Smaller than the average house cat, a kettlebell is heavy enough to add challenge and variations to your home workout routines. Credit: Julia Bayly / BDN

When it comes to getting the most out of a piece of exercise equipment, it’s hard to beat a kettlebell. Using kettlebells can improve overall strength, core power, balance, flexibility and coordination.

They can easily be incorporated into your own home workout routines. Because they come in a variety of weights, there is likely a kettlebell to suit your fitness level.

Kettlebell workouts often involve common movements like squats, lunges and lifts. Adding the kettlebell gives a bit more challenge to a specific exercise and targets different muscle groups. Here’s what you need to know to incorporate them into your home exercise routine.

What is a kettlebell?

A kettlebell is a rounded weight made of cast iron with a flat bottom and a thick handle on top. They come in a range of weights from 1-pound up to 100 pounds. Kettlebells are a type of free weight — weights that are not connected to a larger piece of equipment. With free weights, there is no limit to your range of motion. Kettlebells are especially good for building up endurance and power.

They’ve been around for centuries. Back in the early 1700s Russian farmers were using round, counterweights to measure their grain at market. At some point, farmers figured out the heavy weights could be lifted and thrown for fun. Pretty soon those early kettlebells — called “giros” in Russia — became central to farming festival competitions.

Full body, cardio workout

Kettlebell exercises target just about every area of fitness — endurance, strength, balance, agility and cardio.

Kettlebell exercises are often called ballistic exercises. They use quick motions to increase the heart rate and target multiple muscles in your body. Using the kettlebell adds intensity to a ballistic exercise.

“The moves are pretty dynamic,” said Joshua Dyer, certified personal trainer in Bangor. “You can do things like swings, squats or deadlifts to get a full body workout.”

A matter of gravity

While the kettlebells may look like an unassuming, ordinary weight, its U-shaped handle changes how the kettlebell works with your body. That’s because the center of gravity with a kettlebell is outside of and away from your hand. It changes depending on how you hold and move it.

“When you are changing the center of gravity you are using your stabilizer muscles to keep balance,” Dyer said. “You are also using those muscles to keep your form.”

Buying kettlebells

When shopping for your kettlebells, pay attention to the handle. You want it thin enough so you can wrap your fingers all the way around it for a good grip. There should be enough space between the handle and the body of the kettlebell so your fingers fit. The handle itself should be wide enough so you can hold it with both hands. There should be no sharp edges on that handle.

Some kettlebells have handles that are coated in plastic and you should avoid those. Sweat from your palms can make that plastic slippery and difficult to hold on to.

“Most people start with kettlebells between 10 and 25 pounds,” Dyer said. “Then you can buy bigger ones when those start feeling easy and good.”

Plan on spending between $25 and $200 for an individual kettlebell, depending on weight. They are available in the athletic or exercise departments at most large department stores and online.

What can you do with a kettlebell?

Kettlebells are perfect for incorporating into squats so you get a combined leg and warm workout.

In what’s called the goblet squat, stand with your feet shoulder width apart. Hold a single kettlebell with both hands by the “horns” — where the handle meets the base. Hold it close to your chest with your elbows pointing down and go into a squat until your elbows just touch your knees and then return to a standing position.

For a different squat, stand with your feet wider than shoulder width apart. Hold the kettlebell by the middle of the handle with both hands at chest level. Lower yourself into a squat as low as your range of motion allows while keeping your back straight and chest up. Return to a standing position.

Give your arms a workout with a single-arm row. Put the kettlebell in front of your feet and take a big step backward with your left leg. Grab the kettlebell with your left hand while resting your right arm on your right knee. You will be slightly bent over at the waste. Then pull the kettlebell up to hip-level and lower it just before it touches the floor and your arm is fully extended. Repeat on the right side. Make sure to keep your back straight the entire time.

To work the triceps, grab the kettlebell with both hands and take a small step forward with your right leg so your feet are slightly staggered. Raise the kettlebell directly over your head with both arms extended. Keeping your elbows close to your ears, lower the kettlebell behind your head until your hands are in line with your elbows. Raise the kettlebell back overhead, extending your arms.

Another good arm exercise is to grab the kettlebell with one hand and bring it to shoulder height. Then press it upward until your arm is fully extended. Slowly lower the kettlebell back to shoulder height.

For that full body workout, try the kettlebell swing. Stand up straight with your feet slightly wider than shoulder width apart. Hold the kettlebell with both hands with your arms in front of your body and palms facing toward you. Bend your knees slightly and push your hips back and then “explode” forward at the hips as you swing the kettlebell outward with straight arms until it is level with your shoulders. Then bring it back down in a controlled arc. You will engage your arm, glute, leg and core muscles in this exercise.

How much is enough?

Dyer recommends a 30 minute session with a kettlebell and suggests alternating between leg days and arm days. That way your upper and lower body have time to recover before working out again.

“If you can do 30 minutes a day and can do that a few times a week you are really going to feel it,” Dyer said. “You will get quite a bit of cardio plus the strength training.”

How effective is a kettlebell? According to the American Council on Exercise, after eight weeks of kettlebell exercises, subjects in a study saw a significant improvement in endurance, balance and core strength. The study found the greatest improvement was in the core where strength increased by 70 percent.

It looks like those Russian farmers were on to something.

Julia Bayly

Julia Bayly is a reporter at the Bangor Daily News with a regular bi-weekly column. Julia has been a freelance travel writer/photographer since 2000.