A kettlebell is a cast iron or steel ball with a thick handle at the top. Due to its center of mass extending beyond the hand, it allows for explosive exercises more easily. These include swings, snatches, jerks, cleans, and presses along with some more unusual choices.
Kettlebell training has grown popular alongside functional training. A main idea behind both is that exercises demanding coordination, skill, and balance involving the whole body work best versus traditional, more controlled exercises. There are a lot of questionable assumptions behind this premise.
Kettlebells first associated with strength through competitions of throwing and carrying heavy odd objects centuries ago in Scotland and for old-time strongmen events more recently. It seems to have originated as a counterweight for Russian farmers when weighing their produce.
Their exercise scientists and trainers eventually promoted it as a tool for fitness. They marketed and sold it very well, shrouding it with a mystique as a secret weapon for superior results, similar to periodization.
In time, the kettlebell became accepted as a part of the regimens for military, law enforcement, and martial artists. CrossFit aims to extract the best methods from athletics and other arenas (ignoring that individual potential accounts for these successes), so use them for their programs as well. In these ways, the kettlebell forged an association with developing fitness better applied to the real world.
While this may all look impressive, the history of the kettlebell tells nothing of its efficiency and effectiveness as a piece of equipment. The fitness industry has always thrived on trends. Consider that the needs of those involved in this field depend on factors beyond achieving peak levels of fitness safely.
Perhaps they helped businesses grow as a cost-effective, convenient option for group training. The owners improve their leverage this way, earning more per hour. They allowed clients to have fun, experience some variety, and feel like capable athletes. Instructor certification programs fueled another end of the business as well.
For each pillar of fitness that kettlebells can develop, there exists a better alternative for that goal. It matters not whether your goal is strength, endurance, or flexibility, kettlebells will develop neither to their best while risking your safety in the process.
Consider these reasons why.
I have never wished to cater to the crowd; for what I know they do not approve, and what they approve I do not know.
- Explosive lifting is dangerous.
Kettlebell workouts rely on the Olympic lifts and their variations. Mixing weight with speed is risky. Force spikes that occur on these exercises can harm the joints. They also may overwhelm your ability to respond in time if something goes wrong.
- They encourage overhead exercises.
The hand travels overhead not because it should handle heavy loads in this position but to allow for mobility. The Olympic lifts and their variations, any sort of overhead press, and performing swings with the weight stopping too high all jeopardize the shoulder with impingement.
- They encourage other bad exercises and positions.
The kettlebell facilitates poor choices such as the Turkish get-up. Figure-8s and windmills will harm the lower back by moving it away from a neutral posture with twisting and bending made even worse by taking place under a load. Some even choose to juggle with them.
Other exercises such as front squats and lunges that many feel work fine will carry risks, when used with any tool, as well. Due to the limitations of the kettlebell, you have to work the lower body within these options.
- They give too little resistance to build much size and strength.
According to the force-velocity relationship, fast exercises by nature prevent much tension. The contraction occurs too quickly to allow for the maximum amount of cross-bridges to form. Tension is the main stimulus for more size and strength. More muscle requires heavier weights in the long run. Most kettlebell exercises must take place quickly, preventing heavy weights.
For conventional exercises that do build muscle, the kettlebell limits you either through awkwardness or the amount of weight available.
The heaviest kettlebell that can be easily attained weighs about 100 lb. and certainly no more than 150 lb. Two of these would not provide enough resistance for a decent bench presser and not even close to enough for a fair squatter. This would also assume that you could handle them safely as well.
Some will say that they have no desire to add much muscle. Keep in mind though that food makes you big, not lifting. Being stronger will make you look and perform better at the same given weight. This given weight depends much more on your diet.
- They are too general yet place uneven stress on parts of your body.
Kettlebells may develop general fitness but focus on nothing.
For example, a clean and press limits the weight applied to the lower body. A barbell squat would challenge all the lower body muscles far better and without the awkwardness. Just using many muscles in itself means nothing if the work for the majority of them demands a low or medium intensity.
