Kettlebells are Still Overhyped

or

Why Fitness Fads Annoy Me

I recently came across this article on “9 Kettlebell Exercises for Everyone” and it is typical kettlebell ad copy (propaganda?).

It starts with:

Everyone can benefit from kettlebell exercises. Kettlebells have a unique shape which lets you blast your body in ways dumbbells can’t. You can pull, push, twist and swing kettlebells to get leaner, stronger and more powerful. Plus, kettlebells are easier on your wrists than dumbbells. Also, because of their offset weight, the gravitational pull of a kettlebell goes straight down, instead of from side-to-side with a dumbbell (which is shaped like a teeter-totter).

Let’s break this apart.

  • Everyone can benefit from resistance exercises. Kettlebells are not a special kind of mass. Ask a physicist. Or an exercise physiologist.
  • “Blast your body in ways that dumbbells can’t” is such advertising nonsense that I’m surprised that there is not a link to a product the author makes money off of.
  • Any kind of resistance can “pull, push, twist or swing”. Kettlebells are still not special.
  • Every kind of resistance training can help you get “leaner, stronger and more powerful”. If programmed correctly. Kettlebells actually aren’t good at power!
  • How are kettlebells easier on the wrists? No explanation is given.
    • Kettlebells are harder on your hands though, because the handle will twist against your skin causing more abrasion and callouses.
  • Uh, the gravitational pull of a dumbbell is also straight down. That’s how gravity works. Not side-to-side. This is a made-up problem about dumbbells.

Not an auspicious start.

So, what are the exercises?

Exercises with Kettlebells

There is only one Kettlebell Exercise™©®, Bottoms-Up presses. It’s the only exercise where the unique characteristics of a kettlebell are both necessary and useful. An argument can be made also for the swing. But I don’t buy that argument.

Everything else is just exercises that can be done with kettlebells. All of these existed before kettlebells were getting hyped. All of them can be done well with dumbbells or barbells. These exercises, done with barbells and dumbbells, are used for athletic performance development and have demonstrated track records (literally) of being the best approach for athletic development.

So what exercises made the list?

In the linked article we see the following:

  1. Deadlift – like seriously, that’s where you start your article? The deadlift is an exercise clearly best done with a barbell, as that let’s move the most weight. Do you want to do a deadlift with form that mimics the kettlebell? Great, do sumo deadlifts. Problem solved.
  2. Swing – the other exercise that is arguably better with a kettlebell besides the bottom’s up. But this exercise was done with dumbbells before kettlebells. And using a KB causes rotational stresses on your hand that rip up your skin. Some folks find this manageable but other don’t.
  3. Squat – you are limited by your ability to get the weight into place, an upper body limitation more than a lower body limitation. Barbells do this better. And the version depicted – goblet-style – can be done just fine with dumbbells.
  4. Snatch – NO. Just no. Unless you actually compete in kettlebell snatches there is no good reason to do them. They risk breaking your arm for no benefit. Even if you don’t break it, you’re going to get bruises and welts from the weight landing on your forearm. Do them with dumbbells for the exact same fitness benefit without the risk. Or do them with barbells to really train power. The weight limit imposed by doing them with KBs means they can’t do a good job of training power.*
  5. Clean – can be done with dumbbells. Are better done with barbells. Rotating sleeves. Higher weights. Better outcomes.
  6. Turkish** Get-up – can be done with dumbbells. There is no benefit to doing them with kettles.
  7. Push-press – do I have to repeat myself at this point?
  8. (kneeling) Halos – Can be done with anything. I’m not sure why these are being shown kneeling. No explanation is given. Also, do I really want to “blast my core”? What does that even mean?
  9. Counting error in original article. Seriously.

Cults

Seriously. The kettlebell gets pretty cult like. They have certifications and instructors and competitions and great ad copy. They charge a lot of money for a cheap lump of iron.

