I know you hate kettlebells, but…
That was the opening of an email I received recently.
The rest of the email was mainly concerning a question that’s more or less irrelevant to this post, but I thought that was an interesting way to start an email; moreover, I was shocked that the author thought I “hated” kettlebells.
Admittedly, I’ve written about certain aspects of kettlebell culture somewhat negatively, but I’ve never really said anything bad about KBs themselves—and that’s because I do not, in fact, hate kettlebells.
The Problem with Kettlebells
I don’t hate kettlebells. But I do have an issue with a few aspects of kettlebell culture.
Here’s the thing: I don’t like dogma.
I don’t like when people act like proselytizing cultists. I don’t like when people try to say that their way is the ONLY way. I don’t like when people bash things that are known to work because they’re trying to push an agenda or impress the other cool kids in their particular cult.
None of this is exclusive to the kettlebell crowd; it’s equally applicable to CrossFit or certain powerlifting methods or Intermittent Fasting or HIT and nearly everything els. Likewise, it’s the same in other industries. For example, I have it on good authority that within the scientific community, this same phenomenon occurs:
Jokes and finer-pointing aside, the truth is that while dogma isn’t exclusive to kettlebell culture, it is a notable feature of it.
It’s hard to fathom how a cannonball with a handle lends itself so well to cultishness, but easy enough to reason why. There are a number of factors, but the Us vs. Them vibe exists at least in part because the origins of the modern kettlebell movement were heavily dependent on developing a tribal mentality. Pavel Tsatsouline, undisputed kettlebell king, made the effort from the very outset to create not just a movement, but a culture—complete with it’s own hierarchies, accolades, and even language.
Tsatsouline’s tribe-building acumen is certainly impressive, but it’s always been mind-boggling to me that all the trainers who started calling each other comrade seemed completely oblivious to how ridiculous they sounded. But that’s just a personal gripe.
The point is, Pavel was successful, and the Tribe of the Kettlebell was born and continues to grow. Resultantly, there are tons of people out there calling themselves “kettlebell guys” or “kettlebell trainers.” More to the point, there are a number of kettlebell practitioners who take a really hard line for kettlebells and against everything else.
Of course, it’s really important to mention that while the cultists tend to be the loudest, they’re not the most prevalent. Just as with any school of thought, most KB trainers aren’t completely dogmatic; just because they dig kettlebells doesn’t mean they hate everything else.
I’ve met a ton of awesome KB peeps who are both open minded and moderate. A few examples are my buddy Chris Lopez, and my favorite kettlebell expert (and wife), Neghar Fonooni. Chris and Neghar are awesome coaches who just happen to write about and use kettlebells from time to time.
However, owing to the fact that they are sane, rational people, Lopez and Fonooni realize that while KBs are awesome for a lot of reasons, they aren’t the end all be all. They agree that training exclusively with kettlebells isn’t likely to make you a better powerlifter, for example; nor would it be the best training approach for hypertrophy. Acknowledging that doesn’t diminish the kettlebell.
One thing great KB trainers all over the world have in common is that they’re like Chris and Neghar: they have an affinity for one thing without hating everything else.
These trainers are fantastic at getting their clients in shape, and wouldn’t hesitate to incorporate something else if they thought it would help.
As a brief but extremely important side note in my experience, RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certified) trainers are certainly great with their toys, but they ALSO happen to be some of the best overall movement coaches I’ve come across. And that is about the best compliment I could give any trainer.
It’s just the few bad (and loud) apples that are spoiling the proverbial bunch.
For my part, I take a very moderate and inclusive stance with nearly everything, and KBs are no different.
A tool in the toolbox. A means to an end.
Kettlebells for Increased Awesomeness
My official position on kettlebells, then, is that they can be effective for most goals, but best suited to a few specific ones. Which is to say, I like them and I use them for certain things.
The most effective uses of kettlebells, as far as I see it, are for fat loss, conditioning, and developing the posterior chain. Since I’ve written about fat loss training ad nauseam, I’ll focus on the second goal.
Training your posterior chain with kettlebells will not only make you look good, it’ll also help you feel good, and lead to improvements elsewhere. From a training standpoint, very few things are better for what we might call “structural” health.
