29 Aug Big Problems With The Latest In Kettlebell Science

I love research. We can learn a lot from it.

Each and every study I read, I respect the work that went into it. I know how much time, effort, and commitment goes into doing a research study at any level.

No study is perfect.

Yet, each one is a potentially important piece of the puzzle, right?

So, I was really excited to see the title of the latest research study about kettlebell training.

Shortly after immersing myself in the study, I found myself feeling let down and disappointed once again that another kettlebell study missed the mark. This one in a major way, which I’ll explain.

This article is an attempt to “bridge the gaps” between the scientific research and the “real-world” practical applications.

I’ll explain the study, then share my perspective on the problems that I see and what we can learn from this information.

A BRIEF OVERVIEW OF THE STUDY

The purpose of this study was to further investigate the muscle activation patterns of 3 commonly used kettlebell exercises to better help in the development of training programs for clients and athletes.

The study evaluated EMG (muscle activity) with 14 recreationally trained males that performed 3 fundamental kettlebell exercises.

Subjects reported little to no kettlebell training experience prior to this study.

The 3 kettlebell exercises the subjects performed in this study were:

  • the one hand kettlebell swing
  • the one arm snatch
  • the one arm clean

There were 8 muscles that were assessed by EMG (electromyography) in the study which were:

  • biceps brachii
  • anterior deltoid
  • posterior deltoid
  • erector spinae 
  • vastus lateralis
  • biceps femoris
  • contralateral external oblique (opposite side EO)
  • gluteus maximus

Loads (intensities) in the study ranged from 4.5 kg to 32 kg for the exercises performed. I’ll discuss this much more in just a minute.

The results from the study, in terms of muscle activation, were the following:

  • the swing elicited greater muscle activation of the erector spinae than the snatch (swing > snatch for ES)
  • there was greater muscle activation of the contralateral external oblique during the snatch and clean than the swing (snatchclean > swing for EO)
  • there was greater activation of the vastus lateralis during the swing as compared to the clean (swing > clean for VL)

STUDY RESULTS:

  • swing > snatch for ES
  • snatchclean > swing for EO
  • swing > clean for VL

PROBLEMS WITH THIS STUDY (A Critical Evaluation)

In respect and professionalism, here are some honest insights and critiques of this particular study.

It would be doing a disservice by not reviewing these issues.

The intent is to provide insights to improve upon the future of kettlebell science and research.

POINT #1-THE KETTLEBELL TECHNIQUES IN THIS STUDY ARE UNCOMMON

First, if we’re going to assess a method of training we must have a standard way to assess the method or exercises.

We must have consistency in evaluating the method that we are assessing.

In my years of training, teaching, and learning kettlebells, I have never seen – or used – the kettlebell techniques that were used or demonstrated in this study.

That is to say, the techniques shown in the study are uncommon and are not the standard kettlebell techniques that are typically used in the fitness community.

There are 2 basic styles or techniques used in kettlebells, hardstyle (techniques popularized by Pavel Tsatsouline) and girevoy sport (GS).

In reviewing this study, neither style appears to be used nor mentioned thus questioning – what techniques are being used here?

From observation, I would even call into question the safety of these techniques.

I’ll give you specific examples of what I mean.

We’ll start with this, since this example is a “hot button” for me with my clinical background.

One of the pictures illustrates the “catch” position of the clean.

In the picture, the shoulder is in a abducted and externally rotated position.

In addition, the forearm was in a pronated position even further compromising the stability and strength of a proper “rack” position in the “catch” of the kettlebell clean.

The clean “catch” position illustrated in this study appears not only to be unsafe, but even provocative for shoulder joint injury.

It is curious as to why this position would be advised and the rationale for the technique is uncertain.

In my years of training as an SFG certified kettlebell instructor, this is not a technique I would ever personally use in my own training. It is not something that I would teach to others.

Additionally, in 2 other pictures of the exercises, the starting position for each exercise was initiated in a deep squat (as opposed to a hip hinge position, as advocated in the hardstyle technique).

Is this start position (or set-up) incorrect?

It appears so.

We could certainly speculate that this would change the muscle activation patterns for these 3 exercises.

One of the primary reasons I became certified was because the principles I have learned by Pavel Tsatsouline have been what I consider to be the safest and most effective way to train with kettlebells. These principles use the “hardstyle” technique (it is also known as Russian style kettlebell training).

There is also the girevoy sport (GS) style of kettlebell training, which is also effective and serves a different purpose.

GS style is primarily reserved for competitive kettlebell lifters and has different principles specific to the competitive sport of kettlebells.

Once again, the techniques used in the study did not appear to be either hardstyle or GS.

I have found that the hardstyle technique would be most effective and safe for the majority of people, outside of those who wish to compete in kettlebell sport.

In yet another picture in the study, it was demonstrated that during the clean and the snatch there is significant hip and knee flexion when the kettlebell is received to the catch position.

It appears as though the kettlebell techniques used in the study were trying to mimic the Olympic lifts in which the clean and the snatch are received in a full squat position.

There are many problems with this.

