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How do I progress with kettlebell training?


In strength coach land, we refer to the plan of getting better as periodization.


Learning to train instead of just working out

There’s nothing wrong with “punching the clock” and getting a mindless workout in. We all do it, and let’s face it, even consistent, mindless workouts are far better than couch sits and 12oz curls that most people are doing. Consistently working out is a very healthy habit that everyone should strive towards, but there’s a difference between working out and training. There’s seasons in my own life, where I rely on a “punch the clock” mindset with my training routine to make sure I’m at least maintaining what I’ve worked so hard to build over the years. But then there’s time to put the pedal to the metal and train hard and purposeful with my kettlebell training. This can also apply with your nutrition as well, as your nutrition should match your training goals. But let’s stay on the topic of planning for progress with your kettlebell training. 

“Belling up”

I’m sure someone else has said it before me, but if not, I’m coining the term “belling up” in kettlebell training. This means that if you got through a particular training session and you know you could have gone heavier with your kettlebell selection, then the next time you train you pick one bell size heavier and do the same kettlebell training session. In other words, you “bell up.” 

I’ve done this particular kettlebell training session I call “The Standard” for several years, and I typically do it on Sundays. Like most of my kettlebell training sessions, this one only lasts 15 minutes and it is comprised of turkish get-ups and swings. It goes like this:

Every 90 seconds for 10 Rounds (15 Minutes) Perform:

Turkish Get-Up x 1ea

Kettlebell Swings x 10

* Rest the remainder of the 90 seconds and repeat for 10 rounds.

When I first began doing this workout, I was using a 24kg (53lb) kettlebell for both movements, and in fact, I recommend only using one kettlebell when doing this training session. After 3 or 4 times using the 24kg in this training session and the training went from pretty challenging to much easier, I decided to “bell up” to a 28kg (62lb) kettlebell. This changes the stimulus of that workout altogether and it became very hard all over again and I could feel my body getting stronger as a result of that. After a few more weeks, the 28kg kettlebell was starting to get much easier, so once again, I decided to bell up to a 32kg (70lb) kettlebell for that particular kettlebell training session. As you’re already predicting, this made “The Standard” very challenging all over again, and my body had to make the physiological adjustments to handle this new weight in my kettlebell training. After about 4 weeks of using this kettlebell weight, what do you think I did?

“You belled up didn’t you?” Says the reader. 

“Yes I did,” the writer responds.

I’m probably beating a dead horse here, but this made “The Standard” very hard all over again and my body had to make more adjustments to the now 36kg (80lb) kettlebell I was now using in my kettlebell training session.

This simple example of periodization continued until I got to the 44kg (88lb) kettlebell, at which point in time I haven’t purchased a heavier kettlebell yet. This process is so simple, but it’s missed by so many people because they just continue to use the weights they have and “punch the clock” in their workouts with very manageable weights that don’t continue to challenge their body’s physiology to make adjustments. This all fine and well if you’re happy with where you’re at, but herein lies the distinction between “working out” with your kettlebells, or truly kettlebell training. 

Other ideas for periodization

The simple model I explained above within “The Standard” kettlebell training session is called linear periodization. This type of periodization is well, linear. You just continue to use heavier weight over time. This works well for those who are relatively new to any kind of strength training, including kettlebell training. This is a fun time in anyone’s training career, because it just seems like you’re going to get stronger forever! Of course, this isn’t the case, but it sure is fun for awhile.

There’s all kinds of periodization models, but the key thing to keep in mind is that you are manipulating a variable that challenges your body to continually force it to change. Let’s use “The Standard” again as an example. Let’s say you’re stubborn and cheap and won’t buy a heavier kettlebell, which is a mistake, but you’re already know you’re stubborn and cheap, so here’s the stubborn and cheap make progress. They perform the workout with less rest. A plan for progress in their kettlebell training may go like this:

  • Every 90s for 10 Rounds (weeks 1 -4)
  • Every 80s for 10 Rounds (weeks 5 – 8)
  • Every 70s for 10 Rounds (weeks 9 – 12)
  • Every 60s for 10 Rounds (weeks 13 – 16)

You could also increase the volume within the kettlebell training session by adding +2 swings every 4 weeks and keep the every 90 seconds for 10 rounds theme the same.

Another idea is to train like an athlete does throughout the year. Professional athletes have a pre-season, an in-season, and an off-season. Obviously if you’re a competitive athlete, this model works great, but it can also work great for those life athletes that just want to maintain elite levels of fitness and health and by using this model, it creates opportunities to focus on different health attributes. Here’s some ideas:

  • Pre-season (8 weeks)
    • Training frequency: 5 day/week
    • Start with volume high (higher rep ranges) and decrease throughout, while increasing intensity (using heavier weight as volume decreases).
  • In-season (16 weeks)
    • Training frequency 5 days/week
    • Train at high intensities (undulating) intensity
    • Increase additional rest for optimal recovery
  • Off-Season (12 weeks)
    • Reduce training frequency to 3-4 days/week
    • Low to Moderate intensities
    • Include more outdoor and recreational activities to keep daily activity levels high, but reduced stress on the body.
  • Punch the clock (12 weeks)
    • Climb frequency back towards 5 days/week throughout this phase
    • Train however you feel like that day (punch the clock or freestyle workouts)

Summary

The key take-away from this article to change your mindset from one of just “punching the clock” year round to training with purpose and intention towards a specific goal. This isn’t to detract from those who consistently “punch the clock,” as they are miles ahead of those doing nothing more than scratching and sniffing, but it is to bring awareness to the concept of periodization and training with a plan to accomplish something specific within your kettlebell training.