Many people believe light to moderate kettlebell training is ideal, 53lb kettlebells for men and 26lb kettlebells for women. This line of thinking is a great way to miss out on the benefits of heavy kettlebell training.
For example, 53lb kettlebells are not challenging to me at all and if I based my training on 53lb kettlebells, I would not have the strength, size, endurance, and explosive power that I currently have. Moreover, my clients would not make the improvements that they have made if they stuck to light bells.
Even if your goals are cardio and muscular endurance, why not work up to heavier kettlebells for reps? Do you really think that knocking off ten double swings with two 88lb kettlebells will not be beneficial? Do you think that ten Clean and Presses with the 70s will not benefit you as an athlete? Of course both will. An athlete would clearly do better with doing twelve Clean and Presses with two 70s than thirty Clean and Presses with two 53s.
If you can do thirty reps with a weight, it is too easy to have any dramatic benefit for athletic activities and strength (unless your sport is GS, a kettlebell sport), especially, for combat athletes. The heavier the kettlebells you can handle for muscular endurance, the more benefit you will have for your sport. Using Olympic lifting as a back drop, an athlete who can Power Clean 315lbs five times is going to have much more explosive power than an athlete who can Power Clean 135lbs fifteen times. Moreover, the athlete who can Power Clean 315lbs will be able to do far more than fifteen reps with 135lbs.
Heavy training improves light training, but not the other way around. So why even bother with light training? With the exception of working on form and back-off weeks, I would say do not bother. Personally, 70lb bells are the lightest ones I own and I only use them for GTG (Pavel’s Greasing the Groove in which you practice an exercise daily for neurological facilitation) for presses and sometimes high-rep Front Squats.
Recently someone asked me how many reps I can do for the ten-minute Snatch test with a 53lb kettlebell. I have no idea as I have never done the test. With all due respect to the test and the great people who have participated in the test (lots of impressive numbers by people who have taken the test), I’d rather have an athlete knock off twenty Snatches left and right with an 88lb kettlebell and eventually the 105lb bell. Sounds like too much? I can do 17 Snatches left and right with a 105lb kettlebell and I am far from a gifted athlete.
A few months ago I knocked off 50 reps per arm on One-arm Snatches with a 53lb bell. I am not breaking any records, and there are a few things you should know. I never train with light kettlebells; I rarely work on high reps (over ten reps per set), and the 50 reps left and right was easy for me. The power and endurance that I built with heavy kettlebells carried over very well to light weights for high reps. However, take a man or woman who can do 50 snatches with a 53lb kettlebell who has never trained with a heavier kettlebell and I promise you that he or she will not be able to do more than a few reps with a 105lb kettlebell. More than likely, he or she will not even be able to do one rep. If you are an athlete, light training it is not ideal for the majority of your workouts.
Once you have the technique down, ramp up the intensity. Heavy kettlebell training will do far more for explosive power and when done in high reps will develop muscular endurance that will transfer to your sport.
Now I am not blowing my own horn here or trying to convey what a great athlete I am. Again I am not a great athlete and certainly not a genetic freak. My anabolic hormone levels are good, but certainly not exceptional. Thus, I do not have tremendous recovery abilities either. I did not even start lifting weights until I was 18 and got pinned with 100lbs on the bench press when I first got started. I never played sports in high school or college. Thus, if I can work up to the numbers above, it should be no problem for gifted athletes. I am just an average guy who learned how to train smart, recruit the CNS, and use my own leverage points to handle heavier bells — more about leverage points later.
My point to drive home is that heavy kettlebell training is not just beneficial for size and strength, but for muscular endurance as well. The muscular endurance you build with heavy kettlebells is much more beneficial than light kettlebells for athletes. In addition, heavy kettlebell training engages the CNS more efficiently, teaches you how to master your own leverage points, and if used correctly, probably has a great benefit to optimizing anabolic hormones. Of course this is far more complicated than just training.
Let me make it clear by stating that I do not think heavy weight low-rep training takes the place of muscular endurance. That is not what this article is about. Of course you need to work with high reps and lots of volume or frequency to ramp up endurance, but you should not be afraid of heavy kettlebell training. If muscular endurance is your thing, have a goal of working up to some high reps with some heavy kettlebells on the Double Clean and Press, Double Swing, Double Front Squat (or Double Clean and Front Squat), Double Clean and Jerk (or Clean and Push Press), Double Snatches, One-arm Swings, and One-arm Snatches.
