Kettlebell training methodology and philosophy has evolved since the late 1800s. At that time, the use of kettlebells was a small part of an overall exercise plan – at least this is true of the better known strong men, like Sandow and Saxon – and the number of ballistic and explosive movements were limited and often were more of a demonstration of ability rather than an applied and regular exercise technique . Typically, the ‘olde tymers’ used kettlebells for posing in photographs and stage demonstrations, because of the bells’ aesthetic appeal, but certainly were not used any more often than barbells or dumbbells, and less often as the decades passed likely because of their large and cumbersome profile.
Today’s kettlebell industry, at the beginning of the 21st Century, has failed to make this distinction, or the role that kettlebells had in an exercise program a century ago, and today a student new to k-bell lifting would come to believe that all an athlete would need for optimum physical change are a few kettlebells and the latest instructional book. This is obvious if we consider the direction and nature of today’s literature and videos on the subject. However, it should be noted that the individuals in many kettlebell books and videos, those who demonstrate use of k-bells, previously developed their bodies and strength by other means (one of whom trained exclusively with Nautilus machines), and certainly not in the style of performance suggested, i.e., explosive throwing of a cast-iron ball with an affixed handle.
The purpose of this chapter is to discuss current methods of kettlebell training, and that includes some of the cautions of which the reader should be aware, as well as proper implementation of the lifts, and even some of the limitations of current-day k-bell training methods.
The Russian Secret
At least in the West, any research or Internet searching on ‘kettlebells’ quickly gives the impression that such training is fundamentally a Russian concept. Although k-bells have been used for more than 100 years in other parts of the world, and have a longer history in the USA and Europe, it very much is true that this method of exercise has been kept alive by Russian culture; or, at least, ‘Russian marketing’ in North America. Fortunately for these marketers, anything that denotes a ‘Russian Secret’ helps to sell, and has instituted a strong following in the Western world as a result.
Such thinking has existed for some time, and the West is influenced particularly by any athletic endeavor that emphasizes what Eastern European weightlifters do, to suggest that the East knows something we do not, or that we should exercise in a similar fashion to how weightlifters train for their particular sport. People are apt to think that ‘something’ is ‘better’ (more exotic and mysterious) if it comes from a distant land, and in the realm of exercise science and sports, Eastern Bloc countries are viewed as authoritative. The fact is, the Soviets, fundamentally, do not have any more training secrets than we do, and often their success has more to do with drug use and advanced physical screening methods to find the best athletes for a particular sport, including weightlifting. Secondly, there is little of value or that can be accomplished beyond basic hard work with sufficient recovery, and certainly kettlebell training can achieve that objective when applied properly with a bit of common sense.
The ‘Russian Secret’ is not the only way that k-bell marketers appeal to our emotions, an unfortunate situation since an excellent workout can be achieved by training with these tools. Yet, making outlandish claims or using colorful phrases tends to mask the truth, as it weaves the science of kettlebell training into its mythology. What happens is that the ‘good’ is clouded with the ‘bad’ as trainees are motivated by jargon that belongs in trashy muscle magazines, such as:
- Make one-arm lifting more “evil” by training both arms simultaneously.
- Develop a “death grip” and “…functional tree trunk legs…”
- Use kettlebells to “get hellaciously hard muscle,” “frightening, whip-like speed,” a “god-like physique,” and “a jack-rabbit’s jumping power – and a jack-hammer’s strength.”
- And, you can “set your fat on fire,” or “…design a killer training regimen…”
- But remember, this training is brutal, and so “bring a puke bag.”
The above marketing ploys may attract some trainees into the kettlebell underground, but serious strength coaches, athletes and rational fitness enthusiasts are more interested in the hard facts of proper exercise designed to produce respectable results. These people do not need to belong to the latest ‘cult,’ which is what the above marketing slogans serve to do, and which is all too common and frequent in this industry. Having said as much, the remainder of this chapter will look at many traditional and Olympic-style lifts, how they should be performed if so chosen, and a special look at the confusion of ‘explosive’ weight training’s hypothetical transfer ability to sport specific skills.
Ballistic vs. Control
There are two distinct methods of kettlebell application: Explosive/ballistic lifting, similar in action and philosophy to the Olympic lifts (snatch and the clean & jerk), and slower, controlled movements. Unless skilled in ‘throwing’ kettlebells, or having a qualified coach provide direction, it is best to do only the slower movements, particularly since that type of training better develops and strengthens a muscle than could rapid throwing movements, as will be explained.
The other reason for the emphasis on slower movements has to do with the issue of injury potential. An injury occurs whenever forces exceed the integrity of the soft tissues, and this can occur at any moment with a high force, or over several weeks or months, as is the case with overuse injuries (e.g., tendonitis) from lack of recovery and too much training. The second instance can happen to anyone and while using any type of training method. The first instance, however, is far more likely when dropping, jerking, heaving, or throwing a weight, whether heavy or light. In effect, the slower a weight is moved and the greater the control a person has with a weight, and so long as the weight is not a maximum load, but a manageable weight, the less risk there will be of incurring an injury.
Safety is a very important consideration in any sport, as can be exemplified by the helmets and dense padding that envelops joints in most contact activities, aside from boxing and rugby. (Although with boxing, it became apparent that padded gloves do far less damage to an opponent than bare-knuckle fighting.) And this is how we should view exercise; the activity is meant to improve the condition or function of the body, and to protect it from injury by making the tissues stronger, but it should not be a cause of injury. An issue with current-day kettlebell training is that the concern of safety may be understood yet ballistic/explosive movements, which increase that risk greatly, still are endorsed. Consequently, and although we do explore explosive lifting movements shortly, the reader should implement them cautiously and at his or her own risk.
