Why Kettlebells are like Olympic Lifting 2.0

I love Olympic Lifting.

It is supremely satisfying to hoist a heavy weight over your head. Plus, it builds power, strength, mobility, coordination, lean muscle, core strength, ability to use the body as one solid unit, and mental focus.

However, I’ve always found five downsides to traditional Olympic Lifting (using a barbell) when it comes to building everyday functional ability for a fitness minimalist like myself and my clients:

Barbell Olympic Lifts: Clean & Jerk and Snatch

1) Olympic Lifts are inconvenient to practice.

First, most people don’t have the necessary space, platform or equipment for Olympic Lifting at home, which makes it a predominantly gym-based activity. This shortcoming could be felt especially during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns. Secondly, the workouts are TOO LONG. Olympic Lifting demands a significant time investment per workout. First, you have to make it into the gym, then you need to load the bar (multiple times), then you need to warm up sufficiently which takes upwards of 15 minutes, then your rest periods between each set are 5+ minutes –  all in all, Oly Lifting training sessions generally last in excess of 90 minutes. Suitable for the fans of the sport, not for a busy strength minimalist.

2) While I personally don’t consider this next factor a negative, it is for many people. Olympic Lifting is very difficult to master, demands tremendous mobility (anyone who has tried the front rack position and experienced the often associated wrist pain knows what I mean) and has a high risk-to-benefit ratio (for example, barbell snatch is unnecessarily tough on the wrists and shoulders).

While I personally think that it is supremely rewarding to practice a difficult discipline that drives you to improve your mobility and movement skills, it might be frustrating for people to work for months, and sometimes, years before they are able to snatch more than an empty bar. Again, fans of the sport notwithstanding, there are easier and more efficient ways to improve mobility, coordination and power.

3) Olympic Lifting has a limited skill transfer to real life.

There’s a risk of structural imbalance (strength discrepancy between sides of the body) due to the barbell being used bilaterally (aka with two arms at the same time). Training with a barbell, while creating superior strength gains, is more likely to produce imbalances between the right and left sides of the body. Being a sport implement, the barbell does not resemble real-world objects in the way our body interacts with it.

Moreover, Olympic Lifting is a sport – and thus its objectives lie more in the direction of winning than in creating a structurally balanced body. For example in the Olympic Clean & Jerk, you are encouraged to find a dominant side for Split Jerk (aka one leg is always in front, the other is always behind) and stick with that arrangement for the bulk of your practice, regardless of inevitable unilateral lengthening of the hip flexors and strengthening of the glutes on one side in comparison to the other.

4) There’s little in terms of endurance, of any sort.

Training different energy systems is important for overall health and metabolic flexibility. Olympic Lifters utilize the anaerobic energy system, but not the aerobic one. 

5) And finally, while there is little in the way of eccentric loading of the posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, upper back and the rotator cuff.

This is because the barbell is dropped once the lift is made. This problem can be solved by recycling the lifts (aka by using a lighter weight, lowering the barbell under control and performing multiple reps of the lift. Crossfit uses this format a lot, with mixed results due to often inadequate technique instruction, but it is still a valid method that I enjoyed greatly in my years as a Crossfit athlete and coach). The shape of the Barbell doesn’t lend itself to recycling too many reps, as anybody who tried and developed bruises on their hips and thighs knows.

Kettlebell training solves the above shortcomings of Olympic Lifting when it comes to training for lifelong fitness. In fact, Kettlebell training can be viewed as Olympic Lifting 2.0.

Kettlebell training contains Olympic lifts – Clean, Jerk, Snatch. However, in addition to all the power, strength, mobility and coordination benefits of those lifts done with a Barbell, kettlebell lifting carries a number of additional advantages.

Instruction for Kettlebell Snatch

1) Unlike Olympic Lifting, Kettlebell lifting can be done virtually ANYWHERE, all you need is a couple of bells and 2×2 square meters of space. This is very relevant to those who don’t have a quick and easy access to a lifting platform. Kettlebell practices can be effective at as short a duration as 5 minutes. Most of my workouts are 10-20 minutes long and rarely exceed 30 minutes, including warm-up and stretch.

2) Kettlebell lifting, while far from effortless to master, is nevertheless more accessible, faster to produce results and has a small risk-to-benefit ratio (provided you use a coach and commit to good form). This is because kettlebell training is done with a lighter weight, the shape of the kettlebell feels more natural to handle, it is less risky to throw overhead, while at the same time it challenges the rotator cuff and stabilizer muscles more than the barbell.

Instruction for Kettlebell Clean

3) The superior structural balance and real life skill transfer bestowed upon your body by kettlebell training is beyond comparison. The kettlebell ‘speaks the language of the shoulder’ in a way that the barbell simply doesn’t. 

4) Both the aerobic and anaerobic conditioning effects of kettlebell training are legendary. It improves strength and conditioning, all while delivering the benefits of the Olympic lifts.

5) Kettlebell training is all about the recycle.

There is a large eccentric element for the posterior chain during the recycle, which is what earned the kettlebell such a glowing reputation as a strengthener for buttocks, hamstrings and back.  Mastering the recycle is fundamental for getting superior results from your kettlebell workouts, and it will be the topic of my next post. 

Instruction for Kettlebell Jerk

So, if you want to get the benefits of Olympic Lifting without the associated hassles and with a ton of superb health bonuses, kettlebell is your friend.

Kat Tabakova

August 24 2020

Published by Kat's Kettlebell Dojo

Kettlebell Dojo is a philosophy that is about making your training time-efficient and maximally effective by consistently performing high-quality functional movements. In addition to being a bookworm, Kat is a certified Personal Trainer, Group Fitness Instructor, Strong First SFG Level II Instructor, Girevoy coach, Nutrition coach, Jump Rope, and Crossfit Gymnastics coach.

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