Kettlebell Muscle Building (Part 1): Can You use the Kettlebell to Build Muscle?
I first got serious about training using the kettlebell during the Covid-19 pandemic. In the country we lived in, lockdowns were incredibly strict, so as part of those lockdowns, gyms closed as well. I could not access the weights I had grown so accustomed to. Like many other gym-rats out there, I thought all my progress would fade, my hard-earned gains wither away. I tried different modalities of training, including calisthenics and handbalancing, which I love and train regularly to this day. But my hands missed the feeling of weights. The question was, how could I get that feeling of lifting again, without access to the usual gym equipment? And there was my kettlebell. I had gotten used to doing some work with it here and there, but never thought of it as a viable option for muscle building. So that’s the question: can the kettlebell be used for muscle building?
Kettlebell: A Unique Approach to Muscle Building
When it comes to building muscle, many of us focus primarily on traditional weightlifting exercises such as bench presses, squats, and deadlifts. And for good reason. These movement have a long-standing track record of delivering muscular hypertrophy. Now, these exercises are undoubtedly effective, but an often overlooked and potent tool in the arsenal of muscle builders is the humble kettlebell. It often sits next to the “functional fitness” part of the gym, gathering dust for a number of reasons. Maybe the kettlebell seems too odd, the movements too complex. Or maybe it seems too light relative to other methods of working out. However, kettlebell training offers a unique blend of conditioning and strength development, making it an excellent and time-efficient choice for those looking to pack on lean muscle mass. Kettlebells, with their distinctive round shape and handle, have been used for centuries, originating in Russia as a tool for measuring goods. Over time, their efficacy has gained traction, so much so that you can see kettlebells in most modern gyms. Why is that? Well, what sets kettlebells apart is their versatility and the dynamic movements they enable. So what are the scientific underpinnings behind kettlebell training and its ability to stimulate muscle growth?
Muscle Building: The Science
Muscle building, (aka muscular hypertrophy), in simple terms, occurs when muscle fibers experience tension, which then leads to microscopic damage. The body notes this as an event that necessitates adaptation, which in the case of these micro-tears in the skeletal muscle, are bigger and stronger muscles. That’s why enough intensity and volume are necessary to build muscle. It is this small departure from homeostasis that leads the body to adapt via muscular hypertrophy. In simple terms, your muscles repair and rebuild these fibers, resulting in increased muscle size and strength. Kettlebell training is particularly effective at inducing this muscle-building process, and here’s why:
Kettlebell exercises require controlled movements that engage various muscle groups simultaneously. This dynamic tension stimulates muscle growth by challenging them in unique ways. For example, kettlebell swings involve the posterior chain, including the glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, in a way that traditional exercises cannot replicate. The constant tension during swings and other kettlebell movements contributes to muscle hypertrophy. The ballistic nature of kettlebell movements provides a compounded and novel stress to your muscles, and at the right intensity and volume, is enough of a stimulus to promote muscle growth.
Time Under Tension (TUT):
The concept of TUT, or how long a muscle is under strain during an exercise, is crucial for muscle growth. Kettlebell exercises often involve extended periods of TUT, especially when performing high-repetition sets or complex movements. (Try it out for yourself and you’ll feel what I’m talking about). This extended time under tension promotes muscle breakdown and subsequent growth.
Another factor that contributes to muscle growth is metabolic stress, often referred to as the “pump” feeling during workouts. Kettlebell training, with its ballistic and explosive movements, is particularly good at generating metabolic stress quickly, which can lead to greater muscle adaptation and growth. The combination of strength and cardiovascular demands in kettlebell workouts intensifies this effect. A circuit of heavy kettlebell swings can generate significant metabolic stress to promote muscle growth in just 15-20 minutes at the right weight and intensity.
Unlike some of the more traditional “gym exercises”, kettlebell exercises require coordinated movement patterns that engage both stabilizer and primary muscles. This comprehensive recruitment of muscle fibers enhances muscle development and functional strength. Because of this coordinated muscle recruitment, kettlebells are particularly effective at addressing weak points in our musculature. When I injured myself deadlifting, kettlebell swings were a key component to my recovery. Even more so, adding heavy swings as a finishing accessory movement to my deadlift workouts (or “pull days”) helped me hit new PR’s on my conventional deadlift.
