How I Use Kettlebells

How a certain piece of benign training equipment was able to gain such a personality of it’s own is sometimes beyond me, but the kettlebell has done that. The level of misunderstanding and confusion surrounding this one tool is unmatched by any other equipment. All it takes is hearing some variation of the familiar refrain to see it all reflected at once:

“I do kettleballs.”

You don’t do kettlebells. You do random acts of kindess. You do drugs. You do not do kettlebells. You lift them, or train with them, but you do not do them.

It is also not a kettleball.

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But, you can thank the person who got excited about this “kettlebell craze” for the kettleball class at your local community center.

Enter The Bullshit

Then you have the truly well intentioned yet misinformed. There is a certain population for which the kettlebell is the end-all be-all tool of strength and conditioning. These people have been convinced, not through the indoctrination into the strength secrets of the former union of Soviet socialist republics, but through cunning marketing and a lot of theater that there is one path to unyielding strength and it is through the kettlebell.

Let’s get something out of the way right now: Using a kettlebell to build maximum strength is like using a tack hammer to build Tōdai-ji. I’m not saying it’s impossible, I’m just saying you will die long before completion.

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Here are three of the biggest reasons the kettlebell is a ridiculously ineffective tool for building maximum strength:

Their size: A pretty good deadlift for a man is double-bodyweight. The average American male weighs 175lbs. That’s a 350lb deadlift. The largest kettlebell you can acquire anywhere (to my knowledge) is a 92kg monster that weighs 203lbs. Do you see the problem? Kettlebells simply don’t get weigh enough to elicit a response when we’re talking about serious strength.

Progressive resistance: Traditional free weights allow weight changes down to 2.5 or 5lbs, and even smaller increments if you have fractional plates. Kettlebells are traditionally sized in 4kg increments which means 8-9lb jumps. For overhead work this can be absolutely devastating especially to women. That’s assuming you have the luxury of bells in increasing and decreasing sizes, which in the case of most kettlebell trainees is not true. You’re lucky to have one or two, much less a full complement in 4kg jumps from 12kg up to 48kg. If you tell me that you can build the level of strength required to deadlift double-bodyweight or overhead press your bodyweight with a 35lb kettlebell I am simply going to laugh in your face.

Leverage issues: For better or for worse, due to the offset leverage and awkward size and shape the kettlebell can present several problems in developing greater strength. Two examples to highlight what I mean. In an overhead press with a kettlebell, due to the positioning on the outside of the wrist, the bell pulls the arm into external rotation and requires muscular force to counter that leverage. Besides simply not being a good force vector for some people, fighting against that leverage cuts into what you can direct upward into the path you’re actually trying to achieve:the overhead press. Another example is my experience with doing a goblet squat with a 203lb kettlebell. It is nearly impossible due to the extreme forward bias of the weight and the amount of pressure it exerts on the arms to hold it in place. It is much harder than a 203lb barbell front squat. I have yet to goblet squat it in the traditional way of holding it by the handle due to the pressure on the biceps, upside down works better. One could make the argument that it takes more overall strength to squat with a kettlebell in this way, so how is that a downside? Well first of all, I can assure you I did not build up the leg strength to be ABLE to squat it by squatting kettlebells, I did that by squatting and deadlifting over twice that weight. Second, unless you have access to bigger and bigger bells, in progressive increments above 100lbs it is fallacious to argue you could develop that strength with kettlebells. You simply are not going to make the jump from goblet squatting a 24kg to a 92kg kettlebell.

They’re uncomfortable: This isn’t strictly a strength issue, but I know some of you are fellow trainers and this is important. A lot of your clients don’t like how the kettlebell feels on their arm or wrist. Especially female clients. You can be an idiot and tell them things like they will get used to it, like I did when I first started training women. This is a mistake of incalculable proportions. Most of your clients don’t want to toughen up, get used to it, or develop scar tissue on their forearm that prevents them from being hurt by the ball of iron resting on it. You can try to tell me that if your technique is perfect then it will float gingerly on your wrist, but you neglect to acknowledge individual anthropometry and the  FACT that meets at a painful intersection of thin skin and bone.

The ultimate conclusion is that the kettlebell simply is not the best tool to develop maximum strength. There are a lot of really strong guys out there who now train with kettlebells, who developed their strength using other, more productive tools. There are also a few genetically gifted individuals like Ivan Denisov who possess the kind of freakshow maximum strength we’re talking about and claim the kettlebell (specifically heavy double-kettlebell long cycle) as their training tool of choice.  Considering there are less than a handful of these beasts in the world, it’s not unreasonable to assume they would have developed that strength if they had chosen table tennis as their sport.

