Kettlebells and Bodyweight: The Ultimate Training Duo
There are many purported methods of achieving the ultimate level of fitness. Some are better than others, but is there one tool, one method, one philosophy that shines above them all? There are five aspects to fitness: Muscular Strength, Muscular Endurance, Cardiovascular Fitness, Flexibility and Body Composition. To achieve the optimal level of fitness, all of these areas must be addressed.
There are an incredible amount of strength and conditioning systems available; kinetically based, explosive power, P90X, Orange Theory, Powerlifting, Olympic lifting, Bodybuilding, Cross Fit, youth boot camp programs, speed initiatives, sport specific, and age specific, I could go on and on. With this ridiculously large variation in available choices, how does a fitness enthusiast or athlete choose the right system? The number one consideration is to determine what is/are the eventual goal(s). If one desires to become a bodybuilder, do so, a Power Lifter, go hard and heavy; but if the individual wants to achieve incredible fitness with one tool/method, pick up a kettlebell, employ calisthenics and skipping rope. Most fitness programs entail having to go to a gym with rows of machines, racks of dumbbells and a slew of cardio machines or attending a class of the latest workout fad with music blaring and an instructor in spandex screaming at you. Or you could learn how to use a kettlebell. One of the distinct advantages of kettlebell and bodyweight training system is the small amount of equipment required. To achieve lifelong, ultimate fitness all that is needed is a jump rope, staff (dowel), a pull-up bar and four pairs of kettlebells (Ross & Gallagher, 2016).
Kettlebell movements are segmented into three basic categories: ballistics, grinds and mobility. Ballistic movements include such movements as the kettlebell swing, clean and snatch develop hip drive, explosive power and muscular as well as cardiovascular endurance. The grinds include the kettlebell press, squat, deadlift, row and floor press and serve to increase raw power and strength. Mobility enhancing exercises like the Turkish get-up, the armbar and the kettlebell pullover enable the practitioner to learn how to pack their shoulders and move fluidly throughout the thoracic and lumbar regions as well as the hips. There are also a few hybrids and balance enhancing movements such as loaded carries, kettlebell thrusters, single leg deadlift and the push press which address two or more categories simultaneously.
There are three planes of human movement; the frontal, sagittal and transverse. The frontal plane is observed whilst viewing a body from the front and/or back and consists of lateral movements. Postural assessments may be garnered from this view and well as the sagittal plane which includes movements that are viewed from the side (Green, 2014). The movements and training involved in most modes of resistance training, free weights, machines, and dumbbells reside only in the sagittal and frontal planes. Most sports and life in general, occur in the transverse plane. According to Dr. Ben Fung,” Kettlebells have a distinct advantage to other modalities of exercise in that they are physically and naturally ergonomic. As every earthbound human body is victim to gravity, every free body object manipulated by the human body physically acts like a kettlebell. In terms of physics, a kettlebell essentially is a handle with a big heavy weight attached at the bottom of the handle. There are infinite examples of how this is expressed in our daily lives: suitcases, bags, backpacks, shopping carts, door handles, buckets, chairs… the list goes on. Due to gravity, no matter how one lifts a free body object, the point of grip/contact becomes the handle and the remaining mass becomes the big heavy weight at the bottom” (Fung & Shore, 2010).
When an exerciser uses machines, the mechanisms guide you through an exercise while maintaining strict adherence to movement in the frontal or sagittal planes. Yes, the muscle is being worked, but how are the stabilizers being taxed and strengthened? What about the intrinsic muscles, where is the impetus for the body to recruit them to accomplish the movement? When pondering the standard for strength “The Bench Press”, the first words out of a gym rat’s mouth are “How much do you bench?” Is this movement the ultimate indication of strength? I think not and I’m not alone. Recently, the Indianapolis Colts abandoned their Bench Press Test in favor of using the famed Turkish Get-up as a barometer to determine overall strength and the ability to move, adjust body position and be flexible (Holder, 2016). The Colts aren’t the only professional team to move toward implementation of kettlebell training. I have personally trained both professional and division one strength coaches at my kettlebell certifications. The Tennessee Titans, Boston Celtics, Atlanta Falcons, NY Yankees also use kettlebell training as a staple for their strength and conditioning. The aforementioned are just a few of the many professional sports teams leveraging the benefits of kettlebell training. The list of combat athletes and NCCA Division 1 wrestling teams using kettlebell and bodyweight training is far too large to list. Even the U.S. military employs this type of training for the most elite members of our special forces.
