The 5 Keys to Successful Kettlebell Workouts
One of the things that probably has the most ability to cause me to have a conniption fit is poor programming. Somehow one of the biggest areas that people fall over in is their kettlebell programming. Like it’s some big mystical thing that is shrouded in special handshakes and secrecy. Exercise planning in general has some common sense guidelines that seem all but forgotten when people start playing with kettlebells. But like any resistance-training tool, if you’re not progressing, you’re doing it wrong, so let’s go over some key points to having a successful kettlebell workout.
KB Workout Key #1 - Grinds Before Ballistics
Pavel speaks about this in Enter the Kettlebell. The main reason for this is that we tend to do strength exercises before conditioning ones. Particularly if you’re an RKC – we are a school of strength and our main goal is always to increase strength with incidental conditioning included. If you do conditioning first you will have little left to attack the main course of strength work. Your grip will be shot (meaning less irradiation), and your legs shaky (less rooting) and already fatigued.
Many in the fitness industry seem to think that making people tired or sore is the goal. As Master RKC David Whitley says, “If that is your goal I can just hit you with a stick.” The goal is to improve physically, and pre-fatiguing yourself is not going to help.
KB Workout Key #2 - Strength as a Skill
Doing anything well requires practice. While I don’t think you need 10,000 hours of practice to become proficient at something, you’re going to need more than one rep. And you will need to spend a lot of time coming to terms with the subtle intricacies of the lifts if you wish to improve.
Kettlebells are odd shaped and some movements require specific practice to master. For instance, I spent time last year bringing my standing barbell press up to better than bodyweight, yet my kettlebell press didn’t budge because I was not pressing heavy bells, which force you to work far harder to stabilize above 32kg.
KB Workout Key #3 - You’re Not Ready
This ties in with the above. If your skill level with a lift is low, you will display that by not being able to lift much. If you can’t press a certain bell it just means you need more practice with the one below it.
Kettlebells take big jumps from one to the next. Back in the old days kettlebells came in three sizes – 16kg, 24kg, and 32kg. These days we’ve added in more and more to make the jumps from bell to bell easier, but I’m not sure we’re doing anything other than pandering to people’s incessant need for affirmation and preventing them from learning some patience and discipline in practicing the lifts.
A jump from 12kg to 16kg is big – a third. If you suddenly gained a third more body weight you’d notice, right? So why is it any surprise that jumping to a bell a third heavier gets your attention and you struggle? You just need more reps. Eventually you’ll get it; just be patient. For men, this seems to happen around the 24kg, or the 32kg for strong guys, and for women it is when they start to press the 16kg. They just get to a point where they can’t get any more reps no matter what they try. Well, try doing about another six months of training with the lighter bell, and then you’ll magically be ready.
The same with more advanced exercises. You don’t get to snatch right now because your swing is weak, you lack shoulder mobility because you have terrible posture and you can’t hold anything overhead without bending your wrist. Letting you whip a kettlebell overhead quickly with all that is just going to hurt you. You’re not ready. Be okay with the journey.
This is particularly relevant to those planning on attending RKCII – many rush trying to get their press for the testing, and often end up with shoulder problems. Do you think if you just hurt yourself performing a lift that you are, in fact, displaying a high level of skill with that lift? And if not, are you really ready for RKCII? Be patient, the course will wait.
KB Workout Key #4 - Leave the Kitchen Sink at Home
Have you ever looked at a program and it’s got everything in it, but the kitchen sink? You know, the warm up is Convict Conditioning, and then it’s got bits of Rites of Passage, plus Kettlebell Muscle, and finishes with Viking Warrior Conditioning? Ugh. Vomit.
Unless you are actually an elite athlete and have both the genetic ability AND the time and recovery strategies in place to train like one then stop trying to emulate them.
Let’s cut the redundancy too. This isn’t bodybuilding and you don’t need to bomb and blitz your inner pectoral from three different angles. Every single lift in the RKC system is a whole body lift.
What body parts does the swing use? All of them.
What about the get up? All of them.
Squat? All of them, too.