The first issue is that this is not a technique that is commonly used, as I’ve mentioned.

As a matter of fact, I have never seen this until reviewing this study.

Secondly, I honestly don’t understand the rationale for why this would be done because a kettlebell is much easier to manipulate for a clean and a snatch.

A kettlebell clean and snatch does not require pulling the body underneath the kettlebell to receive the implement and “absorb” the load in deep hip and knee flexion. This changes the mechanics and techniques of the exercises.

*As a serious weightlifter and weightlifting coach myself, I must point out that a kettlebell clean and snatch are completely – and entirely – different from a barbell clean and snatch. Nearly everything from the set-up to the receiving positions are distinctly different.

In summary, the techniques that were demonstrated are far deviations from any techniques that can be considered a standard.

POINT #2-KETTLEBELL INSTRUCTION QUESTIONS?

The kettlebell instruction in this study was provided by a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) who does not appear to be a certified kettlebell instructor.

I am a certified strength and conditioning specialist (CSCS) myself, but that credential alone does not say that I have the proper knowledge of kettlebell instruction to safely and effectively teach kettlebell training.

In my experience and observations, it is highly advisable for anyone who teaches kettlebells to take at least one “live” workshop, seminar, or certification to properly understand and apply the safe and effective applications of kettlebell training.

I have the utmost regard and respect for the CSCS credential, but to my knowledge, it is not a credential that satisfies the proper applications of teaching kettlebell training.

I am aware that the Chief SFG instructor, Brett Jones, is doing more work and education with the NSCA to raise awareness about the proper training for kettlebell instructors.

Personally, I am honored to have acquired knowledge as a certified kettlebell instructor through StrongFirst and have prepared, trained for, and passed multiple kettlebell certifications that required stringent standards of strength, movement, and the understanding to teach to others.

In this study, “proper” lifting technique’s were taught by the CSCS, who was noted to be an “experienced” kettlebell instructor.

But, what type of experience did the instructor have?

Does experienced mean certified?

What was the style that was being taught in this study (as mentioned, I can’t answer the question)?

Has the CSCS been through a certification process at any point in their career – and if so, it should be noted.

Why is any of this important?

Let me tell you, this is critically important to understand.

First, it’s important so the subjects in the study receive the requisite instruction.

It’s also important to understand the style and the techniques that are being used so that we can compare and connect the dots.

Again, as a certified instructor, I have not seen any of these techniques used (when and why would we do a snatch or clean “catch” in deep hip and knee flexion – this is not Olympic weightlifting technique).

Not having the proper technique and not having kettlebell exercises “standardized” doesn’t serve the outcomes of the study – it doesn’t truly answer the questions about muscle activation patterns with the 3 exercises.

Getting back to the proper instruction in research, here are some good examples in previous studies.

In the study below, it was noted that techniques were instructed by a certified kettlebell instructor. This is an important notation.

In another study, it was noted that all swings were performed with technique described by Tsatsouline.

Mechanical Demands Of Kettlebell Swing ExerciseJCSR, Vol 26, No 12, Dec 2012

In this study, the subjects had to demonstrate safe and efficient technique when performing the kettlebell snatch, as assessed by a Russian Kettlebell Certified Instructor.

One more example is this study where all sessions were led by a certified kettlebell instructor and the instructor had to approve the participants’ technique before they were allowed to perform the experimental test.

We must have standards of proper instruction in research.

Having certified kettlebell instructors provides confidence in knowing that the subjects received sufficient, consistent, and standardized training for research.

Standards assist in validating the studies, otherwise we’re comparing apples to oranges. We’re not getting the answers we need to apply to practice.

In future studies, consistency of techniques and styles should be noted.

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POINT #3-WHAT CONCLUSIONS CAN WE MAKE REGARDING EMG?

Because the techniques appear to be far from standard (or common practice) it is very hard to draw any conclusions from this study about EMG (muscle activation).

It would be a stretch to say that “3 common kettlebell exercises elicit these muscle activation patterns” because the techniques in this study are not common practice.

With that said, what can we really take away from this about the EMG results?

As studies often say, “future research is warranted.

POINT #4-THE LACK OF KETTLEBELL EXPERIENCE BY THE SUBJECTS

This point appears to be a consistent finding with many studies, where studies are using kettlebell-naive users.

What we’re seeing in the majority of studies are subjects that are new to kettlebells.

The problem is that it does take time and the proper coaching to learn how to use a kettlebell effectively.

The findings of a study like this are likely going to be vastly different from experienced kettlebell users, who have learned how to properly activate their neuromuscular systems during training sessions with these exercises (swing, clean, and snatch).

EMG patterns are likely to be very different between someone who has just learned how to use kettlebells compared to someone who has significant experience with swings, snatches, and cleans because there is a difference in motor skill acquisition between the 2 groups.

In other words, muscle firing is going to be quite different between a novice kettlebell user and an intermediate or advanced.

Would it not seem more logical to use experienced kettlebell lifters to accurately assess what should be a standard muscular activation pattern?

