Discerning the Kettlebell

The Russian KettleBell-

Warning: ‘In order to taste my cup of water you must first empty your cup’-Bruce Lee

If this article is offensive to you, you may be an addict. We will reference dependence at the end of this article.

When the Kettlebell first became popular, I was a bit hesitant of its wild claims. The ‘benefits’ to Kettlebell training were so ridiculous that you would think that its the next(mass produced) Arc of the Covenant. Strength and Conditioning Coach Mike Boyle states in his book Advances in Functional Training, ‘I dont like them for cleans and snatches, they hurt our athletes’ and ‘I find another exercise that provides the same benefits without the contusions’.

Also, the Kettlebell being depicted as a Russian invention isnt entirely true. In ancient Greece, Kettlebells were used to test feats of strength. Sitting in Archeological Museum of Olympia in Athens is a 143kg KettleBell which written on it states “Bibon heaved up me above a head by one hand“, whats the current Kettlebell Record?

While researching the kettlebell, I found a claim of a fractured arm due to a kettlebell snatch. Heavy pounding on the bone can lead to fractures, this isn’t much of a surprise as I have seen a majority of kettlebellers with large welts and bruises on the wrists and forearms. ‘It strengthens the joints’ is an invalid argument considering that you wouldn’t allow me to throw a cannonball into your knee.

In fact, a great article on the history of the kettlebell and the reasons why the kettlebell is not as good of a training device as the dumbbell can be found here http://skinnybulkup.com/kettlebells-are-inferior-to-dumbbells/

The American Council on Exercise funded a study recently testing the the differences between the energy expenditure of Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells. Sadly, the study tested two very different exercises through two different devices, thus there were too many variables to validate accurate information. The study took kettlebell Olympic lifts and compared it with isolated dumbell/barbell exercises. Surprise! The kettlebell proved to be the superior tool. Incorrect. The exercises proved to be greater at expending energy, the tool didn’t matter. If we did the same study and reversed tools with the chosen exercises, you would find the dumbells to be there superior tool. Ultimately, this lowers the credibility of ACE in my book, as studies like this have popped up recently in an attempt to stay current with the trends.

On the website http://www.riversidekettlebells.com/2009/03/top-10-benefits-of-kettlebell-training.html 50 separate claims are made to demonstate the benefits of training with a kettlebell as opposed to other tools. Listed below are those 50 claims, and a response to each claim.

1.Serious cardio without the boredom-False. Actual serious cardio is a long endurance game. A huge misconception with some training schools that cardio endurance can be achieved with 10-30 minute bouts of exercise. During longer races, ‘serious cardio’, the people trained with more time spent on cardio have greater results, those same heart and lung benefits come from longer bouts cardio respitory training. Also, the Kettlebell is just a tool, it can not produce any cardio benefit more than a barbell, a dumbell, or just your bodyweight.

2.Functional strength without the monotony of isolated reps- Equipment isnt functional, its the exercises that are functional. It does not matter which equipment is used during the ‘woodchop’ (a common functional exercise), a medball, a kettlebell, a dumbell, or a bag of sand. Functional exercises and isolation exercises serve two sperate purposes, one is not greater than the other.

3.Flexibility without long pose- Kettlebells dont grant people greater range of motion in the joints. That would be like saying any exercise and any equipment will improve my flexibility. Flexibility is best attained through a variety of techniques including myofascial release, dynamic and static stretching, and neuromuscular stretching techniques.

Lets take a break for a second, are you seeing a trend yet?

  • Kettlebells seem to be the answer for squeezing workouts in our fast paced, busy world. Why should I workout an hour when I can do 10 minutes…right? In that sense, the Kettlebell is symbolic for quick workouts(shortcuts). In cases of cardiorespitory or flexibility training, its not about just getting it done asap. Its spending the time and dedicating yourself to the training, not looking for shortcuts.

4-Fun and varied, never boring- Again, the Kettlebell is an iron ball with a handle. The dumbell is two iron(or rubber) weights with a handle inbetween. The barbell is a long bar with rubber or iron plates to be added. To me, there is nothing more fun or entertaining about these objects. Its the exercises that we can claim as more fun than others, but as we stated before the equipment doesnt make the exercise.

