Kettlebell training has luckily been rediscovered and is slowly finding its way into mainstream strength and conditioning programmes worldwide. As a proponent of simple and effective training and health related solutions, and someone who has always looked at efficiency and versatility as a prerequisite for a good fitness tool or programme, kettlebells are outstanding. Over the next while, I´ll be posting more about these great balls of joy, and how they can be integrated into my wider philosophies about training and health. This, more of an appetizer, like sneaking into the oven and cutting that juicy piece of fat off the roast, before its quite ready.
In this post I´ll trace the history and uniqueness of these old tools as they moved from being used for feats of strength and novelty purposes through to their increased presence in the mixed martial arts scene and today in the mainstream fitness world today. Hopefully, as people become more aware of how kettlebells can be utilized in so many ways, and produce amazing results for anyone, regardless of what specific health related goals you may have, then old school cool will be here to stay. Health and nutrition secrets you´ll remember come from our past, not from those phony folk seeking commercial gain from pseudo-science, as we see today.
Various different opinions exist regarding the origin of kettlebells, even some who say the Celts made them from stone, but they were commonplace in Eastern Europe in the 1800s where strongman shows were often held during circus performances. Feats of strength were particularly admired in the old Soviet Union, and as such, kettlebells were not used for competitive or conditioning purposes, more so for entertainment. Some interesting photos and reading from the good old days here. I like the way Russians admired, and still do today, pure and simple strength.
Strongman shows continued into the 20th Century, and kettlebells were still seen as purely tools for feats of strength and endurance, with little or no formal rules or competitions attached until the 1980s. Olympic weightlifting took centre stage post-WWII in Eastern Europe and the USA, with all its formality and prestige. Not until 1985 did official rules and regulations become formalized and the first USSR Championships take place.
Girevoy is the name that we associate today with kettlebell sport, or simply GS. Here, athletes compete in weight classes to perform the highest number or repetitions in 10 minutes in the single snatch and jerk, with 2 kettlebells. Weights used are 24kg (or 1.5 units referred to as a pood) or 32kg (2 poods). Women compete with one 24kg bell in both snatch and jerk. Whilst the best lifters still come from the former Eastern block countries, GS has become increasingly popular in the USA and now in Western Europe. The overall athletic qualities required to compete at the highest levels and achieve the highest rankings in GS, place these gireviks among the most elite sportspeople on earth, closely behind in my opinion, MMA fighters (I intend posting later about the training styles and nutritional requirements needed to achieve elite level performance).
Kettlebells take many different guises, but for our purposes, I´ll talk about ProGrade bells which are used by top competitors and have the advantage of being a uniform shape and design, regardless of size. These are far superior to some of the cheaper so-called fitness bells that are anatomically unsuited to the body and handgrip and make for harder transition to heavier bells. A good explanation of the differences by IKFF mentor Steve Cotter is found here. ProGrade bells are not easy to come by and are costly, but should you see them in a gym, you can be sure they take kettlebell training seriously. Learning the basics of course can be achieved with fitness bells, but you´ll soon see the need to work with the best bells if you wish to take your fitness to the next level.
Kettlebells have one mass of weight centred under the handle, as opposed to an even distribution of two weight masses with dumbells. This makes ballistic clean, snatch and swing exercises much more effective, and full-body orientated. The ability to control and offset the load of kettlebells utilizing different areas of the body makes certain exercises easier and more efficient, than with traditional bar and dumbells. Just to note that I do not advocate kettlebells being superior to the aforementioned, as they have each their role in physical training, it´s just that certain mobility hindrances can be overcome using kettlebells due to their unique shape and range of motion.
That said, kettlebells recreate, with proper technique and use, the everyday movements the human body has been designed to use. Swinging, jerking, pressing, pulling and twisting one or two kettlebells from a standing, seated or lying position allows us to access a full range of motion, integrating your whole body across the three anatomical planes, as opposed to machine weights which dictate your range of motion and anatomical position. In other words, using kettlebells forces you to control the weight throughout the full motion, in a synergistic manner, until you set the bell down. Machines only allow you to dictate a small range of motion, which is counter productive to the integrated physiological and kinetic nature of the human body. What does body synergy and anatomical positioning mean?.
The three planes of the human body in the anatomical position are the sagittal, transverse or axial, and coronal planes. Movement through these planes promote forces that team up and both stabilize and support the body during movement, whilst at the same time generate the power to move the kettlebell(s) through a chosen path of motion. Typical structural exercises such as the clean, the swing and the snatch are extremely valuable for stimulating and strengthening the most important musculature components of the body. It is the coordination that is required to correctly execute kettlebell exercises that are directly transferrable to the way we move in real life situations. We sit, we run, we crawl (yes, this is another seemingly forgotten movement that we should return to), we lift, we turn, we bend etc.
All these movements require acceleration and deceleration from various parts of the body, which is part of ALL natural movement. Is it not strange that we are told to lock ourselves into a machine and pattern a movement that it has been engineered to provide?!. Weight machine type training may suit those into something weird and unnatural like bodybuilding who are not interested in learning how to be mobile, flexible, coordinated and agile enough to train standing up. Or for people who are scared of lifting weights, and prefer to go to the gym to sit down after a long day of sitting down, before they go home and sit some more, before lying down in bed. You get the point.
Training is an integration of full body, natural movements, tweaked for certain performance orientated tasks. Still, whether you are looking to specialize in a particular sport, bulk up, lean out, or just generally look and feel well, then diet and lifestyle choices need to be addressed first, but that is another post. Kettlebell training can also be tweaked to satisfy even the most stubborn person in the gym, with his/her religious affection to a certain style of lift, or favourite programme. Next time, I´ll talk more specifically about some basic kettlebell movements, and how to integrate them into your training, and what results to expect.
Personally, my training has evolved throughout the years, from trail and error, reading an enormous amount of literature, trying various programmes from those common in the mainstream strength and conditioning community, to specialized goal orientated protocols for strength gain and for cycling and rugby. I have hit peaks, achieved goals, lost form, become demoralized, hit a plateau and then discovered the kettlebell.
I love the way these tools place themselves alongside my evolving methodologies of strength, power and mobility training and give such precise feedback. They are a challenging, safe, practical, fun and tremendously rewarding part of my exercise routine. Along with that, more understanding of the essential role diet and stress management plays in health and performance, together with an appreciation of how the body has evolved to become suited to what it does today, I have become at least more relaxed about unlocking the ´key´ to optimal performance I spent 20 years searching for. There is no key, just a need to be aware of the conditions surrounding us that influence our health and training related choices. Filter out as much bullshit and stress from your lives as you can, eat natural foodstuffs, read, question conformity, train compound, full synergy movements, whether it be with a bar, a kettlebell, a log or a rock. Run fast sometimes, smile at people, chill out more, then maybe you´ll smile within yourself too.