Why bother with…Kettlebells?
Learn to generate power from the hips
Perform olympic style lifts safer
Increase mobility and functional strength
Save floor space and workout on the go
Great for shoulder rehab
Why bother with Kettlebells? I mean they’re just the same as dumbells right?
Kettlebells ‘can’ be used as just another weight in the gym, but if you can do it with a dumbell, why bother with a kettlebell?
Their shape for a start, with the weight on one end and handle on the other, this makes them very easy to manipulate in the air. In other words, kettlebells are there to be swung and thrown about, Literally in the case of kettlebell juggling!
(KB juggling video)
Rather than focussing on isolated movements involving only one or two muscles, the main focus of strength training with kettlebells is generating power from hinging at the hips. This is demonstrated in what most people consider the foundation of almost all other kettlebell lifts.
The classic kettlebell swing is similar to a deadlift mechanically, hinging at the hips and then standing up straight, but is a much more dynamic with a greater range of motion.
As you can see in the video above the force that is generated by the hips sends the kettlebell (along with the arms) away from the body and the only input that comes from the arms is keeping hold of the handle of the kettlebell and stalling the swing at shoulder height.
Our bodies have evolved to have power at the center, not the extremities and this is central to how we function. The mechanics on how to do it is the most important aspect. A basic understanding of how to ground ourselves and how to make a connection between the center of our bodies and our extremities can go a long way to saving our backs, shoulders, and necks from undue punishment.
Because of how most people’s lives are structured these days we are very arm centric. We push and pull things, yank on them, reach for them, and so on. It works if they are light, but when things get heavy it can be a problem. In short, we have unlearned an important skill set, which is to use our bodies, rather than our extremities, to generate strength and power.
Generating power in this way helps us with lifting heavy weights from the floor to an overhead position. This is done by powering the weight up with the hips and then manipulating the weight whilst it is at its float point (the bit where the kettlebell appears to hang in the air for a second before beginning to fall back down) by pulling and pushing with our arms as shown with the snatch.
This is almost exactly the same mechanics which olympic weightlifters use to perform barbell snatches.
(BB snatch video)
“That’s all well and good” you may be thinking “but what does that have to do with staying fit and healthy?”
Well for starters one of the main causes of back related injuries is lifting things with poor form or mechanics. Sometimes simply learning to hinge properly when lifting can fix these issues and strengthening the posterior chain (the muscles along the back of your body) by performing swings can prevent them happening again in the future.
That’s the first major benefit of training with kettlebells over dumbbells, but if the mechanics of swings and snatches with kettlebells is similar to barbell deadlifts and snatches, why not just use a barbell? Well there are a couple of reasons I can think of, Safety and convenience.
Olympic barbell lifts can take a lot of time and coaching to learn to be performed safely and even then most olympic lifters only perform low rep sets. Anyone who has been unfortunate enough to have attended a poorly ran Crossfit gym can tell you of the dangers of performing olympic barbell lifts for high reps, especially as a novice. The danger of dropping the bar on your head, neck or back is very real.
(Olympic lift fails video)
Performing olympic style lifts with kettlebells however offers a little more safety as they are much easier to throw to the side or step out from under than a barbell. This allows for more mistakes to be made whilst learning correct form and also allows for working in high rep ranges or to exhaustion without as much fear of crippling injury.
(Kettlebell sport fails video)
Next up convenience.
The heaviest kettlebells I use currently are 24kg, they take up a square foot of floor space at most and you can easily throw a couple of those in the boot of your car and drive to a nice scenic spot and get a workout in. It’s a bit more awkward to take your barbell and plates out to go train in the local park!
The convenience of kettlebells doesn’t stop there, as the basic swing is one of the most complete full body exercises, simply performing sets of swings whilst you watch your favourite soaps or whatever is a great way to get exercise in without it having to be a big deal. Since kettlebells take up very little room I store mine in my living room (ok so my living room has pretty much all my gym equipment in it) so it’s easy to just pick one up and do a few sets of swings whilst I watch something on TV.
(TV pic here)
So far I’ve focussed on heavy duty lifts like the snatch, but although training with kettlebells is great for generating power from the hips they are extremely versatile. Probably the second best lift that can be performed with a kettlebell and gives a massive return on investment is the turkish get up.
In fact the combination of swings and turkish get ups is so effective that Pavel Tsatsouline, one of the people famous for popularising the kettlebell in the west, wrote an entire book and training program around just those two lifts called Simple and Sinister.
The turkish get up is an exercise that combines the lunge, bridge and side plank to build strength, the get-up is a slow and controlled movement, unlike the other exercises that have a power or ballistic element. Keeping the arm holding the bell extended vertical, the athlete transitions from lying supine on the floor to standing, and back again. Get-ups are sometimes combined to make get-up presses, with a press at each position of the get-up: floor press, leaning seated press, high bridge press, single-leg kneeling press, standing press.
