Why Invincible Athletes Train with Kettlebells
Unless you have been living under the social media rock for the past ten years the identity of the kettlebell as a training tool is not new to you. Though they have been around for many decades overseas, in America, they are much newer and recently passed the rigorous “fad” test of fickle exercise enthusiasts and they are here to stay.
I usually err on the skeptical side of things in life, waiting to see how things develop and pan out before I get involved and adopt anything new into my lifestyle. When I first saw kettlebells introduced in America by Pavel Tsatsouline in a few magazines articles and primitive YouTube videos over 10 years ago I was immediately intrigued and realized the benefit in learning how to use them to better not only my own training, but the training of my clients and athletes. I went against my primary instincts and jumped on board relatively early and I am glad I did.
If you are new to kettlebell training or have been on the fence, let me tell you that this odd object is a great tool for every athlete and it is probably worth your while to learn how to use them correctly and add them into your training program to enhance your athletic performance.
In this article I am not only going to give you my reasons why every athlete should incorporate kettlebell training into programs, I am also going to give you a few of my favorite sports performance kettlebell exercises.
Hips Don’t Lie
Now I know that one muscle group does not make the athlete, however, training the hips to become stronger and produce more force benefits the athlete in increased strength, speed, acceleration and can minimize the risk of injuries.
Most sports are dependent on the athlete’s ability to extend their hips; whether it is to sprint, changing direction or jumping, being able to move and accelerate an object from the ground using your hips leads to great strength and power development essential in sports. Traditionally training hip strength is done by performing a squat or deadlift (hinge) type movement.
With traditional weight training there are a few limitations that can exclude some athlete trainees from progressing safely, especially if they are young and/or new to strength training.
I have found that the kettlebell offers so many safe variations of hip building exercises that they are a staple in my training programming.
The challenge with deadlifting is that it is usually done with a barbell which makes setting up properly a bit challenging, especially for the new athlete. The bar sits low on the ground and in front of the athlete compromising the proper mechanics of sitting the hips back, grabbing the bar, locking the shoulders back to prevent rounding of the upper back, tightening the stomach, driving through the feet while keeping the bar close to the shins.
In contrast, the kettlebell deadlift variation proves to be much more favorable in the set up, thus making the execution much more successful. The kettlebell is positioned directly between the knees and ankles to perform a deadlift. When the athlete sits back into position, it is much easier to grab the kettlebell while maintaining the safe, shoulder-retracted, flat-back position.
Much like the deadlift, the squat primarily trains hip strength, with the difference being that in the squat there is an eccentric component that causes a stretch of the muscles that initiates the upward drive. Traditionally, the squat is usually done with a barbell either in a front or back position which can lead to a potentially compromising position for the athlete’s body.
In the barbell back squat the barbell is loaded with weight and placed on the back and there is more loading of the spine. Performing front squats with the bar might not load the spine as much, however, with the weight in front of the body proper core strength and stability is necessary to perform the movements safely.
The kettlebell goblet squat is an ideal hip builder for both the new athlete and seasoned veteran alike due to its effectiveness and safety.
With the weight situated close to the chest with the arms resting right along the rib cage, there is hardly any spinal compression, and forward shifting can be minimized.
With Olympic bars weighing 45lbs. alone, it is much easier to start with the kettlebell because they come in smaller weights. Likewise, the small incremental jumps in kettlebell weights makes both the deadlift and squat progression seamless.
You Have Plenty of Options
To dive even deeper into the hip-dominant exercises, kettlebells also allow for more variety of those traditional movements that are much harder or even impossible to replicate with a traditional barbell or dumbbell. Along with training the muscles of the hip complex, these variations also add an extra emphasis in other areas like grip strength enhancement, core control, and much more.
The 1-Arm Alternating Deadlift is executed like the standard kettlebell deadlift but uses only one arm at a time and switches at the top. The challenges come with maintaining proper body alignment which is accomplished by keeping the shoulder back and chest up. With the single-side there may be an urge to shift your body’s weight to the side of the kettlebell and the athlete should not allow for this. The athlete must completely activate the core muscles to resist this shift and maintain proper body alignment. With grip strength usually much stronger on one side compared to the other side, using one arm to maintain the kettlebell in proper position is only possible focusing entirely on the one arm for the given repetition and the other on the next in order to narrow the strength deficit between the two arms.
The Double Kettlebell Deadlift is great for athletes whose technique has become solid with their strength progressing.
This variation offers all the benefits of the other kettlebell deadlift variations mentioned before with the challenge of stabilizing the movement with two independent weights.
