Why You Aren’t Getting Better at Kettlebell Sport

An honest evaluation of all your training variables can help you find what’s holding you back.

Progress is non-linear. One of the most common fallacies in the fitness industry is the idea of adding five pounds to your bench press every week. If this were true, you’d be able to add over 250 pounds each year, and take down those powerlifting giants in no time. But we know this isn’t possible. A lifter will eventually hit a plateau and be forced to make some changes in order to continue to progress.

There are numerous training variables, both direct and indirect, that can affect performance. Routine assessments of these elements are essential for long-term improvement. Is your technique really the problem or are you simply missing too many workouts? Are you over-training or under-recovering? Is your coach the problem or is it you?

Keep in mind that there could be more than one reason why you aren’t getting better. Here are ten to consider for kettlebell sport.

Your Technique Is a Mess

Over the years, I’ve seen a lot of fit people get crushed when they start training for kettlebell sport. Their bodies are capable of moving the weight, but pure strength and endurance will only get you so far. They need to work on technique.

By improving the efficiency of your movements, you’ll use less energy with each rep and capitalize on relaxation and keeping your heart rate down. The goal of the sport is simple: to do more work than the competition. This is achieved by moving the weight at a faster pace. So given two athletes with the same level of fitness, the one who is able to move with greater economy is likely going to last longer at a faster pace.

Technique Work Is All You Do

Conversely, maybe your technique is already fine and you just need to get to work. Instead of chasing perfection, you need to build sport-specific fitness by doing a lot of reps. Sometimes it doesn’t matter how it feels – you just have to get it done.

You Need More Light and Fast Work

Don’t make the mistake of training with competition weight all the time. Rather, your program should follow the rules of periodization and progressive overload. Start with lighter bells, as light as 16kg for a professional male athlete who plans to lift 32kg in competition. Then slowly increase weight in as small increments as possible (typically 1-2kg).

Training with lighter kettlebells will allow you to improve technique at a faster pace and build a greater base of volume. In turn, you’re more likely to increase your competition pace when you reach competition weight again.

You Need to Build Mental Toughness

The head will always want to quit before the body. It’s simply trying to protect you from doing too much and getting hurt. The negative thoughts or self-talk are a defense mechanism. The problem for some people is that self-regulating starts too early.

With practice, you can train the mind to let the body push just a bit farther than what feels comfortable and safe. Then maybe it realizes the work wasn’t so bad and that it could probably do it again – and maybe even a little bit more. Sometimes you have to tell the head to shut up.

You Aren’t Flexible Enough

Finding little moments of relaxation is essential in kettlebell sport. Athletes who can “turn off” their muscles in the rack and overhead positions have a huge advantage. If your flexibility is lacking, these positions are going to be a fight. You’ll struggle in the lockout and you’ll fatigue quickly.

If you find that you have trouble locking your legs and maintaining elbow connection in the rack position, or you can’t keep your arms straight overhead, maybe it’s time to go to a yoga class.

You Need More General Fitness

Think of your general fitness as the base of a pyramid. The peak of that pyramid can only reach so high given the width of its foundation. The bigger the base, the greater potential for a higher peak fitness level in your sport. 

Those coming from a deconditioned background will make progress only to the level that their general fitness allows. Sooner or later, it will be necessary to tear down the pyramid and rebuild – whether it’s the aerobic base or general strength and power.

You Have the Wrong Coach or Program

You’re a great lifter – technically proficient with a high level of fitness – but your program is garbage. It could be that your program is too advanced or too basic, or that the progression just doesn’t make sense.

Maybe the program is sufficient, but your coach is getting in your way. Maybe they lack the ability to give technical advice or encouragement, or maybe they distract you when you’re lifting with too many complicated cues or unnecessary shouting. Maybe they’re a good coach, but you have fundamental personality differences that affect the relationship and your lifting. If these issues sound familiar, it may be time to find a reputable coach with a solid track record (local is usually preferred) and make sure your personalities are compatible.

If you and your coach don’t have a great relationship, it’s likely to stall your progress. [Photo courtesy Chris Doenlen]

You Aren’t Listening to Your Coach or Program

Or maybe you’re the problem. 

You and your coach have a great relationship and they’ve outlined an impeccable program, but you won’t follow it. Maybe you’re not doing everything that’s prescribed like skipping assistance work or worse, modifying the actual main training sets without discussing with your coach.

Maybe you’re combining several programs, hoping to reap the rewards of them all, but it’s simply leaving you feeling beat up and over-trained with nothing to show for it. If all of those programs were designed to be done simultaneously, they would say so. Or you’re doing a lot of “bonus” work that your coach doesn’t know about like adding exercises or weight. I know of coaches who deliberately “under-program” for some of their athletes because they know they’re going to do additional work behind their back.

It comes down to trust. If you trust your coach and your program, follow them.

You Lack Consistency

Training consistently refers to both frequency and effort. 

If you’re frequently missing sessions, you can’t expect to make the same progress as someone who is able to train regularly and complete all of their prescribed sessions each week. If you take weeks or even months off from kettlebell sport training, you can’t expect to make the same progress as an athlete who lifts all year. Similarly, you have to consistently train with the right intensity. Showing up isn’t enough – you have to give your best effort in each set.

The best program is the one you’ll follow. If you’re supposed to lift four days a week and can only make it to the gym twice, then maybe it’s time to modify the program. And if you’re not able to train with the right intensity, maybe it’s time to address the potential emotional, psychological, or physiological barriers impeding your progress.

You Aren’t Recovering

Sometimes all the training variables are right – you’re fit and a technically sound lifter with a great coach and a solid program – but you simply aren’t recovering between workouts. Maybe it’s stress with work, family, relationships, or something else. Or maybe you aren’t getting enough restful sleep or your diet is off.

The body and mind can only be pushed so far and without the ability to recover, you risk injury or burn out. Training doesn’t exist in a vacuum. Your actions and thoughts outside of the gym are just as important as what you do in the gym.

recovery boots

You can nail all your workouts, but that’s only half the equation. You have to recover. [Photo courtesy Chris Doenlen]

Look Honestly at the Whole Picture

It’s not uncommon for lifters to concentrate on the wrong training variables. They’ll focus too much on strengths rather than weaknesses, or blame the program when really they themselves are the problem. From time to time, it is useful to assess everything that may affect your performance: training program, coach, competition schedule, mental toughness, technique, and external lifestyle factors like work, family, and other personal relationships.

Honesty is the key to growth and so if you find it difficult to evaluate yourself objectively, then seek input from your coach and/or training partners. You may not like what you discover, but change usually requires discomfort. The performance benefits from addressing some of your limitations should be well worth it.

Your coach may be telling you things you don’t want to hear. That’s their job:

The Gym Is Not a Restaurant

Headline photo courtesy of Viljan Traningsklubb via Flickr (CC BY-SA 2.0).

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