Could I be exaggerating or too conservative in my recommendations to avoid high force, explosive/ballistic movements? A little later I will discuss the perceived value of such exercise, i.e., to improve sporting performance, and even performance in daily activities. But for now, consider some of the comments made by authors (kettlebell ‘experts’ nonetheless) in some of the most popular books and videos on the subject (emphases mine):
- “Snap your hips through and straighten out your knees explosively as if you are jumping. At the same time violently shrug your shoulders up. At a rapid clip, naturally.”
- “…watch your toes.”
- “… ballistic movements (snatches, cleans and jerks) can be performed from one to hundreds of repetitions.” The issue of overuse injuries should be obvious in this example.
- “When the weather is nice, I go outside and throw the kettlebells for height and distance – one handed and two-handed from every angle.”
In another example, the “spin” exercise requires a person to toss a k-bell at chin height or higher while the thumb gives the bell a spin. The person then catches the falling k-bell. But… “plan on dropping the weight a lot until you master this drill.” For what purpose is this exercise done and what value does it hold? Apparently to work the grip (which can be done by safer means), and most obviously to get good at catching a thrown k-bell, in case you ever need that skill at some point, such as joining a circus show.
- “Drop the weight” if something goes wrong.
- “Warning! Most kettlebell exercises can be dangerous or even fatal.”
- “If you do the drill correctly you will barely feel the impact of the bell on your forearm. If you do not, you will get bruised or worse.” It makes one wonder what “worse” means.
- “Swing the bell back and whip it straight overhead in one clean movement.”
- “Dip under the K-bell as it is flipping over the wrist. Absorb the shock…”
- The commentator on one kettlebell video contends that: “…during repetitive lifts the ball will strike the forearm, thus strengthening the tendons and ligaments of the arms, shoulders and wrists.” There is no evidence that repetitive impact forces are beneficial for the tissues, but there is much evidence (and common sense experience) that they are harmful.
- Another video, which focuses on martial arts kettlebell training, requires that a trainee walk around with kettlebells cleaned (and held) to the shoulders and while weaving or shuffling the feet laterally, forward and backward, as one would when sparring with an opponent. Positions of extreme compromise then are introduced, to increase instability, i.e., while holding kettlebells overhead at arms’ length.
- A different video makes safety unpredictable as a grasped towel looped through a kettlebell handle is swung around the head like a giant slingshot or Olympic hammer throw. While doing this, the demonstrator’s feet staggered about to maintain balance and to keep from falling.
None of the above instills a sense of safety or ‘low risk’ of injury. And never could the statements or exercises be worded to that effect. As a result, a feeling of caution and hesitation should be expected and not ignored, whether the reader is a typical fitness enthusiast (one who cannot sustain injury as well as gifted athletes), or a competitive athlete (some of whom are worth millions of dollars). The bottom line is, question why you are doing a particular exercise and determine its risk vs. its benefit. Perhaps some exercises can enhance performance by 1-2%, but if the increased risk of injury is much greater than the perceived benefit, then a red flag should raise.
Modern-day authorities are not the only ones who advocate dangerous practices. Although not ballistic or explosive in nature, even the great Arthur Saxon, in The Text Book of Weight-lifting, recommended a few questionable practices, such as the following:
This next exercise can be a painful experience, “but once the knack has been mastered, it will be found fairly easy, and besides, of immense value as a leg, back and neck developer.
“Lie down on your back, with your legs raised at right angles to your body. Practice first of all pushing your body and legs straight up into the air, supporting yourself solely on your shoulders and the back of your neck.
“When you have become proficient at this, lie down as before, pull a bar-bell (or even two ring weights) over your head, balance the first on the soles of your feet, or hand the second on your toes. Then straighten and bend your legs from ten to twenty times. Continue to practice this exercise until you have so strengthened the muscles, both of these and of your back, that you can press yourself, weights and all, up again on to your shoulders and back of your neck as before.
“Continue this practice, increasing your repetitions once or twice every week, until you can perform the feat, say, twenty times in succession, when you should commence again, having increased the weight supporting on your feet by 5 lbs. or so.
“When commencing this leg and back strengthening exercise, it is advisable to use ring weights, as these are less liable to fall off, with painful consequences to yourself.”
The issue of the ring weights (kettlebells) sliding off the feet and coming crashing down should be cause for concern, as well as the strain experienced from this exercise to the cervical vertebrae. However, during Saxon’s time, there were no leg presses or other exercise conveniences, and fitness enthusiasts and strongmen often improvised in order to work all the muscles effectively, or to develop movements to ‘wow’ an audience (and perhaps, besides, not being fully aware of the dangers associated with certain biomechanical positions).
Whether moving weights explosively or slowly, some common ground rules apply:
- Keep the spine in a neutral position, as much as possible or when possible.
- Avoid flexing or extending the spine unless called for in an exercise, since doing so will increase strain on the spinal discs and nerves.
- Keep the rib cage held up and the shoulders square, unless otherwise indicated.
- This position also will help to maintain a “neutral” spine position.
- Use the leg, hip and gluteal muscles as much as possible, particularly when lifting kettlebells from the ground or from a low position. Certainly the back muscles will work to help lift a weight, but tension should be shared and distributed with the lower body as much as possible.
- Use a comfortable and appropriately wide base of support (foot width), and relative to the exercise, to maintain balance and exercise integrity.
To avoid injury, discontinue an exercise when proper lifting form begins to deteriorate. This is particularly true of movements that require a great deal of skill and body dynamics, as with throwing and explosive exercises.
- Heavy lifting often necessitates some breath holding, but try not to hold your breath more than is required, to avoid dizziness or possible fainting. When feasible, it is best to breathe in on the negative or lowering portion of a movement, and then breathe out when lifting or raising the weight, when exertion is greatest. With explosive movements, the duration of each repetition often is brief enough that breath holding is of little concern, but more important with slower movements that take several seconds to complete.
