Forging Strength, Force and Aerobic Power with the Kettlebell
Kettlebells are amazing.
I think back to my early days of training, in which I attended workshops breaking down the numerous steps of Turkish get-ups, or the tremendous stamina it took to survive kettlebell swings for a minute straight, or hearing about the Herculean task of getting a kettlebell cert., it goes on and on. Though unassuming in appearance, they require a level of technical skill, coordination, and strength unlike any other piece of equipment in the gym.
Forgive me if I come across as belittling, but few who pick up the kettlebell in their gym bother to learn or unlock its true potential. They do them a great disservice when they casually use them to do side reaches, or pick up the smallest 5 lb to perform goblet squats. Kettlebells are a symbol of power and strength, and should be used accordingly to reach those ends. In this article we’ll look at the benefits of kettle bells and how they can be applied towards creating a killer workout that improves strength, aerobics, and body composition.
Kettlebells for Strength
I wasn’t kidding when I said that kettlebells were a symbol associated with strength. For centuries the Russian tool has found its place with Strongmen and lifters of legend. For bodybuilding trailblazers like Siegmund Klein or weightlifting powerhouses like Vasily Alexeyev, the kettlebell was the weapon of choice for developing real strength.
For example in a randomized control trial, kettlebell swings were tested for improvements in maximum and explosive strength. The swings were compared with the effects of jump squat power training, a movement known for improving 1 rep maximums and vertical jump height. After the 6 week intervention maximum strength improved by 9.8% and explosive strength improved by 19.8%, demonstrating the kettlebells ability for strength conditioning(1).
It should be noted that despite to size of the kettlebell, it’s swing peak and mean force was greater than the likes of the back squat and comparable to jump squats.
An ACE study chronicling the effects of a kettlebell regimen on 18 experienced lifters, documenting similar results. Kettlebell training showed significant increases in leg press, grip strength, dynamic balance, and particularly core strength which increased by 70%(5). The improvements continued in another study in which bench press and barbell clean and jerk saw an uptick after 10 weeks of kettlebell training, suggesting a transfer of strength and power that serves well in weightlifting and powerlifting(5). Although weightlifting did induce greater improvements in strength than kettlebell training, it can still be a great transitional tool for developing power and dynamic balance.
One theory for this improvement in strength; because many of the exercises possible with the kettlebell are compound movements, their explosive nature and the heavy weight of the bells themselves create the right climate of growth for multiple muscle groups at a time.
There are also indications of large mechanical demands during exercises like swings that could make many kettlebell exercises a useful addition to strength and conditioning programs that aim to develop the ability to rapidly apply force(3).
Sometimes it’s easy to look at strength as a one-way route- hit the major lifts with a typical 5×5 program and slowly progress. Nothing against a fundamental approach, but to prevent fitness stagnation and continue the evolution of true strength, we may have to use an unconventional method like kettlebells to unlock our full potential.
Kettlebells for Aerobic Conditioning
If you aren’t sold on the gains in strength, don’t forget to add aerobic improvement into the mix. What most of us don’t realize is that kettlebell training is capable of improving aerobic capacity! In fact a study had participants in a kettlebell group perform 20 minutes of kettlebell snatching with a 15:15 second work-to-rest ratio and compare it to the results of a circuit control group that did a 20 minute circuit of free weight and body weight movements. The kettlebell group significantly increased their maximal oxygen consumption (VO2 max), the average of which was nearly 6%., with no significant gains in the control group(9).
High intensity is likely the secret ingredient in kettlebell training that helps in improving aerobic fitness(7). High intensity exercise has been shown to lead to greater increases in VO2 max, which could be why a 15:15 second work-to-rest outperformed during the circuit control group.
Once again we see how unconventional this form of training can be. If you told me a month ago that kettlebells could improve cardiovascular fitness the likes of treadmills or stationary bikes, I would’ve looked at you sideways, but research about them continue to exceed my expectations. Strength and aerobic power are great, but they will mean nothing if we don’t understand how to properly apply them. Lets take a look at how to combine the two benefits into training.
