Physical Training Jan 2003
Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies

Kettlebells : An Antidote to the Hype

By Raymond Brennan
Copyright © Raymond Brennan 2003. All rights reserved.

A lot of interest has been generated lately in kettlebells (the so-called “iron balls”) , in the fitness media, in online forums and (to a lesser extent) in the US press. A lot of claims have been and are being made as to how effective kettlebells are for fitness, strength, endurance, flexibility…in fact, just about everything except getting a date and doing the dishes. While there is no doubt that kettlebelling can be a reasonable form of exercise if combined with other methods of training, there is also little doubt that most of the claims made about them are exaggerated and they are surrounded by hype and overblown language as few other methods of training are.  No mention is made of the real risks involved to the average person picking up a kettlebell for the first time. Added to that is the mystique attached to them in the US, because they were supposedly the main training method of the Spetnaz of the former USSR and are therefore somehow perceived as exotic and as a repository of “hidden” or “secret” techniques.  The novice kettlebeller believes that he or she is getting a shortcut to a fit, strong and aesthetically pleasing body in a fraction of the time available via other methods. Is this actually the case?

I propose to have a look at these many claims (and some of the supposed “facts”) in an objective manner and examine their merits or lack thereof. Please note that I am not going to say “Kettlebells are rubbish” or “Don’t waste your money on them-spend it on something useful, like a silent alarm clock”.  What I am going to say that they can have some use in conjunction with other methods of training, but that there are other methods to “get there” which are safe, rational and which respect the structure of the body. If you are already using the “iron balls” and are happy with them, then hold onto them as hard as you can. Just keep it real for the rest of us, OK?

Kettlebells are Russian
No, they are not. In fact, they originated in the Highlands of Scotland. A popular pastime in the Highlands in winter is the sport of curling. This was originally played using birch brooms and round stones on frozen lakes and river mouths.  In freezing temperatures, picking up a round stone covered in frost in the midwinter gloom can be a tricky proposition. Therefore, a cast iron handle was attached to the stones to make then easier to handle. Highland and Cumberland wrestlers then began using the stones during the spring as a training tool (one among many) for the Highland Games. The handle made it easy to pick up for pressing motions, so why not?
This is not a reason not to use kettlebells, but more of a hype-busting exercise. If you want to be an “authentic” kettlebeller, then learn to play the bagpipes and wear your kilt with pride. The USSR is nothing now but a bad memory-and please let’s leave it that way. To evoke a spurious mystique about the unique horror that was the USSR in order to promote what are nothing more than iron balls is, quite frankly,  in bad taste. I wonder what the reaction would be if they were hyped as “the favourite training tool of Nazi Germany” or “what the Viet Cong used in the tunnels underneath Saigon” or  (in the post September 11th era) “what Al-Queda used in the caves of Afghanistan”? Think about this, please.

Kettlebelling was the Primary Training Method of the Spetnaz
Not according to . I hold Russian military training methods in high regard, but as far as I know, they (like most military units around the world) consist primarily of callisthenics and running.

I have only ever heard of  one video from Russia which had kettlebelling in it. It was of villagers in the hinterland doing a folk dance for tourists which involved doing somersaults with a kettlebell in each hand. The economy of the USSR was not “at its best” when it came to producing consumer goods. Could they have been using kettlebells instead of ornate dumbbells because the kettlebells were cheaper and easier for the local blacksmith to make?

Kettlebells have a Unique Training Effect
Really? In the dictionary I use, resistance is resistance. Here is a quote from George Walsh, a famous British bodybuilder from the late 1930s:

“There is no such thing as a secret exercise which will produce miraculous results. There are no mysterious appliances which will work wonders for you. Progressive exercise against resistance-whether furnished by the weight of your own body or by an appliance-and adherence to certain rules of living, will infallibly produce results for every fit man”.
Good old George Walsh.  Common sense, wouldn’t you say ? I have certainly found what he said  to be true in my own training. There is no substitute for rational, systematic exercise and there are no secret mysterious ways to exercise. Millions of other people realise this also-otherwise every city would be replete with the sight of millions of shiny (and sometimes rusty) iron balls moving rhythmically in the morning sun i.e. We would all be kettlebelling.  What makes those of us who don’t use kettlebells so stupid that we keep doing bodyweight callisthenics, barbell training, dumbbell exercises, strand pulling, yoga, running, swimming…..or whatever ?  Could it possibly be because these forms of exercise also produce results? Could it be that these forms of exercise have been proven to work and have been around for a long time?  Could it even be that some of them are fun to do (which is why people keep doing them)?

