I get this question so much it's unbelievable "Will Kettlebells Make Me Bulky or help me to Lose Weight?"
Kettlebells can certainly help you lose weight and body fat by increasing your heart rate and burning energy, as well as increasing muscle mass which burns more energy even in a rested state.
But will they make you bulky? I realize the stigma attached to weightlifting, especially for women, that it makes them bulk up. This couldn't be further from the truth. Lifting weights of any kind adds a beautiful definition that accentuates curves in literally the BEST places. Lifting weights also decreases body fat and while you can't target areas to lose body fat from, it can decrease your midline.
Now, don't just take my word for it. Which, frankly, as a fitness professional, certified kettlebell coach, and long-time swinger (ahem - not that kind) herself, I think my opinion holds significant weight. But it's fine, we'll dive into some science of it first, okay?
Kettlebells and Weight Loss
How many muscles do kettlebell swings target?
Kettlebell swings primarily target several muscle groups, especially in the posterior chain, making them a highly effective exercise for total body conditioning. The main muscle groups kettlebell swings hit include:
Glutes (Buttocks): The gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus are heavily engaged during kettlebell swings. These muscles are responsible for hip extension, which is the driving force behind the movement.
Hamstrings: The muscles at the back of your thighs, including the semitendinosus, semimembranosus, and biceps femoris, are activated during kettlebell swings to control the hip hinge movement and contribute to the explosive hip extension.
Quadriceps: The muscles at the front of your thighs, including the rectus femoris, vastus lateralis, vastus medialis, and vastus intermedius, play a role in stabilizing the knee joint during kettlebell swings.
Core muscles: Kettlebell swings engage the core muscles, including the rectus abdominis (six-pack muscles), obliques (side abs), transverse abdominis (deep stabilizing muscle), and erector spinae (muscles along the spine). These muscles work together to maintain stability and control during the swinging motion.
Back muscles: Kettlebell swings target the muscles in your back, including the erector spinae (muscles along the spine), latissimus dorsi (large muscles in the back), and trapezius (upper back and neck muscles). These muscles help control the swing's movement and maintain proper posture.
Shoulders: The deltoids (shoulder muscles) and trapezius muscles are involved in stabilizing and controlling the kettlebell during the swing, particularly during the upward phase of the movement.
While kettlebell swings primarily target these muscle groups, they also provide a cardiovascular workout and engage other smaller stabilizing muscles throughout the body. With this, kettlebell training ends up burning more calories in a shorter amount of time, making them highly efficient.
Kettlebells help to develop more muscle and increase metabolism
Kettlebells can help develop more muscle and increase metabolism through several mechanisms:
Resistance Training: Kettlebell exercises involve dynamic, full-body movements that require strength and power. By performing exercises like kettlebell swings, cleans, snatches, and presses, you apply resistance to your muscles, stimulating them to grow and adapt. This resistance training promotes muscle hypertrophy, leading to increased muscle mass.
Compound Movements: Kettlebell exercises typically involve compound movements, which engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously. This integration of various muscle groups during exercises like swings and cleans allows for efficient and effective workouts. Compound movements require significant energy expenditure and activate a larger number of muscle fibers, leading to greater muscle recruitment and development.
Power and Explosiveness: Kettlebell exercises, particularly swings, rely on explosive hip movements to generate power. This explosive power recruits fast-twitch muscle fibers, which have a higher potential for muscle growth compared to slow-twitch fibers. The combination of power and speed in kettlebell exercises can enhance muscle development and improve overall athletic performance.
Metabolic Conditioning: Kettlebell workouts often involve high-intensity intervals or circuits, which challenge your cardiovascular system and metabolic rate. The intense nature of kettlebell training elevates your heart rate and increases oxygen consumption, leading to a higher caloric expenditure during and after the workout. This post-workout effect, known as excess post-exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC), can elevate your metabolism and help burn more calories even after you've finished exercising.
Core Activation: Kettlebell exercises heavily engage the core muscles to maintain stability and control during the movements. The swinging motion and the need to resist rotational forces place significant demands on the core muscles, including the abs, obliques, and deep stabilizers. Strengthening the core not only improves functional strength but also increases overall metabolic rate as these muscles are actively involved in many daily activities.
