Use Plates Instead Of Kettlebells

This article is exclusive to AHP.  It represents the uncut, updated, and fully extended version of an abbreviated article originally featured on t-nation.com

Key Points

  1. If you don't have access to kettlebells, use Olympic barbell weight plates with handles to perform many of the same movements.
     
  2. Performing swings with plates offers unique challenges and benefits that can't be replicated with other training tools, including kettlebells.
     
  3. Bottoms-up variations performed with plates are some of the most physically demanding exercises you'll ever attempt. They may even surpass conventional barbell cleans and snatches in terms of building full body strength, stability, motor control, power, coordination, and symmetry.


The Heavy Kettlebell Dilemma

Having trained for over 13 years in a variety of settings, access to equipment, particularly heavy kettlebells, has always been something I've had to work around. Furthermore, peak hours at many gyms and sport facilities pose their own unique set of challenges, as oftentimes the only unoccupied equipment may be a set of Olympic plates hanging on the overpopulated bench press station.

Fortunately, dealing with these challenges has been a blessing in disguise. It's forced me to devise unique alternatives to kettlebells that are not only suitable replacements for their traditional counterparts, but may actually serve as more intense and effective movement variations.  

On a side note for those of you reading this who are die hard kettlebell fanatics I'm in no way suggesting that plates are superior to kettlebells or that you should always replace kettlebells with plates.  I'm simply providing unique variations of exercises that can be incorporated into your training routine to produce different benefits.  In fact I use a combination of both plates and kettelbells in the workout routines of all my athletes and clients.  The specific variations we choose depends on the training stimulus we're attempting to elicit.   


PLATES SWING

When I first began tinkering with single 45-pound plate swings in lieu of kettlebell swings, I soon realized that not only was this a movement that I could perform at nearly any facility due to easy accessibility, but that it also offered unique benefits.

First, driving a plate between your legs immediately forces the hips to open up and spread maximally in order to accommodate the wide implement. Second, plate swings greatly assist in eliminating one of the most common pitfalls associated with swings, which is squatting rather than hinging at the hips.

If you squat rather than hinge, you'll hit the ground because of the height of the plate. This teaches you to hinge and not let the weight pull you down. Instead, you'll learn to drive the weight back during the eccentric phase of the swing.
 

Double Plate Swing

There are additional perks to performing double plate swings. First, they allow you to use anywhere from a total of 50 pounds (using two 25-pound plates) to as high as 90 pounds (using two 45-pound plates). For many lifters, swinging 90 pounds is more than sufficient to elicit the appropriate training stimulus, not to mention the fact that 90 pounds in the form of plates will feel heavier and more intense than the same load applied with kettlebells.

The double plate swing is also an incredible forearm and grip workout. With kettlebells, the hands tend to move naturally and rhythmically, whereas plates have to be essentially manhandled in order to control them properly.

Also, supinating the hands into a more neutral position helps teach the neuromuscular system to pull the scapula medially, as well as reinforcing proper scapular retraction and depression. Simply put, the neutral grip ingrains the idea of pulling the shoulder blades down, back, and medially towards the spine, a maneuver that all lifters should be emphasizing in their training programs.
 

Close-Stance Double Plate Swing

The main difference here is that you swing the plates from the sides rather than the front of the body. This variation of the traditional swing may be one of the best for athletes and is my personal favorite. Not only does swinging the plates from the side of the body present a unique stimulus that's difficult to replicate with any other form of external resistance, but there are several unique advantages to this intense exercise.

First, the side plate swing will have more specific transfer to close-stance movements including conventional deadlifts, trap bar deadlifts, Olympic lifting variations, Romanian deadlifts, and bent over rows. Secondly, the movement is more specific to jumping due to the similar stance width employed. Although many would argue that hip extension is hip extension, period, performing dynamic hinge activities in a more sport-specific fashion may provide a highly valuable training alternative for athletes.

