Kettlebells are great strength training, rehab, and performance tools that have grown rapidly in popularity over the past five years. While once seen as another fitness fad, they’ve now become a staple in most training facilities and gyms throughout the US.

From distance runners to CrossFit athletes to the elderly and geriatric population, everyone can benefit from the use of kettlebells to some degree. Louie Simmons, known as the “godfather of powerlifting”, has even found benefit from incorporating various kettlebell exercises into parts of the accessory programming with their weightlifters. Exercises such as the bottoms-up kettlebell press and using banded-kettlebell presses are used to improve strength and stability with their lifters.

In today’s fitness world, training at a gym without a kettlebell is comparable to a having Thanksgiving dinner without a turkey; at the end of the day, you’ll get by just fine, but you’re definitely missing out to some degree.

This article aims to discuss some of the benefits of kettlebell training and reasons as to why they should be at least a part of all rehab and strength and conditioning programs.

Here a few reasons as to why kettlebell training should be at least a part of every program:

Kettlebells are extremely versatile.

Essentially a cannonball with a handle, the simplistic nature of kettlebells and their unique design makes them an extremely versatile tool that can be used for everything from acute post-op rehab in the clinic, to even the highest levels of performance training.

This unique design also allows us to get creative when manipulating or handling the kettlebell while completing various exercises.

Using the shoulder press as an example, we can compare the use of a barbell and kettlebell and begin to see how versatile a kettlebell can be. While we can essentially only change from pronated to supinated grip on a barbell (which is done rarely anyway), we can progress to several variations using the KB.

Standard single-arm KB shoulder press progressions and variations:

Standard -> Overhead No Handle Press -> Arnold press -> Bottoms-up press -> Bent press

With only the use of a single kettlebell and training the pressing movement, we can train varying levels of strength, stability, motor control, and ROM.

The kettlebell is an extremely versatile training tool and can be incorporated into different exercises, training, and movements.

Kettlebells are beginner-friendly.

Kettlebells have a bad stigma and are still viewed as a “dangerous” or “intimidating” by those who have never used them before.

I’ve personally been incorporating kettlebells into my rehab and programming for a number of years, while also teaching a weekly kettlebell class at a local CrossFit gym. As a result, I have become accustomed to introducing KB movements and exercises to those who have never used such a tool.

Exercises such as the goblet squat, deadlift, and even swings are great introductory exercises for more advanced movements that can be incorporated later.

The “minimalist” design of the kettlebell makes it easier for novice athletes to understand hand placement when gripping the bell, which also allows for more concentration and focus on technique and body awareness.

Kettlebells are my usual go-to when prescribing exercises for patients that are new to fitness and weightlifting for the purpose of simplicity and efficiency.

A sample accessory program for low back pain could be as simple as:

  • Goblet hold good mornings (3”/3” tempo) x 5
  • Suitcase deadlifts x 5
  • Suitcase carries – 50’ x 2 each side

This set of exercises can be scaled from the novice athlete to the elite athlete by just adjusting weight, reps, and sets. In addition, the patient/athlete will be compliant with completing the movements because they are simple in that only one piece of equipment is needed.

Injury-reduction (and rehab)

We now understand that injuries can’t be prevented, but with a focused approach, we can reduce their risk of occurrence.

Incorporating kettlebell training into our accessory programming or prehab routine can work wonders in terms of developing a robust body that is resistant to injury.

For example, when looking at low back pain (the most common complaint of all athletes and general population), the kettlebell is a great preventative and treatment tool.

A study in the Scandinavian Journal of Work and Environmental Health found that the Kettlebell Swing increased low-back strength and improved the body’s ability to effectively respond to external stimulus, which is often the cause of most non-contact sports-related injuries. Kettlebells are awkward tools, and using our bodies to lift, swing, push, pull a kettlebell takes a combined effort of everything to working together.

Neuromuscular co-contraction, or essentially teaching the body how to properly use the nervous system and muscles to lift/jump/run/move, is a staple of effective injury prevention programs.

A second study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, found that the kettlebell swing helps alleviate back pain through strengthening, but also through potentially increasing blood flow and massage to low back musculature. This could be one of the reasons as to why powerlifting champion Brad Gillingham has directly attributed the kettlebell swing as a key factor in his return to competition after several failed rehabilitation attempts.

Spine Biomechanics authority and leader in back health research Dr. Stuart McGill has been quoted in stating that “Based on my own experience and training, I can tell you there is no better exercise for strengthening the back like the properly performed Russian style kettlebell swing. This combination of muscular strength and muscular endurance is a key for injury prevention.

Kettlebells are a great accessory tools and by no means should they be the focal point of all (or any) weight training or general fitness programs. However, if used and programmed correctly, they can be a valuable tool when paired alongside most commonly used equipment such as barbells, dumbbells, bands, etc.

Again, we know that injury prevention is impossible. Injuries will inevitably continue to occur in even the most robust and prepared athletes.

However, with a focused effort and detailed planning, we can reduce the risk of injuries from occurring and limit their severity if by chance they do occur. Kettlebells are a great tool that, if used correctly, can assist in this effort.

Thanks for reading,

Ryan (@ryan.summers.dpt)

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