- Also, it is recommended that those new to kettlebell training, particularly with the swivel-handle design of the Black Iron Strength k-bells, attempt a few workouts of basic exercise movements, to become used to the feel of a swivel weight with an offset center of balance. Below, Tommy Boyer-Kendrick illustrates the biceps curl, lateral raise, front raise, overhead press, upright row, chest press (and flye), squat (with an interlocking finger grip), front lunge, and side lunge. These all are basic exercises that can form the foundation of any kettlebell exercise program, besides allowing a trainee to become familiar with k-bells prior to attempting more diverse movements, such as kettlebell cleans or bent presses.
Explosive Kettlebell Lifting
To reiterate a previous sentiment, if you desire to move explosively, and to perform clean & jerk, snatch and other explosive and ballistic type movements, then do so at your own peril and understand sufficiently the dangers of doing so. At the very least, ask yourself if the results of such training methods are worth the increased risk of injury and whether other methods can produce the same results or effects.
The k-bell swing between the legs, for example, can hyperextend the shoulder joint, and will involve extreme tissue stretching as the k-bell moves quickly and with great force between the legs. For press-related movements, orb-shaped k-bells further are guilty of hyperextending the wrists and compressing the elbow and shoulder joints because of the displacement of the weight over to one side of the handle. Although few problems may arise if press movements are not abused or over-done, the situation becomes more grave when performing a snatch type movement whereby the weight is exploded up, the joints lock, and the k-bell is allowed to flip over onto the back of the forearm. Why would anyone need to do this? Nonetheless, these are basic movements taught to neophytes in various k-bell books and videos.
Later I will discuss the misconception of explosive weight training and its influence (perceived benefit) on explosive sport demonstration/skills, but for now some examples of the explosive lifts are in order, as demonstrated and instructed by Tommy Boyer-Kendrick:
The Power Clean
Although there are several variations of the movement, basic instruction and coaching for the power clean does not change when using the kettlebell (see photo sequence on next page).
Basic start position:
• Feet approximately shoulder width and flat on the floor
• Head facing forward
• Back straight
• Thighs almost parallel to the floor
• Shoulders over the kettlebell(s)
The Movement (pulling and catching phases):
Initiate the movement by ‘driving’ the legs and hips through the floor to pull the weight upward. Hips and knees are slightly pushed backward as the kettlebell passes knee level. At this point, the person fully extends the body from the ankle, knee and hip as he/she pulls the kettlebell close to the body or torso.
It is critical to keep the weight very close to the body while pulling explosively. The elbows must be kept out and high as you pull, to allow the trainee to quickly rotate the kettlebell handle to ‘spin’ and catch the kettlebell. The knees and hips drop under the weight of the ‘catch’ and support the body, thus keeping the back straight and head up. Once the weight is balanced, then stand back up and press the kettlebells overhead to complete the full clean and jerk.
The kettlebell allows for several options to making the power clean more specific to the needs of the individual. The most common is the single-arm clean (see photo sequence below). The only slight variation made is in the start position, when the kettlebell is held between the legs.
Another variation is alternating single-arm cleans while holding two kettlebells. Other than being more complex in its coordination, the basic mechanics do not change from the standard power clean. Remember to lower the weight under control after completing the repetition, and do not let the weight jerk the shoulder downward.
The Power Snatch
The main difference between the power clean and the snatch is that in this lift the trainee moves the weight with one explosive pull completely overhead. However, the same basic starting points apply as was done with the power clean.
First, the hand-grip width on the traditional snatch is very wide, but when using kettlebells this is not required. In fact, that is one of the tremendous benefits of kettlebells, in that a trainee does not have to put his/her shoulder in a wide grip position to start the pulling of the weight. The kettlebells are in a similar position to the power clean. The chest and shoulders should be over the kettlebells as you begin the lift. The initial pulling phase is very similar to the power clean as well. Begin by pulling the weight as you push with the legs and raise the hips. Once again, keep that weight very close to the body as you pull upward overhead.
The elbows ‘lead the way’ as they are higher than the grip when finishing the pulling phase of the snatch, and the wrists are extended rapidly to rotate the handle of the kettlebell (this replicates the spin of the Olympic barbell). However, here is the key difference – you do not rotate the kettlebell around the wrist and arm to catch it on top of the forearm! The wrist extends explosively and the kettlebell is kept in front of the forearm. This greatly reduces the risk of injury, and also reiterates the technique of stabilizing the weight at the wrist and elbow. This variation was created to counter all the issues with “over-rotation” of the kettlebell as the lifter tries to catch and hold the weight overhead. This requires great wrist, elbow and shoulder strength and stabilization.
There are also many variations of the snatch when using the kettlebells that are beneficial. The single-arm (below), or even the alternating arm method can be very challenging. Remember that the basic technique does not change with these variations. Of course, do not try these variations without having the basic technique down first.
A Few Notes of Caution
The Olympic Lifts (snatch and clean & jerk) are very advanced and require great skill and coordination to perform safely. Remember that it is important first to master the technique and then to increase the load/weight. Begin with a very light kettlebell, certainly lighter than one “pood” (36-pounds) for most people.
Make sure to get an American (‘Modern’) kettlebell also, available through www.BlackIronStrength.com – the non-rotating cannonball will not work in this case. In fact, it will produce bad habits! Without a rotating handle the kettlebell will not emulate the characteristics of the actual Olympic Lifts. The explosive speed needed to replicate these movements with a kettlebell require a rotating handle; otherwise, do not even bother attempting to incorporate them into your routine.
It may be asked why I would even speak of k-bell Olympic lifts, considering I am against such exercise unless one is an Olympic lifter (see the chapter on Plyometrics and Explosive Training). In a nutshell, unless you use a k-bell with a rotating handle, and as explained already, it is necessary to reduce one’s grip, to allow a fixed handle to rotate. In effect, a fixed handle k-bell slows movement and alters grip mechanics in order to accommodate the tool. A reduction in speed is counter to what the so-called Russian K-bell experts want to achieve… the same people who peddle their fixed handled k-bells and the books and videos that support those sales.