Let us now look at the origins of the most popular weight training methods. Where do they come from? The standard, acceptable measures of strength come from the three lifts of Powerlifting: The Bench, Deadlift and Back Squat. Are these great indicators of 1RM (one repetition maximum) of strength? The answer is yes, but does this necessarily translate to sports performance? At some point excess muscle bulk and lack of flexibility that can result from this training method will actually impede sports performance and increase the risk of injury. Additionally, the tendency to neglect form for the sake of moving a heavier weight and abandoning proper technique exposes the exerciser to additional injury. The goal of Power lifting is to have heavy lifts in the sagittal planes in the bench, back squat and deadlift, not muscular endurance, symmetry or balance. These movements are all grinds. Olympic lifting is another standard with the Clean and Jerk as well the Snatch. Both of these exercises are incredible for developing explosive power, but there is a certain fairly high level of athleticism required to perform these movements safely and effectively. Many people will never be able to do so (Takano, 2015). The movements are extremely risky and can wreak havoc on an athlete’s wrists. Olympic lifting consists of ballistic movements. Bodybuilding is another method of acquiring strength; however the goal is to create large and symmetrical build often employing muscle isolation and open chain movements. This type of training can lead to muscular overdevelopment and a reduction in speed and explosive power. Additionally, when we move in our daily lives or compete in athletics, we never isolate our muscles. Athletes can and do gain strength from these other methods. However, are they the most beneficial, the safest and what type of return on investment of your training time is garnered?
Where did the notion of Kettlebell Training come from in the first place? There is evidence dating as far back as Ancient Greece, but it’s the Russians that have made this training method popular and have used this tool ever since the 1800’s. A famed strength coach, Vladislav Kraevsky (the father of Russian Olympic Lifting), traveled the Russian countryside and discovered that the workers at the scales possessed incredible strength. Farmers would bring their produce to the scales and the workers would throw kettlebells of various weights onto the scales to determine the weight of the produce and henceforth determine how much the farmers would get paid in accordance to how much weight in kettlebells was on the scale. After roughly a decade training and developing a training regiment, Kraevsky opened a facility with kettlebells and barbells. By the 1900’s Russian weight lifters and soldiers were using kettlebells as part of their strength and conditioning program (Ngeyun, 2016). The hip hinge and shoulder stabilization were incredible advantages to the athletes and soldiers.
The ultimate goal of the athlete/exerciser needs to be determined, as we have stated previously. One should use the right tool for the right job. If size and lifting heavy weights for one rep maximums is the goal, barbells are the answer. If a high level of overall fitness and strength with ability to incorporate ballistics safely, kettlebells are the answer. Kettlebell training is less taxing on the wrists, especially in regard to power cleans, front squats and snatches (Read, 2013). Using a barbell for the preceding movements places the wrists at risk of injury (Tanko, 2015). A barbell fixes the hands in one spot, whereas a kettlebell permits free movement of the shoulder and arm which enables the wrist to stay straight and strong throughout the kettlebell clean, snatch and front squats, as well as all of the other kettlebell movements. In the Men’s Health Article, strength and conditioning experts Dan John and Jason Brown, comments listed respectively, offered their opinions. “There is no better tool for adding load than the barbell,” says Dan John, a national masters champion in Olympic lifting and a strength coach in Draper, Utah. For those strength-building exercises that can require substantial weight—such as the bench press, dead lifts, squats, or snatches—John says only the barbell can meet the resistance needs of some lifters. Jason Brown added: “If your goal was just to get strong, you don’t need kettlebells,” Brown says. “If your goal is to burn fat, increase power endurance, and get strong, then kettlebells are a great tool” (Heid, 2012). So if your sport, goal or activity requires you to increase your overall size substantially, you’ll need to use heavy barbells. This is not to say that you won’t put on muscle with kettlebell training, but barbells are a better tool for achieving that goal.
