By Josh Henkin
Trends, fads, gimmicks…hell, they’re all part of the strength and conditioning industry. It can be challenging to determine what methods and tools actually live up to the marketing and what will simply fall by the side. In the end, the only way to really find out what works is to use it. In the past five years, there have been three tools that I’ve found to accomplish what I call “filling in the holes” of our standard training.
Kettlebells, bands, and sandbags have truly added another dimension to our training programs, which are typically based around the classic barbell lifts (squats, deadlifts, cleans, and presses). What I’ll discuss here is how we’ve effectively implemented these tools to help take our clients’ results to another level.
It floors me that there are still coaches who are resistant to give kettlebells a try. I once heard a prominent strength coach comment that, “they are just dumbbells that hit your wrist.” Not only is this a misleading byproduct of kettlebell training but a narrow view of their potential.
So quickly, let me cover the basics of why we use kettlebells:
- Increased range of motion in lifts such as presses and rows and even squats
- Perform any lift you can with a dumbbell but have even more variations
- Easier to perform lifts such as front squats, presses, and swings
- Harder to stabilize than dumbbells
- Can help teach powerful hip explosiveness for those who struggle with barbell variations, especially the Olympic lifts
- Complexes flow better with kettlebell drills than with dumbbells
Alright, because this isn’t an infomercial for kettlebells, let’s get into the nitty gritty. First off, I’m not going to suggest that you drop your barbell training for kettlebells. Rather, we’re going to look at how you can integrate them into your existing programs.
Building volume: We all know that building a base of volume helps an athlete tolerate higher intensities better. Increasing one’s work capacity can greatly enhance the speed of one’s ability to recover and perform at higher intensities. While some coaches have found great results in isolating muscles to enhance their work capacity, we tend to prefer to utilize complex lifts. Many argue that using compound lifts for volume work can wear you down too much. However, using specific kettlebells lifts with the rep/set schemes suggested below allows our clients to build work capacity without overtraining.
- Tip 1: You’ve just finished your work of heavy bench pressing. This is a great time to use some lower loads and work on stability and range of motion of the shoulder through some high rep kettlebell jerks or push presses. The kettlebell provides an additional range of motion and uses a push press and jerk that won’t overtrain the shoulder complex, assuming the loads stay moderate. We like to use a perceived rate of exertion of 4–6 on a scale of 1–10. Two to three sets are often more than adequate.
The same strategy can be used after a deadlift or squat routine utilizing swings and snatches. Using the increased back swing of the kettlebell can provide a tremendous stretch and training effect on the posterior chain. This is unique to kettlebell training.
- Tip 2: We have been using more and more of what I call contrast sets. Over the years, I have become more of an advocate of using triples or less on our core barbells lifts. This seems to allow for better technical performance as well as less neural burnout. However, I’m still a big fan of using 5s for both strength and functional hypertrophy. That is where we again employ many of our kettlebell lifts. The independent nature of the kettlebells can help with stability as well as a new neural stimulus that helps vary from the constant bilateral barbell work.
The key in using contrast lifts isn’t to make the sets of five maximal. You don’t want to cause excessive fatigue. One idea would be to perform a single deadlift followed by five snatches in each hand and increase the intensity the following set for the deadlift. However, maintain the same snatching weight. If you perform this for a series of three sets, you have not only increased the overall intensity but you’ve increased the volume as well without compromising the technique of your core lift. This works very well for athletes and general fitness enthusiasts who want to improve strength and fitness at the same time. It works well too with the idea of same but different lifts, an idea that Pavel Tsatsouline has popularized.
Injury prevention: Many still don’t understand how to train for injury prevention. In Dr. Yessis’ book, Secrets of Soviet Training, he notes that most injuries occur during eccentric movements in extreme ranges of motion. This means if we simply continue to train in only movement patterns such as deadlifts, squats, presses, and cleans, we’re going to be strong lifters but still may lack strength in ranges outside of these typical patterns.
Ok, you can all start breathing again. I’m not about to suggest you begin standing on funny surfaces or performing circus tricks. Rather, we can integrate some of the best lifts from kettlebells into a pre-existing routine that places focus on the big lifts.
Below are my top five kettlebell lifts to help prevent injury.
While this particular drill may receive the strangest looks, it really should be a constant in athletic programs. If we take away focus of the arm for a moment, this drill is phenomenal for creating trunk strength and really demanding high levels of hip mobility. Both of these factors are critical for athletic performance and injury prevention. Now, if we add in the unique ranges of motion where the shoulder is challenged, there is no doubt that this makes our top five list.
In an age where 80 percent of our population will experience low back pain at some point in their lives, windmills earn an easy spot on our list. Again, even unloaded, this drill can be useful as a dynamic flexibility exercise, but when loaded, it becomes a strong trunk and shoulder stability drill.
The windmill opens the lateral side of our body, which is often the most inhibited in movement. Lateral movement, especially in the low back region, can be compromised through years of injury and poor movement. The windmill not only opens these areas but teaches the lifter how to properly integrate the hip and lat into the movement.
Sometimes we debate exercises depending upon our own ability to perform them. Front squats definitely fall into this category. Many lifters are limited in upper body flexibility to perform front squats well. Therefore, they quickly discount this valuable lift.
The kettlebell front squat sits on the body, which should allow just about anyone to perform a good squat. Using the kettlebell for front squatting will almost always enhance one’s range of motion and capability of performing a deep squat. The deep squat position can help maintain healthy hips and low back and is another great way to train the hamstrings and glutes.
Heavy double kettlebell front squats are a nice alternative for some Zercher lifts. The upper back and trunk get hit very hard to the point where even a very good squatter can be challenged by double 48-kg bells.
Kettlebell expert, Pavel Tsatsouline, has mentioned the swing and the one-legged deadlift as the two best exercises to prevent hamstring injuries. The one-legged deadlift is a staple of many of our training programs. When performed barefoot, the one-legged deadlift can help train the muscles of the lower leg as well as hip stability.
There is plenty of evidence showing that our recruitment patterns differ with one-legged training. Therefore, adding in various one-legged drills seems necessary for all athletes. In addition, many of our own personal deficiencies can be shown through one-legged drills.
Lastly, the one-legged deadlift is a great posterior chain drill for those who might find their backs a little tight from too much barbell deadlifting. Many athletes need to learn how to pull with their hamstrings and glutes, and this drill may help incredibly.
This is an exercise that I’m still surprised doesn’t get used by more coaches. The classic version may be challenging to teach to non-Olympic lifters, but using kettlebells makes this a relatively easy to learn exercise. However, why even use it? The split snatch obviously helps us develop power but almost more importantly challenges our balance in a sport-specific manner as well as our dynamic hip flexibility.
The problem with most attempts by coaches to improve balance is that they rely on the wrong neurological loops. Most slow movements train the feedback system. However, we need to train the feed-forward system responsible for very quick actions when our body doesn’t have an ability to adjust.
Next time, I’ll delve into more techniques for employing kettlebells, but I’ll show the unique aspects of sandbag training as well.
About The Author
Josh Henkin is owner of Innovative Fitness Solutions in Scottsdale, Arizona. Coach Henkin has presented nationally in the field of fitness and sports enhancement. He is also the author of High Octane Sandbag Training manual and DVD. For more info, click here.