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Why are Kettlebells ‘Functional’?
I know all of you reading this, if asked the question, “Are Kettle Bells functional?” would say: “yes, of course they are”. Perhaps follow that up with a nasty look at me. Am I stupid? How could I not know that? How could I even doubt that they are? Well here’s the thing. Why? What makes them ‘functional’? How can a mass in and of itself be ‘functional’? When you look at a kettlebell (KB), you may see an awesome functional training tool that will aid your clients to get amazing bodies and rock hard abs. Well that’s what the fitness magazines and models will have you believe. In fact, that’s probably an article you’ve read. ‘Top three KettleBell exercises for rock hard Abs!’ When I look at a KB, I see a cannonball with a handle and a tool that if used incorrectly has the potential to cause great harm, easily.
Now before you get started with the hate mail about how I said that KBs aren’t functional, wait. The answer to my question above, are KBs functional? Is: they can be. The tool itself is not. The tool itself is at its simplest, an external mass. It’s the way you apply the tool has the potential to make it ‘functional’. Think about my answer. You can mimic a lot of traditional ‘Grind’ based movements with a KB that are by no means functional. As in they have no real carry over into daily life or sport. I mean, you could do a triceps press, chest press, bent over row repeatedly with the same range of motion and mass all with a KB. In terms of what your body likes in function, this is not actually in the realm of how your body likes to perform tasks. Usually, in life – function, the body likes to share any task across a number of structures in a varied and diverse movement…(Please note, I said repeatedly with the same ROM). So what is “functional training”? In his book Kettle Bell Training, world renowned Kettle Bell expert Steven Cotter describes ‘functional training’ as: “Exercise that addresses the body as a whole system in order to train movements and motor patterns that result in effective movement. Functional fitness programs focus on performance rather than aesthetics”. This requirement for performance or movement not aesthetics is also gaining traction in other publications on human motion and how we evolved as a species of hominid (Forencich, Frank. Play as if your life depends on it: Functional exercise and living for Homo Sapiens. GoAnimal, 2003.).
Let’s break that Cotters definition down:
- Whole body.
- Train movements and movement patterns.
- Result in effective movement.
- Focus on performance not aesthetics.
I would love to throw multi-planer in there as well if I could. So, by definition, if your program becomes based on a single joint / tissue area, doesn’t focus on movement patterns and skill acquisition of these patterns and focuses on aesthetics which usually does not include effective movement. It cannot be functional. It may have a specific purpose for a specific goal, but! It cannot be functional.
Lets take a more positive approach now and look at why a KB could be ‘functional’. In order for a move to be functional we need to think in terms of tissue. Not just muscles. The interconnected Myofascial web that sends so much information to the brain and is massively structurally important is a huge consideration when ‘inflicting’ exercise on people. In his book, Fascia in movement and sport, Robert Schleip includes a whole chapter on KB training, authored by Donna Eddy. It specifically breaks down the KB swing and its relation to function. The KB swing (when done well on a posturally sound body):
- Engages long Myofascial chains
- Stretches load with multi-vectorial variations
- Employs elastic recoil
- Uses preparatory countermovement
- Encourages full proprioception
- Respects matrix hydration
- Respects constitutional differences
- (My favourite) Cultivates your fascial garden
Point nine of this chapter states: proceed with caution. A valid warning. For to move an external mass in a ballistic fashion could be extremely harmful. Fascia in movement and sport, goes on to say that “Gentle perseverance with the swing is needed before moving onto a more technical movement”.
There are other KB movements that you could apply Cotter’s functional training rules to. Lets look at a Turkish Get up: Whole body, yep. Trains movements and movement patterns. Well There’s a push, a rotation, a lunge and a ground to stand, so tick. Results in effective movement. It links all of the joints of the body to create mobility and stability when required (when done well!), so again yes. Focuses on performance not aesthetics. Hmmm, well, because of the before mentioned reasons I am going to say yes. I will say that some aesthetic benefit may be a side effect of doing TGUs. If we look at Donna Eddy’s facial concerns: Engages long Myofascial chains, yes. Stretches load with multiple vectors, yes. It may fall short of a few of the others but it ticks some of the boxes. Oh and my suggestion, multi-planer, yes sir.
It is all well and good to apply KBs to functional training. But know why. Remember, the tool in of itself is not functional. The movements and applications you use it for is what brings function to it. Remember to also ask yourself, does your client like KBs? Do they feel safe using them? Just because you do, it doesn’t mean that they will. These are big factors on the results you and your clients will get from using KBs.
About the Author: Chaddy has been a PT for over 10 years. He is an International Fitness Presenter, TRX Senior Master Instructor, PTA Global Faculty member, Trigger Point Performance Master Instructor and AIK Instructor. His passion for movement and coaching continue to drive his learning and inspire others to learn more about the human being not just the human body.