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Barbells are the superior tool for strength and power development. They can be loaded heavily and moved with verve. The kettlebell, however, offers a few distinct applications. It's great for training clean movement, learning the ins and outs of hip hinging, squatting and tension development. There are no better movements than the goblet squat and the swing for meeting the movement end.
Once a trainee is proficiently skilled, kettlebells are also well-applied as a conditioning instrument. It's vital, however, to know when and how to use them.
The quick onceover in the introduction didn't serve the kettlebell justice as a conditioning tool. Let's quickly elaborate on their conditioning effectiveness.
First in order is their safety. Even as fatigue burdens the body, kettlebells are a low-risk conditioning implement. You can go hard with less risk of harm.
While they are low-risk, they also place external load on our physiology. This offers a training stimulus of sustained intensity. Swings, for example, load the glutes, hamstrings and core and can be done for high-rep sets.
Swings, by the way, are an example of an exercise that is performed beyond the gym's confines. They're an ode to the kettlebell's versatility, a plethora of exercises done anywhere you wish. Swing in your back yard; do Turkish get-ups at the park; goblet squat in a parking lot. The kettlebell is a means to improve your fitness no matter your location.
Taxation: The Kettlebell Way
Uncle Sam isn't going to charge you every time you swing a bell, but kettlebells are used to tax both energy systems, aerobic and anaerobic.
When training for fat loss, or increased work capacity, and recovery, longer, slower and less intense training bouts are necessary. This means using a lighter bell and employing one of the aerobic protocols listed below.
The anaerobic system gives us explosive movement: jumping, sprinting and lifting heavy loads are all products of anaerobic metabolism. While the aerobic system works to replenish and sustain the body, the anaerobic system allows it to create violence. Increasing anaerobic capacity improves our ability to demonstrate ruthless strength and power more efficiently in the gym, sport and life. Remind yourself of the time you wanted one more set of heavy squats or deadlifts but you didn't have the juice left. A better anaerobic system gives you the juice keep the weight on the bar.
Before we start swinging, let's talk about an apparatus that improves aerobic training effectiveness: the heart rate monitor. If you don't have one, snag one at the local sports store (a decent one is about fifty bucks). Aerobic training requires you keep your heart rate within certain training zones. Send your heart rate through the ceiling and you've destroyed the wonderful aerobic adaptation you were seeking.
Swings for Time
The simplest kettlebell sponsored aerobic taxation is doing swings for time. You'll grab a bell that you can swing easily for twenty reps and a timer. Start by swinging the bell at medium intensity for as many reps as possible in five minutes. Break when you need to and avoid fatigue. Strap on your heart rate monitor and make sure your heart rate doesn't go above 160. If it gets close, break until you've settled into the low 140s. As you increase your conditioning, and make five minutes a mockery, take a one to two minute rest and repeat. Continue to improve your conditioning by adding more five-minute sets after short, one to two minute rest periods. Make it your goal to complete four, five minute sets.
A second, more intense, version of swings for time is the race to 100 reps. Grab a slightly heavier bell than for the five minute sets and race the clock, completing 100 swings as fast as possible. Do this once per week and try to PR each time. Add multiple sets if you so dare.
Ascending and descending ladders keep your body under stress while holding your focus on the task at hand. The method is simple: combine three movements and ascend or descend to a final rep destination.
My favorite kettlebell conditioning ladder is a variation of Dan John's humane burpee, introduced to me by world-class strength coach Chris Merritt. It's simple, brutal and effective.
Grab a bell you can swing, and goblet squat, for a taxing set of twenty; you'll swing and squat during this ladder. Once you've selected your bell, you'll swing, goblet squat and push-up your way from ten reps down to one, or one rep up to ten of each movement. The sequence is swing, squat then push-up.
To progress, add volume each week. Week one begins with ten reps reduced to one, increase to twelve reps on week two and start week three with fifteen reps. Again, monitor your heart rate and keep it below 160.
All of our anaerobic kettlebell training is done in five to thirty -second bursts followed by rest periods two to six times as long.
Anaerobic protocols enlist heavier bells. We want to train explosion and tax fast-twitch muscle fibers. Here's a palpable example: if you're doing ten-second sets of swings, you should only get eight swings completed in ten seconds—moving as violently as possible.
Three kettlebell exercises exist exclusively in my anaerobic conditioning rolodex: swings, goblet squats and kettlebell jumps.
Kettlebell jumps done for five to ten seconds are great for explosive anaerobic conditioning that taxes the creatine phosphate system. Near-complete rest is important for this protocol; sets of ten seconds are followed by rest periods of forty-five to sixty seconds. Swings are also used in this protocol, but kettlebell jumps offer more violence.
Swings and goblet squats are great for longer anaerobic sets, around thirty seconds. Since the workload is more sustained, and not as explosive as the kettlebell jumps, shorter rest periods are necessary. Progressing from a one to three to one to one work to rest ratio works well.
Anaerobic sessions are typically shorter than aerobic sessions because they are more fatiguing. Ten to twenty minutes using one of the protocols above is appropriate for increasing your capacity to demonstrate ferocity.
When To Use These Training Protocols
It's important to use the right tools at the right times, so let's briefly cover when to use aerobic and anaerobic training protocols.
Extended aerobic training blocks are great at the beginning of the training year. They develop your recovery system and prepare the body for future, increasingly vigorous exercise adaptations. These usually last for four to eight weeks and use the aerobic protocols discussed above, among other training methods.
Anaerobic conditioning pairs well with heavy strength and power training blocks.
If you're more of a concurrent training aficionado, you can use these methods at the same time. Match the anaerobic conditioning with your heavy strength days, adding the conditioning sessions to the end of the training day. These training sessions are completed early in the training week. On off days, and at the end of the training week, add in the aerobic conditioning methods. They'll help you recover and prepare your physiology to handle greater workloads.
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[Editor's Note: Kettlebell training requires maximum energy, endurance and focus, so we're going to take this opportunity to spotlight one of the pioneering supplements in the pre-workout category, ProSource's Myo-Surge. MyoSurge is designed to supercharge glutamine concentrations before your workout, while flooding your muscles with essential BCAAs. It also features a potent dose of L-tyrosine to help maximize intensity. One of the first formulas specifically intended for pre-workout impact, Myo-Surge still has legions of fans to this day. Of course, for those of you who like a little hormonal boost with their pre-workout energizing, BioQuest's AndroFury certainly fits the bill, too.
A tool is only as good as its application. Kettlebells, however, are great for multiple uses, moving better and improving conditioning. Whether you're a strength athlete, figure athlete or a gentleman wanting to stay lean and athletic, kettlebell conditioning is useful for you.