First introduced in the 1700s by Russian strongmen, kettlebells were used in techniques of swinging and lifting as a way to build strength, balance, flexibility and endurance. Kettlebells are traditionally made of cast iron—although other materials such as sand, water and steel shot are also used—and are designed so that the center of mass extends beyond the hand for swinging and releasing types of movements. Kettlebell training programs can be found in specialty gyms, such as Crossfit,but they are also popping up in larger commercial fitness facilities in group fitness classes, small-group training and personal-training formats. Accordingly, the popularity of this style of fitness and performance training is gaining focused attention from both promoters and critics.
To analyze the fitness benefits of kettlebell training, ACE enlisted researchers at the University of Wisconsin-La Crosse’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science to conduct a full-fledged training study. The researchers recruited 30 healthy, fit male and female volunteers, ages 19 to 25, who all had some previous experience with strength training. Eighteen volunteers (9 male, 9 female) were put into the experimental group, while 12 others (6 male, 6 female) were used as the control group. Both groups underwent extensive pre-testing, which included assessments of aerobic capacity, muscular strength, flexibility and balance.
Twice a week for eight weeks, the 18 volunteers from the experimental group participated in an hour-long kettlebell class led by a pair of certified trainers, which included traditional kettlebell exercises such as one- and two-handed swings, snatches, cleans, presses, lunges and Turkish get-ups. After eight weeks of training, all of the subjects’ fitness parameters were retested using the same battery of assessments that was used in the pretesting.
The results were both noteworthy and surprising. Significant improvements in aerobic capacity, leg press, grip strength, dynamic balance and core strength were observed in the participants who trained with the kettlebells. The strength-related increases were expected, whereas the improvements in aerobic function (13.8 percent increase on average) and dynamic balance were an added bonus. The most dramatic increase in strength came in abdominal core strength, which increased 70 percent. Although smaller in scale, dynamic balance improved an average of 7 percent which was significant.
Dr. John Porcari, head of the University’s Department of Exercise and Sport Science, commented, “You don’t really do resistance training expecting to get an aerobic capacity benefit, and you don’t do resistance training and expect to improve your core strength, unless of course you’re specifically doing core-strengthening exercises. But with kettlebells you’re able to get a wide variety of benefits with one pretty intense workout.”
With exercisers today looking for techniques that are efficient, effective and uncomplicated, kettlebell training definitely fits the requirements. The only precaution with this method is that it is imperative to learn the proper technique from a qualified and experienced kettlebell instructor. For example, working with a successful, credentialed personal trainer or group fitness instructor is not enough to ensure that you will receive the essential training required to perform kettlebell movements properly to avoid injury. A qualified fitness professional needs to receive additional, specialized education in this form of training to safely and effectively coach clients to execute kettlebell with exercises with proper form.
Some critics of kettlebell training warn that the explosive movements can be dangerous to those who have back or shoulder problems, or a weak core. However, if performed properly, training with kettlebells can be helpful for those same troublesome areas, as they offer improved mobility, function and increased strength for the muscles of the body as a whole. As with any training program, foundational techniques must first be learned and mastered with a light amount of weight and then carefully progressed to higher loads and larger volumes. If the learning and mastery phases are skipped, the exerciser’s nervous system and soft tissues are not allowed to adapt, which could result in injury.
Kettlebells are much more than a fitness fad, as kettlebell training serves as an integrated form of movement-pattern exercise because the whole body contributes to managing the load as it swings through various planes of motion. This activity is much like the types of movements one would expect to experience in daily life. In addition, there is an emphasis on power, of which momentum is a component, and evidence suggests that a steady decline in power is one hazard of aging that is associated with increased risk for falling and decreased overall function. Being able to control momentum in exercise and daily-life activities means that the body is better prepared to receive and respond to a variety of forces.