Fad Fitness: Secrets of the Kettlebells

Wrap-Up: 5 tips you need to know if you plan to get ripped with kettlebells

So this is it. This is the year you’re going to get in shape… and you’re going to use kettlebells to get slender and strong. Nice choice. These little wonder weights combine cardio and strength training into one workout, plus they help you burn fat like nobody’s business. But, there are a few things you should know before you dive in.

After sweating it out with kettlebells for six weeks, I learned a few hard lessons. To ensure that your January 1 fitness resolution is as successful as possible, here are a few things I wish I'd known before I swung that ‘bell for the first time. Hopefully they'll help you, too.

• Go to a pro first.
Kettlebells can be a an amazing fitness tool, if you use them correctly. That’s a bigger “if” than most people assume. A personal trainer will be able to tell you how much weight you should be using, since one of the biggest pitfalls of this fitness craze is using a weight that is too light. (I was guilty of it.) Not only will a small weight impede your results, using a weight that doesn’t stack up can actually hurt you. That’s because when you opt for a unsubstantial weight, you’re not providing proper resistance to the body. Branden Bonk, the head trainer at Punch Kettlebell Gym here in Austin, Tex. explained, “Light weights don’t engage the posterior and abdominal muscles together, which can lead to back pain.”

• Don’t assume “It’s not for me.”
I am a self-proclaimed weakling. When I started this challenge six weeks ago, my upper body strength was laughable, I had the core strength of a 5-year-old and, to top it all off, my entire body was slightly lopsided (I discovered I'm much stronger on my right side than on my left). But that didn’t mean that kettlebell classes weren’t for me. In fact, one of the most striking things about going to group classes at Punch Gym was the variety of people who worked out there. During a particular workout, I was sweating side-by-side with two women who were a few years older than me and had much more upper body strength. While we were taking a water break,  Bonk noted that this diversity speaks to how powerful kettlebells are. “Look around," he said. "This is what's so great about kettlebells. Here are three women who have completely different body types and completely different skill levels but they are all able to get something really valuable out of this workout. Not many other forms of exercise can do that.”

Commit to classes early on.
One of my issues was that the kettlebell DVDs weren’t pushing me hard enough. I would wake up the morning after one of my videotaped sessions and not feel even a tiny bit sore. That should have been a red flag that something wasn’t right here. (Turns out my form was out of whack.) On the other hand, when I went to group classes I could feel that I was truly working out every single muscle group during and after my workouts. There’s no doubt in my mind that I would have gotten much better overall results if I stuck to classes from the get-go. After you better understand your body and how surprisingly far you can really push it, and get your form down, then you can consider going it alone.

• Focus on form first.
Priority number one should be perfecting form. Technique, not the amount of weight, makes all the difference in the results. For example, one big mistake that I was making at home was that I was letting the bell get too far away from me. Bonk mentioned that this was forcing me to use my back strength instead of my glutes and legs. A big no-no when you are trying to sculpt leaner legs and a better butt.

• Set clear goals.
It’s no secret that New Year’s resolutions have a tendency to fizzle before February. (Otherwise, I would be a super-fit, rich morning person.) One tried-and-true way to help stay on track is to set carefully thought-out goals along the way. That’s why I love running so much. When you run consistently, there are natural goals to strive towards, like distance and time. On the other hand, the only real goal I had in my head with kettlebells was to get fit in six weeks. That goal really wasn’t clear and therefore didn’t help to motivate me to stay on track. When you talk to a kettlebell pro, I would suggest that the two of you come up with a list of very clear goals. It could be something like “I want to lose five pounds by week three” (at which point they might take a laugh break) or it could be something along the lines of “I want to be able to double the weight I use by next month.” That way, when you feel like skipping out on a class, your (real, concrete, tangible) goals can help raise the pressure on you.

About the Project: The Active Times' Fad Fitness Challenge is a six-week-long project in which five hapless writers will immerse themselves in five popular fitness programs—CrossFit, Insanity, Barre, Flywheel and Kettlebell classes—for the dual purposes of getting in shape and evaluating them for our readers. We guinea pigs will bust our butts, burn calories and discover muscles we'd long since mothballed and, if all goes well, emerge into the New Year with a well-rounded perspective of the top fitness fads. Check back every weekday from now until the New Year to come along for the ride without breaking a sweat. Click here to check out the rest of the programs.