It never fails. Every single time I work out with a kettlebell, someone ends up giving me a strange look. It’s a strange implement, an awkward weight resembling a mini bowling ball with a luggage handle that most people look at with a kind of curious fear. They’re not sure what it is, what to do with it, or why it would work over dumbbells. My friend Kelly calls them “evil little suckers.” They are a CrossFit staple. A common prop that is surfacing in group fitness. Kettlebells are used to perform explosive workouts that combine strength training, cardiovascular fitness and flexibility training while strengthening your core and improving flexibility. Sounds good right? But where did kettlebells come from and how did they bubble up into mainstream fitness?
The kettlebell itself is an old weight that’s had most of its life in the Baltic States. It’s split off from the dumbbell at the beginnings of manufactured steel weights. The dumbbell went west and the kettlebell went east, but regardless of where you think it might have come from (some people say Russia, some say Mongolia, some the Celtic countries), the kettlebell is most well known for being utilized by Russian farm workers who used them as counter weights for farm equipment. The farmers began working with them and they soon became a favored fitness tool. The kettlebell’s popularity spread throughout Russia, and by the 1940s, lifting them would become the country’s national sport. Soon Russian power lifters were not the only ones using them the entire Olympic team, military and special forces began training with them, which only further increased the popularity of the kettlebell. In recent years, various athletes and public personalities have helped spread their popularity and kettlebells have even begun popping up in corporate gyms.
I never really actually WORKED OUT with a kettlebell until I began doing CrossFit. Of course I had heard of kettlebells prior to that, mostly through tacky infomercials displaying smiling men and women tossing around happily colored kettlebells in funky swinging motions. Initially my reaction was the same as most peoples- I assumed because I had barbells and dumbbells and machines, what need did I have for a kettlebell? In my mind it was nothing but a new marketing scheme.
Being the scholarly nerd that I am I had to cut through the mainstream marketing mumbo jumbo and learn more about the science of the kettlebell- the what, the why, the how. So I went straight for “The Russian Kettlebell Challenge”, the training from the famed Pavel Tsatsouline. I knew of Pavel’s expertise with kettlebells (he was a nationally ranked kettlebell lifter in Russia) and with training elite special forces units. I noticed during the video that many of the lifts were variations of the classic Olympic lifts, with one significant difference- many of the kettlebell ballistic lifts were much easier to learn than the traditional Olympic lifts. Olympic Lifting is difficult, yet with the kettlebells, all that was required was some basic cuing and it seemed plausible that anyone could learn these lifts. It became quite clear to me that while TV, the newspaper, and magazines wanted to focus on the weight loss and body composition benefits, kettlebells were terrific for teaching proper speed from the hips, which is essential in power and speed sports. It’s also why CrossFit has wrapped its fist around the kettlebell- because many of the movements and skills required in CrossFit focus on learning to have fast and effective hips.
Mainstream media tells us that the kettlebell workout offers a different workout compared to machines or dumbbells (free weights) because when you work out with a machine you are forced to move in a predetermined path of travel. Dumbbells have a tight center of gravity and mainly utilize the major muscle groups while kettlebells, are odd shaped and the mass is often off center, requiring an individual to use muscles that mimic real life situations. This all sounds great, in theory, but I still find lots of people
I run into are hesitant and apprehensive about whether or not the kettlebell has a place in their own routine. I personally believe that regardless of your goals, it does. And here are some of my reasons why:
1- For starters, it works. It’s the real deal. When they were first being re-introduced many people scoffed at them, because they didn’t understand the methodology behind them and just blatantly said they weren’t anything special, and after personally having used them, I believe those people are wrong. It’s definitely, in my mind, one of the top 10 all time tools for physical strength and endurance. Not to mention its an incredible workout, either on it’s own, or as part
of your dumbbell/barbell/machine implementation.
2- Whether or not your focus is strength or endurance, I believe the kettlebell will be of benefit. The kettlebell balances the need for extreme contraction that you would have with high-level strength work and relaxation that you have with high-level endurance work. You’re super tight when you lift a heavy weight, but loose when you do conditioning. The kettlebell alternates periods of intense contraction and controlled relaxation to give you a superior workout that melds into both the strength world as well as the endurance world.