5-One Compact Portable Device-The kettleball is compact and portable, so isnt a dumbell, so isnt a medicine ball, so aren’t bands. Infact, winning the most compact and portable would be bands amd rubber tubing.

6-It’ safe for any age, shape, or size- just as safe as a dumbell or bands. The only difference between these tools is the kettlebell typically pushes large, complicated exercises like the snatch, swing, and clean. These are highly demanding olympic movements that require good form, good conditioning, good muscular and structural balance. I have personally worked with a handful of people that have hurt themselves using kettlebells. I have seen back injuries, wrist and elbow injuries from kettlebells. So no, the kettlebell is not safe for everyone. My grandma shouldnt be doing Oly lifts, a person coming back from a herniated disc in his back should not be doing Oly lifts.

7-Combines cardio and strength training- As we stated before the amount of cardiorespitory results attained from relativly short bursts of exercise is minimal. Also, the kettlebell isnt going to magically improve cardio or strength gains, its the exercises that do so.

8-The solution for busy people- I discourage shortcuts. If you want something done, do it right. If you need to do a quick workout, again, its the exercises, not the equipment, that is important. Is the kettlebell anymore of a solution that a dumbell? No.

9-Greater fat loss- Any metabolic, ballistic exercise will increase the heart rate, and overall metabolism. Again, doing the same exercises with a dumbell or a kettlebell will produce the same results.Its like saying buy this treadmill instead of that treadmill, you will burn more fat. Thats pretty absurd, its not about the equipment, its the exercise and the programming.

10-Very different from dumbells and barbells-the only main difference between the kettlebell and the dumbell is the ‘off-center’ weight to the kettlebell. This creates a longer lever arm putting additional stress the wrist, elbow, shoulder, and back. Additional stress isn’t good/bad indefinetly. For those that are conditioned for it, it is good. For those with improper joint mechanics or prior joint injuries the additional stress can be felt and result in an overuse injury. So in this case, the kettlebell can be better, but also worse then the dumbell.

11-Strengthens every muscle from head to toe-functional exercises tend to be full body exercises. So, it doesnt matter what tool you are using to accomplish that functional exercise. If you do bicep curls with a kettlebell its not magically working the entire body, it behaves like a dumbell and isolates the biceps.

12-Don’t confuse kettlebells with conventonal weight training or bodybuilding, focusing on movements not muscles- If the kettlebell community is stating that kettlebells are not to be used during isolation ‘bodybuilding’ exercises, where the dumbell is used for both isolation and ballistic exercises then the superior tool is obviously the dumbell. The truth being that both tools can be used for both ballistic and isolated exercises.

13-Its enjoyable, exercise is boring-kettlebells don’t magically make exercise fun. The movements, building the habit, and changing your mindset about exercise in general will make exercise fun, not an inanimate object. Remember, happiness comes from within.

14-Saves money- according to this article, one kettlebell is all you need to get fit, healthy, and lean. No more gym membership, no more personal trainer. Another ridiculous claim that puts kettlebells on the same level as Excaliber. I can now see why if someone gets into the kettlebell world and listens to all of the hype and treats the kettlebell as gold as opposed to what it actually is on face-value.

15-It’s Fun- See #13

16-Build a lean muscular look- so the kettlebell inherently builds lean muscle, burns fat, builds the heart and lungs? Sounds like…every other single fitness equipment on the infomercials, bowflex, shake weights, etc. The truth is, the type of exercise, the programming, the diet, the genetics, the amount of recovery, and the time put into it are all factors of hypertrophy and results.

17-Women wont bulk up- See #16, it depends upon many factors. Using a kettlebell isn’t going to magically bulk you up whether or not you are a woman. ‘Bulking up’ for a woman is a pretty big myth, and I hear it often. If you wake up and suddenly have massive shoulders, you’ve unlocked some secret, because that doesnt happen overnight, not even artificially.

18-Easy to learn- Actually, proper use of the kettlebell is not easy to learn in comparison to a dumbell. The more complex the exercise (Ballistic, Oly lifts) the more coaching that is required. So, in terms of ease of learning to a beginner, the dumbell is better.

