead presses while lunging.

A quick Google search will turn up dozens of exercises that you can perform using a kettlebell. One of my favorites is the kettle bell swing. Start in a wide-leg squat, holding the kettlebell in both hands, hanging down in front of you. As you squeeze your glutes and straighten both legs to stand, use the momentum to swing the kettlebell out in front of you. Keep your arms straight and stop when the kettlebell reaches shoulder height. Return back to the starting position. Perform 10-15 swings. With this simple exercise, you're working your entire backside and core, while also getting your heart rate up.

Kettlebells vs. dumbbells

So you may be wondering, what's more effective: dumbbells or kettlebells? The answer really comes down to user preference. Kettlebells do provide a better cardio workout because of the swinging action and extra movement involved in the exercises. (But it is possible to mimic many kettlebell exercises using a traditional dumbbell if that's what you have available). Kettlebell exercises also activate all of the muscles in the back of the body in a way that dumbbells do not. Plus, since the weight isn’t balanced like a dumbbell, your body needs to work harder to stabilize your core because the center of gravity constantly changes.

Bottom line: If you are looking to increase your muscle mass or strength, go for dumbbells. But if you’re looking to improve your endurance and get your heart rate up, give kettlebells a try.

More fitness questions — answered!