3- Talk about a core workout. I mean it, the kettlebell stimulates tremendous abdominal contraction because of the explosive conditioning movements that you use it with. Essentially this means you’re working your abs even when you’re “not working” your abs. Because of this tremendous abdominal contraction and coordinated breathing it provides a very high level of conditioning which has made it popular among fighters and other elite level athletes.
4- As I mentioned earlier the shape of the kettlebell lends itself to unique exercises and its odd center of gravity forces you to do more work involving your stabilizing muscles to create explosive movement with the bell. IT also helps to teach Olympic lifts safely with a very small learning curve. It’s much easier on the wrists and shoulders to rack kettlebell cleans and to hold for front squats than it is to use a barbell and it’s much faster to learn one-arm kettlebell snatches than barbell snatches.
5- The kettlebell allows you to not just kill two birds with one stone- but to kill MULTIPLE birds with one stone. It allows you to get both muscle stimulating strength work, explosive speed building work and unbelievable endurance work all at the same time. It’s KILLER conditioning, it stimulates the muscles and blows standard elliptical cardio out of the water. The ballistic or explosive movements that are applied to many kettlebell exercises will take your conditioning to a very high level and are very real-world in their application. Almost all sport is based on fast movement and fast movement recruits more muscle fibers and heart and lung involvement for a tougher workout. If you’re not an athlete concerned about movement, consider the insane heart pumping workout you’ll be getting- the heart pumping workout that sheds fat and stimulates lean muscle?
6- Kettlebell methodology is unique and therefore lends itself to many physical attributes. Normal western progression with dumbbells or even barbells to an extent, is to progress to a limited number of reps and continually add weight to an exercise. Meaning you progress to say 12 reps of an exercise and then simply take your weight up (maybe going from 10 lbs to 15 lbs). Kettlebell progression can include weight progression, but many times it’s based on progression of repetitions or to a harder exercise. Meaning rather then move to a heavier kettlebell you simply compete more reps or change the exercise to a more difficult variety. You can get a killer strength and endurance work without necessarily having to use the heaviest weight you can find. You just tweak the exercise for the result that you want.
7- Many kettlebell exercises allow you to build joint strength and flexibility along with strength and conditioning. Even the basic swing has a great hamstring stretch and other exercises such as the windmill, and single leg deadlift also build massive flexible strength.
8- Simply put- they’re fun, addictive, and basic. Like anything else, simpler something is to do the more likely you are to do it. I guarantee you can learn some basic exercises in five minutes.
9- Even though they’re safe and simple to use, they’re just scary enough to the average gym meathead to keep them at a safe distance away from the real training. Trust me, everytime I swing a kettlebell in the gym people steer clear, not just of the wild swinging, but the fact that I’m training with “that thing.”
10- There is an implement similar to the kettlebell in almost all the real, hard core training cultures of ancient times, which is just pretty cool. I stated earlier that certain people think the kettlebell came from different areas of the world. That’s partially because there’s a kettlebell type implement in Russia, Mongolia, Scotland, used also in the Shaolin Chinese Kung Fu training, Japanese Martial Arts, etc. I mean it’s just neat, I think that in all the legends of the old time strongmen trained with barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells. Arthur Saxon used them- so they have to be good enough for me!
Kettlebells have a permenant home in my toolbox of training fun. They are terrific for bodyfat loss, improving lean body mass, and helping teach proper speed of the hips (important for speed and power sports). I will never rid myself of barbells or dumbbells, nor do I advocate anyone else doing so, but I do feel that kettlebells SHOULD be used by any serious lifter.
Allison Moyer-Fahrenbach is a nationally and internationally published fitness model, well known NPC figure competitor, CrossFit and strength athlete, entrepreneur, motivator, nutritionist and performance dietary specialist based out of Lancaster, PA. She holds a Bachelors in Wellness and Sports Science as well as multiple certifications including her C.P.T, C.S.N, C.S.C.C, and her CF-L1 and CF Weightlifting. She can be contacted for appearances, talks, seminars, posing classes, training and more through her website www.alli-fitness.com or by email, AllisonMoyer@live.com.