All About Kettlebells

by mc
schraefel
, September 20th, 2010.

What are kettlebells?

kettlebell imageKettlebells are iron or steel balls with flattened butts on
one end and a curved handle on the other.
Kettlebells are used both for general athletic training and competitive
sport. They facilitate whole body dynamic movement for strength, endurance, and
power training. They are used by sports teams, those who train at home, world
class athletes, and folks who want to burn fat and build muscle.

Kettlebells: a brief history

Humans probably devised a kettlebell-type object — a weight with a handle —
not long after they figured out how to use their opposable thumbs.
Kettlebells, or things that seem to look like them, have been found in
excavations of ancient Greece. It’s thought that implements like them were used
in Russia initially as grain measures, with the approximately 16 kg, or one “pood“, being the standard measure.
Modern kettlebell manufacturers generally respect these weight conventions;
thus kettlebell sizes range in 4 kg increments around the 16 kg “1 pood”
standard (e.g., 12 kg, 16 kg, 24 kg and 32 kg). However, manufacturers are
increasingly producing sizes in between the standards – like 14 kg and 28 kg,
and masses as great as 60 kg kettlebells.

From obscurity to mainstream

strongfortbell
Kettlebells have a long history in Europe and Russia from the 1700s onward,
and were a feature of European gyms and strongman performances in the late 19th
and early 20th century. Now, they are perhaps best known for their association
with late 1940s Russian physical culture.
Their popular introduction to North America in the 21st century is
largely credited to Pavel Tsatsouline, a Russian émigré, Special Forces trainer
and coach. Along with his book The Russian Kettlebell Challenge (see
references below), Tsatsouline concurrently began offering classes and a
kettlebell trainer certification known as the RKC, now the oldest and most
established kettlebell certification in North America.
Since their introduction in the West, kettlebells have slowly begun to emerge
as a mainstream training tool with numerous trainer certifications being
offered. Likewise, what is known as Girevoy Sport (GS) kettlebell competitions
as formalized in Russia around the mid 1980s have started being held in North
America. Valery Fedorenko is credited with the sport’s presentation in
North America
and is now mainly promoted through what has become the World
Kettlebell Club.

Why are kettlebells important?

Because of their design, kettlebells enable many familiar movements from
pushes like the shoulder press to pulls like Renegade Rows. Yet, they also support whole-body, dynamic
weighted movements, once the specialized preserve of Olympic barbell
lifters.

The kettlebell swing

For instance, the foundational kettlebell movement — the swing — starts with
a posture and hip drive similar to the deadlift or Olympic clean, but the
cannonball-with-handle kettlebell design means that this weight can be swung up
from between the legs, driven by the hip thrust forward to about chest height,
and then accelerated down again by the shoulders pulling the weight down, back
through the legs, then driven back up again with the hips, back and forth for
reps.
g1dsc0145resize g2dsc0144ssresize
Depending on the mass of the kettlebell used, sets of swings are either very
low-rep (3-5) with adequate recovery breaks, or high-rep (anywhere from 10-100
or more for time), depending on the energy system/strength type being trained.
This demonstrates the versatility of the kettlebell — the same movement can be
used for everything from maximal strength, to strength-endurance, to “cardio” or
metabolic conditioning.
Hanging onto the kettlebell during swings also works the grip and forearms.
Kettlebell swings can also be performed with two hands on one bell, one hand/one
bell, or one bell in each hand for two bells at a time (doubles).
The Beautiful Swing
More Beautiful Swings
Other dynamic kettlebell movements like the snatch and the clean and jerk
also develop full body strength, power and endurance, and besides being used for
general conditioning, are the core kettlebell competition moves.

Kettlebell advantages

The primary advantage of kettlebell training is its efficiency. While it’s
helpful to have a few kettlebells of different weights, one bell alone can give
you a darn good workout.
  • They are a room efficient gym: if there is room to swing a cat, there’s room
    to swing a kettlebell.
  • By varying weights used, you can use the same movement for cardio,
    strength-endurance, speed, or power.
  • You can do presses, pulls, squatting-type movements, and dynamic work.
  • Because dynamic kettlebell movements involve the whole body, you work upper
    and lower body strength concurrently and time effectively.
  • Because these are compound moves, you must engage antagonist, agonist and
    support muscles.
  • The hip drive focus is also particularly useful for working the core and
    “posterior chain” — the muscles of the spine, butt, and back of the legs.
  • The focus on form for shoulder work helps strengthen and stabilize the
    shoulder joint.

