By now, there is a good chance that you have seen those funny looking spherical weights sitting somewhere in a gym you’ve visited. They look kind of like a metal ball with a handle on top of it and might confuse some people given the metric system markings they often feature. These odd looking foreigners are called kettlebells and have caught on as a unique tool in the resistance training arsenal. If you step foot into a Crossfit “box,” you are likely to see a wide selection of kettlebells and perhaps only a few dumbbells laying around. This is quite the opposite of what you would find in a more traditional gym. This might make you think, “what makes kettlebells so popular, and would they benefit my training?” Indeed, there are many benefits to kettlebell training, provided you apply them to your training program in a safe and effective manner. If your goal is to increase strength and power while widening the breadth of exercises you have at your disposal, then kettlebell training may be for you. However, there are differences between traditional free weights (dumbbells and barbells) and kettlebells, both in their design and their intended use.

 

A Unique Weight Apparatus

The first thing we have to get out of the way is that kettlebells are different from dumbbells. Despite this, there are times when you can use kettlebells as a replacement for dumbbells. Bench press, shoulder press, rows, lateral raises, biceps curls, and skull crushers are a few examples of exercises which can be performed with either kettlebells or dumbbells. However, you will often find that kettlebells are used in ways that take advantage of their unique design.

As opposed to the dumbbell, kettlebells have an uneven weight distribution which challenges your muscular stability and coordination in a different way. Traditional kettlebells also tend to have a much smoother gripping surface compared to the knurled grip of a dumbbell, making swinging movements much easier to perform. The unimpeded access to the handle of a kettlebell, combined with the height of the handle, makes it a more ergonomic choice for exercises like romanian deadlifts (RDL’s) or other deadlift variations. They even make for a great weight to hang off your belt when performing dips or pull ups.

Certain aspects of kettlebells can be a bit annoying for some as well. The weight of the kettlebell tends to increase in odd increments compared to what we Americans are used to seeing. You’ll often see 4-8kg (~ 8.8 – 17.6 pounds) jumps between kettlebells. This makes progressing in certain movements difficult as a nearly 9 pound jump may be too much. Similar to dumbbells, challenging the legs with heavy squats or deadlifts would be difficult as grip and/or stability becomes the limiting factor. And, as mentioned above, access to kettlebells can be a limiting factor especially when traveling or visiting new gyms. Depending on the exercise you are using the kettlebell for, there may be no way of substituting a dumbbell or weight plate, which could stop your progress.

Despite these potential drawbacks though, there are many pros in favor of using kettlebells both in design and in the physiological benefits you could acquire through training.

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