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The Kettlebell and Barbell Solution For Size And Strength Part 1

Mike Mahler  

Last time I discussed how to add kettlebells to a barbell program for strength and fat loss. This time we’re going to look at how to combine kettlebell training and barbell work for size and strength. Many will argue that kettlebells should only be used for work capacity and strength endurance training. I don’t agree with that assessment of the versatile kettlebell at all. Sure, kettlebells are incredible for work capacity goals and if that is what you’re into by all means go for it. However, kettlebells are also great as part of an overall size and strength regimen. My DVD The Kettlebell Solution For Size And Strength released in 2005 clearly showed how to use kettlebells for getting bigger and stronger. While no one who tried the program got so huge that they wanted to compete in the Mr. Olympia contest, the program worked well for many people and the DVD was a huge success that continues to sell well today.

While a kettlebell only program can be effective for size and strength training, I think a superior option is to add heavy kettlebell work with heavy barbell work. You just cannot get better than the barbell power exercises especially the barbell squat and barbell deadlift. Why use kettlebells at all for size and strength? Kettlebells are a fun addition to a training program and complement barbell training very well. In addition, kettlebells are very comfortable for many power moves such as overhead pressing. Many people find barbell and dumbbell overhead pressing uncomfortable, but can overhead press kettlebells without any issues. Kettlebells allow you to press off of the upper body (assuming you are using correct form), which takes a lot of stress off of the shoulders. You can blast the bells off the upper body from the start position to the lockout position and get through the initial range, which is generally the most troublesome for people with shoulder issues.

Kettlebells are also very comfortable for rowing movements such as the renegade row and core exercises such as the windmill and Turkish get-up. Finally, the double kettlebell swing is a great way to reinforce proper kettlebell deadlift technique as well as improve the strength and resilience of the posterior chain so you have more training longevity.

People love to argue training all day long but trainees that are serious about training instead choose to actually train. This article is about how to combine kettlebells with barbell training for size and strength rather than an article that tries to convince you to do so.

Next, an important area that needs to be covered for size and strength is the right amount of volume. Jerry Brainum wrote a great article in the current issue of Planet Muscle discussing the recent science about optimal volume and intensity for strength work. In one study, a group of trainees that had completed serious training for six years participated in a six-week regimen in which one group did barbell squats for one set, another for four sets, and finally, a group did eight sets. All three groups used 80% of their respective one rep maximum efforts. What was the outcome? The eight sets group has the best results and even showed a 7.9% greater gain compared to the one set group. What about size? This study did not cover if the higher volume equaled more muscle size. However, 7.9% higher gain in strength on the barbell squat likely correlated in increased muscle size as well as the barbell squat is a proven mass maker.

High volume training has been proven over the years to be very effective for increasing size. Countless programs such as “German Volume Training” popularized by top strength coach Charles Poliquin and “EDT (escalating density training)” developed by renowned strength coach Charles Staley support the benefits of high volume training for maximum size. My friend and strongman legend Mark Philippi is also a fan of putting in some serious volume and intensity to increase size and strength rapidly. The transformation that UFC fighter Frank Mir made while training under Mark’s tutelage shows clearly how effective his high volume methods are. For more information on Mark Philippi, make sure to check out the DVD I did with him: Mastering The Power Exercises

As effective as high volume training is, it is also very taxing and few can get away with doing too many high volume workouts. Especially true with regards to natural trainees with jobs, kids, bossy wives, needy husbands, moronic co-workers, idiot bosses, and other real-world responsibilities. Moreover, lower volume work with a focus on maximum effort has also been shown to be very effective for increasing strength and often size as well. Just look at the success that people are having with Jim Wendler’s 5-3-1 programs. Legendary powerlifting coach Louie Simmons also recommends a maximum effort day in which trainees work up to a max on a given exercise once a week. Finally, famous bodybuilder Dorian Yates had great success with lower volume intense training for serious size and strength.

There is really no need to be pedantic and join the endless debates that people have about high volume versus low volume. It is a total waste of time and only for people that have nothing better to do than argue on message boards all day long. Usually such people rarely workout either as they prefer to hang out with virtual friends on facebook and try to chat up women that they would never have the courage to approach in the real world.

Okay, now that I have that rant out of the way lets get into the program by going over how kettlebells will be used. First, many people forget that kettlebells are actual weights and thus fall under the same rules as any form of weight training. You can use kettlebells for upper body pressing, upper body pulling, lower body pressing, lower body pulling, and torso work. In addition, kettlebells are great for conditioning as well. Especially when you focus on the ballistic exercises in high reps such as clean and jerks, swings, and snatches. The bottom line is the kettlebell is a very versatile training tool and can be used for a variety of goals just like dumbbells, barbells, resistance bands, and bodyweight exercises.

