Make Kettlebells Better
Dr. Joel Seedman, Ph.D.
Kettlebells are one of the most unique and versatile training tools. While some kettlebell movements require a significant familiarization process and learning curve (e.g. bottoms up exercises), other variations are quite simple and feel very natural. In fact, employing kettlebells on, deadlifts, squats, and rowing variations tends to feel even more natural than dumbbells or barbells due to the hanging nature of the weight. As a result, many coaches and trainers use kettlebells to help groove proper body mechanics on basic foundational movement patterns.
While performing exercises such as squats, hinges, and rows with kettlebells does feel incredibly natural and effective, stronger athletes and advanced trainees face a common problem – namely the inability to overload the basic kettlebell movements. For instance, few training facilities offer kettlebells that go past 70 pounds. Even if you’re fortunate to find a hardcore gym that provides 100 pound kettlebells, this still won’t provide ample overload for stronger lifters on the basic kettlebell squat, deadlift, and row. As a result most advanced athletes simply can’t program kettlebell deadlifts, squats, and hinges into their routine other than using them as a form of preparatory dynamic warmup drills prior to their heavy movements (i.e. using a kettlebell deadlift to groove the barbell deadlift).
Fortunately the solution to this debacle is quite straightforward as it simply involves applying accommodating resistance to basic kettlebells exercises particularly in the form of bands.
By looping one or more bands through the handles of the kettlebells then anchoring those bands to the pins of a squat rack or deadlift post, we can overload the daylights out of the most basic kettlebell exercises that will give even the most seasoned iron game warriors a run for their money. In the video above I’m demonstrating several variations along with some of my awesome clients and athletes including Leslie Petch, Ben Lai, Todd Weiland, Matt Jordan, and Michael Horner.
For deadlifts, squats, and hinges, there are several possible variations. The movements can be performed unilaterally (single arm), isolaterally (each arm holding a kettlebell), or bilaterally (both arms holding one kettlebell). They can also be performed with constant tension (pausing in the eccentric isometric position before touching the ground), or in a dead stop fashion by placing the weight back down to the floor each repetition.
In addition, for most of the variations the amount of tension in the top position with the bands and kettlebells combined is well over 400 pounds (2 thick bands and 2 medium bands) while the bottom is approximately half of that. While this doesn’t represent maximal weight for me or my clients is does provide ample overload after several sets of slightly higher repetitions. In fact, every one of my clients who tried these noticed the high levels of full body activation and overall fatigue produced from these. It should also be highlighted that the lifter can continue looping additional bands through the kettlebell handles until he or she reaches their desired overload levels. In other words there is really no limit to how much these can be overloaded.
Applying this method to lunges is also incredibly effective for crushing the quads, glutes, and hamstrings. The tension in the top position ensures constant tension throughout the movement rather than allowing a momentary rest period at the top as is commonly seen with most free weight variations.
Bent over kettlebells rows also are quite conducive for applying band resistance to. Similar to the squats and deadlifts, these can be performed either in a unilateral fashion, isolateral fashion, or bilateral fashion. The amount of tension in the contracted position is inordinately high so be prepared for a major amount of tension in the upper back and lats. If you decide to perform these in a single arm fashion you can also expect significant tension in the core as you resist rotational forces.
If you don’t have access to squat or deadlift pins to anchor the bands, you can still use this method by simply looping the bands through the kettlebells then placing the outsides of the bands under your feet. While this doesn’t require as elaborate of a setup, you’ll be somewhat limited in terms of how much band tension you can employ before the bands slip out from underneath your feet. Check out the last exercise in the above video to see one of my awesome clients Michael Horner using this method.
Why Not Just Use The Bands Without The Kettlebells?
A popular deadlift variation many coaches program is quite similar to the above approach only without the kettlebells. In other words you simply grab the bands that are anchored to low pins and perform deadlifts, hinges, and squats with them. So why not just use that method and eliminate the kettlebells? There are three reasons.
First, the amount of loading at the bottom would simply be too low to produce any appreciable stimulus particularly to the lower body and posterior chain. In other words even if the load is several hundred pounds in the top position, the bottom would only be approximately 100 pounds which simply does not provide enough overload in the stretched position thereby minimizing the stimulus to the posterior chain and lower body. Adding kettlebells on the other hand provides more ideal levels of accommodating resistance. Even if the lifter is using moderate weight kettlebells such as 50’s per hand, this adds an additional 100 pounds to the bottom portion of the lift. In other words it eliminates such an extreme loading variance between the top and bottom. You get the benefits of accommodating resistance (more overload in the strongest position and deloading in the weaker bottom position), without sacrificing too much tension in any one portion of the lift.
Secondly, attempting to directly grip bands that provide several hundreds pounds of tension is very uncomfortable on the hands and skin. Holding kettlebells attached to these bands provides natural and comfortable handles that the lifter can grasp without feeling like their hands get shredded.