They want you to train as quickly, as fast, as explosively as possible, and yet they recommend a tool that hampers that directive. As well, proper technique of the ‘clean’ movement necessitates that the load moves close to the body in a near vertical plane; conversely, the use of a ‘Russian’ k-bell requires that it swings forward and up in a large ellipse, which increase momentum force as well as impact force when the k-bell flops back against the forearm and wrist. The result is improper mechanics as a result of an improper tool, but the ‘experts’ will tell you otherwise.
The Issue of Explosiveness
To be explosive at a given task, such as wrestling, martial arts or football, requires specific practice of specific skills, and within an explosive environment (mentally and physically). However, being explosive in tennis does not mean a person will be explosive in judo, a dissimilar activity. Skill is simply the ability to make effective use of muscular force, and optimizing force production in the gym is a completely different concept and activity – one that is irrelevant to sporting skill development. To explain, specific skills must be developed and practiced relative to the specific sport or game, so that the athlete can move rapidly and assuredly under familiar conditions that are pertinent to the sport. It is the mind that commands the muscles to move quickly, and this can be accomplished through regular practice and knowing what to do when the time arises. Conversely, strength training can help an athlete by improving power output, to enhance any sporting skills to be acquired. In this regard, even slow and heavy strength training improves power significantly since increasing muscular strength and hypertrophy (no matter the speed of movement when lifting a weight) increases force output. Yet the speed of a sporting movement is dependent upon practicing that sporting movement, and not by moving barbells, dumbbells or kettlebells quickly.
It has been argued that explosive weight training has an edge in helping an athlete to be more explosive. There is no proof of this, particularly if the athlete is experienced and knows how to explode or move rapidly in a given sport. If that is not the case, then the mental practice of ‘exploding’ with a weight may help initially, so that the athlete can become familiar with the concept of explosive movement, but he or she also will increase the risk of injury for reasons explained previously and particularly in the chapter Plyometrics and Explosive Training. And the athlete would serve his or her craft better by specific practice of the sport and its applicable explosive movements, since those skills are required.
Consider how fast a punch or kick is in martial arts; so fast that the limbs can be a blur to the human eye. Next, think of how slow explosive weight training is when compared to moving the limbs unimpeded by a barbell, kettlebells or any other form of resistance. Since one activity (weight training) is much slower than most actions in most sports, it is apparent that athletes do not have to exercise explosively in order to be explosive (or more explosive) in their chosen sports. They already are explosive, or far more explosive than whatever is possible when the limbs are loaded with a barbell or kettlebells. Consequently, the speed of movement in exercise does not necessitate explosive lifting or will provide a value in that regard, whereas progressive overload and a sufficiently high intensity of effort is important in strength training, no matter the speed of movement.
Keep in mind that the skills and neuromuscular patterns practiced in explosive lifting is far different (non-specific) than it is in other activities, such as football or hockey, and being explosive in one particular movement pattern does not make a person explosive in a completely different movement pattern. Hence, throwing weights over one’s head is not a good way to improve the function of muscles, but to train a specific movement and skill demonstration, i.e., throwing a weight. Likewise, Olympic lifting involves both muscular strength and skill (of particular lifts [clean and jerk and the snatch] done in a particular manner). In fact, this is true of any weight training movement.
The bench press, for example, is a demonstration of skill that requires strength. One person can be much stronger than another, but if the weaker person practices the bench press, whereas the stronger person does not, the weaker person likely will lift more in that exercise because he has the acquired skills and would not need as much strength to lift and control the same weight. But the weaker person, who can bench press more weight would not, necessarily, perform better than the other person in a dissimilar activity, such as a football tackle.
Therefore, if you want to be good at throwing a kettlebell overhead, then practice doing so. But if you want to strengthen and develop a muscle safely, then a different approach, one that involves slower movement, should be given consideration; if for no other reason than avoidance of injury.
The philosophy and direction of explosive overhead movements derives from Olympic lifting history, thus suggesting, as many strength coaches believe, that to be explosive one must train (in the gym) explosively. Certainly Olympic lifters are some of the most powerful athletes, and some of the fastest. But throwing weights overhead becomes a demonstration of a certain and specific ability… of muscular strength/power, but also the use of momentum + skill , thus involving certain movement patterns.
And it is more than mere coincidence that the individuals who have had the most profound influence on how average fitness enthusiasts and athletes exercise happened to have been competitive weightlifters; people who have shared and continue to share their beliefs in the value of Olympic weightlifting. As Arthur Saxon stated in his book The Text Book of Weight-lifting, and on the subject of Weight-lifting Exercises and Exercises with Weights, “At first blush, these might seem to mean the same thing, but, as a matter of fact, there is a very considerable difference between the two.” The difference being that one can develop strength, power and muscle without throwing weights overhead, the latter of which is a sport-specific skill used to demonstrate that particular ability.
It should be obvious that strength is general in nature, but the extent to which strength can be demonstrated has much to do with any related and specific skill. Hence, the skills of throwing a kettlebell explosively is far different than the skills of football or martial arts, and being good at one does not make a person good at another (and being explosive in one does not make a person explosive in another); a reoccurring theme that needs repeating to be understood and appreciated. Consequently, develop strength in the safest manner possible (with controlled, slow, and relatively heavy resistance movements) to improve overall function and ability, and then practice the specific skills necessary for a given activity or sport as they need to be practiced.
A clearer understanding of all this has been demonstrated in neurophysiology for several decades. The ability for one activity to affect skill ability of another activity falls under three categories: 1) positive transfer; 2) negative transfer; and 3) indifferent transfer. A positive transfer is one that helps to improve a skill, such as dribbling a basketball to assist in the performance of basketball. A negative transfer is one that hurts particular skills, such as shooting hoops whereby the basket is twelve inches higher than is found in regulation basketball (i.e., the skills are close to the intended skills to be improved upon, but just different enough to mess up the original skills). An indifferent transfer is one that has no effect since it is so different, such as playing golf when not playing basketball.
