“…Now that ain’t workin’ that’s the way you do it. Lemme tell ya them guys ain’t dumb. Maybe get a blister on your little finger. Maybe get a blister on your thumb…” Money for Nothing– Dire Straits 1985

Kettlebells may not be in every gym but they’re in most.  Body Language Gym has them and we have a lot. But why workout with a kettlebell instead of barbells, or dumbbells, or cables and bands and medicine balls? You shouldn’t! You should use it all! But there is a difference in a kettlebell workout as opposed to using any single type of equipment.

Kettlebells aren’t new. They were first used as a counter-weight measure in Russian markets as a “pood” (16.38 kilograms) and was added to the Russian dictionary in 1704. In 1885, girevoy (kettlebell) sport was introduced in Russian amateur strongman competitions. There are disagreements over the history ofthe kettlebell, but if you just want to know some reasons kettlebells are effective, is a disagreement over the history of kettlebells that important? Not to me.

I’m glad I was asked to do this blog. I use kettlebells in my personal workouts. But over the years I’ve been asked, “Why are you doing kettlebells?”, or told, “You aren’t going to make gains with just a kettlebell.” 

The first question is easy. When I use kettlebells, I get a total body workout every time (Strength Cardio Core – SC2™). A single kettlebell swing does more for mybody than any other single lift. When done properly, a kettlebell swing activates every major muscle group: upper body, lower body, front, back, you get it all. The reason a kettlebell does this is because the load is displaced. Think about lifting a barbell or dumbbell. With both you have an equal load placed on both sides of the weight. With a kettlebell, your load is displaced; it’s heavier at the bottom than where you’re holding.  If you replicated a swing with a barbell (don’t!) or a dumbbell it’s awkward at best. Plus, you’re swinging only half the weight because the load isn’t displaced. Now think about replicating almost any lift you do with a barbell or a dumbbell. It may take a little imagination but you can do the same lift with a kettlebell.

As for not making gains (strength or hypertrophy) with a kettlebell… That’s just wrong. It’s not the mechanism used that promotes strength or hypertrophy (muscle size), it’s the load that matters. Simply put, when you lift heavy you get stronger and your muscles get bigger and when you lift lighter your muscles can do it longer. When I do a kettlebell swing with a heavy load I can’t do a lot of reps and sets which means I’m gaining muscle strength and hypertrophy. When I do a kettlebell swing with a light load I can do a lot of repsand sets which means I’m gaining muscle endurance.  It’s that simple. A kettlebell isn’t meant to isolate a single muscle group as barbells and dumbbells are. Whichever load I place on myself, I’m gaining either strength, hypertrophy, or muscle endurance across the board: total body.

However, because the kettlebell’s load is “condensed and displaced” into a ball I can tell you an 80lb kettlebell feels heavier than an 80lb dumbbell or 80lbs on a barbell.

Another reason kettlebells are effective is because there area lot of lifts you can do with just a single kettlebell. And they aren’t all just swings. A lot of the exercises may originate from aswing or incorporate a swing into them but that’s just a way to safely transition the kettlebell to the actual lift or keep continuity in the exercise. And remember, a swing activates all your major muscle groups! Therefore, I’m getting an added total body exercise before I even start the lift I’m doing. For example, if I wanted to do a single hand overhead press I could start with a single hand swing and swing the kettlebell to a rack position (arm bent, elbow tucked to your rib cage with the kettlebell resting between your bicep and triceps). From the rack position, I start my overhead press. Or because the kettlebell is versatile, I could start the lift by cleaning the kettlebell to the rack position. Or even start it by swinging the kettlebell into a snatch and slowly lowering it to the rack position which gives me an eccentric overhead press.       

I keep stored in my phone a list of kettlebell exercises for single-hand, double-hand, and two kettlebells. The list is long and I add to it all the time but I can do almost all of my workout with one piece of equipment. Compare that to having to move around a gym and people to gather your different barbells or dumbbells or cables and medicine balls only to find what you want is taken by someone else. Frustrating?  Irritating? Time consuming? Interruption of your workout? Yea. 

So why are kettlebells effective? Having worked out for the past 40+ years and seeminglyusing every type of conventional equipment there was as well as a lot of unconventional equipment, a single kettlebell movement gives me a total body workout regardless of what my goal is – muscle endurance, strength, or hypertrophy. Should your workout be exclusively kettlebells? Probably not. But you can do more with a single kettlebell than any other single piece of equipment. So, next time you see someone grunting and groaning while swinging (or pressing or cleaning or curling or rowing or deadlifting or….) a kettlebell, remember the lyrics above, “…them guys ain’t dumb.”

Rusty Monkres is an ACE certified personal trainer who incorporates Strength Cardio and Core (SC2™) in his training to achieve strength, hypertrophy, and muscular endurance

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