Yet somehow we get to an exercise like the press or the snatch and think it’s just a shoulder exercise. No, they’re whole body exercises, too. The only other training system I can think of that comes close is Olympic weightlifting or powerlifting – all include big exercises that challenge the entire body. While competitive lifters will need some assistance exercises to boost their lifts (remember they are Quadrant IV as Dan John explains here) the rest of us just need to work our whole body and stick to Quadrant III, where we belong.
If, for example, I do an overhead movement like the press, do I really need to do jerks in the same workout? If I snatch, do I need to do one arm swings or two hand swings, too? And when it comes to how many I should do, is the number closer to one or a few hundred?
The RKC system is built upon many premises, but one of the most important is that we should practice our skill rather than workout. So to answer how many presses you need in a workout you need to answer the question yourself – at the weight you have chosen for that session, how many reps can you do well, before your form is limited by fatigue? Do that number minus one.
So if I choose to press with a light bell, say a 24kg, maybe I can do as many as seventy-five reps per arm (such as in Pavel’s famous Rites of Passage plan from Enter the Kettlebell). But if I choose the 32kg, remember that it’s thirty percent heavier, that jump in weight will necessitate me using at least thirty percent less volume (and likely much more than that). The first option could see me do 5 x 1, 2, 3, 4, 5 for seventy-five reps while the second I might do 5 x 1, 2, 3 for a total of thirty.
There’s simply no need to do every exercise you know in every single workout. Pick a plan of attack for a month or more and stick to the plan. As Master RKC Mark Reifkind says, “Don’t engage in random acts of variety.”
When it comes to picking exercises for your plan, pick a few that are complimentary and stick with them. And if at a loss, train like the opposite gender. One of my favorite Pavelisms is that, “Men should learn to train like women and vice versa.” What he meant is that men love picking up the heavy things, while women tend to go more for the high rep ballistics. I think we’d all agree most women should spend more time on attacking some strength work and, let’s face it, there are some dudes who could stand to get fitter and maybe drop a few belt holes.
KB Workout Key #5 - Ten Dollar Spend
I’ve written previously about the Ten Dollar Spend concept within a session. You need to apply this to your whole week, the month, and even your training year.
If you choose to go hard all the time, spending every cent you have on every session, well, we all know people like that, living paycheck to paycheck and what happens eventually? The cracks appear and they need to curb their spending. The only problem with this analogy is when it’s used in the context of the body and its ability to recover from training sessions instead of going broke you end up in a surgeon’s office. The purpose of training is to “put money on the bank for fight night,” says Steve Baccari RKC. Every session is an opportunity to save up some fitness for when you really need it.
I think the world of professional strength training has a lot to do with these problems. It’s quite common to see programs dictating things like “2-3 at 90%.” In some cases those are actual percentages of a competition lift. In far more, however, they are what is called a “working max” – the amount of weight that feels like ninety percent of what you are capable of today. Those two things are very different. An honest all out, ninety percent lift is quite taxing, where a ninety percent based off being forty, having a young child who didn’t sleep last night, and the neighbor’s dog howling from 3:00am is a totally different animal. One will force you to spend a lot, the other comparatively little.
It’s counterintuitive, but it’s okay to have workouts that aren’t a war of attrition with yourself. That’s not to say you should baby yourself. I can remember a particular squat workout I did with a friend that saw me take an hour lying on the floor before my stomach settled enough to drive home (which in the end didn’t matter because I literally stopped my car and threw up on the path outside my parents’ house). And I can remember a ride I did a few years ago – a three kilometer time trial that I am sure took a year or more off my life and made my throat so raw it hurt to breathe for days after.
But those aren’t every day things.
Again, the benefit of having a plan is to save, save, save during the weeks and weeks of your plan, resting where you need to and finally letting it all out when the time is right. My current plan is two weeks hard, one week easy. In my easy weeks I cut volume by as much as half, although everything is done at high intensity – little tests of where my fitness is at, but not enough to break me down, or force me to go bankrupt.
Common sense programming should be just that. Done the RKC way every lift is a whole body lift. That means you won’t need many lifts per session. Additionally our school is one of strength, so always strive to use more weight and gain strength. Until you’re pressing double 48kg bells easily, you’re not too strong. And until you can do one hand swings with the 48kg for twenty minutes, you’re neither really strong nor really fit. Be patient and keep working away at it, because in life, the things that are the most rewarding are the ones you have to work the hardest for.