Kettlebells get a bad rap when it comes to building large amounts of muscle. People wrongly believe that because the heaviest kettlebell you can commonly find is 48kg that they must be useless for gaining large chunks of meat.
Kettlebells are heavy enough, and here’s why.
Kettlebells Versus Barbells
Despite the heaviest bells typically being 48kg, 96kg of kettlebells doesn’t feel the same as 96kg using a barbell. The kettlebell’s offset shape means that instead of the load being lifted almost directly in line with the joints, as with a barbell, it needs to travel a much more difficult path to get overhead. And because of the way kettlebells tend to pull your arms backward while pressing, the body has to overcome much more than just the physical weight of the bell.
For those who have never tried pressing bigger bells overhead, it feels more like trying to arm wrestle than lifting weights because of these forces. The body recognizes effort not load, so as long as the tool being lifted is difficult, the body will respond.
“It doesn’t need to be maximal fatigue to the point of concentric or technical breakdown, but fatigue needs to be present to stimulate protein synthesis.”
The bottom line is that unless you’re one of the rare people who can perform multiple reps with two Beasts (48kg bells), you’ve still got more than enough weight to pick from for hypertrophy work. As an example, Donnie Thompson is reputed to use two 40kg bells for assistance squat work for sets of ten reps. Likewise Andy Bolton and Brad Gillingham have spoken of using kettlebells for assistance work in their quests for maximum strength and muscle mass.
Time Under Tension Leads to Hypertrophy
Studies such as this one from The Journal of Physiology show clearly that time under tension is a key factor in muscle growth. The neat thing about this study is that it also stated:
[M]aximal fiber activation cannot be viewed as the exclusive driver of myofibrillar protein synthesis rates. It appears exercise volume is yet another fundamental variable that promotes p70S6K phosphorylation and a prolonged elevation of myofibrillar protein synthesis rates.
But these training methods don’t come without drawbacks. Anyone who has used a Super Slow training method will tell you what happens if you stick with it for too long – you lose strength. Older lifters will remember what happened when Charles Poliquin went down this path with his German Volume Training template years ago. Yes, people gained muscle, but they often lost a huge amount of strength in the process.
Here’s a look at how time under tension relates to different training adaptations:
Two things will always be constant when it comes to hypertrophy training:
- You need to cause fatigue in the muscles. It doesn’t need to be maximal fatigue to the point of concentric or technical breakdown, but fatigue needs to be present to stimulate protein synthesis.
- Once the body has sent the signal to upgrade the amount of protein in the muscle, it needs to be fed. Hardcore eating needs to go alongside hardcore training if you want to get swole, bro.
Unlike the study cited above though, which used loads as low as 30% of 1RM, we want to try to keep as much strength as possible during this process. Looking at the chart above, we typically want to use a weight that is 60-85% of our maximum if we’re looking for both strength and hypertrophy. Even better, we’d ideally use a weight around 70-85%. That’s most likely a weight we can handle for 6-10 reps.
“For a massive upper body boost, pair all the exercises with pull ups for active rest.”
When it comes to hypertrophy we also know that multiple sets works better than a single set does. We also know that multiple sets works better for strength gains than single sets. There is also some research to indicate that a higher frequency is warranted for trained individuals (this study also looks at the possibility of women, in particular, benefitting from multiple daily sessions to increase both strength and size).
Given all that, the program we would ideally use is one of high frequency and relatively high volume. We want a morning training session and an evening one that attack the same muscular action. As an example, I’ll use the most iconic kettlebell exercise of all, and the one that Enter the Kettlebell is all about – the press.
Double kettlebell press – 3 sets of 10RM. Use a weight you can just handle for a set of 10 for the first set. The following two sets, if you’ve picked the right weight, you won’t get 10 reps. Your reps will look something more like 10, 8, 7 for the three sets.
Double kettlebell see saw press – 3 sets of 10RM. Because see saw press is performed alternating arms, you’ll do 20 total reps here, or 10 each side. Again, if you pick a weight you can just get 10 reps with for the first set, then you shouldn’t be able to get all your reps on the second and third sets. See saw press allows you to use slightly heavier weights than the double press does, so don’t be scared to go up a bell size if you can for this movement.
Double kettlebell jerks – 3 sets of 20RM. Ballistic exercises behave a little differently than grinds. Because of the speeds involved, you need to do double the number of reps to get enough time under tension. So, pick a weight you can achieve 20 reps with for your first set.
On all exercises try to minimize rest to one to two minutes only. Research is not conclusive to how much rest is ideal, but to stimulate fatigue taking longer rests of two or more minutes never gets the same response.
Double kettlebell complex:
- Presses x 5 reps
- Push presses x 5 reps
- Jerks x 5 reps
- Snatches x 5 reps
Do five rounds, taking two minutes rest between rounds. Pick bells equivalent to your 10RM (most likely the bells you used for your morning presses).
Perform these morning and afternoon routines twice per week for up to six weeks before cycling onto a higher intensity-lower volume routine. For a massive upper body boost, pair all the exercises with pull ups for active rest.
Check out these related articles:
- Hypertrophy Is Not a Bad Word: Functional Hypertrophy Training
- Everything You Need to Know About Supersets for Hypertrophy
- The Line Between Hypertrophy and Strength Is More Grey Than Black
- What’s New On Breaking Muscle
1. Nicolas Burd, et. al., “Muscle time under tension stimulates muscle protein sub-fractional responses in men,” The Journal of Physiology, (2011), last accessed February 24, 2015.
2. JW Krieger, “Single vs. multiple sets of resistance exercise for hypertrophy: a meta-analysis,” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (2010), last accessed February 24, 2015.
3. MR Rhea, et. al., “Three sets of weight training superior to 1 set with equal intensity for elliciting strength,” The Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, (2002), las accessed February 24, 2015.
4. K Hakinen and M Kallinen, “Distribution of strength training volume into two daily sessions and neuromuscular adaptations in female athletes,” Electromyography and Clinical Neurophysiology, (1994), last accessed February 24, 2015.
Photo 1 courtesy of CrossFit Empirical.