ARE KETTLEBELLS SAFE?

Originally published  in Eastern Maine Health System's Total Health Newsletter, "Ask the Wellness Expert," May 2016

I know what your thinking, “Who thought that throwing heavy weights around was a good idea in the first place?” 

Kettlebell = Serious Strength

Turns out the ancient Greeks did, and the Russians later developed it into an art form. In the late 1800’s Russian Dr. Vladislav Kraevsky, the founder of heavy lifting, extensively traveled Europe gathering information about sports conditioning.  In 1885 he opened a weight training hall, and weightlifting as we know it today was born.  The sport of Kettlebell, also called Girevoy Sport, became a major part of the new curriculum with special attention given to muscle loading, form and breathing.  By 1974 the National Sports Federation deemed it the ethnic sport of Russia in, and in 1985 the first Kettlebell National Championship was held in Russia. 

So in other words, a whole lot of people thought kettlebells were a good idea.

Still skeptical? Research shows that this trend has amazing benefits as long as it is done safely.  A study in Denmark found that kettlebell training decreases back, neck and shoulder pain as a result of its amazing ability to train the core and upper body.  

It’s a big calorie burner too. The American Council of Exercise conducted a study and found that about 400kcal are burned in a 20min kettlebell session. Furthermore, most experts consider kettlebells to be a form of functional fitness. Functional fitness is the kind of workout that specifically targets muscles you use doing everyday activities such as grocery shopping, squatting, reaching for the top shelf, etc.  Unique to kettlebell is its use of momentum, which most forms of fitness try to avoid. Momentum in movement is part of life, and the whole point of kettlebell is to teach you to control this momentum. The result is that this effectively trains some of your smaller stabilizing muscles and also your bigger powerhouse muscles, the ones that you need to lift your children or carry in the firewood.

All that said, I HIGHLY recommend taking a session or two from a trainer before you venture out on your own. Proper form is critical and there are some individuals, such as those with chronic shoulder or back injuries, that kettlebells are simply contraindicated for.  Once you’ve met with a trainer, see the bottom of this article for a couple fun kettle bell workouts from Shape Magazine and Men’s Fitness.

Speaking of safety, here are some tips on how to remain safe while using kettle bells (adapted from KettebellScience.com)

  1. Lead from your hips to protect your back and knees. When you bend down fold at your hip crease (where your thighs meet your pelvis). When you stand back up, push the floor away using your glutes and hamstrings, hips first.
  2. Keep a nice long spine. Don’t slouch.
  3. Keep your abdomen engaged. Find your internal corset, or transverse abdominous, by drawing back your navel to your spine.
  4. Keep your arms loose, not locked out.
  5. As your arms swing down (as in the classic kettlebell swing), let the arms almost hit you in the groin. On the way up swing up and strongly pull the shoulders back, as if you were starting a lawnmower.
  6. Keep your shoulders in the sockets. The biggest risk of kettlebells is shoulder damage, so proper shoulder alignment is important, don’t let your arms get away from you and imagine hugging the bones into the socket.
  7. Don’t hurt your wrists. Place your hand so far inside the handle that the weight is on the heel of the palm. The kettlebell will try to hyperextend your wrists if you let it.
  8. Keep the elbows straight.

Resources: 
http://www.acefitness.org/getfit/studies/kettlebells012010.pdf
http://www.kettlebellscience.com/
http://www.mensfitness.com/training/workout-routines/best-single-kettlebell-workout
http://well.blogs.nytimes.com/2012/01/26/turning-to-kettlebells-to-ease-back-pain/
http://www.shape.com/fitness/workouts/killer-kettlebell-workout