In summary, kettlebell training offers a scientifically grounded approach to building muscle. By providing mechanical tension, extended time under tension, metabolic stress, and efficient muscle recruitment, kettlebells stimulate muscle growth in a way that complements traditional weightlifting exercises. IN the next section, I’ll briefly discuss some of the exercises that are particularly effective for muscle building with the kettlebell.
Muscle Building Kettlebell Exercises
Because of the unique nature of kettlebell training (not to mention, the unique shape of the kettlebell itself), a variety of exercises open up to us to make our workouts more enjoyable, challenging, and ultimately drive more muscular hypertrophy. What are some of these exercises?
The kettlebell swing is perhaps the most iconic kettlebell exercise. It involves a dynamic hip-hinge movement, where the kettlebell swings between the legs and up to chest level. This movement engages the hips, glutes, hamstrings, and lower back, providing an excellent cardiovascular and strength challenge.
This exercise is a full-body movement that incorporates getting up from the ground while holding a kettlebell overhead. It targets the shoulders, core, and stabilizing muscles, enhancing overall strength and mobility.
Clean and Press:
The clean and press is a two-part exercise that involves lifting the kettlebell from the ground to the chest, or “rack” position (clean) and then pressing it overhead. It engages the upper body, including the shoulders, triceps, and upper back.
The kettlebell snatch is a powerful exercise that involves lifting the kettlebell from the ground to an overhead position in one fluid motion. It engages the entire body, from the legs and hips to the shoulders and arms, making it a high-intensity muscle builder.
What Muscles Are Used in Kettlebell Training?
Understanding the mechanics of kettlebell training is key to comprehending how it effectively builds muscle. Let’s delve into the specifics of how various kettlebell exercises engage different muscle groups:
Hip and Lower Body Engagement:
Many kettlebell exercises, such as swings and squats, heavily involve the hips and lower body. The explosive hip-hinge motion during swings activates the glutes, hamstrings, and quadriceps. This coordinated and explosive movement, does well at contributing to leg muscle development.
Kettlebell training demands strong core engagement for stability and control. Movements like the Turkish get-up and windmill engage the abdominal muscles, obliques, and lower back, leading to a more robust core and improved posture.
Upper Body Involvement:
Kettlebell exercises like presses, rows, and snatches engage the upper body, targeting the shoulders, chest, triceps, and upper back. The unstable nature of the kettlebell handle requires additional effort from the stabilizer muscles, enhancing overall upper body strength.
Kettlebell training emphasizes functional movements that translate to real-life activities. This functional strength development can help prevent injuries and improve everyday activities, from lifting groceries to playing sports. Let’s face it, we move in a much more complex way than just the squat and deadlift, and there are rarely instances where the plane of motion of the bench press translates directly to everyday living. Kettlebell training helps to bridge this gap.
Balance and Coordination:
The asymmetrical shape of the kettlebell challenges balance and coordination. This engagement of proprioception and neuromuscular coordination enhances muscle activation and contributes to overall body awareness. Better neuromuscular coordination, means more muscle recruitment, means heavier weights and more reps, which means sweet, sweet gains.
Build Muscle with the Kettlebell
Incorporating kettlebell exercises into your fitness routine introduces a unique stimulus to your muscles. The dynamic movements and muscle engagement set kettlebell training apart, making it a valuable addition to any muscle-building program. In the next section, we will explore how kettlebell training activates specific muscle groups and the science behind their growth.
For the sake of not lulling you into a science-induced slumber, I’ll close out this post here. But If you’re like me and want to dive a little deeper, part 2 of our “Kettlebell Muscle Building” Series (coming soon) will explore our body’s hormonal response to resistance training, and particularly kettlebell training. It will also go over some key points to help you get started on the right foot. Then we will give you a full series of workouts in part 3 (!!!) (coming soon) to help you experience the muscle building potential of kettlebell training yourself.
When I was stuck working out at home, I thought it was the end of seeing more gains from lifting weights, but training with the kettlebell opened up a new world for training. My workouts are challenging, fun, and bring results. I’m excited for you to jump into kettlebell training as well! If you have any questions, don’t hesitate to reach out to email@example.com or comment below! Have fun exploring this new and amazing form of training: the kettlebell.