Although relatively new to the athletic and physical fitness communities, kettlebell training has been around since the early days of physical culture. Is training with these implements a revolutionary way to achieve physical superiority, or should kettlebells be considered a novelty that probably deserves to remain in the past? Let’s find out.
A kettlebell consists of a U-shaped handle attached to a single round weight that looks like a cannonball; it has a flat bottom so it rests upright. Most kettlebells have thick handles to secure the handle to the weight, although many of the lighter ones used in physical fitness classes have thinner handles (and are often made of rubber or rubber-like materials). Having the handle positioned farther from the center of mass than it is on a dumbbell allows for several release movements (in which you let go of the handle at the completion of a repetition) and swinging exercises to be performed more easily than with dumbbells.
Girya is the Russian word for kettlebell. One of the earliest descriptions of a kettlebell appeared in a Russian dictionary published in 1704. Rather than being considered fitness tools, kettlebells were first used in markets as counterweights.
The popularity of kettlebell training led to the first competition taking place in 1948 in Russia, and by 1987 the event attracted 223 athletes from 14 Soviet republics. In November 2001, weight categories for women were included. The primary Russian organization for kettlebell lifting is the Russian Kettlebell Sport Federation. Among the most famous kettlebell champions is Sergey Mishin, a 10-time world champion from Russia who snatched a 70.5-pound kettlebell (32-kilos) for 102 reps with each arm and jerked it 170 times with each arm. It was also reported that Vasily Alexeyev, the Russian weightlifting champion who became the first man to clean and jerk 500 pounds, used kettlebells in his training.
Research has proven the value of kettlebell training for improving general physical fitness. A 1983 study involved a series of four tests: pull-ups, standing broad jump, 100-meter sprint and the 1k run. One group performed a standard physical fitness program that included these tests; the experimental group performed only kettlebell exercises. The researchers found that even though the experimental group did not perform the tests in their training, they achieved the best results.
Kettlebell swings are a popular exercise that are often promoted as a way to not only strengthen the lower back to prevent injuries, but also to rehabilitate lower back injuries. One study involving 40 adults with musculoskeletal pain symptoms participated in a two-month kettlebell experiment. The researchers concluded, “Worksite intervention using kettlebell training reduces pain in the neck/shoulders and low back and improves muscle strength of the low back among adults from occupations with a high prevalence of reported musculoskeletal pain symptoms.”
Dr. Stuart McGill, one of the foremost authorities on lower back pain, did an extensive study on the mechanics of the kettlebell swing. He said in contrast to exercises such as deadlifts that high levels of compressive forces on the spine, the kettlebell places high shearing forces on the spine (specifically, L4-L5).
Although McGill says the kettlebell swing may benefit many of those who suffer from lower back pain, he warns that for some individuals the shearing forces could irritate the tissues. However, consider that pain from performing kettlebell exercises – especially swings – could be due to poor performance of the movements. Swinging the kettlebell too rapidly such that the movement goes beyond the individual’s normal range of motion or performing exercises with a flexed spine, may cause problems. As such, it’s important to have a qualified coach teach beginners how to perform the exercise, rather than learning from a video or books.
Although extremely heavy kettlebells are available, they are not the optimal tool for developing maximal strength, except for beginners or those with low strength levels. For example, it would not be possible for a strong athlete to hold heavy enough kettlebells on their shoulders to increase their strength in the squat. For deadlifts, the thicker grips make the kettlebells especially hard to hold – and most gyms don’t carry especially heavy kettlebells.
A better use for kettlebells is to develop muscular endurance and to help burn fat. The handles make them ideal for performing many popular interval-training movements, such as lunge walks, goblet squats, presses, and swings. A sample kettlebell circuit could have you perform one exercise for a minute, rest 30 seconds, then perform another exercise, etc. This type of protocol is considered better for fat burning than conventional aerobic training protocols, along with developing (or at least maintaining) strength. This program also lends itself to group training, which is one of the modern trends in fitness training.
Many types of explosive movements for athletes can be used with kettlebells. For example, in their book, “Weight Training: A Scientific Approach,” authors Dr. Michael Stone and Dr. Harold O’Bryant discuss the benefits of performing jumps while releasing weights. With this type of exercise, you would perform a quarter squat with kettlebells and release them at the bottom of your squat (pushing then outward) before jumping. This method would overload the eccentric portion of the exercise without the trainee having to jump off of a box, which places high levels of stress on the lower body. It is recommended that padding be placed where the kettlebells would land to protect the floor.
Kettlebells tend to be more expensive than dumbbells of the same quality, so most gyms will first purchase complete dumbbell sets before investing in kettlebells. Usually, only a few sets are available. However, there are some companies that sell adjustable kettlebells – these kettlebells are not as convenient as fixed-weight kettlebells, and may not be suitable for throwing exercises, but they will get the job done for most of the exercises that will be performed with kettlebells.
Although it’s been said that any exercise you can perform with a dumbbell you can perform with a kettlebell, the kettlebell handles make many exercises you perform more comfortable. But the bottom line is that kettlebell training is here to stay and the kettlebell could be an effective tool to help you achieve your goals.