13 Oct Should Kettlebells Be Used in Strength and Conditioning? (A Response Article)

KettlebellShould kettlebells be used in strength and conditioning?

This is the title of a new “point/counterpoint” article (PRO/CON) in the latest issue of The Strength & Conditioning Journal, Volume 35, No. 9, October 2013.

Yes, the question seems a bit obvious to answer, especially for those of us that have experience with kettlebells.

I want to say that I absolutely have the highest respect for The Strength and Conditioning Journal and always get tremendous value from it.

I am also a proud member of the NSCA as a CSCS and think the organization does a wonderful job bringing cutting edge research to the forefront in the area of strength and conditioning.

Before I get into the specifics about this article, I often hear people say the kettlebell is just a tool.

I’ve even said this myself and it is just a tool.

But, it’s a VERY, VERY POWERFUL tool when used properly.

So, let me explain the discussion points in this article.

POINT:  “PRO” KETTLEBELL by Dr. Bill Campbell, PhD, CSCS, FISSN

The 1st point is made by Dr. Bill Campbell, who I happen to have met personally about a year ago at a Sports Nutrition conference.

At that time, Dr. Campbell was putting together a talk he was going to present at the NSCA (National Strength and Conditioning Association) annual conference.

The talk was essentially a review of the current data in kettlebell training.

He reported that there were approximately 12 published, peer reviewed studies to date, in the topic of kettlebells.

I’ve read most of these studies and I can tell you there is still work to be done and many questions to be answered, however, it is nice to see that data is building in this area.

You have to remember, one study alone is not conclusive, but each study builds on another and becomes an important piece of the puzzle.

There are always study flaws and more questions to be answered, that’s just the nature of research.

Dr. Campbell cited some of the key kettlebell studies, such as the Manocchia study (February, 2013, JSCR) in which 10 weeks of progressive kettlebell training significantly improved the barbell bench press and barbell clean and jerk (a power lift and and Olympic lift).

There were some surprising findings in this study and to read my previous write up on this trial, check out The Latest Research in Kettlebell Training.

This was a decent study that I was actually excited about for one simple reason.

Unlike previous studies that only used a 16kg kettlebell as the load, the Manocchia study assigned weight that was initially based on RPE (rating of perceived exertion) and was progressed in each phase of the training program.

The biggest flaw in most of the ketttlebell studies is using a small weight (a 16 kg kettlebell) which is hardly a reasonable weight for males to assess strength and performance.

However, even with a “lighter” load, most of the data on using kettlebells is still positive, despite this major oversight in study design.

For example, in the Lake study (August 2012, JCSR), 6 weeks of kettlebell swing training with a 12 kg or 16 kg kettlebell was found to improve maximal strength and explosive strength, as demonstrated with squats and the vertical jump, respectively.

In addition to using kettlebells to benefit performance, Dr. Campbell also points out data that shows how kettlebells can be used in rehab programming to improve measures of LBP (low back pain) and other musculoskeletal pain symptoms, when used properly.

This was demonstrated in the Jay study.

Dr. Campbell makes other points to support that kettlebells clearly have a role in the strength and conditioning program to improve movement and training skills, offer a wider application of accessibility for strength coaches, and offer a safe and effective way to train athletes.

At the time I met Dr. Campbell, I do not believe he had ever trained with kettlebells himself, however, he certainly did his homework with a thorough literature review and solid understanding of the training applications that kettlebells offer.

COUNTERPOINT:  “CON” KETTLEBELL by William Otto, MS, CSCS, USAW

Now, here’s where it gets interesting.

This point is being made by Mr. Otto, who is the lead author on one of the published trials in kettlebell training.

In the Otto study (May 2012, JCSR), the author looked at a direct comparison of strength gains with kettlebell training compared to traditional barbell training (high pulls, power cleans, and the barbell back squat).

Do you want to take a guess at what weight was used in the study for kettlebell swings and goblet squats?

If you guessed a 16kg kettlebell, you’d be right on.

However, the barbell training group was using a load that was based on 80% 1 RM (rep max).

Already, we’re not comparing apples to apples here, as the 16 kg was the standard, yet the barbell training group was based on 80% 1 RM.

Would you expect there to be a greater difference in strength gains with the barbell group, based on this alone?

I sure would.

Again, if we are going to look at strength gains, let’s assess what is the appropriate sized kettlebell for the individuals in these trials, especially if we are going to make comparisons to other training methods that have determined appropriate weight selections (as in the case of using a percentage of 1 RM).

Mr. Otto asks the question of whether kettlebells would improve strength and power in previously trained individuals.

Now, I have no idea whether Mr. Otto has ever trained appropriately with kettlebells or not.

I hope that he has so that he has a better understanding of how “effective” the tool is (more on this in a minute).

