Kettlebell Training Conundrum article by Marty Gallagher at IRON COMPANY

Kettlebell Training Conundrum

Best methods for training with kettlebells

The kettlebell is valid tool that deserves a place in the fitness tool box. This iron orb consisting of an iron ball, handle and horns is amazingly versatile. In the hands of an expert, the kettlebell can be used to build all three strength types: absolute, explosive and sustained. Kettlebells are equally effective as an aerobic device. Let us dig down a bit into all the kettlebell potentialities, let us provide some insight into how best to use the kettlebell. When assessing a tool, and the kettlebell is a tool, not a religion, look at the tool in terms of how it can or cannot impact any or all of these five categories of strength and stamina.

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Absolute strength: maximum payloads lifted with no regard to speed, duration or velocity. Includes isometrics, struggling maximally against an immovable object. Absolute strength is characterized by low rep maximum payload efforts. Absolute strength is akin to low-end torque.

Explosive strength: moderate payloads lifted explosively. Speed is paramount; the idea is to create maximum momentum with modest payloads. Explosive strength is done for low repetitions; speed degrades with repetition. Explosive strength is akin to high-end horsepower.

Sustained strength: light payloads lifted for extended periods. Whereas absolute and sustained strength are best expressed with low rep sets that fall within the 5-10 second ATP zone, sustained strength injects muscular effort into an aerobic format. Sustained strength is akin to fuel economy.

The kettlebell expert will exploit absolute strength protocols by wrestling with heavy kettlebells for low reps in primal exercises, 1-5 rep sets, all out efforts in the goblet squat, double kettlebell front squat; experts can rep in the single leg pistol squat. Heavy overhead pressing is an absolute strength mainstay and single and double kettlebell overhead pressing is exceedingly effective. Kettlebell experts will add the technically difficult bent-press, the push press and the one and only double kettlebell jerk. Grind is fine; isometric is fine; isotonic is fine; absolute strength is all maximum tension for minimal duration.

Explosive strength is attended to by performing momentum-infused kettlebell exercises. Single and double kettlebell repetition cleans are a mainstay. The kettlebell snatch is another mainstay and is usually done one bell at a time. Swings are done with explosive snap. Regardless the kettlebell exercise selected, explosiveness can be applied. True explosiveness requires maximum acceleration over every inch of the concentric rep stroke.

One test of explosiveness: on a snatch or kettlebell clean, if during the concentric phase, if you take your hand off the kettlebell mid-rep – would the kettlebell continue to fly upward (the true indicator of momentum) or would it crash down immediately?

Sustained strength is power exerted for a protracted period. Sustained strength could be exhibited by short bursts of maximum intensity done repeatedly. Sustained strength is exemplified by longer efforts with appropriately modulated intensities.

Sustained strength is any effort that taxes the cardiovascular system to a significant and ongoing degree. Aerobic training purposefully injects muscular effort into a cardio format. The kettlebell can be used in an incredible number of ways to create ideal and varied sustained-strength cardio protocols. Rotate between swings, snatches, overhead presses and goblet squats. String differing kettlebell exercises together in long sequences; or perform a single exercise for a protracted period. For example: experts will perform single-bell kettlebell snatches, done with light weight in high rep sets. They can alternate hands and snatch for upwards of 30-minutes.

Kettlebells for Cardio Training

While much attention is paid to the strength-building attributes of the expertly used kettlebell, not as much attention is paid to using this crude ball of iron as a cardiovascular tool. Expertly used, a kettlebell burns more calories per minute than any other cardio machine. One would think that when it came to cardio efficiency, the ability to burn calories and oxidize body fat, nothing could top the super-expensive cardio machines that populate commercial gyms: the stationary bikes, treadmills, stairclimbers and elliptical trainers.

The slickness and ball-bearing smoothness of these hi-tech cardio devices makes them too efficient.  The rawness and awkwardness of the kettlebell makes the iron orb a better burner of calories. When it comes to burning off calories, awkward and inefficient (a double kettlebell overhead press) is superior to smooth and efficient (a seated overhead machine press.)

The kettlebell snatch has become recognized as the King of all calorie-burning exercises. The length of the snatch rep stroke is without equal – there is no exercise with a longer rep stroke. Add to the ultimate stroke length an awkward kettlebell that the athlete intends on snatching 50-100 times. This type of extended set work hones technique quickly; the high rep snatcher gets a lot of snatch practice: on every rep they get to practice the pull, the acceleration, the transition and the catch, the snatch sequence that must occur on every snatch rep.

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Kettlebell experts put out sustained workloads that generate astronomical calorie-per-minute burn rates. Long term usage of kettlebells in an aerobic format dramatically improves VO2 max capacity; this while building and strengthening internal organs in a way unimaginable using one-dimensional, sleek and slick cardio machines and devices. When creating cardio kettlebell protocols, think in one of two ways….

Burst cardio: one overarching strategy is to spike the heartrate maximally, go as fast as possible for a long as possible, recover and repeat. One easy burst kettlebell burst protocol would be to perform a set of 10-reps in the swing with a 54-pound kettlebell, rest until recovered and repeat. How many sets can you perform in a 30-minure cardio session? Log results. Continually seek to exceed your current best. Another burst kettlebell protocol – string together a long sequence of classic Kettlebell moves. Start with 10 swings then immediately begin 10 overhead presses before beginning 10 goblet squats and finishing with 10 double kettlebell power cleans…rest and repeat the four exercise sequence as many times as possible within the allotted session time.

Steady-state cardio: classic cardio is steady-state cardio. Determine the session length, regardless the tool or mode, select an even, steady pace, settle in and go at the steady pace for the duration of the session without stopping. Burst cardio purposefully creates muscular exertion. Steady-state seeks to minimize muscle contractions; relax and glide, the fewer the muscle contractions the less oxygen required.

The kettlebell expert replicates steady-state protocols by emphasizing efficiency and technique. When steady-state is done right, expert kettlebell trainers can perform 100-rep snatch tests and engage in marathon squat or clean sessions. Steady-state is enhanced by falling into a smooth rhythm of movement, a glide technique that establishes and takes advantage of smoothness of stroke, rebound and momentum. Smooth efficiency for extended periods reaps incredible physiological benefits.

A tool without a protocol is a toy: kettlebells, used right, will generate physiological progress past your widest expectations. In order to bring about the dramatic progress you seek, start by identifying the characteristic or attribute you seek. Absolute strength? Steady-state cardio? Determine the goal and work backwards. The sought-after end-result determines the protocols. Those that purchase a kettlebell and “improvise” or “goof around” are missing a tremendous opportunity, an opportunity to physiologically transform themselves. A tool without a plan is toy – and a wasted opportunity.


RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast
RAW with Marty Gallagher, J.P. Brice and Jim Steel Podcast


About the Author
As an athlete Marty Gallagher is a national and world champion in Olympic lifting and powerlifting. He was a world champion team coach in 1991 and coached Black's Gym to five national team titles. He's also coached some of the strongest men on the planet including Kirk Karwoski when he completed his world record 1,003 lb. squat. Today he teaches the US Secret Service and Tier 1 Spec Ops on how to maximize their strength in minimal time. As a writer since 1978 he’s written for Powerlifting USA, Milo, Flex Magazine, Muscle & Fitness, Prime Fitness, Washington Post, Dragon Door and now IRON COMPANY. He’s also the author of numerous books including Purposeful Primitive, Strong Medicine, Ed Coan’s book “Coan, The Man, the Myth, the Method" and numerous others. Read the Marty Gallagher biography here.