Why the Kettlebell? Part 2
The word unconventional, in this sense, is going to be used in its nature to not be governed by what normal rules we place on ourselves from a programming perspective. To be honest with everyone reading this, programming most exercises is rather easy. Once you get a wide grasp on how to think about the general rules of adaptation, it really becomes a plug and play situation.
Additionally, unconventional for this piece is also going to be applicable to some exercises you would not have thought of using kettlebells for. Let’s face it, there are some really solid arguments for simply using a barbell or dumbbell for some of the exercises we are going to feature in this piece, but we will show you why the kettlebell, in almost all cases, is the ideal choice.
We would be the profession a major disservice if we didn’t give credit where credit is due. In most circles, our friend Dan John is responsible for bringing into popularity (at least in the kettlebell world) the idea of carries being a staple in everyone’s training. The simple idea of loading the body in one of many variations and holding the weight for any amount of time does something amazing within the body.
If you think about what we are made of, most people would tell you that we are around 70% water. Which means that nearly everything we do has a hydraulic quality to it. Your tissues, how the sliding surfaces of the muscles move, all of the natural protective fluids within the joints operate, not to mention the miles and miles of the circulatory system moving blood all day. These fluids are under the mercy of a variety situational stresses throughout your waking hours and one way to train tolerances to this is to perform an array of carries.
One of the most recognizable variations is a traditional farmers walk. If done heavy enough for long enough, nothing trains your grip (both the notion of forearm and hand strength) quite like a farmers walk. But, what most people neglect to realize is the compressive forces that are being placed on the shoulders, ribcage, all the way down to the feet. Most of us train for cosmetic reasons along with a hand full of health driven purposes. Bone density, involuntary breath control, postural affects mixed in with pain tolerance training (to be honest, nothing makes my stomach turn like long farmers holds) are just a few of the benefits. Another way to make this difficult is to load one side. Many call these suitcase carries, but the entire lateral aspect of the unloaded side is put under enormous stress in this variation, adding levels of difficulty to an already difficult exercise.
For most new to weight training, this might fit the notion of unconventional better than anything. Two kettlebells overhead for time or distance seems silly, and potentially dangerous. But rest assured, if the shoulder is packed in place, if the load is being distributed to the skeletal structure vs. being forced through the soft tissues, the payoffs for overhead work is enormous. Getting the arm in a great position within the shoulder girdle, driving the lat down deep into the lower aspects of the back and keeping the head still are all major cues to turning this bizarre exercise into a must have in any program.
Two bells or one bell, holding the weight in a vertical forearm position with the mass and the hand “resting” on your chest challenges your breathing like few weight training exercises can. Yes, we could pick some random leg exercise and smoke someone’s lungs that way, but breathing through a heavy load perched on your chest creates discipline with your breath in a way that is quite unique to this type of training. And, again, a single heavy bell in that racked position puts rotational type forces along with the compressive forces already mentioned making racked carries something everyone should at least try.
Mixed Hold Variations.
One farmers, one overhead. One racked, one overhead. You name it, if you can put the bells in position and either stand still or walk, you can make these as hard as you want. Throwing in more complex variations with the bell “bottoms up” (the mass pointing to the sky) and now you have another layer of difficulty. If you are looking for resistance based cardio, loaded carries is your answer.
It was mentioned in our last paragraph but deserves an entire section all to itself. Here’s where the kettlebell begins to separate itself from other resistance training equipment. We haven’t taken a deep investigation of the physics involved with the kettlebell. Most exercises have the round mass resting upon the forearm which, if the wrist is dead straight, creates a marriage between the hand and the weight. This is why we prefer the kettlebell for squats, get ups, presses and all of the reactive exercises in the original six moves.
Bottoms up changes all of this. Like we said, the round mass it pointing to the sky, therefore moving the center of mass out further than traditional grip, which creates a variety of balance and stability demands. These demands force the lifter to be fully present, mentally, to smash the handle as tight as they can (increasing hand and forearm strength) and execute each move with absolute structure, not allowing any looseness to any part of the body.
This facilitates a tremendous amount of work done with a relatively light kettlebell. Perfect for rehab situations where we are concerned with mostly with safety and not pushing a lifter further into their injury, the lighter load and focus demands keeps the lifter inherently safe.
You show me a person who can execute a technically sound get up with heavier bell, bottoms up, and I’ll show you a person who is very strong in most every range of motion, in all planes.
One of Coach Holder’s favorite variations for back work, the Gorilla Row has some technical gems that go unnoticed to the naked eye.
Assuming a wide, almost sumo like gorilla stance, two bells are parked between the ankles. The beauty of this lift almost isn’t the row itself, it’s the row combined with the push on the down hand. The technique is to drive the bell down into the ground with non-rowing hand, while pulling with the opposite arm. All of this while keeping the shoulders square and even. This push-pull effect in this exercise begins to really bring out qualities that we see in many of our rotation based sporting events.
Safety with all lateral based exercises must be considered first before sticking them into your program. Unfortunately, most lateral exercises take on goofy versions of side bends where the spine is put into varying degrees of danger, bending in ways that are loading the disks.
On the other hand…
One of Don’s favorite exercises, the windmill is a highly skilled variation of lateral bending that places the load and the emphasis on the muscles and tendons of the hips, not to spine. But it’s more than hips. From the armpit of the working side all the way down to the ankle, windmills stretch the body and open the lateral aspect of the ribcage, glutes and I.T. bands. Additionally, the thoracic spine is asked to stay long with a slight rotation opening up the chest towards the sky. Where things get interesting is where the load is placed.
Very much like our overhead carries, the weight is in the up hand and therefore asking the lifter to move his/her hips over to facilitate the bend- all the while keeping the mass over their center. It strengthens everything, and for tight guys like Holder, it slowly chips away at flexibility issues, opening the body.
Take windmills and marry them with squats and you have one of the toughest exercises to master. You have to have gobs of stability throughout the body matched with an almost uncanny need for flexibility in order to execute this exercise successfully.
If you are tight anywhere, the bent press will find it. If your thoracic spine lacks mobility, you can forget it. If your lats aren’t strong, you can forget it. If you are bound up in your hips in the least, you can forget it. It’s the Rubik’s Cube of strength exercises.
The idea is to keep the bell, in its relationship to everything in the space, motionless while you move. As if it were floating in one space, the lifter starts with the kettlebell perched in an almost bottom position press. With feet in a windmill set up, the lifter packs the elbow deep into the ribs and starts to rotate down into a windmill until the need to bend the knees and squat “down” to keep the bell motionless. Only until the elbow is now in a fully locked out position does the kettlebell move as the lifter stands. It’s hard to imagine if you’ve never seen one, but take our word for it, it’s a skill movement that is second to perhaps only the Olympic lifts.
And these are only a few of the unconventional exercises that can be performed with a kettlebell. The beauty of these exercises are the need for the kettlebell to be successful. From the physics mentioned above, to the union of the forearm and hand with the mass, the kettlebell is almost necessary to use for these exercises. Yes, you can use other implements, but you lose something.
You could completely devote your training for a time on the unconventional exercises and see massive gains in nearly everything you do. The unconventionals build stability and a deep level of stamina in a way that most exercises can’t.