Few fitness products receive the sort of all-out marketing blitz enjoyed by the once-humble kettlebell. Everywhere you turn, you’re bombarded with claims about the fitness and strength benefits of these simple devices. Most of the claims almost seem too good to be true.
Here is a sample of the sorts of things marketers are saying about kettlebells. All these quotes come from the first page of Google results for a search on the keyword “kettlebell”:
- Develop extreme all-around fitness; no tool does it better
- The centuries-old favorite of martial artists, ancient strongmen, and the military elite
- Kettlebells improve your 40-yard dash
- This super-simple “handheld gym” guarantees faster fat loss, rapid muscle gain, higher performance and dramatic power—in just minutes a day!
- Kettlebells also teach the user how to use momentum in ways that mimic real life situations that cannot be duplicated by machines, barbells, or dumbbells
- The single best conditioning tool for killer sports like kickboxing, wrestling, and football
Hype about kettlebells rings out loud and clear. But if loud-mouthed marketing claims are true, why don’t professional athletes use them during training?
Are there any successful athletes who owe their success to kettlebell training?
Ask yourself this? Did top athletes spend their early years learning how to manipulate a kettlebell? The answer is no.
Think about the best athletes in the world. Among their ranks, you will find:
- NFL players
- Olympic track-and-field competitors
- Pro bodybuilders, pro powerlifters, and world-class Olympic weightlifters
- Soldiers in the special forces
- Professional boxers
- …and many other talented and highly-paid professionals
They all compete at the highest levels.
But their body types, skill sets, and training methods are as varied as are the sports and athletic contests in which they compete.
Do you know what they all have in common? That’s right: not a single one of them got where he is today by using a kettlebell.
Think about that: not a single one.
Of the hundreds of thousands of high-level amateur athletes alive in the world today, not one reached his or her peak exclusively with kettlebell training.
And of the tens of thousands of professional (and ex-pro) athletes around the globe, not even one got to the elite level by using kettlebells as his sole means of strength and power training.
Other than gymnasts (who primarily use bodyweight training), every successful competitive athlete used barbells (and sometimes dumbbells) for strength and power training when he/she was developing.
But wait! I can hear you asking, “What about those famous kettlebell competition winners? Surely, they are athletes, right? And they use kettlebells, right? So your argument fails!”
Well, not exactly. Those famous kettlebell athletes are all ex- Olympic lifters who couldn’t compete at the high levels of that sport. So to make a living, they switched to an area of sport that didn’t have any real competition: competitive kettlebell lifting.
Now you get it: even the famous kettlebell athletes (and all those famous kettlebell instructors) didn’t use kettlebells to become athletes. They used barbells, just like everyone else.
The origin of kettlebells
During and after the Roman Empire, Europeans used heavy stones with handles as standard weights in trade and commerce.
Since trading weights were somewhat standardized, they were perfect for competitive weight lifting.
In Scotland there is a centuries-old tradition of using these weights for throwing and carrying competitions. These were the first kettlebells, though the name didn’t exist yet.
Later, in the 19th century, weight lifting became a profession rather than a pasttime. And during this time, strongmen developed true kettlebells.
Today, when we hear the word ‘bell’, we think of the thing that rings in a church steeple. But the word originally had a less specific meaning. Back then, a bell was a hollow container, usually with a spherical top.
Kettlebells, therefore, are hollow, sperical containers with a handle. Superficially, they resemble tea-kettles. The strongmen who invented them loaded lead shot inside to change the weight of the device.
These early prototypes were used for strength challenges, not training.
It takes skill to lift thick-handled, awkwardly-shaped implements, and strongmen practiced until they could out-perform even the largest and strongest of their audience members.
At the time, kettlebell lifting was nothing more than a gimmick – like lifting thick-handled dumbbells or anvils is today.
Strongmen didn’t make their livings by relying on being the strongest men around. This wasn’t something they could control. Instead, they slanted the competitions in their favor. In fact, these strongmen were almost always small of stature and unimpressive to look at. They made their money by cajoling gullible audience members into wagers, then wiping the floor with them.
These strongmen earned their keep by outperforming all comers in skill-based competitions that only they practiced for. Kettlebells – with their thick, grip-challenging handles and their peculiar, off-center balance point – were perfect for strongman challenges.
Kettlebells were soon supplanted by barbells and dumbbells
But strongmen couldn’t get strong by relying on kettlebells alone.
For reasons which I’ll list in the next section, kettlebells are probably the least-useful pieces of strength training equipment. But worse, they’re the most dangerous.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the physical culture movement gained adherents all over Europe and the USA. The sportsmen who rallied around ‘physical culture’ wanted to get strong and fit. And they wanted fast results in the most efficient way possible.
