The Recipe for Effective Kettlebell Sport Programming

Intelligent programming is everything for the competitive athlete, and kettlebell sport is no exception.

Programming for any sport can take you deep down the rabbit hole, and kettlebell sport is no exception. To ensure an athlete is in his or her best condition on the day of competition, you must account for many variables, including the athlete’s training experience, competitive schedule, and time available to train.

The programming variables addressed here are most important for kettlebell sport, but could be applied equally to programming for any sport. Review these factors when designing a program so you can provide sustainability for your athlete and ensure he or she reaches the desired goal.

Length of the Training Cycle

The first decision to make when designing a program is the length of the training cycle. This decision will be influenced by a number of factors, such as the goals of the athlete and the annual competition schedule. I usually choose 2-3 important competitions each year for which I want to be in top condition and try to plan my training cycles around those meets. This gives me 3-6 months between major events.

I build training cycles in 8-12 week blocks, based on the athlete’s experience and current condition. If you are out of shape or transitioning to heavier kettlebells, you may need more time to prepare. If you’re a well-conditioned athlete who already has some experience with your competition weight, you will need less time.

This amount of time is usually enough to establish a decent foundation through volume with light kettlebells and then build intensity with heavier weights as competition approaches. Consider a periodized program that progresses through dedicated phases to develop the following qualities (in this order):

  1. Power/strength
  2. Hypertrophy (optional)
  3. Power endurance
  4. Muscular endurance

Determining the proper training cycle length is the first step to effective programming.

Assistance Exercise Selection and Progression

Early in the training cycle, when kettlebell weights are still light, it’s a good time to develop power and strength with general exercises like full squats and deadlifts. Then as competition approaches, shift the focus to more sport-specific movements, like high-rep partial jump squats and partial deadlifts. These movements aim at building the power endurance and muscular endurance required for success in kettlebell sport.

Legs and lungs are two of the girevik’s greatest assets, so it’s no surprise that high-rep squat and deadlift variations tend to be the principal exercises for developing both. Other training staples are various abdominal and lower back exercises, high-rep pressing movements like push ups, bench press, or overhead press, and running and rowing for cardiovascular gains.

Early in the training cycle is also a good time to address weaknesses or imbalances. For example, I might do more pull ups, single-leg movements (like split squats or lunges), and various corrective exercises. As the volume and intensity build in the sport lifts, I’ll take those exercises out. Assistance exercises should evolve from more general movements earlier in the training cycle to more sport-specific movements as competition grows closer.

Peaking for Competition

The entire training cycle is aimed at preparing the athlete to reach top condition on the day of competition. Hitting PRs in the gym is nice, but it doesn’t mean anything if you can’t perform when it counts.

To ensure peak performance on the platform, the program should adhere to the principles of progressive overload. Typically, this involves 3-4 weeks of increasingly difficult training sessions, followed by a lighter week. This recovery week is where adaptation to the stress of the previous weeks actually occurs. This adaptation makes the athlete stronger and fitter, meaning that the deload week is a critical element.

An 8-12 week program could contain 2-3 of these 3-4 week cycles, and each 3-4 week cycle builds on the previous one. The final weeks will be the most challenging, then the athlete will take a deload week leading up to the competition.

As volume tapers and fatigue is reduced, the athlete benefits from a “super-compensation” effect. This occurs when stress and fatigue are reduced and the athlete is able to recover from the training cycle. Upon realizing the full adaptations of the training, the athlete should feel ready to give a true maximal effort on the day of competition.

During the final taper week, most kettlebell sport athletes will train only the sport lifts. These will be done at competition weight and pace, but for much shorter timed sets, as shown below:

  • Monday: A 5-minute set followed by a 2-minute set
  • Wednesday: A single 3-minute set
  • Friday: Rest
  • Saturday: Competition

Remember, less is more during the taper.

girevoy competition

The goal of any program is to arrive at the day of competition physically and mentally prepared for a maximal effort.

Use Small Competitions as Training Opportunities

Competing is a skill.

It requires learning how to manage your nerves, nutrition, sleep, mindset, a bad judge, and your warm up and recovery routines. The more you compete, the more opportunities you have to sharpen these skills. Ivan Denisov, Honored Master of Sport and world champion in all kettlebell sport disciplines, once told me, “A bad competition is better than a good training session.”

With this in mind, I like to find smaller competitions that will gain some platform experience, even if I don’t intend to give a 100 percent effort. If the meet is earlier in the training cycle, maybe I’ll choose to lift 24kg or 28kg kettlebells instead of 32kg, which is the men’s professional weight. Or if it’s closer to my big competition, maybe I’ll do a seven- or eight-minute control set instead of going the full ten-minute time limit. In any case, all time on the platform is time well spent.

Implement Technical Adjustments

As athletes, we should always strive to become more efficient in our technique. In kettlebell sport, little differences in positioning and breathing can have a profound impact on your results. Watch video from the top lifters from 5-10 years ago and compare it to how they lift today. You’ll spot several tweaks and changes in their technique.

Denis Vasilev is a great example of a high-level lifter who consistently returns to lighter weights for technical refinement. In this video, you’ll see how he’s adjusted to a narrower stance and has changed his clean. The kettlebells used to come up high to his shoulders before dropping into rack position, and now the bells come directly to his hips.

Consider dedicating a month after your next big competition to refining your lifts. It’s extremely difficult to make any meaningful change with your competition weight if you don’t first drill with lighter bells. Thus, the beginning of a training cycle can be a great opportunity to address some of your technical limitations.

Practice in front of a mirror, or film your sets from multiple angles. Try to make the bells feel as light as possible while eliminating all unnecessary effort or tension throughout the lift.

Use very light weights at first, even 16kg if you usually compete with 32kg. As you ingrain these technical changes into your central nervous system, slowly increase the weight in 2kg increments or less (if possible). The smaller the jump, the less likely you’ll lose the adjustment.

Program Smart for Competitive Success

Keep in mind these points when programming for your next competition: 

  • 8-12 weeks is a great time frame to use as a backbone to a training program.
  • Periodize assistance exercises from the general to the specific.
  • Incorporate progressive overload.
  • Build a taper in the final cycle leading up to competition to ensure peak performance.
  • Plan to use small meets along the way to develop competitive experience.
  • Technical adjustments should be addressed early in the training cycle with light weights.
  • Load should be increased gradually in 2kg increments or less (if possible).

As coaches, we must do our best to account for these training variables by being honest about our athletes’ abilities. For example, an inexperienced athlete with little or no training experience might need to spend more time developing a physical foundation and body awareness through general, full-range movements like squats. Conversely, a well-rounded athlete with a good athletic background may only need to focus on refining technique and developing his or her body to accommodate the specific demands of the sport.

Lastly, remember that training does not exist in a vacuum. There are other variables outside of the gym that can have a great impact on training, like family, relationships, and work. Be dynamic in your planning so you can accommodate the inevitable fluctuations in your athletes’ lives.

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Photos courtesy of Chris Doenlen / NAZO.