Lastly, the neutral grip position provided by the kettlebell variations provides a unique stimulus that helps the lifter retract and depress the shoulders throughout as the neutral grip makes it easier to fire the lats. In other words it helps pack the shoulders more so than the traditional pronated grip. This reinforces optimal deadlift mechanics and also minimizes stress to the spine as the lifter can more easily set their back by locking their lats in throughout the duration of the set.
Looping chains through the handles of kettlebells can provide a very similar stimulus to the band resisted kettlebell variations. These are also exceptional for preforming a variety of rows. Here’s my modification of an exercise I stole from expert strength coach Brett Bartholomew. Definitely follow Brett as he's one of the best in the business.
Most gyms don’t offer kettlebells that go past 50-70 pounds. However, many athletes are capable of rowing well over 100 hundred pounds particularly when performing the single arm bent over row with the kettlebell as the movement feels vary natural, safe, and strong.
In this video the total load I’m using is approximately 125 pounds and the total load Leslie Petch is using is approximately 80 pounds. Adding chains to the kettlebells allows the lifter to overload the kettlebells and provides ample stimulus to crush the upper back and lats. Although these can be performed on the floor, I found that standing on two benches or boxes provides the perfect level of elevation to allow the chains to hang freely throughout the movement. Try performing several sets of 5-8 repetitions during your next upper back workout.
The Best One Arm Row You've Never Done
The traditional single arm dumbbell row performed with one knee on the bench is considered a classic back movement and a staple in many bodybuilding programs. Unfortunately the movement can become quite awkward particularly as you progress into heavier loads as the thickness of the dumbbell can contribute to flaws in body mechanics and overall shoulder positioning. Simply put, rather than pulling the weight in the appropriate position towards the stomach and hips (with the elbow close to the body), the thickness of the dumbbell can oftentimes cause the lifter to row the weight higher to their upper torso (with the elbow excessively flared and the shoulders elevated) to avoid having the dumbbell run into their thigh. In other words it can contribute to faulty mechanics.
A solid alternative to this is using a kettlebell as the hanging nature of the load helps resolve this as it sits naturally between the legs. Unfortunately this presents another problem, namely adequate overload as most gyms don’t carry kettlebells past 50-70 lbs. Even if you’re fortunate enough to train at a facility that carries 100 pound kettlebells, this still doesn’t present enough overload for stronger lifters particularly because the single arm row is very conducive for overloading.
However, by applying the band resistance method not only does this resolve the overload issue as the lifter can apply as much tension to the kettlebell as necessary, but it also resolves the issue of optimal body mechanics and joint positioning. Simply put the lifter doesn’t have to be concerned with the thickness or size of the weight running into their thighs. They can row the weight straight up with optimal mechanics rather than feeling the need to contort their body as a means of preventing the weight from running into their legs. In other words you get the best of both worlds – maximal overload and optimal body positioning.
What About Kettlebell Swings?
No article discussing the utilization of kettlebells would be complete without addressing swings. Kettlebell swings present a similar overload problem as the other aforementioned lifts discussed in this article, particularly for stronger lifters. By applying band tension or manual resistance as one of my NFL athletes Jarius Wynn demonstrates below, not only does this produce more tension but it creates a stronger force vector in the horizontal direction. As a result this further emphasizes the glutes and posterior chain.
Front Rack Kettlebell Squats
The front rack kettlebell squat is one of my favorite squat variations not only for crushing the legs and core but also for taxing the upper back, shoulders, traps, and upper body stabilizers. In fact the stimulus is quite similar to a traditional front squat in that the anterior loading targets the quads to a greater extent due to the slightly more vertical torso position. Unfortunately the nature of the kettlebell front rack position is so intense on the upper body that the shoulders, arms, and/or upper back as well as the core typically give out well before the legs do. As a result it’s difficult to truly program this as a lower body strength and hypertrophy stimulus as the legs tend to have plenty left in the tank.
By applying band resistance as demonstrated by my awesome client Leslie Petch, not only does the upper body receive the same intense activation but the lower body actually gets thoroughly taxed and activated. In fact, if you chose the appropriate band tension, the legs especially the quads should fatigue at approximately the same rate as the upper torso does making this a brutal full body movement.
As an added bonus applying bands to the body in this fashion forces the lifter to push the knees out, avoid valgus collapse, and maintain proper foot and ankle alignment. If you have trouble with valgus collapse in the knees or ankles or suffer with ankle pronation when squatting this will help immensely.
Band resisted squat jumps can easily be performed using the hanging kettlebell or dumbbell setup as I have 2 of my NFL athletes (Julian Williams and Marquell Beckwith) showing here. Besides providing similar benefits as the barbell jump squats these tend to be a bit more low back and shoulder friendly than the barbell variations.
