The Many Facets of Kettlebell Training

By on May 20, 2020

It only takes a brief look at Instagram to know that kettlebell training is extremely popular right now. But while more and more people are picking these tools up, relatively few are aware of the myriad ways in which they can be used.

Kettlebell training is more than just swings: it can be used to develop explosives for athletics and martial arts. It can be used to develop functional stability and core strength. And it can be used to raise the metabolism and increase mobility.

Kettlebell training options

In this post, I’m going to explore some of the different fascets of kettlebell training and take a brief look at its history, to help you get the very most out of this amazing tool. Let’s explore the nuance and craft of kettlebell training!

A Brief History of Kettlebell Training

The kettlebell is a training tool that has been gaining huge popularity in recent years. But are you using it to its fullest potential? This post aims to serve as a brief introduction to kettlebell training that will take you a little deeper than average. We’re going to discover how kettlebells can develop truly functional strength, as well as boosting your running speed, your jumping height, and more!

The kettlebell has its origins in the ancient Greek haltere. This unusual hand-held weight also serves as a precursor to the dumbbell, but is often associated with kettlebell training due to its offset nature. That is to say that halteres were swingable like kettlebells, and placed the center of mass away from the gripping handle.

Kettlebell training

Kettlebells as we know them today however, began life in 18th century Russia. Farmers used weights called “girya” when weighing their crops. With time, these weights started being used for strength training specifically.

Kettlebells would then make their way to England where they became popular among old-time strongmen. As bodybuilding and powerlifting began to dominate the physical culture scene however, they quietly fell out of the spotlight.

That was until Pavel Tsatsouline reintroduced kettlebell training to the world, sparking a renaissance that can be seen all over Instagram!

The Unique Properties of Kettlebell Training for Functional Strength

The big benefit of the kettlebell is that the center of mass moves as you manipulate it. This allows you to train the body from unexpected angles, hitting the stabilizing muscles in the core, shoulders, and hips.

Compare a barbell clean and press to a kettlebell clean and press. The former will remain within a constrained range of motion: moving in a straight line from the bottom to the top, remaining purely in the sagittal plane. The shoulders will be locked in position by the bar itself. Using a kettlebell, on the other hand, means adding shoulder stability to the movement, as the weights swing up and then rest on the forearms.

The body has to fight to stay stable.

Kettlebells can also be swung in such a way as to generate momentum. This allows for extremely long, seamless sets that are perfect for burning fat. The kettlebell swing is the perfect example of resistance cardio: cardiovascular training that also includes some form of resistance.

Kettlebell training options

When we incorporate resistance into cardio, we burn more calories as the muscles are working harder. This is why the kettlebell is so commonly combined with HIIT and used for fat burning. It’s low impact and can be done anywhere!

But that momentum also means that the body has to fight to stay stable. During kettlebell halos, you need to keep your core stable despite the torque pulling your body left, right, forward, and back as the weight travels. This is intermittently anti-rotation, anti-flexion, anti-lateral flexion, and anti-extension.

And because the force is constantly changing dynamically – and never quite the same each time – it almost mimics wrestling with an opponent!

The momentum also creates tractional force on the joints.

Likewise, in a regular kettlebell swing, you must alternately fight the bell as it pulls you backward, forward, and then up.

In many movements, the momentum also creates tractional force on the joints – pulling them apart rather than compressing them together as in 99% of popular movements in the gym. This can contribute to improved range of motion, and even help protect the joints against future injury.

Finally, this momentum also turns kettlebell training into the perfect opportunity for explosive, plyometric and ballistic movements. That’s because you can start to fight that momentum in order to create a rebound effect, taking advantage of the stretch shortening cycle (plyometric), or focus on generating bursts of power in order to send the kettlebell through a particular trajectory (ballistic).

The Many Types of Kettlebell Swing

This is where things get really interesting: because there are actually multiple different approaches to the kettlebell swing.

However you perform it, the kettlebell swing is a movement with HUGE athletic benefits. This is a hip hinge movement primarily, which gives it useful transference to the deadlift and even the vertical jump (though the evidence is a little mixed here). It also appears to improve squatting performance and more, to the point that this phenomenon has its own name: the “what the hell effect!”

Kettlebell swing

But now let’s consider the difference between a kettlebell sport swing (also called the Girevoy swing), and the hardstyle kettlebell swing.

The sport swing is designed to maximize the pendulum effect of the swing by leaning the body forward and backward as the weight moves, thereby letting gravity and momentum take over. This allows for large rep ranges that are ideal for competition or for aerobic conditioning. They’re also a fantastic tool for developing “strength endurance” which means you can exert force for longer before getting gassed.

The hardstyle swing is different. Here, the term “hardstyle” does not refer to the difficulty of the movement, but has more in common with the way the phrase is used in martial arts.

Hardstyle kettlebell training

In fact, this type of training comes from Russian martial arts in the 1980s. The Soviet Union spec ops were using a combat style derived from Goju-Ryu Karate, and kettlebells were used to supplement this training. In fact, hardstyle kettlebell training has been described as a “weighted martial art!”

