Why kettlebells?

Neil - Doctor of PhysiotherapyBlog, Exercise, Health, Kettlebell, Physiotherapy, The Kettlebell Physio0 Comments

That’s a question we’re often asked at PRIDE. It depends on why someone needs a program of loading. As a tool, the kettlebell can be used to help someone achieve a range of goals:

  • Pain relief
  • Increasing mobility
  • Better stability and motor control
  • Increased tissue tolerance
  • Adaptations post-injury or surgery
  • Improved strength
  • Reduce risk of injury
  • Psychosocial effects
  • Return to sport and performance

These could *potentially* be attained equally well with something other than a kettlebell. Many Physiotherapy practices have chosen to use Pilates; we have chosen kettlebells. As PRIDE’s Clinical Director I am also a Certified Clinical Pilates Instructor, although I haven’t used Pilates in my capacity as a Physiotherapist since 2012.

One distinct advantage of using a kettlebell is how much ‘work’ (in physics terms, that’s the force required to move an object) it enables us to perform in a given amount of time. There are many instances when the <volume> of work done is physiologically more valuable (or less risky) than simply lifting as heavy as possible (load) or pushing to exhaustion (fatigue/exertion).

“Functional” is a pretty meaningless, certainly contentious word. If we define functional as what someone needs to be able to do in their life, it could be picking up boxes at work, crawling through small work spaces, climbing ladders, walking dogs or a myriad of other things, then ‘function’ is highly variable. What is functional to one person may have zero value at all to someone else.

That being said, the average human being, without disease or disability, typically needs to be able to perform the same fundamental movements and activities. We need to be able to sit down to use a toilet (that’s a squat). We need to be able to lift things up, carry them, and put them down. We need to be able to lie down. We need to be able to sit on the floor and get ourselves back up again without assistance. We need to be able to reach our feet to put shoes on. We need to be able to safely ascend and descend a flight of stairs, ideally without it being a struggle. These things shouldn’t be difficult or require any form of ‘compensation’. The human body is designed to move and generate force to manipulate itself and other objects within our environment, such as pushing against the arms of a chair to stand up, and opening doors.

There are many other example of *normal* tasks and activities which each of the components of Health Related Physical Fitness (HRFF) enable us to perform. That is why the factors of HRFF form the basis of various international guidelines for physical activity.

  • Muscular strength e.g. pick something up
  • Muscular endurance e.g. carry it
  • Cardiorespiratory endurance e.g. keep going
  • Flexibility e.g. get dressed
  • Body composition – muscle and fat mass

It is recommended that we brush our teeth after meals, and floss. Most people brush their teeth daily, but some people like Kelly, haven’t followed those guidelines.

Our actions have consequences, and inactivity is a conscious behaviour; “we are what we repeatedly do.” Aristotle…. or *don’t* do as the case may be.

If we repeatedly fail to brush our teeth there is an inevitable and predictable outcome. Brushing our teeth *should be* a habit. If we fail to engage in the activities which enhance the components of Health Related Physical Fitness, there are consequences. Exercise should be a habit and priority as much as brushing our teeth. Teeth can be replaced; it’s not so convenient (or possible) to replace body parts when they fail because of neglect.

Back to the kettlebells.

It is nothing more than an innocuous weight with a handle, but so is a bag of groceries. If infants and toddlers had handles on them, they would be a lot easier to pick up, but unfortunately, they don’t. We still need to be able to lift them up though!

Almost everything we do at PRIDE involves holding or manipulating a load. Some of our kettlebells are lighter than some of the handbags we see people carrying in to the practice. In clinical practice we have found that lifting, carrying, pushing and pulling activities while standing upright are more reflective of every-day activities than lying down using a machine. In my opinion, that makes them more “functional”, particularly in terms of rehabilitation. What we do is not complex; quite the opposite. We help people develop the fundamentals of movement, then get better at them. And that’s it. Don’t be fooled, Simple is Hard – Erik Meira said so!

There are some instances where the kettlebell may have a distinct advantage. Many people enjoy running and benefit from the cardiorespiratory conditioning that it provides, but it also involves impact forces of 3-4x bodyweight through the lower limbs. That can irritate a compromised joint, such as one with arthritic changes, making running unpleasant or unfeasible. A kettlebell swing provides 90% of the cardiorespiratory benefit of running with one quarter to one third of the impact load.

Hardstyle kettlebell training is a fast, dynamic style of exercise and we often use only modest loads. I started training in gyms on a regular basis in 1991. I quickly started to phase out the ‘traditional’ gym routine in Dec 2013 and went ‘full kettlebell’ in Jan/Feb 2014 and so far, I haven’t looked back.

Gone are my days of lifting heavy. For the first 2 years of going full kettlebell, the single heaviest weight I picked up was 32kg, unless I was swinging two bells and that would max out at 48kg (2x 24). In 2004, my Personal Trainer at the time increased my back-squat load by 50% far too quickly and I damaged my patellar tendon as a result. It was sore for a year. In 2009, I was pushing a max leg press when a friend said, “I bet you can’t to 10” after I told him I was doing 6 reps. He was right. I damaged the other patellar tendon and that too took over a year before it stopped hurting.

Tissues are more inclined to break when we subject them to more force than they’re able to tolerate; that’s the stress-strain curve and the point of plastic deformation. Tissue tend to react if we subject them to too much volume i.e. they’re more likely to get sore after the event rather than simply break. Muscle soreness is much easier to manage than something being structurally damaged.

Day-to-day, we subject our bodies to repetitive stress/strain rather than maximum load, so it makes sense to build capacity for volume and endurance, rather than simply the ability to generate force (strength).

Training to increase volume capacity typically leads to fatigue one way or another, and with the correct load, it can be exhausting if that is what someone wants. Training with kettlebells has enabled me to increase aerobic capacity, endurance, and strength. Approaching 42, I feel I’m in a lot better shape than I’ve ever been and I certainly wasn’t able to do this in my 20s and 30s, although admittedly I’ve only done it the once so far. In a recent class I shifted exactly 10,000kg. I don’t record volume closely enough to know what my record is, although I know it’s surpassed 12,000kg in 40 minutes.

April 8 will mark the 1 year anniversary of our longest and most regular participant in group classes. 68yr old Rosette has been training 3 times a week almost religiously, to date racking up 114 classes! On her 68th birthday Rosette shifted 6,800kg, and she’s got two prosthetic knees! I know plenty of 20-somethings that can’t do what she does!!

Here are our Top 7 Reasons why we use kettlebells in Physiotherapy

  1. They build, strength, endurance and coordination in functional patterns and everyday tasks
  2.  Bullet proof low back and hips and ‘core’
  3.  Power endurance
  4. Bridge the gap between resistance training and cardio
  5. Time efficient total body conditioning exercise
  6. They’re self-limiting – they highlight our weakness, critical for rehab and performance
  7. Efficient movement competency reduces risk of injury

Here’s Adam Meakins’ take on training volume.

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