Friday 22 June 2012

Kettlebells vs. Barbells for Strength, Power, Vertical Jump and Body Composition

While the barbell has been a staple for developing strength and power, the kettlebell (though a very old tool) has grown tremendously in popularity over the last decade. Which is better? While there are different opinions on which is the best tool, we are finally getting some actual research to validate these opinions. If you want to improve your strength or power, which one should you use? Here is what the research says...

The Study:
In the May 2012 Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, researchers investigated the effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength and power. Thirty healthy men were randomly assigned to either a kettlebell or a weightlifting group. Both groups performed the same sets, reps and number of exercises.

The kettlebell group performed the following lifts:
  1. Swings
  2. Accelerated swings (this is where a partner pushes down on the kettlebell during the lowering phase of the swing to accelerate the speed of the kettlebell and get more of a plyometric effect)
  3. Goblet Squats

The weightlifting group performed the following lifts:
  1. High pull
  2. Power clean
  3. Back squat
The measurements:
  • Body mass
  • Vertical jump
  • Back squat
  • Power clean
The results:
  • Both groups increased strength, power and vertical jump
  • The weightlifting group improved strength, power and vertical jump more than the kettlebell group
  • There were no significant changes in body composition in either group 

My 2 cents:
  • It seems a little unfair to the kettlebell group to test strength with the barbell back squat and power in part with the power clean. The weightlifting group would have an obvious advantage here because they actually trained and practiced the test. This is the basic principle of specificity.
  • In my opinion it would have been better to test vertical jump and sprint speed so neither group had an unfair advantage. For the athlete, this is ultimately what matters.
  • Some kettlebell experts may argue that the swing is more suited for training horizontal speed and the kettlebell snatch may be a better exercise for vertical jump.
  • The volume used in the program was quite low and subjects were encouraged to continue their normal eating habits so body composition changes would not be expected - but that does not mean that these tools cannot be effectively used for body composition if nutrition and programming are adjusted properly.

The take-home application:
Kettlebells are a great tool, and can definitely be used by the athlete. However, athletes need to remember that training is not the end - it is a means to improving strength and power for enhanced sport performance. With the demands of sport, school, work, community service, relationships and life as a whole, athletes have to choose the most efficient tools possible to get the job done (i.e. improve strength & power) and get on with their sport and the rest of life. At this point, anecdotal evidence and now research seems to be pointing towards the barbell as the primary tool to get the job done.

If you want to improve body composition, training is only part of the equation. Your nutrition must be adjusted to reflect your body composition goals.

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