Why Are Kettle Bells Good For Functional Training; And What Is Functional Anyway?
As a personal trainer, there are two main things I look for in the equipment I use: bang for my buck, and least possibility for injury possible when used well. Kettle bells give me both.
I get asked sometimes, “Why do you like kettle bells so much?” I think it’s primarily from people starting to train with me and their experience thus far has been less than positive. And I can relate! I mean who really likes little bruises that can sometimes occur on your wrists, or hands that sometimes may develop. I’ve been there! I think the underlying statement is, “Jayson, you better give me a damn good reason for doing this stuff because the whole ‘no pain, no gain’ thing is bullcrap, I can go do yoga.” I hear you. So let’s go.
Let’s first discuss what functional training is. The best definition of “functional” for our discussion is this:
Functional (adj.) – having or serving a utilitarian purpose; capable of serving the purpose for which it was designed: functional architecture; a chair that is functional as well as decorative.
Let’s focus on the last part where functional is put into context, “functional architecture; a chair that is functional as well as decorative.” How does this relate to training and fitness? Think of bodybuilding vs. functional training. Bodybuilding is decorative. Functional training is training as an athlete, or to be able to do something useful. And then you also look decorative as a result.
Now focus on the first part, “a utilitarian purpose.” What is utilitarian?
Utilitarian (adj.) – having a regard to utility or usefulness rather than beauty, ornamentation, etc.
What do you want the end result of your training to be? If you want to stand on a stage, pose, and be decorative, then bodybuilding is for you! Which is awesome. But if you want to DO stuff as a result of your training, like run faster, move objects faster, be mobile, climb stuff, or do a combination of it all, then functional training is for you. (*That’s not to say bodybuilding training can’t be part of your overall training, just keep in mind you may want to be able to move sometimes really fast and at many different angles. I do bodybuilding type training cycles sometimes with clients but then always get back to functional training)
Why is bodybuilding type training not functional? Here is an excerpt from “The New Power Program” by Dr. Michael Colgan to explain:
Athletic activity or functional activity requires both strong muscles and strong links between muscle groups. As an athlete, you need your calves to power links right up your leg to your hamstrings, gluteals and lumbar spine. You also need to be able to contract every muscle fully at the multiple angles of limb placement and wide ranges of eccentric torque that occur in the free movements of sport. You need to be able to carry out these movements at maximum muscle contraction, without fear of injury or holding back.
The strength you gain under a typical bodybuilding program is of little use. The transfer of power in free movement occurs only through a linked chain of muscle groups. If any muscle, or any link of connective tissue in the chain remains weak, the power is dissipated.
With bodybuilding, typically you’re focusing on individual muscle groups. There’s chest day, or shoulder day, or legs day. You’re focusing on the muscles, there’s very little attention paid to the connective tissues like ligaments and tendons. Also the stabilizing muscles that are involved in power movements get little love in bodybuilding. I mean if you can’t see it and it doesn’t look great, why train it? So you can train the shoulders to look beautiful with teardrop deltoids, but when you try do a fast full body movement, your rotator cuff muscles might not be ready for it. So we need to be looking towards movements that incorporate multiple body parts at one time.
There’s a name for using muscles in congruity, it’s called a “Kinetic Chain.”
Kinetic Chain — When joints and segments have an effect on one another during movement. When one is in motion, it creates a chain of events that affects the movement of neighboring joints and segments.
Within this kinetic chain, as mentioned above, you’re only as strong as your weakest link. So if you’re doing individual muscle training and not working muscles, tendons, ligaments, stabilizing muscles together, you’re probably going to have an issue when and if you try to use them all in sync.
Which brings us to another point. It’s not just the muscles and connective tissues you have to link. It’s also the integrated sequential firing of the central nervous system. So you’re also training your brain to coordinate movements in their necessary patterns.
Do you think that when you go into a gym and learn an exercise and movement one week and then go back the next few weeks later and you can do it better or faster that it’s because you gained muscle or strength? Heck no, your brain just figured out what muscles to use and when. As Paul Chek has stated before, “without these sequences, the strongest muscles, trained in isolation, don’t do diddly.”
As mentioned above, the important part of functional training is bringing muscle groups together for a movement that has a purpose. Now don’t get me wrong, you can say that bicep curls are great for 12 oz. beer drinking, but we’re talking more functional. Try carrying groceries up stairs and think if bicep curls or bench press are going to help you. It takes the whole body to get up those stairs with your eggs and milk!
Which is exactly what kettle bells do when used correctly. For example one of the main movements performed with a kettle bell is a kettle bell swing which I’m doing to the left. It incorporates virtually every muscle in some way throughout the movement. All you’re doing is using your hip hinge to swing the kettle bell from between your legs to shoulder height in front of you. I say “all you’re doing” but when I got RKC (Russian Kettle Bell Certification) certified, the instructors spent about 3 hours breaking this movement down. So yes, it sounds easy, but it has to be done correctly first, then it becomes easier.
Why is this simple movement so important? It’s a relatively easy and safe way to teach the body to generate power. You’re using your posterior chain, primarily your glutes, to propel the kettle bell forward. This movement is surprisingly used a lot in athletics. When else do you do this? Jumping, running, climbing to name a few. Another benefit is your core is engaged to keep you stable and grounded. When else do you do this? Hopefully in everything you do! So that’s one, ease of use to help the body generate power.
If we wanted to take the kettle bell swing a step further, we would do a kettle bell “Snatch.” With this you’re using your hips and core to propel the kettlebell from your hips to above your head. If you thought it took a lot of muscle fibers to perform a swing, think of how many more muscle fibers you’ll be recruiting to take the kettle bell that far. That’s a lot of fibers! And the central nervous system is working overtime as well!
2. Kettle bells also offset the body so it forces core engagement to keep the body centered. Just by holding one kettle bell in a rack position at your shoulder and then pressing up above your head, your core is engaged throughout the whole movement as your body is working overtime to maintain balance. This can be done in a variety of different angles. To the left I have a client seated here doing a shoulder press with legs up to engage the core even more, but this could also be done just standing.
3. Diversity and ease of use — There are so many different movements you can do with kettle bells and they are easy to use. Below I have a client doing squats with a bottoms up hold with the kettle bells. He is a very good golfer and by having him control the kettle bells from a bottoms up position, he is engaging his core, his shoulders and serratous anterior muscles are working overtime, and his hips are also forced to be in a better position. These are all things that can benefit his golf swing. So we’re engaging the core at a great level with just holding the bells in a rack position and performing a squat, and then by adding the bottoms up hold to it, we’re taking the movement to yet another level.
So overall, I do functional training with my clients for a majority of their training. We’re looking for movements that are transferable to life and sport. We’re also looking for a way to incorporate more than just the main muscles, we also want the ligaments, tendons, and smaller stabilizing muscles involved.
As they say, there is more than one way to skin a cat. Or something like that. For me to get the results and outcome I want with my clients, I use dumbells, barbells, some machines, and obviously kettle bells. And when all of the equipment is taken into consideration, I want what gives me the biggest bang for the buck and also the least opportunity for injury. Kettle bells definitely do that for me. And never forget, a couple of callouses on your hands or little bruises on the wrists give you character!