What are Russian Kettlebells?

A kettlebell is a weight made of cast iron that is employed in resistance training. Its U-shaped handle and unique design enables it to be used for dynamic power work as well. Kettlebell training is arguably one of the most effective forms of training in the industry today. What are the benefits, you ask?

Among the more obvious are increased strength, physical endurance, and power. However, the practice is also known for offering improved levels of mobility, flexibility, agility, coordination and cardiovascular health. Although a number of these benefits can be attributed to other training styles, a great quality of kettlebell training is the dynamic component. The ballistic nature of kettlebells leads to an increased level of explosive strength.

Kettlebells are not a training tool from recent history. Rather, it's believed they first appeared in the 18th century and were employed by farmers. They were initially used for recreational purposes and later came to be used in competitive sport in Russia in the late 1800s. Today, kettlebells are extensively found in gyms and frequently incorporated in workouts among individuals of many fitness levels.

Kettlebells provide an excellent source for functional training, as some of the most common and popular exercises involve multi-planar movements, providing quite a challenge to the musculoskeletal and cardiorespiratory systems. It's not just the explosive movements associated with kettlebells that make them so ballistic, but it's their design that is also a contributing factor. Unlike dumbbells, with which the weight can be considered "part of" the hand, with kettlebells, the center of mass extends beyond the actual hand grip. This results in the ability to employ more dynamic energy. Among the most well-known kettlebell exercises are the Swing, the Snatch and the Turkish Get-Up.

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Lisa Marie Kocsis

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What are the benefits of kettlebell training?

When discussing the benefits of any strength training modality, it's not uncommon for an overlap to exist. For example, you can say that Pilates can improve muscular strength, flexibility and joint mobility. You can get the same benefits from kettlebell training as well; however, the approach to how you achieve such is quite different. Kettlebells are one of the most effective tools for increasing strength, building endurance and power, improving mobility and cardiovascular fitness. Here I'll expand on the incredible value kettlebell training will add to your exercise regimen.

How do kettlebells increase strength?

Generally speaking, when we add weight to an exercise we increase the load on the body. As we increase the weight of the kettlebell, we put more demand on the musculature, which can result in an increase in strength. However, we're not just strengthening our muscular system, but the entire framework of our joint structures. These connective tissues include ligaments, tendons, fascia and cartilage. It's just as important for these to be strong to create more stable joints. How is this achieved?… Via the acceleration/deceleration from the movement of the kettlebell. Due to the dynamic nature of certain kettlebell exercises, the weight feels heavier in one phase, so the end result is that you work harder. Another benefit of stronger joint complexes is that this enables us to be less susceptible to injury! To build on the premise of the dynamic effect kettlebells have, the offset center of gravity of the bell recruits the stabilizer muscles. There's a ballistic movement in the hip complex to create the force necessary to drive the bells, as in swings, cleans and snatches. These exercises increase strength in the glutes and surrounding structures. The musculature and other soft tissue here play an important role in supporting the low back area, as well as the trunk and shoulder girdle complex. The glutes are the largest muscle group in the body, so you want them to be strong, both as prime movers and stabilizers.

Other muscle groups that benefit from kettlebell training... In addition to the glutes, kettlebell exercises focus on strengthening the entire posterior chain; this includes the spinal erectors, the lats and the hamstrings. In addition, the core will become significantly stronger with the use of kettlebells. One of the jobs of the core complex is to stabilize the trunk. When using bells, you must maintain an active engagement/brace of the abdominal wall (TVA), pelvic floor, rectus abdominus and oblique complex. The contraction of your TVA creates an internal pressure which not only provides support to the spine while under load, but it also increases your ability to absorb force more effectively. I reference the tug-of-war analogy with my clients. If one team dominates in strength it's game over! However, if both teams are pulling with equal force, that balance creates a stable tension in the rope. The greater the force inward (internal pressure of the TVA), the greater the potential for force (energy) outward...your ability to move the bell with greater power. Increasing your core strength will enable you to increase the load of the bell, which then places more demand on your core complex.
Kettlebells also improve forearm and grip strength. Due to the thickness of the handle, you can develop strength in these structures. Moreover, the center of gravity the bell is constantly changing in relation to yours (e.g. the swing and the snatch). Therefore, there's a greater demand on the muscular contraction of your grip.

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Lisa Marie Kocsis

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How do kettlebells improve cardiovascular fitness?

Kettlebell training is a great combination of strength and cardiovascular training. Certain exercises in the kettlebell repertoire are ballistic in nature. Such dynamic movements improve the functional capacity of the heart, and hence benefit one's active recovery. When greater demand is placed on the heart, the result is an increase in heart rate. Your heart's ability to return to a normal level is a good representation of your fitness level. The faster this occurs, the more efficient one is at active recovery. Cardiovascular fitness has a direct effect on metabolism. Kettlebells enhance metabolic training. We experience a greater caloric expenditure for more dynamic movement, which increases our potential for fat/weight-loss. Muscle burns more calories than fat, hence there's an improved benefit of burning through stored fat throughout the day. This can also result in increased resting metabolism.

How does ballistic movement play an important role in building strength and power?

Power movements can't be performed slowly, hence they facilitate development of power endurance. (This refers to one's ability to maintain consistent power output/speed over an extended period of time.) Maintaining fast-twitch muscular contraction increases our ability for power output. It also helps develop a strong work capacity and anaerobic threshold. Anaerobic threshold (AT) is defined as the exertion level between aerobic and anaerobic training. Aerobic metabolism occurs during the presence of oxygen. When exercise intensity is increased, the body must switch to anaerobic metabolism, as it can't keep up with the energy demand. When in this stage, the body turns to stored sugars to supply additional energy.

The ballistic nature of certain kettlebell exercises enables us to be more efficient at absorbing shock. Our ability to absorb force more effectively is especially beneficial for contact sports such as football, wrestling, hockey and martial arts. Power/dynamic movement exemplifies a full-body workout. This can produce a lot of work in a short amount of time, which is effective when time is a factor. Kettlebell training produces a lot of bang for the buck because of the compound, whole body movements. The exercises don't isolate training to specific joints, but rather enable the body to work as a unit. In closing, one additional benefit of ballistic exercise is that it requires concentration. Therefore, it can improve our mental focus. Kettlebell training increases demand on the nervous system, and there is a direct correlation between this system and the muscular system. Improving the connection between these two systems can enhance our neuromuscular efficiency, but also improve our body awareness. Neuromuscular efficiency (NE) refers to the ability of the nervous system to properly recruit the correct muscles to produce and reduce force as well as dynamically stabilize the body structure in all three planes of motion, according to NASM (National Academy of Sports Medicine). The more heightened NE and body awareness are, the faster we can build strength, make new connections in our body and re-pattern our muscle memory.