Another unique benefit is the greater range of motion the plates must travel as a result of using a taller body position. Not only do the hips have to extend more forcefully to propel the load to the proper height, but there are also greater deceleration forces involved during the eccentric component due to the momentum buildup accrued from the larger drop height.

Plate width is another reason to perform swings from the sides.  I’ve witnessed many scenarios with myself and other individuals trying to perform dumbbell swings from the sides of the body only to find that the exercise soon turns into a lateral deltoid-emphasized exercise.  When the weights become too thick as is the case with 30lbs dumbbells or heavier, most of the effort is expended trying to avoid hitting the knees and thighs.  Fortunately plate swings completely resolve this issue, as the plate width is thin enough to allow the arms to hang freely to the sides.

Lastly, I've occasionally run into the issue where some individuals feel a bit apprehensive about swinging a heavy object in between their legs, particularly when one of the common coaching cues is "smack your butt with the kettlebell" at the turnaround position. Although this is a fear that should be quickly put to rest with proper coaching and improved kinesthesia, some people inevitably feel more comfortable with the load at their sides rather than in between their legs, if you catch my drift.
 

Single Leg Swings

One of the most unique benefits of using plates is they provide the only practical method I’ve encountered for performing single leg swings as the plates fit perfectly to the sides of the hips.  In fact one of the only downfalls of traditional swings (with kettlebells or plates) is that the bilateral hip hinge position does not adequately address symmetrical loading.  Unfortunately most athletes and lifters have a significant variance between sides of the body when it comes to strength, power, coordination, weight distribution stability, and motor control.  Traditional swings and ballistic movements often times reinforces these imbalances and muscular deficiencies (the faster the movement is the more difficult it is to correct) as the dominant leg works overtime while the weaker side lags behind.  

The single leg swing is not only one of the most effective drills for exposing and correcting these issues but it also represents one of them most challenging movements you’ll ever attempt.  In fact the single leg swing is my new go-to standard for assessing functional capabilities in my athletes from head to toe.  Besides targeting strength, mobility, stability, balance, motor control, posture, breathing, power, symmetrical loading, and coordination throughout the entire body, the feet and ankles will be required to function optimally.  In fact any pronation, supination, or general weakness in the foot and ankle complex will result in the lifter immediately losing his or her balance. 

Additionally, the single leg swing represents the epitome for perfecting the unilateral hip hinge position.  However mastering the unilateral hip hinge position is a prerequisite for the single leg swing.  In the past I’ve written several articles about why the soft knee on the support leg, and a 90 degree bend of the back leg should be used as this represents optimal and natural mechanics.  Anything less including an overly straight leg position from either the support or rear leg represents dysfunctional mechanics (although it’s aesthetically pleasing to the naked eye).  Many coaches argue against this suggesting that a straight or straighter leg position produces a greater stretch in the posterior chain thereby providing more benefits.  However this simply isn’t the case as it produces over-stretching of the posterior chain and un-nautral mechanics that can leave the athlete prone to tears in their glutes and hamstrings.  

The single leg swing represents the perfect exercise for putting this topic to rest once and for all as anything but a soft knee in the support leg and a 90 degree bend of the rear leg will make this movement utterly impossible to perform.  Other than the difference in speed, the mechanics, positioning and joint angles of the single leg swing and a standard single leg RDL should look nearly identical.  In fact if you don’t practice your single leg hinge in the fashion previously described you’ll continue to experience never-ending frustration as you’ll be unable to perform these.  Only once you master your single leg hip hinge with the aforementioned mechanics will single leg swings become possible (provided you’re able to transfer the same neural blueprints from one exercise to the other).


Isometric Plate Hinge Simulated Swing

I'm a huge fan of eccentric isometrics (isometrics held at the stretched position), not only for the intense challenge they present by increasing intramuscular tension, but also for their ability to create efficient motor programs and improve sensory integration.