Weight training, too, is an indifferent skill, in that it is so far removed from any other sport (aside from lifting weights to demonstrate the lifting of weights) that the activity merely serves to improve general and overall function at best, which then assists the performance ability of unlike sporting activities. This is why athletes who become stronger and more powerful as a result of strength training become better athletes in football, basketball, and even golf and tennis. However, once a person attempts to mimic sporting activities with resistance, and while attempting to move at similar velocities, joints angles, etc. as a sport movement, the original skills can become disturbed because of the negative transfer, and strength training no longer remains functional, supportive, or helpful.
Next, besides the benefit of safety and specificity, it has been established repeatedly in scientific investigations that strength is developed best by movement that is sufficiently slow, in order to sustain tension on the working muscles. And that full range strength is achieved best) by exercising a muscle throughout its full range while moving sufficiently slow (as to avoid excess momentum). Conversely, when a weight is exploded or bounced from the bottom position of a movement (as is common with ‘ballistic’ or explosive training), a great deal of potentially dangerous force is experienced by the muscles initially, and that force dissipates rapidly as the weight is propelled in the air and muscular tension reduces as a result. How can a muscle be trained effectively, or its function increased at a particular joint range-of-motion/angle if there is little tension in that area as a result of participating momentum?
It may be counter-argued that slow movements are fine for ‘strength,’ but what about ‘power’? Well, in order to demonstrate power, a person must demonstrate or produce muscular strength (force). The speed at which movement occurs (to increase power as a result of muscle strength/force) depends largely on genetic potential, the central nervous system (i.e., brain) that commands the muscles to move rapidly, and how well particular sporting skills are engrained/practiced in order to move quickly without hesitation while demonstrating those skills. Without specific sporting skill practice, a person will not be very explosive in a given sport, no matter how hard and fast a weight is lifted in the gym.
The idea that throwing and exploding weights in particular exercises are highly skill based, with little transfer to other sports, is further supported by how explosive weight lifting movements are perceived. K-bell authorities refer to the explosive movements as “drills” rather than exercises, unlike the slower and more controlled movements. Similarly, the practice of sporting skills necessitates the involvement of specific drills to perfect certain movement patterns at certain speeds.
In effect, strength training conducted in a gym is meant to allow for an improvement in general ability, to then enhance the specific ability of a sport in question. An athlete utilizes that improved ability, of greater strength, power and muscular development achieved in the gym, when ‘practicing’ the necessary sporting mechanics. One does not have to throw weights around to be explosive or more explosive in martial arts, football, hockey, or any other dissimilar activity.
In fact, athletes today are no more explosive than athletes of decades ago since that particular physical characteristic has far more to do with genetics, such as neuromuscular efficiency, reaction responses and reflexes, and physical design (e.g., muscle belly length, fiber type characteristics, leverage among muscle groups, etc), and not the style of exercise performed in the gym that occurs outside the practice of a sport. And there also are the issues of extensive anabolic steroid use and a much higher number of athletes competing today than 2-3 decades ago, which number would include greater genetic deviations from the norm in functional ability and general athleticism.
In sum, here are the key points:
1. Skill in sports is the result of practice that is specific to a particular activity. Consequently, effective strength training will not improve or increase unlike skills directly, but will improve an athlete indirectly by enhancing conditioning and muscular function.
2. Why is the first point true? Because strength training involves an overload, or should involve a progressive overload when possible, whereas proper skill training involves load specificity that does not include an overload (only a load that is appropriate to the skill and, thus, specific). Consider dribbling a basketball that is heavier than a typical regulation ball used in competition; brief reflection should indicate that the intended and original skills would suffer and not improve as a result.
3. Hence, explosive exercise (or any manner of strength training) does not improve any sporting skills (aside from lifting weights to demonstrate the ability to lift weights), and the explosive ‘specifics’ of weight training is non-specific to the explosive actions of football, boxing or other sports. In effect, the purpose of strength training is to improve physiological functional ability, and it should be done in the safest manner possible with the lowest risk of injury. Conversely, practice of a sport is to improve skills, and should never be confused with strength training methodology.
For these reasons, the author does not recommend, nor see a value in weight ‘throwing,’ by way of mimicking Olympic style lifts or other exercises than involve swinging or heaving, sometimes for hundreds of repetitions and that will place undue strain on the joints and soft tissues. Nonetheless, this ‘conservative’ (and I believe rational and just) philosophy is not shared among most of today’s kettlebell enthusiasts or some strength and conditioning coaches, and the reader is free to train however he or she wishes, so long as the risks and rewards are understood and accepted.
Also, the reader must keep in mind that Olympic lifting poses the greatest risk of injury, as evidenced by the countless knee, lumbar, elbow and wrist injuries of even the top ranking lifters, including those in Russia. It then is counter-argued that Olympic lifting has a low risk of injury when compared to other ‘sports,’ and therein is the key. Olympic lifting is a sport and not an ideal method of exercise for those with no intention of competing in such a sport… since Olympic style lifting has the highest incidence of injury than any other method of strength training, as a result of high forces that are experienced. Some people may be able to clean and jerk, and snatch barbells or kettlebells without incident of injury, but this is not typical and should not be expected or suggested as such, no matter how careful you think you are or can be.
Lastly, another argument is that cleaning, jerking, and snatching kettlebells (or barbells for that matter) works the entire body or, at least, many muscles simultaneously. There are two considerations of this position statement. First, it is possible to work many muscles simultaneously without throwing weights, as is found with typical training, such as doing squats, deadlifts, chins, and dips. Second, the extent to which throwing a weight overhead will work the entire body (or many muscles) is in contention.
To explain, performance of explosive overhead lifts, either for low or high repetitions, makes it obvious that certain muscles will fatigue more quickly (and often the shoulder structure), but with far less of an effect on the thighs, chest, or upper arm muscles. Yes, those muscles do receive ‘some’ benefit or stimulus, but not nearly to the same degree that physical changes could be optimized or developed under different conditions. And this fact likely accounts for the inclusion of the more effective, controlled exercises recommended by today’s k-bell authorities, in the misdirected contention that slow and controlled movements are for strength and muscle mass, whereas explosive movements are for power.
