Kettlebells not Always Best

As the fitness fad of stability balls fades, the excitement over Kettlebells has encouraged many coaches, trainers and athletes to pursue this training as it provides a very portable workout. The Kettlebell is a weight consisting of a cast iron ball with a single handle for gripping the weight during exercise. Its Russian roots only make this implement more mysterious and appealing for consumers. Like anything new to your workout, the Kettlebell will provide a challenge, but presents 2 major problems for athletes.

The first problem in using Kettlebells for athletes is that you only have a certain amount of time to train outside of your sport. Therefore, we must choose the most “bang for your buck” movements. As reviewed previously (see Sparta Point 10/9/09), the squat stimulates more lower body musculature than any other exercise. A study out of the University of Oregon found that trained subjects recruited more muscle in a squat than other movements, as well as recruiting more muscle during the squat than their beginner counterparts.

Once you’ve ensured squats are in your program, you have the option of adding other movements, but again the choice must be centered on the most efficient route. For example, how many exercises do you add and how many sets can you fit into the allotted training time. Because athletes need to be challenged both physically and mentally, the best way is to master weightlifting movements, like a sport skill of throwing a ball or jumping. In order to master this skill, the more repetitions and sets, the better (see Sparta Point 7/8/09).

The second problem with Kettlebells for athletes is the risk of injuries that are actually present during some of the more common movements like Olympic Lifts, even among a trained specialist. Ideally, the Olympic lifts are performed with a barbell that spins as the athlete’s wrist turns over for the catch on the shoulders or above the head. When this barbell is replaced by a Kettlebell, the shoulder muscles are at risk for strain as they must stabilize for the “unnatural” fall of the Kettlebell at the end of the catch. The rapid stretching of these muscles and the forearm puts considerable stress on the elbow joint as well. We won’t even address the performance gap between you performing a 40 lb Kettlebell clean and a 220 lb barbell clean. Which movement recruits more overall musculature?

We  focus on the most efficient sport skills (i.e. sprinting and jumping) and weightlifting movements that will generate the most muscular activity (i.e. squats and overhead pressing).