Kettlebells do indeed have a training effect, but it is certainly not unique.  In fact, any of the above activities have a training effect-to work your muscles, tone your body, raise your heartbeat, increase your strength , improve your health and appearance and add to the overall quality of your life.

Kettlebells Provide Progressive Resistance
There are plate-loaded kettlebells available which do precisely this. Plates can be added or subtracted in the same manner as they can be on a dumbbell or barbell. Progressive Resistance, as everyone interested in strength training knows, is a must. How else can you gauge how stronger you are getting? How else can you avoid overtraining or undertraining? No argument from me here.

However, this does not hold true for solid-ball kettlebells. There are a number of these on the market, which are manufactured by several vendors.  These solid-ball versions can’t be incrementally made heavier. How do you add 1KG to a smooth iron ball? Super-strong glue? Maybe Mulder and Scully could figure this one out, if they were still together.

The Old-Time Strongmen Used Kettlebells
Some of them certainly did-though for two purposes only.
One was to pose for sculptors. A large part of their income was generated from posing for sculptors and artists and a kettlebell held in the crook of one arm while wearing a loincloth or figleaf does how the muscles to good effect, you have to admit. I have seen great photos of Eugen Sandow and Lionel Strongfort holding kettlebells and they look terrific.  However, now you know why there are so many pictures of them holding kettlebells in dramatic poses-earning a living.

Strongfort using a kettle bell

The second purpose they used them for was in order to perform fingertip presses. The spherical shape meant that each finger could grip the ball in an easy manner.  This is a definite advantage of using kettlebells in preference to dumbbells or barbells. However, this only holds true for solid balls, not plate-loaded ones.

The two best fitness and exercise websites that I know of on the internet today are and .   I urge you to do yourself a favour and visit both of them. They have good biographies of some of the old-timers, plus dozens of their systems of training freely available.  These were the old “mail order musclemen”  and include among them some of my own favourites such as Lionel Strongfort, George Walsh , K.Y. Iyer and Maxick. Please count the number of these old-timers who trained exclusively with a kettlebell. As I am a nice man, I will save you the trouble and give you the answer: None.  Bear in mind that a lot of these men set weightlifting records nearly a hundred years ago, which are unbeaten to this day, as well as being champion wrestlers, boxers and gymnasts. (This was in the days before protein shakes, supplements, steppers, gyms filled with machines, sweatbands and all the rest of the modern paraphernalia that we are all constantly told we “need”).  Now, have a look through ANY of the courses on either of those two sites and tell me how many times you see a kettlebell being used or advocated, or how many times you see a kettlebell portrayed as the ultimate fitness tool. I wish you the best of luck in your search-because you are going to need it.

I believe I have illustrated my point here.

Kettlebells Don’t Take Up Much Room
I agree.  They can easily be stored in a corner of your garage and you don’t need a huge amount of space to use them.  However, the plate-loaded ones require the storage of the plates in a plate-tree of some sort.

On the other hand, you could say the same thing about barbells and dumbbells.

Kettlebells Have Good Carryover to Martial Arts
As a martial artist myself, I respectfully but emphatically disagree.  The single activity which benefits martial arts the most (whichever art you’re talking about) is the art itself.  Practice makes perfect-and nowhere more so than in the dojo or dojang. No appliance, apparatus or piece of equipment  can replicate the experience of being thrown, of applying a wrist-lock, of performing a leg sweep or leglock or of having one applied to you. Only another martial artist can provide this (which may be why we train in classes).  Similarly, the best way to practice a punch, palm-heel, edge-of-hand, side-kick, footsweep or whatever strike you have in mind is to actually hit something. It may be a heavy bag, empty air (as in a kata or pattern) or a heavily padded opponent . Only in these ways can you improve your body alignment  (eg. Getting the hip behind the strike, moving off the opponent’s centre-line), learn to put force into the technique (whether taking someone down onto a dojo mat or applying a side-kick to a heavy bag), learn limb retraction (an iron ball is not able to grab your wrist or ankle after you grab or strike it) and countering (as an iron ball cannot hit back).

