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Point/Counterpoint

Should Kettlebells Be Used in Strength and Conditioning?

Campbell, Bill I. PhD, CSCS, FISSN1; Otto, William H. III MS, CSCS, USAW; Level 12

Editor(s): Galpin, Andrew J. PhD, CSCS, NCSA-CPT

Author Information
Strength and Conditioning Journal: October 2013 - Volume 35 - Issue 5 - p 27-29
doi: 10.1519/SSC.0b013e3182984c59
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Abstract

PRO

When evaluating any method of training or training device, it is important to ask the following questions:

  • Is the training program/training device safe?
  • Will the training program/training device improve performance?

A survey of the scientific literature (approximately 12 published peer-reviewed articles) indicates that kettlebells are both safe and effective. Most safety concerns related to kettlebell use revolve around lower back function and particularly the effects of the kettlebell swing on compressive and shear forces within the lumber vertebrae. It has been demonstrated that the compressive loads from kettlebell swings (16-kg kettlebell) are not problematic and are below published standards for manual lifting tasks (5). Interestingly, when people in an occupation with a high prevalence of musculoskeletal pain symptoms engaged in a kettlebell program for 8 weeks, measures of low back pain were significantly improved (2).

In terms of resistance training performance, a kettlebell training program was as effective as a traditional resistance training program in the vertical jump and 1 repetition maximum (1RM) power clean but was not as effective in improving 1RM squat performance (3,6).

Similarly, Manocchia et al. (4) reported that 10 weeks of kettlebell training significantly improved both 3RM bench press and 3RM clean and jerk. The improvements (vertical jump, 1RM power clean, 3RM bench press, and 3RM clean and jerk) are somewhat surprising. For example, it would not be expected that kettlebell training would be as effective as traditional resistance training when the outcome measures are common resistance training exercises—such as the squat, bench press, and clean and jerk. Reports of the effectiveness of kettlebell training in these traditional resistance training outcome measures indicate that there is some carryover in the training adaptations that arise from kettlebell training.

In addition to the performance benefits of kettlebell use, there is also a potential benefit for their inclusion in a strength and conditioning rehabilitation program (1). The primary goal of a sports rehabilitation program is to return the injured athlete back to competition as quickly as possible. During the course of an injured athlete's recovery, exercises that reproduce functional (or sport-specific) movement patterns should be prescribed. Including kettlebell exercises during the later stages (such as during the repair and healing phase and the chronic/remodeling phase) of a rehabilitation program may provide an appropriate training stimulus that:

  • Helps to facilitate the athlete's ability to perform functional, multi-joint closed kinetic chain exercises (e.g., squats, lunges) later in the rehabilitation process.
  • Provides an appropriate training stimulus that would help prepare the athlete for the physiological requirements of their respective sport.

There are also nonphysiological arguments for the use of kettlebells in a strength and conditioning setting. These include space limitations of the strength and conditioning facility or a lack of funding for bars or weights. In addition, kettlebells can also be used to assist athletes who have never lifted weights in gaining a foundation in the fundamentals of similar movements relating to strength and power (squat, press, clean and jerk, and snatch).

In conclusion, traditional training methods (that are the best methods available for increasing strength and power) may not be convenient or accessible to strength and conditioning coaches and athletes. As kettlebells are safe, able to improve strength and power performance, and may play a significant role in an injured athlete's rehabilitation program, it is clear that kettlebells have a place in a strength and conditioning program.

REFERENCES

1. Brumitt J, En Gilpin H, Brunette M, Meira EP. Incorporating kettlebells into a lower extremity sports rehabilitation program. N Am J Sports Phys Ther 5: 257–265, 2010.
2. Jay K, Frisch D, Hansen K, Zebis MK, Andersen CH, Mortensen OS, Andersen LL. Kettlebell training for musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health: a randomized controlled trial. Scand J Work Environ Health 37: 196–203, 2011.
3. Lake JP, Lauder MA. Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. J Strength Cond Res 26: 2228–2233, 2012.
4. Manocchia P, Spierer DK, Lufkin AK, Minichiello J, Castro J. Transference of kettlebell training to strength, power and endurance. J Strength Cond Res 2012.
5. McGill SM, Marshall LW. Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. J Strength Cond Res 26: 16–27, 2012.
6. Otto WH III, Coburn JW, Brown LE, Spiering BA. Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength, and body composition. J Strength Cond Res 26: 1199–202, 2012.

