During my career I have had the opportunity to extensively study many different forms of exercise and to use many different kinds of exercise equipment. I have much respect for time-tested forms of exercise like yoga and calisthenics. I’ve used dumbbells, barbells and cable machines to great effect. I believe the jump rope is a greatly underestimated and underutilized piece of equipment. However, after all is said and done, the kettlebell is my favorite training tool. More than with any other piece of equipment, I’ve gotten consistent and impressive results with kettlebells. In my professional experience, ketllebells have consistently proven to be the most versatile, safe and effective weights for people to learn to use.
First of all, what is a kettlebell? A kettlebell is very useful hand-held weight. It looks like a tea kettle; or rather it resembles a cannon-ball with a handle. The modern cast-iron or steel kettlebell most people see is typically attributed to Russian design. Kettlebells have been used for strength and athletic training for over a few centuries. Kettlebells have been used for at least a century here in the United States. Their use declined with the increased use of weight machines in gyms during the 1950s, but Kettlebells are definitely making a significant come-back.
The kettlebell and its fundamental design have a proven history. The hand-held weight with an off-center handle is the most common design of exercise weight across cultures and throughout history. Some examples are Chinese “stone padlock” weights, Japanese ishi sashi and chi ishi, Indian gada clubs, Persian meel clubs, and Scottish throwing stones and hammers. At the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in Greece, there is an ancient limestone weight with a handle carved into the side dated to early 600 BCE. Even older still are depictions, dating back thousands of years, of almost every Hindu god and goddess wielding a gada. The off-center handled weight is a classic, time-tested design.
There are a seemingly limitless variety of good exercises one can do with just one kettlebell. You can get a high-quality, complete workout with one kettlebell. Literally all of your body can be exercised, and all fundamental functional movements can be trained. You can use kettlebells for weight training and cardio, simultaneously improving flexibility, strength, power and endurance. Moreover, you can hold a kettlebell in a variety of different ways. Simply changing how you hold the kettlebell can significantly change the demands of an exercise. This variety of application makes a kettlebell a virtual gym you can carry with you wherever you go. Kettlebells can also have a significant amount of weight while taking up very little space. This makes kettlebells the ideal exercise equipment to keep at home and in the gym. Like many hand-held weights, kettlebells come in all sizes. Where I train, we use kettlebells ranging in size from 2kg to 48kg. There is literally a size for everyone.
Kettlebells are also very safe to use–if you safely and progressively learn the movements properly. I sometimes hear or read about the risks of using kettlebells. Every claim I’ve seen about the dangers involved in kettlebell training actually speaks to the danger of exercising with poor technique, which is true of any exercise. It says more about the training of the person making the claim than about any danger unique to kettlebell training. Proper attention to detail, mastery of technique and proper progression make kettlebell training safe and effective. In the Russian hard-style system of kettlebell training, we focus on safety and efficiency rather than brute strength. We teach patience and attention to detail. The focus of good kettlebell training is to develop functional skill and balanced strength and endurance.
The less skill exercise equipment like weight machines require for use–the easier the equipment makes the exercise–the more weight and repetitions you can get away with when using it. But using more weight and reps without the necessary skill to stabilize the weight creates strength without coordination. The lack of coordination and timing of prime mover and stabilizer muscles imbalances the stability of your joints, putting them at higher risk of injury. This is clearly a recipe for injury from weight training. Furthermore, extensive use of weight machines can set up the conditions for injury when you have to lift something without the aid of the machine. Ironically, people think machines are safer than free weights.
Kettlebell exercises are actually safer and more effective than most typical free weight exercises as well, specifically because more skill development needed before heavier weights can be used. For example, kettlebells create a unique leverage demand for your hand, wrist, elbow and shoulder in overhead positions. The particular shape and handle position of Kettlebells develop a higher degree of neuromuscular coordination and stabilization strength for your upper body, more so than with dumbbells or barbells. In my experience, this builds stable as well as strong shoulders.
Another example is the kettlebell deadlift, a critical exercise for people who sit a lot or have back problems. Since most people need to learn to effectively brace their backs and use their core and leg strength for heavy lifting, they need to use a significantly heavy weight. In my opinion, very heavy dumbbells aren’t easy to use for this, leaving us with barbells and kettlebells for heavy deadlifts. Unlike a barbell, the kettlebell’s shape allows you to easily hold a significant load in an ergonomic, “real-world” suitcase-like position. Using the kettlebell as opposed to a barbell gives you a greater degree of freedom to fine tune your position as you develop your hip hinge motion. This makes the kettlebell deadlift much easier to learn than the barbell deadlift. Beginners can easily learn this real-world functional skill of lifting heavy objects. (Even though you can load significantly more weight at the high end using a barbell, most beginning deadlifters aren’t using more than 96kg, or two 48kg kettlebells. If you are using more than 96kg, your hip hinge and core are probably pretty solid, and you’re good to go for learning the barbell deadlift.)
The most striking example of functional skill development is the kettlebell Turkish get up. The Turkish get up is a centuries-old exercise that basically combines a free weight with a yoga sequence. In a Turkish get up, you must stabilize a weight overhead with one hand while moving your body from a lying position on the ground to a full standing position and then back down in reverse. Each transitional movement and position of the get up requires you to develop body awareness and efficient alignment in a fundamental and natural way. The get up is similar to yoga in this respect, but it also places a greater demand for proper core reaction with the high center of gravity created by the kettlebell. Again, the off-center handle of the kettlebell provides an optimal stimulus to your hand and shoulder, and by extension your core, during the Turkish get up. It makes you develop an awareness of proper alignment simply so that the kettlebell does not fall. In this way, the Turkish get up forces you to not make a mistake. And unlike yoga, by progressively using larger kettlebells, you can progressively build strength without changing the exercise. In particular, building full-body strength with the Turkish get up requires you to master the necessary skill before you can progress to heavier weights.
The most significant aspect of kettlebell training that truly sets it apart from other forms of weight lifting are the swinging and ballistic exercises provided by the kettlebell’s off-center handle. Ballistic kettlebell exercises such as swings, cleans, snatches, jerks and push-presses allow you to effectively train for speed and power, even at novice skill levels. You can incorporate different speeds of motion into a variety of movements to involve the nervous system to a greater degree than in typical, body building-based weight training. This reactive neuromuscluar training develops coordinated proprioception and performance. Although these exercises can be performed with dumbbells and barbells, they are significantly more ergonomic and easier to learn for beginners when performed with kettlebells. Moreover, kettlebells allow these powerful, ballistic exercises to be performed with uninterrupted repetition. This effectively combines heavy weight lifting with aerobic training into a handful of exercises. You can build strength and endurance in an efficient, time-saving package.
Kettlebells safely build true functional flexibility, balance, coordination, strength, power and endurance all at once. For this reason I have found the kettlebell to be the most useful and effective tool for the widest variety of people to use, whatever their exercise needs and goals. When I give my time to help somebody, they deserve the quickest path to the best result. I recommend that everyone incorporate kettlebells into their workouts.