By: John Cissik
Originally Published in: Techniques Magazine
Provided by: USTFCCCA
Kettlebells burst on the strength and conditioning scene about a decade ago. They are surrounded by hype. They have been called the secret strength and conditioning tool used by athletes in the old Soviet Union. They have also been credited with being "better" than barbells and dumbbells for building strength and power and being "better" than running for building aerobic fitness
With the hype, it is difficult for a coach to sort through whether this mode of exercise should have a place in their strength and conditioning program. With that in mind, this article is going to present some thoughts on kettle-bells. This article will begin by examining what they are, what they could be used for, what we "know" about them, challenges, sample exercise, and thoughts on how to use them in track and field, as well as sample programs.
WHAT ARE THEY?
Kettlebells are basically a metal ball with a handle on top. They come in different sizes and weights, which allows them to be used for strength training. The shape of the kettlebell allows for an interesting variety of exercises to be used, which in theory could lead to a multitude of benefits.
WHAT COULD THEY BE USED FOR?
As this article will cover, kettlebells are promoted to do just about everything in the strength and conditioning field. They are theoretically useful in everything from strength and mobility to conditioning and aerobic fitness. This part of the article will cover some of the rationale behind those claims. Later, this article will cover what we know from research about these.
Many of the exercises that can be done with dumbbells can be done with kettle-bells. Like dumbbells, they come in different weights. The combination of these two means that, in theory, kettlebells can be used to increase strength, muscle size and power. For example, an athlete could perform kettlebell presses with 35 pounds and eventually move up to a 40-pound kettlebell as they become stronger. In addition, an athlete could perform power cleans using the kettlebells to develop power.
There are exercises unique to the kettlebell thanks to its shape. Many of these exercises are thought to be more shoulder-friendly than traditional free weights and dumbbells. Many of the unique kettlebell exercises promote the strengthening of stabilizing muscles in the trunk and shoulder. In addition, many of these exercises could promote mobility of the upper body, lower body and trunk. For example, shoulder presses involving kettlebells may be better for shoulders that are prone to injury than standard military presses. On the other hand, kettlebell-specific exercises like the get up require a great deal of trunk strength, stabilizer strength and mobility to execute.
Kettlebells have many exercises that involve most of the muscles of the body and can be performed rhythmically. This means that they can be performed for periods of time, which makes them conducive to metabolic conditioning training sessions. For example, the kettlebell swing can be performed nonstop for a specific period of time. This means it lends itself to intervals used in conditioning.
A common claim with kettlebells is that they are "safer" than barbells and dumbbells. By this, the proponents typically mean to the lower back. In addition, another claim is that they are more effective at recruiting muscles than barbells and dumbbells.
Finally, those kettlebell exercises that can be performed rhythmically could be performed long enough to improve aerobic conditioning. For example, an athlete could perform kettlebell swings for 20 minutes nonstop.
WHAT DO WE KNOW ABOUT THEM?
Despite the hype, there is little research on kettlebells. In this section we're going to detail some of the more major studies on kettlebells. This article will look at the muscle recruitment/safety, ability to train aerobic endurance, and effectiveness at strength and power training.
McGill and Marshall conducted a study that was published in 2012 that meant to look at muscle activation and lower-back safety. They had five subjects perform the kettlebell swing, snatch and carry. They found that the swing recruited the muscles of the core, hamstrings, glutes and erector spinae. In other words, the swing used the muscles involved in an athlete's posterior chain. According to the authors, not only did the snatch recruit those muscles, but it also recruited the muscles of the upper body as well. The authors also found that the movement patterns associated with the beginning of many exercises (i.e. the swing) provided a "safe" load on the lumbar spine.
Falatic et al (2015) performed a study with female Division I soccer players. The athletes in this study did either kettlebell snatches or circuit weight training. The snatch session consisted of 15 seconds on, 15 seconds off, for 20 minutes. This was in addition to their regular weight training, soccer training, and aerobic training. The kettlebell group improved their maximal oxygen consumption by almost six percent.
Manocchia et al (2013) conducted a ten-week-long training study. The authors had two groups: one did ten weeks of progressive kettlebell training and one group did no training. The kettlebell group improved both their bench press (36%) and clean and jerk (12%), whereas the control group made essentially no gains over ten weeks. The author's conclusion was that this was due to the unique design of the kettlebells. However, another look at this would reveal that the group that was on a structured training program made gains in strength; it's unclear from this study if kettlebells are more effective than other strength-training approaches.
Otto et al (2012) conducted a study that compared kettlebells to Olympic lifting training. The subjects in this program trained progressively twice a week for six weeks. At the end of the study, the Olympic lifting group improved their vertical jump by almost 4%, the kettlebell group by 1%. The Olympic lifting group improved their back squat by almost 14%, the kettlebell group by almost 4.5%. The Olympic lifting group improved their power clean by almost 10%, the kettlebell group by almost 4%.
