Kettlebell training has increased in popularity significantly in recent years and has been very much associated with the term “functional training”.
This piece isn’t intended to cast a negative light on kettlebell training or anybody who enjoys training with them but I would like to look at an alternative view. Far from being against KB training it was an essential part of my kit when I was regularly conducting home based personal training sessions. They give scope to use a variety of training techniques and resistance exercises that wouldn’t normally have been possible in a home environment. For me that is their USP, they are an adaptable piece of kit which can be transported easily and used for a variety of exercises allowing for more varied sessions. However once moved to a well equipped gym they start to lose their appeal!
It is important when training to think carefully about what objectives you may have and what you’re hoping to achieve as a result of all of your hard work. For example, if your objectives are any of the following, strength gains, improvement in functional movements, fat burning, endurance, anaerobic or aerobic improvements then there are much more effective ways of achieving any of the above than using kettlebells.
Kettlebells are generally used for “strength and conditioning” which is at best a very broad term, strength gains for example will always be more easily achieved with olympic bars and dumbbells. If your aim is hypertrophy then a combination of free weights, cables and pin-loaded machines will do the job best. So then we have the buzz term “functional strength and conditioning”, when considering including functional movements in your programme think carefully about what type of functional improvements you’re looking for and what piece of equipment will fit best. If your desired improvements are sport specific then it’s important that your exercises mimic the movement patterns that are specific to your sport, and that you focus on strengthening the muscles that are the primary source of power for those particular movement patterns. It’s also important that focus is given to joint mobility and muscle connections which certainly can be aided by kettlebell exercises. In relation to core stability which often gets lumped together with functional training I recommend starting with isometric holds, targeted muscular contractions and balance training. Until these boxes have been ticked and your muscular chain is correctly aligned then you will gain little from the type of ballistic swinging movements that generally come with “core” KB exercises.
Kettlebell exercises are often hybrid movements combining a lot of muscular activity around a number of joints. Probably one of the most practiced is the KB swing so let’s use this as an example, it is a movement which in essence is part squat, part deadlift and part front raise. Experience tells me that nearly all gym users and most athletes have some problems with squatting well and activating the correct muscle groups without putting undue stress on the skeleton and joints. As such to take a difficult exercise that most people aren’t getting right and then combine it with another movement at speed is going to almost certainly mean that you’ll have more body parts out of position than in position. Over time the obvious result is posture will suffer and deteriorate, which shouldn’t be the objective of any training programme.
In general if you’re an athlete you will have access to equipment and training techniques that are going to give far superior results and improvement in your measured performance so KB benefits are going to be limited, but could be a useful introduction at times. If you’re a day to day gym user then you’re also going to have access to a large range of equipment in most good gyms, as such, you should start with your objectives and plan from there, don’t let your objectives be controlled by the equipment you’ve decided to use.
This is how I would sum things up, kettlebells can be a good “addition” to a balanced training programme when used with good technique. They can make for a good “small” group conditioning class if taken by a good instructor and they are also a valuable tool for any trainer or trainee who is limited for equipment. However I think that like many other developments in training over the past decade they have been overused and over-hyped and in reality I don’t believe anybody on a well designed training programme would have been any worse off without them.
That all being said if you like swinging them and they get you working hard and sweating then use them!!!