An Upbuilding Discourse


Research on Being

On the Question of Functional Training

I remember when I first began looking at the topic of exercise that I became very interested at first in functional training done with tools that mimic the unbalanced loads that we tend to encounter in real life. As such, I started to garner an interest in using kettlebells, Bulgarian bags, sandbags, or clubbells. If you are very limited in resources or do not want to use barbells, some of these may be useful to you in addition to a standard dumbbell routine such as a kettlebell deadlift but, in general, I now see a lot of problems with designing your training based on these tools. Because the kettlebell in particular took me in, I would like to address that particular item on its own.


The kettlebell is essentially a cannonball with a handle. This is why is works better for doing a deadlift than a dumbbell would as its handle is elevated to a position closer to where the bar of a barbell would be. It’s design is very simple and badass which is why I think a lot of people are drawn to it, however, using it for training presents a few problems. The first and most obvious problem is simply cost. Kettlebells cost a lot more than dumbbells and yet are often used in pretty similar ways except for a few exercises. You can do many of the same exercises with dumbbells to similar effect as well (for instance, the swing). If you were to train with only one weight, the kettlebell might be a good idea depending on your preferences as you could use it for rows, deadlifts, and Turkish get-ups and similar exercises.

Aside from the issue of the kettlebell itself is the issue of its training approach. People are taught to use kettlebells in a ballistic way with high force and power production. The swing is the kettlebell move par excellence that involves swinging a heavy weight quickly between your legs. This presents many opportunities for injuries especially if form guidelines are not followed very carefully. As a conditioning program, doing kettlebell swings appears to be pretty efficient at working the entire posterior chain which is why it is such an attractive exercise for so many people but it is also dangerous if done incorrectly and many do it incorrectly with the mistaken belief that the kettlebell swing is somehow the best compound exercise out there. Even if this is true, I do not believe the risk is worth it when one considers that squats, deadlifts, and presses done slowly at high intensity can produce the same results with much much less injury potential. Do ballistic kettlebell exercises if you like, but don’t try and fool yourself into thinking that you can’t achieve the same results through other means with less injury potential and if you do do kettlebell exercises, pay very close attention to form (read some kettlebell books and watch some DVDs) and be aware of your surroundings. Otherwise, the kettlebell as a tool can be used for many slow lifts effectively but it is limited in that it is a fixed weight and an expensive fixed weight at that. Fixed dumbbell weights will be cheaper and adjustable barbells or dumbbells will be more versatile in their ability to give you a progressive load over time.

The Fetish of the Tool and the Confusion of Causality

As perhaps implied above, I believe that this fetishization of strange tools is unnecessary and stems from the desire to have something different to train with than what we have traditionally been used to. It thus adds an element of novelty as well as history since many of these tools are old tools. The fact that they are historical artifacts should provide us with a clue, however. These things were used for exercise in the past because nothing else was available not because people thought it was the best way to train. Stabilizer muscles will be trained in the body so long as you use free weights and training will be done in a less stressful and more even way with barbells and dumbbells than with these other tools that are unbalanced. One could argue that this imbalance is good as it mimics real-life situations better but it seems to me that this is a faulty argument. This is the same problem as that found in “aerobic” exercise that I explored in my previous post. You get better because you get stronger, how you get stronger doesn’t matter so you might as well do it in the safest and most efficient way. Training with these objects that ostensibly mimic real-life situations may simply put unneeded stress on different parts of your body, not to mention the fact that there will be no skill transfer but only a change in strength. If you become very good at handling clubbells then you will be very good at handling clubbells and a bit stronger too. You might as well train in a way that allows you better control over your program variables and movements so that you can track your progress better and ensure proper safety. As long as they are free weights, you should get the same benefit as you would from using kettlebells, clubbells, and sandbags with less risk of injury.

To put it simply, it is not ideal to be carrying awkward objects though we may need to do it sometimes, training under less than ideal circumstances puts unnecessary strain on the body since the reason we train is solely to become stronger as the activities we use to train will not transfer to real life unless they exactly mimic real life. So, if you lift sandbags regularly at work than lifting sandbags as a part of your workout routine may actually be helpful but otherwise, it doesn’t make much sense to do unless you’re broke and it’s cheaper to get a sandbag at a hardware store than proper weights. Measuring progress and doing progressive loading, however, becomes very difficult when you’re not sure exactly how much weight you’re lifting.


Filed under: Dumbbells, Functional training, Getting ripped, Kettlebells, Strength training, Training

One Response

  1. […] EDIT: I have changed my mind about many of these things. See here and here. […]

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