Kettlebells are great strength training, rehab and performance tools that have rapidly grown in popularity over the past few years.
While once seen as just another fitness fad, kettlebells have now become a staple in most training facilities and gyms throughout the U.S.
From distance runners to CrossFit athletes to the elderly and geriatric population, everyone can benefit from the use of kettlebells to some degree. Louie Simmons, commonly known as the “godfather of powerlifting,” has found benefit from incorporating various kettlebell exercises into parts of the accessory programming with his powerlifters. He uses exercises such as the Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press or Banded-Kettlebell Presses to improve strength and stability with his lifters.
The point is that in today’s fitness world, training at a gym without kettlebells is akin to having Thanksgiving dinner without turkey. Will you survive? Sure. But you’re definitely missing out on something. This article aims to discuss some of the benefits of kettlebell training and outline why kettlebells deserve to be a part of all rehab and strength and conditioning programs. With that in mind, here are three reasons everyone should include kettlebells in their program.
1. Kettlebells are Extremely Versatile
Essentially a cannonball with a handle, the simplistic nature of kettlebells and their design make them an extremely versatile tool. They can be used for everything from acute post-op rehab in the clinic to the highest levels of performance training. Their design also allows us to get creative when manipulating or handling the kettlebell while completing various exercises.
Using the Shoulder Press as an example, we can compare the use of a barbell and kettlebell and begin to see how the kettlebell’s versatility provides an edge. While we can essentially only change from pronated to supinated grip on a barbell (which is rarely done, anyway), we can progress to several variations using the kettlebell.
Here’s a sample progression of the Standard Single-Arm Kettlebell Press we often use with our athletes:
- Overhead No-Handle Press
- Arnold Press
- Bottoms-Up Press
- Bent Press
With the use of a single kettlebell and the pressing movement, we can train varying levels of strength, stability, motor control and range of motion. The kettlebell is an extremely versatile training tool and can be incorporated into different exercises, training and movements. Fitness is all about finding the right movement for you, and few pieces of equipment allow for as much variation as kettlebells.
2. Kettlebells are Beginner-Friendly
For those who’ve never used them before, kettlebells can have a bad stigma and may be viewed as dangerous or intimidating.
I’ve been incorporating kettlebells into my rehab and programming for a number of years, while also teaching a weekly kettlebell class at a local CrossFit gym. As a result, I have become accustomed to introducing KB movements and exercises to those who have never used such a tool. Exercises such as the Kettlebell Goblet Squat, Kettlebell Deadlift and Kettlebell Swing are great introductory movements that prepare people for more advanced exercises they can later incorporate into their routines.
The minimalist design of the kettlebell makes it easier for novice athletes to understand hand placement when gripping the bell, which also allows for more concentration and focus on technique and body awareness. Kettlebells are my usual go-to when prescribing exercises for patients who are new to fitness and weightlifting as they offer a great combo of simplicity and efficiency.
A sample accessory program for low-back pain could be as simple as:
- Goblet Hold Good Mornings (3″/3” tempo) x 5 reps
- Suitcase Deadlifts x 5 reps
- Suitcase Carries 50 seconds x 2 reps on each side
This set of exercises can be scaled from the novice athlete to the elite athlete just by adjusting weight, reps and sets. In addition, the athlete will be more likely to complete these movements due to the movements’ simplicity (particularly the fact that just a single piece of equipment is needed).
3. Kettlebells are Great For Avoiding and Rehabbing Injuries
We now understand that injuries can’t be prevented, but with a focused approach, we can reduce their risk of occurrence.
Incorporating kettlebell training into our accessory programming or prehab routine can work wonders in terms of developing a robust body that’s resistant to injury. For example, when looking at low-back pain (the most common complaint of all athletes and general population), the kettlebell is a great preventative and treatment tool.
A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work and Environmental Health found that the Kettlebell Swing increased low-back strength and improved the body’s ability to effectively respond to external stimulus, which is often the cause of most non-contact sports-related injuries. Kettlebells are designed to be somewhat awkward so that our bodies must coordinate multiple muscle groups to lift, swing, push and pull them effectively. Neuromuscular co-contraction, which is essentially teaching the body how to properly use the nervous system and muscle to lift/jump/run/move, is a step of effective injury prevention programs.
A second study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that the Kettlebell Swing helps alleviate back pain not only through strengthening, but also potentially through increasing blood flow and massage to low back musculature.
Dr. Stuart McGill, the spine biomechanics authority and a leader in back health research, has been quoted as saying, “Based on my own experience and training, I can tell you there is no better exercise for strengthening the back like the properly performed Russian-Style Kettlebell Swing. This combination of muscular strength and muscular endurance is a key for injury prevention.”
Kettlebells are a great accessory tool. If used and programmed correctly, they can be tremendously valuable when paired alongside commonly used equipment like barbells, dumbbells, bands, etc. Should they be the focal point of all weight training and general fitness programs? No. But they do deserve a significant role.
We know it’s impossible to prevent an athlete from experiencing any type of injury. Injuries will inevitably continue to occur in even the most robust and prepared athletes. However, with a focused effort and detailed planning, we can reduce the risk of injury and limit their severity if they do indeed occur. Kettlebells are a great tool that, if used correctly, can assist in this effort.
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