In aikido and aikijutsu in particular, there is a lot of emphasis placed on breaking the opponent’s balance and thereby gaining control of his or her body.  To do this, you must have a live opponent to practice on.  Even the very basic mechanics of pushing when being pulled and pulling when being pushed without the ability to predict the outcome are something that no inanimate object can replicate.

Another related point is the area of “body awareness”. Simply put, when on the mat, you need to be aware of your own body and to be able to handle your own body. You need to know where your limbs are, how flexible they are, what positions they are strong in (and weak in), how stable your trunk is and how fast you can move. The best and most effective way to do this is to do callisthenics.  The best way to become aware of your body in this way is to use it. This is why, in most dojos and dojangs, you see the warm-up and stretching all being done with bodyweight exercises. This is sometimes not the case with weapon-related arts such as iaido and kendo. However, with these, they use the weapon-as it makes sense to do so.  I personally have never been in or heard of a dojo or dojang where the beginning warm-up and stretching was done using iron. There may well be one or two somewhere who do so, but they are in a tiny minority.

Using heavy iron will not make you “body aware” in this sense, but rather “iron aware”. You will be aware of how heavy the iron is, where it is , how far away from you it is and you will be concentrating on the iron, not yourself. This will make you good at moving heavy iron, but not at martial arts.  Arguing otherwise is like saying that practicing golf will make you a good swimmer.  This is not to say that resistance training in some form is not good for martial arts. However, there is no substitute for moving your body on the mat.

Kettlebells Work The Body Across a Wide Range of Angles
Again, this is important for martial arts. A martial artist has to be able to move across a wide range of angles and among many planes of motion.  This is the case whether attacking or defending, striking or throwing, standing up or on the ground.

Kettlebells certainly work the shoulders across a wide range of angles…and the wrists and the elbows and the lower back. They can work these areas of the body really well. They can really stretch them. In fact, unless you are really careful and have perfect technique every time you move the bell, they can overextend them.  Several message boards on the internet are replete with stories of people suffering extension-stress injuries from kettlebells, especially in the shoulders, wrists, elbows and lower back.  This may be for a number of reasons… One may be going for too many reps of an exercise too soon. It is a fact of biology that the body has to get used to any kind of exercise, especially if one is a beginner at exercise or is returning after a number of years’ inactivity.  The muscles and ligaments have to adapt. Your whole body has to adapt, in fact. If you do too much of anything too fast and too soon, then something will go BANG! If that happens, then not only will you have to stop exercising for a matter of weeks or months, but you also have a nice new injury to cope with.  This is particularly true if the kind of exercise you are intending to take up is strenuous and/or places severe demands on your strength, speed and/or flexibility.

Another reason may be that the type of exercise may be too complex to perform alone, without the benefit of someone watching your technique. Kettlebells are particularly notorious in this regard, much more so than other forms of resistance-based exercise.

A fair number of the exercises, for example, are ballistic in nature. A good example of this is the simple swing. If done with one hand, it can hyperextend the shoulder joint itself and the muscles surrounding it. This is the case whether a kettlebell or dumbbell is used. However, because the centre of gravity of a kettlebell is that further away from the hand than is the case with a dumbbell, the risk is way higher with a kettlebell and the need for perfect technique all the more imperative.  There is much more of a pull on the connective tissues because the iron is flying away from your body at speed. You can’t control it as well because you haven’t got the same close grip as you would if using a dumbbell. Maybe you need your connective tissues stretched to this degree and are happy with the high risk involved? If so, I have to ask you why? What kind of sport or activity are you participating in that warrants this degree of risk?

