Kettlebells just exploded on to the bodybuilding and fitness scene in the United States.
Like every shiny new toy, people got infatuated with it, swapping dumbbells and the trusted bar for the handled-canon ball.
Look around in the gym and you’ll find at least one kettlebell fanatic swinging the ball with all their might as if they’re catapulting it halfway across the world.
Our problem with the kettlebell is that in the last couple of years, it has become representative of all things good in fitness. That’s generally a red flag for us and one that warrants some digging.
So dig we did into all things kettlebell. Finally, we have some answers for you.
If you have wondered whether these odd-shaped goblets with handles are as effective as they are cracked up to be, then stay with us.
Who Discovered the Kettlebell?
We don’t know. Neither do expert historians. If you thought that Pavel Tsatsouline was the father of the Kettlebell (we don’t blame you), then you are mistaken.
Kettlebells have been around in different shapes and sizes since the fifth century B.C. There are references of the Shaolin Monks using a stone-padlock to exercise.
In Russia, the ‘Giro’ became a symbol of strength. It was originally used as a counterweight. There are photographic evidence of the kettlebell or some version of it being used by strongmen in the 19th century too.
So, the kettlebell’s always been around predominantly used for strength training.
How Effective Are They?
That’s a broad question. Effective at what exactly? Kettlebell proponents argue that it offers some distinct advantages over conventional weights. For the sake of comparison, let’s say a dumbbell.
In a dumbbell, the weight is distributed evenly on both sides of the handle. You can only lift it with one hand.
In a kettlebell, the weight sits under the handle and the distribution of weight when you move the kettlebell is not even. This engages your stabilizer muscles a lot more. Rather than just moving the weight to activate a primary muscle, you are recruiting your stabilizers and trying to stay balanced.
The muscle recruitment constantly changes through the entire range of motion. Does this mean that the kettlebell is superior to the dumbbell? Not really.
Let’s look at some of the common fitness goals that people use these tools for.
Kettlebell vs. Dumbbell for Strength
Kettlebell training has been used for ages by strongmen and women, which is an indicator that it is effective for strength gains. That said, the fundamental rules of bodybuilding are this.
- The heavier you lift, the stronger you become.
To lift heavy weight, you need stability which the dumbbell and the barbell offer. The weight is evenly distributed. You can constantly add weight without struggling to stay on your feet. This gives conventional weights the edge over kettlebells.
That said, you can very well use the kettlebell’s challenging center of gravity to your advantage. Focus on your lifts with conventional weights. But throw in some kettlebell moves to mix things up.
Kettlebell vs. Dumbbell for Power
Kettlebells hold the edge here. Their very construction makes them ideal for explosive and dynamic movements. Be it the squat, the curl or the tried and tested swing, the Kettlebell allows an athlete to perform high-intensity compound exercises without limiting their range of motion, kettlebells can even be better for exercises that are normally done with dumbbells, dumbbell pullovers can easily be done with kettlebells.
Moreover, you can put in more work in less time. Something that’s critical when you are trying to build power. It’s not that the dumbbell is not effective. It’s slightly less effective as compared to the kettlebell.
Kettlebell vs. Dumbbell for Hypertrophy
Dumbbells and barbells are your best bet if you seek muscle growth. The reasons are the same. You get stability, balance, grip, and unilateral development. You can add weights easily and ensure that you engage only the intended muscles through the full range of motion.
That’s what makes them so effective at hypertrophy. The Kettlebell with its odd shape and handle makes for an awkward choice for someone who’s lifting purely for growth.
Kettlebell vs. Dumbbell for Weight loss
Most experts opine that it’s even-Stevens here. But we think that Kettlebells offer a slight advantage over dumbbells. Most of the kettlebell moves require explosive bouts of strength and energy. Try performing 20 Cleans with a heavy kettlebell and you’ll know exactly what we mean. Or the Turkish Get-Up, if you fancy something creative. You don’t need to switch hands either since you can grab them with both hands.
A sponsored study by the American council of exercise reveals that you can burn 100 calories in 5-minutes with sufficiently-heavy kettlebell swings. Picture performing those for 30 minutes.
Technically, you can perform high intensity moves that rev your heart rate up, even with the dumbbell. But swinging a dumbbell or performing a snatch with one, isn’t generally the way most people would use it, people normally picture themselves doing floor presses and underhand rows with dumbbells not snatches and swings.
Summary – Kettlebells vs. Dumbbells
We think that both these equipment have their own place in fitness. Kettlebells are superior in some aspects of training, while the dumbbell is the infallible choice for others. For best results? Use both.
How Do They Compare with Barbell Workouts?
Barbells are used for some of the most fundamental lifts in bodybuilding. There are tons and tons of clinical studies that show the effectiveness of the barbell for both, strength and hypertrophy.
Be it the squat (multiple variations), the deadlift, the overhead press, the snatch, the power clean, or the clean, there’s no denying that the barbell is the king of bodybuilding equipment.
But if you keep your personal bias aside for a minute, you’ll notice that you can perform all of these moves with the kettlebell too. True, there’d be some caveats. For some people, these might be deal breakers.
We don’t deny that. But personal quibbles aside, the kettlebell offers a worthwhile alternative to the barbell that might in fact, be gentler on your joints.
