The first time I remember seeing a kettlebell was in a picture of Arthur Saxon, circus strongman, dressed in the typical late Victorian period strongmen garb, tiny underpants and a massive moustache.
I was captivated. Not just by the pants and ‘tache, but the hefty, bulbous implement he was holding aloft.
It screamed primal savagery – everything a young boy hopes for. I knew then that the kettlebell’s simplicity belied a whole host of wonders awaiting my puny, adolescent body.
Sadly for me and said body, kettlebells in the 80s, on a council estate in southern England were about as common as rocking horse shit. I’d have to wait another two decades before getting my hands on one. But once I did, I made sure to have one close by for whenever the need to ‘swing’ took hold.
What is a Kettlebell?
It’s basically a cannonball with a handle. I know, cool right?
The origin of kettlebells as we know them today seems to have come from Russia at least 300 years ago. They most likely were counter weights used to weigh produce at market.
It’s the age old story of one bloke saying to another:
“I bet you can’t lift that weight above your head.”
And Lo! The kettlebell and kettlebells sport were now a thing.
Due to it’s shape, unlike a dumbbell or barbell, the kettlebell’s centre of mass extends beyond the hand. This makes lifting the kettlebell a little more awkward, and requires many more muscles to activate than in conventional lifts. It also lends itself very well to ballistic movements, aiding the increase in explosive power.
For such a simple, blunt instrument, it is surprisingly versatile as a training tool, allowing the individual to work on strength, power, endurance, cardio and mobility. And it’s an excellent tool for building grit and mental toughness, precisely because it hits a plethora of aspects at once, forcing you to work harder than normal.
The traditional kettlebell weight measurement was the Pood. (I know, I know. Grow up!)
1 Pood equates to 16kg. The next step up being 2 Pood (32kg)! Thankfully, they now come in half and quarter-pood increments (4kg jumps), and in some cases you can get 1kg increments.
They are an extremely versatile, affordable, full body way to reach a myriad of goals.
What follows is a list of reasons why I think the kettlebell deserves a place in your arsenal of bad-ass-ery.
They take up very little room
I love barbells. They make me feel simultaneously manly and a little bit frightened.
But barbells take up quite a bit of room. There’s the bar, the plates, and you probably want a rack of some kind, and maybe a bench.
That’s quite a bit of real estate. And while I think it’s definitely a good investment, not every one has the space.
A kettlebell will take up about 10 inches of floor space at most. They are unobtrusive, fit into unutilised corners, and make the most amazing door stops ever created.
Their small size means you can easily fit them into the boot of your car for ad-hoc outdoors training, or for when you are on trips away and can’t bear to use the dreadful, outdated hotel gym machines.
You can even buy a specially designed backpack for carrying kettlebells, thereby combining the awesome benefits of rucking and kettlebells.
I always load up the van with a kettlebell or two when we are on a mini break. Yes, I’m that dickhead on the beach swinging a cannonball. But look how happy I am.
Even a whole selection of difference sizes still takes up less room than most other strength building tools.
They are the perfect go anywhere, do anytime kind of kit. Perfect for the home gym or looking like a savage at your local park.
Old man grip strength
We’ve all know that wiry old dude who has insanely strong grip strength. Well, kettlebells help develop it.
Again, because the ‘bell’s centre of mass is outside of the hand, the gripping muscles have to work all the more to maintain a hold of it. This is especially true with the ballistic moves such as the swing.
It really doesn’t take long before the forearm burn kicks in.
Why develop grip strength? Grip strength has been shown to directly correlate to health and longevity. In fact, researchers found that “Grip strength showed a stronger association with cardiovascular disease than blood pressure and physical activity, which was a bit of a surprise,”
So if you want to live long and get forearms like Popeye, get swinging.
Build a rock solid core
Due to the off-centre weight distribution and changing centre of gravity during ballistic movements forces the core to work more efficiently. Add to this the rotational and anti-rotational aspect to many kettlebell movements, and they are an excellent tool for creating a stable and anti-fragile core section. And we’re talking 360 core strength, not just abs. The side, the front and the back muscles are all brought into play.
I suffered from a long term back issue causing pain in my lower back. I put kettlebells down as the main reason I was able to resolve the issue.
There is a myth going around that kettlebells are bad for your back. Poor quality form when using kettlebells definitely can negatively affect you. But for most people, good solid form will shore you up and make your back more bombproof.
I have had a number of clients with ongoing back issues start with kettlebells, in the correct manner, who no longer have these issues and who can now lift and swing weights they never dreamed of.
And a stronger core makes other lift easier, protects your spine and increases mobility and range of motion of your limbs.
They make you run fast and jump higher.
The ballistic hinge movements like swings and snatches are amazing for firing the posterior chain, the muscles running down the entire back of your body. These are the muscles we use for running, sprinting and jumping. By load these muscles up and performing explosive movements we are able to develop an increased power output. In short it makes us faster and able to jump higher.
They make us move more mindfully.
