Kettlebell Exercises | What research tells us
Research shows how to get benefits while limiting kettlebell injury risk
Using kettlebells for fitness is seeing explosive growth, but what can we learn from research? Is kettlebell training a more effective way to develop strength and lose weight? Exercises offer many benefits using one simple tool. You can see improvements in mobility, agility, cardio, endurance and strength from a well designed program. But the standard type is a solid mass of iron being used in very technical exercise movements. Improper technique increases the risk of injury for the unconditioned or beginners. Exercises performed by people who have shoulder, back or core weaknesses can be dangerous. Are they more for athletes than general fitness? Are there new kettlebells designed for general fitness that still deliver the benefits?
A simple free weight originally used centuries ago, the elegant simple design of kettlebells allows for a range of exercises that are unconventional and effective. The popularity of kettlebells has exploded triggered by the passion of a number of expert training professionals. Good exercise programming using kettlebells has been promoted as providing better and faster results. Many movements involve the whole body. Unlike most traditional weight training, they involve high-repetitions of movements. With high reputations and whole body engagement, exercise benefits include a cardio impact and calorie burn for weight loss in a short time.
The simple design allows for unique movements similar to olympic lifts such as the snatch and clean. Swinging motions are particularly unique because of the handle design. But it is also the high rep ballistic movements with a “cannonball with a handle” that made the risk of injury high. Fixed weight individual kettlebells also make it essential to have a set of kettlebells available so that a progression of weights is used depending on the exercise, condition of the person, and repetitions. New innovations in design include the soft kettlebell and even adjustable soft kettlebells that reduce injury risk and the expense of investment in a full set of iron kettlebells. Selecting adjustable kettlebells allows you to use the weight appropriate for the experience and conditioning of the user and for the specific exercise without requiring investment in a full set of kettlebells.
With the rise in use of kettlebells, more and more exercise scientists have been publishing research on benefits, risks and proper technique. We can learn from these studies and what they say about exercise programming. Especially how proper form and advanced design can help deliver all the benefits of kettlebells while minimizing the risk of injuries.
So what have researchers learned about kettlebell exercises?
A sort review of the research on kettlebells and what it teaches about programming workouts was published in 2017 and is a great place to start. Recognized benefits of kettlebells have included benefits to core stability, cardiovascular health, body composition, strength, endurance, and power. There are studies that both confirm and call into question some of these benefits. For example, in one study there was clear evidence of positive changes in cardiovascular health. However, the same study was inconclusive on finding any benefit to creation of lean body mass. Doing swings at a continuous moderate pace has been shown to compare favorably to brisk treadmill walking. On the whole though, scientific literature looking at kettlebell exercise benefits is limited considering the long history of use. The biggest gap is on the best amount of weight to select for a given exercise.
Possibly the most unique benefit from exercises is cardio fitness and aerobic capacity. Studies have investigated how much exercising with kettlebells can benefit aerobic capacity. High intensity kettlebell snatches used regularly in training college athletes with 15 second work and rest intervals just three days a week showed significant gains in aerobic capacity. The control group in this study did exercises for the same intervals and durations but did not show the gains of the group working with kettlebells. An interesting recommendation is that kettlebells could be used during rehab for lower extremity injuries to recover aerobic capacity in athletes since the snatch movement was used.
What is the best strategy to manage the risks of training with kettlebells while getting the benefits? The American College of Sports Medicine, ACSM, put out a study in 2017 that illustrates the top exercises, analyzes the demand on the body and recommends the top 8 ways to avoid injuries from kettlebells. Note that these tips are for exercise professionals – not individuals – to follow:
- Pre-exercise screening for existing or previous injuries such as lower back and shoulder impairment.
- Evaluation of basic coordination to insure ability to maintain a neutral spine during exercises especially the swing.
- Functional movement screening to identify faulty movement patterns impacting muscular coordination and balance.
- Core stability to stand up to the explosive force of swing movements should be tested with side plank holds.
- Instruct proper grip and positioning for cleans and snatches which involve serious risk of impact to the forearm.
- Careful selection of weight should be made based on the level of conditioning and exercise.
- Protective equipment such as gloves and wrist guards should be considered.
- Design should be carefully selected to take advantage of contoured models that encourage correct form. Soft kettlebells which protect from injury and that are adjustable to encourage proper weight selection would be ideal.
Check this post for updates as new research is published.
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