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6 Big Questions About Kettlebell Training - Part 1

Andrea Du Cane Tim Kettlebell Get-up
When I give workshops, I worry about one thing. One of the great untrue clichés of life and learning is this:

"There are no bad questions."

Yes, yes there are bad questions. My brother-in-law, Craig Hemingway, gives talks to schools about home safety and brings an ambulance. He gave me good advice a few years ago. When a hand goes up, he asks:

"Is this a question or a story?"

"A story is about how your grandpa was in an ambulance once or that you know someone who drives an ambulance. A question ends in a question mark."

Usually, that is enough to put the hands down.

When I talk, a hand will go up and the participant will give us their resume, vita, and all the initials behind their name—and no real question. This person just wanted everyone around them to know that "I’m special, too!"

But, sometimes, there are QUESTIONS! Good ones. Questions that make me want to pull out a whiteboard, grab a projector and ask someone to record it, because THIS QUESTION demands an answer.

Imagine getting six good questions. At once.

Recently on the Dragon Door forum, someone told us about their first adventures with kettlebells. The poster had six questions:
  1. Can kettlebells be used solely on their own without other training methods such as weights?
  2. Can rep reduction or increasing reps/ or kettlebell weight affect whether its size you gain (again I know diet plays a role here)?
  3. How do you choose your kettlebell weight?
  4. How do you choose working with one or a pair of kettlebells?
  5. How does one choose a workout/sets per workout/reps per workout?
  6. Is it beneficial to run as extra cardio on top of kettlebell workouts?
  Tim Double Kettlebell Front Squat
  1. Can kettlebells be used solely on their own without other training methods such as weights?
If you know my work, you know that I hate "either/or." It is the lowest kind of theology and leads us toward labeling methods as good or bad. The weight room is NOT the moral theology room, so we need to first wrap our heads around the idea that the kettlebell is a tool.

And, that is the problem. The barbell is a tool. The kettlebell is a tool.

So what?

With a kettlebell, I can do:
  • High rep snatches or swings and "burn fat"
  • Strict, high tension reps and build strength
  • Goblet squats, get-ups, and improve my mobility
  • High rep clean and presses and build some muscle
One tool.

The kettlebell is a tool that can be used for multiple qualities—for example:
  • Agility
  • Mobility
  • Flexibility
  • Strength (in all its forms)
  • Power
  • Technique
  • Strategy
  • Tactics
  • Situational work
Put this to memory when it comes to training: "If you chase two rabbits, you will go home hungry." When approaching training, try not to chase too many rabbits. With good planning, I think you can train hypertrophy and mobility at the same time. It is also possible to train (Easy) strength and flexibility at the same time.

But, it’s really hard to be an elite highland games athlete and race marathons. That’s a lot of rabbits!

So, depending on what you want, you can mix and match kettlebells with any and everything in the training hall.

I’d like to explain one of the key concepts in training—there is a documentary about computers that shaped the way I coach. Years ago, people thought that the world would probably only need five computers. There is a great scene in the movie Apollo XIII where all the guys in white shirts and skinny black ties pop out their slide-rules and calculate the trajectory of the lunar module.

This all changed one day when a programmer showed a program to his friend and asked, "Does this have value?" His friend—the head of an accounting firm—answered, "I hire 400 people a week to do what you say I could do with the push of a button?" This program was the spreadsheet, and it changed the demand for computers. It was the "killer app" of the day, and the reason you had to have a computer to keep up.

I began looking at gym equipment in a whole new light after watching that documentary.

I’ve seen so many idiotic YouTube videos where people use equipment to do all kinds of odd and strange things. My favorite was a guy who tied himself to a tree to practice sprinting (the rope held him in place). For clarity’s sake, remember one can also sprint without being tied to a tree. Right now, people are fighting for your freedom to do any stupid thing you can think of, but let’s honor them by doing the right moves with the right tools.

I love barbells and have been using them since 1965. You NEED to have one for deadlifts and the press family. With enough 45 pound plates, a typical barbell can sneak up to 700 pounds. That is a lot of weight. You can also get the bar to just jump from 55 pounds to 60 pounds if that is what you need today. I have argued for years, that if all you did was press (military or bench) and deadlift, you might have locked in most of your training.

