By Dr. Joshua Roose, DO, CPT
Kettlebells are a newcomer to the American fitness scene, even though they have been used for centuries in parts of Europe. Kettlebells started becoming mainstream in the United States in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and since then they have become a popular modality for training everyone from beginners to professional athletes. The reason for their widespread popularity can be attributed to their versatility, utility in functional movements, inherent instability, and relative safety.
The versatility of kettlebells allows them to be integrated into movements that are suitable for just about every skill level. For example, a sumo squat is a simple movement that aligns the kettlebell with the body’s center of mass and is a good starting place for beginners. However, kettlebells can be used in increasingly challenging movements, such as the kettlebell swing, the kettlebell snatch, and the Turkish get-up.
Functional movements like kettlebell swings require a constant interplay of ballistic movement, eccentric loading, and a shifting center of mass. Crossover improvements to athletic performance are achieved through engagement of fast-twitch fibers, engagement of posterior chain muscles, and neuromuscular coordination developed in response to constant balancing and counterbalancing. Contrast the dynamism of these movements with weight machines, which tend to stabilize and isolate muscle groups.
If you have worked with kettlebells before, you know they tend to be tippy. Unlike dumbbells and barbells, kettlebells have a center of mass that lies outside of their handle. This instability is probably best demonstrated in a kettlebell military press when the kettlebell is held upside-down. This movement requires the constant engagement of stabilizing muscles, and it creates a much more challenging exercise than using dumbbells at the same weight.
The safety of kettlebells is due to their ability to challenge the body in natural movement patterns, while avoiding the risks of unnecessary weight. For example, goblet squats displace the body’s center of mass anteriorly and activate posterior chain muscles without the extreme loads associated with traditional barbell squats. Another example of safety in kettlebell exercises is the unilateral kettlebell swing. For example, if someone is rehabilitating from a shoulder injury, it is best to allow each shoulder to move independently. Barbells and weight machines lock the body into specific movement patterns and can compromise recovering tissues, whereas unilateral kettlebell swings allow each shoulder to follow its own path.
If you have not tried kettlebell workouts yet, talk to your athletic trainer about incorporating this modality into your workout regimen. Some trainers even have special certifications in kettlebell training, so this is something you can ask about as well. If you are not sure where to start, you can always reach out to the athletic trainers at Loehr Health Center. They have extensive experience with both beginners and professional athletes, and they will work with you to create a plan that is safe, fits your skill level, and maximizes the results of your fitness journey.