The same can hold true for pressing exercises performed with a kettlebell. Take the one-hand overhead press. With a dumbbell, the iron is gripped either side of the hand and the wrist is upright. With a kettlebell, however, you have to really grip it hard, otherwise, the bell will flop onto the back of your hand. This will hyperextend the wrist, put undue (and unnecessary) strain on the forearm and if done regularly, can over time place the elbow under severe strain. Also, when pressing, the wrist and forearm will take the bulk of the strain, not the upper arm and shoulder. The first warning you will have of this is a burning sensation under the elbow. Your wrist may swell up gradually. Your lower back may complain in the form of sudden sharp pains n the evenings. If you keep it up, you may even get a clicking noise in your shoulder, which will definitely warrant medical attention.  If you are wise, you will stop at that point.

 “OK” you retort, “then I’ll make sure to grip the hell out of it every time I do a press”.  Your resoluteness is commendable. However, have you always done every repetition of every exercise perfectly? I certainly haven’t, nor do I know anyone who has. I’m only human-just like you. Furthermore, do you exercise first thing in the morning? Does it take you a few minutes to wake up and be aware? Are you able to fully concentrate fully on anything first thing in the morning, or indeed in the evening immediately after a long day’s work?  For your sake, I hope so.

Let’s face it, there are many ways in which you can work your body by resistance. Pitting one muscle against another is one way. Callisthenic exercises such as the lunge and press-up also use the principle of resistance, as does sparring with a live opponent. Using dumbbells and barbells is another form of resistance. Strand pulling is yet another. A Bullworker is still another….and there are dozens more, if not hundreds.  As was pointed out earlier, resistance is resistance - simple to understand.  There is nothing mystical or magical about this statement. When all is said and done, it is so simple as to be axiomatic.  How you train against resistance is largely up to you and is a matter of personal preference more than anything else.  However, why train in a way that hyperextends certain bodyparts and which involves exercises which are so complex and demand perfect form every single rep? If you are already a seasoned athlete or martial artists, your connective tissues may allow you to get away with poor technique (such as letting the bell flop onto the back of your hand). On the other hand, you may not get away with it, even if you have been training for years.  You know your own body best, not me. Finally, if you are an absolute beginner to exercise or are returning after a number of years’ inactivity, then your motto should be “Safety First” and there are numerous other ways to train with resistance which are much simpler and much safer than kettlebells. Also, any increases in either repetitions or resistance in any exercise should be gradual and moderate. Ease into exercise gradually. Don’t let it take over your life. Your connective tissues are just as important as your muscles - and just as necessary to the smooth functioning of your body. Use your intelligence here and don’t let anyone else do your thinking for you.

Kettlebells exercise the system more efficiently than bodyweight exercises
The truth is that any form of heavy resistance places a far greater workload on the body - simply because the body has more work to do, the heavier the resistance actually is.  Again, just to reiterate, this is so whether the resistance comes in the form of a kettlebell, dumbbell, barbell, a  Bullworker, a set of strands or whatever. However, in the interests of fairness,  let’s examine this point more closely with a few examples…

Can you do a one-legged squat? This is where you stand up right, then stick one leg out in front, toes pointing forward and away from your body. Holding your arms out in front for balance, bend the leg that is on the ground till your rear (I believe the American expression is “butt”?) touches your ankle and then straighten the same leg again. A tough exercise and no mistake, isn’t it? If you can do the one-legged squat, how did you first achieve it? I did it by holding a pair of dumbbells at arms’s length, as the extra resistance on the upper body kept the lower body in balance. Once I could do them with dumbbells, I tried doing them without and they were much harder to do. Why? Because there was no counterforce effect which helped me to remain upright. The truth is that one-legged squats are fair harder using your own bodyweight, whereas adding resistance makes them easier.

Can you do a handstand pushup? If so, have you tried with a weight tied to your waist or wearing a weighted vest? You might think that the added weight makes the handstand pushup much harder to do. In fact, the additional resistance causes the abdominal muscles to contract forcibly in order to stabilise the trunk of your body.  This takes some work off your shoulders-work that your shoulders would be doing if you had used no resistance. Again, the added weight makes it easier.

