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Kettlebells exploded on the scene a number of years ago and have attained almost cult-like status. They are promoted as a tool to increase strength, hypertrophy, power, core stability, metabolic conditioning, and even cardio-vascular conditioning. Despite the claims, almost no research has been done on this exercise mode. Harrison et al, in the December issue of Strength and Conditioning Journal, have an article that reviews the state of the literature and provides recommendations for the implementation of kettlebells into a strength and conditioning program.

As kettlebells have mass, and as this mass can be increased (i.e. you can always exercise with a heavier kettlebell), they are effective at increasing strength and hypertrophy. It also stands to reason that performing explosive exercises with them will result in an increase in power.

In terms of cardio-vascular and fat-loss benefits, the authors don’t report terribly strong research. For example, there is a study that demonstrated that performing the two-handed swing for twelve minutes increases heart rate, but it is not as stressful as running. They report that research looking at the metabolic cost of using kettlebells is unclear and guilty of comparing apples to oranges (i.e. this means you cannot really draw a conclusion on the effectiveness of kettlebells one way or the other).

At the very least, the authors feel that kettlebells can aid with muscular strength/hypertrophy/power and certainly add some variety and fun to a strength and conditioning program.

With regards to implementation, I feel that the authors make an excellent point when they state that: “Training protocols for kettlebells do not necessarily need to be different from the traditional resistance training protocols…” At the end of the day, if the goal is to increase strength (no matter what training tool is used) then one needs to lift heavy weights, for few repetitions, with full recovery. If the goal is to train power, one needs to focus on being explosive, which means limiting fatigue and allowing full recovery. If the goal is endurance or metabolic conditioning, then the workout will look very different.

I personally have some opinions about technique and kettlebell exercises, especially when we start talking about the Olympic lifts and kettlebells. I’m uncomfortable with the idea of swinging the weights for these lifts, which most places advocate. I still feel that the triple extension motion is very important (if the idea is to train for transferable power). I also think that swinging the weight overhead on the snatch is just asking for trouble.

Harrison, J.S., Schoenfeld, B., and Schoenfeld, M.L. (2011). Application of kettlebells in exercise program design. Strength and Conditioning Journal, 33(6), 86-89.

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