What you should know before adding kettlebells to your strength and fitness program
The kettlebell is a strength and fitness tool just like body weight, barbells, dumbbells, plates, sandbags, ropes etc. with a specific intention and purpose. A tool can only be used to it’s maximum potential if used in conjunction with a solid training program with clearly defined goals. A good training program should be a comprehensive holistic system that develops strength in several ways while uncovering and realizing additional areas of need. Your plan should always remain malleable and consistent. A solid training program should develop strength in several ways honing in on deficiencies along the way but always focused on stamina & work capacity, co-ordination, flexibility, joint health, agility, and over all athletic ability.
Just like sports and most of our daily activities, when training with kettlebells, we stand on our feet developing the ability to push, pull, swing, twist and throw through a full range of motion in all directions while generating and manipulating force from the ground up. Think of kettlebell training as momentum training. It’s all about accelerating and decelerating a load. Life as well as sport are really about how well your body can handle momentum at high velocities. Properly executed, full range of motion kettlebell exercises are essentially the functional expression of human and muscular anatomy under a load. Kettlebell training uses compound full body exercises. This type of training involves the whole body, developing fitness applicable to real life situations because you have to stabilize a weight in all 3 planes of motion at the same time. More muscles are being used at the same time having a very positive effect on the neuromuscular system. True strength is related to well your nervous system communicates with your muscles and endocrine system; not just how much much absolute strength and muscle mass you have. The repetitive explosive exercises specific to kettlebells also simultaneously targets both the skeleto-muscular and cardio- vascular systems.
Train the body as one unit
“The human body is one unit, one complete system. It works that way and likes to be trained that way. When strength is acquired in ways that do not correspond to the patterns in which it is intended to actually be used (such as isolation of body parts, restricted range of motion, not training in multi-planes of directions), the neuromuscular aspects of training have not been considered.” (Rippetoe & Kilgore 2007, Starting Strength). Solely relying on traditional conventional training methods also increases the potential for injury because of too many weak links in the chain. Sports involve rapid changes in direction and speed, stressful positions and loading under rotational forces. This is the main difference between functional (athletic) and non functional (aesthetic) training styles. I would not recommend training with just kettlebells but rather adding them into your current training program and using all of the above mentioned tools.
Unique benefits of kettlebell training
When swinging a kettlebell the center of gravity shifts (the design of the kettlebell has the center of gravity in front of the hand not outside of it) and generates additional forces that the body has to compensate for in order to stabilize it’s self and maintain balance. Kettlebell swing generated exercises increase low back resilience, develops the posterior chain of muscles while maximizing anaerobic thresholds and cardio-respiratory efficiency. The entire hip complex is used every time you swing a kettlebell. Meaning that all the muscle groups in the glutes, inner and out thighs abdominal and lower back are trained at once. Ballistic kettlebell drills provide an intense load to the hips and posterior chain. Very similar to the vertical leap, this motion transfers to many athletic skills such as jumping running and throwing. Strengthening the hips will also add power and stability to your training and daily life. While traditional weight training moves heavy resistance through a linear path (either a push or a pull), kettlebells involve training with moderate weights through multi plans of motion, rotational loading and full lockouts, all of which contribute to joint health, and injury prevention. Our daily movements naturally include these components, yet they are mostly left out of conventional training programs. The traction forces (generated by swinging the bell) on the joints increase the production of synovial fluid, the joints own lubricant and forces nutrition into the joints. This lubricant is essential to joint longevity and health, helping to absorb shocks. These structures develop at a slower rate than muscle, which can lead to injuries if people lift too heavy too soon or do a maximal effort before their bodies are ready for it. Kettlebell training will progressively and safely get your body ready to lift heavier weights, as the goal is not to see how heavy a bell you can lift at your next workout, but involves high repetitions of dynamic exercises. Explosive strength is the strength quality most relevant to athletic endeavors. Kettlebell training develops a hybrid strength quality: Power endurance. Kettlebell workouts can also improve body composition, building lean, athletic bodies. Do not expect huge muscle gains or hypertrophy, so athletes who have to stay at a certain weight class and ladies need not worry. Being non conventional, training with kettlebells is challenging and fun. As with any resistance training, muscle, bone and connective tissues are also strengthened. Many kettlebell exercises involve unilateral development which is excellent for balancing out the body and correcting deficiencies.
Safety tips for trainers and clients
- Always listen to your body and ask your clients to do the same. Check for shoulder and knee problems. Use mobility exercises to assess people.
- As an instructor, you might have to come up with alternatives for clients that might have specific conditions or compensations.
- If someone does not feel good about doing an exercise, do not force him/ her! Find an alternative. Instruction cannot cover all situations and there is no substitute for good judgment and common sense.
- Always pay 100% attention to your surroundings and to the kettlebell you are working with.
- Train on a flat surface, free of clutter, with enough free space around you.
- Understand your limits, be it strength, heart rate or flexibility.
- Follow the learning progressions, build the load slowly (reps or weight). Do not skip steps or rush to test your strength and skills.
- Generate power through the hips, not the arms. Keep the arms loose in all ballistic drills. Arms are just guiding the bell.
- Pay close attention to hand position. The handle should rest against the palm of the hand, wrist kept in a neutral alignment- not bent back.
- Do not round the back when picking up a kettlebell. Keep your chest up. Look ahead. Weight the heels.
- Do not overly arch your back or neck in the lock out position. Use your eyes and look at the kettlebell.
- Keep the knees tracking over the feet.
- Make sure you can always drop the kettlebell or push it out of your way if things go wrong, and get out of the way quickly.
- Do not try to recover an unbalanced rep, let the kettlebell drop.
- Be aware that a kettlebell generates extra forces when free falling from a swing. Be ready to shift your center of gravity backwards and brace your core to compensate the effect of the forward pull.
- Brace your core when lifting heavy or performing difficult lifts and use power breathing when necessary.
- Use active recovery in between sets, once the heart rate is high. It helps push the blood back to the heart without unnecessary stress on the heart.
- Developing proper timing and technique when doing cleans and snatches takes time. Wear wristbands. Use assistance from your other hand until you get comfortable