A Kettlebell Complex to Build Mass

Kettlebells aren’t just a superior tool for conditioning; they can also build serious size and strength.

If you’re reading this, chances are you have a health and fitness goal. While the vast majority of the industry is focused on weight loss, there is always a portion of the population who wants to get big.

When I was first introduced to kettlebells, I considered them a conditioning tool, to be used for fat loss and high intensity interval training. While they fit that bill well, they unquestionably have a variety of other uses, including increasing strength and size. Today I want to shed some light on how the kettlebell can get that done.

Time Under Tension

Time under tension, or TUT, is the total time spent under load. In the back squat, that time would be from when you un-rack the bar, step back, squat down, stand up, repeat, and re-rack the bar. A set of 6 might take anywhere from 14-16 seconds.

Time under tension is what makes a set of 3:2:1 “hurt so good.” With our 6-rep example, performing that same set of 6 with the tempo above gives you a TUT of 38-40 seconds. That’s more than twice as much as the previous set.

It’s no secret that increased TUT can build size. This study used two test groups and determined that slower speed has a positive influence on muscle hypertrophy. This brings a whole new meaning to the phase “take your time.” A slower rep equals an increased time under tension.

Strength is a skill that can be taught and learned. Varying time under tension is a skill that should be used after you gain a baseline of strength. Once you have, time under tension is a skill that can increase your strength. How can you use it to your advantage?

Moving Target Practice

The “moving target” hits your big movers and cranks up the TUT. The task requires you clean, press, and squat either 1 or 2 kettlebells. Common rep schemes are 2-3-5, 3-5-7, and 5-7-9. Here’s how it works:

You start with one of the three lifts as your target; let’s say the press. Perform 1 lift of whichever lifts aren’t the target. So if your target is the press, your first set will be:

  • 1-2-1: 1 clean, 2 presses, 1 squat

Put the bells down, shake it out, and get ready for your next set:

  • 1-3-1: 1 clean, 3 presses, 1 squat

Your final set would be:

  • 1-5-1: 1 clean, 5 presses, 1 squat

After you’ve finished one target, move to the next target, the clean, and perform the reps the same way you did for the press. The end result is a high-TUT complex that smokes your shoulders, chest, arms, back, and legs.

How to Use Moving Targets in Your Program

Should you choose to hop on a moving target program, I like one that uses two or three different bell sizes. Of course, you’ll want to make sure you properly own each of the skills involved before throwing volume and intensity into the equation.

Train three days a week, and alternate between 1-2-3, 2-3-5,5-7-9. Essentially this would translate into 1 light day (2-3-5), one heavy day (1-2-3), and one medium day (5-7-9). Make sure you choose a load that’s appropriate for the given rep scheme. 

For example, if your max press is five reps with two 24kg bells, step down to double 20kg bells for your 2-3-5. The light days should be easy-ish. You could likely use 24kg or 28kg bells for your 1-2-3 (heavy) day, and aim to go back to the 20kg’s for your medium day of 5-7-9. The program would look like this:

  • Monday: 2-3-5 20kgs
  • Wednesday: 1-2-3 24/28kgs
  • Friday: 5-7-9 20kgs

Warm up with 2-3 get ups beforehand and you’ve got a great, high-TUT training session designed to help build strength and size.

As you build strength, you can start to swap out bells and possibly increase reps or weight. My recommendation would be to stick to 4 weeks of the plan outlined above, take a week off, and see how you feel the following week.

Use Constant Evaluation for Maximum Progress

Something you can apply to every training session—moving target or not—is constant feedback and evaluation. After every set ask yourself, “What felt good about that set?” and also “What’s one thing I could focus on to make the next set better?” This not only helps you maintain focus, but chances are you’ll improve your technique along the way.

More creative use of the kettlebell:

Windmills: Jacked of All Trades