Kettlebells are like the glue that holds the entire CrossFit community together in lock-step.
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(OK, well, kettlebells and the impulsive habit of deflecting every conversation to brag about “metcons” or snatch PRs or debilitating overuse injuries.)
But kettlebells are also hailed a champion in functional training circles for their ability to improve power, endurance, strength, balance, and posture through multi-joint and isolation exercises.
These six statistics might just explain why America’s kettlebell community was 13.58-million strong in 2020 — up 3.34 million since 2013.
Kettlebell Training Improves Strength And Power
- A kettlebell snatch workout could spike your heart rate to 93% of its max.
- Recent studies prove that kettlebell training can improve 3RM bench press and back squat performance in both men and women over 6–8 weeks.
- Regular kettlebell training can boost men’s explosive strength (+19.8%) and maximum strength (+9.8%).
- In one 12-week example, kettlebell training did not reduce body fat. However, athletes did improve their power clean (+4.2%), back squat (+4%), and vertical jump (+2%).
- Although kettlebell sessions can enhance endurance and strength in football players, experts believe they should never fully replace regular resistance training.
The Slightly Unusual History of Kettlebells
Legend has it, the modern kettlebell traces back to 18th-century Russia, where village farmers relied on these cast-iron weights (girya) to weigh crops. A hundred-or-so years later, these useful farm tools evolved into a competitive strength sport popular at festivals and circuses.
However, rumors now suggest that the real first kettlebell hailed from Ancient Greece (the haltere of the 5th century).
The modern “father of kettlebell training” was a Russian doctor named Vladislav Kraevsky, who popularized the sport amongst the Russian Army. Or maybe it’s former Soviet trainer Pavel Tsatsouline, who dubs himself a hero for introducing the West to the kettlebell craze in 1998.
Ah, really, who the hell knows? Others theorize that kettlebells rose to physical fitness stardom in 18th–19th-century Germany, and it’s likely dozens of countries had their own unique version of the “kettlebell” at some point in history.
Intensity & Resistance Matter More Than Equipment Choice
More than enough research proves the kettlebell’s place in the fitness world. But the hard truth is that the physical construction of the gear — a dense metal lump with a handle attached — has little to do with its endurance, strength, and power-building benefits.
Sorry, CrossFitters, please don’t cancel us! But, really, with the right intensity and resistance, just about any object can do this.
Take the statistic about kettlebell snatch training — the one spiking the heart rate to 93% of its max. Researchers compared the calorie-burn in that study to a 6:00 mile (or slightly above 20 calories per minute).
But this particular study also asked participants to perform 15 seconds of kettlebell snatches with 15 seconds of rest in between—interval training. So if you repeated that same workout with dumbbells, you’d almost certainly see similar results.
On that same note, replacing your regular dumbbell resistance-training routine with kettlebells won’t suddenly give you a cardio, power, or strength edge.
Why Kettlebells Are So Impactful
Sorry, champ, but the physical kettlebell isn’t the Holy Grail of fitness training. However, the traditional kettlebell training style does provide a fitness kick that other equipment may not.
Classic kettlebell sessions revolve around swinging the weight, higher-rep sets, and full-body exercises rather than slow-paced, controlled movements.
Kettlebells & Strength
Yes, kettlebells can encourage strength gains despite what we’re about to reveal. There’s little difference between a weighted crunch with a dumbbell clenched against your chest versus a kettlebell or a row.
However, we can’t argue with physics, namely the center of gravity. While a dumbbell is relatively stable in your palm, a kettlebell pushes the center of gravity several inches away.
Compare the challenge of a 10-pound kettlebell hammer curl, which requires immense grip and forearm strength for fluid movement to keep the weight straight, and a 10-pound dumbbell hammer curl at the same intensity.
But for some exercises — like the overhead press — the kettlebell variation fails miserably. The awkward center of gravity and where the weight sits activate the anterior deltoid less with the kettlebell than with an equal-weight dumbbell.
For pure strength and optimal muscle activation, kettlebells fall short. But many of the most popular kettlebell exercises (like goblet squats) target most of the body’s muscle groups.
Kettlebells & Power
Now that we’ve ragged on kettlebells, we’re amped to balance things somewhat out — kettlebell training is decent for power training. Dynamic, full-body kettlebell exercises (like swings) require pure momentum to follow the weight from a hip hinge to standing and back again.
