This article is part of my blog-series: My Favourite Training Tools. There are probably thousands of tools out there for fitness. Some are fly-by-night items (I’m talking about you, Shaker Weight), others have been mainstays for hundreds of years, and now and then there is a new kid on the block that is clearly here to stay. Through this blog-series, I’ll share with you the tools that I think are worth including in your home or commercial gym. The complete list to date is included at the bottom of this post.
Lucky number 7 on the list is the kettlebell. Truth be told, when I first drafted my list, kettlebells just missed the top 10. I had them as an honourable mention. But their awesomeness is pretty hard to ignore, and I realized they just had to make my list.
The turnaround came recently as I was purchasing equipment for my new personal training studio in Ottawa. Up to that point I only had access to a few kettlebells – one each of 10, 15, 35 and 45 pounds and two 20 pounders. Even though I had so few of them, I realized that they got a lot of use. I also noticed how often clients told me that they really liked them. That’s when I started to think: what if I bought kettlebells instead of dumbbells for the new studio?
I posed the question to my peers on strengthcoach.com and the response was largely positive. In fact the only concerns expressed were that kettlebells tend to come in 4kg (8.8lb) increments which would be a big jump for some people, particularly with upper body exercises. This is not an issue for the York kBs I was looking at, as they come in 5 lb increments, much like most dumbbells.
The price was also right. As it turns out dumbbells are really quite expensive and most decent ones are actually more expensive than the set of kettlebells I was looking at.
The clincher was coming to the realization that every exercise my clients can do with dumbbells, they can also do with kettlebells, but there are several exercises that I love to use with my clients that can be done with kettlebells but can’t be done effectively with dumbbells. Here are five great examples:
Kettlebell swings: This is an incredible exercise for the glutes and for helping to reinforce “the hip hinge”, which is an incredibly important movement for, well, everybody. These can actually be done with dumbbells, but it is awkward. I don’t recommend it. Here’s a video of Neghar Fonooni doing heavy KB swings. 48 kg heavy. That’s 105.6 pounds!
Bottom up kettlebell walks. this is a great exercise for shoulder and core stability. I use this exercise for almost every client who has upper crossed syndrome.
Bottom up kettlebell clean squat. This is one of my favourite exercises for teaching stiffness. It requires and trains focus and full body control. I credit this exercise for helping my single leg Romanian deadlift (SL RDL). After working on this, my ability to stay balanced during the SL RDL improved dramatically.
Bottom up KB bench press. I use this as a clearing test for the bench press. Clients must show me that htey can do this before I let them bench with a bar. It shows me that they have the shoulder stability to tolerate heavy lifting in the bench press. It doesn’t have a big place in most programs, but it is an important one.
Turkish getup (TGU). I only use the full getup with stronger clients with more training experience, but I use the half getup with many people. It’s a fantastic core exercise that can really be classified as all three types of core: anterior, rotary and posterior. Neghar is so great with the kettlebells as well as being great at teaching that I asked her to put together an instructional video about the TGU. It’s no surprise that she did a great job:
But wait, there’s more! Goblet holds! Holding kettlebells in a goblet or two-goblet position for squats and rear foot elevated split squats (RFE SS) adds a great stability challenge to the exercise that I really like. You can do the single goblet hold with a dumbbell but I prefer it with the kettlebell.
Here’s a great video explanation and demonstration of the goblet squat by Franz Snideman.
And here’s the two KB goblet hold being used for an RFE split squat by Ben Bruno. (Note how heavy this is and how many reps he does. All with great form. Impressive!):
Beyond these exercises, many of my clients have expressed that they prefer the kettlebell over dumbbells for various other exercises including suitcase carries, one arm rows, and split squats. The pros for kettlebells just keep coming!
I did find one exercise for which I prefer dumbbells to kettlebells: one arm bench press. Yes, I did mention the bottom up KB bench press above, and I stand by that exercise. But I still like dumbbell bench press for strength. And for that, the kettlebell is a bit awkward. Thankfully I have a pair of powerblocks in my gym (another great tool, although not top 10 worthy) for that one exercise.
[2017 Update: It’s now a bit more than five years since I opened my studio and I remain happy that I purchased primarily kettlebells instead of dumb bells. I have even come around to using them for single arm bench press after a chiropractor I respect suggested it as a smart option from a shoulder health perspective. I’m actually wondering why they only made it to #7 on this list.]
Elsbeth Vaino is a personal trainer in Ottawa, Canada.
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