Guest post by Jon Chacon, the only guy who seems to like writing about kettlebells as much as I do.
The kettlebell is widely used across the strength and conditioning community and though they have been around for close to a hundred years and originated in Russia they have just recently taken off as a fitness tool in the US. The greatest characteristic of these training tools is their immense versatility.
They can be used for a plethora of fitness goals to include strength, strength endurance, power, support grip, impact bracing, and many others. Most of the versatility in the bells comes from the offset nature of the weight in reference to the wrist.
As with a conventional dumbbell or Olympic barbell the weight is symmetric and remains inline with the wrist. The awkward and less predictable properties of the kettlebell make it more difficult to control, thus requiring the recruitment of more muscle and bone structure in any given movement.
A lot of us know what kettlebells are capable of doing. I personally use them for a lot of my conditioning training. But what are some of the limitations of the ever popular kettlebell? Is there anything that they can’t do?
First of all, I don’t think that there is any training tool that should be used as an “end all, beat all.” The kettlebell is great, but I don’t recommend using it all the time. In fact, if your goals are not strictly to perform a certain movement with the bells, I recommend using the kettlebell as a supplement to your other training goals.
Some of the limitations I will discuss are issues dealing with the logistics and physical properties related to kettlebells and their use, while the other issues will related to training with and using the kettlebells.
The first obvious limitation of the kettlebell is the variety of different weights available and the inability to make weight changes with a single bell. Kettlebells are a major investment to begin with. Your average bell will cost upwards of $80-$100 + $20-$50 shipping unless you are fortunate enough to have a distributor nearby.
Most bells will come in 4kg (nearly 9lbs.) increments. Some companies only make them in 8kg increments which, even though it’s more traditional, makes it even more difficult to prepare yourself to perform with the next largest bell. If you want to make smaller weight increment changes I know some kettlebell companies manufacture a “buddy” weight theat you can screw-in to a threaded portion on the bottom of the bell to add 2kg. These bells are relatively expensive, but they are solid.
Otherwise, if you can’t afford the next size up or aren’t prepared for it physically then you can do what most people do and just improvise. All you need are some 2.5lb. plates and some heavy duty duct tape. Remember, I didn’t tell you to do this, but if you do decide to try it exercise caution.
If you are fortunate enough to acquire your own kettlebell for use whenever you want then more power to you. You can pretty much take it with you wherever you go until you get into some massive poundages. For those who cannot afford them, but are interested, your limitations are going to be in finding a commercial gym that carries them, and if they do carry them, that they are quality bells.
Many gyms still don’t carry these awesome training tools. The ones that do have them either have little variety or a small amount available, or have a very poor quality product. Either way, choosing to pursue kettlebells in your strength and conditioning endeavors will lead you toward a few roadblocks, but if those I mentioned already do not deter you then you might just find some in your training scheme.
Kettlebells for strength
Not only are kettlebells a stellar conditioning tool, they can also be used to produce strength, but only in certain movements and only to a certain threshold. Take for instance the press. You can either do a single arm press, a double arm press, or a single arm stacked press, or a bottoms up press in single or double. Sounds pretty versatile to me.
For many, it will take quite a while to reach the limit of kettlebell poundages when pursuing the press. Let me know when you can double bottoms up press the Beast (106lbs.). That will be your limit. Now if you decide to pursue strength in your legs here’s where you will run into some issues. Again, as with the upper body, there are numerous movements to target the legs in a strength sense with kettlebells: goblet squat, double front squat, Bulgarian squats, lunges, overhead squats, one-legged squats, one-legged deadlifts, regular deadlifts, and more.
However, if you want to put up some impressive poundages in the two-legged version of either the squat are the deadlift at some point you are going to have to transition back to the Olympic barbell. You can only go so high in weight with the bells.
If you want to stick to the bells in building strength in the legs I would suggest reaching for a one-legged squat with the Beast or double Beasts, now that is strength. A two-legged squat with two Beasts would be an insane feat as well due to the difficulty in securing the bells in the rack position while squatting down. It is a completely different feeling than doing a back squat with a barbell, or even a front squat. For those with a strength endurance goal, as with swings, snatches, and the like, I don’t think you will find many limits with the kettlebell.
Other training issues with kettlebells involve limitations on certain movements. As with the traditional Olympic lifts, the snatch and the clean and jerk, the athlete utilizes triple extension to a certain extent in order to perform these movements.
This involves a simultaneous extension of the hips, knees, and ankles typically performed with poundages that only allow for 1-3 repetitions at a time. With the kettlebells, you cannot develop a triple extension to match that required with the barbell for either the snatch our the clean and jerk.
The kb snatch is primarily a focused hip extension and the clean and jerk, though it does mimic a triple extension, requires a very limited range in all three joints and is typically done with high repetition volumes. If you are trying to get better at the traditional Olympic lifts, then do more Olympic lifts and leave the kettlebells to conditioning instead of a supplement to sport specific movement.
Another major point to address with the traditional Olympic lifts is that they require the weight to travel through a path of least resistance (i.e. straight up or straight down). There is now swinging involved with the use of the barbell as is standard with the kettlebells. By all means use the bells to increase your hip and hamstring strength endurance and flexibility, but don’t try use the kettlebell clean and jerk exclusively to train for the barbell clean and jerk. It just doesn’t make sense.
Training in general with the kettlebells you will happen upon some other issues that I think enhance training results, but others might see as an inconvenience. First, all kettlebell movements start from the ground. There is no rack or bench to start the weight at. To commence any movement, the bell must first leave the ground and then be placed back on the ground at the termination of the movement or series of movements.
I find this helpful in training the body to effectively pick weight up off the ground and place it back down even when fatigued. This plays into the next issue. Not everyone needs a trainer or a coach to learn how to use kettlebells, but there are also a lot of people out there who would significantly benefit from learning the movements correctly before pursuing them as a primary fitness tool.
Many people have hurt themselves with kettlebells because they go out and buy there own, or find one at their gym, and start swinging away just like they say on YouTube or however else they think they should execute the movement. With this being said, I think another limitation of kettlebells is there requirement of some sort of specialized training for proper use, at least for some people.
Lastly, and again I really don’t see this as a problem, but rather as a benefit–it is difficult to do any type of isolation movements with the kettlebell. When I say “isolation,” I am referring to movements that are intended to target a single muscle or muscle group like bicep curls or tricep extensions. You can attempt them, but you will definitely be firing off more muscles than you intend to in order to keep the bell where you want it.
My recommendation: if you must do isolation movements stick to machines and dumbbells for the purpose of producing aesthetic results (i.e. a good looking body, muscle, area, etc.). Don’t get me wrong, kettlebells will produce an amazing looking body, but that’s only after the user gets out of the mindset of using them as an isolation tool. As a side note, I understand that a lot of the movements that are used to traing grip are isolation movements, which I love to train, but I do not consider them in the same category as isolation movements for the purpose of bodybuilding.
Hopefully, all or some of the information I have provided was of some help to you or at least made you question something about kettlebells that you had not thought of before. Or maybe I pissed you off because something I wrote is completely wrong or stated incorrectly. If so, let me know what you think. I want to learn and discuss. And I encourage others to do so as well. Happy lifting!
About the author
Jon Chacon is a fitness enthusiast and a great pal of mine. If you want to know more about strength training, please visit Jon at primalsteel.tumblr.com