Cautions

Some people immediately fear for a lifter’s back when they see any dynamic
movement of a weight at high speeds. Kettlebells can evoke a similar response in
those unfamiliar with proper form.
Yet Stuart McGill, a leading back expert, is a strong supporter of
kettlebells (and deadlifts). Lifters maintain spinal stability and neutral spine
throughout the movements (notice in the photos above that the lifter never
rounds the back, but keeps a natural curve).
That said, as with any skill, doing it right can be safe; doing it wrong can
lead to injury.
“Safety first” is such a mantra in the kettlebell community that the staple
training manual since 2006, Enter the Kettlebell (review),
includes a chapter on safety and back health, and concludes with the warning:
“If you get hurt, it’s your fault.”

Applications for kettlebells

For fat burning

When combined with proper nutrition, training with kettlebells seems to offer
the benefits of intense interval training on bikes but with the strength
development of weights. There are increasing numbers of weight loss stories
where kettlebells, along with good nutrition, contribute to success.

For field athletes

Strength and conditioning (S&C) coaches like Jeremy
Layport
and Chris Holder are using the kettlebell to improve overall
endurance capacity of their athletes. Even Lance Armstrong has been seen
swinging kettlebells (below).

A basic S&C template that many coaches use with infinite variety is to
alternate between kettlebell swings and Turkish get ups. For example, one partner does a Turkish get
up to the left and to the right, while the other swings non-stop.

Getting more from one kettlebell

The kettlebell design also means it can be used in a variety of ways to
extend the life of a given kettlebell weight.
While the standard hold is with the handle across the palm with the bell
resting against the forearm, a challenging alternative is to use the bottoms-up
grip where the handle is squeezed, and the weight is held straight up, rather
than resting against the wrist, as in the “bottoms up carry” as
described by Stuart McGill (pdf)
.
double_BU_press
Warning: Despite the great versatility of a single bell, kettlebells
are also well-known to multiply. Partners of new kettlebell enthusiasts should
be aware that claims of “I only need one, or maybe two — look, they take up no
space” may still find kettlebells behaving like Tribbles.

Getting started: find a coach

The best start for any kettlebell user is to begin with a coach [see more at
PN’s How to Find a
Trainer
].
A trained eye can evaluate key parts of foundational moves, such as:
  • proper grip/wrist alignment with the bell
  • foot to knee position
  • shoulder action
  • appropriate back alignment
Likewise, learning good technique will help preserve hands when doing high
repetition kettlebell work.
Avoid this ouchy when doing high-rep kettlebell work by learning good form first
Avoid this ouchy when doing high-rep kettlebell work by
learning good form first
A few sessions with a coach is the best way to help learn and refine these
elegant moves.
There are listings of RKC “Hard Style” coaches. The IKFF lists coaches who blend GS style with mainly bodyweight
fitness training, or, one can go right to the Russian source with the IKSFA
for a technique workshop.
A well-qualified coach will also be able to help anyone work up to a
kettlebell swing and beyond, as some folks aren’t quite able to achieve that
butt back swing position right away. So coaching is key: trying to swing
kettlebells without proper form is about as safe as trying to deadlift with a
rounded back.

Summary and recommendations

Kettlebells are a fabulous and often overlooked tool for strength and
conditioning. The mileage one can get from a single kettlebell is hard to match
with any other training tool.
  • As the kettlebell’s signature movements are dynamic, they blend the benefits
    of compound strength lifts with power and endurance work.
  • Kettlebell work also helps develop forearm, hand and finger strength because
    of numerous options for grip, and various loads dynamically challenging the grip
    repeatedly and at high speeds.
  • A single kettlebell workout can include a great variety of pushes, pulls and
    ballistic movements. Because of the options of varying load and sets,
    kettlebells offer fat burning alternatives to bikes or treadmills.
  • Kettlebells engage the whole body with a single tool that is small,
    portable, and affordable for home use.
  • Kettlebells can help strengthen the spinal musculature, keeping your back
    happy; there is no significant lumbar flexion in kettlebell work.
Whether looking for conditioning, fat burning, raw strength or power, it’s
worth any practitioner’s while to investigate kettlebell training.