19-Extremly versatile- In a side by side comparison, the dumbell will have a broader range of exercises, making it more versatile. Remember #12, if we are staying true to the kettlebell philosophy, certain exercises shouldnt be done with a kettlebell, therefor limiting its function.

20-Serious cardio- already discussed ‘serious cardio’ in #1.

21-Greater cardio benefits- repeating false claims doesnt make them any truer.

22-Cardio without killing your joints- There is great researching showing that impact is best for improving joint and bone strength. Common mythology surrounding cardio claims that running is bad for the joints, yet this isnt true across the board. There are many runners that have strong joints. Improper mechanics and form are the biggest culprits to injury. And not just for running, if you have poor mechanics/ form during explosive, ballistic, Oly lifts, you are at a higher risk for injury. Instead of pointing the finger at something that doesn’t agree with your world view (running), look at something that makes more sense logically. By learning how the body works, going through ‘boring’ corrective exercises and focusing in on ‘boring’ form, we can fix pain, and the potential for injury. The kettlebell doesnt lower the risk for injury, infact due to a longer lever arm, it actually increases it.

23-Simplify your life- Kettlebells wont magically unclutter your workout routine, same goes for any device claiming its the only tool you will need, 2 days a week, nothing more. Infact, the more indepth and personalized the routine, the greater the results. Olympic, or elitle level athletes dont swing a kettlebell twice a week and miraculously are champions, it requires a very deep analysis and complicated programming to get the greatest results.

24-In the privacy of your own home- no more than a dumbell, barbell, medball, bands, trx, or even just your bodyweight.

25-Develop functional strength- again, the kettlebell isnt magically functional, its exercises that do that, therefor, the tool doesn’t matter.

26-Builds mobility-again, not true. Certain exercises can improve mobility. Better yet, improving mobility is best done through inhibiting and lengthening techniques. Explosive, athletic movements, or magical pieces of iron don’t miraculously improve range of motion.

27-Never boring-what makes for a truly non-boring routine is a vastness of exercises and programming through a variety of tools. Strictly sticking to kettlebells is more limiting and keeps us ‘in the (kettlebell) box’. Think outside of the box.

28-Develop core strength-the exercises will improve the core strength, not the tool itself. Core strength is a complicated subject, and just because someone is athletic or swings kettlebells does not mean they have a strong core.

29-More cost effective then machines- true! Machines are expensive and have limited use. Finally, a bit of truth!

30-Unify the body- again, it is simple an iron ball with a handle. It will not magically connect the body in ways previously undiscovered. Creating neuromuscular connections is a longer, more complicated process that involves a variety of techniques and (god forbid) isolation of single muscle groups during activation techniques. You dont simply start (saftly) creating connections via Oly lifts.

31-More Coordination- Coordination is task/movement specific. Learning how to use the kettlebell makes you better at using the kettlebell, but doens’t improve overall coordination. Instead a variety of movements needs to be used to build up coordination.

32-Increases mental focus- as an inanimate object, to claim that it builds mental focus is bogus. Labeling as the ‘thinking mans’ tool, is just a way to sell the kettlebell. Instead ALL exercise should be thought-driven, this is something that we enforce at Spartan Fitness. Not that a tool like a kettlebell or jump-rope makes you focus any harder.

33-Train anywhere- again, no difference between the kettlebell and dumbbell

34-It really works- magically, the kettlebell isn’t going to get you results that any other tool can provide.

35-Simplify- Only sticking to a handful of exercises will limit any persons results, no matter what their goals (performance, function, weight loss, muscle mass, etc).

36-Gentle Rehabilitation- I have a big problem with this claim, as I have seen first hand the effects ‘Kettlebell rehabilitation’ has had on people. Rehabilitation and Corrective Exercise is a ground-up approach, Kettlebell and its philosophy is a top-down approach. Meaning, if you are coming back from an injury, using a tool that create more torque while doing some of the biggest, ballistic exercises out there will only worsen an injury. Physical Therapists do not condone the use of kettlebells as a stepping stone to health. In fact, most of the physical therapists I have talked to and worked with are very skeptical about the kettlebell and its magic.