In order to make kettlebell training effective for a size and strength goals, you have to focus on the exercises that provide the most benefit. Without question, the focus should be on double kettlebell exercises with the heaviest bells you can handle with solid form. Why double kettlebell bells? If you use two 70lb bells for overhead pressing your body is working against 140lbs as opposed to only 70lbs with the one-arm press. Moreover, in my experience of training with heavy kettlebells over the last ten years, I can tell you emphatically that heavy double kettlebell training carries over to one-arm training much more so than the other way around. That said, throwing in some one-arm kettlebell ballistic work is a great way to finish off a workout and get some blood flowing to enhance recovery. This is especially true after heavy barbell squat and barbell deadlift work. Thus, we are going to use both double kettlebell work to builds size and strength and one-arm ballistic repetition work to build strength endurance and enhance workout recovery.

Next, in addition to focusing on double kettlebell exercises, It also makes sense to focus on reps when doing kettlebell work rather than low rep maximum effort work which is much more suited for barbell work. In this program, we are going to focus on high volume work with kettlebells in the 6-12 rep range and low volume intense work with barbells in the 3-5 rep range. 

Here is the program    

Monday: (High Volume Upper body kettlebell work)

A-1: Double KB Military Press 8×5 (one clean and then all the presses) 

A-2: Alternating Renegade Row 8×5 each side (1-second hold at the top of each rep) 

Do a set of A-1, rest for a minute and then do a set of A-2. Rest for a minute again and do another set of A-1. Continue until you have completed all eight sets. With the pressing technique, explode the weight overhead without any leg drive. Fixate the lockout and then lower under control back to the starting point. For renegade rows, minimize the torso rotation and focus on pulling up to the lat in a straight line. Hold the bell at the top and contract the lat as hard as possible on each rep. 

When you can complete all the sets with the same weight, go up to six reps per set. When you work up to 8×12, it is time to go to heavier kettlebells. Go to the next size up. For example, if you can do 8×12 with two 70lb bells go to 2 79lb bells and start over at 8×5.    

One-arm KB Windmill 3×5 each side (one-minute breaks) 

Finisher: One-arm Kettlebell Snatch 3×15 each side (one-minute breaks)

Tuesday (High volume lower-body kettlebell work) 

B-1: Double KB Front Squat 8×5 (pause at the bottom for one second) 

B-2: Double KB Swing 8×5 (swing to chest level) 

Do a set of B-1, rest for a minute and then do a set of B-2 and rest for a minute again before doing another set of B-1. Continue until you have completed all eight sets. With double front squats, make sure to pause at the bottom for one second on each rep and then explode all the way to the top. With double kettlebell swings, swing the bells outside of your feet. This allows greater freedom of movement for the arms, loads up the legs more, and works the traps like no other exercise I have tried. If you have never tried this version then get ready for some serious soreness.  

When you can do all the sets with the same weight, go up to six reps per set. When you work up to 8×12, it is time to go to heavier kettlebells. Go to the next size up. For example, if you can do 8×12 with 2 70lb bells go to 2 79lb bells and start over at 8×5)

Turkish Get-up 3×5 each side (one-minute breaks) 

One-arm Kettlebell Swing 3×15 each side (one-minute breaks) 

Thursday (upper body barbell maximum effort day)

A-1: Barbell Floor Press 3×3+

A-2: Weighted Pull-up 3×3+ 

Do a set of A-1, rest two minutes, and then do a set of A-2. Rest another two-minutes and repeat A-1 again. On the last set of each exercise make sure to go for as many reps as you can. If you hit five reps, increase the weight by 5lbs for the next workout.

Dragon Flags 3×5 (60-second breaks in between each set. If you can do five reps already slow down the movement by doing 3-second negatives) 


One-arm KB Snatch 3×15 each side (one minute breaks) 

Friday (lower body barbell maximum effort day)

Barbell Squat 3×5+ (take three minutes in between each set. On the last set do as many reps as you can. If you hit 7 reps, add 10lbs to the bar for the next workout). Make sure to Squat just below parallel on each repetition.  

Romanian Deadlift 3×5+(take three minutes in between each set. On the last set do as many reps as you can. If you hit seven reps, add 10lbs to the bar for the next workout)    

Hanging leg raise 3×10 (one-minute breaks in between each set. If you can do 10 reps easily, slow down the movement by doing three-second negatives) 


One-arm KB Swing 3×15 each side (one-minute breaks) for 4-6 weeks to see how you respond before making any changes. Remember it is always better to focus on doing a few things well rather than several things poorly. If you really put in a maximum effort on squats, RDL’s, etc then the last thing you will want to do is more work.


Resist the temptation to add more work on the low volume days. Follow the program as laid out


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