No longer was strength the sole domain of ill-educated laborers and a handful of carnival strongmen. Now, the men of leisure with money to burn wanted to be strong too.
Entrepreneurs quickly filled the demand for easy to use strength training equipment by inventing barbells and dumbbells. Barbells were just what the name implied: two ‘bells’ connected by a bar. And dumbbells were too: they were ‘dumb’ (meaning they made no noise because they were solid and contained no loose lead shot).
Soon, inventers improved things even further.
- Plate-loaded barbells and dumbbells were easily adjustable and standardized.
- Rotating-sleeve barbells were much safer than previous designs which had the annoying tendency of damaging the hands and tearing apart the tendons and ligaments in athletes’ arms during the snatch
Kettlebells were soon forgotten.
Forgotten, that is, except in one backward part of the world: Soviet Russia.
The Soviets said, “why waste resources on bourgeois barbells and dumbbells? Our factories should be building tanks, not toys for rich people!”
It was easy to cast a kettlebell from iron in a crude foundry. Making a barbell required steel bar-stock, ball bearings, a lathe, and skilled machine operators.
To the Soviets, anyone who wanted to get strong was more than welcome to grab a sledgehammer and break some rocks in the Gulag. If kettlebells weren’t good enough for him, too bad…
Kettlebells versus Dumbbells
The advantages of dumbbells – especially adjustable dumbbells – are overwhelming. You might as well fill a milk-jug with concrete and use it for strength training.
Here’s a quick comparison of kettlebell and dumbbell training. Read below the chart for details:
|Fixed weight; Expensive adjustable kettlebells are awkward, ungainly, and cause pinches and bruises||Easily and quickly adjustable|
|Thick, non-rotating handle causes blisters||Normal handle designed ergonomically|
|The off-center balance point strains the wrist during presses and “pushing” movements||Wrist naturally assumes ergonomically-proper orientation, no matter the exercise|
|Grip strength the limiting factor in “pulling” movements with thick-handled bells; no way around this drawback. Bells’ handles were designed by foundry foremen, not athletes.||Grip strength is rarely an issue. DB grips are thin and ergonomic, not thick and ungainly. If necessary, grip strength can either be addressed through training, or overcome with various time-tested techniques|
|Kettlebell training is synonymous with skill training. Often, strength gains come from neural adaptation and skill acquisition, not hypertrophy. It takes weeks to learn to clean a decent-sized bell without bruising yourself too much.||Dumbbells are a fitness and strength training tool, not an end in and of themselves. They deliver results immediately, regardless of the level of neural adaptation and skill. You can clean a dumbbell right the first time, and every time.|
|Repetitive-stress injuries are common and practically inevitable with the massively-hyped but impractical kettlebell movements. The movements are defined by the bell itself, not by the athletic benefit they confer.||Repetitive stress injuries are rare and avoidable because of lower reps and lack of ‘contortion’. Dumbbells lend themselves to all manner of athletic training, they don’t require you to learn special movement skills just to avoid injury.|
|Expensive and overpriced||Priced almost as a commodity; plus, the plates are fungible|
|Handles are cast iron instead of forged steel. This means they need to be thick and stubby to avoid breaking.||Forged handles are thinner and ergonomically designed|
|Limited number of movements, some highly contrived and impractical||Dumbbells are suited for many time-tested movements and exercises used by successful athletes|
|Cast iron handles must be painted or coated after manufacture to prevent rust. This means you need to remove coating and season the handle to do high-rep snatches.||Forged handles and knurled grips go a long way towards preventing blisters. No friction during power moves like snatches or cleans.|
|No way to get “under” the weight during heavy snatches, cleans, and presses. You can only ‘swing’ the weight into position. This means you can’t use kettlebells to develop power.||Dumbbells or barbells are used by every successful athlete during their formative years for power development (not to mention strength training)|
What is kettlebell training?
Take a moment to think about the expression ‘kettlebell training’.
Doesn’t it seem a bit weird to you?
After all, you never hear the term ‘dumbbell training’ or ‘barbell training’.
Instead, athletes and sports coaches talk about ‘weight training’, ‘resistance training’, or ‘strength training’.
The fact is: kettlebell training means just what it says: training you to use a kettlebell.
Kettlebells require skill. And when you get good at them, you’re good at using a kettlebell. Big deal. That, and a dollar, will buy you a cup of coffee.
Unfortunately, many kettlebell enthusiasts (and the majority of kettlebell instructors) conflate the training tool with the training style. For instance, you’ll often hear kettlebell zealots say something like, “kettlebell training focuses mostly on muscular endurance rather than brute strength.”
