Musings for Getting Stronger and Seeing Progress in the Kettlebell Gym
by Shawn Powell SFG, CPPS
Rapid Results Fitness
Early September 2018
Becoming stronger is a subject a mile deep, and endlessly debated. It's also made to be way too complicated for the general population, way too often. Let's not do that here.The beauty of kettlebells is partly due to their rawness and simplicity. Simple, not easy, is what we like to say. Let's keep it simple.
So how do we get stronger in the kettlebell gym? How do we see progress from week to week, both in the numbers stamped on the front of the kettlebell, as well as what we see in the mirror? How can we make our trips to the gym something we look forward to and not just another reminder on our smartphones?
The following are just a few tips on making real progress and getting stronger. Strong like bull. They are neither complicated nor scientific. Sort of like me, except interesting and thought-provoking. They are but a small collection of things that I find spewing out of my big red face during kettlebell class over and over. I've realized that no matter how often I say them, someone was not there to hear it. Some will be a little more broad and applicable across the board. But I'll also go into a few specific moves too. Enjoy, and put them to use.
Sneaky Bells. "Sneaky Bells" is the personal nickname that I've given to very slyly slipping slightly heavier bells into your sets and reps. You know, without your body knowing it and all. What your body doesn't know won't hurt it, right? That's actually totally wrong, but bear with me.
Let's say you have a classic 5x5 set and rep scheme. Instead of using the same weight for all, or steadily trying to increase the weight on each set (which can be demoralizing if you fail), use one bell size heavier somewhere in the middle-ish. For example, the Press. If I'm comfortably pressing the 24kg for five reps over 5 sets, I would sneak the 28kg in on my second or third set, and then return to the 24kg for the remaining sets. If I don't get all five reps on those heavier sets, it's OK. It really is. You can also apply this to individual reps in a given set. Such as using both the 12kg and the 14kg in a single set if the 12kg is your comfort bell. "Sneaky Bells" is a malleable concept. The more sneaky you are, the better it works. It's very similar to a Pyramid Method, though a little less conspicuous I like to think. It's sneaky.
Obviously, there are limitations to being sneaky with your bells. If you physically can't press, squat, deadlift, clean, or get up with the weight using all the right techniques, it's simply not going to happen just yet. But from what I've observed, many times it's a mental block. That's where this applies. Folks can use the same ole' bell for a certain exercise for a very long time and never push the envelope, and consequently never see changes. That's the comfort bell mentioned above. That's their "wooby." Sneak the heavier bell in there, and do it more frequently within your reps and sets over the weeks to come. Before you know it, you're a bell up and it's awesome. It's Progress.
Tension. You hear it all the time from your instructors. We tell you to engage your lats. Squeeze your glutes. Squeeze the handle. Knees up. Brace your core. Pack the shoulders! Do NOT let this become white noise. The body is a single unit that works together and likes to distribute the load. Perform your kettlebell lifts with this in mind. In the words of the legendary Louie Simmons, "You can't fire a cannon from a canoe." Well, I guess you could. Once. Let me know how that works for you. Oh, and another benefit of muscle tension? Protection for your joints.
Work the Negative. This one is very simple and can't always be applied to all moves. If you can't strict-press a weight, push-press it to the top and slowly bring it down with tension. If you can't do a pull-up, safely assist yourself to the top and lower yourself slowly. The pull-up is a separate blog post altogether, but this is one way to help skin the pull-up cat.
Here's a specific. If you can't perform a Get-up with the next size up, push press the weight to the top, then very slowly and with hyper-focus, work the down portion only. Play it safe and use a spotter.
The above concepts work for many kettlebell movements. Let's get into just a few specific moves and common roadblocks.
Getting Stronger in the Swing. This concept is deep, so you'll have to pay close attention. How does one get a stronger, heavier two-hand swing? The staple kettlebell move?? I'm about to blow your mind - swing a heavier freakin' bell. Seriously. Many people are under-swinging, even when their intuition is telling them that the lighter bell is not making them stronger, nor helping their form. You guys know me by now. I lean more towards the conservative side when it comes to moving up in weight. I would not tell you to do something foolish or dangerous. However, this one I'm confident in. Use those powerful hips and glutes to swing some heavy iron and you will see changes in your body. Good ones.
Getting Stronger in the Press using Loaded Cleans. I've already talked about using tension, being sneaky, and working the negative in performing a heavier kettlebell press. Another, albeit related way, to increase your press is Loaded Cleans. Use either your current 1RM press weight, or preferably the next size up (I've used both), and clean it like you mean it. That is, perform a strict kettlebell clean, but don't attempt to press it. Instead, stand there in the Clean for a few seconds with a tighter-than-tight rack position. Squeeze every muscle in your body as hard as you can. Squeeze the heck out of the bell. Squeeze the heck out of your non-loaded hand. Squeeze your glutes and lats so hard that they feel like they are about to cramp. Squeeze your quads. Brace your abs and core as hard as possible. The loaded fist is below the chin. Then safely park the bell, without attempting to press it. Do this 2-3 times with a little rest in between. Then go on with your bad self and press the next heaviest bell. Then gloat about it. Just a little.
So there you have it - a few things to think about in regards to making progress and seeing change in your kettlebell journey. We're just scratching the surface, really. I hope that you'll try some of these and view your trips to the gym as training sessions rather than workouts. I hope you'll ask questions about it.
Oh, and you might ask how all of this fits into kettlebell class at RRF. After all, there's a prescribed workout written on the board, right? That's simple. You don't need to do it all at once, and your instructors are not going to stop you from trying new methods and techniques even if it means deviating from the words on the wall a little. In fact, we'll help you. We can change a few reps here, a set or two there. We can give you a spot. We can elaborate. Hopefully it opens up more dialogue and reveals more rabbit holes for us to dive down. Together.
I've run into a few folks over the years that say, "I tried those kettle-balls once, and they didn't do anything for me." My response is simply, "Then you weren't doing them right." I'm not a jerk. What I mean by that is this: If you're not seeing changes in yourself, your body, your training, there's usually a reason. I hope that we can help you figure it out!