One of the most effective eccentric isometrics I use with athletes to prepare them for swings and to establish a strong general motor program for the hinge position is the isometric plate hinge. It's one of the most simple, yet effective movement prep activities you can do.

Simply take a 5 or 10-pound plate and drive it back between your legs as if you were performing a cable pull-through. Focus on keeping a neutrally-arched spine (not excessive), shoulders pulled down and back, packed head, weight emphasized on the outer heels, hips and knees spread, and core tight.

Hold each rep for 3-5 seconds and come back up smoothly but forcefully focusing on creating a powerful contraction in the glutes. If you have difficulty with any of the previously described plate swing variations or simply are in need of a tune-up on your swing/hinge technique, this lower-intensity preparatory movement may be one you want to perform for several minutes each training session.  It's also a great daily activation drill to use whenever your glutes and hips feel tight or your posture needs a quick tuneup. 
 

Bottoms-Up Plate Clean

Anyone who's ever tried any variation of a bottoms-up kettlebell exercise knows how demanding these can be on the grip, forearms, shoulders, and core, not to mention the value they have on overall movement mechanics and scapular stabilization. Variations performed with plates offer similar if not greater benefits, as the difficulty is often higher.

There are several benefits here. First, the weight can be swung/pulled from the side, thereby enforcing a strong hip hinge pattern. When you clean a barbell from the front of the body, it can precipitate more of a squatting position rather than the desired hinging position.

When the weights are pulled in back of the body as is the case with plates, this naturally drives the hips back into flexion (similar to jumping), creating a scenario that emphasizes maximal hip drive and reciprocal inhibition of the glutes on the proceeding hip extension.

This is analogous to a sling-shot-effect in which case the hips are fully cocked back (maximal co-contraction) before exploding forward. Furthermore, having the weight at the sides will produce less shear forces on the spine due to the load being closer to the center of mass rather than in front of it.

Bottoms-up plate-cleans also allow a much greater range of motion at the hips compared to other traditional hang clean variations. For example, performing a hang clean with a barbell is most often done from above the knees. While this minimizes risk of injury and ensures the simplest method for performing the movement, the range of motion produced by the hips is relatively small.

Plate cleans call for a much greater range of motion coming into play as driving the weights back to initiate the movement inherently causes fuller hip flexion at the bottom and ultimately more forceful hip extension at the top. Although similar advantages are seen with kettlebells, performing cleans with plates allows a narrow-foot-stance position, mimicking more traditional pull variations that are not commonly witnessed with their kettlebell counterparts.


Single Leg Cleans

Bottoms-up exercises particularly when performed with plates are some of the most difficult strength training movements there are. However, single leg bottoms up movements represent the epitome of full body stability and motor control. If there's a weak link in any portion of the body from head to toe these will immediately expose it. Once you master single leg bottoms up cleans and single leg bottoms up presses you'll most likely have eliminated a majority of dysfunction throughout your body. One exercise that's incredibly challenging even for the most advanced lifters is the single leg bottoms up clean.

Once you've mastered the double leg version the weight can tend to be a bit too light to truly maximize hip and glute activation. However, single leg variations performed with plates quickly resolves this, as the total weight is loaded to one hip. Furthermore, the plates can swing to the sides of your body without hitting your thigh – something that can't be duplicated with kettlebells. Besides requiring a high degree of balance and motor control, you'll need Jedi-like focus to successfully complete these.


Bottoms-Up Plate Press

If you've ever tried a bottoms-up press with kettlebells, you'll immediately understand the difficulty this next exercise poses. The bottoms-up plate press is done in the exact same manner as the kettlebell version, only using plates, but the height of the plates as well as their awkward nature makes this a more grueling variation. Remember, as the plates get heavier, they also get taller and harder to balance. Be prepared to focus like a Jedi as this may be one the more difficult exercises you'll ever attempt.

