I’m just going to come out with it and after more than 10 years of experience in all three fields I feel like I can say with confidence:
If you’re after strength or hypertrophy then kettlebells will help you reach those goals, there is no need for barbells or dumbbells. That is, if you know how to train with them and program smart.
Do I only use kettlebells, no! Why not? Plenty of reasons, I like variety, the kettlebell does require some changes in the movement for certain exercises, the kettlebell comes with a higher learning curve, most of the time you have to work with 4kg increments in weight which can be too much, and most gyms do not have the full weight selections available for the kettlebell. If I’d have access to a fully equipped kettlebell gym all the time and work with athletes that got the fundamentals of kettlebell training down, would I then only use kettlebells? Mostly, yes.
This article is not about one being better over the other, it’s to put the age-old question to bed, can you achieve strength or hypertrophy with just the kettlebell?
YES. I strongly believe that it is possible to achieve strength and hypertrophy with just the kettlebell. In fact, I believe that due to the offset center of mass it has a slight advantage over the dumbbell or barbell with some exercises. I say belief, as I only have personal proof up to a certain stage, i.e. not the ultimate stage of competing in bodybuilding or performing amazing feats and displaying incredible strength. Hence, I will be judged on that and thus call it a belief, a belief that those goals can be met with the kettlebell.
I will now go into details and explain my belief.
A weight is a weight.
I am proficient handling barbells and dumbbells and have been using them—before I started kettlebells—and will continue to do so in my line of work, I’m not only a kettlebell coach but also train people in other disciplines, and most of the time my in-person training with them is for technique, strength, fixing injuries, or helping to perform or move better. Hence, it’s not an opinion without knowledge and understanding of all the tools discussed.
Whenever I bring up the subject matter the deadlift will be the first exercise thrown up in the air. There is no doubt about it, you can load a barbell with way more weight than you ever can with a kettlebell. But let’s take a step back and look at the objective of the conventional deadlift. The objective is to tax the posterior chain. Let’s isolate and make the gluteus maximus and hamstrings the main targets for this example.
A common heavyweight the kettlebell comes in is 48kg, there are heavier weights, but usually, it’s up to 48kg/105lb that’s a bit easier to get your hands on. Take two of those (96kg) and perform a stiff legged deadlift. OK, you’re probably not going to be able to do it because that is some serious weight already. Let’s say that it would be a breeze for you, next would be to isolate one leg and do a single stiff legged deadlift, you’re now deadlifting 96kg with one leg! Of course, there will be the added complexity of stability etc. but that can become a quality that improves the rest of your training.
Is this approach the easiest, easier than a barbell? Probably not. More beneficial in the long run? Probably yes. The conventional deadlift is the main exercise which quickly can become a good reason to look at the barbell if one does not want to deal with the complexities of the kettlebell that could potentially create better results in the long run.
This is where the offset center of mass comes into play. The kettlebell requires an understanding of how to move and overcome what could be seen as beneficial difficulties. A dumbbells’ center of mass is in your hand and makes it much easier to maneuver, whereas the center of mass for a kettlebell is away from the hand and requires different grips and rotations, some of the muscles we want to work for those big guns are also responsible for forearm supination (rotation), hence, additional benefit. There are exercises where you get more resistance from the kb like the standing bent biceps curl. They require more wrist and grip strength, which in the long run is going to benefit everything in your training that involves gripping something. But again, there is more complexity, which is not always what people want or need.
Working the latissimus dorsi (lats) with kettlebells can be an extremely difficult thing with kettlebells, but certainly not impossible if you know the right exercises. I’ve always been a fan of incorporating wide grip pull-ups in my training to work the lats but will also use the following kettlebell exercises:
- floor pull-overs
- bent press
- bent side press
- renegade rows
Throughout regular kettlebell training your lats will get a workout if you know how to connect with them and use them, but the above exercises, in particular, require good lat activation, however, they’re never the prime mover in the exercise, hence, pull-ups.
Can an athlete outgrow the kettlebell? Yes, I’d say that when done right, right exercise selection, programming, time under load, etc. this will be a very small percentage, but it can certainly happen to where the athlete will need to move over to the barbell. The point of this article though is not, can the kettlebell do it all and forever, no, the point is whether the kettlebell is good and can be used for strength or hypertrophy.
So, I repeat, if you’re after strength or hypertrophy then you can get all that from the kettlebells if you:
- have the full range of weights
- have the right weight increments
- have the right weight (heavy)
- understand and know how to deal with the offset center of mass
- know how to program
- want to invest time to overcome the learning curve
My point being, kettlebells can create serious result when you’re after strength or hypertrophy, there is no doubt in my mind, it just comes down to, are you after something easy or something more complex and potentially better results in the long run.
Here is a video in where I use several different tools to work the elbow flexors. You’ll also see the standing bent biceps curl which I like very much due to the additional range of motion you get.
In this video, I demonstrate some of the kettlebell exercises for the biceps that I’ve created over time.
A great video to watch from another source about kettlebells and hypertrophy
Most of the time the debate will be in regards to hypertrophy and kettlebells rather than strength, but still, in general, people look at the kettlebell as a tool for cardio, this is due to the popularity of the kettlebell swing and snatch, which can also be programmed to actually work more on strength rather than cardio but more on that in other resources.
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