Moreover, if you are going to compete in powerlifting (squat, bench press, and deadlift) or Olympic lifting (snatch, clean and jerk), then a barbell is a must.

For a long time, my knock on the TRX was that instructions for using it including running in place, lunges, and a lot of this and that. I wasn’t sure why should I have one. But here’s why: the T, Y, and I pulls, the single arm rows, and the double rows target an area of the body that’s often missed and ignored. The whole area of the upper back and rear shoulders is probably the most underdeveloped area of most people who I work with in the gym. I have attempted odd plank variations and dozens of pulls with other equipment, but the TRX is a smarter and faster way to address these issues.

I love kettlebells. Like my intern said the other day, it looks like you’re training even if you are just carrying them out to the car. Three moves make the kettlebell irreplaceable: the goblet squat, the swing and the get-up. Yes, you can use other things for these three moves, but the ease of transition and the feel of having the correct load in the right place (off center in the get-up and swing) is worth having a good kettlebell in your gym.

I never understood why you would use these until I was told to do one simple movement. The lateral walk with a mini-band around the socks—you really need to wear socks—is the perfect way to light up and train the gluteus medius. A set of swings followed by a set of squats followed by a long lateral walk with mini-bands will teach you more about your butt than an anatomy class.

Ab Wheel:
For ten dollars, you can do the best "anterior chain" exercise ever invented (outside of a perfect pull up). I don’t know of a workout, program or plan that couldn’t be improved a bit by rolling out on one of these devices. You will notice they rise and fall in popularity. I have a theory about why you don’t see them used very much: roll outs are really hard.

You can do a lot with dumbbells, but we all know the knock on these in a gym. No matter how many dumbbells are on a rack, someone will always complain to the gym owner, "Hey, you have 35s and 40s…why no 37.5s?" I like dumbbells for farmer walks—all of the really heavy dumbbells covered in dust at the end of the rack are perfect for walking around the gym and training literally every muscle in the body.

A "killer app" can be a perfect program, if such a thing exists:

Military or bench press (barbell)
T-Y-I pulls and rows (TRX)
Deadlifts or swings (barbell or kettlebells)
Goblet squats (kettlebells)
Farmer walks (dumbbells)
Get-ups (kettlebells)
Ab wheel rollout (ab wheel)

Get a limited amount of equipment and get back to simple and successful training.

But, you can also train REALLY well with just one kettlebell!!!

There is a real need in this industry for "One Kettlebell Workouts", and I love them. I enjoy driving to a park, meeting with friends, walking a bit with my kettlebell, training, and then enjoying a nice picnic. I keep this tradition alive every weekday morning when people join me to workout at 9:30.
A few years ago, I was asked to write about the 10,000 Swing Challenge. Basically, for twenty days, add 500 swings per workout. If you swing four times a week, it will take five weeks to do 10,000 swings. Since we usually had sessions five times a week, it only took us four weeks.

Frankly, this workout changed lives.

The simplest version is this:

Swing 10 reps
One goblet squat
Swing 15 reps
Two goblet squats
Swing 25 reps
Three goblet squats
Swing 50 reps

Rest. That is 100 repetitions, so just swim through this an additional four times (for five total giant sets) for 500 swings.

An interesting version with the get-up will really get your heart pumping (groundwork seems to oddly increase HR):

Swing 10 reps
One get-up, weight in left hand
Swing 15 reps
One get-up, weight in right hand
Swing 25 reps
Two get-ups, one left and one right
Swing 50 reps

A small note: I always go "left first" when it comes to any one hand, one leg or one foot movement. That way, I never need to remember what to do next. Ignore this at your own peril with large groups.

Certainly, we could do push-ups, pull-ups or even nothing between sets of swings. In our fourth 10,000 Swing Challenge, we found that this variation saved our grip with heavier kettlebells:

15 swings
Goblet squat, get-up, whatever
35 swings
Goblet squat, get-up, whatever

Repeat for an additional nine times for ten total giant sets. This variation allowed us to use heavier kettlebells, and it also doubles the longer rest periods.