I can speak for myself and I would probably say that I can also speak for some others that have been heavily involved in kettlebell training when I say the tool significantly improves strength and power in trained individuals.

Personally, I have never achieved such a level of strength and been able to physically perform at a high level as I do today after decades of training experience.

The concern, as reported by Mr. Otto, is that as strength increases, so does the size of the kettlebell and this could change the positioning or technique, which is not the case with a barbell.

This is not a concern at all, in my opinion, and here’s why.

First, I’m not sure what exercises my technique would change with.

After the exhaustive and extensive hours of practice, workshops, seminars, and certifications I’ve gone through, the technique is the the technique, no matter what size kettlebell I’m using.

Let’s take 2 specific examples of using a much larger sized kettlebell.

Recently, I just got a very large kettlebell to use for swings.

My swing technique is the same, regardless of the kettlebell size I use.

The technique is the technique.

What about the military press, as another example.

While the load is larger and the bell size is bigger on my forearm, the mechanics of the press are the same.

Nothing changes there.

I have never found there to be any compromise in technique as the bell size increases, but maybe that’s just me.

I could keep naming exercises, but think I’ve made the point here.

The second point about this is that Mr. Otto is actually incorrect in saying that the increased bell size can compromise technique.

This is because, if this is truly a concern with a coach or trainer, there is always the option to use competition style kettlebells, in which the size and shape is exactly the same with all kettlebells, regardless of weight.

It appears that this “major concern” was somehow overlooked, which is quite surprising.

Again, my own experience is that this is not a concern whatsoever.

He also pointed out there is a difference between “effective” and “optimal” training.

And, he seemed to agree that the tool is “effective” and is better than doing nothing at all, but doesn’t see it as being “optimal.”

His point seems to be that the kettlebell is just a tool, no different from anything else, and are certainly not a substitute for heavy barbell training.

If we want “optimal” strength, there is no better tool than the barbell for maximal strength, simply due to the fact that we can load the bar with maximum loads.

I agree that the barbell is the king of strength.

However, we can and do get insanely strong by training properly with kettlebells.

By training properly, I mean implementing the right programs, using progressive loads, and incorporating safe, effective techniques for the goals we want.

And, just look at the kettlebell half bodyweight press as a great example of maximal strength with kettlebells.

Mr. Otto reports there is “no guarantee” we can improve strength or power by using kettlebells, especially if users are “previously trained.”

This final statement leads me to believe the author probably has not actively participated himself in “proper” kettlebell training or at least the methods and techniques I have learned and performed.

I can only speculate on that.

But, I can only speak to my own extensive experience in strength and conditioning, both as an active participant and passionate, educated professional.

Trained or not, should kettlebells be used in strength and conditioning?

I think the answer is painfully obvious, especially for those that have learned how to use the tool safely and effectively.

Yes, it is just a tool and I will never say that kettlebells are the only thing we should do (they aren’t).

But, the tool is extremely powerful and offers an “effective” training program and “optimal” results, depending on what results the user is looking for, it just depends.

I hope this information has shed some perspective on the use of kettlebells, especially in light of this recent published article in The Strength & Conditioning Journal, which I have great respect for.

If this was helpful, please share it.

Have an opinion on this?  Post it below.

2 Comments
  • Omar
    Posted at 13:16h, 22 October Reply

    I think you pretty much covered the strength side of the argument for kettlebells. And, like you said, there is no better tool than the barbell for maximal strength.

    The conditioning and power side is where kettlebells start to outshine barbells for me. Kettlebell high rep, ballistic movements with progressively heavier weights can really crank up the conditioning. The barbell equivalent of that would be training with the Olympic lifts (cleans, barbell snatches, power cleans/snatches, etc.)

    The thing about the Olympic lifts is that they require a good deal of skill. A good deal of practice and drilling down form to get that skill. As the weights get heavier you can get yourself if trouble if you don’t know what you’re doing.

    On the other hand kettlebells…
    1. Have a shorter learning curve. Of course there’s a learning curve to getting your form down pat, but it’s not as steep as the learning curve for Olympic barbell lifts.
    2. Are cheaper to buy and train at home with rather than buy barbells plates or go to the gym
    3. Are safer. I’d rather get under “the beast” (really heavy kb) than attempt a heavy barbell snatch that I might have to bail out of.

    Don’t get me wrong. I like the Olympic lifts and someday want to train them. But I don’t see myself relying on them for my conditioning. I’ll always use kettlebells for that.

    • Scott
      Posted at 19:45h, 22 October Reply

      Thanks for the comments Omar, you make good points.
      I definitely think the O-lifts require a high level of skill.
      The barbell and the kettlebell both are excellent tools and can pretty much give us everything we want.
      The key is to learn proper technique and dial in the right programming.
      Both tools, in my opinion, definitely require time, practice, patience, and great coaching for maximal benefit.

      Good stuff Omar and thanks again!
      Scott

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