Nothing does everything well

I love barbells. I own four, and lots of weight to go on them. I do a lot of barbell exercises. And I acknowledge their limitations. Anyone that says something is good for everything is wrong. And they are probably selling something.

Fitness Objectives

On this blog I’ll talk about strength training or cardiovascular training and similar terms. Where we focus on the fitness objective in defining the exercise, instead of focusing on the tool. And that’s one of the big differences between a sensible training program and exercise fads.

 

Also, I’ve talked about kettlebells before on my old blog: Fight with All Your Strength.

 

* Also, the idea that a one paragraph description of how to do a KB snatch is sufficient is just irresponsible and dangerous. The author wrote more on the push press than the snatch.

** I’ve been worried for a while now that this term is racist, just because of human history. But I can’t find anything on that. And what I can find about just it’s origin is inconclusive.

Bad News Everybody!

or

On How I Continued Strength Training with a Broken Finger

About a month ago I broke a finger. My right index finger, proximal phalanx. Yes, I’m  right-handed.

I broke it sword-fighting. (For those who don’t know I do Historical Fencing at Athena School of Arms.) My opponent’s sword hit a gap in my protective gear. The hit split my skin all the way down to the tendon. There was a visible, longitudinal defect in the tendon – that I got to see in the ER. And there is a diagonal fracture along the length the bone. Minor as far as fractures go – not displaced or open.

And so I was put into a heavy duty splint. It immobilized me from the tip of the index finger down to the carpal bones. With the middle finger included in the finger splint, almost like buddy taping the fingers. And it wrapped around the base of my thumb. I could barely get my thumb and pinky finger to grip.

But I Did Strength Training Anyways

I’m not convinced the OT who created my splint would have really approved of my exercise routine, but . . .

There was no chance I was going to stop unless it was impossible.

Lower Body Strength Training

Squats, and variants thereof, were alright, it was just harder to grip the bar solidly to stabilize it. I’ve just been concerned with the fail state – if I had to ditch the weight I can’t move my hand out of the way as easily as usual.

Deadlifts are right out because I can’t generate the grip strength necessary. So I replaced them with barbell hip thrusts. It’s possible to move a surprising amount of weight with this. I’m up to almost 300 pounds with this. Single-leg deadlifts were still doable because the weight was light enough to grip.

Upper Body Strength Training

This is where it got interesting. I couldn’t do any pushing exercises because the splint came down across the heel of my palm by the thumb. And of course I had trouble gripping for pulling exercises!

I solved this with a lifting hook. This is like the more common lifting straps, but I went for something more intense, these: Lifting Lab Weightlifting Hooks. These put almost all the pull into the strap around my wrist letting me do pulling exercises pretty close to normal. I even reached a point where I could do pullups!

The other workaround I used was to put an ankle strap around  my wrist and use a cable column machine for flyes, reverse flyes and front raises. This allowed me to target both the pecs with the flyes and the deltoids with the raises. Thereby covering the same muscles I would work with typical pushing exercises. This preserves the muscle performance.

When I got back to bench press last week my plan had worked and I had maintained nearly 100% of what I was at when I broke my finger (5 pounds away from finally benching 2 plates!)

And the reverse flyes hit the mid-back muscles until I was able to return to doing rows instead.

Olympic Lifts

. . . were right out. Boo. But I continued with box jumps to keep up my lower body explosive power.

Progress

At my follow-up appointment last week the splint got reduced to just a finger splint, freeing up most of my hand and allowing me to go back to doing regular pushing exercises. Hooray!

Finger splint

After a few weeks like that and now I can even take the splint off and type normally.

The Physical Therapy Attitude

I didn’t let my injury stop me anymore than absolutely necessary. I kept up with every exercise I could and adapted those that were not doable in the usual manner. A big part of what I see physical therapy as being good for is this concept of maintaining function and adapting instead of stopping activity. We keep people moving. No matter what (almost).

No. I Prefer Food. Not Protein Powder.