Kettlebell Sport Specificity
By now it should be obvious that strength training and skill training are two different things that should not be confused. Nonetheless, some points are worth repeating and expanding upon. Fundamentally, sport specificity means exactly that: specific, and not ‘kind of’ or ‘sort of.’ Playing a guitar is very specific, and unlike playing a violin. Analogously, the actions of weight training are non-specific to any sport, aside from weightlifting to compete in weightlifting, or powerlifting exercises to compete in powerlifting. However, if you want to be good at martial arts, you MUST practice the martial arts, and different types of martial arts require specific practice within each discipline. Strength training (no matter how fast or slow a trainee moves, or one’s choice of exercise, or whether using free weights or machines) will enhance and develop general ability, and while developing any unavoidable and specific skills that are part of the chosen strength training movements. The general ability and conditioning that arises then serves to enhance any sport in question, as the sporting skills become easier to demonstrate and to practice as a result of the enhanced conditioning and functional changes produced with strength training.
This is not always apparent or clear in the fitness and sporting industries. For example, one authority indicated that: “Ballistic kettlebell drills have some highly specific applications for wrestling. The snapping-action of the hips and back, plus the radical strengthening of hands and all pulling muscles, made kettlebells the Eastern block wrestlers’ natural first choice.” No wrestling action is the same as a kettlebell action, and the nature of the ‘snapping’ of any joint in wrestling also is quite different and unique. Consequently, the ballistic, snapping actions of the joints during kettlebell drills offer no positive transfer quality to wrestling. Certainly what is happening is that some strength is being developed during ballistic k-bell training, although the same can and will occur – and often to a greater extent if applied properly – with more intense, slower movements. Thus, kettlebell training, no matter its application, involves an indifferent transfer.
Another example of this confusion is as follows: “Kettlebells are different, they’re like a real sport, they match the real mechanics of the body. Not like typical gym training.” Let’s analyze this. Tossing about kettlebells is little more than a demonstration of a particular, dynamic skill, and as a result it is different than most typical gym training; which does not make it better, but different. Likewise, training with barbells or machines is ‘different,’ as is any other activity that is not the same as another. Thus, we have the concepts of ‘same’ and ‘different.’
Next, the term ‘sport’ is defined as an athletic activity requiring skill or physical prowess and often of a competitive nature (Webster’s Dictionary). Although kettlebell training is not considered ‘competitive,’ except within a few underground cult groups that choose to have kettlebell throwing contests, it does require skill or physical prowess, just like any other method of strength training. Consequently, it is no more a ‘sport’ than lifting a moderately heavy weight slowly.
Moreover, the statement that “they match the real mechanics of the body” is misleading. The biceps brachii, for example, supinate the hand and flex the elbow joint, and this can be done with free weights or a machine, thus matching the “real mechanics” of the body. Kettlebells are not needed for this requirement, although k-bells must be applied appropriately, to accommodate the “real mechanics of the body.” Otherwise an injury would occur.
In that regard, exercises mimic or match functions of muscles, e.g., hip abduction, arm adduction, plantar flexion, etc., and are not meant to mimic various movement patterns in sports. Duplication of a sporting movement while overloading the muscles cannot be achieved since the velocity, muscle participation (and extent of participation), load, forces produced or experienced by the various muscles at various times, and many other factors are unique from one movement to another, and from one moment to another, and those differences exist between any kettlebell lift and any unlike sporting movement. And as soon as you come close to mimicking a sporting activity, you run the risk of disturbing the intended sporting skills, via a negative transfer.
Consequently, aside from general strength and conditioning, do not believe that cleaning and jerking a kettlebell will stimulate any magical or direct transfer to any other activity… just because both may be ‘explosive’ in nature. Think about the guitar and violin example mentioned previously. Both are similar in many respects, in that both instruments have strings, a finger board, and the need for a coordinated use of both hands to produce (an intended) sound, but the skills of one are different than the skills of the other, and neither will help you to be good at the other.
Here is another misleading statement: “Kettlebell lifting specifically trains all of the physical traits required of a soldier all at the same time where other systems fail. These traits are: Strength, endurance (muscular and cardiovascular), agility, and coordination.” These aspects can be achieved through other means as well, and that kettlebell training does not offer any unique training method, although the feel of the tool is unique because of its displaced center of mass, but simply a different means to achieve the same exercise effect as can be done with barbells, dumbbells, and machines. And it should be noted that “agility” and “coordination” are context specific, i.e., dependent upon the activity in which you want to be agile and coordinated. Once again, you need specific practice of a specific activity to be good at that activity. Furthermore, the Russian military employs very little kettlebell training, with a greater focus on calisthenics and running.
As another misleading example, it is suggested that tossing k-bells in the air and passing them from hand to hand “will increase hand eye coordination…” However, a skill that involves hand-eye coordination also is highly specific, and would not contribute to an unlike skill, such as playing table tennis to be good at racquetball, both of which involve different rates of velocity, body positioning, movement patterns, arm motions, etc., when coordinating the hand and eye.
The claimant further stated that juggling type drills with kettlebells “work the brain” since a trainee becomes “mentally tired” after performing such drills for forty-five minutes. The suggestion is that by linking an improvement of specific hand-eye coordination (to juggle a kettlebell), and the fatigue one feels mentally from focusing on a repetitive activity, a trainee may become more intelligent, since it “works the brain.” Repetitive factory/assembly-line work also can be very mentally tiring, but this does not have any positive effects on IQ or will benefit other activities requiring mental effort.
It is pointless to continue with further false or misleading claims made in current kettlebell circles, since the reader likely gets the idea, or should. Such claims are unfortunate since they serve only to keep exercise science in the dark ages; and what can and cannot be achieved with any training method are the true ‘secrets’ that are being withheld in this industry.