To statements like that, I respond by explaining the difference between ‘training’ and ‘using a kettlebell':
A typical kettlebell user may work out in a style of training that primarily increases muscular endurance. But the kettlebell has very little to do with how he trains. After all, it doesn’t hold a gun to his head and force him to do high-rep sets of snatches and swings…
In fact, he could grab a dumbbell (instead of a kettlebell) and do the same movements and exercises. And if he did that, he wouldn’t have to go through the learning process whereby he adapts the movements to the limitations imposed by the old-fashioned kettlebell. His workouts would be more efficient, safer, and more effective.
All these moves that kettlebell enthusiasts hold so near and dear to their hearts — snatches, swings, getups, cleans, etc. — were developed by weight lifters who used barbells and dumbbells. And to this day, the best pro athletes do these exercises to help them reach their goals. Kettlebells never entered the picture until early in the Soviet era, when the hapless Soviets made do with what they had available, instead of what they really wanted and needed.
So next time you hear a kettlebell zealot talking about ‘kettlebell training’ as if it was a whole new style of workout, you’ll know he’s either an unthinking dupe who refuses to examine his workouts critically, or a con-man with an agenda that probably involves separating you from your money and your sense of self-reliance.
The truth is: no matter what you do with a kettlebell, you can do it more safely, efficiently, and intensely with a modern tool like a dumbbell, barbell, or t-handle. And you’ll save money too…
Kettlebell lifts are worse than useless
Four main “moves” make up the majority of kettlebell training:
- Kettlebell swings
- Kettlebell cleans
- Kettlebell jerks
- Kettlebell snatches
While these movements are beneficial, they are not unique to kettlebell training.
They were developed for use with barbells and dumbbells. To avoid injury, athletes need to alter these moves for kettlebells. And this adaptation process weakens and de-intensifies the training effect.
One-handed swings are simply better with a dumbbell, there is no real debate. Swings are a warmup and conditioning move that should be done for time. But to do a timed circuit, you have to be able to adjust the weight. Unless you use an adjustable kettlebell, this is impossible.
Kettlebells (especially the newer, wide-handle version) are a bit more suitable for two-handed swings, but most people don’t have a kettlebell that’s heavy enough to make this exercise useful. A much better choice for 2-handed swings is a T-handle. Here is a homemade T-handle for those of you who want to do two handed swings without buying a heavy kettlebell.
Marketing hypesters claim that swings are a “centuries-old secret” training technique used by the kettlebell-toting warriors of yore. But this is a lie. In fact, swings are an assistance exercise used by Olympic-style lifters ever since weight lifting became a standardized sport. However, these professional athletes don’t waste time with kettlebells — instead, they use dumbbells or T-handles and swing for time.
Swings used as a warm-up and conditioning exercise are best performed for time. It’s easy to adjust the weight of your dumbbell to vary the intensity. This way, you can work out for a given period of time. Unless you spend hundreds of dollars on different kettlebells, yours is bound to be either too heavy or too light. With a kettlebell, you can’t use it as a neutral tool; you have to adapt your workout to the constraints of the implement.
Unless you’re using a light kettlebell, it’s nearly impossible to lock out a kettlebell swing overhead. Dumbbell swings are superior in this regard. The swing — just like the snatch or the jerk — used to be a competitive lift ending with the weight overhead; but instead of a barbell, they used dumbbells. Check out dumbbell swings for more info. When you lock out your swings overhead, you make your progress measurable and objective, rather than subjective. The dumbbell swing can be used for competition and training; compare that to its kettlebell analogue, which is useful for nothing more than a warm-up or conditioning movement.
Among kettlebell zealots, there is just too much emphasis on swings as a conditioning movement. While it’s a good move for warm-up before a squat session, it is a terrible choice for everyday cardio or full-body conditioning. Ballistic stretching of the shoulders, elbows and wrist joints is unnecessary and dangerous. Tendons and ligaments are not built for this sort of abuse. Plus, the lower back is not designed to handle high-rep repetitive stress. Athletes like pro boxers (whose sports involve a lot of lower-back repetitive stress) are very careful to avoid low-back overuse. Kettlebell zealots laugh in the face of this very real danger. They overuse kettlebell swings out of ignorance.
Kettlebell clean and pressThe clean and press is a fantastic power movement. Athletes and wannabes alike benefit from this movement. However, the kettlebell clean and press is virtually useless when compared to the barbell equivalent.
Kettlebell cleans are awkward and they sort of defeat the purpose of a clean, which is to rack a weight in preparation for putting it overhead. Cleans with a kettlebell are a more a test of lower-back hyperextension than they are a useful power move suitable for general-purpose training.
