9 Reasons Kettlebell Training Is Optimal For The Outdoor Athlete
Updated: Apr 27, 2021
I first started training with kettlebells in 2004 but just used them on and off as an accessory training tool to supplement my barbell work. Along comes the pandemic in 2020 and all the gyms we closed. Now as both an athlete and a trainer I had to get creative with the few tools I had available.
At home, we had one 20 Kg kettlebell, a few dumbbells, and a TRX trainer. Lacking heavyweight we worked on increasing the density and volume of our workouts. This is doing more overall work in a given amount of time and then gradually increasing the amount of overall time we were working.
This approach brought an increase in overall work capacity, better whole-body integration, and a noticeable decrease in body fat without appreciably change our diet. Additionally, we were better at our sports of rock climbing and hiking. Another bonus of the program is that I wasn't feeling the beaten-up joints that come with heavy barbell training.
This led me to look closely at the demands of our sports and how to optimize our training with the tools we had. Most kettlebell exercises work the whole body rather than isolate muscles like traditional body-building style workouts. This helps improve athletic movement rather than just making you strong at certain exercises.
Since the start of the pandemic, we have now bought a number of other kettlebells so we have from 12-28 Kg. This allows us to optimally load multiple movements and keep progressing.
For the outdoor athlete who wants to optimize work capacity, strength, injury resistance, and time, I think kettlebells combined with resistance bands, a pull-up bar, and a suspension trainer like gymnastic rings or TRX are the optimal tools. This applies especially if you train at home as this gear takes up very little space and is relatively affordable.
Forget having to get ready and head to the gym, kettlebell training can be done where ever you are. We work out in our home gym which is our living room, in the backyard or at the park. Whether we are workout out for an hour or just getting in a micro workout of a few sets of swings, we always have our training tools at hand. Our collection of kettlebells sits nicely against the wall in ascending order so if you didn't know any better it looks like some odd decoration.
While we have a number of sizes, you can create an amazing program with just one kettlebell. When starting I would recommend a 12 Kg for women and a 16 Kg for men. Eventually, you will need to add heavier bells but the single bell will work for you for quite a while.
Fitness doesn't have to stop when you hit the road. Visiting the family or going on a road trip doesn't mean you have to stop training. Just throw a kettlebell or two in the trunk along with a set of gymnastic rings and you have a portable gym that can be used anywhere. You can mount the rings on a stout tree branch or over a swing set.
This will give you options for strength and conditioning workouts where ever you go. Kettlebell swings, goblet squats, cleans, presses, snatches, pushups, pullups, and dips. Add in walking lunges and you have a recipe for really sore legs tomorrow.
Price is a relative thing. When it comes to fitness the lowest cost is just body weight calisthenics as you don't need to spend any money. But the kettlebell as a home gym tool isn't very expensive when you compare it to a barbell, weights and some type of squat rack. Add in a treadmill or Peleton bike and you would be over $2500 for moderate quality equipment.
Where as one 16 Kg kettlebell will cost about $85 CAD and you can train for months before needing to go up in weight.
We have 12, 16, 20, 24, and 28 Kg kettlebells and the collection cost us about $500 CAD. When you consider that we can do strength, mobility, and conditioning work for years to come, this isn't very expensive per year.
Since the start of Covid, we canceled our gym memberships so the price of the kettlebells is paid for in just one year.
4. Time Efficient
When we used to go to the gym our workouts were often well over an hour with the warm-up, setting up gear, and moving around from station to station. The average workout might have had 25 sets. Since we've been forced to train exclusively at home we train anywhere from 30-60 minutes plus our warm-up and cool down.
Most of our workouts are run on a timer going a set every minute (EMOM). This means in a 60-minute workout we are doing 60 sets of various exercises. Getting more done in less time builds strength and work capacity. While we get in hikes and bike rides for fun, our primary conditioning comes from kettlebell and body weight circuits done in our hallway.
5. Optimal Strength Endurance
Whether as a rock climber, backpacker, mountain biker, or paddler, none of these activities are driven by limit strength or one-rep max. Instead, it is strength endurance or the ability to do a reasonably hard effort repeatedly that is the deciding factor for performance.