37-Cures low back pain- again, this is just an object. If it cured low back pain then why isn’t it used as such. Doctors, physical therapists, and Corrective Exercise Specialists would be using it. They aren’t. There are many different approaches to fixing low back pain, but just throwing you under a tool like the kettlebell isn’t going to do it.

38-Cures shoulder pain- again, this is just cast iron. Kettlebells don’t cure shoulder pain. In fact all movements stemming from the kettlebell are shoulder driven, the shoulders never get a break. This isn’t how rehabilitation works.

39-Better Posture- false, the kettlebell does not strictly train the posterior chain. Better posture is a process at which over activity of the anterior chain is released while the posterior chain is activated. The shoulders are addressed in a 3d environment. Its not as simple as swinging a kettlebell.

40-Heals aches and pains- In actuality, I’ve met more people that used kettlebells that were in pain, then those that were not. Remember, the kettlebell is not the holy grail. Aches and pains can be a complicated issue, it is not simply addressed with the kettlebell.

41-Strengthens joints- there is a lot that you can do to strengthen your joints. The kettlebell is merely a tool, it is no greater than any other tool. If anything the joints are at a greater risk for injury.

42-Develop dynamic resilience- Acceleration/deceleration is a normal process that is emphasized with powerful, ballistic movements. The tool which is used does not matter, its the type of exercises.

43-Better bracing for spinal stability- Teaching spinal stability is done with exercises, drills, and repetition. There are many other exercises to develop greater stability in the core then just kettlebell swings and snatches. Again, it is the exercises, not the tool that matters.

44-Low tech, back to basics- The correlation between farmers and their strength is more than just lifting large objects. Being ‘strong’ like a farmer or even in this case ‘Strong like a Russian’ takes more then swinging a kettlebell for an hour. A hard work ethic, waking up a the crack of dawn, an active lifestyle, these are things that over the course of time make you strong.

For Athletes and Martial Artists

45-Learn to absorb force more efficiently- Absorbing force stems from the type of exercises that you are doing, not from smoke and mirrors.

46-Develop incredible power- In terms of movement efficiency and relative increases in power the barbell is the superior tool. The dumbbell comes second, and the kettlebell is actually the worse because of its shape, there is more energy spent on the technique then on the actual weight, therefor, the kettlebell is inferior as a power training device.

47-Build strength endurance- Strength endurance and lactic threshold is not tool dependent, but rather exercises and programming dependent. The kettlebell doesn’t miraculously develop strength endurance.

48-Develop strength at the extremes of your range of motion- Again, this is not dependent upon the tool, but rather the quality of your exercises. A barbell, dumbbell, and your body weight can all reach extreme ranges in the joints.

49-Correct imbalances- This one strikes dear to my heart, given that I am a Corrective Exercise Specialist. You do not correct imbalances through large movements like the snatch. Structural/Muscular imbalances are corrected through a process, not a simple tool.

50-Improve recovery- False, recovery is a healing process. Foam Rolling, stretching, proper rest, good nutrition, and an active recovery are all good forms of recovery. The kettlebell may be used during an active recovery, but no more then a dumbell.

The article finishes with ‘Men, you never have to do cardio again in your life’…meaning, this is your ‘pill’ to never have to do something that you don’t want to do. So, if you are looking for an easy way out, here it is.

 

So, what have we gathered?

Hype.

The kettlebell is idolized as an object that can magically do everything for you. It will grant you whatever you like, you wont have to work as hard, either. If we come to the realization that the kettlebell is more hype than its worth, then we have to understand that the kettlebell is a symbol of image. The image surrounding it is a hard-edged, back to basics, Russian beast. But, beneath the veil, it’s simply fools gold, a trick, and you bought into it. From here you have a choice, you either absorb what you have just learned, and apply it to your life, or you close your mind to reserve your world-view on kettlebells. Some people like the taste of Kool-Aid.

Some of what we do at Spartan Fitness (and a part of our philosophy) is to deprogram peoples false-realities (emptying the glass). I’ve done it before to numerous clients with amazing results. The lesson learned is to become less dependent on the objects, and more self-reliant. An object like the Kettlebell teaches us to rely solely on it, instead of treating it as what it really is, only blurring the sanctity between what is real and what is hyper-real.