One thing Wild Life is always banging on about is strengthening the brain-body connection. We’ve become far too mindless in our movements, never really being present in our own bodies as we move them. This leads to greater risk of injury, poor form, and lower mastery of movements. Kettlebells are a formidable tool in increasing mindfulness in movement.
Take the Turkish Get-Up. This is such a good movement for creating a somatic, mindful practice.
Laying on your back, with a kettlebell suspended above your face, trying to coordinate your left side with your right side, your upper body with your lower body, to stand up, then lay back down again, you can’t be anything but focused; that is if you want to keep your teeth.
The kettlebell really allows you to be present in your body better than any other training tool I know.
It’s the swiss army knife of whole body training.
The kettlebell can be used to train most aspects of health and fitness: cardio, strength, mobility, and conditioning.
You only have to swing the kettlebell for a few moments before you feel your heart and lungs pumping.
And whilst I do not believe you can beat non-loaded cardio movements such as walking/running/rowing/etc for developing our cardio performance, loading up for some high volume work definitely has its place. This is where kettlebells excel.
Whether it’s swings, snatches or cleans, this high volume work really jacks up the cardio system.
For pure strength work we can enlist the grinding movements such as presses, squats, and rows. Again due to the off-centre nature of kettlebells we can get a lot of effect with lower weights.
I’ve seen many a well trained barbell lifter left like a quivering wreck after doing ‘light’ double kettlebell squats.
And kettlebells are wonderful at helping work on our mobility.
The complex nature of many of the kettlebell movements take us through a whole host of multi-planar, moving seamlessly from one plane to another. This means that our muscles and joints are working from multiple angles so we develop strong, stable, well rounded bodies.
The awkward nature of the kettlebells means our bodies have to constantly react to every little shift that occurs to put itself into a better/correct posture. This translates to more mobility and more robustness in those joints.
Much of our modern mobility issues are impacted by our constant state of seated sedentariness. When we spend most of our time in hip flexion, as we are when seated, the hip flexors can shorten and tighten up, leaving us with poor posture and painful lower backs.
The dynamic hip extension that occurs in a well executed kettlebells swings is a perfect antidote. I have a kettlebell next to my workspace that I swing on my 5 minute break every 25 minutes.
As a conditioning tool the kettlebell is hard to beat. The ability to move weight, at speed, and with relatively little risk (compared with the likes of barbells) makes it an absolute beast for developing work capacity. The combination of cardio, strength and power endurance makes kettlebells my go-to when I want to work on my conditioning.
We’ve mentioned before that resistance training is one of the best strategies in reducing body fat (once your diet is dialled in, obviously), and kettlebells really come into their own for this.
A 2010 study by the American Council on Exercise found that a 20 minute workout involving high intensity interval kettlebells snatches burnt a average of 400 calories. That’s the equivalent of running a 6 minute mile.
This is due in part to the full body nature of kettlebell training, combined with the Excess Post Exercise Oxygen Consumption (EPOC). This is the amount of energy used by the body after the training session, for up to 24 hours after. Don’t get giddy with excitement, it’s still small, but everything counts and kettlebells appear to be one of the superior modalities for increasing EPOC.
Sessions are quick.
As mentioned above, you don’t need 1-2 hour sessions with kettlebells to get some serious results. Sure, you can sweat it out for as extended a time as you like, but 20-30 minutes seems to be the sweet spot.
As I’ve said before, I pepper my day with 5 minute mini workouts to up my volume without fatiguing my system.
I have a go-to rapid fire kettlebell workout that I
love hate love for when time is short. It follows the Tabata interval timing, and some days I’ll do 4 rounds, others I might just fit in one. Something is nearly always better than none.
Check it out below. If the snatch is too advanced for your current level, try high pulls or cleans instead. If you are an absolute beginner then make sure your swing form is up to scratch then perform the whole thing with just swings.
With life running at 100 miles an hour, and seemingly everyone vying for your time, a short, sharp and effective workout is never a bad thing.
It should go without saying that before you embark on any new exercise system or programme you should a) seek permission from your doctor b) select a level that is challenging but still within your ability, and c) remember that you are an adult and the responsibility for you is yours. Be smart and leave your ego in your gym bag.
This is but a scratch on the surface of the benefits you get from playing with kettlebells. The real list is extensive and cover so many bases.
So is the kettlebell the ultimate training tool?
The ultimate training tool is the one you have at hand, and the one you will actually use. At Wild Life we recommend you get creative with your training and look at the world as if it’s your gym (see this post for more on this). You’ll be amazed at what you’ll discover.
Kettlebells can’t do everything, but they do a bloody good job with most things.
If I was stranded on a desert island and could have just one single piece of gym equipment it would without doubt be my trusty 24kg kettlebell. With bodyweight movements, random objects found in nature, and the kettlebell, I’m pretty sure I could make a pretty kick-ass programme for most goals.
We will visit the wonders of kettlebells again soon for some simple tutorials on the foundation kettlebell movements.
Keep swinging, people.
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