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Exercise Anatomy

It Don’t Mean a Thing If You Ain’t Got That Swing

Why kettlebells are king and how you can make them work for you.


If you’ve been even remotely involved in fitness over the last decade, you’ve seen the dramatic increase in the use of kettlebells for training. While the prevalence of these cannonball-shaped iron weights is new in the U.S., due in large part to the proliferation of CrossFit, kettlebells have been used in Eastern Europe for centuries. In fact, the Russian word for kettlebell, girya, appeared in a Russian dictionary as early as 1704.

Related:How To Do The Kettlebell Swing

With their handle on top, kettlebells look different from the free weights seen in most gyms. However, they are an efficient tool that can be used to improve many aspects of fitness. Consider the following benefits of working with kettlebells:

1) Full-body synchronization. Functional strength develops when an athlete adapts to physical stresses by subconsciously learning to activate muscles synergistically: making his or her body work as one unit. This synchronization is developed as the athlete negotiates the biomechanics necessary to maintain control over a weight with a center of mass that is always outside his or her grip.

2) Calorie burning. The metabolic cost of kettlebell training is high. In one study, subjects burned roughly 20 calories per minute using kettlebells. That’s 600 calories per half-hour!

3)Power endurance and strength endurance. The ability to repeatedly contract muscles under high- and low-speed loads is critical to performance success. Because of their ease of application, kettlebells can train a wide range of energy systems. In short, kettlebells are excellent tools to push the anaerobic threshold and improve oxygen uptake.

4)Injury protection. Unlike barbells, kettlebells provide athletes with the ability to meet the torsion of the weight by moving their hands in any direction. This reduces shearing forces on the forearms and wrists, and it minimizes the possibility of placing the shoulder in a vulnerable position.

5)Improved mobility. Kettlebells are able to break planes of movement a barbell cannot break. In doing so, they improve range of motion — a performance variable vitally important to any CrossFitter. Try swinging a barbell between the legs. Even a dumbbell doesn’t work as well as a kettlebell.

6)Variations galore. An intelligent programmer can come up with multiple exercise and movement variations with kettlebells just by changing the grip, bringing about unique and different adaptations.

7)Correct imbalances. Anytime an athlete performs an exercise unilaterally (with just a single limb), differences in strength become more obvious. Corrections can then be made to equal out the bilateral forces. This will result in greater intermuscular and intramuscular coordination throughout a wider range of motion, which further results in greater force production (overall strength) by the working muscles.

8)Develop core strength. With kettlebell training, an athlete engages his or her core in almost every type of exercise. This is necessary to maintain control over the swinging ball while keeping one’s balance. Abdominal muscles, obliques, the erector spinae group and hip flexors are all active.