How about endurance? Is doing thirty swings with a kettlebell better than doing one hundred pushups? One definite advantage is that the swings wouldn’t take so long. One definite disadvantage is that you are exercising for a shorter time. If you are involved in a sport or activity which requires you to remain active for protracted periods of time, then you should train to be active for protracted periods of time. You can do this with heavy resistance if you wish, but I hope your joints can take it. I doubt if mine could - or indeed most people’s.  Bodyweight exercises use the weight of your own body - no more and no less.  As a means of training for endurance, they are the sensible choice. It doesn’t even have to be a specific exercise. Brisk walking is by far the best overall exercise there is. Swimming is also fantastic, especially for your back, and the buoyancy of the water takes a great load off your joints.
Let’s get even more specific: boxing. Can you imagine the effort required in simply holding your arms up for a three minute round and having to do that twelve times? This is quiet apart from having to bob and weave or throwing any punches at all. Merely holding your arms up for thirty six minutes (twelve three minute rounds) takes quite a bit of doing.  The best way to train for this is to use the arms, shoulders, abs and upper back and use them for a similar length of time. Now, can you see why boxers do so many pushups?

How about cardiovascular exercise? High repetition kettlebell swings are indeed a good cardiovascular exercise. However, they are in no way superior to other cardiovascular activities. Take brisk walking.  If you can go outside and walk briskly, you’re getting fresh air and the whole body is getting exercised evenly. Also, the joints of the upper body in particular get a rest - unlike kettlebell swinging. Fresh air is in itself a very important component in health.  How about swimming? Again, the buoyancy of the water rests the joints and the entire body (especially the back) gets a workout. Also, spending time in the water is a good way to prepare the body against sudden chills or cold draughts. Finally, swimming in a local pool can be a rewarding social activity.  Let’s put it this way:  Where are you more likely to see a bikini-clad beauty - in a swimming pool or in your own garage?  If the answer is the latter, then I want a garage like yours.

Kettlebells look great and feel great
I don’t know about you, but a pair of solid balls just doesn’t “do it” for me.  What is so aesthetically pleasing about a pair of spherical pieces of iron?  Anyone? Please?
The plate-loaded ones don’t look much better, but then again neither do dumbbells or barbells.  However, they are not meant to look “nice”. They are meant to be used, just like all exercise equipment. I could say a few more things about how they “look”, but their appearance is completely irrelevant. “Are they OK to use?” is what I am concerned with.

As regards the “feel”, they definitely feel much different than dumbbells. A given amount of  weight on a kettlebell is much harder to handle than the same weight on a dumbbell. Why is this? Again, there is nothing magical or mysterious about it.  It is a simple matter of leverage. Because the centre of gravity of the kettlebell is at the end of a handle rather than either side of your hand, the weight itself is further away from the hand. Because of the added distance, the resistance on the body is actually greater than the weight of the kettlebell alone. If you want the science, then here it is: The amount of resistance increases with distance from the lever or fulcrum which is acting against the resistance. If you don’t want the science, then how about a practical demonstration?  Take a rubber ball. Hold it close to your chest for two minutes, then put it down. Then pick it up again and hold it in front of you with your arms outstretched for two minutes. Difficult, isn’t it? Why is it so much more difficult? After all, the rubber ball weighs the same, doesn’t it? Yes, but the second time around, it is further away from you. That is why it is much harder to handle - the extra distance. This is precisely why the kettlebell “feels” different. It doesn’t take a genius to figure out that adding a little more weight to a dumbbell will equal the resistance obtained from an equivalent kettlebell.  Again, there is nothing mysterious about this. There is no magic, no “secrets” and no shortcuts, just simple resistance.

You Can’t Be Bored Using Kettlebells Because They Are so Versatile
Kettlebells , because of their compact size, are very versatile and lend themselves to all sorts of exercises.  This true-but it is also true of dumbbells and strands. Any exercise shown using a kettlebell can be done using a dumbbell. Sure, you can attach  rubber bands to a kettlebell and use it in different ways, but exactly the same things can be done with a dumbbell.

However, you can become bored with kettlebells just as easily as with any other apparatus. The mere fact that you are holding a heavy object in your hand (or both hands) limits what you can do.  How can you use a kettlebell in a pushup? How many ways can you exercise lying down (grapplers, judoka and aikidoka, please take note) with a kettlebell? There is an infinite variety of exercises that can be performed using your own bodyweight and, for some exercises and some areas of the body, it is much more appropriate to do just that.  Similarly, strands can exercise the body in all sorts of ways. Just ask any strandpuller. In fact, it is possible to exercise all the main areas in the body while seated using strands.  Callisthenics, conversely, need no equipment and can be done anywhere - which is convenient if you travel a lot. For rehabbing injuries, strands have proven their worth time and time again, as have bodyweight callisthenics.

