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Kettlebells vs. Olympic Weightlifting – A Guide to Getting Started

May 23, 2012 01:00 PM

TonyGarcia Article
Having worked as a personal trainer and manager in a "big box" gym for some time, I have had the pleasure to meet and work with many types of gym-goers. Some are happy to simply walk on the treadmill and watch TV. Some attend every spin class as if it were a cult. Some pump their pecs and biceps daily but avoid a squat rack like the plague.
One of the most interesting types that I tend to meet are those who take their training seriously, but are always looking for something new to spice it up. They want to see changes, want to try something new, but do not quite know where to start. These are often the people who approach me with questions, and these are the people that this article is for.
Two of the biggest influences in my training style are Hardstyle kettlebell lifting and weightlifting, more commonly known in the U.S. as "Olympic lifting," so I tend to get asked many questions are asked regarding these, and which is better. There are definitely similarities between the two. For example, both styles involve moving the weight explosively. Both styles can produce great athleticism and great physiques simultaneously. Also, both styles are rarely practiced (or even seen) by the general public, which is why they probably have so many unanswered questions.
Unfortunately, in that sense, "which is better" is a pretty vague question. That is like asking whether chocolate or vanilla is better. How about Chevy vs. Ford? What about an IPA vs. a stout? The answer is an IPA by the way … I do live in Portland, after all…
To answer the question completely, one needs to identify his/her goals and level of commitment, address what requirements each type of lifting has, and what potential benefits each can offer. Only then can the question of which is "better" be addressed relative to that person.
The first item to address is the learning curve. Learning a barbell snatch and barbell clean and jerk takes a lot of time, dedication and patience. Bad habits are usually the result of a hastened attempt, and once you have learned a bad habit, it takes a LONG time to break it. I, unfortunately, am a victim of this. In high school strength training we did "power cleans" … otherwise knows as glorified reverse curls. We never did snatches. This is why my cleans are quite a bit "uglier" than my snatches – the battle to get rid of the old muscle memory never ends. The moral is to get it right the first time, so that you do not need to re-learn it later.
Kettlebell lifts, on the other hand, are not nearly as technically complex. They are more technically demanding than most other movements out there, but nothing that is unattainable for the average person. If you are not willing to put in a month or two with a PVC pipe before touching a barbell, you are better off not even starting with the Olympic lifts.
Quite honestly, as much as I love the sport of weightlifting, the learning curve alone should disqualify many people from starting it – most just do not have the patience to go slowly at the beginning. I made my girlfriend lift nothing but a PVC pipe for her first two months; now she has six state records. How many people do you know that jumped right to 135 lbs or even 185 lbs for "power cleans" their first week? Now ask yourself how many of them have any records at all, as opposed to how many have hurt their wrist, back or their rotator cuff due to poor technique.
Enough with the learning curve; hopefully you can see what I am getting at. Next, I want to address many of the common questions and goals I am asked about. Obviously with the following guidelines, I am assuming someone has put in the time to learn the necessary and appropriate technique for either activity.
"Which will get me leaner?"
This is the most common question I am asked, and is also the easiest to answer. There are not many things on the earth that will burn fat like high-rep kettlebell quick lifts. Work your way up to 1,000 swings per week and call me when you can see your abs through your T-shirt.
"Which will get me stronger?"
This is a tough one. Both will get you stronger in their own way. Certainly anybody who can military press the Beast is strong – in fact, that is my own goal right now! However, there are not many feats of strength more incredible than a huge clean and jerk. Go look up 3 time Olympic Gold medal winner, Pyrros Dimas lifting well over 200 kg and prepare to be humbled.
"Which will get me more explosive?"
This is another good question. You need to ask yourself what type of explosiveness you require. Are you a Track and Field thrower? If so, barbell snatches are probably a great exercise for you. Ask Master RKC Dan John for details. If you are a team sport athlete, or a martial artist like me, the high rep ballistics the kettlebell offers are probably more up your alley. If you need to stay quick and powerful into the fourth quarter, or into the championship rounds, the kettlebell is definitely your ticket. One under-appreciated aspect of kettlebell ballistics is the athlete learns to stay explosive even in a fatigued state. This is useful in many activities, with boxing or martial arts being a great example. How many times have you seen a fighter fatigue as the bout wears on, and his sharp, crisp, snappy punches turn into slow, ugly "pushes" late in the fight? He can kiss his knock out power bye-bye. High rep swings are the best tool in anyone’s arsenal to ensure ballistics stay ballistic as fatigue sets in, and to keep you quick and powerful while your opponent gets slow and sluggish.
"Which will build more muscle?"
You certainly can build muscle with kettlebells. Dragondoor sells a handful of great books on the subject. It is hard not to build muscle if you are barbell snatching, cleaning, jerking and squatting heavy.
"Which is more fun to do?"
This is definitely a personal preference. There is a wider selection of exercises with kettlebells vs weights, so from my experience people enjoy it and stick with it longer. Also, with Olympic lifting, the only goal is to snatch and clean & jerk heavier weight. With kettlebells, you can choose to either aim to lift a heavier weight (for example in the military press) or train for max reps (USSS snatch test for example). This type of variety tends to keep people interested and engaged.
So, which is right for you?
Hopefully I have given you some information to help you make a decision. From my experience, people tend to get the most satisfaction from kettlebell training. They enjoy the variety of drills, the extra endurance, the extra strength, and mostly the extra self-confidence that comes with being more fit, more muscular and leaner.
Regardless of which route you choose to go, make sure to look up a qualified coach in your area to help you get started. If you decide to go with kettlebells, there is no better place to find an RKC instructor than at:
But what if you are that person who wants to have your cake and eat it too? What if you just cannot decide between the two, and have your mind set on doing both. First off, you are walking a slippery slope. These are two disciplines that are difficult to mesh together. You are best off training them one at a time, under the supervision of a good coach. For example, train your Olympic lifting in the off-season and transition into kettlebell training in-season. Blocks of eight to twelve weeks are encouraged.
Another interesting option is to use kettlebell ballistics as a "primer" for the Olympic lifts. For example, one of the most common technical errors in Olympic lifting is the lifter never reaching complete extension (ankles, knees, hips and spine) at the finish. The hips, in particular, are usually the lazy party. I can still hear echoes of Tom Hirtz yelling at his lifters "FINISH YOUR PULL!!!" at every meet I attend. One of Tom’s lifters is national champion, by the way, so there must be something to it.
So, how do you ensure that you finish your pull? Enter the kettlebell swing…
Next time you are attempting a heavy BB snatch, try doing this first:
• Grab a heavy kettlebell and knock out 10 HARD swings.
• Pay attention to pinching the gluts tight and pulling the kneecaps up as you lock out each rep.
• Rest for a few minutes and shake it off.
• Then go try your snatch and notice the extra hip drive you get.
Make sure to drop me a line if this helps you hit a PR.

Tony Gracia, RKC, B.S. Exercise Science, is a personal trainer and fitness manager in Portland, OR. He works with a wide range of clients from low-back injury rehabilitation, to police officers to competitive weightlifters. He has also been practicing Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu since 2003 and holds the rank of brown belt. He can be contacted at
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