Barbell – Pros
- Tons of variations
- Easy and customizable weight increments
- Science backed with tons of research
- Excellent for full body compound training
- Stability, which is critical under heavy load
Barbell – Cons
- Comes with a learning curve
- Form can be tricky to master
- Can be tough on your joints
Kettlebell – Pros
- Tons of variations as well
- Great cardiovascular workout
- Can perform most compound lifts with even one kettlebell
- Some lifts like the OHP can be performed easier with the kettlebell
- Perfect for high speed, dynamic lifts
Kettlebell – Cons
- Generally comes in 9 lbs. increments only which makes it tricky to increase load
- It’s easy to go wayward with form.
- Not as inexpensive or ubiquitous as the barbell is, even in fitness clubs
If you have clocked a few miles on the clock and have joint issues with barbell exercises, the kettlebell can be a safer and equally challenging alternative. That said, if you are looking to stick to fundamentals and improve your form with Olympic lifting, there’s no better choice than the barbell.
The Top 3 Kettlebell Exercises
Here’s a look at the top 3 Kettlebell moves that are guaranteed to challenge even a seasoned bodybuilder with years of lifting experience under the belt.
#1 - The Kettlebell Swing
The Kettlebell Swing is for Kettlebells what the Squat is for Barbells. It’s the de-facto exercise that you will preempt when you get your hands on a kettlebell. Trust us when we tell you this. It’s an absolute monster.
What is it good for
Everything! It’s a full-body compound move that recruits everything from your shoulders to your calves. Tweak the weight and speed depending on your goals. You can use it for cardio, strength and growth.
How to perform it
Here’s a video that shows you how to perform the Kettlebell swing
Step by step instructions
- Stand shoulder width apart with the kettlebell placed on the floor in front of you
- Bend your knees slightly and hinge at your hips keeping a neutral spine to grab the handle with both hands
- Pull it backwards between the legs. This will create the momentum you need to execute the swing.
- Power the swing using your hips and not your hands
- Maintain a straight back until the kettlebell reaches your shoulders
- Let it swing back to the farthest position between your legs.
- That’s one rep. Repeat the number of reps to complete the workout
#2 – The Turkish Get-Up
This is another monster move that will have you weeping. You essentially lie down on the ground holding a kettlebell up with straight arms. Then you slowly get up maintaining the kettlebell in that position.
What is it good for
It’s an eye opener for anyone with an inflated self-image about their fitness and strength. Do ten reps of these without losing form and you’ll start to respect the kettlebell a lot more.
How to perform it
Here’s a video that shows you how to perform the Turkish Get-Up
Step by step instructions
- Lie on a flat surface in the fetal position with a kettlebell next to you.
- Grip it with an underhand grip if you are using one hand for the lift. You can switch to an overhand grip if you are going to use both hands.
- Switch to a starfish position. One knee will be bent at approximately 70-degrees with the feet flat on the floor. The other leg should be extended away from the body at about 45-degrees.
- Here’s the fun part. Push the kettlebell up with a straight arm at eye level.
- Depending on which arm you are using to lift the weight, use the other arm to slowly push yourself to a seated position. The extended arm and the weight remain where they are.
- Use your hips to propel yourself up, bending one knee to a kneeling position under your hips. The knee will be placed on the ground.
- Pivot the other foot backwards to step back into a lunge.
- Now stand up on both feet. That’s one rep.
- All through the exercise, you maintain a straight arm and a neutral spine.
- Do 10 reps and you should be done for the day.
#3 –Single Arm Kettlebell Snatch
A Single arm snatch is called the ‘Mother of All Kettlebell’ moves. This is another compound move that engages most muscle groups in your body.
What is it good for
It works for strength, for growth and conditioning. It’s a great cardiovascular exercise too.
How to perform it
Here’s a video that shows you how to perform the Single Arm Kettlebell Snatch
Step by step instructions
- Stand with your feet slightly wider than the shoulders
- Place the kettlebell in front of you
- Hinge at the waist, bending your knees slightly to grab the kettlebell with an overhand grip
- Swing it back between the legs to generate momentum
- Now drive your hips forward to swing the kettlebell up
- Unlike the kettlebell swing where you swing it all the way to the shoulders and back, you keep pushing further
- When the kettlebell is at shoulder level, you will rotate your hands to push it above your head
- Pause for a second and swing it down between the legs again
We now answer a few more common questions.
Q. Are Kettlebells Beginner Friendly?
A. They sure are. But it’s recommended that you start with a very low weight to get used to the off center of gravity and the changing muscle recruitment through the range of motion.
Q. Are There Any Disadvantages to The Kettlebell?
A. For one, they are more expensive than dumbbells, there are a lot of cheap dumbbell options on the market that will mostly get the job done. Secondly, there’s a learning curve. You have to master the form before you attempt swinging a heavy kettlebell. It takes time and practice. That’s not necessarily a disadvantage. But it’s one of the factors that limits a lot of athletes from trying the kettlebell out.
Q. How Long Should a Kettlebell Workout Be?
A. That’s goal specific, depends on if you want more strength, toned muscles, stamina, endurance but kettlebells workouts are generally performed at high intensity and require an explosive bout of strength. So, it tends to last from 30-45 minutes at best. However, you can increase the duration by reducing the amount of weight you are lifting and focusing on speed instead. There are numerous ways to tweak this to your advantage.
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