In the realm of overall body and cardiovascular conditioning a workout must include all of the energy systems to be considered effective. The three main energy systems, the phosphagen, anaerobic glycosis (lactic acid) and aerobic systems need to be accessed (Bryant, 2012). As the chart below indicates, there are various combinations of the specific systems during an exercise bout or a competition lasting more than 30 minutes. This is important to note that the heart doesn’t really know if it’s the body is running, cycling or swinging a kettlebell for 30 minutes, as long as the increased demand for oxygen is required and the heart is working harder to meet these needs, aerobic conditioning will improve and fat stores will be utilized.
Chart courtesy of: http://inhome-personaltrainer.com/training-elements/energy-system-and-exercise-intensity/
In comparison to simply running, a high intensity kettlebell workout will also create muscle endurance and strength as well as improve body composition, gain flexibility through the range of motion of the movements along with the cardiovascular component. As noted by the American Council on Exercise, “Kettlebells require an individual to focus on whole-body conditioning because lifting and controlling a kettlebell forces the entire body, particularly the core, to contract as a group, simultaneously developing strength and stability.” The kettlebell’s ability to work multiple muscle groups at once means that this training improves endurance as well as strength (Green, 2014).
There are other advantages for kettlebell training over traditional resistance training for strength and the typical cardiovascular training; mobility and athletic development. The five areas of fitness are met by kettlebell and bodyweight training alone, but other components for athletic performance are met as well. The ability to perform repeated explosive power movements in a relatively safe fashion and the hip hinge motion are touted advantages of kettlebell training. The hip hinge is used in the ballistic movements, the lower body grinds and the Turkish get-up. The position at the bottom of swing, for example, is akin to the “athletic stance” utilized in many sports, an even weight distribution, buttocks back, neutral spine and knees flexed. The top of the swing is reminiscent of a plank, reinforcing the development of a “cylinder of power” for core strength and lumbar stability.
There have always been concerns regarding children and resistance training. The questions regarding the proper ages to start, what percentage of the child’s weight should be used and what movements should be focused on and which should be omitted. The adage of “Children under 16 should never use more than 50% of their bodyweight while lifting weights” is easy to say, but hard to police. Try telling a 15 year old boy trying to make the football team to “use less weight” while benching, dead lifting or squatting. Invariably, the young athletes will attempt to improperly lift too much weight and expose themselves to injury. Just by the nature of the kettlebell, its offset center of gravity and the usual repetition range make using even 25% of the athlete’s bodyweight more than enough for most movements, never mind having to go all the way up to 50%. For this reason alone the stress on the joints is much less with kettlebell and bodyweight training than it is with typical resistance training. The kettlebell provides the same, if not a better workout, with much less weight in comparison to a traditional weight lifting program. Bodyweight and calisthenics require no additional weight whatsoever, only various angles and repetitions. According to Nicole Crawford’s article from the Breaking Muscle website, “Kettlebells aren’t only functional and effective, but they’re also a ton of fun (no pun intended). As Divelbiss states, “By using kettlebells in our program we can teach and reinforce form on lifting weights and build strength throughout the entire body with a few movements. The kids are always excited to use them, which makes exercise fun too.” And every smart parent knows that a fun, safe, and effective workout is always a plus for kids (and parents) of all ages” (Crawford, 2012).
