One of my previous jobs was helping a group of very talented beach volleyball players get stronger and faster. At the time I had just started fooling around with kettlebells on my own and even though my experience with them was limited at the time I could see a few ways kettlebells could be helpful to volleyball players.
For starters the thing I was most interested in was using them to make the players’ shoulders healthier. With lots of explosive overhead work it’s quite common for volleyball players to experience various degrees of shoulder problems. The solution to that was really quite simple – many of them weren’t doing any actual strength work so adding in anything helped tremendously.
But that still left one big issue to overcome – anyone who has played volleyball will tell you that their vertical jump is always on their mind. What could we come up with that allowed an improvement in jumping, minimized risk of injury, and was easy to teach?
One of the biggest issues I had was that I had a bunch of really fast, explosive athletes in front of me but they would literally hurt themselves getting out of bed. (True story: one of the guys twisted his ankle getting out of bed for training and was off for three weeks). Typical volleyball training involves various plyometric work, such as rebound jumps and hitting and blocking drills. But when your guys are getting hurt getting out of bed in the morning you should probably think hard before you add in more work that may see them getting injured in training. So I wasn’t keen to add in jump training just yet. Besides, if we could get an improvement without needing shock training of any kind when we did finally start to use it they should become even more explosive.
What I really needed was some big lifts that hit the posterior chain hard and some other lifts that replicated the jump a bit like the jerk. But I didn’t have any barbells, or even enough overhead room to lift them. At this point we were training out of my garage. Even the sprint training we were doing was under cover in a car park at a local shopping mall. This was as underground and minimalist as training could be.
So we started fooling around with kettlebells and I taught them the same way I would teach anyone who just started using them. We began with swings and get ups.
Not long into this something funny started happening. They all started telling me randomly about how fast they were moving and how high they were jumping. It had nothing to do with the sprint training either, as we spent more time working on landing skills and teaching body mechanics for all the various ways you need to move on court safely. So what happened?
Luckily some researchers, Jason Lake and Mike Lauder, have recently studied the effects of using a kettlebell to improve vertical jump height versus traditional jump training and found exactly what I’d witnessed at the time. Here’s the brief outline of the study published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research:
This study, like many of the current crop of studies being done using kettlebells, seems to begin at the same point – by using the Hardstyle swing as taught at the RKC by Pavel Tsatsouline. I think the reason for this is simple – it’s incredibly well detailed and broken down so that it is repeatable and provides a safe way to perform the movement. With many variations of the swing found all over the Internet, safety and a clear concept of form are necessary. If, for instance, we both do swings and you perform the CrossFit style overhead swing and I do the Hardstyle swing are we really measuring the same thing? Pavel’s brilliance in this field has been recognized now and when scientists like Dr. Stuart McGill are using him as their reference guide for kettlebells the rest of the world is following suit.
There has been some contention amongst researchers, most notably Loren Chiu in the Barbells, Dumbbells, and Kettlebells article, who said typical kettlebell loads are too light to ever force the type of adaptation necessary for increasing maximum or explosive strength. On the contrary, Lake and Lauder have found the demands of the swing can actually exceed commonly used lower body exercises designed for these purposes.
The Lake and Lauder study used Tstasouline’s Program Minimum from Enter the Kettlebell, which has a protocol of two hand swings – simply doing swings for thirty seconds, followed by an equal amount of rest. This simple routine was to be performed twice weekly with a 12kg kettlebell if body weight was less than seventy kilograms and a 16kg if over that weight. (Incidentally, that number is a little low when compared to the force plate data that Brandon Hetzler found in his own studies when looking at ways to teach maximal force production using the swing. More details can be found here.)
The trainees weren’t complete novices, although were only given six tune up sessions to learn the swing prior to study, so they were about as green as could be without being totally foreign to using kettlebells. One of the potential flaws when I look at the subject data is that the trainees varied in training age in terms of resistance training. They all had a minimum of three months training experience. Being honest three months training isn’t much and you could reasonably expect that nearly any program would give you a result at that level of preparation.
Following the six-week, twice weekly training subjects experienced an increase of roughly ten percent (9.8%) in maximum strength. More interestingly for sports, trainees’ explosive strength improved by nearly twenty percent (19.8%). This was the same as traditional jump training methods, which I think actually creates an even more interesting possibility.
One of the phrases I have always liked that I originally got from Mike Boyle is to do no harm to my clients. Going back to my volleyball players, at the time I had a group of developing athletes all skilled in their sport but with little background in strength training and a high likelihood of injury from both training and competition. Why would I want to choose a training method that put them more at risk?
Without knowing any better and because we had no other choice, our use of the kettlebell swing proved to be a wise one. It limits the amount of landings an athlete needs to undergo, helping to prevent injury or even allowing them to recover between on court sessions, teaches the same mechanics as the jump and drills it until it becomes second nature, and is performed at a high enough speed to actually have some carryover unlike most traditional gym based movements.
Photos courtesy of Shutterstock.