“Kettlebell” is a word that I and probably many of you have been hearing quite a bit lately. I get tons of questions about what I think about “kettlebells.” I think they are a great supplemental tool for some athletes, but they are widely overhyped with ridiculous untrue claims (pretty much just like anything ‘new’ in the health and fitness industry). We as humans are constantly searching for the “answer” or the “system” or “tool” or “be-all-end-all” to our health and fitness problems and goals.
Enter the kettlebell craze, and you have dramatic claims, myths, and an overall misunderstanding in every aspect of this exercise tool. I am going to shoot down some of these claims and explain the difference between average fitness seekers and athletes. (who should and shouldn’t be trying use of kettlebells). I am going to keep it short and hit a couple key points, otherwise I could rant for days about kettlebell problems!
First, let’s discuss legitimacy. When I performed a simple google search using the word kettlebell, which by the way, is underscored in red every time I type it due to being unrecognizable as an actual word, the search results were flooded with marketers statements with such claims as “Kettlebells improve your 40-yard dash” and “This super-simple ‘handheld gym’ guarantees faster fat loss, rapid muscle gain, higher performance, and dramatic power – in just minutes a day!”
Can you say overhype? I don’t believe in a second, any of those ludicrous claims, and hopefully neither do you.Now, besides marketers trying to prey and make money, there is a whole other batch of people even more intense who pronounce their love for kettlebells and claim their superiority over all else: these “fitness professionals” who use and teach “kettlebell training.” This elitist group, who almost seem brainwashed, or part of some kettlebell cult, emphatically defend the kettlebell while denouncing all other forms of exercise!
My first experience with one of these hardcore kettlebellers was in Columbus, Ohio a few years back at the annual Arnold Sports Festival. She was staying at my same hotel, and working for some “authentic” kettlebell retailer. She worshiped these cast iron balls, claimed that dumbbells and barbells load weight onto your joints and damage them, and that only kettlebells have a non-load bearing action…? She pronounced that she sold the only, “authentic” Russian kettlebells, and that all others were “fitness kettlebells,” inferior in design and quality…? She claimed that you should only workout with kettlebells….?Ok, first, using moderate weight (bodyweight, dbs, bbs, kettlebells, any type) for resistance training your joints and soft connecting tissues are strengthened because you load them over your joints. There is too much vagueness in many claims, and this one is no exception. If you perform any lift too much, too fast, with bad form, too heavy, or without a proper CNS awakening you can and will injure your joints suddenly or eventually over time. Kettlebells are unique in that most movements are compound, multi-joint movements and therefore more dynamic than say, a single-joint action. This I believe, is where this claim originates, but let’s be clear, lifting any weight involves the joints! Saying that using kettlebells takes load away from your joints is like saying you can make a peanut butter and jelly sandwich without bread!
Secondly, sorry, but kettlebells are not Russian in origin, nor were they popularized by the Spetnaz in their training. From my research their origins are controversial, but most evidence points to the Highlands, or Scotland. Third, I’m sure there is a difference in kettlebell quality between retailers, but the difference cannot be as dramatic as this lady proclaimed to me. It is, in the end, a freaking weight with a handle! Lastly, you should work out with only kettlebells? No chance, don’t be such a sucker! As I stated earlier, kettlebells are a great supplemental (meaning in addition to) tool for some in their routines, but definitely not for everybody.
Your average fitness seeker, the non-athlete who is looking for general health or weight loss is most likely going to be injured using kettlebells. Let me explain: In kettlebell movements, as I stated earlier, many joints are moving and involved, therefore the need for extra attention to body mechanics, posture, and form. Take the kettlebell swing, for example. Probably the most used, most popular movement using the kettlebell. You take the weight, clasp it with both hands in front of you, letting it hang between your legs, you bend at the waist and knees and then thrust your hips forward and up, keeping your arms straight, swinging the kettlebell up to head-level.
Using the kinetic energy you reverse the motion and cushion as is swings back down, and repeat for desired repetitions. Shoulders, wrists, spine, hips and knees are all involved directly. I hear of numerous injuries in these areas from people using kettlebells. Why? You have to have properly built up muscles to hold yourself in correct alignment throughout the movement! Simple! If someone doesn’t have the muscle control to retract their shoulder blades, then of course they will overextend their shoulder joints, and most likely injure their low back from weak core muscles too.
It’s the same topic I preach and teach to my clients and members daily. “Don’t just go through the motion, you have to think about every single body detail involved in every movement.” “Mind into the muscle.” Form is everything! If an average fitness seeker who is not familiar or out of practice picks up a kettlebell, most likely they are going to injure themselves. Proper muscle control (body awareness), muscle memory and overall endurance and strength must be reached first! Crawl before you walk! I spend a great amount of time with clients teaching them to retract their shoulder blades, tightening their core, and drawing their chest out…basic posture posititoning! If someone doesn’t have these bare basic involuntary muscles keyed up, then forget about doing dynamic movements. I see it way too much. Guys in MMA swinging a sledge-hammer at a giant tire, for example. Most cannot perform basic exercises in proper form and body control, and they are going to try and get something out of a super-dynamic movement such as swinging a sledge-hammer! Forget about it! They are burning some calories, but beyond that they are not conditioning or building strength, or improving muscular endurance…they are just going through the motion (unless proper form and muscles have been established prior).
I am obviously very passionate when it comes to these topics, and I can get lost in discussion. To some it all up, if you decide to use kettlebells, whether you are a top-level athlete looking for an edge or just an average fitness seeker looking to drop some lbs, don’t buy into the overhype, utilize common sense, strengthen up your entire mind-to-muscle pathway and build up your exercise routine into incorporating some of kettlebell movements if you see fit, or want a challenge or change of pace. They are not some magical fitness revolution tool and they will not ever replace dumbbells, barbells, bodyweight, and other forms of resistance or exercise!