If you’ve ever seen someone at the gym swinging a weight that looks like a teapot with a handle, you may have wondered what they were doing — and whether or not they were about to hurt themselves (or someone else). 

A kettlebell can give you an intense workout that’s hard to beat in terms of burning calories and building strength. But you'll want to understand how to use one safely before you get into the swing of this workout routine. 

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The bottom-heavy shape makes kettlebells more awkward to lift and control than other weights. And they’re designed to be swung directly against gravity, unlike dumbbells and barbells, which are hefted in one direction. A false move could lead to a pulled muscle, a bruised toe or a broken window. (Make sure you have plenty of space that’s clear of objects and people when you swing a kettlebell). Use the tips that follow to get an effective, accident-free workout with a kettlebell.

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Ease in

As with any new fitness routine, you won’t go from novice to master in a day. “Most people start with too much too soon — too many variations, too many sets and too many reps,” says Jason C. Brown, owner and head coach at Kettlebell Athletics, which offers certification in kettlebell training for fitness professionals.

Brown recommends getting used to the kettlebell’s shape and weight with non-swinging exercises. The moves that follow are great for beginners. Start with a kettlebell that weighs 10 or 15 pounds. If you can do 10 reps of each exercise and feel you could do 10 more, go heavier.

Goblet squats. Hold the kettlebell close your chest with both hands. Keeping your head up and chest high, your rear back and your weight in your heels, do a set of basic squats. The added weight will make the squats more challenging for your quadriceps (thigh muscles) and glutes (butt muscles). Using kettlebells will engage your core — the abdominal and back muscles in your torso.

kettlebell squats (Photo: Warren Goldswain/Shutterstock) 

Suitcase carries. Pick up a kettlebell in each hand and take 10 equally spaced steps in one direction. Turn around and take 10 steps back. To work your obliques (the muscles that cinch in your waist on each side), repeat the walk holding a kettlebell in one hand. Repeat on both sides.

Waiter walk. Hold a kettlebell in one hand with the handle in your palm and your palm facing up. Bend your elbow to do a biceps curl. At the end of the curl, press your arm straight up beside your ear. The kettlebell should be resting against the back of your wrist. Holding the kettlebell in this position, walk the length of the room again. Repeat on the other side.

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Master the hip hinge 

This is the basis of safe and effective kettlebell swings, which are powered by the lower body, not the arms. 

  • Practice without a kettlebell first. From an upright position, with feet shoulder-width apart, bend your upper body forward by hinging at your hips and sending your rear back as far as you can, as if you were bumping a door shut behind you. Allow your knees to bend softly. In one fluid motion, thrust your hips forward and return to standing. Repeat until you’ve mastered the motion.
  • Now try it with the kettlebell. Hold the kettlebell with both hands, palms facing down, so that it rests in the crooks of your fingers. Don’t hang on with a white-knuckle grip. Hinge your hips back and bring the kettlebell between your legs until your thumbs nearly touch your bum; keep your spine straight and your head up. From this position, thrust your hips forward to fling the kettlebell out in front of you with straight arms coming parallel to the floor. As the weight comes down, bring your hips back and the kettlebell between your legs again. Repeat at a reasonably fast clip. “Most kettlebell exercises are meant to be performed quickly, using momentum,” Brown says.

kettlebell hip hinge (Photo: Warren Goldswain/Shutterstock) 

  • Put on the brake gently. What goes up must come down. To stop swinging, allow the kettlebell to come back between your legs, but don’t thrust. Bend your knees a bit more, keeping your back flat, and place the kettlebell on the floor. Pat yourself on the back for mastering this awesome exercise.

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Amy Roberts is a certified personal trainer. She writes about fitness, health and a variety of other topics for many well-known publications.