I don’t believe in unicorns. I don’t believe in kettlebells either.
Kettlebells have grown become popular over the past few years but they’re often promoted with ridiculous claims of near magical qualities. While kettlebells can be a great tool for the exerciser looking for something new, the real benefits garnered from a kettlebell workout have little to do with apparatus itself and more to do with the exercise protocols used.
The ACE newsletter, “Fitness Matters” January/February issue has an article titled “Kettlebells: Twice the results in half the time?”
A group of researchers at the University of Wisconsin performed a study for ACE investigating the effectiveness of kettlebells. Actually, they investigated the effectiveness of a workout routine, that happened to be performed with kettlebells. It could have also been performed with a dumbbell or barbell, or any other implement that provides loading for a snatch (the exercise used).
The workout was this: 5 minute warm-up; 15 seconds of snatches performed with the dominant hand, 15 seconds of rest, 15 seconds of snatches with the non-dominant hand, 15 seconds of rest, repeated for 20 minutes; 5 minute cool-down.
That is a great exercise protocol, minus the exercise choice. Performing a ballistic movement like snatches for this type of protocol is a bad idea for the average gym-goer for these reasons:
1. Fatigue of spinal stabilizers – I’m not a member of the “never bend forward at the hips” camp, but the torque on the lumbar spine caused by the combination of loaded flexion and the rotation caused by the fact that it’s a one-arm snatch is risky at best. This is true considering a fresh set of muscles. Fatigue those muscles with 20 minutes of activity and you’re asking for trouble in the general population.
2. Fatigue of shoulder stabilizer – do you like your rotator cuff the way it is? I do, and I’m not about to have my clients start throwing weight over their heads in a fatigued state.
KETTLEBELLS – NOT MAGICAL
Aside from the safety aspect I feel it is misleading to imply that the benefits one might receive from this type of protocol are garnered due to the use of kettlebells. If you performed the same routine with a dumbbell or barbell (still not a great idea), you’d see the same benefits. Kettlebells are not some magical instrument that burn more calories or raise your heart-rate any differently than would a heavy stone (and stones happen to be far less expensive).
In fact, similar results have been accomplished through cycling exercise with similar protocols in research settings. Trapp, Chisholm and Boutcher exposed trained and untrained subjects to cycling sprints of different lengths for 20 minutes. The short-sprint protocol involved 8 second sprints with 12 second recovery periods while the long-sprint protocol involved 24 second sprints with 36 second recovery periods.
Kettlebells are a great exercise tool, but they’re not magical and there is nothing special about them.
The type of protocol used in the ACE study may not be safe for the average gym-goer, and much safer methods are available.
Trapp EG, Chisholm DJ, Freund J, Boutcher SH. The effects of high-intensity intermittent exercise training on fat loss and fasting insulin levels of young women. Int J Obes 2008; 32(4):684-91.