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 benefits of using kettlebells in 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 Top Six 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 top kettlebell 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.”
All it takes is a five-minute conversation with a dedicated CrossFit athlete and it becomes obvious that this is much more than a fad workout. It’s a lifestyle.
It has the “misery loves company” aspect of a military boot camp which has helped to bond soldiers for generations. Plus, it has the constant variety of physical activities, led by a well-trained coach, that are almost impossible for a self-directed individual to conceive of, much less execute. And finally, it has a very strong since of camaraderie among other CrossFit participants that one would never experience in a traditional health club.
According to Ross Lawrence, in an article he wrote for Active NORCAL, “CrossFit has another, important aspect which sets it apart. “It is universally scalable. Essentially, this means that a ‘CrossFitter’ can cater workouts to his or her own physical capabilities by choosing the size of the weights used and doing less taxing versions of certain exercise.”
He also reiterated the advantage of CrossFit’s variety of exercises. “As a means to stave of exercise boredom, CrossFit instructors vary group workouts every single day. Rarely, if ever, will you find yourself doing the same routine you’ve done before. Constantly mixing up programming ensures that athletes are utilizing and strengthening different muscles every time out. Using all the muscles in your body, and working them out in varying ways makes it impossible to plateau. Within one group lesson, you might use row machines, pull-up bars, elastic bands, ropes, barbells, kettlebells, PVC pipes and medicine balls.”
“Attendees at group classes benefit from the great amount of skill and education that coaches possess when it comes to the design of the workouts. Interestingly, for the purpose of keeping each and every muscle in their bodies fit, coaches won’t even design their own routines for fear that they’ll exclude movements they subconsciously don’t like to do.”
The CrossFit lifestyle continues even when the workout is over.
Just Follow the Money
In 2015, an Atlanta-based, consumer banking marketing research company called Cardlytics began studying the purchasing patterns of millions of people who visited fitness centers that year. They analyzed the spending of people who worked out at traditional health clubs, CrossFit gyms, boutique cycling studios and yoga/Pilates/barre studios.
According to an article in the Wall Street Journal, the company “looked at the transactions of everyone who spent at least $30 on fitness in 2015 after not spending on that type of fitness the year before.” The results showed how spending on fitness compares with the purchases outside the gym. This includes what they spend on eating out, which stores they shop, what they value and what they buy.”
It will surprise no one in the CrossFit community, that their group is dramatically different from the others!
For example, people who work out in traditional health clubs spend a whopping 14.6 percent of their food budget on the empty calories of fast food. As the Planet Fitness CEO, Chris Rondeau noted in the WSJ article, “If I look at a CrossFit client, they’re probably a much more avid, enthusiastic, maybe overcommitted exerciser. So, they may tend to eat a little better than someone that isn’t quite a serious or as fanatical about it.”
That word “fanatical” seems to show up quite a bit when CrossFit athletes are being discussed!
There are other fascinating aspects of the people who adhere to the CrossFit lifestyle. For example:
Sports apparel companies like Reebok have taken notice of spending power of the CrossFit members. The company started making CrossFit-specific gear in 2011 and now offers about 250 apparel items and 16 footwear items for men and women. This is about twice what the company had planned to offer when it first started launched its CrossFit line.
A Lifestyle That Drives Healthy Choices
Whether they are in the middle of the often grueling WOD, shopping or having dinner at a nice restaurant, the CrossFit athletes maintain this unique lifestyle and it drives their healthy choices.
“What we notice though is that people at our gym realize that if they eat or drink to excess, the next day’s workout is going to be really difficult. So instead of having several drinks they only have one. The shift in overall health happens organically,” noted Bryan Schenone, owner of CrossFit Redding, California.
“There’s an element of camaraderie with CrossFit because everyone knows how crappy it feels to be suffering through the workouts. No one wants to be last. But first or last, everyone is cheering for you the whole time,” observed Schenone. “CrossFit Redding is a really tight-knit group. We have barbeques and go to the movies together. We go out a lot, and it has become our social network.”When an exercise program becomes a social network, there’s a strong commitment to fitness. Do you have a story about how the CrossFit lifestyle helped you feel better and helped you overcome the bad habit we all have? Contact us and share your story. We’ll share it with everyone else.