I asked a colleague if she had any suggestions for topics. She suggested protein powders.

I said, “ugh, no. I prefer food.”

So she suggested I explain why. And fine, I will.

Protein Powder for Strength Gains

The basic concept behind protein powder and supplements is that they “help” or are even necessary for strength training. Because you need sooo much protein (I resisted the urge to insert an eyeroll emoji). I saw some pretty big numbers for protein requirements for strength training, as big as 400g per day! And if you really believed those numbers then sure, protein powder would help you hit that number.

To the research!

How much protein do people need? The USDA gives a value of 0.8 g/kg/day. This number is set to be sufficient for 97.5% of the population. Let’s assume that people who are serious about strength training make-up the 2.5% who need more (not actually a reasonable assumption, but let’s pretend). But remember that plenty of folks actually need less than the RDA.

The American College of Sports Medicine (ASCM) recommends (PDF) 1.2-1.7 g/kg/day for strength training. With a floor of 1.5 for novice lifters recommended by the National Strength & Conditioning Association (NSCA).

Published research from the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey (NHANES) shows that most people are getting enough protein. The average American is actually already getting enough protein to be engaged in serious strength training without having to change their diet or add protein powder/supplements.

The exceptions found in the NHANES study were that a small but significant number of adolescent and elderly women who were not getting enough protein. That’s it.

If most people are getting enough without doing anything extra then why is there such a business in protein powder sales?

Protein Powder is Easy

If you’re worried that you’re not getting the gains you want then protein powder provides an easy route to thinking you’ve solved the problem. Just buy something and you’re all set! You don’t have to actually analyze your diet, activity, form or program. Just buy something.

But protein consumption doesn’t trigger muscle building. If I deliver a bunch of construction materials to a local builder they aren’t going to just build a building because I provided the supplies. And you won’t build muscle just from eating protein. You need to do the strength training. You need to have a sensible program, with proper rest periods and enough work etc.

From looking around the gym it seems like a lot of the folks who are consuming the protein powder are already doing a reasonable program and are probably doing just fine with building muscle. In which case the powder is just a placebo. It does nothing but helps them feel like their approach is great. That feeling that they are doing all the right things probably helps with motivation and effort – which improves the outcomes. But the powder still isn’t actually helping.

But why not use it, just in case?

Because it’s false.

Because it’s a waste of time.

Because it’s a waste of money.

Because it causes some people digestive problems. And telling those people they “need” to do it is a problem.

Because facts matter.

But maybe I’m not getting enough protein.

Then use MyFitnessPal and check. The app is free, unlike the powder. Or any other fitness and nutrition app – I can personally vouch for liking this app and finding it useful and having heard almost universally positive reviews.

Odds are you are getting enough protein, though.

Don’t use the target number the app generates. Use the math above.

Vegetarians and Vegans

Folks with these types of diets are more likely to be not getting enough protein. For meat eaters it’s pretty easy to get enough protein. For non-meat eaters is frequently takes a bit more effort and planning. But it’s still perfectly possible to do so just using food. And they need to make sure they’re protein sources are complete, which most vegetarians and vegans seem to already be aware of. Vegetables and fruits do have protein and a quick Google search brings up plenty of lists of high protein plant foods.

Conclusion

Protein powder is unnecessary and if you really are having trouble getting enough with the foods you are eating then I encourage you to first try upping your intake of protein rich foods to hit the goal. In particular vegetables and fruits. The real reason for preferring food though is the benefits of the micronutrients and fiber contained in the food. Both of which are good for health.

