How many calories do you burn with kettlebell swings?
According to our calculations, a 40-year old man who weighs 75kg and is 185cm tall burns around 713 calories per hour by doing two-handed kettlebell swings. But what if you're younger, or heavier, or a woman? Or you do the swings in a different style? (You can also read our definitive guide to kettlebell styles if you're not sure what style to choose). Let our friend and kettlebell expert Taco Fleur guide you through the calorific maze in this detailed article.
How many calories can you use up by doing 100 kettlebell swings? Or 300? Many people want an answer to this question after transitioning from the good old cardio treadmill and entering the kettlebell world. Because after all, if 10 minutes of swings doesn't burn more than 10 minutes on the treadmill, it's not worth doing, right? Before I go any further, please note that if you're after an article that will quickly give you some hocus pocus answer, this is not it. In this article I will go into details and also explain how to calculate your calorie burn. I will be covering this from the angle of burning calories for fat loss. So sit tight and read on if you really want to know the nitty gritty about kettlebell swings and calories!
What kind of kettlebell swings are we doing?
First off, what kettlebell swing are we talking about? Because there are plenty of variations. We all know that the more muscles are required to perform an exercise, the more calories you burn. Secondly, the intensity at which you exercise plays a huge part in how many calories you burn. Thirdly, what weight are you swinging? Because if you're swinging a 4 kilo kettlebell at low intensity you might as well stay parked on the sofa like Al Bundy and watch a re-run of Married With Children. My third point is that the amount of weight you're swinging also plays a big role in how many calories you burn. And there is more.
It puzzles me when I see articles about how many calories it's possible to burn by swinging kettlebells, and they give the simple answer of: kettlebell swings burn 400 calories in 20 minutes.
Variables in calorie consumption
Here are the major variables that come into play when working out how many calories you're burning:
- basal metabolic rate
- thermic effect of food
- daily activities (lifestyle)
- sex (male/female)
- build (skinny/average/athletic/obese/etc.)
You also need to look at exercise specifics; for example, with the swing you can break it down into:
- resistance (weight used)
- type of swing
- training style (strength/endurance/interval/tabata)
Allow me to elaborate on the above a bit more. The intensity is dictated by the velocity at which you're swinging. You can be swinging slow without forceful leg drive, or you can be swinging with high intensity at maximum velocity. If you're swinging hip hinge style you're working on your posterior chain muscles, if you're swinging squat style the emphasis is on the anterior chain muscles, and if you're swinging sport style there is the least amount of resistance, hence the least amount of emphasis on any muscles.
I'm talking style comparison, not weight. For training styles you can be swinging a heavy (90% 1RM) kettlebell for strength, 2 reps per minute; you can be swinging a medium weight (60% 1RM) for endurance, as many reps for as long as possible; you can be swinging a bell for 20 seconds on and 10 seconds off, tabata style; or you can swing a bell for other set intervals and so on. All have different effects, but you're swinging a kettlebell.
Now that you know all that, allow me to be the bearer of bad news, calorie counting is not exact science, it's mostly based on guess work, and unless you're in a highly advanced and controlled environment, you're not going to get a 100% correct answer. This is why I'm going into more detail for you, so you can understand what is going on and make a more informed guess.
You should know that the sum of your calorie burn consists of four components, namely, basal metabolic rate, thermic effect of food, lifestyle and MET – I'll cover this last one later. What is a calorie? A calorie is a unit of energy that measures how much energy food provides to the body. Continually eating more calories than you need causes your body's fat stores to expand, resulting in excess fat or obesity.
How exactly are calories burned?
Wouldn't it be great if we could just grab them, light a match and... The key to burning calories for fat loss is to expend more calories than you consume: you need to create a calorie deficit. The body on its own already burns calories when you're lying in bed, relaxed and doing nothing. It still uses energy to maintain essential life functions such as pumping blood, vital cell activity, maintaining body temperature, breathing etc. This is your basal metabolic rate (BMR).
On average your BMR accounts for 60-75% of daily calories burned, which is quite high, but here's the thing: the higher your lean body mass is – less fat – the more calories you burn at rest. You might think to yourself, I'll just take in less calories by going on a hunger strike, but this will lower your metabolic rate as well, therefore it's not a recommended option. For long-term solutions, think about a healthy sustainable diet plus a good exercise regime.
If you're as good as me at maths, you've figured out that we have another 25–40% of calories to burn off after taking our BMR into account. The great thing is, we can subtract another 10% (approx.) for the thermic effect of food, i.e. digestion, absorption, storage and use. Great, now we've only got 30–15% to sort out. This is where your daily activities come into play. How much that accounts for depends on active your lifestyle is. In other words, if you're leading a pretty inactive lifestyle and sit in front of the TV or computer all day, you can bet your sweet bippy on it that you're not expending more than you're consuming. That's not what we want.
We want to do the opposite and do way more than the minimum and burn that fat off, don't we? Of course we do, otherwise you wouldn't need to know how many calories kettlebell swings burn.
Estimating your Basal Metabolic Rate
To get a rough estimate of how many calories you're burning during exercise there are two calorie burn equations. We're going to use the Harris Benedict Method, which is a method that is great for the average body type, although it does not take into account lean muscle mass or obesity.