There are many compelling reason to select using kettlebells and bodyweight to meet your strength and conditioning needs. In summation, below is a list of the Top Ten Reasons to Train with Kettlebells & Bodyweight:
1) Strength on a Neural Level: Other Strength Training Systems operate on developing strength through muscle hypertrophy; this system addresses strength on a neural level. Kettlebell and bodyweight training strengthens the body from the inside out, starting at the core. The muscle doesn’t necessarily have to get bigger in order for you to be stronger. No machines, no benches, no fancy apparatus. Proprioception is leveraged while performing this type of exercise.
2) Shoulder Injuries: How many people do you know that have a shoulder injury? Most people are unaware of how to pack the shoulders and engage the latissimus dorsi. By teaching the students how to do this, removes a great deal of stress from the shoulders shifts the load to the large lat muscle (latissimus dorsi). With a Kettlebell and Bodyweight system, the focus is on not only the strength of the shoulder, but the mobility.
3) Explosive Power: Explosive power is developed through with Plyometric and ballistic movements. Kettlebell swings, snatches, and cleans are all explosive movements that recruit the posterior chain (low back, glutes and hamstrings) by accessing and developing the power of the hips and rooting with the floor. Another Russian Training Innovation, Plyometrics are also employed. Either weighted or bodyweight, generating power with squats, presses and push-ups add to the development of explosive power required to accelerate, jump, throw, take down or deliver a blow to an opponent.
4) Mobility: We don’t simply “Bang out hardcore workouts”, but we utilize movement and restorative training as well. If you push your body, you have to both prepare it for the session and also cool it down as you increase your flexibility and mobility. Mobility training incorporates the packing of the shoulders as you move your body, bridgework for spinal flexion and strength, thoracic mobility movements as well as other designed for your hips, neck, wrists, ankles, feet, toes, hands and fingers. Mobile and stable joints not only enable you to perform better; but reduce the incident of injury.
5) Bodyweight: The ability to control one’s own body through a myriad of movements not only displays, but develops athletic ability and performance. The balance, strength and spatial awareness created by bodyweight training is second to none. If you are unable to control your body properly, how can you safely maximize using additional load? If you have weaknesses and asymmetries, you will only compound your situation. You need to strengthen the intrinsic and stabilizing muscles in order to translate the strength that you have gained into usable, sport applicable strength. Additionally, bodyweight training helps you find what your ideal weight should be at. If you can’t accomplish certain movements, maybe the exerciser does not possess the proper strength to weight ratio.
6) Flexibility: A flexible muscle has greater resilience and a higher capacity to develop explosive power. The full range of motion used in our Kettlebell, bodyweight and suspension training enable the participants to use the whole muscle during their movements, especially in respect to opening the joints and accessing the posterior chain.
7) Endurance, Muscular and Cardiovascular: The fact that there are many kettlebell workouts that require 10, 20, 50 and even 100 repetitions develops an incredible amount muscular endurance and brings the exerciser across three energy systems, ATP-CP, Anaerobic and into the Aerobic. There is even a V02 Max protocol for the kettlebell snatch (McElroy, 2014).
8) Weight Class Athletes: There are two primary methods that increase strength, muscle hypertrophy and neural adaptation. Standard resistance training increases strength in response to loads by increasing the size of the muscle fiber. Due to the offset center of gravity and the shape of the kettlebell, the body must respond by recruiting motor units, stabilizers and the intrinsic muscles to keep the kettlebell in alignment throughout the movements. Hardstyle kettlebell training “teaches” the body how to be strong without adding great amounts of mass. A harder, more flexible, explosive and lean body is the result.
9) Better “Bang for the Buck”, Time Efficient: Not too many people have tow or three hours a day to spend at the gym in the quest for ultimate fitness. When kettlebells and calisthenics are utilized, an hour is more than sufficient to accomplish the five essential modes of fitness, muscular strength, muscular endurance, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and body composition (lean body mass). There are also many 20 and 30 minute workouts including Tabatas, Scrambled Eggs and The Warrior’s Challenge (Ross & Gallagher, 2016). All of the facets of fitness, plus mobility, can be met within a relatively short timeframe.