Martial arts are broadly divided into soft or “internal” styles (such as wing chun or shaolin) and hard styles (such as Shotokan karate). Soft styles focus on staying fast and lose, while hardstyles are generally about generating power in their punches and kicks.

Even breathing is crucial here to add additional spinal stability: just like a karate kiai!

Styles such as goju-ryu encourage the karateka to remain loose and soft while the punch is fired off to generate speed and fluidity like whip, before contracting forcefully at the moment of impact. This is achieved by contracting the fist to harden the forearm through irradiation. At the same time, the core is braced to ensure that all that power is transferred to the target.

Kettlebell training styles

Hardstyle kettlebell training has the same focus. In the swing, you become relaxed and loose while the trajectory is handled by gravity, but contract forcefully with the hip drive to send the weight forcefully back into the air!

Even breathing is crucial here to add additional spinal stability: just like a karate kiai!

There’s a brilliant article on this topic over at Breaking Muscle by Andrew Read that recommends the book “The Art of Sanchin Kata” in order to fully understand this control over muscle tension. I can also recommend the book, and am familiar with the concept from my own wado-ryu training.

It teaches greater mind-muscle connectivity.

The hardstyle method of training delivers more power and force in the movements and can help an athlete to develop that maximum power. It teaches greater mind-muscle connectivity and is remarkably useful for martial arts.

In reality, most people picking up a kettlebell for the first time will practice something that sits in between the hardstyle and sport swing. What’s fascinating to me, is that by simply altering your focus slightly, you can completely transform the effect that a movement has on your body.

Kettlebell Training for Explosiveness

Case in point: the third type of swing I want to share with you. If you want to ensure maximum transfer to jump height, then you might try something different again: the overspeed kettlebell swing.

Kettlebells

Got to love exercises with badass names!

Here, there is one additional ingredient: you are going to forcefully swing the weight back down toward you.

The idea of this is to create a force that you need to absorb with your legs, thereby engaging the stretch-shortening cycle and the myotatic stretch response. This works just like Verkhoshansky’s depth jump: where you jump off of a heightened platform, absorb the impact, and then launch straight back up. This allows you to deliver even more force, and may have even greater carry over to athletic pursuits.

The plyometric nature of the overspeed kettlebell swing may make it better suited for developing the vertical jump

I mentioned this effect in my last post, but note that the stretch shortening cycle is not caused by some kind of elasticity in the muscles. Rather, it appears that increasing the time that the muscles spend in the active state allows for more cross bridges to form inside the muscle. In other words: the muscle develops more traction due to the “run up.”

The plyometric nature of the overspeed kettlebell swing may make it better suited for developing the vertical jump than say, the squat. But at the same time, the lack of actual impact means it can be used more liberally than the depth jump.

You can also perform the overspeed swing with a band to provide that additional eccentric force!

Kettlebell Flows and Juggling

And we still have only just scratched the iceberg of what you can do with kettlebell training. Take a look on YouTube and you’re sure to see a wide number of kettlebell “flows” that transition seamlessly from one movement to another, developing full body strength while also burning calories.

These provide a fun way to train that adds a cerebral element – almost like dance choreography. Better yet, it strengthens the athlete during transitions. Too often we stay looked into single movement patterns, but as I’ve said before, that’s not how we move in real life or in sports. Kettlebell flows have more in common with repetitive physical labor and can develop a functional kind of strength as a result.

Kettlebell juggling

That said, complex hybrid movements like this are not particularly well-suited to very heavy resistance. That’s because technique is likely to suffer as you begin to tire, which can lead to injury while you’re in vulnerable positions. This is better suited to metabolic conditioning with a weight you can handle easily.

Not insane enough for you?

How about taking it to the next level with kettlebell juggling? Kettlebell juggling is precisely what it sounds like and involves throwing the kettlebell, swapping hands, flipping it, and generally doing all-sorts.

Kettlebell flows have more in common with repetitive physical labor.

This style of kettlebell training is exciting and fun and involves more eccentric shock absorption as you must slow the weight as you catch it. It also adds a more cerebral element as you have to focus on the weight and utilize your hand-eye coordination to stop it landing on your foot!

Partner passing takes this a step further as you actually pass the weight to another person while it is in the air. This style of training is fun and looks amazing.

As with any training, there is a risk/reward assessment to be carried out here. Be careful and make sure that you don’t push yourself too far, too fast. A kettlebell on your foot is no fun.

This is not for everyone. But that’s the great thing: there is a type of kettlebell training for each of us!

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About Adam Sinicki

Adam Sinicki, AKA The Bioneer, is a writer, personal trainer, author, entrepreneur, and web developer. I've been writing about health, psychology, and fitness for the past 10+ years and have a fascination with the limits of human performance. When I'm not running my online businesses or training, I love sandwiches, computer games, comics, and hanging out with my family.

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