If it still doesn't provide enough of a challenge you can always try these in a kneeling fashion on a bench.  This is another one of my personal favorites for both exposing and correcting dysfunctional mechanics throughout the body as anything but perfect technique will result in a failed attempt.  

Besides requiring incredible core strength this forces the lifter to find the optimal amount of thoracic extension to maintain balance of their body and the load.  Lack of t-spine mobility or compensation with lumbar extension will result in loss of stability giving the lifter immediate feedback about body mechanics.
 

Bottoms-Up Plate Snatch

As a professional in this field I feel obligated to warn anyone reading this that the next exercise can be somewhat dangerous and requires a fairly high level of competency on all the above exercises first.

It’s also advisable to perform it in an open area with few people close by for two reasons both of which I found out the hard way from first-hand experience.  First this is a very humbling exercise.  Be prepared to fail numerous times practicing this and the fewer people watching you nearly kill yourself the better.  Secondly, this one can get a bit messy, and if you’re going to kill yourself attempting this then its best to not take anyone else down with you so make sure you have plenty of open space.  With that said if you have anyone in you’re your gym that you’re not particularly fond of this may be the appropriate time to ask them to spot you.

On a more serious note, there are several factors involved in this bottoms-up snatch variation that make it one of the most effective exercise selections.  Other than a close-grip barbell snatch from the floor (a variation that's rarely done), no exercise requires such a large displacement of the loading implement as the bottoms-up plate snatch. Taking the weight from the bottom at shin height to a close-arm position in the catch at the top requires incredible power and hip drive as the plates have to travel a total of six to eight feet, depending on height and limb length.  

The degree of eccentric force absorption required to decelerate the plates from an overhead position and catch them in the bottom near your hips requires incredibly high levels of motor unit recruitment and activation of survival fibers.  In fact the degree of eccentric overload produced particularly when performed in a continuous fashion (without setting and re-setting each repetition) does wonders for teaching proper jumping and landing mechanics as you're forced to accelerate, decelerate, and re-accelerate every repetition.

Furthermore, you won't be dropping under the plates in order to catch them as you would with the barbell variation. In other words, you either have to propel the weight to standing height with arms fully extended, all in one powerful motion, or you won't succeed. Finally, the degree of core, forearm, and overall upper body activation required to catch the plates at the top in a stable position is incredibly high. If you're looking for a new exercise that combines full body strength, power, coordination, and stabilization, look no further.
 

Notes on Progression and Variations

  1. There's a learning curve for most of these movements, so start with 25-pound plates and progress from there.
     
  2. If 45-pound plates aren't challenging enough, Ivanko makes 55-pound (25kg) plates with handles. If this still doesn't do the job, then you have my utmost respect and admiration.
     
  3. The type of plate makes a difference. True Iron Grip plates with straight angles are easier to grip and stabilize than those with circular holes used in the videos.
     
  4. All of the movements listed can be performed during any portion of the workout. However, make sure excessive fatigue doesn't cause degradation of technique.
     
  5. Some spinal extension is acceptable during the bottoms-up overhead variations. However, most of this should be coming from the T-spine rather than the cervical or lumbar regions and it shouldn't be excessive.
     
  6. Some trainees will find the single arm versions (i.e., single arm swings, cleans, presses, etc.) to be easier as you can focus more of your neural drive to an individual limb. In contrast, if anti-rotation and core stabilization are a weakness, then single-arm versions may be more difficult.
     
  7. To focus even more on core stabilization, try performing these with offset loads (i.e., a 45-pound plate in one hand and a 35 or 25-plate plate in another).
     
  8. For the overhead movements, make sure you're proficient at standing overhead presses with dumbbells before progressing to these bottoms-up plate variations.
     
  9. Once you've perfect these, try performing them eyes closed.  Although the degree of difficulty will be through the roof, this will dial in your movement mechanics, body control, and proprioception like no other training tool.  In fact once you're able to perform these successfully in an eyes closed fashion you've most likely mastered your body mechanics from head to toe.