Kettlebells – Conditioning For Your Nuts, Head, and Back of Your Wrist.

I’m breaking yet another self-imposed rule (I seem to be Mr. Rulebreaker these days) by blasting a hole in a training modality I don’t find to be particularly advisable. Granted, it’s being done at the behest of a client, nevertheless, I promised I wouldn’t do it.

Oh well, whatever.

What I’m going to be talking about today are kettlebells, that favorite training tool of the Original Evil Russian, Pavel Tsatouline (I wonder if he enjoys snowboarding as well).

Kettlebells look like this.

They come in several varieties and weights, measured in poods (18kg). Ironmind even sells a plate-loading version of a kettlebell, so you can progressively add resistance. There’s so much interest in kettlebell lifting, I’m surprised Nike hasn’t come out with a pink velour-covered women’s kettlebell.

So what’s the big deal with kettlebells? Well, if you didn’t happen to click the conveniently located link above, kettlebells are reputed to be an extremely effective training modality, increasing the various forms and incarnations of strength, good for cardiovascular conditioning, and (my personal favorite) developing explosiveness. That, and the insinuation that they came from Russia (which they didn’t) make kettlebells a prime candidate for “flavor of the month” training modality – you know how strength and conditioning types love super secret training programs from Eastern Bloc countries.

Let’s keep this short – all of the benefits that kettlebells allegedly deliver are attainable using other, safer methods, and this is my main problem with it. That, and trainers that attempt to inappropriately instruct their (unprepared) clientle in the complex lifts that comprise “kettlebell training.”

Look, if you are a stout or reasonably conditioned individual, and you wish to give something new a go, far be it for me to tell you what to do or what not to do. But I have a serious problem when someone receiving compensation as an expert is inappropriately using a training modality “just because.”

Here’s a listing of the potential shortcomings unique to kettlebell lifting:

1) Complex lifts and difficult postures are required. The mainstay of kettlebell lifting is the clean and jerk – not exactly the simplest movement to perform correctly, and even more difficult to instruct, even to a conditioned athlete. Other exercise gems are the bent press, the snatch, unilateral overhead press, turkish get-up, and the ubiquitous warm-up, kettlebell swings. I don’t think I need to illustrate any further potential dangers in swinging a 36 lb iron ball around your head and nuts. Needless to say, in the interest of proper progression, I would not recommend neophytes or unconditioned individuals anywhere near these exercises.

2) Unilateral movements and instability. I’m not a big fan of one-side training when it involves crossing the spine. Here’s why – when you unevenly load the spine, torsional force is transmitted through the vertebrae, stressing the joints. Some may say great, that’s exactly what you want, but to me it seems to be an injury lurking in the wings, just waiting to happen. Additionally, it throws off your balance to only load one side for strength training purposes. Creating an unstable environment for strength training doesn’t train your balance, it exposes you to greater risk of injury when you (inevitably) lose your balance.

3) High repetitions coupled with high volume = overuse injuries. The typical number of reps completed (at ballistic force) during a kettlebell workout is 50. So, conservatively speaking, let’s take 50 reps 2 times a week for 50 weeks (a year’s time)…that equals 5000 high-velocity, high-force reps delivering impacts to the joints of the wrist, shoulder, and spine in the course of a year – seems like a likely recipe for an overuse injury or two, unless you already possess the hardiest of connective tissue. Some trainees will perform a kettlebell workout 4 days a week, with as many as 200 swings just for warmup. Wow.

There are some other things that suck about kettlebells, but are not unique to kettlebells – they exist for other training modalities as well. I’ve merely listed kettlebell-specific issues here.

Well, dear reader, I hope you enjoyed my ranting (especially you, Rob. I know at least 20 guys at Renzo’s that will now beat the crap out of me for writing this, since they love their kettlebell swings). Feel free to go on your merry way – and steer clear of the blacksmith’s, lest you be tempted to commission a ‘bell.

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