And the kettlebell press is less intense than a dumbbell press because you don’t lift the weight as high. This makes things easier on the core and spinal stabilization muscles while still putting unneeded, damaging stress on the forearms, wrists, and hands.Overhead kettlebell presses — especially with heavy weights — put a lot of stress on the hands and wrists. The connective tissue in the hands, wrists and forearms takes a long time to heal from training stress or injury. Repetitive-stress injury to this area is a serious problem. Thankfully, some forward-looking companies are building deep-handled kettlebells that lessen this problem, but the problem doesn’t go away entirely.
And while many people purchase a wide handle kettlebell to make it easier to do two-handed swings, these wide-handle bells are difficult to balance overhead unless you get just the right groove. Regular competition-style bells are much more suitable for overhead pressing unless you’re pressing negligible poundages. But one thing’s certain: dumbbells are much more suitable for presses.
The awkward shape makes it impossible to perform heavy, low-rep cleans without spending weeks learning to adapt the move to the implement. The kettlebell training takes precedence, rather than the strength training. You will never see a strong kettlebell athlete who can safely clean as much as he can push press. The kettlebell’s design just doesn’t let you clean heavy weights in a reliable and sustainable manner because you can’t get under the weight. Consequently, kettlebell enthusiasts crow about kettlebell push-pressing 75-pounds overhead. 75 pounds is a weight that high school freshmen laugh at, but kettlebell zealots have convinced themselves that they’re doing something worthwhile by training towards this useless lift.
Lack of adjustability means you can’t design a sensible weight progression into your program.
Jerks were developed for one reason: to allow you to put up the maximum amount of weight possible.
Performing a jerk with a kettlebell for high reps is like putting the cart before the horse; it makes no sense. The mindless kettlebell zealots who do this don’t seem to question why they are performing this move, they just do it. You might as well practice tying your shoes for reps; it makes just as much sense.
Watch people performing kettlebell jerks on YouTube. Every one of them is performing a push-press with sub-maximal weight, not a true jerk. Calling it a “jerk” just lends an air of legitimacy to the movement.
As with jerks, snatches were invented to get as much weight as possible overhead in one clean, fluid motion.
Most kettlebell athletes use fairly light weight (and high reps) during the snatch. And further, they don’t actually snatch the weight overhead. Instead they swing it. Swinging is antithetical to power development.
Unless you’re still trying to learn the movement, performing snatches for reps is silly. It’s the weight that matters in a snatch, not the number of reps.
If you want to snatch, use an adjustable dumbbell and keep the reps constant from workout to workout; base your progression on weight lifted, not reps. And, more importantly, if you use a dumbbell you won’t beat up your forearm or torque your delicate elbow joint.
Kettlebell competition: the good, the bad, and the ugly
If kettlebell competition is your thing, great! Competition of any stripe is healthy, productive, and inspirational. But don’t make exaggerated claims about kettlebell competition just to justify the use of a second-rate piece of equipment.
Kettlebells are part of a larger marketing plan. The kettlebell industry does more than just sell you a lump of cast iron. It sells you instruction, competition, and rankings (kettlebell black-belt, anyone?).
It’s a sub-culture in search of a purpose.
Kettlebell subculture reminds me of martial-arts subculture during the 80s. Back then, martial arts schools promised everything: fitness, flexibility, strength, and self-defense.
But they delivered half-baked, physiologically-unsound training methodologies that risked injury without actually teaching anyone to fight very well.
Instead of training like pro fighters (boxers, Olympic wrestlers, kick boxers, et al), martial artists substituted hype for results.
Rather than test themselves in open competition, they designed tournaments that rewarded conformity to the system.
Kettlebell marketers are taking a page out of the martial arts instructors’ playbook. And enthusiasts are falling prey to the same sort of hype.
Remember all the promises in the list of marketing points at the beginning of this article? They are all bogus.
But by the time kettlebell zealots realize they’ve been bamboozled by marketers, they are already ensconced in the cult of kettlebell. The ones that don’t quit justify their continued participation by taking part in competitions that test hard-earned skill with a kettlebell.
Outlandish promises are soon forgotten. The kettlebells become an end in and of themselves, rather than a way forward.
Anything a kettlebell can do, an adjustable dumbbell can do better
Don’t fall prey to the kettlebell marketing hype. Adjustable dumbbells will serve your needs without locking you into a bizarre and counter-productive exercise methodology.
Unless you’ve been brainwashed by the cult of kettlebell, odds are you never wake up in the morning and, out of the blue, decide to see how many kettlebell snatches you can do in five minutes.
The workout tool should not dictate your actions to you; instead, you should choose a tool that helps you reach your goals. Kettlebells don’t help you do anything but get better at manipulating a kettlebell.
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