Heavy kettlebells are bells you can only do a few reps with, say 2-4. Start with low reps to get used to the heavier kettlebells. For example, if you can Clean and Press two 53lb bells ten times, do a few sets of two reps when you start working with the 70lb bells. Make each rep perfect. Once that gets easy, start building the reps. When you can do ten Clean and Presses with the 70s, get a pair of 88s and do the same thing.
One important thing to keep in mind is that training form needs to be modified as the bells get heavier. Let’s use the Clean and Press as an example. With light kettlebells, you can keep the body fairly loose and still maintain proper technique. You can easily keep your body upright as leverage is not a necessity. However, once you start doing Clean and Presses with heavy kettlebells, you are playing in a whole new ball game. You have to tighten up and apply more tension to have a solid foundation. You will have to let your back “sit back” and push your hips as far forward as possible for optimal leverage. Your breathing will change. Now you have to hold your breath or apply “power breathing” to keep the tension high to get the bells moving.
An another example is the One-arm Snatch: When I do Snatches with a 105lb bell my form is much different than my form with a 70lb kettlebell. I drive through with much more power and pop the pelvis through and let my back sit back for more explosive power and leverage similar to what Olympic lifters do. As the bell goes overhead, I bend my knees slightly to get under the weight and catch it. When I return the bell to the starting position, I keep it close to my body for maximum control. I also do not swing the bell back as far between my feet as that also throws off the leverage. It is almost a completely different exercise all together than a One-arm Snatch with a lighter bell.
One final example is the One-arm Military Press with a 105lb kettlebell. At my bodyweight of 193, I can One-arm Military Press a 70lb kettlebell easily without having to shift my weight at all for optimal leverage. When I press an 88lb bell, I shift my weight a little bit. However, when I press a 105lb kettlebell, I need every leverage point that I can take advantage of. I kick my hip out under the bell; I take the bell behind my back so I can engage the lat more and acquire more leverage and stability. Then I shift my weight in the opposite direction similar to a side press to keep the bell moving, and once I have the bell moving, I shift my weight under the bell to finish the move.
I saw Steve Cotter, founder of Full Kontact Kettlebells, One-arm Military Press a 105lb kettlebell recently and it almost looked like a Kettlebell Windmill. Steve started the press from under the chin and quickly got the bell behind his back to reach the optimal leverage point. Some of you may feel that this is cheating. To retort I say you either weigh a lot more than Steve and do not need leverage to press a 105lb kettlebell, or you are not even close to pressing a 105lb. Do you really feel that mastering leverage with a heavy kettlebell is not beneficial to athletes? Isn’t that what athletes do all of the time? Judo and wrestling have a lot of techniques in which the ideal leverage is used to take the opponent down efficiently. In football you do not just ram into your opponent haphazardly, you go for a particular spot to do the most damage.
One of the strong benefits of heavy kettlebell training is that you ultimately have to master all of your leverage points to get the job done. Right now, I am working on the Double Clean and Press with two 105lb kettlebells. The only way that it is going to happen is if I apply my ideal leverage points. These are points I have not found yet as I have not needed to apply them with 88lb kettlebells and below. Regardless, I will find these points and I will press the 105lb kettlebells. It is only a matter of time and the learning process in and of itself is a lot of fun. I really enjoy the challenge. When I work up to a Clean and Press with the 105lb kettlebells for reps, you better believe that it will improve my numbers with the 88s and 70s. No doubt about it.
I will leave you with this. Even if you do not want to train with heavy kettlebells, if you want to improve your numbers with the bells you are currently using, get some heavier kettlebells. The 88lb kettlebells always felt heavy to me until I started training with 105lb kettlebells. Now they feel light and the 70s feel so light that when I went to do a Double Clean and Press yesterday, I almost ended up doing a Double Snatch by accident! As Brett Jones, founder of Breaking Strength, once told me, if all you lift is an 88lb kettlebell, it will always feel heavy.
Unleash the power of heavy kettlebell training today.
Special thanks to Laree Draper for editing this article. Visit the Draper site at www.davedraper.com
About The Author
Mike Mahler is a strength coach and kettlebell instructor based in Los Angeles, Ca. Check out Mike’s website at www.mikemahler.com for updates and for more information on his workshops and products.
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