Kettlebell training for size and strength

People are dogmatic. They like black and white. Yes and no, good and bad – they like feeling like they have a single choice to pick from. The problem is that, for many, their education in training is quite limited and they believe that there is only one way forward.

But life isn’t black and white. Life is shades of grey and the blurring of lines between black and white. And when it comes to training there are so many ways to attack various problems that while there are some ways that would be ill advised, there are far more than a single way to address any single situation.

Let’s make this as simple as possible –

Gaining strength generally means you need to work in low rep ranges, take big rests and usually perform exercises well short of either technical or muscular failure.

Gaining size means you need more reps, less rest and may well work to the point of technical or muscular failure. The extra reps equal time under tension which is the prime factor in muscle growth. For many this is a conundrum as they can achieve this with either many low rep sets, or a few higher rep sets. For instance, does it matter whether you do three sets of ten, or ten sets of three if your goal is only to achieve thirty reps? Looking at popular and proven hypertrophy plans from all over the place what you typically see is total reps ranging from twenty-four to as many as one hundred and fifty. While there’s no doubt that the really high rep workouts do lead to big gains in size, they usually tend to be at relatively low loads meaning that there is little strength gain to accompany the size.

When it comes to training with kettlebells there are a few well known guys such as Pavel Tsatsouline, Steve Cotter and Mike Mahler. Pavel, in my mind, stands head and shoulders above the other two in terms of notoriety. What this means is that when people start to use kettlebells they get locked into a particular method of thinking that is dictated by one of Pavel’s books. That’s not all bad. His books have some Grade A quality material and I’ve seen his programs help more people than I can count both in general fitness as well as for things like RKC preparation. But there’s more to life than Power to the People, Rites of Passage or Easy Strength (although that last one could really be attributed to Dan John, which is one of the reasons for the massive amount of flexibility in it, in my mind).

One of my all-time favourite methods of training for both size and strength comes from Charles Poliquin. It combines both single rep strength work as well as hypertrophy work in the five rep range. The system is simple, and here’s an example of how to apply it to the double kettlebell clean and press, while using some old school smarts and pairing it up with a great barbell exercise like the bench press so we can really load up:

Bench Press – 3 sets of 1.

Perform as many warm up sets as needed to get you to your starting weight. Don’t fatigue yourself overly with high rep warm ups. I like a set of 10 with the bar, then 5 at 50%, 3 at 80% and then singles or doubles until I feel I’m close to the weight I need. These are rehearsals for the real singles.

After completing all your singles now do 5 x 5 double kettlebell clean and press.

While that doesn’t seem like a lot, this is week 1. Here’s what it looks like in the following weeks as we add singles in the bench –

Week 2: 4 sets of 1.

Week 3: 5 x 1.

Week 4: 6 x 1.

Week 5: Add 5-10% on your bench and go again, beginning with 3 x 1. You may find you need to go up a size for the kettlebell clean and presses here too.

This routine also works well paired up with pull ups. I like to do all the singles as pull ups and then do the 5 x 5s as rows. Perform this variation twice per week and watch things really grow in a hurry. Your delts and arms will blow up as will your back as you gain some thickness.

My point is this – if you want to gain muscle size with kettlebells it’s more than possible. The really funny thing to me is that what makes muscles grow is time under tension – you need reps to get that – and kettlebells are ideally suited to repetitive movements. Yet somewhere along the line we’ve become told that what we really should be doing with kettlebells is low rep maximal strength work. While they can be good for that a barbell is a much more suitable tool for maximal strength work and is built to handle greater loads – there is a reason why all the big jacked guys use the bar. So if you’re looking to gain size with kettlebells you can – just don’t get sucked into programs that are all about “skinny strength”. Instead look for those that are designed to help you get bigger and will also give you some strength gains.