The Underlying Health Benefits of Kettlebell Sport

Whenever I take on a new client my goal is to encourage them to move pain free, feel strong and live an active, healthy lifestyle. Depending on the individual, one or a combination of options such as Pilates, strength training or appropriate recreational activities can fit that mold. However, it’s not always easy to get people to try new things, even positive lifestyle changes. I find people are their most vulnerable when beginning a weight-loss or rehabilitation journey, and so they often retreat within themselves, fearful of new experiences, and unable to grow. It is not unusual for my clients to have zero resistance training experience, and many are still hanging on to outdated beliefs about lifting weights, including causing “bulkiness”, stunting growth, shortening muscles, being inherently injurious, being capable of spot reduction, gender specific training, and even requiring banned substances being a necessary adjunct. Fortunately, even at first glance kettlebell sport is not met with such perceptions. Can kettlebell sport produce strength gains? – absolutely! Does it induce noticeable hypertrophy in skeletal muscle? – certainly it has the potential, but exercise selection and intensity, and dietary habits (i.e. adequate protein) are the arbiters of that bodily response. Where kettlebell sport truly shines is its demand on the cardiovascular system. Of course, to me all of these adaptations are secondary to the benefits people can gain from engaging with the kettlebell community by attending classes, in-house meets, competitions, team dinners, social outings, online challenges, and international trips.

My own kettlebell journey has developed me both personally and professionally, and I encourage new clients to acknowledge the positive aspects of being part of a team.

FEAR OF NEW

Common questions I get about kettlebell sport are, “Isn’t that CrossFit?”, and “that must be bad for your shoulder or back”. Injuries are a common concern for a beginner. This is why starting with a light weight is very important. When starting something new, you want to focus on the technical aspects of the movement. You need to learn how to move the bell around as well as move your body around the bell. Starting light and working on developing your technique with each bell before moving up allows the body time to adapt to the movements, as well as reinforce the integrity of connective and contractile tissues prior to adding more load. Form is paramount to injury prevention.

Lifters have options in the lifts they choose to compete in. They may want to lift in single arm events verus doubles so they can switch hands or they may choose a specific lift to focus on. Someone might find jerk easier on their shoulder than snatch or prefer snatch as its less irritation to their knees. Also lifters can wear knee wraps to help with pre-existing arthritis or joint soreness to help them feel more supported

PHYSICAL BENEFITS

Swaths of folks have noticed the dusty kettlebells sitting neglected in the corner of their local gym or fitness studio, and perhaps they’ve even brushed them off and attempted an aerobic circuit they saw in a magazine. Chances are they’ve “done kettle-balls”, but I know they’ve just scratched the surface, so it’s always exciting to share about kettlebell sport. The words “sport” and “competition” tend to elicit feelings of trepidation and questionable self-efficacy in my average client.

Not everyone played sports in their adolescence, and they may only just be discovering the benefits they missed out on. Being on the field of play, and making quick decisions is an important part of our neuromuscular development. Kettlebells can help, because the biomechanics of swinging creates a reactive demand. When the bell is in motion, its mass and inertia creates external forces on the body that require a unique proprioceptive response. Counterbalance and precise timing of muscle actions are critical components of efficient kettlebell technique. Just like riding a bike, this motor-control is slow to develop in the beginning, but with practice it becomes intuitive.
Starting and maintaining an exercise regimen will inevitably yield general improvements in strength and endurance. Now, I could regale you with anecdotes where seemingly ordinary and otherwise unremarkable individuals managed impressive feats of strength in the suitcase deadlift, turkish get up, or clean and jerk. I could ramble about the many cardiovascular benefits of aerobic activity: decreased blood pressure and resting heart rate, increased blood volume and oxygen uptake. Despite the average person’s acknowledgment of these positive effects, an alarming number of adults find difficulty in maintaining an active lifestyle. This is where the spirit of sport succeeds where other physical interventions fail. At this point in exercise science, it is well documented that despite the modest physiological benefits of low intensity aerobic exercise, forms of higher intensity exercise do a better job of increasing mitochondrial density and blood glucose regulation. In kettlebell sport, as an athlete develops and starts lifting progressively heavier bells, this endurance sport begins taking on additional and complementary athletic demands: explosive power, stability and rapid recovery – in other words, high-intensity exercise. However, to get someone to the level that they may engage in intense exercise on a regular basis, and to do so safely, requires a level of enthusiasm, intrinsic motivation, and overall buy-in that is ultimately at odds with most people’s lifestyle and interests. Fortunately, kettlebells are accessible, and practical tools that, in my opinion, can encourage sustainable physical activity for most people. When I share my own personal experiences with them about the sport, and if I can convince them to attend an in-house event, I see their intrigue and willingness to try something new.

PSYCHOLOGICAL BENEFITS

Like any other individual, I have been self-conscious about my weight and appearance. Kettlebell sport has helped me focus on getting stronger by diverting my attention to improving my performance on the platform,

rather than working out to get skinnier. In the sword and sandal days, warriors trained for battle and the bi-product of that training was they would look strong and fit.

These days we go to the gym to look strong and fit, but clearly it works for some and not others. The predictability of your training results is multi-faceted (e.g. having clearly defined goals, psychological barriers, adequate nutrition, training efficiency, frequency and intensity, etc.) but buying into a cause or purpose really sets the stage for the accountability required to see a training phase through to the end. Setting personal goals and having team pride helps me control my weight by keeping me consistent in the gym, but more important than that are the effects of feeling more confident, happier and stronger (mentally and physically). The kettlebell sport community is a huge contributor to the psychological benefits of the sport. Having a good support system is a cornerstone of achieving sustainability in health and fitness, and in my experience that support system is our community. They will cheer you on from the audience and everyone is each other’s biggest fan. Whether you join sport classes, attend in-house meets or actually travel to competitions the atmosphere is fun and supportive.Since getting my feet wet with kettlebells in 2014,

I owe my longevity in the sport to the physiological and psychological benefits it has to offer. I am the strongest and healthiest I have ever been, and my confidence has grown two-fold as a result of my own progress,

as well as witnessing the progress of my training partners and clientele. I would not trade any of the friends I‘ve made along the way for anything, and reuniting with them at competitions is, without exaggeration, the highlight of these outings. Kettlebell sport is the way I start my day and it helps me keep my positive mindset.

Rachel Robertson Owner of Return to Form – Kinesiology & Pilates
Registered Kinesiologist
B.A. Honours Specialization in Kinesiology, Minor in Food and Nutrition
Pilates Instructor
Balanced Body CoreAlign Master Instructor
YUR Back Instructor
Personal Trainer

Kettlebell Achievements:
Team Member of Nanaimo Kettlebell Club
Represented Team Canada 2015 and 2017 IUKL World Championships
2017 – Gold Medal 24kg OALC – 63kg Weight Class IUKL Worlds South Korea
Gold Medal 16kg Snatch – 63kg Weight Class IUKL Worlds South Korea
Master of Sport – 24kg OALC
Candidate Master of Sport – 20kg Snatch
Rank 1 – 16kg Longcycle
Rank 1 – 16kg Biathlon
Rank 1 – 16kg Triathlon

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