Never. Kettlebell training should never be avoided. Ok, there may be a circumstance or two where it should be avoided if someone is high risk for a cardiac event, or if someone simply can’t walk and chew gum at the same time.
I’ve often been met with resistance to kettlebell training from people with back pain or knee pain, as they tend to think all people do is swing with kettlebells, which even when those are done correctly, are probably one of the safest back and knee exercises.
Otherwise, the other 98% of the time, people should never have to avoid kettlebell training because the very nature of kettlebell training is so diverse. From very simply to very complex, kettlebell training and it’s movements can be intelligently applied to nearly all demographics. Geriatric (older humans) folks as well as young bodies in physical education class can all learn how to use these old school looking tools to help them develop a well-rounded movement competency.
Let’s look at several sports to see where kettlebell training could be a superior training modality than traditional barbell training. As I’ve stated before in other articles, kettlebell training is like grabbing the best of both worlds in barbell training and dumbbell training. There simply isn’t an exercise than you can do with barbells or dumbbells that you can’t do with kettlebells, and in many cases, it is more ergonomic to utilize kettlebells instead of barbells or dumbbells. So unless you’re in the sport of powerlifting, where you absolutely need to get good at lifting with a barbell, there’s rarely a better implement to use than kettlebells.
Let’s look at the main contact sports of ice hockey, American football, and wrestling. In most cases, the athletic profile of these athletes are to have a strong and explosive lower body, strong grip (hands), strong and stable trunk, and strong shoulders to withstand the blows from checking, tackling, and grappling. The very nature of kettlebell training forces athletes to handle the kettlebells in their hands or in a racked position (shoulder isometrics) at all times. This type of training creates a vice grip for these athletes, and ask any coach how important strong hands are in sports and they will likely tell you it’s one of the most underrated athletic attributes. Additionally, due to front racking the kettlebells in many exercises, the shoulders get a great stimulus for stability as well hypertrophy, which is important in contact sports.
Admittedly, there may be a limitation in how much one can load the lower half with kettlebells, which may be one of the only advantages of barbells; their loading capacity. When an athlete needs to put on size, barbell exercises such as back squats, bench press, deadlifts, and power cleans can be great for building muscle, and while you can certainly build muscle with kettlebells alone, this may be one shortcoming of kettlebell training; however, that argument could be refuted as well as an athlete gets strong enough to do single leg squat variations where the athlete’s own bodyweight plus the weight of the kettlebells can easily be enough of an external load to outpace what an athlete could perform with both legs underneath them at a barbell on their back. Strength coaches refer to this phenomenon as the “bilateral deficit,” where athletes oftentimes can lift more (as a percentage) with one leg than they otherwise could with both legs on the ground.
Let’s look at some non-contact sports, such as baseball, gymnastics, and basketball. Baseball again is another explosive sport where arm, hand, hip, and trunk strength are vital to high performance. Gymnastics also requires much of the same as baseball except more upper body strength, trunk stability, and total body mobility is required of them to be successful. As for basketball, a lean, explosive frame with strong hands is highly valued. Once again, you can see how handling kettlebells offers a superior training effect with building strong hands, a stable trunk, and an explosive lower half, as many exercises utilized in kettlebell training involve explosive hip extension or “hinging,” which is where the majority of lower body explosiveness originates. The amount of trunk stability gained from kettlebell training may be the modality’s most unsung hero. From different carrying variations (farmer’s carries, suitcase carries, bottom’s up carries, etc…) to performing innumerable exercises while holding one or both kettlebells in the front racked position, the trunk is nearly always under high tension through nearly all planes of motion.
From a strength and conditioning perspective, kettlebell training can develop nearly every single movement and training attribute an athlete would want to have from their gym time.
That’s a ton of bang for your buck from training with one implement. The only aspects an athlete would need yet to hone in is their sport specific skills relative to the sport, some upper body pulling strength (pull-up bar), and some SAQ (speed-agility-quickness) training. For today’s athletes, where training time in the gym is oftentimes minimized due to the amount of time spent in practice and competition, kettlebell training could be a very efficient means to incorporate into practice 3 times per week to gain/maintain strength, power, and resilience to injury. In fact, in a study done in 2013, a 10 week kettlebell training program demonstrated a transfer of power and strength in response to 10 weeks of training with kettlebells. Like mentioned above, traditional training methods may not be convenient or accessible for strength and conditioning specialists, athletes, coaches, and recreational exercisers. The current data suggest that kettlebells may be an effective alternative tool to improve performance in weightlifting and powerlifting.