Kettlebells are nowhere near as versatile. The intelligent martial artist, sportsperson, or the average person who just wants to get fit should apply some serious thought to this matter.  A combination of different kinds of exercise, after the body has been systematically built up to a reasonable level, is the optimal combination for good results.  Anything else and you are selling yourself short as well as missing out on a whole host of benefits - increased flexibility, increased cardiovascular fitness, more strength, a more toned appearance, clearer skin, fat loss and the ability to perform well in your chosen martial art, sport, hobby or pastime.

Last But Not Least : Kettlebells Will Work For Everyone
Yes, the old classic “One size fits all” approach (the same approach, coincidentally, as was used by the erstwhile USSR in its Cold War propaganda). Of course, the truth is that nothing works for everyone. Some people take well to one thing and some people feel attracted to another thing.  Equally well, the same person’s likes and dislikes may change over time. It is very important that you like and enjoy how you exercise. If you don’t, then you probably won't stick at it for very long. There is nothing wrong at all with changing an exercise routine every now and again - in fact, it can be a positively good thing to do, as the resulting “muscle confusion” can shock the body into great performance and/or growth. There is an old Irish saying  that “Variety is the spice of life”.  (Actually, I am unsure as to whether this saying is Irish in origin or not, but I am claiming it for Ireland for patriotic reasons, OK?).  On the other hand, I have found a routine of exercises that work well for me and I tend to stick with what works.
In this regard, I have to ask one question : How much do you use your shoulders? Are you a swimmer? If so, your shoulders must be pretty well worked as they are. Are you a boxer or striker? Then your pushups and bag-punching have already given you rock-hard shoulders. Are you a wrestler, grappler or judoka? Then your shoulders must already be supple and firm from all that mat-work alone.

I could go on and on with different examples, but the point I am making is this : You already use your shoulders an awful lot if you are engaged in a martial art or a sport. This is true of most activities, as they involve the use of the arms.  Even runners swing their arms as they run and derive some momentum from this, as well as keeping their body alignment correct.

So why am I saying this? Because every kettlebell move which involves using a kettlebell or pair without any other apparatus involves the shoulders to a greater or lesser extent. There is no way to take the shoulders out of an exercise session which involves the sole use of kettlebells. Can I mention the real possibility of overuse-related injury? Can I mention the need the shoulders have for rest, no less than any other part of the body?

Conclusion and some food for thought
Kettlebells are definitely not suitable for the beginner at exercise, or for those who are returning to exercise after a protracted period of inactivity. This is due to the high risk to the wrists, elbows, shoulders and lower back inherent in their use, plus the complexity involved in many of the exercises.  Only those who are already fairly fit and who have trained their connective tissues to withstand repeated shocks of a ballistic nature should even consider using them. The plate-loaded kettlebell is more sensible in general than the solid ball, as the plate-loaded model allows for gradual incremental loading of increased resistance, though exactly the same benefits can be derived from a pair of plate-loaded dumbbells. However,  the solid balls are good for fingertip presses and some forms of grip training. Finally, there is nothing mysterious, “secret” or magical about kettlebells .

Please note that in this article I have not even considered related  questions such as the advisability of ballistic exercises in general, the effect on the joints and posture over time of  high-repetition overhead lifting per se, and the role of good taste in marketing. I have also purposefully avoided mentioning cost, as I am not American nor do I live in America. However, I can say for certain that, in the British Isles at least, a standard set of dumbbells, a beginner barbell set or a set of strands all cost considerably less than one kettlebell.

Our Sponsor, SDKsupplies

Ray Brennan was born in Northern Ireland and has been involved in martial arts, mostly aikido and aiki-jutsu for a number of years. He is currently studying Zen Judo and Canadian Combato. Ray has been doing strength training for almost a decade.

Physical Training Jan 2003