But as a closing argument, consider that sporting skill coaches are clearly aware of the limitations of practice, in that too much practice is of no value or can make an athlete worse. This is true since a tired athlete alters his or her mechanics, speed of movement, etc., i.e., his or her style of performance. A change in style results in altering body actions as he or she must compensate for the reduction in strength and/or endurance. If a slight change of mechanics, speed of movement, etc., of a skill does not serve to improve the skill as it needs to exist, then how can completely unlike strength training exercise skills improve sporting skills? The answer is that they cannot directly, and strength training must be viewed as a means to improve general function indirectly, regardless of method of performance or speed of movement.
Kettlebells & Muscle Development
Modern-day kettlebell methods do employ some slow and controlled exercise movements, although these movements, like the explosive/ballistic drills, predominantly affect the shoulders and grip, with far less emphasis on the remaining muscle groups; a fine situation if that is what is required or desired, but which does not provide an overall balanced appearance or strength throughout the body. As one authority in modern kettlebell training has suggested:
“… if you don’t want huge pecs and arms, do not get carried away with kettlebell curls, flies, and supine presses. Concentrate on the classic kettlebell training that de-emphasizes the above and focuses more on ballistic drills and various standing presses. The result will be… broad shoulders with just a hint of pecs… wiry arms… and strong legs, without a hint of squat-induced chafing.”
Although injury potential as a result of muscular imbalance may not be an issue with the non-athlete, it certainly is with athletes, and under-developing (i.e., via full range strength) many of the important muscles could pose a problem or be the cause of a potential problem. Most kettlebell exercises, whether explosive or not, often overwhelm only the shoulders and grip, and this certainly will not provide balanced overall strength or development. In this regard, it not only is lack of strength that can result in injury in sports, but an imbalance of strength among muscles and their associate joints. Furthermore, not many people, particularly men, want “wiry” arms, a “hint” of pecs, or legs that may be strong but that do not look strong. Many men already have those, which is why they undertake strength training/bodybuilding. But simply try to perform curls with traditional kettlebells and you will find the experience uncomfortable as the handle digs into and twists the skin of the palm. No wonder such exercises are discouraged. Arthur Saxon, the only man to single press 370 pounds overhead with one arm, had this to say on the subject, in The Text Book of Weight-lifting:
“In order to secure (the result of all-round development), the exercising must be thorough, and it must be all-round. Each part of the body must be dealt with seriatim.
“Just think carefully over the various lifts, and you will see that every lift develops particularly certain muscular groups upon which a very considerable strain is put in other lifts, which do not, however, test these same groups so severely.
“It stands to reason, therefore, that the regular practice of all-round lifting must of necessity be excellent practice, not only for all-round lifting, but also for special and particularized lifting.” (Editor: In this last quote, Saxon understood full well that to be good at a particular lift requires regular practice of that lift, and that being strong in one lift does not mean being strong in a different lift.)
Now, consider the fact that most kettlebell exercises (as advocated by most of today’s authorities) affect primarily the grip and the shoulders. For some athletes this is an ideal situation, whereas it can mean overwork for other athletes. Swimmers, for example, use their shoulders so extensively that additional kettlebell work can result in overuse injuries or overuse atrophy rather quickly. The same potentially is true of wrestlers, boxers, or martial artists. Certainly a bit of hard work will go a long way, but relative to the recommendations made by one of today’s perceived top authorities (k-bell training upward of 7-days per week), this is an invitation to disaster.
There are a variety of exercises and two training methodologies to condition the entire body, and to do so as safely as possible or, at least, with greater safety than what is recommended in today’s kettlebell circles. For instance, one such ‘full body’ movement practiced by kettlebell enthusiasts is the ‘Get-up,’ whereby a person would lay on the floor with a kettlebell along his or her side, grasp the kettlebell and then proceed to sit and then stand up with the weight extended at arm’s length and overhead throughout the movement. This exercise certainly is challenging (skill oriented), and does work many muscles, but it does so in a very unstable environment.
The goal of this movement is to work many muscles in various planes, but there is an increased risk of injury to the shoulder and with a modest weight that would not sufficiently tax many of the other muscles, such as the back and thighs. In effect, the Get-up becomes nothing more than an impressive demonstration of an awkward series of mechanics. This does not mean that there is no benefit to this exercise, but it must be realized what it can and cannot do for a trainee, and that it is more a demonstration of strength and particular skills rather than the most effective way to develop strength.
And certainly and obviously old time movements developed by lifters of your have influenced today’s exercises, but this does not make those methods the best available or as good as they can be. They simply were the methods of the ‘time,’ limited by the equipment available, and must be scrutinized carefully and objectively in that regard. Below are two examples of old time movements, used by men like Sandow and Saxon; both of which place sufficient strain onto the spine and shoulder joint. The muscles worked in these exercises can be trained by other means that are safer and even more productive since they offer a greater range of motion with less contortion of the body, such as using a rotary torso machine to work the lateral movement of the spine, or a traditional barbell squat to work the thighs.
The Bent Press
The Bent Press exercise takes some coordination, and so it is not recommended for those new to physical training or new to the experience of using kettlebells. After a few months following a structured exercise program however, trainees will be ready to attempt the Bent Press.
First, begin with the feet positioned as shown in the first photo, and with a kettlebell held in one hand and over the forearm. The forearm of the working arm is vertical and in the ‘ready’ position. As the kettlebell is pressed, the torso leans sideways as the hips push out. Move into position slowly and hold for about one second. Return to the starting position slowly. Perform an equal number of repetitions for the other side of the body.
The exercise often is limited by the strength and stability of the shoulder structure, implemented primarily as a means to challenge the lateral flexion ability of the spine. Regardless of what others recommend, DO NOT lock out the knees as doing so will increase the risk of injury to the knee joints and spine.
