The plywood thing was one of those typical jobs with which a guy will help his buddy. John needed someone to give him a hand unloading quite a few sheets of 4x8’, 1-inch thick sheets from his truck and stacking them next to the garage. Within a couple of minutes of starting the job, however, his wife called him into the house to grab a phone call.
Rather than wait for his return, I continued to unload and stack the wood by myself. In doing so, an increase in my physical capabilities became readily apparent; I was stronger than I’d ever been while performing such a task. The ease with which I was throwing around these sheets of wood surprised me even though I’ve been aware of my strength gains from bodybuilding for the past few years. My shoulder and arm strength working in conjunction had me practically toying with these sheets that might have had a lot of guys my age struggling.
The very next day, I saw the article on bodybuilding.com. It was a piece about the benefits of ‘kettlebell training.’ I’d heard of kettlebells – seen the unique design of what’s basically a ball of fixed weight with a built-in handle arching over the top – and witnessed the attempts to create mystique around something that’s just another tool of resistance for the muscles.
I was quite open to the description by the author of a kettlebell workout until he used that term and lost credibility with me: “usable strength.” That’s what he claimed as the unique benefit of kettlebell workouts. He said they build strength, just like weight training, but it is “usable strength.”
Excuse me… doesn’t the term ‘usable strength’ imply that there’s a type that’s “unusable?” Yet I can’t imagine how any strength that the muscles and tendons posses could be unusable. By its very definition – “strength” is usable… period!
Of course, he could have meant that some strength is more usable than other strength. But… “No”… I can’t figure how that could be either. Look at that augmentation of usable strength I’d felt and displayed with the plywood chore at John’s house; it was fully usable even in terms of coordination in its interworking between my arms and deltoids.
In fact, I would challenge any kettlebell workout advocate to build as much “usable strength” with those little fixed-weight devices as is potentially built with traditional gym weight. The usable strength, or “functional strength” (another ridiculous term) you build with traditional weights is potentially limitless; its ceiling typically self-imposed by unrealistic training/recuperation schedules. The strength one can build with kettlebells is limited by both the fixed utility and fixed poundage potential of this workout apparatus.
Am I claiming that kettlebells don’t build strength or can’t provide a “good workout?” No… this isn’t an attack on kettlebells or anyone who likes to work out with them. Yet they are just pieces of fixed weight with built-in handles above the bulk of the weight. Regardless of what creative routine one conjures up to perform with them, they don’t provide some mysterious workout benefit that transports their usage into a unique realm of esotericism. They’re weights – pure and simple.
When I was twenty years old, I did my first of what would be two tours through BUD/S Training. In this basic training for Navy SEALs, we did a lot of ocean swimming. In fact, there was a weekly two-mile timed ocean swim in which we were expected to improve on a continuous basis or there would be hell to pay.
My first ocean swims in class 128 of BUD/S Training were a disaster. Their success mostly depended on having strong thigh muscles because we were using swim fins in a sort of modified side-stroke to propel ourselves through the water. My underdeveloped thighs were hardly up to the task, leaving me struggling to keep up with my swim buddy and slowing me down just enough to catch hypothermia. The hypothermia slowed me even further, leaving my swim buddy and me coming over the finish line in a shivering, delirious, last-place finish.
Two years later, I was going through BUD/S again in class 141. This time, to my surprise, I was one of the fastest swimmers in the class. I consistently came in second place in those same two-mile timed ocean swims.
What had made the difference? How had I gone from one of the slowest swimmers to one of the fastest?
In the interim between my two tours in the training, a buddy of mine got me dabbling with weight training/bodybuilding. We did plenty of leg extensions – an exercise that targets the thigh muscles in a similar motion as that of kicking through the water with fins. This is the best explanation for the huge improvement in my swimming performance.
Funny… the strength I built in a gym with leg extensions was fully functional and quite usable.
This is not an indictment on anyone wanting to improve strength in a sport by practicing the movements made in that sport with added resistance, such as with a kettlebell. Likewise, I’d never knock the idea of swimming while wearing a weight vest in order to increase speed in the front crawl, side-stroke, or butterfly.
But I will assert that the idea that the strength these types of exercises build is more usable or functional than what can be built with traditional weights is asinine based simply on the presupposition inherent in the idea of ‘usable strength.’ The term implies that there’s a type that’s not usable – a connotation that, when widely accepted, is just another one taking the aggregate IQ of the human race a notch in the wrong direction.