10) Young Athletes Train Safely: Kettlebells are safe to use for young athletes. Because of the offset center of gravity, a much lighter kettlebell may be used whereas to achieve the same effect with a barbell would require a much heaver weight. Calisthenics require no additional weight to employ.
Despite the fact that Kettlebell and Bodyweight training have been around for centuries, the popularity and acceptance in the United States has not been apparent until recent. I would attribute this to the time required to learn how to use a kettlebell properly, the fact that most callisthenic training has been relegated to only warm-ups and that fitness equipment manufactures cannot make the incredible amounts of money that they do through their leasing programs and sales of their “new and enhanced” models every year. Additionally, gyms would have to pay certification fees and invest a great deal of resources toward the education of their staff. Only the higher end facilities invest in their trainers education at his level, but the Retro Fitness and Planet Fitness and their ilk certainly do not.
Is a strength and conditioning program featuring kettlebells and bodyweight the only answer to achieving ultimate strength and fitness? No, it is not. There are other bonafide training methods for developing strength and fitness. However, the kettlebell is the most universal tool and combined with calisthenics provides a complete strength and conditioning system that addresses every aspect of fitness while requiring very little equipment. A kettlebell is the world’s only handheld gym.
1. Bryant, Cedric X., Ph.D., FASM and Green, Daniel J. Essentials of Exercise Science for Fitness Professionals. (2010, 2011, 2012) American Council on Exercise. ISBN 9781890720315. 4851 Paramount Drive, San Diego, CA, 92123
2. Crawford, Nicole. 2012. Kids and kettlebells: is it safe?
3. Fung B, Shore S. June 2010. Aerobic and Anaerobic Work During Kettlebell Exercise: A Pilot Study. Medicine and Science in Sports and Exercise, Volume 42:5 Supplement: S588-S589. http://physicaltherapyweb.com/kettlebell-therapy-restoring-movement-natural-physics/
4. Green, Daniel J., Project Editor. ACE, American Council on Exercise. 2014. ISBN 978-1-890720-50-6. American Council on Exercise Personal Trainer Manual, Fifth Edition.
5. Heid, Markum. February 29, 2012. Kettlebells vs freeweights: the smackdown. Men’s Health. http://www.menshealth.com/fitness/kettlebells-vs-free-weights-the-smackdown
6. John, Dan. May 8th, 2017. 6 big questions about kettlebell training.
7. Holder, Steven. 2016. Colts trading bench presses for Turkish getups.http://www.indystar.com/story/sports/nfl/colts/2016/07/30/colts-trading-bench-presses-turkish-getups/87750490/
8. Manocchia, Pat; Spierer, David K; Minichiello, Jackie; Braut, Steven; Castro, Jessica; Markowitz, Ross. January, 2010. Volume 24, Issue p1. http://journals.lww.com/nsca-jscr/Fulltext/2010/01001/Transference_Of_Kettlebell_Training_To_Traditional.100.aspx doi: 10.1097/01.JSC.0000367164.33477.62
9. McElroy, Brandon. January 1, 2014. Vo2 max protocol. Onnit Academy.
10. Nguyen, Tuan. May, 2016. Who invented the kettlebell?
11. Petrucci, Kellyann and Flynn, Patrick. 2015. Paleo Workouts for Dummies. Publisher: For Dummies; 1 edition
12. Powers, Scott K., and Howley, Edward T. 2015. Exercise Physiology, Theory of Application and Performance. 9th ed. New York: McGraw-Hill.
13. Read, Andrew. 2013. The right tool for the right job: kettlebell, dumbbell, or barbell? Breaking Muscle. https://breakingmuscle.com/learn/the-right-tool-for-the-right-job-kettlebell-dumbbell-or-barbell
14. Ross, Phil and Gallagher, Marty. 2016. Ferocious Fitness, a Fighter’s Proven Action Plan. Little Canada, MN: Dragon Door Publications.
15. Takano, Bob. August 6, 2015. How much time does it take to learn technique in the olympic lifts? http://blog.trainheroic.com/learn-olympic-lifts/