By now, most Americans who workout have at least heard about kettlebells. Seemingly not much more than a metal ball with a U-shaped handle, what makes kettlebell lifting so drastically different from traditional weight training?
I recently came across an article by some exercise physiologist minimizing the positive effects of kettlebell lifting, and you might be somewhat surprised because I completely agreed with him. But he wasn't actually talking about kettlebells. Let me explain...
What offends the intelligence of the scientific community is the notion of magic in this handled ball. There is no magic in the kettlebell, but rather in how it's lifted. Built for comfort so as to maximize discomfort, the shape and design of the bell are also not an accident. Discomfort eventually arrives, but later in the set in the form of full body muscle fatigue and pure conditioning versus localized hand and arm pain.
The National Sport of Russia
Kettlebell lifting as the national sport of Russia has been for over 50 years. Russian athletes and coaches have modified the exact shape of the kettlebell to enable the lifter to hold on for extended periods of time (ten minutes and more). Try hanging on to a heavy barbell or dumbbell for ten minutes and you'll see what I mean. More than likely, it will be discomfort in the hands and arms that force you to drop the bell, not general muscle or cardio fatigue. Non-pro grade bells with have the same effect.
Once the set ends, conditioning stops - end of story. If you put the weight down to switch hands or rest, you won't reap the continuous under-the-load benefits kettlelbells are designed to deliver. If you pick up a kettlebell and do five or ten reps, you're not kettlebell training in the true sense of the word. Kettlebell Lifting, as defined by kettlebell sport, are timed, high rep, extended sets where the bell never hits the floor. That's the magic of kettlebells.
Kettlebell training can take Americans to an untapped arena in fitness. Whereas bodybuilders and powerlifters set the weight down in a minute or two, kettlebell lifters power there way through 6, 8, and 10 intense minutes. Most of us are unfamiliar with the effect this can have on the body, and how quick to acclimate the body is to these explosive high rep sets.
To further inform our friendly neighborhood exercise physiologist, the lifts themselves, as well as the approach to each lift, is probably nothing he's ever heard of. Excess tension is removed from the body, and the emphasis is on explosive timing and the contract-relax principle, finding rest in between powerful movements. Breathing, pacing, discipline are a major factor in each set. Quality technique that must be learned over time is required, but progress starts while you're learning.
So while picking up a ball with a handle and doing five or ten reps of a typical weight training movement (IE: overhead presses) is no better than barbell or dumbbell training, kettlebell lifting, but the nature of it's extended, high rep sets is very different, having a profound effect on the body's work capacity, muscle tone, and fat stores.
Pro Grade Kettlebells
Professional grade kettlebells are the only kettlebells that permit this process to realize it's full potential. Everything else is metal ball with a handle that's not conducive to high rep sets, and that's the philosophy of kettlebells that our exercise physiologist missed.