Let's play two truths and a lie, fitness edition. Guess the fib: First up, you can get a total-body workout with just a pair of kettlebells. Next: Kettlebells are for everyone, regardless of age and experience. Lastly, situps and crunches are the most efficient way to work your abs.
If you picked the last one, you nailed it. While situps and crunches are known as “abs moves,” there’s a much better way to craft an iron core. Kettlebell exercises like swings, squats, and cleans target the abdominals in a way that truly can’t be beat.
The bell’s superiority lies in how it forces you to brace yourself as you move the uniquely shaped tool. The bell part is off-center when it’s in motion (compared with a dumbbell or bar, which have equal weight at either end). This means “your body is constantly under tension, trying to stabilize,” says Elise Young, CPT, owner of Elise’s Bodyshop. “Forced stabilization equals core engagement.” Nice!
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Research backs this up: When one group of fit men and women incorporated two kettlebell workouts into their weekly regimen for eight weeks, its participants saw improvements in aerobic capacity and dynamic balance that a control group did not. And the most dramatic increase came in abdominal core strength, which was boosted by 70 percent (!), according to the study, which was led by the American Council on Exercise.
Meet the experts:
Lauren Kanski, CPT, is the creator of the Body & Bell program on the Ladder app and a WH advisor.
Elise Young, CPT, is the owner of Elise’s Bodyshop.
Katie M. Heinrich, PhD, is a professor in the department of kinesiology at Kansas State University.
Even the pros have moments of awe when training with the tool. Katie M. Heinrich, PhD, examines the effectiveness of bell exercises in her scientific research as well as in her own fitness routine. “Sometimes when I get done with my kettlebell workout, I’m like, ‘Wow, my abs are sore,’ even though I didn’t do any situps,” says Heinrich, a professor in the department of kinesiology at Kansas State University.
Truth is, your core is the epicenter of every single movement you do. You are better equipped to lift more weight, with better form, and prevent injuries all over if your frame is anchored by a strong center. (Back pain is often a symptom of weak abdominal muscles, so strengthening them may help alleviate those pesky aches, Young adds.)
This guide will teach you everything from which kettlebell weight to grab and how to hold the bell properly to what to wear on your feet during a workout. “This program is a great gateway into the kettlebell because you hit all the key movement patterns,” says WH advisor Lauren Kanski, CPT, creator of the Body & Bell program on the Ladder app (she also programmed and demoed the abs banger starting on page 100!). Playtime starts now.
How To Pick Your Kettlebell Weight
One of the most common questions KB coaches get from newbies is what size to start with. They’re often marked in kilograms (1 kg = about 2.2 pounds). Ideally, you’ll experiment with three sizes in your routine.
8 kg for beginners; 12 kg for intermediates
Use for: Accessory exercises that work smaller muscle groups, such as triceps and biceps work and single-arm presses
20-Minute Beginner Kettlebell Abs Workout
Time: 15-30 minutes | Equipment: medium kettlebell | Good for: abs, total body
Instructions: Complete the first circuit in order, move on to the second, then try the finisher if you have more gas in the tank. Use a medium KB (10 to 16 kilograms) for all moves if you can. (Consider using a lighter one for the overhead press.)
Do this workout up to three times per week, on nonconsecutive days. Pair it with two days of heavy strength work and 45 minutes to an hour of aerobic activity two or three days a week. That way you’re covering all of your bases.
Want extra spice? String all the exercises back to back and perform 1 rep of each, smoothly moving from one to the next without putting the bell down. Rest, then repeat. Do five sets or as many rounds as possible in 20 minutes.
Watch Kanski demonstrate the workout in the video below:
Complete three sets of 6 to 8 reps of each move in order. Rest for one minute between sets.
- Dead clean
- Overhead press
- Goblet squat
Complete three sets of 6 to 8 reps of each move in order (for unilateral moves, finish reps on one side before switching). Rest for one minute between sets.
- Lateral lunge
- Reverse lunge
- Elevated pushup
- Legs over bell
Best Kettlebells For At-Home Workouts
This article originally appeared in the July/August 2023 issue of Women's Health.