Kettlebells and dumbbells—both strength training tools that line the floors, racks, and weight rooms in many gyms—are essentially the same thing, right?
Not exactly, Lacee Lazoff, NYC-based certified personal trainer, tells SELF. “People try to replicate certain movements with kettlebells that they do with dumbbells and it doesn’t work that way,” says Lazoff, who is also a certified kettlebell specialist. Yes, “kettlebell specialist” is a thing—and with all the nuance, safety, and expertise involved with kettlebell work, it’s a very legit thing at that.
Lazoff received her level one kettlebell certification through strength education organization StrongFirst in 2016 and her level two certification, also through StrongFirst, this past spring. Other fitness education organizations across the country, including Onnit Academy, NETA, and ISFTA offer kettlebell specialist certification programs of varying intensities.
While there are no hard figures on the current number of kettlebell specialists worldwide, Craig Marker, chief scientific officer at StrongFirst, says the company awards about 1,000 kettlebell certifications a year to people across the globe, including about 400 in the U.S. He's seen these numbers grow in recent years, he says, and suggests that the rise in popularity of CrossFit and other boot camp/HIIT-style classes, in which kettlebells are a staple, may play a role.
Before receiving her certification, Lazoff says she used kettlebells “casually, but didn’t know what I was doing.” Wanting more guidance on proper form and safety techniques, she took an eight-hour workshop that covered the basics. From there, her initial interest grew into a “niche passion.”
To earn a StrongFirst kettlebell certification, participants practice skills ahead of time and then attend a three-day workshop that ends with a judged performance.
For a level one StrongFirst kettlebell certification, you’re tested on your ability to safely and effectively demo six classic kettlebell movements: kettlebell swings, Turkish get-ups, goblet squats, kettlebell cleans, kettlebell presses, and snatches.
Mastering just six moves may sound simple, but “we go a mile deep and an inch wide,” says Marker of StrongFirst’s approach. For that reason, “you have to train,” Lazoff says of the prep required for this test. “You can’t just show up.” Judges evaluate applicants on both their form and their breathing patterns.
There’s also a “thrusting snatch test,” explains Lazoff, during which participants must perform 100 snatch thrusts in five minutes, a challenge requiring “a lot of cardio and endurance. If you just rolled into the certification [with no prior prep], you would be smashed,” Lazoff says.
Not everyone who tries to get the certification receives it.
Failing on any one skill will result in an overall fail. “About 30 percent of people don’t pass,” says Marker. "We have pretty strict requirements."
The level one certification workshop consists of three 10-hour days full of hand-ons practice and workshopping the various skills that participants are then tested on. Level two involves "diving deeper into more complicated skill work," as well as learning how to create effective kettlebell programs, says Lazoff. There’s also the strength test, adds Marker, in which male participants must complete one overhead press with a kettlebell weighing half of their bodyweight, and female participants must do the same with a bell that's one-third of their bodyweight.
If this certification process sounds intense, that's because it is. It's also necessary, says Lazoff—the kettlebell is a technical training tool and should be treated as such.
Kettlebells are similar to barbells, says Lazoff, in the sense that “you shouldn’t just go and try to use them without learning the proper movements.”
Using a kettlebell is more “technically demanding” than dumbbells or other handheld weights, says Marker, in part because the basic handle design makes the weight off-center (compared to dumbbells, where the weight is more evenly distributed when gripped). “You have to have the technical details down so that your wrist doesn’t bend improperly [when you hold the weight],” explains Marker.
For the most part, kettlebells should be held close to your body as you perform exercises, which may be different than how you would hold a dumbbell, plate, or other type of weight, says Lazoff. “It can be dangerous if you don’t hold it correctly,” especially with more complex movements like cleans and overhead presses that involve moving the weight above your head.
Another example of a nuanced move is the kettlebell swing, which Marker describes as the “building block” for all other kettlebell movements. “If you know how to do [the swing] correctly, the benefits are great,” Lazoff says. (More on those benefits below.) But if you do it incorrectly—say, by using your lower back rather than your glutes, hips, and legs—”you can really hurt yourself,” says Lazoff.
When performed correctly, there are many benefits of kettlebell exercises. For starters, they are great for functional movements.
Many of the ways you hold and move with a kettlebell—like to do squats, hip hinges, and pushing exercises—closely mimic natural movements in everyday life, says Lazoff. The Turkish get-up, for example, trains a safe way to pull yourself up to standing, says Marker. Plus, the grip and forearm strength you build with kettlebell work in general can help you better lift heavier items both in the gym and in your day-to-day routine (say, if you’re hauling a hefty grocery bag up the stairs). That’s why this training tool serves as a stellar form of functional fitness.
Overall, the strengthening benefits of kettlebell work are legit. Take, for example, kettlebell swings, which build up strength in your posterior chain, or the muscles on the backside of your body. They also work and stretch the hip flexors. And lastly, there’s sneaky core work at play. “Doing functional movements while carrying a kettlebell improves your core strength very quickly,” says Lazoff.
Lazoff says becoming a kettlebell specialist has influenced how she trains her clients and her future goals. “Most of my clients are touching kettlebells all the time,” she says. “My dream is to one day focus exclusively on kettlebell and functional bodyweight movements.”
Kettlebells are also really versatile
With kettlebells, you can do workouts that are cardio-centric, strength-centric, or a combination of the two, says Lazoff.
Kettlebell swings, for example, are considered “ballistic cardio,” explains Lazoff. “You’re quickly thrusting the weight up and down,” which can rapidly get your heart rate high. The swings also help you practice moving explosively, says Marker, which is “important in so many sports” and something “you can’t replicate with a dumbbell.”
In fact, "there are a lot of things you can do with the kettlebell that aren’t as constricting as dumbbells or other free weights,” says Lazoff. Faster movements in particular, like the aforementioned swings, are easier with a kettlebell because the handle and shape allow you to execute the movement well, she adds.
While kettlebells are becoming more ubiquitous in the fitness world, misconceptions about their purpose and benefits remain.
Many people associate kettlebells with powerlifting and/or CrossFit, says Lazoff. What’s more, “in most gyms, you still never know what you’re going to get in the kettlebell section,” she adds. “It’s treated like a little accessory.”
With the rise of kettlebell certification courses and the increasing number of specialists, those misbeliefs may soon shift. Lazoff hopes more people will recognize the tool’s many benefits—like the fact that kettlebell workouts can be really low-impact and efficient. “You don’t have to run, jump, or otherwise stress your joints,” she says. “Anyone can do it, and [the skillset] will last you a lifetime."
Another perk: Unlike bulky cardio and weight-lifting machines, kettlebells take up minimal space. “I have two sets of bells in my studio apartment,” says Lazoff. “It’s cool you can use them with very limited space.”