The first step is to calculate your BMR using one of the options below.
Imperial System BMR Formula
Women: BMR = 655 + ( 4.35 x weight in pounds ) + ( 4.7 x height in inches ) - ( 4.7 x age in years )
Men: BMR = 66 + ( 6.23 x weight in pounds ) + ( 12.7 x height in inches ) - ( 6.8 x age in years )
Metric System BMR Formula
Women: BMR = 655 + ( 9.6 x weight in kilos ) + ( 1.8 x height in cm ) - ( 4.7 x age in years)
Men: BMR = 66 + ( 13.7 x weight in kilos ) + ( 5 x height in cm ) - ( 6.8 x age in years )
This BMR calculation gives you an idea of what you would burn doing nothing but lying in bed for 24 hours. Divide the above number by 24 and you have your hourly calorie burn while not lifting a finger.
The MET and energy usage
I've mentioned MET earlier on; it stands for Metabolic Equivalent of Task, which is a measurement value of energy expenditure for physical activities. For example, light walking has a MET value of 3.0, jump rope has a MET value of 10.0 and so on.
The double arm kettlebell swing has been assigned a value of 9.8. But if you've been following along, you know as well as I do that this is just a number that doesn't apply to all cases. The MET value of an exercise is what you multiply your hourly BMR by, so if your daily BMR is 2400 calories, then your hourly BMR would be 100, multiply this by an exercise with a MET value of 7 and you know that you burn 700 calories per hour. This is just an example and doesn't represent real numbers.
This is the formula to get an approximate number of calories burned during exercise. But you might have noticed that this does not take into account all the factors I previously mentioned, in particular the intensity, resistance etc. This is understandable, as the formula would become too complicated with all the different variables. What you should know is, if you want maximum calorie burn you should look at building lean muscle mass, and work at the appropriate intensity level using the appropriate amount of resistance for the right duration of time.
Let's do a real calculation with my own data. My BMR comes to 1880, which is 78 per hour. Times the MET value for kettlebell swings, which is 9.8, that comes to 768 calories burned per hour. That's great, but if I only do 30 minutes of Tabata, does that mean that's it, all that hard work only got me 384 calories burned?! Luckily for us, that's not it, there is also the afterburn effect (EPOC). I've seen many numbers out there, some even suggest as high as much as 95% of the calorie cost to come after the exercise. Whatever the number, I'm just glad that short intense workouts provide us with this benefit – less time spent, better results gained!
How many calories do you need?
If you want to calculate your total daily calorie needs then you need to multiple your BMR with one of the following lifestyle values that apply to you:
- Sedentary: BMR x 1.2
- Lightly active: BMR x 1.375
- Moderately active: BMR x 1.55
- Very active: BMR x 1.725
- Extremely active: BMR x 1.9
I personally don't do calorie counting. I understand why you should if you're a bodybuilder and enter competitions, but to me it gets too complicated if you want to apply calories for losing fat – you'll need to keep track of what you consume and apply the formula, or use online calculators to work out how to achieve a calorie deficit, which is too much work for me.
My formula is simpler and in my opinion more effective: eat healthy, eat to feed the body not the brain, eat the right portions, and follow the safest, hardest, progressive and most effective training program available. Do the maximum you can do, then you know you don't need to start measuring things, because no matter what, you're already doing the best you can. If you train hard, you need to feed the body for recovery, you still don't need to count what you eat, you need to listen to how you feel and how you look. Put that grey matter to good use.
How to burn the most calories with kettlebell swings
If you want to know how you can burn the most calories while swinging a kettlebell, then I would recommend using a heavy (but safe) weight and performing an interval style routine utilising fast explosive maximum effort swings for 10 to 14 minutes in duration, at intervals of 20 seconds work and 10 seconds rest. If you are conditioned to work out longer, then work out longer.
If you want to know the right form for this exercise, watch the kettlebell swing video below.
If you want to find out what the ultimate one kettlebell exercise is to burn some serious calories, even more than the kettlebell swing, have a go at the kettlebell snatch, which starts the same as the swing, but continues with a pull, press, lock-out, drop and repeat. You can see a quick demo of this in the video below.
The kettlebell snatch is the king of kettlebell exercises, but you don't just pick up a kettlebell and start snatching, you patiently wait until you've mastered the kettlebell swing. Following are a few more videos you can rely on once you've mastered the swing. These videos break down the snatch and explain all variations:
- Swing and snatch variations
- Kettlebell snatch in slow motion
- The CrossFit kettlebell snatch
- The kettlebell training style swing versus the sport style swing
I know it was a long read, but if you understood everything, I'm sure you got something out of it, if not my point, then at least a formula to calculate how many calories you burn swinging a kettlebell.
- A Biometric Study of Human Basal Metabolism: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC1091498/
- Harris–Benedict equation: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Harris%E2%80%93Benedict_equation
- Farrar RE, Mayhew JL, Koch AJ. Oxygen Cost of Kettlebell Swings. Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research. 2010;24(4):1034-1036: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pubmed/20300022
- Calorie Restriction Calculator: http://www.scientificpsychic.com/health/cron1.html
- Misconceptions about Aerobic and Anaerobic Energy Expenditure: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC2129144/