So, what do these results mean? First, kettlebells are effective at recruiting the muscles of the posterior chain. Second, they are effective at increasing strength and power, but they are not more effective than other modes of strength training. Third, they can improve aerobic
With the above in mind, it needs to be kept in perspective that incorporating kettlebells into a program has challenges. The first challenge with kettlebells is that they cost money. Kettlebells can cost between $1.50 and $4 per pound. Metal weight plates, by contrast, can be found for around $1.50 per pound. Generic bumper plates may cost up to $2 per pound. This means that kettlebells, pound for pound, are more expensive than barbells and their plates.
This brings us to the second challenge. If training is being done in a team environment, then it must be realized that there need to be enough kettlebells for the team to use and enough variety in terms of the sizes/weights of the kettlebells in order to be able to meet their role in a strength and conditioning program. For example, lighter weights (10-40 pounds) might be appropriate for the distance athletes, but they would not be appropriate for throwers who could easily need kettlebells that exceed 100 pounds.
Finally, it is challenging to use these exercises in a team setting. If one only has a single event group in the weight room at a time (for example, the throwers), then incorporating them is pretty simple. But if the entire track and field team is in the weight room at one time, this is going to be problematic. This is because only one student can use the kettlebell at a time, and the kettlebell exercises are going to require space for the athlete to perform the exercise. As a result, the coach has to carefully think through the flow of the athletes through the exercises given the large number of athletes and the limited number of kettlebells.
The kettlebell swing is the fundamental kettlebell exercise. To perform it, begin with the kettlebell on the ground. Straddle the kettlebell so that the feet are between hip-width apart and shoulder-width apart. Squat down and grip the kettlebell. Grip the handle so that the palms face towards the athlete (i.e. pronated grip). The hands should be close to each other.
Stand up, holding the kettlebell in front of the body. The arms should be straight. Elevate the chest and pull the shoulders back. There should be a slight bend in the
The kettlebell clean is another rhythmic exercise like the kettlebell swing; it is not typically performed as a power exercise. Begin the exercise straddling the kettlebell just like the swing. Squat down and grip the kettlebell with the right hand only.
The right hand should grip the kettlebell towards the inside corner of the handle.
Begin the exercise with the right arm straight, knees slightly built, chest out and shoulder back. From here, push the hips back and swing the kettlebell between the legs and behind the body. Without pausing, extend the hips and swing the kettlebell forward. As the kettlebell swings forward, allow the arm to relax so that the kettlebell swings in an arc ending up on the front of the athlete's shoulder. Without pausing, repeat for the desired number of repetitions or the desired time, then switch arms.
The kettlebell snatch is another rhythmic exercise just like the clean. Do not let the name fool you: it is not a power exercise. It begins exactly like the clean with one exception - the athlete should grip the handle towards the middle of the handle, not the corner. From here, stand up with the kettlebell and swing it back. Without pausing, reverse directions and swing the kettlebell forward.
KETTLEBELL HIP HINGES
The hip hinge is an exercise that develops mobility as well as strength. The athlete should begin with the feet hip-width apart. The athlete will hold the kettlebell in the right hand. The chest will be elevated, the shoulders pulled back. Keeping the arm straight, the athlete will lean forward from the hips, allowing the kettlebell to be lowered towards the ground. As the athlete leans forward, the left leg will be raised behind the athlete. This will be repeated for the desired number of repetitions or time, then the athlete will switch sides.
The kettlebell press is a strength movement. This exercise begins where the clean ends (in other words, with the kettlebell on the shoulder). See photo three for what this looks like. From this position, with the chest out and shoulders back, the kettlebell should be pressed up and slightly behind, so it ends up in line with the hips for balance.
The row is another strength movement focused on pulling. Begin this exercise standing up with a kettlebell in each hand. Elevate the chest and pull the shoulder back. The feet should be hip-width apart with the knees soft. From here, push the hips back and lean for-ward until the upper body is parallel to the ground. Allow the kettlebells to hang down. From here, maintaining the position of the upper body, pull the kettlebells towards the sides of the abdomen. Lower and repeat.
KETTLEBELL FLOOR PRESSES
The floor press is a strength movement focused on pushing. Lie down so that the back of the shoulders, hips and feet are in contact with the ground. The arms should be at the sides with a kettlebell in each hand (palms should face away from the body). From this position, press the kettlebells up and slightly together. Lower until the arms are back at the sides.
The windmill is an exercise that develops mobility, stabilizer strength and core strength. To perform this exercise, begin with the kettlebell on the right shoulder. Press it overhead. From this position, turn the feet approximately 45 degrees to the left. Keeping the kettlebell on a straight arm, lean to the left until the upper body is parallel to the ground. Repeat for the desired number of repetitions and then switch sides.
