kettlebell-swing“Always breathe in through your nose—hiss—and out through your mouth—pop!”

Brad Hamilton demonstrates this as he balances on his heels, posterior jutting rearward, chest and head high, eyes straight ahead while grasping the handle of a kettlebell. He swings the cast-iron globe—which looks like a miniature cannonball with a handle—back between his legs, then promptly propels the kettlebell forward and up with hip-hinging power and oomph. All the while, he’s breathing—hiss-pop!—like a human air compressor, something which makes sense given that kettlebell training emphasizes steady bursts of power as a way to build lean muscle mass.

Hamilton is performing a kettlebell swing, a classic move in the Russian-developed weightlifting regimen that first made waves in the U.S. in 1998. Today, kettlebells are once again “trending,” to use social-media parlance, as tools for enhancing overall strength, flexibility and definition while simultaneously providing a heart-pumping aerobic workout. Go to any well-appointed gym, and you’re likely to find an assortment of the globular weights sitting beside the traditional dumbbell rack. That’s good news for Hamilton, an instructor at Clubhaus Fitness in Little Rock, who believes swinging and lifting kettlebells is the ideal strategy for achieving functional fitness.

The dumbbell’s design—weight evenly distributed between its knobby ends—lends itself to slow movements that emphasize control and muscle isolation. A kettlebell, which is an unbalanced weight, depends on fluidity and force to engage muscles in groups.

Kettlebell training involves two types of movements: ballistic (or explosive) moves, and the slower grinds. Within those categories are exercises with names like snatch, clean, Turkish get-up and goblet squat. The kettlebell swing, Hamilton explains, works muscles in your shoulders, hips, thighs and abdominals. The snatch—pulling a kettlebell from the floor in a squat position and pressing it overhead—is a full-body power exercise; push hard, build muscle.

Even a move that appears to isolate one area can engage the whole body, Hamilton says. To illustrate, he performs a single-arm overhead press—a move where the kettlebell is lifted from shoulder level to above the head. Hamilton hefts the kettlebell to one shoulder, where he clasps it with his elbow tucked snugly against his ribs. The ball rests against the top of his wrist. The difference between doing this move with a kettlebell instead of a dumbbell is the position of the weight. “See, you pack it in to your shoulder. You’d never get a dumbbell this close to your body.” He thrusts the kettlebell upward, explaining as he does so that he’s not so much lifting the weight as pushing it away from his shoulder, putting the full force of his body—from the ground up—behind the movement.

An effective kettlebell workout also requires pairing proper form (move from the hips, stay tight through the waist, keep elbows loose but straight and so on) along with precise, power-packed movements. Because improper form can lead to injury, Hamilton cautions against picking up a kettlebell and swinging it without instruction from a certified professional. The point of exercising with kettlebells isn’t just to create strong muscles but to “make progress,” which Hamilton defines as being stable on your feet—and able to easily right yourself if you stumble and begin to fall. Learn the techniques, and progress will follow. “It’s all about balance and having all the muscles working together.”

When exercising with kettlebells, Hamilton says, less is more, so progress takes less time than you’d imagine—30 to 40 minutes three times a week. “There’s a lot of freedom in knowing you don’t have to spend hours in the gym.”

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