These days, if you open any fitness or health magazine chances are you’ll find some kind of write up about Kettlebell Exercises. Kettlebell exercises are so “mainstream” now that even if you open the latest tabloid or fashion magazine you’ll see some Hollywood A-List celebrity singing the praises of kettlebell exercises.
The big reservation, however, seems to be: Are kettlebell exercises just a passing trend, or are they here to stay AND more importantly, are kettlebell exercises safe?
First, let’s talk about what kettlebell exercises are and why they are so effective.
A kettlebell is a dense piece of iron that is moulded into the shape of a ball with an iron handle on top of it. It basically looks like a cannon ball with a handle on it. The reason why kettlebell exercises are so effective is because of the way the bell is shaped. Sure, you can do all the same exercises with a standard gym dumbbell, but the beauty of using a kettlebell lies in the way it’s shaped and how that shape affects momentum, gravity and the way your body aligns itself.
When you’re performing exercises with a kettlebell, your body is forced to align your joints in a way that is more natural than that of a dumbbell.
For example, one of the best kettlebell exercises to perform for strength is the military press. Performing the military press with an equally weighted dumbbell seems quite easy. The weight is evenly distributed through your arm. You have an equal amount of weight on either side of your hand (because the dumbbell has 2 heads) and, provided that you’ve performed a military press before, there is real challenge to your balance.
Now, try the same exercise with a kettlebell and I’m sure you’ll feel the difference. Simply getting the bell in the right position in your hand is a challenge and as soon as you grip the handle, you’ll feel the muscles in your forearm challenged because the weight of the kettlebell will be resting on your wrist. Whenever you perform ANY kettlebell exercise, it is imperative that you keep your wrist straight. Don’t be tempted to let the weight of the bell carry your wrist into extension (or bending back). You’ll be sorry if you do.
After you’ve got a firm grip on the bell with a NEUTRAL WRIST, begin to perform the military press by pressing the bell overhead. Immediately when you start performing this kettlebell exercise, you should feel your shoulder pull down and back into its socket and your posture almost correct itself. If you usually walk or go about your day with poor posture, then this may feel a little uncomfortable.
As you attempt to lock your arm out over your head, be aware of where the kettlebell is in relation to the rest of your body. In a traditional dumbbell military press, those with shoulder mobility issues will lock their arms out with the dumbbells slightly in front of the vertical line of the body. But, perform this exercise with a kettlebell and you’ll see that because of the way the weight of the bell is distributed, it will almost automatically pull your body into proper vertical alignment. That means that your pressing arm will be in line with your body vertically, your shoulder will pulled down and back, your core will be tight (thus challenging your abs) and your lower body will be challenged as well (as this is the foundation or “roots” of your body).
These principles of alignment don’t only hold true for the military press kettlebell exercise, but for EVERY exercise that you do with a kettlebell!
This point therefore means that kettlebell exercises are very safe and when performed correctly actually aid in proper functioning of the muscles and joints of the practitioner.
Those who fear that kettlebell exercises will hurt the practitioner have not been taught proper form or technique.
One of the biggest misconceptions is that ballistic kettlebell exercises, like the 2-arm kettlebell swing, will end injuring the low back of whom ever is performing the exercise.
This couldn’t be further from the truth and quite frankly is the exact opposite of the ballistic series of kettlebell exercises.
When you perform any ballistic kettlebell exercise – the swing, snatch or clean – hip hingeing and extension is the most important skill to master. Where many practitioners and novice exercisers go wrong is thinking that your back has some involvement in explosively moving the bell.
In reality, your back/spine remains extended with it’s natural arches in tact throughout the entire performance of the exercise. Your hips forcefully hinge backwards allowing proper loading of the kettlebell and then the same hips forcefully extend to explosively generate enough force to float the kettlebell upwards.
Your back has no involvement whatsoever. It’s only job is to remain extended with it’s natural arches and essentially NOT MOVE.
By performing ballistic kettlebell exercises this way, you are training the muscles of your low back the way they were meant to be trained – to stabilize your spine and not allow excessive movement among the vertibrae.
Kettlebell instructors that teach a “Hardstyle” of kettlebell exercise (also known as Certified RKC instructors), espouse a philosophy of the kettlebell being an extension of your body. That said, when you perform RKC-style kettlebell exercises, you are doing things in a beautiful, athletic manner where you are naturally pulling your body into proper alignment.
Each kettlebell exercise, movement or drill is therefore practiced or rehearsed much similar to the way a dancer practices a routine or an athlete practices a skill. Kettlebell exercises and training, unlike traditional fitness and exercise, should not be “worked out” or trained to the point of exhaustion and severe physical discomfort.
Those who teach proper kettlebell exercise know that strength is a skill and that any skill can only be performed correctly when the practitioner is fresh. Performing any skill – be it a sport, dance routine or kettlebell exercise – while extremely fatigued will result in poor and inaccurate technique and potential injury.
It is the job of the kettlebell instructor or coach them to teach his or her students how to manage fatigue and how to progressively build up tolerance to training or exercising with kettlebells. Unfortunately, those trainers who claim to experts at kettlebell exercises don’t understand the concept of progression and think that training their “victims” properly requires them to do everything short of torturing them with various kettlebell exercises to the point of exhaustion.
If you are wanting to start training using kettlebell exercises, it is important that you seek an instructor who understands the difference between practicing and training and who knows how to progress their clients and students using sound principles of kettlebell training and performance of kettlebell exercises with proper technique.
So are kettlebell exercises just a passing trend? Just because the latest silver-screen diva is used kettlebell exercises to get in shape for her next film, does that mean that it’s here today and gone tomorrow.
I think not.
Kettlebell exercises have been around for over a century and is by far the best way to get lean & strong and to build muscle & burn unwanted fat at the same time.
The kettlebell isn’t some contraption that is advertised on a 3am infomercial that sketchy, over-puffed bodybuilder types try to sell you by playing on your frustrations.
Kettlebell exercises require hard work and dedication which is the foundation of anyone achieving the body of their dreams.
In short, kettlebell exercises are here to stay.
Chris Lopez, CSCS, RKC
Certified Turbulence Trainer