REFERENCES

1. Canavan P, Garrett G, Armstrong L. Kinematic and kinetic relationships between an Olympic-style lift and the vertical jump. J Strength Cond Res 18: 534–539, 1996.
    2. Channell B, Barfield J. Effect of Olympic and traditional resistance training on vertical jump improvement in high school boys. J Strength Cond Res 22: 1522–1527, 2008.
    3. Farrar R, Mayhew J, Koch A. Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings. J Strength Cond Res 24: 1034–1036, 2010.
    4. Garhammer J, Gregor R. Propulsion forces as a function of intensity for weightlifting and vertical jumping. J Appl Sport Sci Res 6: 129–134, 1992.
      5. Hulsey C, Soto D, Koch A, Mayhew J. Comparison of kettlebell swings and treadmill running at equivalent rating of perceived exertion values. J Strength Cond Res 26: 1203–1207, 2012.
      6. Jay K, Jakobsen M, Sundstrup E, Skotte J, Jørgensen M, et al.. Effects of kettlebell training on postural coordination and jump performance: A randomized controlled trial. J Strength Cond Res 27: 1202–1209, 2013.
      7. Lake J, Lauder M. Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. J Strength Cond Res 26: 2228–2233, 2012.
      8. Manocchia P, Spierer D, Lufkin A, Minichiello J, Castro J. Transference of kettlebell training to strength, power and endurance. J Strength Cond Res 27: 477–484, 2013.
      9. McGill S, Marshall L. Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: Back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. J Strength Cond 26: 16–27, 2012.
        10. Otto W III, Coburn J, Brown L, Spiering B. Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength, and body composition. J Strength Cond Res 26: 1199–1202, 2012.

        CON

        Kettlebells are popular training implements used widely in rehabilitation, general fitness, and strength and conditioning facilities around the world (3,5). Despite their popularity, opinions over the effectiveness of kettlebells range greatly. Pros and cons exist for all training strategies and tools; and kettlebells are no different. They are safe when used appropriately, and multiple studies (6,9) indicate that they can actually be helpful in the treatment of some injuries (e.g., low back pain). Kettlebell exercises such as the Goblet squat or swings are also valuable tools for general development (e.g., balance, specific deficiencies, some movement patterns/techniques). Yet arguably the most common use of kettlebells comes in the form of general fitness/conditioning training. Although data regarding the metabolic consequences of these activities are limited, practical experience suggests that they are capable of providing such a stimulus (3). Thus, the true topic of argument is the following: should kettlebells be used for strength training?

        Whenever examining research, it is vital to understand that “effective” is not synonymous with “optimal.” This flaw is commonplace during all research interpretation and exercise prescription, and kettlebell training seems to be no different. For example, Lake and Lauder (7) demonstrated similar improvements in both vertical jump performance and partial squat strength after 6 weeks of either kettlebell swings or jump squat training. Two comparable studies reported no such improvement in the vertical jump (6,8), yet did find an increase in the clean and jerk and bench press 3 repetition maximum (3RM) (8). Otto et al. (10) directly compared kettlebell training with a traditional strength training program (e.g., high pulls, power cleans, and back squats) and reported that both groups improved their vertical jump and 1RM back squat. However, the strength gains were significantly less in the kettlebell training group. So while kettlebell training may (or may not) improve strength and power, it is likely to a lesser extent than heavy barbell training.

        When evaluating the kettlebell research, it is also important to consider the length of the training programs (6–10 weeks) and the training history of the subjects (all were previously untrained). Whether the initial adaptations discussed earlier continue beyond this short time frame or happen at all in more trained subjects is unknown. Thus, coaches should be cautious of compromising long-term athletic development in favor of short-term gains, especially if the rationale is a matter of “convenience.” Moreover, it is still unclear if kettlebells significantly improve strength and/or power in trained individuals. This is a major concern for stronger athletes because as the weight of the kettlebells increase, so does its size. The athlete must therefore change his or her positioning and technique. This is not the case with heavy barbell training because the weight is equally and consistently distributed.

        In summary, do kettlebells have a place in exercise facilities? Undoubtedly; they are better than not training at all, provide multiple benefits, are easy to learn, and are generally safe. Do they have the potential to improve strength and/or power? Yes, but it is not a guarantee, especially if the users are previously trained. Are they an equivalent substitute to heavy barbell training? No, especially in terms of strength development; the potential to externally load will never be equivalent (1,2,4).

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        © 2013 by the National Strength & Conditioning Association