The truth is there are numerous ways to approach a kettlebell workout, but not all of them use the kettlebells to their full potential. There are certain conventional limitations that cause many to overlook kettlebell training; for example though kettlebells can go pretty high in weight, they can’t outmatch barbells in compound lifts like squats or bench for increasing strength(4). As a form of cardio I can understand how most would turn it down in favor of a treadmill, especially if they’re not interested in using high intensity exercise to improve their heart health and oxygen uptake. So what kind of program capitalizes on the unique properties of kettlebells? High resistance circuit training is a great place to start.
The purpose of RCT (resistance circuit training) is to produce improvements in strength, muscular endurance and aerobic conditioning simultaneously. Kettlebells are ideal for this kind of regimen; When moving the kettlebell at a rapid pace, the average power output during each set of reps will also increase because of the reduced time spent in the locked out position. More power will mean more energy spent, and that will lead to a greater caloric need. The rapid pace will also be the key to stimulating the cardiovascular system and improving VO2 max
During the snatch for example, the kettlebell travels from between an individual’s legs to a lockout position above the head. This motion is reversed and repeated at a rapid pace, increasing the velocity that the kettlebell travels. As velocity increases, power output increases, resulting in a higher caloric expenditure and oxygen consumption
The work to rest ratio is a crucial factor for developing circuit training that improves aerobic fitness. In one case a resistance circuit program (3 sets x 8RM x 3 days) using a rest ratio of 1:2 (30:60 seconds) didn’t produce progress in cardiovascular variables. However, a multiple set, 8 to 10 station resistance circuit program using a work to rest ratio of 1:1 was more effective than traditional strength training in increasing VO2 max(10). The workout below models the later program, incorporating 8 exercises with an emphasis on reducing the rest period to about the same time it takes to complete the exercise.
Intensity will be your secret weapon and your best friend for getting through this workout and generating the best results. Many of these exercises like the snatch and swing are explosive movements that will require high force production. It will be grueling, but the benefits of the kettlebell’s explosive and powerful nature will only be found in a climate of high intensity.
Like the previous resistance circuit mentioned, you’ll complete each exercise in succession to complete 1 round, three total for this routine. If you really feel like going berserker mode, add another round or two to completely exhaust your muscles (but I think three will do it).
Kettlebell Warrior Workout
|Kettlebell swings||15||15 seconds||3 total|
|Kettlebell Lunges||12/per leg||15 seconds||—-|
|Bent Rows||15||15 seconds||—-|
|Goblet Squats||15||15 seconds||—-|
|Kettlebell Snatches||12/ per hand||15 seconds||—-|
|Plyo-Push ups Over KBs||12/ per arm||15 seconds||—-|
|Kettlebell Good Mornings||15||15 seconds||—-|
|Burpees Over Kettlebell||12||15 seconds||—–|
My hope is that as you continue down your fitness journey you will embrace the noble heritage of the kettlebell, and that as you unlock your own stregnth and power you will build a body and heart of true iron. Feel free to share your own experience with kettlebells and continue to blaze forward.
1) Jason P. Lake et al. J Strength Cond Reps. 2012 Aug. Kettlebell swings improves maximal and explosive strength. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22580981/
2) Rodrigo Luiz Vaancini et al. J Hum Kinet. 2019 Mar. Kettlebell exercise as an alternative to improve aerobic power and strength. Retrieved from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC6458586/
3) Jason P Lake et al. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec. Mechanical demands of kettlebell swing exercise. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22207261/
4) William H Otto 3rd et al. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 May. Effects of weightlifting vs kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength and body composition. Retrieved from: https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22344061/
5) Nick Beltz et al. American Council on Exercise. Kettlebells kick butt. Retrieved from: https://www.acefitness.org/certifiednewsarticle/3172/ace-sponsored-research-study-kettlebells-kick-butt/
6) Jonathan Falatic. San Jose State University. 2011. The effects of kettlebell training on aerobic capacity. Retrieved from: https://scholarworks.sjsu.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5042&context=etd_theses
7) Mike Waller et al. Department of Exercise and Sports Science. 2011 Feb. Resistance circuit training: Its application for the adult population. Retrieved from: https://journals.lww.com/nsca-scj/fulltext/2011/02000/resistance_circuit_training__its_application_for.2.aspx