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Muscle Activation During Kettlebell Exercises

Understanding how different exercises affect the body is a prerequisite for designing optimal training programs. In a study published in the Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research (2017; 31 [9], 2363–70), scientists looked at muscle activation during three kettlebell movements.

The researchers recruited 14 men with consistent resistance training experience to participatein the study. Each of the men completed 8–10 repetitions of the one-arm swing, one-arm swing-style snatch and one-arm clean at a self-selected load. Muscle activation patterns were assessed via electromyography. While all three exercises are considered total-body moves, there were some differences in muscle activation:

  • The swing elicited greater erector spinae activation than the snatch.
  • The snatch and clean both produced greater external oblique activation than the swing.
  • The vastus lateralis was more active during the swing than during the clean.
  • The three exercises didn’t produce significant differences in activation in the anterior deltoid, posterior deltoid, biceps brachii, biceps femoris or gluteus maximus.

Differences notwithstanding, “the results of this study reinforce the notion that these lifts do involve a great deal of neuromuscular activity; that is, the whole body gets involved,” said lead researcher Brian Lyons, PhD, CSCS, assistant professor at the University of Wisconsin Parkside in Kenosha, Wisconsin. “Thus, these kettlebell exercises might provide nice variation in strength and conditioning programming. Employing these exercises with lighter weights might also be considered as a form of dynamic warmup.”

Lyons added an important caveat: “Subjects . . . were not experienced kettlebell lifters, and it is not clear whether or not kettlebell training would alter the neuromuscular activation patterns in more experienced kettlebell lifters.”

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