If progressive overload is used correctly you can improve your kettlebell training drastically. Kettlebells can be used to improve multiple physical attributes, but the principle of progressive overload can be used for all these attributes. Let’s have a look at how you can use progressive overload to improve your kettlebell training.
No spam – just thoughtful training advice
Whether it’s simple kettlebell training, Russian kettlebell training, training to gain muscle or improve your fitness, each program you use should incorporate progressive overload. Here you’ll find valuable kettlebell training advice for people of all abilities. If you’re short on time be sure to read the example that applies to you.
Progressive overload is the act of manipulating training variables over a time period so that the load on the body increases to create a wanted adaptation, in this case, kettlebell training. For a more detail description on progressive overload, read our full article on the topic here.
Moving from position A to position B in any physical attribute requires the application of progressive overload. There is no difference in kettlebell training. We can use progressive overload to increase the amount of weight we can lift, increase the amount of reps we can do within a time frame or increase the maximal amount of repetitions we can do unbroken. All three will require progressive overload to be improved.
The different physical characterises involved in kettlebell training all require the same method of progressive overload. Yes there will be massive differences in the training plans for those who are looking to gain strength and power with a kettlebell and those who are trying to complete the maximal amount of repetitions at given weights. These require different physical characteristics and therefor need to trained differently, but both will require the principle of progressive overload. They way a beginner might use progressive overload will also be very different from the way an advanced individual uses it, but that doesn't take away from the principle being used.
Volume is the amount of working sets completed, this can be framed as in a workout, in a week or in a training cycle. A simple way to think about it is the amount of work done in a movement pattern within a time frame. As most studies indicate the most important volume landmark is the total amount of sets done in a week.
The intensity which the work is done is very important. Intensity is the difficulty of a set or repetition. It’s the difference between a warm up set and a working set and it can be manipulated in many ways. This could be manipulating the RIR or RPE. It could also involve adding weight to the exercise or increasing exercise difficulty.
These are important terms to understand because they are the toggles in which we can turn to use progressive overload for all movements including kettlebell training. So how do we manipulate these toggles in practice, how can we get someone from no kettlebell experience to being a skilled practitioner, from one rep max of a KB push press at 20kg to 40kg, from 40 unbroken kettlebell swings at 32kg to 50 unbroken kettlebell swings at 40kg? In all scenarios we use progressive overload to create the adaptation.
For the beginner example I am going to be using someone who is looking to use kettlebells to get strong and fit. They have little athletic experience and no experience of the movement patterns used in strength training.
The emphasis will therefore be to use some of the simplest exercises you can do with a kettlebell to help them gain their first strength, hypertrophy and skill adaptations. For this example I am going to be using a 50 year old male with limited range of motion who wants to improve their health through kettlebell training. For the beginner example, I am going to show you how to progressively overload from one cycle to the next. For more details on training cycles, read this article here. We use progressive overload in multiple ways, one being from cycle to cycle, the other being within a training cycle, I will give an example of both within this article.
As outlining a full training cycle with every movement selected and the rational behind it would be too laborious for the reader, I will focus on how I would use progressive overload from one cycle to the next in one movement pattern. For this example I will use the squat.
As mobility is limited and stability is poor but strength isn’t too bad (he is able to use an 8kg comfortably) I would use two squat variations to help him orientate himself toward the squatting pattern. These would be the wall supported squat in lunge and the counterbalance squat. Using a split between a bi-lateral and a uni-lateral movement is a good way to get volume through a key movement pattern without it being to boring for the client. Note that the wall supported squat in lunge will be done with a kettlebell and the client will be performing 3 sessions a week so two squat emphasis movement will not be too much volume split between these sessions.
The first 3-4 week block of training went excellently and the client was able to pick up the squatting movement pattern whilst gaining mobility in his hips. Now that he feels much more comfortable with the squatting movement pattern he can start to progress to more challenging kettlebell variations, this is a prime example of progressively overload, using exercise selection to increase the intensity. That being said diving into a double kettlebell front rack walking lunge may be a bad choice of exercises selection. The next two exercises will be substantially more challenging and move from a point of skill acquisition to physiological adaptation (both strength and hypertrophy as he is a beginner). The next two exercises will be direct progressions of the first two exercises, the Goblet Squat in Lunge and the Goblet Squat.
The final cycle and the third month of training with this client will show a smaller jump in movement complexity, as we will still want to be manipulating other aspects of the training within the cycle like the weights being used, the number of sets and the number of repetitions. For this reason we will continue with the Goblet Squat as the first cycle will have likely been skill focused and now we can start adding some weight. For the single leg or lunge variations we are going to move to a goblet reverse lunge. This will require slightly more balance and technique than the goblet squat in lunge. As we are overloading the goblet squat with more weight it isn’t a bad thing to move to a more technique orientated movement.
In these 9-12 weeks, we have moved a client who struggled to perform a squat due to mobility issues to someone who is competent at performing a KB Goblet Squat, all using the progressive overload principle. Compare this to unstructured, random exercise selection based training and it’s clear which is superior, our client can now take his skills acquired and start to lift heavier weights with high quality movement patterns, creating a virtuous cycle of more adaptation, more motivation.
Now we have seen how progressive overload can be used from one cycle to the next, we will next take a look at how to use progressive overload within a cycle. This individual is looking to improve their proficiency at Kettlebell Clean and Jerks for a high number of repetitions. Let’s say they like to do local CrossFit competitions and this came up in one of the workouts and it was a particular weakness, they felt their strength and endurance didn’t translate well to this specific skill.
Here is an example of how we could isolate this issue in a Crossfit specific training session.
5 Rounds for Time
Testing this would let us see their proficiency at kettlebell clean and jerks under sport specific fatigue and allow us to create a training block to address this problem.
20 Kettlebell Clean and Jerks @16kg
20 Cals Assault Bike @90%
**rest 2’ between rounds
This is so different to how progressive overload was used in the first example for a beginner. The goal of the physiological adaptations are miles apart yet the principle stays the same, progressive overload.
In the final example of progressive overload being used with a kettlebell we are going to look at an advanced individual (10+ years of training) who is trying to improve their single arm kettlebell press 1RM. The 1 arm kettlebell press is a tough movement to find progression at if you have a lot of experience as a lifter. So this example will be slightly different to the ones above, where progress was able to be made over the course of 4 weeks. The amount of progress made over 4 weeks for someone who has been training for over 10 years will be negligible, yet the principle of progressive overload is still used, just stretched out over the course of a long time with strategic rest. For very advanced individuals, long term progressive plans will be required to see progress.
Week 1 - 4 x 2 @85% of 1RM
Week 2 - 5 x 3 @85% of 1RM
Week 3 - 6 x 2 @90% of 1RM
Week 4- 5 x 1 @95% of 1RM
The increase from week on week cannot be that great, as the lifter is so much more actualised than the other examples.
Save this article if you want to remember how the progressive article principle can be used to improve kettlebell training. Also feel free to send any comments through if you have any thoughts on the topic you would like to share.
If you enjoyed this resource you can find more below or try Programme, a fitness app that plans every workout for you – based on your progress, equipment and lifestyle.
This resource was written by Sean Klein. Sean Richard Klein has thousands of hours of coaching experience and a BSc in Sports Science with Management from Loughborough University. He owns a gym in Bayonne France, CrossFit Essor, which runs group classes and a Personal training studio.