It's important to note that muscle development and an increase in metabolism also depend on other factors such as proper nutrition, rest and recovery, and individual genetic factors. Incorporating kettlebell exercises into a well-rounded fitness routine, combined with a balanced diet, can help you achieve your muscle-building and metabolic goals.
Kettlebells also provoke your body to experience something called "after burn". The "Afterburn" or EPOC (excessive post-exercise oxygen consumption) drives your body into the anaerobic zone.
Following a kettlebell session, the body has to work hard to return itself to equilibrium: re-oxygenation of tissues, clearance of lactic acid, glycogen refueling, etc. This process demands energy and this energy comes from, you guessed it, your fat stores. So unlike other forms of exercise, you will be burning calories after your workout, and for up to 24 hours too.
Kettlebell Training Increases Cardio as well as Muscle Mass
Kettlebells are an effective alternative to other forms of cardio, such as running, and they cut down on time. You might spend an hour running, but a cardio session using kettlebells can be done in 30 minutes and be just as or more effective than your hour-long running session.
This is because of the High-Intensity Interval Training. Kettlebell exercises can be incorporated into high-intensity interval training (HIIT) workouts. HIIT involves alternating periods of intense exercise with short recovery periods. By performing kettlebell exercises in a HIIT format, such as swings, snatches, or cleans, you elevate your heart rate and challenge your cardiovascular system. The intense bursts of activity followed by brief recovery periods stimulate cardiovascular adaptation, improving your aerobic and anaerobic capacity.
In addition to HIIT, kettlebell exercises are dynamic and typically involve full-body movements. They engage multiple muscle groups simultaneously, including the lower body, upper body, and core. When these muscle groups work together, they require more oxygen and energy, leading to increased demand on the cardiovascular system. By training with kettlebells, you're effectively conditioning both your muscles and cardiovascular system.
Kettlebell workouts also incorporate metabolic conditioning, which involves performing exercises at a high intensity with minimal rest. This type of training places a significant demand on your cardiovascular system, as it requires continuous effort and sustained energy output. Kettlebell swings, snatches, and other exercises performed in a circuit or interval format can improve cardiovascular endurance and enhance metabolic conditioning.
Kettlebell training provides a unique blend of strength and cardiovascular training. The resistance provided by kettlebells challenges your muscles, promoting muscle growth and strength development. At the same time, the continuous movement and high-intensity nature of kettlebell exercises stimulate cardiovascular adaptation, enhancing your cardiovascular fitness. This combination of strength and cardio training can lead to improved overall fitness levels.
Kettlebells are super fun and addictive
Lastly, kettlebells are super fun and honestly, addictive, which means you are more likely to stick with them. And as we all know, consistency equals results. Additionally, most kettlebell exercises can be performed at home and in only a very small amount of space (6ft x 3ft) because you don’t need to move your feet very far. Which makes it easier to perform anywhere, cost-effective, and just plain cool!
Will Kettlebells Make Me Bulky
First off, let's break down what the whole "bulky" concept is. When weight-lifting initially started to gain traction, people began associating weights with bodybuilders like Arnold Schwarzenegger. But bodybuilders follow very specific regimens, including exercise and nutrition, that the average person does not. it is quite literally a full-time job. Even bikini competitors (I know because I started the journey once in 2016 or 2017) follow a very strict eating timeline. YOU MUST EAT. Bodybuilders typically perform a crazy low number of weights (like...6...that's it) with an insanely high weight (like 225+).
Another thing is that, despite what they say, actual bodybuilders can't get that way without some kind of steroid. Say what you want but this is coming from the mouth of Bodybuilding.com themselves and I firmly believe it. The body wasn't designed to be that large.
The specific way they train, the amount of food they eat, and the supplements they take are all factors in why they look how they look. It isn't because they were in the gym swinging 30kg bells for 45 seconds for 4 rounds I promise. Another thing I want to highlight here, is bodybuilders and bikini competitors do not embody "health". Quite the opposite. Their training, strict diets, and consumption of supplements can cause a multitude of health problems and mental problems including depression and even eating disorders.
Top Four Reasons to Stop Believing Lifting Weights Will Make You Bulky
Building Muscle is Crazy Difficult. Building muscle takes a long time and depends largely on your genetics. The majority of people don't have the time to spend working out in the gym as say a bodybuilder might be spending.