With only a few training sessions under their belt (as the case with this study), a new kettlebell lifter has not established any proper neuromuscular coordination and muscular activation patterns.

So, why would we assess them?

That would like assessing powerlifters for muscle activation patterns who have just started lifting and concluding that “powerlifters demonstrate certain EMG muscle activation patterns during the squat and deadlift.”

We continue to assess the novice and inexperienced.

I’m wondering if we’ll ever see a study with experienced kettlebell users.

POINT #5-WHAT ABOUT THE LOADS? 

Let’s talk about the kettlebell weights that were used in this study.

Using “light” kettlebells is also a consistent feature that we see in the majority of kettlebell science to this point.

Most studies have reported using a 16 kg kettlebell with the male subjects (which is considered by most to be on the light side of the load spectrum).

It was reported that the loads in the study ranged from 4.5 to 32 kg for strength and technique assessment where reps were done in the 8-10 range.

For the actual “experimental session,” in which the EMG was recorded, the kettlebell loads were:

  • 23.28 (+ or – 4.21) kg for the swing
  • 21.68 (+ or – 5.21) kg for the clean
  • 18.43 (+ or – 4.31) kg for the snatch

Let’s call this a 24 kg swing, a 20-24 kg clean, and a 16-20 kg snatch for the most part.

Reasonable loads that could be considered sufficient, although subjects performed only 5 reps of each exercise for the experimental session.

Looking at loads in kettlebell studies is a very important variable for the reason that the majority of data to this point have used kettlebell loads that can be considered “light” for the average male.

The question is what can we learn from using light loads?

This is not to suggest that we need to use maximum loads, but reasonable and sufficient loading is important for study outcomes.

This goes back to the previous point about using kettlebell naive users.

POINT #6-OBVIOUS CONCLUSIONS

One of the conclusions of the study was that kettlebells “may be an effective and alternative method for conditioning the whole body.

I can confidently say, as an experienced kettlebell user and properly trained instructor, that there is no doubt that kettlebells are an effective method for conditioning the entire body.

I am quite sure that anyone that has experienced kettlebells does not need a research study to validate this conclusion. In respect, this point does seems almost laughable.

Another conclusion of the study was the statement that coaches and practitioners should consider substituting performance movements with kettlebell exercises such as the swing, the snatch, and clean.

I agree that kettlebell exercises could strongly be considered for coaches and practitioners as a way to enhance performance, but not at the expense of being deficient in the proper education to teach these methods correctly.

You can label this a “call to action” for coaches and trainers – to get at least a minimum baseline of proper kettlebell training before teaching this tool to others.

This is clearly a “gap” in the industry and something that needs to be addressed.

In fact, one of the biggest points about the study was the critical necessity of proper training for coaches and trainers to teach these exercises the right way. This study made that point glaringly obvious.

The study seemed to lack the proper application of kettlebells to make any valuable observations in terms of muscle activation patterns between the swing, the clean, and the snatch.

It appears that there is still no standard technique that is implemented in kettlebell training research or kettlebell training, in general, for that matter.

That’s a shame when the choice seems apparent.

TAKEAWAYS & CONSIDERATIONS:

1-Kettlebells are proven and highly effective training modalities, when used properly. With proper technique, safety and training effectiveness are maximized.

2-When evaluating the effectiveness and measures related to kettlebell training, we must establish standards of consistency. We should understand different styles and teaching methods, such as hardstyle or girevoy sport, and compare them appropriately. In research, it’s imperative to cite the style or method used to make conclusions or assumptions.

3-Proper technique with kettlebells requires that coaches, trainers, and instructors must be properly trained to use the modality (ideally they are certified and/or have experienced “live” workshops or certifications at some point in their career). Much like Olympic weightlifting, kettlebells demand that a coach has sufficient knowledge, training, and experience in teaching the exercises to prevent injury and maximize effectiveness.

Every study has it’s flaws, that’s a given.

This study can serve as a framework to improve upon in the future of kettlebell training research.

It is with much appreciation and gratitude to the authors for their contributions to the literature in kettlebell science.

Scott Iardella, MPT, CSCS, SFG-TL is a strength coach, athlete, and former “physio” who’s mission is to bridge the gaps in strength, performance and injury preventionLearn how to train at a high level of strength and performance while minimizing (or negating) risk for injury to achieve an unsurpassed level of results. You’ll find free training resources and giveaways at RdellaTraining.com/join.
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4 Comments
  • Steve Freides
    Posted at 14:04h, 30 August Reply

    Scott, excellent – thank you for bringing a much needed, real world perspective to the subject of exercise studies.

    -S-

    • Scott
      Posted at 01:20h, 31 August Reply

      Thank you Steve!

  • Seonghyeon Kim
    Posted at 04:36h, 31 August Reply

    I am sorry I don’t have access to the original text of the research. Seeing rediculous teachings of kettlebells in fitness centers is quite common these days due to the popularity of kettlebells, but I’ve never thought the same thing is serious research. If only someone let me read the original!

  • Korey
    Posted at 23:41h, 30 September Reply

    This is a tremendous article. Thank you Scott!

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