This lift is great for all round mobility because let’s face it, how often do you practice getting up from the floor? Apart from the overall mobility training the TGU is beneficial for:
Low ‘Volume’: I usually only do 5 each side per set
Core: Sitting up and in the intermediate stage, you are really using your core for stability.
Strength: The TGU is really like 5 exercises in one as mentioned above
Focus: Concentrating on each part of the movement while holding heavy, face crushing metal above your head really helps you focus. By the end of a set, there is very much willpower and concentration needed to fight your fatigue and finish properly.
Proprioception: You become very aware of each part of your body and where it’s at and where it needs to go. How any slight adjustment affects what you’re doing becomes immediately clear.
Balance: This pretty much speaks for itself and goes along with proprioception.
Flexibility: You will learn to bend in the right ways and in a slow and controlled fashion to do a heavy TGU.
Time under tension (on body): All that time under tension really puts a strain on your connective tissue. Muscles get strong fast, connective tissue does not. Doing TGUs will help strain and heal your ligaments and tendons in a way most quick and dynamic exercises do not, strain over time. Not to mention central nervous system stimulation.
Time under tension (on Cardio): Heavy TGU’s will have you breathing deeply as your body tries to take in enough oxygen to power
Grip: You will feel it in your forearm and wrist. You are crushing the bell to hold it in place. Your wrist is preventing any lateral movements. They are doing them at the same time for a prolonged period. Your grip will get tired by the end.
Shoulder Health: The benefits of shoulder packing are pretty well known.This should also have carry over to any shoulder press movements in addition to strengthening the entire joint.
Those last two points, Grip and Shoulder health, are yet more of the benefits of training with kettlebells.
As far as I am concerned kettlebells are the safest and most practical tool for training overhead presses. With dumbbells, the center of mass is in the palm of the hand, but the center of mass of a kettlebell is located about eight inches away from the handle, depending on the kettlebell size. Therefore, the center of mass of the kettlebell locked out overhead aligns better with the shoulder, keeping its center of mass over the center of the joint that supports it. This means if the kettlebell is large enough, even though the arm isn’t perfectly vertical, the center of mass of the kettlebell aligns over the shoulder. This is totally different from what happens with dumbbells and offers unique advantages in regards to the joint’s health. Also, pressing from the rack position adds a more natural rotational motion to the press unlike conventional dumbbell presses.
I personally had picked up a few shoulder injuries during my time training like a bodybuilder and found it difficult and sometimes painful to press anything overhead. That is until I started training with kettlebells, now I can press pretty heavy weight with hardly any discomfort and even clean and jerked a respectable 90kg barbell overhead.
But what about grip then?
Well when performing the basic swing for example, after powerfully extending the hips, the kettlebell swings away from the body creating extra force pulling the handle from your hands. This means your hand and forearms muscles have to work extra hard to keep hold of the kettlebell. Grip strength was an independent predictor of all-cause mortality and cardiovascular diseases in community-dwelling populations.
Another way kettlebells can be used to train grip is with the pinch grip lift. The kettlebell pinch primarily trains the tendons in your fingers and muscles of the hand, which are often ignored in general grip training. It allows you to strengthen the tendons in the fingers to efficiently grab the bar when performing big lifts, or the ball in various sports. As a bonus, the KB pinch also boosts your wrist and forearm strength. It’s simple. Just pick up a kettlebell by the body or ball, grip it, and try not to drop it. Make sure you evenly distribute your fingers around the kettlebell so you get a nice firm grip.
(pinch pic here)
But my personal favourite way to train both grip and shoulder health with a single lift is the bottoms up press. Balancing the kettlebell upside down with the weight above your hand requires a vice-like grip and keeping a solid core, especially when using heavy bells, even the slightest rotation of the handle in your hand can throw the entire lift off balance. One of the biggest benefits of the bottoms-up press is that it teaches you the principle of irradiation. As you grip the bell tightly, the rest of your arm tenses. The tension in your arm irradiates to create more stability in your shoulder. Similarly, as you tense your torso, the irradiation principle increases strength in your shoulder. Because of the narrow margin for error it helps you find the right groove for presses. Your shoulder will find the path of least resistance and most stability to press the weight. With the weight upside down, you will feel the pressure in your palm. This tends to keep the elbows in a great position. Bottoms-up presses are also an effective (but complicated) rehab tool, as they build rotator cuff strength. This is one of the ways training with kettlebells helped me rehab my shoulders.
(BU press video)
So those are my thoughts on why you should bother with kettlebells. Personally I love the versatility and variety of ways to use kettlebells both for gaining strength and mobility as well as using them to rehab shoulder injuries.
So if you don’t already own a kettlebell I highly recommend purchasing yourself one or two and giving them a swing. I have wrote up tutorials for most of the foundational lifts on this site that should help you with getting started training with kettlebells.