When it comes to athletic performance, deceleration & force absorption are just as important as force production. Yes this drill is great for teaching athletes how to accelerate and blast through the band tension which is phenomenal for improving power output & speed. However, its just as effective for teaching athletes how to absorb impact & decelerate high level forces as the band resistance acts as a slingshot launching the lifter back into the floor on the catch. This represents incredibly high levels of eccentric stress which also does wonders for injury prevention not to mention functional strength & hypertrophy due to heightened levels of mechanical tension & muscle damage.
Single Leg Variations
Here I have one of my awesome clients and national level NPC figure competitor Leslie Petch performing several unilateral kettlebell exercises using accommodating resistance. Kettlebell deadlifts, squats, & hinges are some of the most natural & user-friendly lower body variations as the kettlebells tend to be very natural to hold and move through these movements. Adding accommodating resistance further enhances the stimulus to the legs as the top position of most of these typically involves very little tension to the targeted musculature. The band tension resolves that.
Additionally, single leg movements are very conducive for overloading with accommodating resistance as the bottom position of unilateral lower body variations tends to be even weaker relatively speaking than the bottom of bilateral versions due to balance & stabilization components. Simply put athletes are usually fairly strong in the top half of single leg movements compared to the bottom half. Therefore the added band tension helps maximize the training stimulus.
Additionally, the upper back, traps, and shoulders, get thoroughly taxed from the constant pulling tension of the bands on the upper body. As a result these are great for stimulating functional strength & hypertrophy throughout the entire body.
Lastly, you’ll notice Leslie employs the eccentric isometric protocol on each rep (slow negative followed by a pause in the bottom position). This helps maximize proprioceptive feedback & kinesthetic awareness thereby allowing the athlete to fine-tune his or movement by making subtle adjustments based on their sense of feel. Eccentric isometrics are something I employ with every athlete on a majority of their movements as it’s the single most effective method I’ve seen not only for maximizing form, technique, & mechanics, but also for building functional strength & size while optimizing joint health. Read more in new book MOVEMENT REDEFINED.
Bottoms up squats are great for cleaning up squat mechanics and lower body movement patterns. Unfortunately they don’t quite overload the lower body enough to trigger an ample hypertrophy or strength stimulus particularly in the legs. A simple yet brutally effective solution for this is performing the Bottoms-Up Cross Loaded Kettlebell Deadlift Squat as I demonstrate here.
Additionally, the hanging kettlebell deadlift squat with band resistance, while a very natural and effective movement, tends to place significant tension on the spine and low back. Fortunately by holding a bottoms up kettlebell position in the opposite arm, this helps maximize core activation (across the body), spinal rigidity, and full body tension, thereby insuring the low back and spine are fully protected throughout the movement while still being substantially loaded.
During this particular set the bottoms up kettlebell is 30 pounds and the total load for the band resisted kettlebell is approximately 125 in the bottom position and 200 pounds at the top position. Be forewarned, these are one of the more brutal squat variations I’ve performed. Several sets of 4-5 reps per side will more than suffice for blasting your entire body from head to toe.
You’ll also notice how I use an eccentric isometric protocol throughout. This helps maximize body mechanics and technique via enhanced proprioceptive feedback and muscle spindle activation (a result of emphasizing a more controlled eccentric phase).
The same concept shown in this article with kettlebells can also be applied to dumbbells as shown here by my awesome clients including Leslie Petch (rows), MLB pro Austin Meadows (squat), Ike Onike (squat jumps), and Mitch Ellis (deadlifts).
Lets face it, hanging dumbbell exercises (between the legs) such as hanging dumbbell squats, deadlifts, and bilateral bent over dumbbell rows are some of the most simple yet effective drills for dialing in one’s mechanics. In fact these are all movements I use quite frequently with new clients and athletes. Unfortunately intermediate and advanced lifters outgrow these basic drills very quickly as most gyms don’t have dumbbells that go past 100 pounds thereby making it difficult to amply overload. However the simple crisscross band resistance method allows the athlete to overload even the most basic drills.
For instance in the first video Leslie is using an 85 pound dumbbell with 50 pounds of additional band resistance to blast her upper back, and lats. In the second and last clip Austin and Mitch are using 100-120 pound dumbbells for eccentric isometric squats and deadlifts respectively while also handling an additional of 150-200 pounds of additional band tension. In other words we turned a simple dumbbell squat or dumbbell deadlift (that you can typically only use 100 pounds on) into a maximal overload movement with a total of approximately 250-300 pounds of full body tension.
Not only are these drills very simple and easy to dial in one’s mechanics on but they’re also incredibly safe and joint friendly due to he accommodating resistance (with less tension in the bottom and more tension in the stronger top positions) not to mention the biomechanically sound positions.
Lastly the jump squat shown by Ike is a tremendous drill for working both acceleration and deceleration as well as force impact and force absorption. Just be prepared to brace your entire body upon landing.
To learn more about implementing unique movements such as these into your training routine check out my Complete Templates program.