Getting Started With (II) – Kettlebells

The GSW series presents focused applications of Analytic Fitness™ with a 2.500-word cap (excluding theory and analysis, kept in asides and footnotes, with no set limit) for an estimated reading time under 15 minutes.

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Getting Started with Kettlebells

Kettlebells can satisfy everyone’s fitness needs, from couch potatoes to seasoned athletes, and anyone in between.

In fact, I’m about to go out on a limb and propose that if you find yourself at either extreme of that spectrum, the best approach to getting started with kettlebells is actually the same. But that’s some mildly-crazy stuff and as such, I’ll build up to it and save it for last. As is per the purpose of this series there isn’t really anything analytically new but there’s a boatload of asides with geeky stuff. Now for the plan:

  • Step 0: Pick the right bells. The pros and cons of competition kettlebells.
  • Step 1: Everybody needs stability. A minimal kettlebell-based stability routine that doubles as a mobility drill.
  • Step 2: Everybody needs more stability. A plea to people who sit too much for learning the Turkish Get Up.
  • Wrapping up: Get stable, dammit! Why stability training is probably for you.

Finally, given the importance of mechanical stability in this post, I’ve appended below a reasonably self-contained Crash Course on Mechanical Stability to help new readers navigate Analytic Fitness™ intricacies or refresh the memory of seasoned readers. Speaking of which…

Special thanks

A distinctly loud shoutout to Avocado Gourmet @daHuaba12 whose visible contribution to this post (Fig. 1 & 2) was outweighed by far by his invisible contribution. Subsequently, @daHuaba12 was awarded the first-ever Analytic Fitness™ Level II certification.

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Step 0: Pick the Right Bells

Unlike ‘fitness’ kettlebells that come in all shapes and form, competition kettlebells have the same shape irrespective of their weight.

With competition kettlebells, ‘sizing up’ is a no-brainer:once you have mastered a technique with one size, you just need to become stronger and won’t have to re-adapt to a new shape. With ‘fitness’ kettlebells, that’s never guaranteed (and let’s not dwell for too long on what ‘fitness’ means here: it’s just working fine to exclude competition kettlebells from search results). By the way, I write ‘size’, I mean ‘weight’, and when I write ‘bell’ I mean ‘kettlebell’. Also, there are different qualities of competition kettlebells but that’s a side-show (Kettlebell casting).

The large jumps between kettlebell weights seem to be a liability but it’s really an asset.

Pavel Tsatsouline

Competition bells sizes range from 8kg to 48kg, with a universal color code for each 4kg increment between 8kg and 32kg. There are intermediate sizes, which may seem a good idea but really isn’t. The best argument for ‘big’ jumps is that they force to “put the volume in” (and thus get enough quality practice) in order to get stronger. Pavel Tsatsouline gives a lively presentation of this argument in this video [1:02-1.47]. [1] There are some deliciously geeky details about the size progression, too (Kettlebell Math). With this in mind, 2 competition bells 4kg apart make the best starter kit: either 1*8kg+1*12kg (absolute beginner, weak, or cautious) or 1*12kg+1*16kg (anyone else). And in case you wonder why I’m not recommending dumbbells, there’s an aside for that (Dumbbells are dumb, Kettlebells are smart).

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Step 1: Everybody needs stability2

Mechanical stability (stability2) is a physical quality both misunderstood and underrated.

Mechanical stability is often confused with balance even by professionals such as clinicians, physiotherapists, and coaches who should know better (see TFS (IV): Stability (2), “A Scientific Revolution (?)“). That’s an issue but there is worse: how the central nervous system (CNS) maintains joint stability has consequences that are by-and-large ignored by coaches and physiotherapists.

One of these consequences is that in most cases, end-range of motion (E-ROM) is not accessed without sufficient loading, and the weight of one’s own body does not typically qualify as “sufficient” (for the geeky details, see E-ROM and the Load-Injury Curve). Fortunately, a light external load suffices to safely access E-ROM. Below is an example of stability2 routine, followed by a few comments about each of the exercises and which E-ROM (if any) are accessed.