As a final consideration, since to me it is always important but secondary, it’s worth considering the efficacy of the kettlebell for muscle hypertrophy or in the context I care about: “looking good naked.” To this I will only say one thing, and that I make it a general rule that if I want to look a certain way I do more of what the people who look the way I want to look do (and use.) What do bodybuilders use (besides drugs?)  Start there.

Then Why Do You Have So Many?

Great question! I love kettlebells! I think they’re a fantastic tool for what they’re most suited to. In few words:

Kettlebells are best for moving a small weight quickly.

Some of the most fundamental and popular kettlebell movements highlight this fact. Swings and snatches make up the foundation of ballistic kettlebell work. To that I would add the push press and/or jerk as one of the very best things you can do with a kettlebell.

You can swing a dumbbell, but it simply doesn’t work as well. Either you hold it by the head, and you don’t have a good grip on it or you hold it by the handle and it’s too wide to fit in between your legs and the handle is too narrow.

You can snatch a dumbbell, but without being able to do the backswing as in a kettlebell snatch you have to do a dead snatch or hang snatch, and both can get pretty sketchy after many reps. The biggest issue I see with the dead snatch is that the handle is so low to the ground it forces people to round their backs over to get lower than their hips allow them to. At that point they initiate the pull by extending at the spine rather than at the hips. Not great.

Push presses work fairly well with dumbbells, but there are aspects of the size and shape of the kettlebell that allow you to better transfer force from your legs to the bell. This makes it more efficient and allows you to get more out of the energy you put into it.

Here’s a good challenge for you that will test your strength and conditioning. It also happens to be a great fat loss workout.

The goal is 500 16kg (12kg for women) one arm kettlebell push presses in under 15 minutes.

By the end of this workout challenge you will have moved 17,500lbs. Double or more the volume of most people’s entire workout, and in 15 minutes of high density work.

That is exactly the type of thing the kettlebell excels at. Swings are equally fantastic at building posterior chain strength while keeping you moving at a pace that is productive for conditioning and building work capacity.

One of the great features of kettlebell work that I think is often overlooked or under-appreciated is that it can be fun to go through a kettlebell circuit due to the fact that you’re constantly moving. People like Jen Sinkler and Neghar Fonooni are exceedingly creative in packaging brutal workouts into creative packages that you can enjoy sweating through…which brings me to my last point.

The Kettlebell Program to Rule Them All

This has been a post I have been meaning to write for a long time, but as with my upcoming post on how to drive on ice and snow, this week’s events gave me the inspiration to put proverbial pen to paper. My good friend Neghar Fonooni (an extremely experienced kettlebell trainer) released her new program that is centered on kettlebells and I would be remiss if I didn’t tell you about it. My buddy John of Roman Fitness Systems wrote a very similar post yesterday, and while we think along the same lines I really wanted to get my own thoughts on the subject written down since it is a question I tackle often when people ask questions about my gym and my training.

Neghar’s Lean & Lovely program is ideal for someone who doesn’t have access to a full gym of varied equipment and dozens of different kettlebells. All you need are two kettlebells and maybe a 10-square foot area (the extra sweat sessions require a place to sprint.)

FURTHERMORE my amazing wife Jen Sinkler  is helping Neghar get the program into as many hands as possible and offering some pretty sweet bonus prizes for anyone who cops it through her link (I used her link in this post, so you can click right through if you’re interested.)

Guys, I’m not going to lie to you this is a ladies program. The workouts are decidedly gender-neutral but the language and manual is for the ladies. That being said, I suspect this would make an awfully nice gift under the tree. Guys, if your lady picked up Off The Floor for you, it would be a dick move not to return the favor.

 

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Comments

  1. Really great write-up. And especially LOVED the last line. I’ve been using KBs for about 8 years, on and off. Always come back to them for fun and conditioning.

  2. I am glad to see I am not the only one who thinks KBs stink for strength. :)

    And damn, that goblet squat is insane! What can you do with a dumbbell, Dave? I am assuming like 50 lbs more. Nuts.

  3. If only you could use barbells AND kettlebells (and whatever else you need).

    Oh wait, you can :)

    • Oh, absolutely. I’m speaking to people who are under the false belief that kettlebells are the only tool you want or need.

      • David,

        I was thinking about this, and whilst I agree with your article, I wanted your opinion on something.

        Denisov is a freak example, but I can think of a lot of other kettlebell sport athletes with impressive strength, particularly in the deadlift and often in the squat as well.