With kettlebell training, you will be doing a lot more volume with limited rest periods which is a recipe for improving your capacity to do repeated strength efforts. Because you will see an increase in work capacity, whole-body strength, and cardiovascular fitness your athletic performance goes up much more than you would expect from just getting stronger.
6. Trains The Whole Body As A Unit
One of the benefits of kettlebell training for athletes is most of the movements require your body to work as a unit rather than isolating muscle groups. This is effective because almost all athletic movement is your body working as one.
The kettlebell is an inherently unbalanced implement due to its offset nature. This combined with the fact that we do many movement one side at a time, trains the body to fire the core to tie the upper and lower body power transfer together.
Because kettlebell training involves so many muscles it also ends up being a terrific calorie burner. Just know the harder you train, the heavier you train, the longer you train and the less rest you take the more calories you will burn. Of course, you can't increase all of these factors at once but they all affect how much energy you expend.
7. Built-In Periodization
Periodization is breaking your training up by varying load and volume over time. It is less effective to train heavy or do high volume all the time. Having periods of heavy work to build limit strength that transitions into higher volume training to build work capacity will be an approach a coach will take to improve an athletes performance.
For instance with a barbell you can micro-load (weight increases as small as a pound) so you can stay with roughly the same sets and reps scheme while just increasing the weight as you get stronger. So you would have to program the higher volume progressions. With kettlebells, this idea of starting heavy and then building volume (reps and sets) happens automatically since you can't micro-load them. You need to get stronger with a given weight before you can go up.
Until recently, you could only get kettlebells in 4 or 8 Kg (8.8 or 17.6 lbs) weight increments. This is a huge increase for what is often a single-arm implement. This would mean you would have to build up volume and reps with a given weight before you were ready to move up to the next weight. I refer to it as having to master the weight.
For instance, you might start off with doing 4 sets of 5 reps per arm of clean and press with a 16 Kg kettlebell. Each week you add one set until you are up to 10 sets. With this, you have gone from doing 20 reps per arm to doing 50 reps per arm over a matter of weeks.
Then add one rep per set per week until you are up to 10 reps per arm. This is increasing the density of your workouts so you are getting more work in the same amount of time. So after another 5 weeks, the weight you started doing 20 reps in a workout you are now doing 100 reps per arm fairly easily. At this point you would be ready to go up to the 20 Kg kettlebell and start the volume cycle all over again.
To keep the workout time from being too long, I set a timer to beep every minute. You do a set and whatever time is left in the minute is your rest time. By the time you are up to 10 reps per arm, you will be barely putting the weight down. This is great for endurance as the arm and shoulder get a break between sets but the legs and core are working the whole time.
So just by increasing the amount of work you are doing with the same weight you can go from what is heavy with low volume to what is relatively light with high volume. This will make you stronger, fitter, and burn a lot of calories.
8. Low Impact
As I get older I find not getting beaten up by my workouts is as much a goal as the fitness gains. Running or heavy barbell work leaves my joints hurting but kettlebell training does not. Ballistic kettlebell exercises like swings, cleans, and snatches all build speed and explosive power with very little pounding on the body.
Kettlebell swing and lunge workouts will give you all the cardiovascular benefits of running while making you stronger with minimal impact.
9. The WTF Effect
This is a phenomenon in kettlebell training that hasn't been studied but has been observed countless times where your workouts with the bell dramatically improve a seemingly unrelated activity. For instance, people who haven't run in months find their running dramatically improved from doing tons of swings. I've found high rep snatches for time to improve my rock climbing grip.
We can guess at the cause of these carry-over effects but either way, it is cool to do a form of training that improves multiple qualities at once. This is a case where the whole is more than the sum of the parts.
A benefit of Covid is it forced me to rediscover kettlebell training as we had no other options but to train at home. I had been using them to supplement barbell training but now that we are just kettlebells and body weight we are seeing increases in all of the fitness parameters that help our sports of hiking, rock climbing, and mountain biking. If you want to see big fitness gains for your sport or just be healthier then kettlebell training may be the option that gets you free from the gym.