Bibliography

Fulgoni, V. L. (2008). Current protein intake in America: analysis of the National Health and Nutrition Examination Survey, 2003–2004. The American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, 87(5), 1554S-1557S. https://doi.org/10.1093/ajcn/87.5.1554S
protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://www.acsm.org/docs/default-source/brochures/protein-intake-for-optimal-muscle-maintenance.pdf
Szedlak, C., & Robins, A. (2012). Protein Requirements for Strength Training. Strength & Conditioning Journal, 34(5), 85. https://doi.org/10.1519/SSC.0b013e31826dc3c4

Appendix: Looking at Online Searches

I expected to find that most of the links I clicked would overestimate protein needs. And perhaps my results are associated with my search history and particular search terms, but I was pleasantly surprised to not find that. In fact WebMD even low-balled the protein estimate (and didn’t even say I had cancer!). Many of the sources I found just quoted the USDA and/or ACSM recommended numbers, which is encouraging.

But the hits weren’t all good. Strength training oriented sites (like BodyBuilding.com) tended to recommend higher amounts than actually needed. With the International Sport Sciences Association (ISSA) recommending 2-3 g/kg per day. Which is almost double the actual need. The reason I highlight this is the fact that ISSA does personal trainer certifications. Which shows that the cert isn’t necessarily a reliable indicator of knowledge. (I’ll also point out that they provide references for the rest of the info on that ‘myths’ page but have no reference for this recommendation.)

In general the hits I got were for sites emphasizing the need to get enough protein and generally taking the attitude that you need more or need to make sure you’re getting enough. But the reality is that most people already are. So the emphasis is all out of whack.

Benefits of Strength Training

I’ve written before about the benefits of strength training, on my previous blog. Now recent research backs up one of the reasons I’ve long suspected.

As I’ve brought up before, it’s important not to over-interpret preliminary evidence or attempt to extrapolate from basic science to clinical reality. So while I’ve long suspected that strength training would have a benefit when it comes to diabetes development, I’ve avoided actually saying that.

And so it’s always nice when the clinical studies back up what I suspected. Hooray!

One of the things I learned from my exercise physiology education was that strength training upregulates GLUT4 on muscle cells. GLUT4 is an insulin triggered transporter for glucose. This means that strength training increases the ability and sensitivity of the of the muscle cell to take glucose out of the bloodstream and put it in the muscle cell.

Theoretically, this should reduce the likelihood of diabetes. But does it?

To the research!

I recently came across this study from JAMA: A Prospective Study of Weight Training and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Men. The large Health Professionals Follow-up Study was used to track physical activity in 32,002 men for 18 years. Any physical activity reduced the risk of developing or dying from diabetes. Strength training was more effective than cardiovascular training. Both was better than just one.

Things to note about why this research is notable for this conversation:

  1. The size of the study. Tens of thousands of subjects followed for nearly 2 decades is a lot.
  2. The effect sizes are large. For relative risk, reducing the number of cases by up to 1/3, of one of the most common and expensive lifestyle modifiable diseases, is a big deal.
  3. P value was tiny. P < .001. This wasn’t one of those, “if I hack it I can get P to equal .05” types of studies.
  4. Dose response. There is a clear, fairly linear, dose response of more weight training leads to lower risk.
  5. Normal living humans. Study was conducted on humans. The people were not having their lives dictated to them by researchers.

The best results were seen at 150+ minutes per week of weight training, cardiovascular exercise and for both. This may seem like a lot, but it’s hitting the gym 3 times a week and going for a 30 minute brisk walk most days.

There are limitations to the study, of course. It’s not randomized, but the best studies of this type of question can’t be because it’s hard to control behavior for that long in free-living humans. It’s only in men. Weight training is not necessarily defined the same as strength training.

Conclusion

As I’ll keep saying, the best outcomes result from a complete approach to physical activity which includes strength training, cardiovascular exercise, flexibility/range-of-motion and neuromotor (balance/agility) training.

Reference

Grøntved, A., Rimm, E. B., Willett, W. C., Andersen, L. B., & Hu, F. B. (2012). A Prospective Study of Weight Training and Risk of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus in Men. Archives of Internal Medicine, 172(17), 1306–1312. https://doi.org/10.1001/archinternmed.2012.3138

Putting Together the Program

Last week I posted about the basics of a strength training program – Getting Started with Strength Training. It contains the basic elements of what strength training should include. This post is about everything else that goes into putting together the program: warm-up, planning your sessions and progressing the plan.

