Kettlebells. Ancient Russian Workout Wisdom, or Just Another Fad?

They’re simple, heavy spheres with handles. They’re portable and affordable. They have a mysterious past shrouded in the mystique of 18th century Russia. They’re credited with being good for both muscle and cardio workouts, and they’re making a comeback at gyms and fitness centres across North America. But are kettlebells really the holy grail of fitness training, or just another fitness fad?

To find out, research teams from two American Universities investigated kettlebell workouts with two separate studies. Jared Coburn, a physiologist at California State University in Fullerton, compared the strength and power gains of a three-exercise kettlebell regimen against a similar three-exercise barbell workout. Similarly, Truman State University researchers from Missouri compared a 10-minute kettlebell swing routine with a 10-minute treadmill run. The two studies’ results showed that while kettlebell exercises were a good generic workout, they lacked the impact of a more specialized regimen. Here’s what the two research teams reported, along with some other kettlebell tips:

Pros

  • Kettlebells are portable and affordable; buy a pair for home for those days when you can’t make it to the gym.
  • They provide limited cardio and muscular training with one piece of equipment.
  • The varied exercises can spice up repetitive workout routines.
  • Kettlebell exercises work the entire body and broad muscle groups.

Both teams saw improvements in the fitness of their study’s participants; improved strength and power for those involved in muscular training, and heart rates high enough for gains in the cardiovascular group. However, for strength training, kettlebell workouts produced a relatively minor 4.5 percent growth compared to the 13.6 percent gains in the barbell group. Meanwhile, on the cardio side of things, treadmill workouts burned up 25-39 percent more calories than their kettlebell counterparts did, but exercising with the heavy Russian cannonballs still kept participants’ heart rates high enough to provide valuable cardio fitness gains.

Cons

  • Provide a generic workout unsuitable for specific goals.
  • Precision techniques are difficult to master.
  • Kettlebells are a good complement or gap-filler for a traditional training routine, but not suitable as a

permanent replacement.

While kettlebells provide users with some fitness benefits, they’re simply not as effective as the targeted workouts of barbell or dumbbell workouts for strength, nor are they as good for your cardio as a treadmill run. Additionally, the specialized training involved in the safe use of kettlebells makes their use more complicated. Swinging heavy spheres around is a good way to injure yourself or others, making the need for a good instructor all the more important.

The Verdict

Kettlebells routines are effective for a generic, broad workout that exercises large muscle groups, but aren’t as effective as the targeted training provided by traditional workouts. They are good for spicing up your workout now and then, and their portability and affordability make kettlebells a great backup plan for those days you can’t get to the gym. However, for specific workout goals, the generalized, whole-body approach of a kettlebell workout isn’t as effective as other fitness training methods, and their steep learning curve, specialized techniques, and potential for injury means they shouldn’t replace your everyday workout.

Research

Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength, and body composition, Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 2012 May;26(5):1199-202. DOI: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31824f233, JW Coburn et. al.

Comparison of kettlebell swings and treadmill running at equivalent rating of perceived exertion values, Journal of Strength and Conditioning, 03/2012; 26(5):1203-7. DOI:10.1519/JSC.0b013e3182510629, Caleb R Hulsey, David T Soto, Alexander J Koch, Jerry L Mayhew.

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