There’s many ways to skin a cat so-to-speak when it comes to fat loss; however, where kettlebell training will reign superior is the efficiency in which fat loss can be accomplished. Fat loss will always have to be accompanied by a caloric deficit in one’s dietary intake first and foremost, and no training implement will every defy that, so the next time you hear of a new training device that “burns more fat than every before,” know that it won’t change a body one iota if that body doesn’t consume less than it burns calorically.
From an efficiency standpoint, when a person becomes proficient in kettlebell training, they can literally get a total body workout that enhances strength, hypertrophy (muscle gain/retain), power, and conditioning in 30 minutes or less. These workouts can be incredibly demanding on the metabolism, forcing it to not only burn a substantial amount of calories during the workout, but more-so keeping the metabolic rate of the body elevated for 24 – 48 hours after the training session. Additionally, because the training sessions are so short, training frequency (sessions per week) tends to increase.
Think of the metabolic enhancement of a training frequency where you train 5+ days per week. Think of your metabolism being spiked for 24 hours and as it begins to normalize you hit another short, but intense kettlebell training session, which spikes your metabolism again for another 24 hours. If you combine this methodology with a caloric deficit and the correct macronutrient profile in your calories, you’re really setting yourself up for success for fat loss while also maintaining your precious muscle mass. Never sacrifice muscle at the expense of losing weight. If you just try to lose weight through dieting alone, you will lose a significant amount of muscle in the process, which will significantly slow your metabolism to a crawling pace. This is bad news, because you can’t continually cut calories forever.
I dedicated a whole article to kettlebell training for aesthetics already, but let’s discuss it briefly. When it comes to aesthetics, or “looking better naked,” men are generally looking for slimmer waistlines, bigger arms, chest, and shoulders, and that mystical thing called a 6-pack, which I wrote another entire article on kettlebell training for abs as well. As for women, they typically want the same things, you just have to insert a different term for them, it’s called “tone.” I’ll call it muscle gain and fat loss, if you’re a female, you can call it “tone,” and in either case, we will find ourselves at the same destination.
With kettlebell training you will get plenty of aesthetic benefit because you will perform mostly multi-joint movements that work the large muscle groups. You name it, quads, hamstrings, glutes, lats, traps, rhomboids, delts, biceps, triceps, and abdominals will all get plenty of action, and if someone is a physique competitor by chance, performing some isolation work may be necessary; however, you can develop of lean, sinewy, and very impressive functional physique with kettlebell training alone.
As you progress through life, it’s a war of attrition on your body. In the end, gravity always wins; however, you must fight gravity with diligence and intelligence. Consistently applying resistance in functional human movement patterns will continue to pour on a layers of dense, metabolically active lean muscle mass to your frame, and it’ll also inject adamantium (ever seen Wolverine?) into your bones, strengthening them against fractures and the frailty of life in your later years.
Speaking of frailty in the later years of life, when a minor fall can result in a hip fracture that can literally be a death sentence, developing and maintaining lean muscle and bone density can literally mean life and death. One such study demonstrated dramatic benefits of kettlebell training in elderly women aged 65-75 years with sarcopenia (loss of lean muscle tissue from aging). After only an 8 week kettlebell training intervention where they training only twice per week for 60 minutes, participants experienced impressive results. These women significantly increased their sarcopenia index, grip strength, back strength, and PEF (Peak Expiratory Flow). In addition, the retention effect of the training program continued after 4 weeks of detraining. These are very valuable results, and just imagine if the training stimulus continued or even advanced as their fitness improved!? We aren’t just talking about living longer here, we are talking about living better.
The enhanced metabolic effect of kettlebell training consistently will allow for life’s celebrations to truly be enjoyed because you will be able to have your cake and eat it too without guilt! Because how truly enjoyable is your favorite slice of cake, ice cream, pie, and entre if you ate it too frequently anyways! The discipline you employ through rigorous and consistent kettlebell training will spill over into many other areas of your life, leading to many other goals accomplished and your purpose on this Earth fulfilled. You see, the world tends to avoid this topic because it’s too sensitive to offense, but you and I both know that you must become strong, resilient, and hard to kill to do anything worthwhile in this life.
No other training modality will train you more for life’s adventures than kettlebell training. Be consistent, become a learner, and progressively challenge yourself to get better within your kettlebell training, because that’s what life is all about.