Many of the Breaking Muscle readers are avid kettlebell users. If you read my review of the RKC Book of Strength and Conditioning, you’ll know that I like kettlebells but I generally support a demystifying of their benefits. It seems that in certain circles this fitness tool has achieved a mythical status as the greatest of all tools. You wouldn’t believe some of the claims you hear when you work in the industry, until you do work in it.
The problem is, research on the effectiveness of kettlebells is limited. This is probably because, like every other tool, kettlebells will make you good at using – can you guess – kettlebells. Where they can develop non-specific attributes such as muscularity is where you will see transference of ability to other activities like your sport. In a study this month in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning researchers sought to demonstrate if kettlebells supported such a transfer.
In the study, researchers looked at the effects of kettlebell training on various traditional exercises such as a barbell clean and jerk, bench press, back extension, and a maximum vertical leap. They tested each of these exercises and then had participants train for ten weeks with kettlebells. After the training program, they tested the participants in each of those exercises again.
They found there was a benefit to the bench press, mixed results for the clean and jerk and back extensions, and no significant results were achieved in the vertical jump. Although the researchers concluded that kettlebells “may be an effective alternative tool to improve performance in weightlifting and powerlifting” we should probably take a deeper look at the results rather than accepting that as a viable or very solid conclusion.
First, the results tended toward kettlebells being more efficacious for exercises requiring less technique. A bench press is a simpler exercise than a clean and jerk, and a vertical jump requires probably the most technical involvement and the greatest variance in technique amongst participants. The back extension is the exception to this rule, but has less stringent acceptable form, probably resulting in mixed results. This should come as no surprise. Simpler exercises can find greater success in highly transferable traits like muscle hypertrophy. This would be the same no matter what tool you used to prepare for exercise as long as an adequate load was possible to create the necessary stimulus.
Secondly, the main reason the study supports the use of kettlebells as a training tool is in their convenience and accessibility. In other words, you can have a set at home without taking up too much room, and they travel easier than a barbell. However, I suspect anyone who really cares about his or her powerlifting or Olympic lifting results will want to train in the most efficacious way, which means to do the powerlifts or Olympic lifts. If you’re at the point where you need to maintain your strength and ability for a competitive sport, you shouldn’t be looking for alternatives to training; you should just be looking to train.
So what’s the bottom line in all this? If you like kettlebells, train with them. You don’t need excuses about how amazing they are – just train. If you want to be the best kettlebell lifter in the world, you better lift a lot of kettlebells. If your goals, however, include barbell benching, vertical leaping, or the clean and jerk, you’d better stop thinking something other than those exercises is the answer.
1. Manocchia Pasquale, et. al., “Transference of Kettlebell Training to Strength, Power, and Endurance,” Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 27:2 (2013)
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