While Russia may be able to lay claim to kettlebells, so too can many other cultures. The Celts, Indians and also the English have a history of swinging and throwing heavy objects for exercise and sport although the Soviet Union did adopt kettlebell lifting, called Girya, as a national sport back in 1948.
More recently, kettlebells have re-caught the imagination of exercisers and trainers around the world and are big news again. Many well known sports personalities are using them, as are some very in-shape actors and pop/rock stars.
What is a kettlebell?
Modern kettlebells are not really that different to the original Russian cannon balls with handles from 300+ years ago. Essentially a weight with a handle, in many ways a kettlebell is like a dumbbell but the handle is above the weight instead of in between. Kettlebells are available in a variety of sizes from around 2kg up to 40kg or more. They are generally sold in fixed weights but some manufacturers have designed adjustable kettlebells to save you having to buy a lot of different ‘bells.
Kettlebell exercises differ from more common strength training exercises as
a) they are almost all performed in a standing position,
b) are often performed unilaterally i.e. one limb at a time, and
c) are frequently performed explosively.
Most kettlebell exercises have a strong core emphasis as holding a single weight means that you have to use your deep abdominal muscles to stabilize your torso and keep yourself upright.
Depending on the weight of the kettlebell you select, you can target any number of fitness components when you work out with this particular exercise tool. Light to moderate weights can be used to develop a high degree of muscular endurance and power endurance. Exercises such as swings and snatches make fantastic metabolic conditioners and fat burners when performed for high rep sets. Conversely, low rep, heavy weight kettlebell training can help develop muscle strength and power.
Kettlebells are also an excellent tool for use in circuit training type workouts as there is nothing fiddly to adjust – you just have to grip it and rip it!
Kettlebell training also tends to place an emphasis on the posterior chain – specifically the erector spinae, glutes and hamstrings. These muscles can be collectively thought of as your “power zone” as they are largely responsible for your ability to run, jump and lift objects off the ground. Spending long periods sat down tends to make this muscles weak so if you want to really build your butt – for performance or aesthetic reasons – kettlebell swings, snatches and cleans could be just what you are looking for.
Like Olympic lifting, most kettlebell exercises integrate your upper and lower body which helps develop whole body strength and inter-muscular coordination. Isolation exercises like leg extensions and side lateral raises are okay but the reality is that these exercises are not representative of how your body really moves. The action of jumping, for example, is the culmination of effort from the muscles in your ankles, knees, hips, core, back and arms. Like no man is an island, no muscle works in isolation – at least when it comes to everyday activities.
Kettlebell exercises can be thought of as athletic or functional although that term is commonly misused. Many dumbbell and barbell exercises are performed in what is called the sagittal plane. The sagittal plane is an imaginary line that divides your body into two vertical halves and movement in this plane is forwards and backwards only. Many kettlebell exercises take your limbs though multiple planes of movement; frequently simultaneously. This has a great carryover to both sports and many common daily physical tasks.
There is no doubt that kettlebell training can be very effective but can it or should it completely replace all other forms of strength training? Personally, I don’t think so.
Many of the exercises common in kettlebell training require a high degree of athletic ability. There is nothing wrong with this as such but suddenly there are a lot of exercisers performing movements like snatches and cleans with no real idea of how to do these exercises safely. The hip-hinge, a pre-requisite for performing many explosive kettlebell exercises, takes good instruction and lots of practice to do well. Subsequently, many self-taught kettlebell users are placing themselves at risk but not getting good instruction from the outset.
The lack of adjustability in weight means that you have to buy more kettlebells as you get stronger and they aren’t that cheap! Once you outgrow your kettlebell, your workouts will become less demanding and therefore less effective. On the flip side, buying a kettlebell that is too heavy may lead to injury. It’s not like you can use the same kettlebell for all exercises either – some exercises need a heavy weight while others need a lighter weight so if you want to perform a variety of exercises, chances are you will need a selection of kettlebells. This is no problem if you belong to a well equipped gym but if you train at home, this can represent a large investment
Finally, some strength training exercises are simply more effective using good old barbells and dumbbells. It is very difficult to overload your lower body muscles using kettlebells whereassquats and deadliftsusing an Olympic bar are an effective way to strengthen your legs. It’s a case of technical failure occurring before muscular overload is reached. Sometimes, simple but heavy is best.
Kettlebells are a great workout tool but like the suspension trainers, they are just one of the many tools that can make up a well-rounded physical training program.