Things Kettlebell Instructors Don’t Tell You

Different style kettlebells exist

You hear it all the time. Marketers waxing poetic about the simple kettlebell. About how it’s remained unchanged for ages. About how it’s weight training distilled to its essence.

Listen to these folks, and they’ll soon have you believing kettlebells are sacrosanct. That, to mess with the time-tested design is nothing short of sacrilege.

But they’re full of it. Anyone who does kettlebells knows there are several important variations. And to get good results, you have to buy and use several different styles of ‘bell.

  • Regular, old kettlebells with thick, stumpy handles are best for heavy overhead work. It’s easier to get the bell in the groove as you struggle to press it overhead. When I say heavy, I’m talking about anything over 70 pounds or so. Most guys don’t go to those extremes.
  • But stubby handles are hard on the connective tissue in the wrists. Anyone who does lots of lighter, high-rep overhead moves like snatches benefits from a deep-handle kettlebell. You can keep your wrist straighter using this design. In the long run, it’ll save you a lot of pain and recovery time. But keep it light; if your bell is too heavy, it’ll bang into your arm too hard during the snatch, making you wish you had a heavy, stubby bell.
  • Traditional bells are fine for one-hand swings. But they’re no good for heavy, two-handed swings. For this excellent exercise, you need a wide handle kettlebell.
  • Don’t even think about trying to develop additional strength and muscle mass unless you get an adjustable kettlebell. Since traditional kettlebells make you jump a whopping 30% in weight when you move up to the next larger ‘bell, they’re totally unsuitable for strength training using a typical progressive resistance scheme. Until the advent of adjustable kettlebells, strength training was the purview of barbells and dumbbells only.

Your heroic kettlebell instructor? He didn’t get that body using ‘bells…

The kettlebell bandwagon is filled to burstin’ with guys who want to cash in on the latest fitness trend.

But these guys didn’t get their enviable physiques using ‘bells. They built their muscles the old-fashioned way: with barbells.

In fact, until the recent popularization of the adjustable kettlebell, it would have been absurd to suggest the use of kettlebells for adding a significant amount of muscle mass.

Here’s an amusing (and somewhat scary) thing to try. See if you can get your hands on an old instructional video made by some of the famous names among the kettlebell community. (I’m sure you can think of a few guys who, in recent times, have become synonymous with kettlebell training videos.)

Watch their older videos. It’s obvious that they don’t have a clue what they’re doing. Compare their form, technique, and recommendations now with what you see on those older videos. The differences are staggering. We’ve come a long way, baby!

Hey, I don’t have anything against guys jumping on the bandwagon. But it’s frightening to see how easy it is to become a guru — you just have to pretend you know what you’re doing and project an air of confidence.

Kettlebells are terrible for training power

Kettlebell instructors take great pains to explain the difference between lifting a dumbbell (or barbell) and hoisting a kettlebell. They claim kettlebells are for power, not just for developing maximum strength.

But the truth of the matter is: kettlebells are terrible for developing power. Let me explain…

The gold standard power exercise is the barbell power clean. Snatches, jerks, and push-presses are all important too, but heavy cleans are a prerequisite.

Every athlete — no matter the sport, no matter the coach’s philosophy, no matter the training facility — does barbell power cleans. If they don’t do cleans, something’s screwy.

Kettlebell instructors jump on this info and say, “Look! We do cleans and snatches too! We’re training for athleticism, not bodybuilding!”.

But it’s not the same thing. Here’s why:

  • Because of kettlebell design (or, lack of design), you can’t really get fully under the weight. With a kettlebell, cleans and overhead power presses are less a power exercise, and more an exercise in contorting yourself around the body of the ‘bell.
  • Kettlebell buffs just don’t use enough weight. These guys lift 35 pounds overhead and you’d think they just climbed mount Everest (Vätskeryggsäckar). The typical training weight for most kettlebell guys is laughably light. Since most bells are not adjustable, it’s difficult to work up to proper training poundages if you limit yourself to kettlebell training.
  • Kettlebells don’t go up as high as barbells or dumbbells. It’s much, much easier to press a 75-pound kettlebell overhead than it is to put up a 75 pound dumbbell. Withe the kettlebell lift, the center of mass just doesn’t travel as far overhead. Every inch counts when it comes to power generation. That’s why the best weight lifters are short guys — they don’t have to lift the weight as far off the ground. Not only does this limit your ability to generate explosive power, it reduces the stress and training effect in all the minor, stabilizer muscles that support the spine.

To train power, you need to work out with a proper training weight. And that means using (you guessed it) adjustable kettlebells. It’s no good trying to use a kettelbell that is too heavy or too light. Power training means low reps, explosive, near-max efforts, and athleticism.

Leave the high-rep time-wasting workouts to the guys who just work out for fitness. If you’re training for some reason other than burning a few calories and keeping in shape, you need to be able to dial in just the right weight.

In the market for an adjustable kettlebell?

Here are my recommendations:

  • Ironmaster quick-lock kettlebell – Expensive, but it will last a lifetime. Plus, you can use the weight plates interchangeably with Ironmaster’s adjustable dumbbells.
  • Stamina kettle versa bell – Good kettlebell for guys who don’t need more than 35 pounds (i.e. – it’s for conditioning)
  • Weider Powerbell – Good for beginners or casual kettlebell enthusiasts. Comes in two weight ranges (and price points). Don’t drop it though, because it contains a lot of plastic.