Researchers compared the benefits of kettlebell swings and regular jump training in 2012, discovering that both groups similarly improved their maximal and explosive strength. However, further studies revealed that a kettlebell swing warm-up didn’t improve sprint performance.
But ten weeks of twice-a-week ballistic, progressive kettlebell training can transfer over to weightlifting and powerlifting performance. One study published in 2013 zeroed in on a link between kettlebell workouts and 3RM bench and clean and jerk boosts.
Kettlebell training isn’t a complete replacement for regular weight training, but it can provide very similar athletic results.
Kettlebells & Cardio
The actual endurance benefits of kettlebell training lie in the “flow” of the movements. Instead of 12 slow-paced reps of cleans at 70% of your 1RM, you may perform AMRAP (as many reps as possible) in 30 seconds at 50% intensity.
This — according to 2014 research — is where kettlebells steal the podium. In this study, experts compared the aerobic benefits of regular kettlebell swings (4 sets with 90 seconds of rest) and Tabata training swings (20 seconds on, 10 seconds off for eight sets).
Not only did the Tabata group finish the workout twice as quickly, but the interval sessions also spiked VO2 (oxygen consumption), heart rate, and lactate levels. So if your end goal is to run an 8:00 mile or complete a Spartan Race, HIIT-style kettlebell training is the better call.
Kettlebells & Grip
Even if kettlebells scored an F on power, strength, and cardio, it’d still excel in one area — grip strength. The average cast kettlebell handle is about 0.5 inches thicker than the standard barbell, requiring greater forearm and wrist strength for a firm grip around the handle.
The explosiveness of many kettlebell exercises calls for an even firmer grip to keep the weight secured in your palm, whether it’s cleaned, farmer’s carries, or bottom-up shoulder presses.
14 Best Kettlebell Exercises
We could go on forever arguing the pros and cons of kettlebell training. But we’ll cut to the chase and give you a list of our 14 favorite kettlebell exercises for a full-body workout:
- Goblet squat
- Turkish get-up
- Single-arm row
- Figure 8
- Farmer’s carry
- Reverse lunge
- Sit-up to press
- Single-leg Romanian deadlift
- Suitcase carry
Don’t be afraid to run wild with them, either. If you want to combine explosive kettlebell training with regular resistance training or swap in kettlebells during your favorite exercises (like farmer’s carries), then go for it!
Kettlebell Training As Part Of Clinical Practice
- Of nearly 100 research studies about kettlebell training, there’s very little evidence it boosts physical function in the primary care setting.
Are Kettlebells Safe?
Forget about the clinical practice and concerning lack of studies proving their validity in clinical circles … are kettlebells safe? Like any other equipment, there’s no hard “yes” or “no” answer.
Kettlebell training is a major piece of the functional training puzzle, which brings its own share of problems. In fact, research out of the prestigious Mayo Clinic uncovered a disturbing truth — during a six-week ballistics-heavy HIFT program, the injury rate was 9 for every 1,000 hours.
It also doesn’t help that CrossFit Americanized the traditional Russian swing to loosen up muscular control and raise the weight straight over your head.
That hamstring and glute-focused exercise become a ballistic full-body move that could lead to common CrossFit injuries in the shoulders and the lower back if gone unchecked.
The explosiveness of kettlebell exercises lulls many unsuspecting gym-goers into grabbing a kettlebell much heavier than a dumbbell for the same exercise. The heavier the weight and the quicker the movement, the greater the risk of pulling or straining yourself during the move.
The curved, thick handle of the kettlebell is also awkward to grasp for small hands (like us gals with dainty, practically unusable hands) or exercises requiring a wider grip. Not to mention the clumsiness of attempting biceps, triceps, and shoulder exercises without knocking your wrists.
Kettlebells aren’t the root of all evil in the fitness world. But despite the kettlebell-palooza from the 1990s, they’re also not the end-all-be-all for training.
If you do choose kettlebell training, make sure you:
- Start with low weight and perfect your form first.
- Practice the exercises at a slower speed before aiming for explosiveness.
- Replace them with dumbbells if it feels awkward or forced.
- Choose the Russian swing over the American version.
- Continue your other resistance and endurance training.
Or, just stick to regular-old dumbbell and barbell free-weight training!