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Rings and Kettlebells: Your Ticket for Athletic Strength

December 29, 2005 08:02 PM

First of all, what is athletic strength? By my definition, it means strength coupled with skill. You have no doubt seen a few guys in your life that were monsters in the weight room, but moved poorly and simply did not measure up on the field. They have strength, but they do not have athletic strength. Then you take guys with decent weight room numbers and they tear it up on the field. No matter which sport they decide to play that day, it doesn't matter; these guys are just natural athletes. This is athletic strength. Unfortunately, there is a genetic component to this and another key ingredient is early childhood development. But it is never too late to recover your latent athletic strength. In fact, as you get older, most of those natural athletes are going to be fat, lazy bastards. Many years later with some hard training and the right tools, it is now your chance to become a playground legend.

In my opinion, the kettlebell is simply the greatest tool for all-around athletic development. The sheer variety of exercises you can do with them is staggering. Most importantly, they strengthen the body's seat of power, the hips. With a well-developed hip drive, you will become better at running, jumping and anything else requiring a powerful hip thrust (stay with me here). They are also an incredibly powerful tool for building up your work capacity, meaning they strengthen your heart, lungs and your body's ability to transport and use energy. I cannot think of anything more foundational to athletic strength than these few things.

However, they do have their limitations. For example, in pulling exercises such as the snatch, deadlift and rows, you are always pulling from the ground upwards. In pushing exercises, like the military press, you are pressing upwards. As a result, you will miss a few ranges of motion and movement patterns that are critical to athletic strength. The Power Ring Training System is especially challenging because it turns the tables on your muscles. In pulling movements such as the pull-up, the force is directed downwards. The same goes for pushing exercises on rings such as the dip. As a result, the Power Ring Training System is a very effective complement to kettlebell training. I cannot think of any other combination of two simple tools that can do it all.

You can also look at complex movements such as the clean and jerk, which combines a pull followed by a push, and relate them to their equivalent on rings, the muscle-up. The muscle-up is a combination of a pull-up, followed immediately by a dip. You are literally climbing above the rings in this incredible exercise. These exercises are perfect opposites. The clean and jerk is one of the best exercises for the posterior chain muscles (the seat of power), with the greatest emphasis on the hips, back and legs. By contrast, the muscle-up effectively works the anterior chain of the body with the primary emphasis on the lats, arms, shoulders, and chest. These are the exact muscles that are least emphasized in the clean and jerk! If you were to construct a program of just these two exercises, your athletic strength would shoot through the roof.

Of course, the Power Rings have some of the same advantages of kettlebells: portability, free range of motion (particularly in kettlebells) and versatility. It is quite common for people to take their kettlebells to the local park for an outdoor workout. It is even easier to take the Power Rings with you. They can be mounted on a swing set, monkey bars or even a sturdy tree limb. One of my favorite workouts is simply brutal in its simplicity. At the park, put your kettlebell on one end and hang your rings at the other end. Spend a minute or two with your kettlebells and then sprint back to the rings. Spend a minute with them and sprint back, taking rest as needed. I forgot to mention the importance of sprinting in athletic strength, but it is vital. In sports, speed kills!

Rings and kettlebells also allow free range of motion. Machines tend to lock your joints into unnatural movement patters. They are designed with the "average" person in mind, but who the hell is that? Frank Stallone? With free, independent weights, your joints are allowed to track naturally at every point in the range of motion. The motion perfectly suits YOUR body, not what some engineer determines to be the "average" body. The same mobility that makes these tools joint friendly allows results in exceptional versatility. There are an endless variety of exercises that can be performed with either tool. Remember this axiom: simple tools have many uses!

Another advantage of having both free weights, like a kettlebell, and Power Rings is that you can combine them. Weighted pull-ups and dips are incredibly effective strength building exercises. All you have to do is put your foot through the kettlebell handle or use a belt and you are ready to perform these incredible drills. You can also combine the two into circuits, like performing a set of front squats with a kettlebell, followed by some pull-ups on the rings. You can throw in some bodyweight exercises, sprints and agility drills in between the your kettlebell and your rings station. You can even add in some tumbling. I had a great workout once where I walked on my hands between the stations. That's a real workout!

The last and most vital component of athletic strength is skill-strength. Training with kettlebells and rings requires exact timing, precision movements, balance and coordination between all of your body's parts. On the hierarchy of skill-strength development, machines require the least amount of skill. Barbells are a major improvement over machines, but they allow strengths to dominate over weakness. For example, if you are doing a two-handed exercise with a barbell, your strong side can take a disproportionate amount of the loading, thus reinforcing an imbalance in strength. Secondly, your joints become fixed to the bar, thus fewer movements are possible and certain motions will be impossible. But do not get me wrong, barbells can and should be used because it is simply the heaviest implement you will find in the weight room. At the top of the skill-strength hierarchy are rings and kettlebells. These devices are completely under your control. If you are not using strength to actively stabilize them, they will deviate from their intended path. As a result, you cannot just use brute strength with skill-strength tools. You must be delicate, precise and only use the correct amount of force that the situation demands. As you become proficient with basic exercises, you can venture into a wide variety of different training methods such as kettlebell juggling and advanced ring training. The rings are an Olympic sport, so the room for challenge is endless. Unfortunately with rings and anything where you use your bodyweight, you need to be very strong to even get started on some exercises. The Power Rings are adjustable in height, which varies the difficulty of some exercises, but there are others where this disadvantage is present. With kettlebells, luckily you can just use a lighter weight to learn new tricks. Creative spotting and props are necessary to build up to some advanced ring skills.

What does an athletic strength workout look like? Good question. The answer may sound like an echo to someone who has been around here long enough, but you need to treat your training as practice. By treating it as practice and focusing on developing skills rather than just attributes, you will develop a type of strength that carries over to any situation. A good training program will combine frequent practice throughout the day on most days and then an intense 30-45 minute workout on no more than 3 days a week. Focus on improvement in a few major exercises, like clean and jerks and muscle-ups, but also throw in some other stuff for variety, like kettlebell juggling and strength holds on rings. Change exercises every 2-4 and do not let your routine get stale.

That is it! Athletic strength with just a few simple tools and an easy to follow training program. Stay tuned for some athletic strength workouts in future articles.

Tyler Hass is the president of Power Athletes, LLC, the company behind Power Athletes Magazine and the Power Ring Training System. He is a multi-sport athlete, currently focused on gymnastics, and an RKC certified kettlebell instructor. For further information on his products or training services, you may contact him at or visit