This is an ongoing series of articles from guest blogger and Strength & Conditioning coach William Wayland of Powering Through. If you have any questions about this post or S & C in general as it relates to MMA and BJJ then please leave a comment below!
Are Kettlebells worth your time?
Kettlebells and combat sports: it is a relationship that I think is possibly too cosy. Kettlebells are everywhere at the moment, riding the “hardcore” puking on youtube train till you’re a mangled mess wave we are seeing right now. Many coaches drinking the kettlebell Kool-Aid seem to think this cannon ball-like device is some sort of cure-all and worse yet badge it misleadingly as a “functional” exercise. The marriage of kettlebells and strength and conditioning for MMA and grappling is a recent occurrence with coaches like Pavel Tsatsouline, Steve Maxwell and Mike Mahler promoting their usage. All but dead back in the 1930’s, the kettlebell zombie is back and appears to be eating some coaches’ brains!
Kettlebell movements for the uninitiated come in a few flavours namely the swing, clean, snatch, turkish get-up and variations of these. The swing the is daddy of these movements and does some good things for glute and posterior chain work. It’s excellent for teaching beginners proper hip extension. The clean and snatch however are poor relations to their Olympic lifting counter parts. Get ups have their uses but can be done with a dumbbell just as effectively. The problem is when coaches become emotionally invested in a training approach it clouds their judgement; they say “when you have a hammer everything looks like a nail.” So the kettlebell winds up getting used for everything. Steve Maxwell, a kettlebell proponent and BJJ blackbelt has written on his blog that “This is the paradigm of using the kettlebell like a Leatherman tool, i.e. pounding a nail with a screwdriver, i.e., you can do it, but it’s dumb.”
Firstly and foremost kettlebells will not make you strong! Unless you are an absolute beginner or novice, simply put unless you have some seriously heavy kettlebells you won’t achieve the loading needed (1-6 Rep Max for strength) to elicit maximum strength gains. Whereas with conventional Olympic barbells we can adjust load rather simply by adding plates. A study published May 2012 found that “weightlifting induced significantly greater improvements in strength compared with kettlebell training”. While kettlebells improved strength and power in this study it was greatly inferior to the improvements barbell training brought. You just are not going to be able perform kettlebell swings with enough load to make a dent in the qualities for building the maximum strength and strength speed required for grappling sports and MMA. Kettlebells are physically limited by their shape size and it is this that violates progressive overload principle. The only way we can get around this is trying to use the bells as part of complex movement patterns and this only becomes dangerous, time consuming and a needless abstraction. Legendary strength coach Bill Starr has been quoted saying “Kettlebells were used by strongman back in the 1800s. The reason they fell out of favour during the thirties was because the barbell was more attainable and much more beneficial in building strength.” There is clearly a reason the kettlebell went near extinct.
It’s not all bad however, kettlebells were found in other studies to have a positive effect on performance in weightlifting and power lifting. This confirms the idea that that kettlebells perhaps make good accessory training tools.
The kettlebells main use comes from what is know as the “metabolic swing” the idea that repeat hip hinging is demanding on our energy systems, famously Dan John wrote “the kettlebell snatch” – which is quite similar, metabolically speaking – is “equivalent to running a six-minute mile pace” and “burns as many calories as cross-country skiing up hill at a fast pace.”. Evidence has shown that “Kettlebells provide a useful tool with which coaches may improve the cardio respiratory fitness of their athletes.” The metabolic effect of kettlebells is hard to deny, but is it that much different to similar effect I can elicit with dumbbells or barbells?
Another thing I have heard is that many credit kettlebells as having fixed their back issues. This is possibly because the abdominal bracing and spinal shear the kettlebell forces during swings is opposite to the effect on the spine say a squat has.
In a study by the Legendary Stuart MCGill the researchers noted, “This unique exercise may be very appropriate for some exercise programs emphasizing posterior chain power development about the hip. In contrast, the exercise also appears to result in unique compression and shear load ratios in the lumbar spine that may account for the irritation in some people’s backs, who otherwise tolerate very heavy loads…Thus, quantitative analysis provides an insight into why many individuals credit kettlebell swings with restoring and enhancing back health and function, although a few find that they irritate tissues.” Another study (Jay et al, 2011) found that taking adults in jobs that cause musculoskeletal pain and making them do kettlebell training and found “training reduces pain in the neck/shoulders and low back and improves muscle strength of the low back.” So good news for those of you affected by back issues that want to get some supplementary training done!
Kettlebells provide excellent variations for an athlete that has a sound base of strength and power; they work well as part of a conditioning complex and may well help people with certain back problems. As soon as it becomes the only tool of choice we are short changing ourselves.
The Kettlebell is an excellent tool, but not every tool is right for the job.
- Otto et al (2012) Effects of Weightlifting vs. Kettlebell Training on Vertical Jump, Strength, and Body Composition. J Strength Cond Res. 26(5):1199-202.
- Manocchia P et al (2012) Transference of kettlebell training to strength, power and endurance. J Strength Cond Res. [Epub ahead of print]
- Lake JP, Lauder MA, (2011) Mechanical demands of kettlebell swing. J Strength Cond Res.
- MCGill SM, Marshall LW (2012) Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jan;26(1):16-27.
- Jay K, Frisch D, Hansen K, Zebis MK, Andersen CH, Mortensen OS, Andersen LL. (2011) Kettlebell training for musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health: a randomized controlled trial. Scand J Work Environ Health