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Is kettlebell training just a fad?

7308-train5Weight training is subject to fads as much as any other field. All you have to do to know that this is true is to watch infomercials in which people claim to have discovered the secret of gaining muscle mass and losing weight. Within that realm kettlebells have enjoyed a resurgence of popularity in recent years.

Kettlebells are not new—and certainly not a “secret.” If you take the time to research strength training, you will find photos of strongmen using heavy kettlebells at the turn of the 20th century.

Training fads are driven by people who are trying to evade boredom in the gym. Dedicated weight trainers enjoy weight training and the gains and improvements they make. Certainly they change their routines and modify the exercises slightly. Those trainees who train using fads typically don’t last in the home or commercial gym because the motivation is not internal, and some, before they go, change exercises for the worst.

Remember, just because you can perform a movement doesn’t mean you should. There are risks and benefits to any exercise. I have addressed the risks of standard weight-training exercises in this column for many years, and many of the variations of those exercises present even more risk. The number-one goal of any strength coach is to avoid injuries so he or she can keep athletes training and playing their sport. The number-one goal of any trainee or personal trainer should also be to avoid injury, except the goal is to be able to keep training and improving and to avoid the healthcare costs associated with training injuries.

When fads in training occur, practitioners often make up exercises without any thought of their biomechanical or clinical effect. One such popular movement is often referred to as the “Turkish get-up.” It’s performed by lying on your back while holding a kettlebell in one hand over your chest as if performing a bench press. The goal of the exercise is to be able to continue to keep your arm straight and the kettlebell overhead while you sit up and then stand.

I have seen patients perform this exercise with several variations, most of which aggravated a low-back condition, including disk injuries and facet arthritis, not to mention decreased motion of the low back and muscle strain. I typically advise them to stop performing Turkish get-ups and replace them with more commonly performed exercises that have less inherent risk.

There are always exceptions. I know personal trainers who point out that some of their clients perform Turkish get-ups and a variety of kettlebell exercises without pain. The statement brings up multiple questions: How old are these clients? Have they had previous low-back, neck and/or shoulder injuries, and if so, what are they? Do they have current low-back, neck or shoulder problems? Was there a transition period for the new exercises? What was the volume of the exercises? How ballistic were the other kettlebell exercises done, and when is the last time these people performed anything ballistically?

There is much discussion about functional-movement screening. While it may reveal interesting information, the data does not necessarily relate to sports performance or address the deficits, nor does it equate to improved sports performance. The deficits may or may not relate to a patient’s injury pattern, but they may indicate that a new exercise is not the best choice for this trainee.

Weight training has existed since at least the 1870s. It was given a huge boost at the York Barbell Club in the 1930s and ’40s. The basis of those exercises influenced every great bodybuilder since then. Many exercises that were developed then were not biomechanically or clinically sound either.

If these descriptions apply to you, take the time to rethink your training plan so you can keep training. Train smart, then train hard.                 —Joseph M. Horrigan


Editor’s note: Visit for reprints of Horrigan’s past Sportsmedicine columns that have appeared in IRON MAN. You can order the book The 7-Minute Rotator Cuff Solution by Horrigan and Jerry Robinson from Home Gym Warehouse, (800) 447-0008 or at


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