For extra credit

Early research in support of kettlebells

Most of the formal research on kettlebell training for performance is in
Russian. We know it mainly from Pavel Tsatsouline’s translations and summaries
like these from Enter the Kettlebell.
    In the 20th century, Soviet science validated what Russian hard men had
    known for centuries: kettlebell lifting is one of the best tools for all around
    physical development. Voropayev (1983) observed two groups of college students
    over a period of a few years. To gauge their performance, he used a standard
    battery of the armed forces physical training (PT) tests: pull-ups, a standing
    broad jump, a 100- meter sprint, and a 1K run. The control group followed the
    typical university PT program, which was military oriented and emphasized the
    above exercises. The experimental group just lifted kettlebells. In spite of the
    lack of practice on the tested drills, the kettlebell group showed better scores
    in every one of them! Vinogradov and Lukyanov (1986) found a very high
    correlation between the results posted in a kettlebell lifting competition and
    in a great range of dissimilar tests: strength, measured with the three
    powerlifts and grip strength; strength endurance, measured with pull-ups and
    parallel bar dips; general endurance, determined by a 1K run; and work capacity
    and balance, measured with special tests. Lopatin (2000) found a positive
    correlation between soldiers’ kettlebell sport ranking and their obstacle course
    performance. Kettlebells improve coordination and agility (Luchkin, 1947;
    Laputin, 1973). Kettlebells develop professional applied qualities and general
    physical preparedness (Zikov, 1986; Griban, 1990).

Current research

The English-speaking world still lags behind with kettlebell research.
It’s been hypothesized that the swing also provides the forces necessary to
generate increased bone density.

Kettlebell juggling

Kettlebell work is most often in the sagittal (back and forth) plane, but
some experienced kettlebell enthusiasts break out of this box with kettlebell
juggling, either as a solo or partner activity.
Russian Navy members practicing kettlebell juggling:

Competition

For folks who fall in love with these weights, there are the Girevoy Sport
competitions.
In a competition, athletes have a fixed time to achieve a minimum number of
reps in particular lifts at specific weight-class loads to attain one of several possible
rankings in the sport
. Competitions include the Long Cycle which is non-stop clean and jerk, the jerk, and the
snatch.
Women’s 24 kg snatch competition featuring Kseniya
Dedyukhina

Tactical Strength Challenge

Another form of competition is known as the Tactical Strength
Challenge
. This includes the kettlebell snatch, a deadlift and a pull up
competition. It’s also fun.

Size

As for what size to start with, generally women start with an 8 kg and 12 kg;
men with a 16 kg and 24 kg.
Having a lighter and a heavier bell gives beginners the option to work on
technique first, and heavier sets later.
Folks who have been sedentary for a long time may happily start lighter; more
experienced strength athletes may prefer to go heavier. HardStyle magazine (pdf) has a section each month on how to
pick a size appropriate for any level.

Quality

Almost more critical than the right starting weight is quality of the
bell.
The shape, size and finish of the handle can make the difference between a
good or horrible experience. Poor finishes can be filed down, but poor size or
shape cannot be changed. A poorly designed/made bell may be cheap(er) but will
be used once and abandoned. A good quality 16 kg kettlebell will cost about as
much as a higher end pair of sneakers but will last for a lifetime.

Resources and references

Baszanowski, W., ed. 8 European Weightlifter Federations: a Brief History of
Their Centenaries. Special Issue. European Weightlifter, EWF
Secretariat. 2005 (pdf).
Farrar RE, Mayhew JL, & Koch AJ. Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings.
Journal of strength and conditioning research, 24 (4), 1034-6, 2010.
PMID: 20300022
Jay, Kenneth. Viking Warrior Conditioning. Dragon Door Publications, MN,
2009.
Sanchez, Thierry. Kettlebell Sport and Athletic Preparation, Aalborg
Sportshøjskole & Trænerakademiet, 2009 (pdf)
Tsatsouline, Pavel. Enter the Kettlebell. Dragon Door Publications, MN, 2006.
Tsatsouline, Pavel, The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. Dragon Door Publications,
MN, 2001.
Tsatsouline, Pavel McGill on Kettlebells Power By Pavel Newsletter, 155,
(April 30, 2008).
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About dkpilates

Pilates Instructor, Yoga Instructor, Personnel trainer and Group Fitness Instructor. Don teaches Contemporary and the Authentic forms of Pilates, in the later 90's, Don began his study of Yoga. His study of Yoga includes the Hatha, Iyengar, Bikram, and Astanga disciplines. His other areas of interest in fitness include Martial Arts, Spin, Boot Camp Training, and Weight Training. Don has extensive training and certifications from AFFA, IDEA, MadDog, B-Fit and Polestar. Don Continues his of Pilates education with Michelle Larson in Santa Fe New Mexico. His personal philosophy related to fitness is to aid students in a personalized balance of strength, stamina and flexibility. He is dedicated to design a program specifically for his students independent of the season of their life to create functional movement and help them reach their fitness goals.
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One Response to All About Kettlebells

  1. Pingback: Clash of the Titans: Cardio Vs. Strength Training | The Core Matrix

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