In January, I embarked on Lisa Shaffer’s 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge. 10,000 swings in one month, 400-500 swings a day five to six days a week. I knew I would have to find a way to break up that volume of swings in order to psychologically deal with the numbers, and also avoid muscular imbalance. I saw lots and lots kettlebell military presses be a great second exercise, and ladder sets are a great way to get in lots of reps without fatigue.
I decided to insert sets of swings into press ladder sets. It is not rocket science. To get good at something, do it a bunch, and your body will find ways of doing it more efficiently. The two exercises in this program – the press and the swing – are movements that are natural to the human body and therefore lend themselves well to it. The combination works the body from the tips of the toes to the fingertips and, depending on the pace, provides serious cardiovascular conditioning.
It is a very generalized program, and is a series of compromises. Training sessions vary from 18 minutes to a full 60 minutes (for the very last session), which is the outside edge for a productive kettlebell training session. This is as close as I like to get to long, steady-state aerobic exercise.
This program will entail three non-consecutive days per week for four weeks. I recommend 5-6 days of exercise per week, so on your off days, I recommend a few Turkish Getups each day and then whatever else you choose. Just be careful not to trash the hands with a bunch of kipping pullups or anything else that might cause blisters or callus tears.
The Kettlebell 2-Arm Swing
The 2-Arm Swing – or Russian Swing, as it is sometimes called – forms the foundation for most of the kettlebell ballistic lifts, such as the clean and the snatch. The better and more powerful your swing, the better everything else will be. That is one reason why of only two exercises, it is chosen for this program.
Since the 2-Arm Swing is primarily focused on mid-line stabilization - in synchronization with explosive hip and knee extension – its carryover into sports activities and other functional movement is incredible. In plain English, this means that it will help you lift heavier, jump higher, run faster and hit harder. Or, simply do these things easier and with less risk of injury.
The 2-Arm Swing done in high repetitions will build conditioning unlike nearly any other exercise. The swing works the entire posterior chain, but special emphasis is placed on the glutes, hamstrings and mid-line stabilization muscles (core).
The 2-Arm Swing is a perfectly symmetrical exercise. You just can’t favor one side. If you do, you will know about it real fast. Most choose this swing variation for the majority of this program.
The swing will also build unreal grip strength. One of my clients is a former U.S. Marine, and currently works for a large correctional facility as part of its tactical response team. He recently broke his personal record of 25 strict deadhang pullups, by knocking out 28 in a row with ease. His previous record stood for the past seven years, and the only change he has made in his training is the addition of lots of kettlebell swings and snatches. He entirely credits this increase in pullup numbers to added grip strength from kettlebell training.
The Kettlebell Press
Since before the first Olympics, lifting heavy objects overhead has been the ultimate test of strength. There is no part of the human body that is not placed under load while lifting a heavy object overhead, such as during a kettlebell military press. Forget about the bench press as a measure of strength. The bench press is an artificial, gym creation. Lifting something heavy from the ground overhead is not.
For the purpose of this article, the press is defined as pressing the kettlebell from the rack position to full lockout in one motion, with zero knee bend. While many claim that side lean is cheating, for the purpose of this program, it is not. I have found that a little sideways lean accompanying a challenging press, is just your body taking advantage of leverage, which is great for overall strength. Pressing a challenging weight should be a total-body exercise.
There are a number of small techniques involved in pressing. Please, find a qualified kettlebell instructor in your area and get qualified instruction on proper form and technique for your safety. Don’t try to wing it based on a single article or internet video.
Overhead pressing requires skill and body-awareness. That means you have to actually pay attention and focus while performing this activity. Watching the TV in a cushy commercial gym while attempting to overhead press something heavy is a recipe for disaster, and possibly a good Youtube video.
An often-cited reason for not including overhead lifting in a strength training program is because it “hurts my shoulders” or fear of injury. Unless you have some prior injury, there is no reason not to include overhead lifting in your exercise, if you do it properly. I have women senior citizens clean and press 26lb kettlebells overhead on a regular basis with zero injury. On the contrary, increased range-of-motion and injury resistance are to be expected with correctly-done overhead lifting.
At the same time, I know young, otherwise strong individuals that cannot lift ½ that amount safely. It is all about proper technique and preparation. If it hurts, you are probably doing something wrong, or have some flexibility issues that must be addressed, whether you plan to press overhead or not.
Get some training from a certified kettlebell instructor, not just a personal trainer that likes to dabble with kettlebells. Correct overhead lifting takes practice and technique.
Overhead lifting does not cause injury, but improper overhead lifting can cause any number of injuries, just like any exercise done with too much weight, too soon or too little attention paid to correct technique.
Focus and learn to use your body. Learning to use your body more efficiently should be part of any exercise routine. Learning a challenging activity like pressing weight overhead will build neuromuscular efficiency that will pay off in almost every aspect of your strength and health.
Ladder sets are the key to lots of volume, with little fatigue
Strength ladders are used by almost everyone who has ever touched a kettlebell. First, we must clarify what a ladder is. We’ll use pullups as an example, and a rep scheme of 1-3 reps. Here goes:
- 1 pullup, rest.