Women Don't Have the Testerone to Increase Muscle Mass Like Men. Testosterone is a huge factor in building muscle and the fact is, most women don't have enough. Even those with higher testerone likely wouldn't get bulky because it's not enough on its own testosterone. This is also why steroids are so frequent among bodybuilders - EVEN THE MEN don't have enough testosterone on their own to get "bulky".
Most of us don't eat enough to build muscle to "bulk up". I say this all the time, muscle has to come from somewhere. Your body only has so much. We have to eat food and workout to get the body to use that energy to develop into muscle. You can't magically grow new tissue out of nothing. On average a healthy woman should consume around 1,600 - 2,400 calories a day. Now a lot of that is being used by your body just to function. Never mind any type of activity you are doing to burn that up. To get even on the path of bulky, you'd have to eat SO much, particularly protein, and then work outwork out to build up the muscle. It's not happening for the majority of us. I also want to clarify - you can't just be eating 4,000 calories of junk and sitting there, that's how the body gains fat. To gain muscle, you'd have to eat that 4,000 calories (or whatever) every single day of lean protein, and whole foods, and stick to a strict exercise regimen to begin to see muscle growth.
Most people don't lift heavy enough to "bulk up". Reverting to above, most people do not lift heavy enough, consistently enough, or in a progressive overload, manner to get bulky. Progressive overloading means consistently increasing your repetitions, your weight, and/or your training time.
The Benefits of Weight Lifting for Women
Now comes the benefits of weightlifting for women. I don't feel this is discussed enough. The fact of the matter is, there are a lot. One of the biggest for women is that lifting weights can decrease the chance of developing osteoporosis, a disease that is far too common in women. Please do me a favor, lift a damn weight. And I mean a WEIGHT, not some baby 5 lb kettlebell or dumbbell, add some resistance to your movements, and put pressure on your bones so long as you do not currently have any physical limitations. It's like a diamond, adding pressure to the bones by lifting weights, strengthens them. Let's take a look.
Lifting Weights Can Decrease Your Chances of Developing Osteoporosis and More
First, let's learn more about osteoporosis. In short, osteoporosis is where the bones get weak and brittle. There have even been cases where an individual coughs and fractures their hip because the bones are weakened. White, older women tend to be the most likely to develop osteoporosis and it can be prevented by a healthy diet and weight-bearing exercises. This is serious ladies - do not fear weights. I realize the media has seriously tainted our way of seeing weight training, but the baby weights in your barre class is not going to cut it.
Weight training also lowers your body fat. I am not against cardio, but it seems that women tend to be these "cardio bunnies" and solely focus on cardio. If you're doing cardio, I urge you to use kettlebells. Why? Simply put, cardio workouts burn a lot of calories during the session. That's it. Cardio workouts using kettlebells will burn a lot of calories during the session and because it's weight training, they will focus on muscle, and the more muscle your body has the more calories the body burns in a rested state. Muscles take more energy to upkeep, so if the body has a higher muscle-to-body fat ratio, it's going to burn more throughout the day.
I also want to discuss how weight training can decrease your chances of developing arthritis and can improve balance and mobility, and decrease pain. Again, I am focusing on kettlebell training, and here's why: kettlebell training improves your grip strength. You're holding this bell throughout your workout, it's not a balanced weight, and it takes more grip strength than if you were holding dumbbells with even weight distribution.
You can read more on how strength training as a whole can combat aches, pains, and diseases here on NCBI. As always, consult your doctor before beginning a new exercise regimen.
What is the "Kettlebell Physique"?
One final word on the topic, I want to explain what the kettlebell physique is. If you've been researching kettlebell training, you may have seen articles talking about it or Reddit forums. Basically, a kettlebell physique is a lean, athletic physique body composition among those who regularly train with kettlebells. It is a term used to describe the physical changes and appearance that can result from consistent kettlebell training.
Typical characteristics of the kettlebell physique includes muscle definition, balanced muscle groups and an aesthetically balanced athletic appearance, a sculpted appearance, defined core and back muscles, and functional moves including gracefulness, balance, mobility, and flexibility.
Now, for the love of a bountiful quality of life, go swing some heavy bells!