With back pain plaguing society and people being unable to move or function properly due to sedentary lifestyle and too much time sitting (improperly) at a computer, configuring training to address the back of your body has become increasingly important. In fact, for anybody looking to stay healthy and look good at the same time, it’s damn near essential.
Here, in my view, is where KBs go beyond just a “tool” that can be replaced with other tools and approaches as integral piece of equipment that can and should be used for specific populations or to address specific concerns.
And, I have the research to back it up. Score one for me.
A recent study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work Environment Health entitled “Kettlebell training for musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health” found that training a control group that complained of chronic back and shoulder pain with various “ballistic full-body kettlebell exercise 3 times per week for 8 weeks” resulted in a significant decrease in low back, neck and shoulder pain and increase in strength in trunk extensors – mainly the glutes and erectors.
What amazes me about that study is that ballistic training—with a kettlebell, no less—resulted in significant in a population that was experiencing chronic pain.
This is especially cool, since one of the arguments against kettlebells is the myth that using them would be detrimental to your low back. This study proves the exact opposite; which backs up what I’ve seen with my clients, and gleaned from conversations with a lot of kettlebell instructors.
The obvious question becomes, would the results of the study have been similar with another piece of equipment?
Well, yes, theoretically it’s possible that there are enough similarities between KB exercises and comparable barbell movements that the results would have been similar.
That said, before you go out there and pick up an Olympic bar and start cleaning it, it’s important to look at a few things. Mainly, we have to assess whether the exercises are beneficial in terms of prevention of pain from both a developmental standpoint, and in terms of implementation.
Meaning that while there’s definitely a good deal of crossover between KBs and barbells for the clean & jerk and the snatch, but the issue with is that barbell movements tend to be a lot harder to learn than their kettlebell counterparts. In my experience, it takes about half the time to teach a client a KB snatch than a barbell snatch.
And so in the case of the study, had there been a group that trained with barbells, I think that because of the reduced learning curve, a KB group still would have gotten faster progress.
Comparable efficacy notwithstanding, I honestly believe that kettlebells are just flat out better for certain exercises than barbells or dumbbells.
Not to mention, KBs offer a movement that you can’t replicate with a barbell: the swing.
Arguably one of the simplest exercises to perform, it’s also one of the most important, for reasons covered in my post about superior kettlebell exercises.
Given all of that, when it comes to using ballistic movements to train the posterior chain, kettlebells are the first tool I reach for—at least for muscular endurance, pain prevention and sheer simplicity.
And I DO mean simplicity. While you can do dozens of exercises with KBs—ranging from the lauded Turkish Get-up to biceps curls (lol, I bet the RKCs reading this loved that!), you can really narrow it down to a few of the basics and still reap the rewards.
In fact, I’d wager that most of my readers would benefit great just from including two of the basic foundational kettlebell exercises: the 2-Arm Swing and the 1-arm snatch.
These movements are relatively simple to learn, and serve as the basis for any good training program involving kettlebells—AND, in keeping with the aforementioned study, will also develop incredible strength in the posterior chain while helping to alleviate pain.
After all, both are ballistic exercises, in that there’s some sort of explosive element to them; both are very functional in that they involve an explosive hip extension; and both train your core as a stabilizer to your trunk and low back.
If you perform a workout with either exercise—the snatch or swing—you know you’ve worked your entire body, as well as addressed some of the problems our bodies face as the result of our lifestyles, like sitting too damn much.
To get you started, I asked the esteemed Chris Lopez and the lovely Ms. Fonooni to whip up a few workouts for us.
They were kind enough to comply and hooked us up.
So we’ve got two awesome kettlebell workouts on the blog today: one for men, and one for the ladies.
Normally, I’d say ladies first, but Neghar has something special for us at the end.
Men, check this one out!
CHRIS’ KETTLEBELL WORKOUT FOR MANLY MEN
A) KB Snatch (6 x 5) x 3
Perform 6 reps x 5 sets of snatches switching hands every 5 reps—you’ll perform a total of 30 snatches per set. Your snatch should look fluid and athletic, not robotic like you’re trying to muscle through it.