The kettlebell overemphasizes the hip extensors and fails to activate the quads and calves much. Any emphasis on a set of joints or muscles brings in isolation properties and does not place the stress across all the working parts.
The long moment arm between the lower back and the resistance in the hands on some exercises means these muscles have to work much harder than they should. Good exercises for the lower body should focus on the powerful muscles of the hips and thighs. Keep the lower back as a stabilizer.
- Stabilizer work is overrated.
The mechanics of the kettlebell can make balance and coordination the limiting factors. These skills then override physical development. This also brings the stabilizers into play too much instead of them serving as a support role.
- There are safer, more efficient ways to build cardio.
Many will defend the kettlebell as a tool mostly for high intensity cardio. Resisted sprinting, stairclimbing, and jumping work far better though as they involve more intense activity for all the muscles involved.
The key to efficient and effective cardio is involving as many muscles as possible at once. These options will recruit the lower body more completely while also requiring the upper body too. The upper body tends to limit the lower body for kettlebell exercises instead.
Kettlebells also lack impact forces to stimulate connective tissue growth. This is often listed as an advantage but is shortsighted just like when performing some cardio machines or only swimming.
- They can irritate the wrist.
Kettlebells can force too much wrist extension. They feel awkward especially for pushing exercises.
- The thick handle prevents as tight of a grip.
- They involve endless form tips.
Relying on complex movements instead of using more simple ones hampers effort. To truly work hard, good form, while important to learn, should come to feel rather simple with perhaps a few cues to serve as easy reminders.
Many make the argument that a good coach can train you to do kettlebell exercises correctly. Consider that the tool and exercise set is inherently flawed. When all your options are dangerous, how can you stay safe?
- Training should be non-specific.
Kettlebells have their origins in sport, not for developing fitness. They are no more relevant to everyday life than bench pressing with a barbell.
Training should develop your potential to then apply to other activities if needed. Keep training general and safe, using the best exercises for each group of muscles.
Mimicking athletic skills in the gym is a huge mistake. Training is either specific or not. Using kettlebells only improves your ability to use kettlebells.
- The kettlebell may hit you.
Barbell exercises performed within a power rack keep you safe while working hard. A kettlebell provides no such mechanism. It can strike you due to the unpredictability of the motions involved with them.
Effective training must involve specialization.
To gain strength best, you must focus on adding weight to the right exercises. To improve cardio best, you must raise the heart rate and keep it there for enough time by using many muscles to move.
A jack-of-all-trades is a master of none. Kettlebells, in addition to inviting danger, allow the best improvement in no fitness category.
While you do need to specialize, many make the mistake of assuming that you have to focus on just one quality. You will find yourself succeeding in certain areas more so based on your potential, but you can train for all of them at once. You just need to devote a block of time to each aspect.
This means some portion of your routine should focus just on strength. Some portion should focus just on cardio. Trying to achieve your best results in each at the exact same time will weaken the stimulus toward improving each one. This is a big flaw in the functional training, CrossFit, and kettlebell practitioner philosophies.
Minimalism in exercise also sounds appealing. The idea of using simple tools and bodyweight to get the best results, while also saving money, causes some to embrace poor options such as suspension training and resistance bands. They allow this appeal, bringing factors unrelated to fitness, to overpower their rationality.
While free weights do work best, they do because the right tools meet the criteria for improving fitness. A barbell best allows you to overload your muscles safely to build strength. Your bodyweight best allows you to use many muscles at once for vigorous movement to improve cardio.
Kettlebells are expensive for an individual anyway. As fixed weights, you may need to buy many to allow for a variety of challenging exercises. Those that do adjust are still limited by the space available for the weight plates.
Despite my criticism of kettlebell exercises, I feel the two-handed kettlebell swing as a cardio option can work fairly well. The other options available for cardio work far better though.
Use conventional tools such as barbells and your bodyweight for strength training and cardio. Stand above the fitness trends and use the best methods for your purposes. Avoid kettlebells.