Double Kettlebell Front Squats simulate a barbell front squat without having the athlete hold the barbell in the initially awkward fashion of either crossing the arms or in the fingertips with the wrists extended. Using two kettlebells allows for an increase of weight which can enhance strength gains and challenge the core muscles which must be engaged fully to maintain proper body alignment.
The Kettlebell Front Squat is another great option for athletes. This exercise is similar to the double front squat version, however, when using a single kettlebell racked on one side of the body there is a much greater need to focus on proper technique and balance between both sides of the body. The single kettlebell will not only pull the chest down and forward, it wants to cause a shift towards the side of the body where the weight is. The athlete must counter this motion and keep the chest up and the weight distribution equal on both legs.
Power & Endurance Capability
Many athletes feel that the best way to develop power for sports is through the Olympic lifts (namely the clean and snatch). There is no doubt that these exercises are great for power generation but they may not be better than the kettlebell swing when it comes to athletic power development, training the proper energy systems, and the ease of use.
Olympic lifts take much longer to learn when compared to the kettlebell swing. With the Olympic lifts being so technically challenging it does not only take time away from the training session, it can also lead to more injuries if not performed correctly.
Kettlebell swings are generally easy to learn and any corrections necessary can be quickly fixed.
Olympic lifts train the all out one-max effort movement. This can be the start of a sprint or getting off the line in football and other limited examples of maximal effort needed. However, most sports are not frequently subjected to these types of efforts. Sports like soccer and basketball consist of a series of repeated sprints and stops of sub-maximal force production rather than an all-or-nothing explosive movement.
The kettlebell swing can train those submaximal repeated efforts you need because the kettlebell weight used far below what you would use for an Olympic lift. This allows for multiple repetition sets that can simulate the stop and go movement in most sports.
Athletes can also use a lighter kettlebell and perform longer sets of swings to increase muscular endurance and cardiovascular conditioning. One might suggest that running long distances does the same thing and they would not be too far off the mark, however, the kettlebell offers a few distinct advantages over distance running.
First off, distance running further adds to what athletes already do a lot of (which is run). Run conditioning is crucial for many sports, but when an athlete gets to an appropriate running level adding more may prove to be too much and increase the potential for overuse injuries. Kettlebell swings for longer periods of time can train the cardiovascular system without adding more joint stress that running produces because there is no pounding of the pavement as in running.
Kettlebell swing training can also have the same cardiovascular training effect in less than half the time as running.
With running you are moving your body weight, whereas with kettlebells you are moving isolated weight which will make you feel fatigued much faster and get the same workout as if you ran for twice the duration. When an athlete’s 2-Arm Kettlebell Swing technique has become consistent, then swing variations can be introduced to add variety and train some different aspects of athletic movement.
The 1-Arm Kettlebell Swing is performed the same way as the 2-arm version, however, the single arm version will stress the grip on the working side much more. It is also a useful movement to balance out the strength and movement coordination between sides. Usually one side of the body will be stronger and more coordinated and this will be quickly evident when performing this movement.
When executing this movement I recommend swinging the free arm along with the kettlebell side which helps maintain the shoulders in their proper position and also facilitates easy transition to the next variation which is the Alternating Kettlebell Swing.
In the Alternating Kettlebell Swing the athlete will be switching hands. This allows the athlete to increase their coordination and their work capacity as they begin to get fatigued in one arm, they can switch to the other side and keep the movement going. The frequency of the hand switch is only limited by the coach’s imagination.
If you want the athlete to train strength and coordination you can have the athlete go heavier and for a shorter duration. If you are training the conditioning of the athlete, keep the weight lighter and switch hands every few repetitions.
This is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the benefits of kettlebell training for athletes. As you can see, the training benefits, ease of use and the variety of options make kettlebells a must-use in every training program. Add them into your program and watch your athleticism take off. Now go out and make it happen.
To Perform the Kettlebell 2-Arm Swing:
- Set up in an athletic stance with two arms on the kettlebell which is directly in front of your legs making a triangle position.
- Lock your lats into place creating back tension.
- Hike the kettlebell through your legs by hinging your hips (not squatting).
- When you feel your hamstrings stretch; squeeze your glutes to drive your feet into the ground to move the kettlebell back through the legs.
- Make sure the hips always finish (get the hips fully underneath your body); this not only ensures proper technique but you are also going to save your lower back. You want to properly propel the kettlebell upward (not forward) using your hips.
- No leaning back, you want a “tall body” posture at the top of the movement.
- When performing the backswing wait for the kettlebell to almost hit you before you hinge. The kettlebell should be above the knees in the backswing. Hinging too early can cause a sore lower back or even worse problems.