The Bent Press (with Squat)
This version of the Bent Press is similar in all regards to the previous version with the exception of adding a squat movement, after bending to the side. Once the dumbbell is positioned overhead, the trainee drops the hips down into a low squat position, pauses, and stands upright with the dumbbell still held overhead. Multiple squat repetitions can be completed, or the trainee can proceed through the sequence as shown above.
Kettlebell Rx Guidelines
It is difficult to suggest which exercises should be chosen, since everyone’s needs and preferences are different, although a sufficient assortment over 1-2 workouts should train all the muscles of the body. Typical fitness enthusiasts may want to work all muscles equally as hard, whereas athletes need to be more selective. Athletes should develop enough strength in all the muscles, but while emphasizing specific exercises that will stimulate the most critical and used muscles required in a chosen sport. For example, a swimmer would need to emphasize shoulder and lat work since those muscles are used the most and must be the most powerful, although conditioning for the entire body would have a beneficial effect. At the same time, a swimmer must be careful not to overwork the shoulders and lats since those muscles obtains so much stimulation from swimming. In other words, brief, intense work performed infrequently.
The measure of volume and frequency is a more difficult decision since the intensity of effort affects how much a person can do in a workout, or how often workouts can be repeated. It makes sense, however, to perform the least amount of activity to produce the greatest benefit, and that takes serious thought and experimentation, particularly for athletes who need to practice sport-specific skills, and sometimes for several hours each week, besides attending school, going to work, or the countless other stressors that tap a person’s recovery reserves.
As a general guideline, 2-3 sessions per week and 8-12 exercises per session are sufficient, particularly if intensity of effort is high enough, or at/near maximum. Workouts should not last longer than 30-40 minutes, with 1-2 minute rests between sets, together with a modest warm-up, after which only one hard set of a particular exercise will be sufficient; again, so long as the intensity of effort and quality of movement is high. Do note that this is a very general guideline, and different people will require or tolerate different amounts of exercise.
It may be concluded that kettlebell training is no different from traditional strength training, in that the same overall approach can be applied, but the tool used provides a unique feel and challenge from that of barbells, dumbbells, and machines. And that is how k-bells need to be perceived… nothing more than a different feeling tool (a version of dumbbell).
Current-day kettlebell authorities recommend wide prescription ranges, to accommodate individual differences. One of the top ‘Russian’ authorities suggests training 2-7 times per week, for no more than 45 minutes per session (although he also references and approves Soviet armed forces workouts that last upward of 80 minutes, excluding warm-up and cool-down). However, rather than train hard on all exercises, this person also suggests that a trainee focus on certain exercises on an alternating basis. He further recommends that set rests between exercises be short, yet long enough to maintain form and concentration, and that the hardest and most technically demanding exercises are performed first. Most of those recommendations are acceptable and sound, although it is difficult to establish how lackluster a workout would have to be to warrant kettlebell training upward of 7 days per week, particularly since physical changes, such as improved strength, occur as a result of recovery and not during exercise.
Furthermore, it typically is recommended in today’s kettlebell circles that 3 to 20 sets per exercise be performed, but for no logical reason (why not one or two sets?). Also, if workouts are to be no more than 45 minutes, very few exercises at 20 sets each could be performed… indeed! Only one exercise at 30 seconds per set (to be conservative) and 60 seconds rest per set equals 35 minutes if 20 sets of that one exercise were performed. This is not to say that 20 sets cannot be completed, if the reader believes or thinks that much is required, but do expect a longer workout than 45 minutes if such is the case.
Certainly there is much to think about and to consider. And obviously trainees need to use good judgment and determine how many sets and exercises should be performed based on quality and intensity, besides proper selection of exercises. If effort is sufficient, and rests between sets are kept to a maximum of 2 minutes, then workouts likely never will exceed 30-40 minutes, and only 1-2 sets per movement will be appropriate after any necessary warm-up.
Also note that current-day k-bell authorities recommend never training to muscular failure. It should be apparent that a person would not train to failure with explosive/ballistic movements, since a deterioration of skill and coordination, from too much fatigue, can result in injury as weights are thrown about. However, there is no reason why very intense training (to muscular failure) cannot be implemented with slower movements, a procedure and direction in training that has been utilized successfully by thousands of top caliber athletes and fitness enthusiasts.
Today’s authorities also recommend no more than 5 repetitions per set for heavier, controlled type exercises, whereas ballistic movements (snatches, cleans and jerks) can be performed for up to hundreds of repetitions. Such a high number of repetitions are possible with ballistic movements since such action is the result of momentum and stored energy (tissue elasticity and compression) primarily, rather than muscular effort. With heavier, controlled movements, 5-6 repetitions are appropriate, at least for strength, with some size to be expected, but optimizing muscle hypertrophy may necessitate higher repetitions in the order of 10-12 repetitions (at a moderate cadence of 2-4 seconds up and 2-4 seconds down). Higher repetitions also are recommended for general fitness enthusiasts, since the lighter resistance would greatly reduce any risk of injury. Some experimentation in this regard is necessary since different people and different muscles will have different responses to exercise, i.e., ability to generate force while resisting fatigue.
Other modern-day ‘Russian’ guidelines suggest that athletes train 2-3 times per week on non-consecutive days, for 3 sets per exercise/drill and 5-16 repetitions. Kettlebell training then is followed with barbell exercises. In this regard, it appears that Russian k-bell training is more of a supplemental method of exercise, complimented with barbell training, yet k-bell training often is promoted as a stand-alone system in the North American market. Regardless, k-bell training can be a very intense and demanding stand-alone system, if implemented properly and in a like manner to traditional barbell and dumbbell training. Unfortunately, it is difficult to uncover modern-day methods or recommendations for kettlebell training not associated with ‘Russian’ approaches, perhaps because the highly useful kettlebell is nearly forgotten in the West.
* Written in part for the book Kettlebells: Past, Present, and Future, available through www.BlackIronStrength.com.