One of the most useful pieces of equipment found in a CrossFit gym is the kettlebell – colorfully described by some as a “cannonball with a handle.” This cast-iron or cast steel weight is used to perform ballistic exercises (those which focus on explosiveness) that have the unique advantage of combining cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training.
While the popularity of these weighted balls has only recently taken off, kettlebells have been around since the 1700's. According to several online sources, including Wikipedia, the first kettlebells were used in Russia to weigh crops.
After realizing that their constant lifting and swinging of these weights made the farmers much stronger, they began using them for exercise purposes, leading to the development of a weight-lifting sport known as girevoy sport. The Soviet army used them as part of their physical training and conditioning programs in the 20th century and kettlebells have been used for competition and sports throughout Russia and Europe since the 1940s.
Big Advantage of Kettlebells: Flexibility
While this history of kettlebells is colorful, the real benefit of these weights comes from their amazing flexibility in an exercise program – particularly in a CrossFit environment. Typically, they come in weights of 12 kg., 16 kg. And 24 kg. These weights are chosen based on the participant's strength and flexibility.
According to several online sources, “by their nature, typical kettlebell exercises build strength and endurance, particularly in the lower back, legs, and shoulders, and increase grip strength. The basic movements, such as the swing, snatch, and the clean and jerk, engage the entire body at once, and in a way that mimics real world activities such as shoveling or farm work, an homage to those early kettlebell devotees, the Russian farmers!
How Kettlebells are used in CrossFit Training
As with any piece of exercise equipment, the benefit derived from kettlebell training is directly related to the quality of instruction on their use. There are literally hundreds of exercises which employ these weights and all of them can either help or hurt the athlete using, or misusing them. Needless to say, it is important to obtain professional advice from a qualified trainer before starting to swing these cannonballs around!
Many think of using kettlebells in the same way they would use barbells or dumbbells. While this is intuitive, it’s also wrong. According to CrossFit trainers, kettlebell exercises usually involve large numbers of repetitions. Kettlebell exercises work several muscles simultaneously and may be repeated continuously for several minutes or with short breaks.
This combination makes the exercise partially aerobic and but more similar to the high-intensity interval training of CrossFit, rather than to traditional weight lifting. Because of their high repetitions, kettlebell progression should start out slowly to build muscle endurance, support the joints and prevent injury. When used properly, these weights can improve mobility and range of motion which increasing strength.
The Six Best Kettlebell Exercises
There are probably as many exercises which can be done with kettlebells as there are CrossFit trainers and athletes. The simplicity of their design allows these weights to be deployed in an almost unlimited number of ways. However, no one has unlimited time, so it becomes important to get an opinion on the best exercises – for maximum return on energy (that would be “ROE” for you folks who enjoy acronyms!) expended on a workout.
Scott Iardella, is a strength and conditioning specialist, sports nutritionist, former sports medicine physical therapist, and former competitive bodybuilder with over 30 years of experience. He notes that his passion is helping people of all levels get stronger, improve performance, and discover their physical potential. He's also the creator of "The Rdella Training Podcast."
In a recent post on BodyBuilding.com, Scott picked “The 6 Best Kettlebell Exercises You Need to Do.” Here are the exercises this fitness expert recommends.
“The Russian-style kettlebell swing, in which you project the weight to shoulder-height only, is an insanely effective exercise when executed with proper form. Hip power, hip hinging, and breathing techniques make it incredibly powerful. It's a two-for-one exercise, meaning you're able to combine strength training and cardiovascular conditioning into one efficient movement.
The swing is considered the most powerful kettlebell movement because it represents full-body power, extreme fat loss, and a high level of cardiovascular conditioning. It's also the foundation of all kettlebell ballistic exercises.”
Next up, Scott picked what appears to be a leg exercise, but is in fact a total-body challenge.
“Squatting is a fundamental movement pattern with many variations. The kettlebell goblet squat isn't just a leg exercise; it's another total-body juggernaut that offers more mobility—the ability to move easily so you can safely train with heavier loads—and improved conditioning.”
The next choice is designed to “bullet-proof your body.”
EXERCISE 3 THE TURKISH GET-UP
“The Turkish get-up is a slow, deliberate movement that's been around for centuries. You start by lying on the floor, then stand up, then lie back down again in a specific sequence of movement transitions. The get-up will help you with functional tasks as well as higher-level exercises. It teaches you to move fluidly, and when you add the external load (a kettlebell), it requires strength, mobility, and skilled movement.”
The fourth exercise chosen by Scott shows the advantages of a kettlebell over a dumbbell.
EXERCISE 4 THE STRICT PRESS
“Once you can do the first three exercises—and have demonstrated appropriate shoulder mobility and stability—the kettlebell press is another exceptional movement to learn. While it looks like an overhead press, it's not just a shoulder exercise, as you use your entire body for maximum pressing power and strength.”
EXERCISE 5 THE CLEAN
Similar to the kettlebell swing, the clean is another explosive exercise for total-body strength and conditioning. The difference here is that the kettlebell finishes in the rack position as opposed to being projected horizontally away from your body.”
EXERCISE 6 THE SNATCH
“Just to be clear, it's nothing like the barbell snatch, except that it begins with the weight in a low position and projects the weight overhead. The kettlebell snatch is physically demanding and technical, but offers outstanding total-body strength and conditioning benefits. It can help transcend athletic performance to new levels, build explosive strength, and forge strong, powerful shoulders.”