Warm-up

Exercise should be begin with a warm-up. It’s problematic to jump straight from cold, “I just drove to the gym”, to vigorous exercise. Doing so increases the risk of injury.

What’s not necessary is stretching, in the sense of doing static positions to feel a stretch. Especially for long holds. A brief stretch, if it helps you feel more ready to move isn’t bad.

The Warm-Up is literally named. You should have a light sweat going by the time you are done. Your pulse should be above 100. But it shouldn’t be tiring or difficult either. A light jog, a few minutes on the bike, jump rope, really whatever works for you is fine.

How long this should take depends on the context. It will take longer to warm-up on a cold day outside than it does in a hot gym. A bike ride or jump rope may warm you up a bit faster than a light jog.

Building dynamic stretches into the routine is helpful but not essential. It’s a topic that will be covered later.

Cool Down

Taking some time to cool down after a workout is also helpful. Rather than jumping straight into a cold car. A short walk. Or just doing light exercises as the end or your workout etc.

Building it into the plan

I always encourage folks to build physical activity time into their routine to make it easier to get the recommended amount of activity. This ties into designing a program for yourself because if you can warm-up by walking to the gym and cool down by walking home, then it’s easier to get the workout done in a reasonable amount of time. Or jog, or bike to the gym.

Planning Each Session

Here’s a suggested break down of the exercises in the first post into a 2 day a week plan:

Day 1

  1. Squats
  2. Bench Press
  3. Step-ups – use a box/step platform, not the padded bench, if you’re gym has one
  4. Bent-over row
  5. Planks
  6. Side planks

Day 2

  1. Straight leg deadlift
  2. Pull-ups
  3. Split squat
  4. Overhead press
  5. Planks
  6. Side planks

This is intended to be a basic, easy starter plan. If you feel like it’s not enough you can message me for suggestions or watch for future posts.

Make sure to have a day in-between the workouts.

Progressing the Plan

Week 1 just use 5# weights for everything. It’s supposed to be easy, and the point is to learn the movements. Any movements you’re not sure about feel free to do without weights initially. It’s more important to get the movement right than it is to look impressive at the gym.

When you reach a point where you can do 15 reps at that weight, and feel good about the movement, for all 3 sets, then it’s time to progress. Progress slowly at first add 2.5#. At the low end of weight gyms typically have dumbbells in 2.5 pound increments or even smaller. But you may need to look for some magnetic 1.25# weights and add a pair, depends on the gym.

Once you get around 30# you should start increasing weight in 5# increments.

The progression scheme is for each exercise individually. Which means that keeping track of everything can get awkward.

Record your progress

Bring a notebook. You won’t be alone in doing so. Or use a note taking app on you phone.

Or use the Jefit app. It’s the best app for this purpose that I’ve encountered. (Hahahaha, I don’t get any money from them – just in case you were wondering)

Upping the Intensity

After a month up the intensity. Now aim for 12 reps. Obviously the same weight won’t be a challenge at fewer reps, so up the weight on everything. Not a lot for the first set. See how that first set goes and then bump it up a notch for the 2nd or 3rd set based on how that went.

I’d suggest going up in intensity level at 1 month intervals, as discussed in the last post.

When you reach a month at the 6RM level then it’s time to up your game to some more serious strength training. Which is not today’s post.

What to Expect When You Are Starting

Oh yeah, you are going to be sore. That’s normal. It may take a day, or two, to feel it. It may take a day or two to resolve. That’s all normal too. As you make this a regular routine it will become less of an issue. Pain or discomfort in your muscles is normal. But pain in the joints is not.

You may want to massage the sore muscles. That’ll help them feel less icky but it isn’t magic. You’ll still be sore.

You should take it easy on days you are sore. That means some walking, other light exercise is fine. But don’t go lifting weights.