As I go through these variations, many people will ask about "rest." With workouts focused on density, FINISH the workout and stop when necessary for the first few times. I think that natural rest periods trump programmed rest periods. If a strong man is using a light kettlebell, he might not need to take even a single break.

Rest periods are the ultimate "it depends" variables.

I love combining the swing and push-up. Getting up and down seems to be as hard as the two movements! I asked my friends to come up with their favorite variations…and here they are!

Workout Option #1

Repeat for 15 minutes:

Swings for 20 seconds
Push-ups: 6 reps
Rest: 30 seconds

Each workout, increase push-ups by one rep.

Workout Option #2

At the top of the minute:

20 swings,10 push-ups, rest the remainder of the minute
20 swings, 9 push-ups, rest
... and so on down to 20 swings, 1 push-up

If you want to work out for 15 minutes, start with 20 swings and 15 push-ups. Next time you do the workout, do 21 swings at the top of each minute.

Workout Option #3

20 swings
Gather yourself
10 push-ups

Note: Instead of time, add sets

Workout Option #4

20 swings
20 push-ups
20 swings
15 push-ups
20 swings
10 push-ups
20 swings
5 push-ups
20 swings

(100 swings, 50 pushups, 0 fluff)

Workout Option #5

20 swings
8-10 push-ups
30 second plank
1 minute various hip stretches

Repeat for 20 minutes

Now, adding the goblet squat turns everything on its head. As we go through the next section, I tend to do things in this order:

1. Swing
2. Goblet squat
3. Push-up

Also in this next section, we will tend to do swings for ten or fifteen reps, goblet squats for about five, but NEVER more than ten reps, and the same for push-ups—usually five, but never more than ten.

My favorite workout in the next section is the "Humane Burpee." Dan Martin gave us this name and I can’t think of a better term. You can certainly make this workout harder or easier, but just try the basic example first.

Be sure to follow the advice above about goblet squat and push-up reps. We want the reps to descend as we move through the "Humane Burpee", hence the name "Humane".

15 swings
5 goblet squats
5 push-ups

15 swings
4 goblet squats
4 push-ups

15 swings
3 goblet squats
3 push-ups

15 swings
2 goblet squats
2 push-ups

15 swings
1 goblet squat
1 push-up

This comes out to 75 swings, 15 goblet squats and 15 push-ups. The real exercise challenge seems to be popping up and down to the ground for push-ups. Most of us don’t take any rest at all through the workout, but feel free to stop when necessary.

To make it harder, just increase the goblet squat and push-up reps to ten. 10-8-8-7-6-5-4-3-2-1 gives you 55 total reps, plenty of work for a single day, and in many cases too much.

I have three other valuable variations...

This variation is called "Slurpees" (though I am not sure why!):

10 or 15 swings
5 goblet squats
10 mountain climbers (count a rep every time the left foot hits the ground)

Let the goblet squats descend (5-4-3-2-1) on each consecutive set to give you a total of 50-75 swings, 15 goblet squats and a lot of heart pounding.

"Hornees" are the first of our loaded carries. A horn walk is simply walking around with the kettlebell held by the horns at your chest. It keeps the tension high.

10 or 15 swings
5 goblet squats
Horn walk for an appropriate distance.

Again, let the goblet squats descend (5-4-3-2-1) on each consecutive set to give you a total of 50-75 swings, 15 goblet squats and an "interesting feeling" in the whole region of muscles that squeeze things together.

Bearpees are great for group workouts:

10 or 15 swings
5 goblet squats
Bear crawl

Again, descend with the goblet squats (5-4-3-2-1). In a group, have the participants pair up and share the same kettlebell. Space them about 60 feet apart. You will soon see a lot of racing and the participants will quickly learn that they were underestimating the bear crawl.

Once we get moving with horn walks and bear crawls, it is time to add loaded carries to our basic work.

I’ve named the loaded carry workouts after the birds of the raptor family. The naming idea started off as a joke about how we were picking things up and moving them, but we soon found that it was a nice way of organizing the workouts.

The Sparrow Hawk or Sparhawk

You will be doing goblet squats and suitcase carries. Suitcase carries are like farmer walks, but you only load one side…as if you are carrying a single suitcase.