B1) Chin-ups (3 x “near failure)
Perform a few chins but stop shy of failure—leave 1 or 2 reps “in the hole.”
B2) KB 1-Arm Bottoms Up Military Presses (3 x 5-8)
Unlike traditional military presses, bottoms up presses really challenge the integrity and stability of all your shoulder muscle and your lats. Hold a kettlebell by it’s handle with the bottom of the bell up (inverted). Control the movement all the way through the range of motion.
C) 2-Arm KB Swings x 100 in as few sets as possible
Find a kettlebell of a challenging weight and get ready to swing. If you’re a guy who’s been working out for longer than 5 years, then you should be able to handle a 24kg to a 32kg. Make sure to hinge at your hips and minimally bend your knees. The power for your swing comes from an explosive hip extension.
To really understand the effect of the snatch and swing that I’m talking about AND to build a back that will both do work and be resistant to fatigue and injury, give this workout a try on your usual “back day.”
It shouldn’t take longer than 35 minutes and you’ll be smoked. After a few weeks you should notice that your traps are a little thicker, that you’re standing a little more erect and a significant increase in mobility in your thoracic spine.
All of this by adding two seemingly simple movements using a minimalist piece of equipment like a kettlebell.
NEGHAR’S LEAN & LOVELY KETTLEBELL COMPLEX FOR WIMMENZ
This workout is obviously comprised of what’s called a complex, which is basically a circuit performed using a single piece of equipment, usually without even putting it down or resting between exercises. In this case, it’s a single kettlebell that allows you to get such an intense workout.
All told this Lean & Lovely complex should take about 10-15 minutes, depending on how long you rest between rounds.
Of course, I’m just being cheeky with the men vs. women angle; the fact is, Chris’ workout works just as well for women, and Neghar’s complex is both challenging and effective for men.
I advise you to try both of them, and see which one feels harder! You might be surprised.
Well, there you have it—hopefully, I’ve cleared up some of the confusion about kettlebells, in terms of the mystique surrounding them, my personal opinions, and some of the more effective uses for them. .
I dig kettlebells for the right stuff—and I really dig when talented kettlebell coaches sit down and create awesome programs to help people get the results they’re after.
If you’re looking for some incredible KB workouts to help you lose fat, get fit, or prevent injury—OR if you really want to learn the ins and outs of KB training—look no further, because I’ve got not one but TWO fantastic kettlebell programs for you: one for men, and one for women.
…if you liked the workout above, or you’re looking to kick your fitness into epically high gear, I highly recommend you check out Chris’ Kettlebell Finishers.
With more than 30 individual workouts and an insane number of bonuses, KB Finishers is a tremendously stacked deal.
And the best part is, these finishers can stack onto any workout you’re already doing; just add them in at the end to help you burn even more fat. You could also perform them on off days for some extra work, or anytime you can’t make it to the gym–remember, one of the great things about kettlebells is that you can use them just about anywhere.
Plus, most of the workouts in Kettlebell Finishers are less than 10 minutes long. Being able to burn fat and get into sick condition with a single piece KB is awesome…being able to do it in less time than it takes to make a decent sandwich is fan-freakin-tastic.
Men, if you’re even remotely interested in kettlebells and don’t take advantage of this, you’re crazy.
I’ve got something super special for you. Something wonderful and inspirational and effective. Something that I am personally very proud of. And something that I know is going to change a lot of lives.
I’m very, very happy to unveil an incredible new program written by none other than Neghar Fonooni, my wife. This is her long-awaited debut, the much desired secret project she’s had in the lab for a long time.
I present, for your consideration, Lean & Lovely:
Written specifically for woman, and in a way that specifically addresses the unique concerns women face, Lean & Lovely is very likely what you’ve been waiting for.
And in celebration, anyone who picks the program up during the launch gets it for 50% OFF.
What’s YOUR opinion and experience with kettlebells? Do you drink the Kool-Aid, or view them as a tool?
Tomorrow, I’ll have an all new blog post detailing some of my absolute favorite kettlebell exercises, so check back for that.