Physical Culture

Kettlebells: The Hot “New” Fitness Tool

Kettlebells are hardly "new"

I was thumbing through the December issue of the UK edition of Esquire magazine, and happened upon an article on kettlebells.  It made me realize how big the kettlebell craze is becoming that it has permeated even non-fitness oriented publications such as Esquire.

Popularity has its pros and cons.  On one hand, I”m excited that the benefits of kettlebell practice can be shared with a broader audience.  This is fantastic, and can be of great benefit to a lot of people.  On the other hand, with popularity comes opportunity, and with opportunity comes the opportunists.  There have already been a couple so-called kettlebell “experts” who have marketed products with tiny kettlebells who clearly don’t know what they’re talking about.  I won’t link to them on this blog as I don’t want to contribute in any way to their popularity.  You can also purchase poorly made kettlebells at Target or at almost any sporting goods store, complete with a DVD or manual showing you how to use them – but the material teaches you to use them as if they were dumbbells doing straight sets of curls, for instance.  I also worry for the safety of newcomers to kettlebell training, whose zeal may outpace their good sense.  Kettlebells are meant to be swung, cleaned, snatched, etc.  Its all too easy to accidentally release the handle at the wrong moment and end up with a vigorously tossed cannonball with a handle hurtling into your brand new LCD TV.  Heaven forbid this scenario should play out in a packed gym.  In a contest between flesh and kettlebell, the kettlebell will win.

My Take On Kettlebells

Full disclosure, I don’t hold any official certification in kettlebells (yet) so everything I write below is simply my opinion.

Kettlebells are not new.  They have been around forever and a day, and the reality is that for the most part there is nothing new under the sun.  Society just tends to forget things and then when we remember its like a brand new discovery.  Here is a short slideshow showing several vintage pictures of kettlebells in use.

  • Are Kettlebells All I Need For Fitness?

Fitness for what?  There is no single definition for fitness and you have to workout with your goal in mind.  If you are short on time, don’t like to visit conventional gyms, and need an all around workout tool, the kettlebell will take good care of you.  You can work the entire body with kettlebell programs, improve health, fitness, and mobility, and even save money when you consider the cost of monthly gym memberships.

If you are interested in muscle mass and physique, kettlebells can still offer benefits, but I don’t believe they’re the ideal solution.  The loading options available using traditional dumbbells and barbells with 5-lbs increment weight plates is too advantageous to turn down.  I can add size to my quads by doing double kettlebell front squats, 5 x 5, and when I achieve this I can add sets to increase intensity. I can keep increasing till I achieve 10 x 5.  Then I can start to reduce rest times, or increase reps.  Eventually I’ll move up to the next heavier set of kettlebells.  Or I can simply add weight plates to the barbell in the squat rack.  Which one is simpler?  In terms of exercise, its good to employ Occam’s Razor.  The simplest solution is usually best.

If you are interested in athletic performance, now we’re starting to get into some fun stuff.  Again, an athlete can arguably develop all the attributes he/she needs just through strict kettlebell training (with exceptions of course…if your sport is Olympic Weightlifting you are clearly not going to eschew the Olympic bar and plates).  I think, though, that the ideal situation is one in which you utilize a variety of training modalities as appropriate for your individual situation and sport.

Kettlebells are odd objects with the weight offset and with thick handles.  This provides for a high degree of carryover to the “odd” nature of most physical activity.  Kettlebells are also fantastic for explosive training – especially for athletes not well versed in the traditional Olympic lifts.  Its much easier to teach someone to correctly snatch a kettlebell than to perform a proper barbell snatch, and you don’t want to spend more time than absolutely necessary teaching a wrestler how to Olympic snatch when its the explosive-hips quality you are after and not the technique.

Kettlebells are also fantastic for long sets to promote strength-endurance and conditioning.  For a powerlifter, being strong for the duration of your lifts is all that’s required.  For a Jiu-Jitsu fighter, being immensely strong at the beginning of a match and then weak and exhausted midway through is clearly not acceptable.  Its important for that athlete to have a lasting strength.

Here is an excellent article going into more in depth info for using kettlebells for MMA athletes, although the same info can be applied to many other pursuits.


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