8 goblet squats, then march away with the kettlebell in the left hand for about 60 feet (the length of the gym is best)
7 goblet squats, then march back to the starting location with the kettlebell in the right hand
6 goblet squats, left hand suitcase walk
5 goblet squats, right hand walk
4 goblet squats, left hand walk
3 goblet squats, right hand walk
2 goblet squats, left hand walk
1 goblet squat, finished

This variation adds up to 36 squats while you are under load for about three minutes. Your anti-rotation muscles will be working overtime with the asymmetrically loaded walks, and then they will have to join in to support the squats. You get the benefits of squatting—which includes mobility and flexibility work—plus the additional boon of three minutes of time under tension.

So, the answer to the question, "Should kettlebells be used on their own without other training methods such as weights or not" is both/and. You can easily combine everything else in the training facility to supplement kettlebells or you can simply train with just kettlebells on their own.

Both ways are very good.
  1. Can rep reduction or increasing reps or kettlebell weight affect whether it’s size you gain? (Again, I know diet plays a role here.)
First, you need to understand the basics of programming. Programming is juggling exercises, sets, reps, rest period and load over time.

There are three terms important to program design:


"Intensity" has many definitions—especially since the Nautilus machine people gave us one, percentage tables from the Soviets gave us another, and red faced people screaming give us yet another. The upside of single kettlebell work is that you can put some of this aside, you only have one choice with kettlebells!

Volume is the total load. Reps times sets times load is a simple way to do this with the Olympic lifts, but the nice thing about single kettlebell work is that you only need to keep track of the total reps. The load never changes. Spending time looking at volume is often the first clue for determining minimum effective dose—and for learning about the "less is more" philosophy many excellent coaches and trainers live by every day.

Density is taking that same amount of work and cutting the total time. The reason I like specific workouts, is that we can see progress by simply timing the efforts. With the same load and same exercises, less time means progress.

Density is truly the most important of the three when discussing progression with single kettlebell workouts.

The question mentioned "size." Volume, intensity and density have all proved valuable for gaining size. As one bodybuilder told me years ago: "It’s not high reps that builds muscle. It’s not high weight that builds muscle. It’s high reps WITH high weights that build muscle."

Double kettlebell clean and presses for heavy sets of five will teach you a lot about how muscles grow. Here are my "Ten Commandments" of mass building:

First, although there are truly no real "secrets," there is an overriding principle: mass building (like fat loss) must be done at the exclusion of everything else. A guy with 14 inch arms will ask me about a mass building program, while worrying to death about his "six pack" (meth addicts have six packs, for the record), his cardio, his "game," and about five other things. Once you get 16-18 inch arms, I will allow you to worry about all those other things.

Second, there is a need to spend time under load. This has been called a number of different things in the past few years. But, no matter what you call it, you must find ways to load your body and move the weights continuously for up to several minutes without releasing the load (ex: putting the bar down or resting on a machine). You hold the weight a LONG time when doing fifty kettlebell swings.

Third, great white sharks seem to both be big and eat "big." Killer whales seem to eat big, too. Alpha predators don’t seem to count calories. You are now going to stop worrying about every calorie like a college cheerleader. On a mass gaining program, you must eat. When I put on forty pounds in four months my freshman year in college, I used to eat some sandwiches BEFORE dinner so that "I wouldn’t be so hungry during dinner." Think Shark Week when you sit down to eat—and warn the others at the table not to reach across your plate!

Fourth, you must master "resting." I know that there is an urge to do this and that and this after every workout. But, for a mass building program you must learn that cardio is changing channels with the remote. If you don’t sleep eight or more hours a night, it is will impact your mass gains. Many famous bodybuilders have advocated the "muscle nap," a long nap in the afternoon to simply gain muscle. Remember, you grow while you rest. Pick up basketball games are not rest!

Fifth—and this is a difficult point for many—bulking programs have very few movements. Well, let’s put this way, GOOD mass building programs have few movements. I have always had my greatest success with mass building when the number of movements is around seven or eight TOTAL. Learn to love them.

Sixth commandment: although people have gained amazing mass with lower reps (1-5), for most people—and mortals—the load needed to gain mass on a low rep program is "difficult." So, until you can handle a 400 bench, 500 squat, and 600 deadlift, you will need reps to get enough load into your workout. There is something magical about mass gains in the 5-10 rep range. The last century of strength enthusiasts will bear this out, too.

