Thursday, April 9, 2009

Kettlebells Go Mainstream On "The Biggest Loser" ...

if by "going mainstream" you mean, "being grossly misused."

In fairness, Jillian Michaels got it totally right about kettlebells being a wonderful tool for muscle conditioning and fat loss. In his article "The Hierarchy of Fat Loss" the activity Alwyn Cosgrove rates as being absolutely number one for improving body composition is what he calls "metabolic resistance training"--resistance training that's structured in such a way as to elevate your heart rate sky high and promote post exercise oxygen consumption (EPOC) while at the same time conditioning your muscles so that you don't lose lean mass even though you're in calorie deficit mode. Well, kettlebell training is the ultimate in metabolic resistance training, as anyone knows who's ever sweated through a heart-pounding session of swings, cleans and snatches.

So, that part was good, and if more people are inspired to try kettlebells because of "The Biggest Loser" I tend to regard that as a good thing.

As long as they don't do what Jillian did. There was nothing good about that. Whatsoever. Okay, I take that back. There's actually nothing inherently unsafe about a healthy person picking up a 10 lb kettlebell, doing a squat, and then performing a front raise. Squats are valid. Front raises are valid, at least if your anterior delts need the extra help, which they probably don't. 10 lbs is a reasonable weight for a woman to be using for a front raise if she's not strong. BUT IT'S NOT A SWING, which is what Jillian claimed it was.

The whole point of a swing is that you're generating power at the hips to bring the weight up. The glutes are the most powerful muscles in the body, and the swing is all about harnessing their power through a rapid, forceful contraction that creates full extension at the hip joint. Upper body strength is irrelevant for the most part. The muscles in the upper torso do come into play, but as stabilizers not prime movers, much as they do during a deadlift. In fact, when I was learning to swing my instructor used kettlebell sumo deadlifts as a preparation exercise to get that very point across.

The other thing my instructor did right, that Jillian did wrong, is that he had me start out with more weight than I would be likely to use on a front raise, just to kinda reinforce the point that I really shouldn't be using my shoulders to raise the weight. If he'd handed me a 10 pound kettlebell like the one Jillian was using, I'm not sure I'd have gotten the idea as quickly. Okay, I probably would've, but only because I've done some Olympic lifting so the concept wasn't completely foreign to me.

Kettlebell purists will probably scream at what I am about to say, but I don't think there's anything inherently wrong with using a kettlebell like a dumbbell or medicine ball or what have you. Okay, I take that back. Please do not attempt to do slams or wall ball shots with a kettlebell. Not unless you're in the midst of a major home renovation project and this is your way of saving on demolition crew costs.

But if you find it more comfortable to hold kettlebells at your sides than dumbbells when you do a lunge or squat, that's fine by me. You'll even get a little extra benefit because you'll likely have to work extra hard to keep your shoulders back and down. But don't think you're "doing kettlebells," because you're really not. You'll get benefits for sure, just as you would with any good traditional workout with free weights. But you won't get anything like the supercharged metabolic conditioning you would if you were using your kettlebells for their intended purpose.

(To use a goofy analogy that probably won't make sense to anyone but me, it'd be like taking a ballet class with pointe shoes on, but never actually coming up on point. It's far from worthless because you're having to work extra hard to balance on the shanks, but it's not pointe work either.)

In summary, I think it's great if more people are inspired to try kettlebells because of what they saw on "The Biggest Loser." But what worries me is that lots of people are going to march out to Target and get some crappy thing with a handle on it that purports to be a kettlebell, then copy Jillian's moves and be disappointed with the results. That's the sort of thing that will give kettlebell training a bad reputation in the long run, and send it back underground faster than it went mainstream.

Edited to add a link to a clip of Jillian doing her thing. Watch and wince!

The "swing" doesn't actually look unsafe to me, just kind of pointless. I mean, really, if that's what you want to do, put down the damn kettlebells, pick up a couple dumbbells, and do thrusters instead. You'll probably be able to go heavier because you won't be relying as much on your anterior delts, and that means a more intense, effective workout.

The "clean & jerk," on the other hand, is just ... well, words fail me, and as you all know, that hardly ever happens. There's no rack apart from whatever girlfriend's got in her shirt, and no double dip unless they all went out for ice cream afterward.