but we are barbell people

At The Quad, our primary tool of choice to provide General Physical Preparation is kettlebells. 10 years ago, it was near impossible to find anyone who had used kettlebells in the country, let alone find a provider for it. And yet, that's the tool we plumped for - because it was the best tool for the job.

Even though our (Raj and me) background was in barbells, we took a conscious call to put personal biases aside and become kettlebell experts. Last month, we wrote about this choice in our monthly newsletter to The Quad community and I thought I'd re-share that post with one extra bit of commentary.

The back squat, the bench and military press, the deadlift along with pull-ups and power cleans - that was pretty much the entirety of our lifting for a couple of years. Why? Because after a stint with CrossFit, what we both realised was we were lacking in one simple attribute - strength. And to build strength, the best tool is the barbell. For absolute strength, nothing else comes close. Armed with copies of Starting Strength, we set about getting our numbers up.

Before we go into 7 reasons why we picked kettlebells over other tools, let's digress to a small story.

Daedalus and Icarus

You know this story, mostly. Daedalus was a master craftsman who built wings for himself and his son, Icarus, to fly and escape the island of Crete where they were kept. Using feathers and wax, he developed a pair of wings and had not 1 but 2 instructions for his son.

  1. Do not fly too high. You will get too close to the sun, which will melt the wax. You already know this. This is what Icarus did.
  2. Do not fly too low. The waves and the water will get to the contraption.

Which leaves the middle way.

Not too high, not too low.

Not too heavy, not too light.

That's kettlebells.

I’m visiting my friends in a small Oklahoma town. On my own for the afternoon, I wandered around downtown in the rain. This photo was taken after the rain had stopped. The art appears in an otherwise unremarkable alley. I was lucky to catch while water remained on the ground. It’s just not the same without that reflection.

Also, I really effed up my settings on this one. But it still turned out.
Photo by Josh Howard / Unsplash

Yes, you can go pretty heavy - try pressing a 32 kg bell. But you don't need to. You can do a lot of interesting things by greasing the groove with a 24 kg bell and see a ton of benefits, without the worry of extra recovery or slapping yourself and working up the mind and body to lift really heavy.

By just sticking to the middle way, the 70-80% zone, you can continue to make gains. While this applies to load in any tool (including barbells), it is too easy to want to fly too high with barbells. And with machines, it is too easy to fly too low.

The middle way, the Goldilocks zone, the just right - that's the kettlebell universe.

Here are a few reasons why we chose KBs over other tools.

#1 Do we need to go THAT heavy? While we need to lift heavy weights, we don't need to go THAT heavy. Learning to deadlift more than twice your bodyweight, for example, is a good goal and demonstrates solid strength. But for most of us who are just getting into this for general fitness, we don't need to go that heavy. And we definitely do not need to go that heavy to begin with.

But if there is any gap in the kettlebell universe, it would be the lack of a heavy deadlift. That said, heavy double kettlebell cleans go a long way in sorting that problem. For example, I weigh about 64 kgs. Deadlifting 130 kgs vs cleaning the 2x 32 kg kettlebells, I find the deadlift easier than the clean at those weights.

#2 You aren't sleeping enough to lift that heavy!: The heavier we lift, the more recovery one will need. Given that sleep is a luxury in modern life, barbells and heavy lifting would leave one more beat up than stronger.

#3 Kettlebell ballistics: Here is where the kettlebell stands out. While you can practice Olympic lifting with a barbell, the technical nature of those lifts are phenomenally high. Compared to that, teaching the kettlebell swing to someone who has a solid deadlift is something we've done with 1000s of people in a few sessions.

Kettlebell swings, cleans, snatches, the clean and jerk, the push press - the primary kettlebell ballistics that you'd use are outstanding and deliver (about) the same benefits as what the O-lifts can do.

F = m.a. Force is mass times acceleration. Some chappie named Newton mentions this in passing. What can we make of this?

Strength = the force you can produce. So, you can lift a real heavy weight slowly. Or you can lift a moderate weight with a lot more speed. And generate pretty darn good force.

That's what the kettlebell swing does. Using a force plate, Pavel and Dr Stu McGill have found that swinging a 24 kg kettlebell generates about the same force as deadlifting a much heavier weight (>130 kgs).

The kettlebell ballistics really deliver because you can still go reasonably heavy but at the same time, do it at incredible speed (much faster than O-lifts, because the O-lifts are much heavier).

#4 The W-T-H effect: The crazy thing with KBs is what is called as the What the Heck effect. Even when measured scientifically, the work done, the power output, the training volume and all that - the results delivered by kettlebell training always seems to be MORE than expected. Doing 100 kettlebell swings well a few times a week, for example, might be all you need to keep your endurance levels up and even improve your 5k time.

From fat loss, to improved strength while doing minimal strength work, to increased agility, to better breathing, to drastic increases in endurance - the kettlebell continues to confound by delivering more.

#5 One bell for the job: For most training sessions, one bell will fit exactly what you need. For a strong woman, for example, a 24 kg bell is the answer for a heavy training day. And a 12 kg is the answer for a light training day. We don't need to worry about 0.5 kilo and 1 kilo improvements.

What many tout as the advantage of barbells (micro-improvements) is also the advantage of the kettlebell. You don't worry about all those decisions. If you think deep, you will realise there's one perfect kettlebell for today - for the training session and based on how you are feeling.

#6: barbells vs kettlebells vs dumbbells: Everything a dumbbell can do, a kettlebell can do. Plus, there are ballistics with a kettlebell. So, that's simple.

Barbells vs KBs is a bit harder. But knowing what we wanted to coach and offer - GPP - meant there was only one clear winner.

#7 Why not have both? Choices.

For 90% of you, the kettlebell is ample. It answers every question you might have about fitness and GPP (General Physical Preparation).

Choices can sometimes cripple us.

Too many choices is not a good thing.

We picked kettlebells because they are the best Swiss Army knife out there.

in conclusion

So, no barbells ever?!? If you've been training (with us/KBs) for a few years, are StrongEnough and/or have hit benchmarks that Pavel or Dan John have specified - you can totally explore that world.

But if you know what you are doing with a kettlebell, you probably do not need much else.