Kettlebell Vs Barbell – you decide!
One of the topics of theoretical debate that is circulated in the strength world is the head-to-head matchup between different strength training modalities, and in recent years, specifically barbell vs. kettlebell training.
I cannot definitively choose one over the other. For argument’s sake, let’s assume you have £300 burning a hole in your pocket and you had to decide to choose between either a barbell set or some kettlebells. In this article I will compare training with the two and give you some ideas to formulate a potential reason why one might be better than the other for your training programme.
Strength & Power
Who are the strongest and most powerful athletes in the world? It will be a toss-up between power lifters and Olympic lifters. Both primarily use heavy barbell training to get as strong as they can for competition. Barbell training allows for the body to perform compound movements (squats, deadlifts, cleans, snatches) while easily progressing the weight to an unlimited amount.
The heaviest kettlebell we have at theMovementPerformanceAcademygym in Northwich is 48 kg and even the school athletes have no problem deadlifting that kettlebell after some training experience. If you purchase a standard barbell set it comes with a bar and 150kg of weight. That is plenty of weight for the aspiring weightlifter. Even if you worked up to the max weight your barbell set holds; and your squat, deadlift and bench press is not too shabby and if you build freak strength to be able to clean, press or row anywhere near that set max call the Olympic training centre.
Kettlebell sets usually increase in weight from one to the next by 4 kg. Yes you can progress in strength by adding incremental weight but then you would have to purchase a lot of kettlebells and if you wanted to do double kettlebell work you will blow through your £300 budget very quickly and have only a few kettlebells to show for it.
If overall strength and power is your goal, go with barbell training.
I do believe the mantra that any exercise can be dangerous. It depends on your experience mobility, injuries, coaching and daily training factors. You can get hurt picking up a kettlebell just as easily as you can a barbell, no matter what the weight.
From my experience, kettlebell exercises are generally safer to perform especially for the young and/or beginning lifter. Kettlebells are excellent for teaching the proper set up and lifting mechanics of the major lifts.
Using the example of a deadlift; a barbell deadlift is performed with a bar which makes proper set up and execution a bit challenging. The bar sits in front of the body and very close to the shins. The proper mechanics of sitting the hips back, grabbing the bar, getting the head neutral, locking the shoulders back to prevent rounding of the upper back, tightening the stomach, driving through the heels while keeping the bar close to the shins is a challenge for the new lifter. If the difficult set up and execution are not successful and continually repeated poorly, then it is not a matter of if but when a lower back injury will occur.
In contrast, in the kettlebell deadlift the kettlebell is positioned directly between the knees and ankles, much further back than a bar can be placed. When you sit back into position, it is much easier to grab the kettlebell while maintaining the safe, shoulder retracted position.
The same can be said for proper squat exercise. Many beginning lifters, especially young ones who are still growing, cannot handle having a loaded Olympic Barbell on their back and the compression of the spine may be do more harm than good, especially for the adolescent lifter. Performing barbell front squats and an alternative to the back squat might not load the spine as much, however, front squats can be difficult to perform especially without proper core strength and stability since the weight wants to pull the body forward.
The kettlebell squat (or goblet squat) is the ideal movement for new lifters. There is minimal spinal compression and the weight sits perfectly close to the chest with the arms resting right along the rib cage.
One of my favourite movements for the kettlebell over the barbell is for overhead (military) pressing. I have found that shoulder mobility is limited on people and many have different mobility ranges between their shoulders. Using a barbell for overhead presses forces the shoulder joint to follow the same movement pattern on both sides due to the fixed bar. This might not be the best idea for a shoulder joint with limited mobility; it is an injury waiting to happen. In contrast, the kettlebell overhead press allows the person to press a weight overhead within the natural path that their shoulder likes to travel compensating for different joint mobility. Some people might feel stronger and safer keeping their elbows close to the body, while others might need to externally rotate their shoulders to be at their strongest.
We can compare and contrast barbell vs. kettlebell exercise safety and execution right through to next year so I will stop with these examples, however I have one more issue regarding safety; generally, kettlebells are safer when training alone. You do not need a spotter nor a rack to set up the weight and safety pins in case the barbell lift gets a little dicey.
I am sticking to my original proclamation that if your goal is to get strong you only need a standard barbell set and you have literally hundreds of exercises that can be executed. That being said, kettlebells too offer numerous variations among exercises and may offer more especially within one key area.
Using the lunge as an example; with the barbell you can lunge with the bar on your back, in the front position, overhead and possibly in the zercher (holding the bar in front within the crux of the elbows) position and that is about it.
With the kettlebells you can hold low, racked position and overhead, but you also have the option of using a just a single kettlebell, loading one side of the body solely which trains the core muscles for anti-rotational movements.
With the kettlebells you can hold low, racked position and overhead, but you also have the option of using a just a Single kettlebell training is not limited to unilateral training like the barbell. Single kettlebells can be easily executed with deadlifts and squats as well. Single kettlebell, loading one side of the body solely which trains the core muscles for anti-rotational movements.
As far as exercise variation is concerned, with either the barbell or the kettlebell you are only limited by your imagination. Either training tool will serve you well and keep you balanced.
If you are not a pure strength athlete and may benefit from a balance of repetitive use of power and strength endurance then I think both the barbell and the kettlebell are equally effective in a properly planned training program. It is quite simple to set up a light barbell and kettlebell and perform 4-6 exercises for time or repetitions in a circuit style manner. This will increase your strength endurance and potentially increase your athletic potential.
Though you can obtain excellent muscular strength endurance from either barbell or kettlebell training I feel that there is one exercise, unique to kettlebells that quickly develops the strength endurance quality in a short amount of time, it is the kettlebell is the swing. The kettlebell swing is much easier to learn than Olympic lifting and targets a powerful hip drive that is required in sporting movements. Not too many sports require and athlete to have one all-out-explosive movement that the Olympic lifts train; the swing allows for a little more versatility in its effect. It teaches that stop-and-go power.
There you have my experience and opinions of barbell training and kettlebell training for different training protocols and desired results. If it’s pure strength and power you are after, a barbell can get you those results as long as you have proper technique. If a balance between strength and conditioning is what you are after (especially if you are a beginner or a young athlete) kettlebells are an excellent way to go. I hope this gave you a better idea of what to do with that £300 in your pocket. Now go out and make it happen.