HOW TO USE THEM FOR TRACK AND FIELD
If kettlebells are to be used in a track and field strength and conditioning program, then they should serve as a supplement to the program. With that in mind, kettlebells have two roles in a track and field program. First, they can be used for mobility/recovery workouts. Second, they can be used for throwers.
The idea behind this type of workout is to use exercise to recover from exercise. This is done by focusing on exercises that involve a lower intensity, a faster pace and less rest. This is also a time when coaches will focus on developing areas that cannot be addressed during the rest of the week. This may include dynamic flexibility, core, shin splint prevention, etc. Typically, this is done with body-weight exercises, dynamic flexibility/ mobility drills, low-intensity cardiovascular exercise and circuit training.
Kettlebells fit well into this type of program. Kettlebell exercises can be a circuit workout of their own, which can also allow for mobility work. They can also be used to supplement a training session.
The unilateral nature of kettlebells makes them a great supplemental tool for the training of throwers. With the exception of two-handed swings, every exercise described is an exercise that either involves one side of the body moving, or it involves the two sides moving independently. Every one of these exercises can be used as a strength/power exercise (i.e. few repetitions, heavy weight, lots of recovery) or as a conditioning exercise (i.e. high volume, light weights, little to no recovery).
Now that this article has described sample exercises and how these exercises can be used in a track and field program, the last part of this article will present some sample programs to illustrate how kettlebells can be used in mobility/recovery workouts or workouts for throwers.
There are several purposes behind the mobility/recovery programs that track and field athletes engage in. First, recovery from intense event and strength training. Second, address areas that can't be addressed anywhere else. With that in mind, this type of training tends to be faster-paced with a higher volume than traditional strength-training sessions. In the example that this article will cover, we'll take the approach that the athlete doesn't have any deficiencies that specifically need to be targeted (for example, shin splints), and we'll focus on a general mobility/recovery workout. The program outlined in table one is meant to be done circuit style, so 20-30 seconds on with 10 seconds to transition between exercises.
PROGRAMS FOR THROWERS
With the need to lever off one side of the body, many throwers would benefit from incorporating kettlebells into their program. There is still a need to build total body strength with the fundamental exercises and to learn to apply that strength via the Olympic lifts. This part of the article will present some off-season, preseason and in-season thoughts on using kettlebells.
Below shows a sample off-season program for a generic thrower. It's a three-day-a week strength-training program. The first day focuses on total body strength, the second on power and the third on developing total body muscle size and strength. If we were assigning a load to each day, the first day would be the heaviest day of the week (80-95% of maximum), the second day would focus on power (so 60-80% of maximum) and the third day will range at 70-80% of maximum with moderate volume (8-12 repetitions per set).
Sample off-season training program incorporating kettlebells for a thrower.
Below shows a sample pre-season program for a generic thrower. The focus of this program is peaking strength and power. With that in mind, two days a week focus on total body strength, while the other two days focus on power.
Sample pre-season training program incorporating kettlebells for a thrower.
In an ideal world, a thrower will be able to train three times a week during the season. Having said that, there is never enough time to get everything in. With that in mind, the in-season program features a lot of "complexes" to save time. A complex is where a heavy strength-training exercise is paired with a plyometric exercise that has a similar movement pattern (for example, a squat and a vertical jump). The idea is to alternate between sets of the strength-training exercise and the plyometrics. This in-season training is meant to be heavy (85% of maximum plus) with low volumes. Table four shows an example of this type of program.
It is often difficult to distinguish between hype and effectiveness when it comes to tools, drills and exercises. When it comes to kettlebells, the track and field coach needs to carefully weight out the cost:benefit ratio of incorporating them into his or her athlete's training. While kettlebells have many uses, they also have some serious challenges.
Falatic, J.A., Plato, P.A., Holder, C., Finch, D., Han, K., and Cisar, C.J. (2015).'Effects of kettlebell training on aerobic capacity.' Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 29(7), 1943-1947.
Manocchia, P., Spierer, D.K., Lufkin,
McGill, S.M. and Marshall, L.W. (2012). 'Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: Back and hip muscle activation and low back loads.' Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(1): 16-27.
Otto III, W.H., Coburn, J.W., Brown, L.E., and Spiering, B.A. (2012). 'Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength, and body composition.' Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 26(5): 1199-1202.
JOHN CISSIK IS THE PRESIDENT AND OWNER OF HUMAN PERFORMANCE SERVICES, LLC (HPS), WHICH HELPS ATHLETICS PROFESSIONALS SOLVE THEIR STRENGTH AND CONDITIONING NEEDS. HE COACHES YOUTH BASEBALL, BASKETBALL, AND SPECIAL OLYMPICS SPORTS AND RUNS FITNESS CLASSES FOR CHILDREN WITH SPECIAL NEEDS. HE HAS WRITTEN 10 BOOKS AND MORE THAN 70 ARTICLES ON STRENGTH AND SPEED TRAINING.