Conclusion

Good luck, strength training is fun. More fun than a treadmill. But I may be biased.

As always, if you have any follow-up questions, feel free to ask in the comments or email.

Getting Started with Strength Training

(This is an update of a post from my old blog)

This is about getting started with strength training. For those who have little or no experience with the topic.

I firmly believe that just about everybody will benefit from strength training. It has different health benefits from cardio and flexibility training. It is part of the ACSM guidelines for physical activity for adults.

One of the big reasons is that strength training is all about functional activities. I could rename the core exercises of a typical strength training program as:

  • Picking up heavy things
  • Carrying heavy things
  • Carrying heavy things up and down the stairs
  • Pushing something
  • Pulling something
  • Keeping your spine stable

First though, we need to properly define strength training: Strength training is exercises hard enough that you can only do 12 in a row or fewer. Or, with isometric exercises, a position you can only hold for less than 45 seconds. 

Otherwise what you are doing is endurance training. Which is not the same thing.

Primarily, it’s not about which exercises you do, but how heavy. Bodyweight squats are an endurance activity for most folks because they can do 15 or 20 or more. But if you did the exact same exercise while holding weights – enough weight that you could not do more than 12 – then the exercise would be strength training instead.

The basic exercises I recommend here are dumbbell exercises. This is because adjustable dumbbells are cheap, readily available and usable at home; alternately they are commonly available an just about any gym. Dumbbells also address a common cause of hesitation in new folks, the concern about the bar, in barbell exercises. 

The Exercises

  1. Squats – can also be done with the dumbbells held by the side
    • Can also be done with a goblet style hold for lower weights
  2. Split squats 
  3. Straight leg deadlifts
    • Alternate option, easier to do safely – Hip thrust/bridge with weight (you can start this with dumbbells in your lap. You need to put your back up against something sturdy. I push a chair up against the wall).
  4. Bench press – can be done on the floor, a bench isn’t necessary
  5. Bent-over row
  6. Shoulder/overhead press – do this standing not seated 
  7. Pull-ups (a pull-up bar can be gotten that works in almost any apartment and doesn’t require tools to install). Here‘s a primer on doing pull-ups if you can’t yet.
  8. Planks – when you get up to 45 seconds, start adding weight. Put it on the small of your back
  9. Side planks – when you get up to 45 seconds, start adding weight. Put it on your hip
    • Start with the bent knee version if necessary

This set covers every major muscle group in the body and works them in all the major planes of motion. So it is very nearly complete.

The amount of weight you are looking for is something that will develop strength, which means higher weights and lower reps.

Start at 12-15 RM – Repetition Maximum – the number that you can do before you cannot do another with good form.

Start easy on the exercises to develop your form. In the long run good form is much more important that increasing weight quickly.

For each week pick an intensity level. Do all of your exercises at that level. Every 4 weeks you can increase the intensity level.

Intensity levels:

  1. 15 RM – learning the movement
  2. 12 RM – building endurance for the movement
  3. 10 RM – building muscle
  4. 8 RM – building muscle and strength
  5. 6 RM – building strength

I wouldn’t go higher than that without a spotter though.

Do the workout at least twice a week and each session has a rest day in-between another session. So not more than three times per week.

Aim for multiple sets of each exercise. 2-3 sets is a reasonable workout.

But if you only have time to do one of each then start there.

You need to rest between each set to get the most out of it.

  • 12-15RM – rest 60+ sec.
  • 8-12RM – rest 90+ sec.
  • 6-8 RM and heavier – rest 2-4 minutes

You can shorten the rest periods if you alternate exercises between different muscle groups e.g. push/pull or upper/lower. But you’ll still need rest between sets. This sort of plan can be done on “light” days.

For strength training you should also have a “heavy” day where you don’t alternate like this, take appropriate rest periods and do fewer exercises.

Questions? Feel free to ask.

There’s a part II about Putting Together the Program.