- 2 pullups, rest
- 3 pullups, rest
- Return to 1 pullup and repeat, up the “ladder.” Each set of 1-3 reps will be considered a “rung.”
This is an awesome way to get a lot of volume in a workout, with little fatigue. Each ladder of pullups described above would equal 6 reps. Repeat 8 or 10 times and you will get 48-60 reps. This might not be possible with sets of 10-15 reps, but with sets of 1-3 reps it is easy.
Swings alternated with presses
In this case, we are doing kettlebell military presses, alternated with swings. The bell is only cleaned on the first rep, and then pressed from the rack position for each successive rep. This is mostly to avoid wear on the hands due to the volume of swings.
We will only be taking these ladders to 3 reps, or rungs, and will be alternating each set of presses with a set of swings. The press(s) will begin at the top of one minute, and a set of swings will begin at the top of the next.
Each ladder/swing set from 1-3 reps will take 6 minutes, and should be done as follows:
- Minute One: 1 clean and one press, per side.
- Minute Two: swings
- Minute Three: 2 presses, per side.
- Minute Four: swings
- Minute Five: 3 presses, per side.
- Minute Six: swings
- Return to 1 press, per side.
Each ladder set will equal six reps per side. I recommend beginning this program with a weight you can press for about 5 reps with either side. Since the press is a full-body movement, start with the non-dominant side (we don’t have weak sides in my gym).
In a perfect world, we would rest for 3 minutes between each set of 1-3 reps, for a full recovery and to really build maximal strength. This program is very generalized, and is a series of compromises. We will not be resting that long, approximatley 90 seconds between presses, and during that time about 30 seconds will be spent swinging the same or heavier kettlebell. This is the smallest rest window I recommend, otherwise you aren’t using a heavy enough kettlebell.
How many swings? It totally depends on your ability and the weight you are using. For a beginner, I recommend a weight they can swing for approximately 15 reps with zero deterioration of form. If that gets to be too hard, I usually recommend reducing the swing set by two reps per set. If it is too easy, increase by two reps, until you find a challenging but sustainable pace. Don’t be afraid to scale back if needed. You’ll still get plenty of swings in.
For example, if you are beginning, 10 swings may be enough. If you are more advanced, 20-25 swings. For most, 20 swings, will equal about 30 seconds of swinging. Three hard reps per side will also take about 30 seconds. So, you will be working and resting about 50/50. This is tough, but sustainable for an advanced person.
By the end of the month, 20 swings between each press set will add up to 500-600 swings per workout. 10 swings would be 250-300, not bad at all if you are just beginning.
What if your pressing strength lags behind your swinging power? No problem. Just find a heavier kettlebell to swing. Many of the women I train are capable of swinging a much heavier kettlebell than they can press. Several of them use a 26-35lb kettlebell for presses and a 44-53lb for swings. Another option is to use a more challenging swing variation, such as a swing-and-release, or H2H (hand-to-hand) swing.
The only time I don’t allow a weight discrepancy is for men, who sometimes want to press a heavier kettlebell than they choose to swing. In this case, I make them reduce the number of swings with the heavier kettlebell, or reduce the pressing weight. It is unacceptable to have a stronger upper body than lower body. This helps to balance that out.
When your pressing strength increases, try pressing a heavier kettlebell on the first “rung” of the ladder set, then the lighter one for the second and third. Eventually, you will press the heavier one for sets of three.
Cycling throughout the month
Physiologically and psychologically, you must vary the load placed on your body. This is a foreign concept to many that are new to strength training, who have been poisoned by many of the mainstream fitness rags that spew forth nonsense about pushing ever harder, and to failure on every training session. Many people are not satisfied unless they leave the gym exhausted every single time. True, there is a time for this and if you push hard, there will be a few days during this month that you will be at your mental and physical limit, which will likely be much more than you ever thought you could do previously. Other days, you will feel like you could do a second workout afterwards.
During the four weeks, you will begin with three ladder/swing sets, and will end with 10. However, we will not simply add a ladder each workout.
Here is the cycling pattern I have used to great success with several people, including myself:
Workout #1 – 3 Ladders
Workout #2 – 5 Ladders
Workout #3 – 7 Ladders
Workout #1 – 4 Ladders
Workout #2 – 6 Ladders
Workout #3 – 8 Ladders
Workout #1 – 5 Ladders
Workout #2 – 7 Ladders
Workout #3 – 9 Ladders
Workout #1 – 6 Ladders
Workout #2 – 8 Ladders
Workout #3 – 10 Ladders
While this program is very simple, it does not imply that someone inexperienced with kettlebell training or exercise should jump in and try it. I insist that you locate a kettlebell instructor certified by a reputable organization and learn to do these exercises correctly. A great instructor will help you choose a weight that is appropriate and make any necessary adjustments in weight or technique.
As always, I recommend checking with a physician before beginning this or any exercise program.
CrossFit/Tactical Athlete Kettlebell Instructor