  1. Hip Hinge. Mobilizes the hip joints (dynamic) and the spinal joints (static). Expect no training effects, but even a light bell can help ‘feel’ the co-contraction that maintain spinal stability.
  2. Bottom-up Goblet Squat. The bell loads the hip, knee, and ankle joints (dynamic, with E-ROM and near-E-ROM for the last two), as well as the spinal and shoulder joints (static, both maintaining posture); the bottom-up grip makes a light load challenging.
  3. Bottom-up Halo. Mobilizes the shoulder and thoracic spinal joints (dynamic, Extension E-ROM for the latter if done correctly, “flattening” the natural kyphosis) and the lumbar spinal joints (static) with a co-contraction of the abdominal wall to keep the ribcage down; again, the bottom-up grip (behind the head) makes a light load challenging
  4. Overhead Triceps Extension. Mobilizes the shoulder, elbow, thoracic spinal, and wrists joints (dynamic, to elbow E-ROM in both flexion and extension, and to thoracic spinal E-ROM in extension only)
    and the lumbar spinal joints (static) with a co-contraction of the abdominal wall to keep the ribcage down.

The routine is best performed as a reverse pyramid (RP) circuit: n reps of each of the 4 exercises in sequence, followed by n’ reps of each exercise in sequence, and then n” reps, with n>n’>n”. A good starting point is n=3, n’=2, n”=1, and a good end-point is n=5, n’=3, n”=2 (shown on video). In my experience, this pyramid progression suffices to transition to a heavier bell size when n=5, n’=3, n”=2 is reached with the current size (re-setting n=3, n’=2, n”=1 with the heavier bell). This experience can be supported analytically with some geeky math (Kettlebell Math, cont’d).

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Step 2: Everybody needs more stability2

Mechanical stability (stability2) is a physical quality both misunderstood and underrated.

Mechanical stability is often confused with balance even by professionals… “Wait,” I can hear you say, “haven’t we gone through that already?” Well, we have, but for one thing bis repetita placent, and for another, there’s yet another a point to be made about mechanical stability: we sit a lot, and this ruins that. I’ve already covered the topic in Move Your Sleepy Ass Inhibited Gluteal And Abdominal Wall Complex,A Theory of Sleepy Asses” and I’m not going through it all over again, but here’s a summary of the main points:

  • sitting inhibits some muscles while over-activating others (independent of CNS control); therefore:
  • sitting raises risks of joints injury both: (1) at low loads, where
    muscle imbalances further compromise joints that are not in stable equilibrium, to begin with (cf. A Crash Course on Mechanical Stability); and: (2) at high loads, where muscle imbalances can affect movement mechanics and increase the risk of tissue failure.

The good news is that stability training based on textbook biomechanics is a no-brainer: given a task t performed at a given load, one first progresses to a task t’ that transfers to t, but such that t’ has an increased mechanical stability demand. An example would be progressing from a kettlebell rack carry to a kettlebell bottom-up carry. Task t’ promotes the co-contraction of muscles surrounding the joints involved in the task through increased CNS control. Improved CNS control then allows to safely increase the load in task t with a subsequent decreased risk of injury.

This strategy assumes however correct movement mechanics in the execution of task t. And that’s were sitting comes into play: excessive sitting causes pathological movements and motor patterns that need to be addressed (re-patterned) in order to prevent risks of injury and that’s where the Turkish Get-Up (TGU) comes into play. First, let’s have a look at the exercise (or more accurately, to its reverse form) performed by yours truly.

[T]he 14 stages in the TGU can be viewed as a continuously varying set of functional movement “problems” that must be “solved” by the neuromuscular control system.