Seventh, about two decades ago I got good advice that I promptly ignored: never do fewer than ten reps in the squat. There are people that can ignore this advice (powerlifters mainly) but for most of the population, this is wise advice. Each and every time you load up the squat, do ten reps. Ten reps will give you the necessary time under load, and seems to stimulate the whole body—and the appetite! If you are doing combo work (swings plus goblet squats), this rule may not apply as you are not necessarily working for mass with some combos.

Eighth, every experienced trainer—and few beginners—knows the answer to the question, "How long do you rest between sets?" The correct answer is "it depends." An advanced lifter might take a year to recover from a record lift, while a new lifter will be recharged and ready to go literally seconds after doing a machine movement. For mass building, think intensity and density. Use a stopwatch to make you do more work in less time. However, your mileage may vary.

Ninth, I would always suggest leaving "one or two in the tank." In non-lifters terms, this means to always finish a set knowing you could have done a few more reps. We all love the images from Pumping Iron with all the forced reps, but most guys who need mass just aren’t there yet. It’s better to get an additional set or two than to roast on exercise.

Tenth—finally—I have a bit of old old school advice: save yourself on a building program. Wear extra clothes so that your body doesn’t have to use resources to stay warm. Park closer to the gym. Find shorter routes to everything. Sit more. Remember, this is not a lifetime plan but a short, focused fiery attempt to gain mass. Keep your eye on the doughnut—and eat it.
Tim Kettlebell Row
  1. How do you choose your kettlebell weight?
Life was easier in 2000 when it came to kettlebells. There were three choices: 16kg, 24kg and 32kg. Like Goldilocks, you didn’t have much to think about:

Too heavy
Too light
Just right!

Things have changed. When I talk about the most general of numbers, I tell males to grab the 20kg and females to grab the 10kg.

And, yes: the devil is in the details.

Generally, I suggest building a collection of kettlebells.

For males:

Start with a 20kg. I started my journey with the 28kg and struggled to understand how people could do so many snatches. It is obvious to me now: the 28kg kettlebell is HEAVY.

If the presses and squats feel easy, slide up to a 24kg and perhaps a 28kg or 32kg.

If you can, also get a 16kg for high rep snatches and get-ups.

Once you have a 16kg, 20kg and a heavier kettlebell, I would suggest getting another 20kg kettlebell for double kettlebell exercises before adding more to your collection. Double cleans, double front squats and double presses are great exercises for improving any quality in training.

After doubling the 20kg kettlebells, decide if you need another lighter kettlebell or a bigger one. It’s hard to figure out this step. I have a wife and daughters who love kettlebells, so I picked up a full set of lighter ones. But, my daughters have stolen them and they are now in their homes. So, I had to buy an additional set for my wife.

For most men training alone, this might be the "package":

Two 20kg kettlebells
Two 24kg kettlebells
One 16kg and one 32kg.

For females, I suggest getting a 10kg as your first kettlebell. Now, since women can swing a lot of load, the next kettlebell they get SHOULD be much bigger. Having said that, some people push back on the heavier loads. Like men, women should consider doubling up early.

A suggested package for women would be:

Two 10kg kettlebells
One 8kg, one 12kg or 16kg and one 24kg kettlebell.

I own 22 kettlebells, so I have a great deal of flexibility when adjusting loads for exercises. The upside of NOT having many kettlebells is that you learn to tighten up with heavy kettlebells and learn to do a LOT of reps when you use the lighter ones.

Master RKC, Dan John is the author of numerous fitness titles including the best selling Never Let Go and Easy Strength. Dan has spent his life with one foot in the world of lifting and throwing, and the other foot in academia. An All-American discus thrower, Dan has also competed at the highest levels of Olympic lifting, Highland Games and the Weight Pentathlon, an event in which he holds the American record.
Dan spends his work life blending weekly workshops and lectures with full-time writing, and is also an online religious studies instructor for Columbia College of Missouri. As a Fulbright Scholar, he toured the Middle East exploring the foundations of religious education systems. For more information visit