Setting up an at-home gym can be seriously daunting. What once seemed like a budget-friendly proposition can quickly turn into an expensive one, as you consider all the machines you’d like to use and all the weights you’d need if you wanted to level-up your routine over time. (And money aside, who has space for all that stuff?) Thankfully, filling your home with huge, expensive machines isn’t your only option. Because there are a few pieces of equipment that are small, budget-friendly, and versatile enough to do the work of a few machines. Chief among them: the kettlebell, a space-efficient weight you could build an entire workout around. (Seriously, kettlebell exercises abound.)
The kettlebell is a small weight shaped like a ball attached to a built-in handle. It’s kind of like a dumbbell, except you only need one—and thanks to its handle, it’s incredibly easy to hold. Though kettlebells may look somewhat unassuming, they lend themselves to all kinds of different exercises. You can use them to make classic core exercises—like roll-ups and twists—more challenging. You can lift them, press them, and row them the way you’d use any other weight during an arm workout. And you can use them to up the ante on all your favorite leg exercises—squats, deadlifts, and lunges, included.
Of course, your lower body can probably handle more weight than your upper body. So using the same weight for all of these exercises may take a little figuring out. But if you’re willing to increase and decrease reps as needed, you’ll find it really is possible to get a full-body workout with this single piece of equipment.
Obviously a kettlebell can’t replace a morning run or an afternoon yoga session. But it genuinely can replace a bunch of the weight machines you’d normally use at the gym. And when what you’re looking for is a budget-friendly, space-efficient, full-body workout, that counts for a lot.
Rows can be a great way to target your upper body—namely, your arms and your back. And this plank-based option offers you a way to build core strength, too.
Start by assuming a high plank. You’ll want your hands to be shoulder-width apart, and you’ll want to engage your core and glutes so that your body stays in a straight line. Grab a kettlebell with one hand. Then, bend your elbow to lift that kettlebell up until it reaches your ribs—just behind and underneath your shoulder. When done correctly, your arm shouldn’t bow out; you should lift it straight up, so that it remains parallel with your body at all times.
Briefly hold the kettlebell in place, then lower it back down to the ground. Repeat on the same side until you feel adequately challenged, then repeat the set with your other arm.
Deadlifts can be an excellent way to build strength in your legs and glutes. And they also offer a little bit of a challenge for your core.
Start by standing up straight, with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Grab a kettlebell with both hands, and hold it right in front of you. Your upper body and core should be engaged so that you’re not hunched over (even if the weight is hard to hold!). Once you’re there, bend your knees and push your butt backward until you’ve lowered the kettlebell to your ankles. Though your upper body will slowly come forward, you want to keep your posture largely the same as it was when you started. Your butt should be initiating the movement, not your arms or your back. Once you’ve reached your ankles, your body should look like the number 7. Your back should be straight, your butt should be out, and your legs should be bent. Once there, hold the position for a moment before pressing your butt forward and up to straighten your legs.
Doing a few deadlifts may be adequately challenging for you. But if you want to try something a little tougher, you can try a single-leg deadlift. Start by standing exactly the same way you did at the start of your standard deadlift. Then, push your butt backward the same way you did before and kick one leg out straight behind you. Your form should be exactly the same as it is in a standard deadlift, but once you’ve reached your ankles, your body should look more like the letter T (with your back and your leg parallel to the floor, and your other leg perpendicular to the floor) than the number 7. After holding the position for a moment, slowly return to standing. Try a handful of reps on one side before switching to the other side.
If you’ve spent any time strengthening your core, you’ve likely encountered Russian Twists—an effective way to build strength in your abs.
Start by sitting on the ground with your knees bent and your feet planted on the floor. Then, lean back to engage your core. Clasp your hands in front of you, and twist to the left until you can touch your hands to your left hip. Then, twist to the right until you can touch your hands to your right hip. This workout can be challenging on its own, but it’s typically done while holding a weight. So instead of clasping your hands together, grab your kettlebell, and twist with that, instead.
Continue twisting back and forth until you feel appropriately challenged. If you want to make things a little more difficult, you can lift your feet off the ground. The more you straighten your legs and the closer your ankles get to the ground (without touching it), the more challenged you’ll feel.
The single-arm press can be an effective way to build strength in your arms, upper body, legs, and glutes.
Start by standing up, with your legs slightly bent and your feet about shoulder-width apart. Your arms should be at your side, and you should have a kettlebell in one hand. Bend your arm to lift the kettlebell up to your shoulder. Your palm should be facing forward, and your elbow should be pointed toward the floor.
From there, bend your knees a little bit more. Then, press into your foundation to straighten your legs and arm simultaneously. You should be standing straight up, with your arm lifted in the air in a straight line. Once there, hold the position for a moment before bringing the weight back down to your shoulder and returning to your bent-knee stance. Repeat this exercise a few times before switching sides.
Squats are an effective way to build lower-body strength, and curls are a classic way to build upper-body strength. This exercise combines the two for a seriously challenging and efficient workout.
Start by standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Using both hands, hold onto a kettlebell, and bend your elbows so that the weight is just in front of your chest. Then, bend your knees and send your butt backward until your thighs are parallel with the floor. If you find squats challenging enough on their own, simply hold this position for a moment, then press into your foundation to stand back up.
But if you want to up the ante, add a curl. Once your thighs are parallel with the floor, straighten your arms so that the kettlebell almost touches the floor. The rest of you should remain stable; your back and shoulders shouldn’t lean forward at all. Then, bend your elbows to bring the kettlebell back in toward your chest, and press into your foundation to stand back up. These can be tough, so you may need to lower the reps until you get the hang of them.
Roll-ups are a great way to target your core while building a little bit of strength in your upper body. Combined with a press, they leave your arms and back feeling thoroughly challenged, too.
Start by lying down on the ground. Your back should be flush with the floor, and your knees should be bent, so that your feet are planted on the ground just in front of your hips. You’ll want to be holding a kettlebell just above your chest. Your elbows should be bent, and your upper body should be engaged so that your shoulders are pressed into the floor as much as your back is.
Once you’re there, you’ll want to engage your core to lift your body off the floor until you’re sitting straight up. Your back should remain engaged as you roll up, so that you’re never hunching. As you lift up, you’ll want to push your arms forward and up, so that by the time you’re seated, they’re lifted straight above your head. In a standard roll-up, you’d simply reach your arms up without a weight. But in this roll-up press, you’ll have the added challenge of lifting the kettlebell as you extend your arms.
The kettlebell swing is a classic exercise that targets your entire body—your arms, your back, your core, your legs, and your glutes.
Start by standing straight up, with your feet about shoulder-width apart. You’ll want to be holding a kettlebell with both hands, with your arms out straight in front of you. (Be sure to engage your upper body to keep your back upright while holding the weight—you don’t want your shoulders to hunch forward.) Once you’re there, bend your knees slightly and press your butt backward to bring your upper body forward. Once again, your body should resemble the number 7—with your butt pushed out, your back straight and parallel with the floor, and your legs slightly bent.
While you do this, you should keep your arms pressing firmly into your chest, so that they become parallel with the floor too. As you bend over, the kettlebell should (carefully) swing backward between your legs. Then, when you press your butt forward to return to standing straight up, you’ll (carefully) swing your arms forward so that they become parallel with the floor in the opposite direction. Once your arms have reached all the way out in front of you, lower them back down with control, and repeat the exercise.
A version of this story was published June 2020.