St-Onge et al. (2019:24)

Now for some details. Rather than making up shit on my own, I’ll borrow to St-Onge, Robb, Beach Howarth (2019), A descriptive analysis of shoulder muscle activities during individual stages of the Turkish Get-Up exercise, Journal of Bodywork and Movement Therapies, 23 (1):23-31. In this study, the authors distinguish 7 states in each of the “Up” and “Down” phases of the TGU, for a total of 14 (see below Fig. 3). Based on the complexity of this sequence of motor tasks, St-Onge et al. propose that the TGU is the motor-learning equivalent to a problem-solving task (or more accurately, a sequence of problem-solving tasks). Although the approach is descriptive and limited (by the authors’ own admission) by the absence of a biomechanical model of the shoulder, the TGU-as-problem-solving dovetails Bergmark’s biomechanical model of joint stability, in particular, relative to how CNS control of muscle stiffness would increase in anticipation on a possible instability during the transitions between TGU stages.

Fig. 3 The 7 stages of a TGU according to St-Onge et al (2019)

Interestingly, solving the “TGU problem” requires the correction of the main pathological consequence of sitting, namely: (1) a sleepy ass an inhibited gluteal and abdominal wall complex; and: (2) an excessive kyphosis. Correcting (2) goes a long way to relieve stress on the lower back, which makes the TGU a great lower-back pre-habilitation drill on top of everything else. I’ll leave the details for an aside (Post-Rehabilitation Training, Chronic Sitting, and the TGU), but I can propose a practical example of strategy to solve the TGU-problem and get rid of (1) and (2) that I’ve used to teach the TGU to the personnel of the Philosophy Department at Lund University in 2017-2018.

There is some shameless promotion for the ebook at the end of this post, but all the proceeds go to “Iron vs. Leukemia (and Other Cancers)” so I have no problem advertising.

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Wrapping Up: Get Stable2, Dammit!

Mechanical stability properly (stability2) is one of the least understood and most underrated physical qualities.

Mechanical stability is often confused with balance but you know better, so wouldn’t fall for the stability bullshit: no need for balance boards, BOSU® or Swiss balls [insert dirty joke about the Vatican Swiss Guard here]. A kettlebell will do. If you were not convinced of that before reading this post, I bet you are now. “But,” I can hear you say, “how is all this relevant to ‘getting started with’ kettlebells?” Well, now is the time to get to the mildly-crazy stuff I promised in the introduction.

Absent data, I cannot safely assume that couch potatoes and athletes find themselves at the extremes of the Load-Injury Curve. But I can make it a matter of definition. So, let’s define a couch potato* and an athlete* as follows:

  • a couch potato* is someone who handles loads in the low-to-moderate bracket far more often than high loads;
  • an athlete* is someone who regularly handles heavy loads in addition to loads in the low-to-moderate bracket.

Assume furthermore that the lifestyle of couch potatoes* and athletes* involves 4 hours of sitting time or more (a conservative estimate for most Europeans and North Americans) couch potatoes* and athletes* both accrue enough sitting time to affect motor patterns in such a way as to increase joint instability at low loads and disrupt movement mechanics at high loads.

Under the above assumptions, couch potatoes* and athletes* are more vulnerable to injuries than more (respectively: less) active types, including those that sit as much as they do, because couch potatoes* and athletes* have more occasions to injure themselves. Hence, they would benefit from the training regimen outlined in Steps 1 & 2. Of course, there are differences: Step 1 would be a reformed couch potato*’s daily workout but an athlete*’s out-of-bed routine. Similarly, a former couch potato* graduating to Step 2 would dial both endurance and strength training in while an athlete* would only get some active recovery.[2]

The generalization of the above to real-world couch potatoes and real-world athletes raises serious methodological difficulties. [3] There is, however, a simple way to avoid them: simply ask yourself “Am I closer to a couch potato* or am I closer to an athlete*?” and answer honestly.

If you’re close enough to one or the other, then you probably need more stability2 in your life. So get stable2, dammit!

2 Comments Add yours

  1. Monique says:

    “Dumbbells are dumb, kettlebells are”….. kettles, or did I miss something ?

    1. More like cannonballs with handles if you ask me.

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