        Valery Fedorenko has impressive squat and deadlift numbers (in his prime). Gregor Sobocan also comes to mind, as well as a bunch of his athletes.

        I have a friend who in his 40′s, and only trains with KB (cleans, jerks, snatches and swings) and he pulled 229 kg at ~89 kg last year (or the year before).

        I have another who pulled 170 kg one handed (each hand) at ~80 kg. His training is GS, with one day of Olympic lifts and squats. So it’s hard to say what is having what effect.

        These are just average lifters, not genetic freaks.

        After 12 months of KB only training, I myself squatted 140 kg, when my lifetime best is 150 kg for 2.

        Whether KBs help maintain strength that was already there, or the ballistic lifts are good at building strength as well, I’m not sure.

        Of course I have another friend, who is one of Australia’s best male KB sport athletes who can’t front squat >100 kg.

        Maybe these KB people are suffering from confirmation bias, but I think that there could be [i]something[/i] to their claims.

        Again, I agree with your article, just wanted your thoughts on why these guys might be building such strength levels with essentially nothing heavier than 48 kg (heaviest competition style bell commonly available)?

        • Nick,

          I can guarantee you Denisov has deadlifted in the past, which invalidates him as a “KB only” example. Valery is cock diesel strong as well, but he has also done many other things in addition to KBs. I also believe >48kg bells are fairly common for them.

          As to your example, you squatted 140kg starting from KB only training, or you already had a base of strength you developed in other ways?

          In any case, as I’ve said I don’t need to be convinced that KB training has benefits, only that the belief that you can build massive strength with them alone is fallacy.

          • I guess what you are saying, in their case, the kettlebell lifting maintained their strength?

            My squat strength was built using traditional methods – squatting, deadlifting etc. So it’s probably the same for me (which is what I thought – they maintain maximal strength to a degree).

            Do you feel that is because they (the kettlebell lifts) are dynamic? Due to the volume? Other factors?

          • Yes, I think KB can be great for maintaining. Even exceptional levels of strength like Denisov when they do exceptional things with 2 KBs.

            But yeah, not so much for building.

            The maintenance topic is interesting, you can do VERY little and maintain. It would be interesting to see how little you could get away with, but I think most people would be shocked.

            Why is it? I dunno. Probably all of the above. I’ve done double KB long cycle and it’s brutal. Throwing 2x32s around is no joke.

  4. David,

    I am a big fan of your articles and blog posts. Thanks for all you do.

    I would like to know your opinion on pistol squats with kettlebells. On your youtube channel there are a few videos of you performing this exercise. Do you use the movement just to demonstrate your strength, or also as a strength builder?
    I have had knee issues in the past and have been warned better not to do them, but I would highly appreciate it if you found the time to share your view on them.

    Thank you!

    All the best,
    Ted

    P.S.
    Sorry for the mistakes. I know English as a second language only.

    • Ted,

      You write better than most native speakers. With regard to pistols, I’d be lying if I said I trained them specifically. I have done them maybe only a few dozen times grand total. But I do like to do them as an expression or demonstration of strength.

      That being said, but without knowing your full history, I can’t see any reason to single them out as something you shouldn’t do. As long as they test well, and don’t cause you any pain, I think you should pursue doing pistols if you want to.

      The Skater Squat is a great single-leg squat much like the pistol as well, my buddy Ben has a good post on them: http://www.benbruno.com/2012/10/4-ways-to-progress-the-skater-squat/

      Thanks for the question!

      • Thank you very much for the quick reply, David. I appreciate your efforts.

        Glad to hear my English is just fine.

        What you say makes a lot of sense. What does not hurt, is in most cases probably okay. Thank you for the link. I will try out the skater squat as described by Ben Bruno (who seems to be quite experienced with basically all forms of single leg work).

        Let me tell you one more thing please: I love how you stated “this is some bullshit” in a video interview a while back in regards to the statement that squats and deadlifts were enough for the abs. I agree with you 100% and am glad somebody stated it as explicitely as you did because I feel it had to be done, it was high time.

        All the best,
        Ted

  5. Hi. I like your article and I haven’t read through all the comments so I apologise if this question has been answered before. What if your goal isn’t to develop maximum strength and/or freakishly large muscles like a bodybuilder?

    What if you are a sportsman and you just want a tool to develop ENOUGH strength for your sport. The kettlebell will do that for you and it will also help you to iron out imbalances and strength discrepancies as well.

    Also if you read max shanks article he worked up to a double 48kg press with handstand presses. So its not the only tool you can use.

    • Hi Daniel,

      I am not a bodybuilder so I can’t comment on bodybuilding. My question to you is, what is enough strength?

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