Information on how to run faster, lift stronger and think deeper

Can kettlebells build muscle? [Article]

Posted by Pascal Landshoeft

Dec 11, 2017 6:52:00 AM

Can kettlebells build muscle

Can kettlebells build muscle

 
Kettlebells can be used to build mass. There are many other levers which are more important which influence whether your body builds muscle or not. Using barbells or kettlebells to create the stimulus is an afterthought to most other factors in the equation like food, sleep, execution of the movements and intensity. Now that the obvious question is out of the way I hope you enjoy the details which lead to this statement. 
 

Get the free kettlebell guide

Why do you train

 
When it comes to exercise I always like to pose this question and dig a bit deeper than the first answer. If you put the question "Can kettlebells build mass" to me I like to know "Why do you want to build muscle. Normally this can be brought back to one of these motivators:
 
  • Perform better in their sport
  • Rehabilitation 
  • Look better
 
There more than these categories and reasons, but this is what I usually find.
 
To perform better in your sports you sometimes have to put on mass. The NFL has certain expectations how much a linebacker or any other given position on the field should weigh. Size also matters in rugby as your team gets crushed in a scrum if you only have puny halflings playing for your team. Most martial arts divide their fighters into weight categories and if you are one of the athletes in the lower weight bracket of a category, it puts you at a disadvantage. For example, le I fought for a long time in the -73kg weight class in Judo and then went up to -81kg when it became apparent that even with sauna and all other kinds of bodyweight manipulation i was not able anymore to hit the weight and still perform. That was when I was put on a mass building program lifting weights and getting creatine. It worked.
 
Another reason to put on muscle can be for rehabilitation purposes. If you had cancer like my mother, you might have been lying in bed for several months and lost a lot of muscle mass. This inhibits you from living a healthy life so you have to get back your strength to feel whole again.
 
Another reason for you to put on mass could be to look better, even though I am personally not a fan of this kind of motivator as looks are very subjective and highly influenced by mass marketing. Just look at how much controversy there is every year over beauty contest and Mr. Olympia.
 
Whatever the reason is for you to put on muscle, take a step back and ask yourself why you want to put it on.
 
  • How much more do you need to make your target?
  • How much time and effort are you willing to put in?
  • Which areas of the body do you mainly want to target?
  • What kind of equipment do you have access to?
  • Can this mass just be the ballast or is it somehow performance related?
 
It happened to me and it might even happen to you that I got bogged down in the details of which tools to use in the gym whilst missing the big picture. A question like "Can kettlebells build muscle" might just be derived from that situation.
 

Basic training principles

 
Before choosing your tool for building mass in the gym take a look at the big picture and whether you have ticked all of these boxes first.
 
  • How much do you eat?
  • What do you eat?
  • How much do you sleep?
  • How often do you go to the gym?
  • How intense is your training?
  • Is your training balanced?
  • What rep and set scheme do you follow?
  • What tool do you use for your training?
 
I have stacked the questions from the most important to the least important based on my experience and what I have read, seen and heard from several experts like Charles Poliquin, Eric Cressey, Layne Norton, Pavel Tsatsoulin, Chris Duffin, Ed Coan, Arnold Schwarzenegger and Louie Simmons.
 
So before you waste your time on choosing your tool check all of the other cornerstones of your regime. The first being how much do you eat. If you want to build mass you have to be in caloric surplus. This means that you eat more than you burn in a day. There are different approaches to this and one of the easiest is to make sure that you eat 25% more calories based on what the recommendation for your age, height, and weight isFor athletes, it can get more complex as they burn more calories through the day. Generally speaking, the principle eat big, get big holds true for better or worse, depending on what you eat and how much exercise you do. 
 
The next question is about what you eat. Contrary to common belief you can stuff yourself with crappy food to build muscle and even to look like a bodybuilder or get strong as hell. Yes, you read this right. Some Reddit discussions even openly discuss the abuse of cocaine, cannabis and other substances to make your muscles grow and train like a beast. If you want to be the best this kind of obsession might even be necessary. What you have to keep in mind is that you got to pay the price for what you do.
 
C.T. Fletcher, one of the more illustrious powerlifters on YouTube with his hardcore style of personal training, took pride in his best days as a powerlifting world champion to have camera crews follow him around and record how many McDonald's meals he can eat a day. This and other factors lead to him being forced to have bypass surgery, which was the low point of his life. Garbage in, Garbage out. I still hugely respect Mr. Fletcher for the dedication, work, obsession and drive it took to come back from that and build his own gym, with his own rules and his own brand. A good role model in my opinion. He learned from his mistakes and got better and now helps others to get better.
 
After the food is covered you have to take care of your sleep. Your body does most of the significant reparations and changes to your body when you sleep. The longer you sleep the more maintenance can be done. Think of this like your laptop. You don't repair your computer or upgrade the graphics card while you are giving a presentation to the board. This is done when you are back in the hotel and the computer is not needed. Same applies to muscle growth for reasons which scientists still try to figure out in detail. Good amount of sleep is between 7 - 8 hours. If you need any more convincing look at babies. All they do is eat and sleep and they grow like mad. 
 
Once you have these components down think about how often you will train. If you want to build mass and only exercise once a week for half an hour that is still better than nothing. However, do not expect to look like Sylvester Stallone or Jean Claude Van Damme with this regime. Depending on who you ask the range of sessions a week will be between three to twelve to get results.
 
One of the best gyms I have trained in is lead by John Lark, a former rugby player on the national team for England, who said: "You can not expect to train like a choir boy and get the results of a lion". When you hit the gym train hard. Know your limits and test them a little to push the boundaries. If you go out of the gym and there was no sweat, not a bit of excitement or fear in the session you might as well have stayed home. The intensity part is important as it is often not taught by gyms as they are afraid of liability cases when you get hurt. The intensity in strength training according to Mark Rippetoe's Practical Programming for Strength training is defined as a percentage of your one repetition maximum. The higher percentage and the more repetitions you perform at a higher percentage the more intense is your workout. Good programs work with 50% to 95% of your one repetition maximum and apply the principle of linear progression to make you stronger and build mass.
 
The next point is the question of how balanced your training is. Any program you follow for building mass should follow a balanced approach between upper and lower body and push and pull movements. This has to be covered to ensure long-term health to make your body grow in a balanced way. An unbalanced body is more prone to injury and breakdown under heavy load or straining work as force always looks for the easiest way out. If your legs can press 200kg but your core can only support 150kg and you foolishly think your leg press directly transfers to your squat you might be in for a hernia. If you can bench press 180kg and only pull 100kg do not be surprised that your shoulders always hurt and you might need surgery soon.
 
Before we come to the tool the last thing to consider is what kind of rep scheme you follow. Across the industry, it seems that the wisdom is to have a range of 8 - 12 repetitions per set for 6 - 8 sets to get the best hypertrophy results to build mass. It depends on who you ask in which part of the year and whether the full moon is shining or not, but that is the general consensus. 
 
As you can see there are many factors to be considered which are more important to building mass than using a kettlebell. Check these factors first and you might see that there is no need to change from your current routine in the gym as you are doing something stupid outside the gym which hinders progression. If you have the basics down and other reasons to look into kettlebells like health issues, you are female and do not like barbells ( which is a common stigma...) or you are just fed up with everything you have done before let us see whether the kettlebell can build muscle.
 

Can kettlebells build mass

 
The short answer is yes, they can. Literally, it is a no, because your body owns the mechanisms to build mass. Technically the kettlebell is a tool to trigger the body to build mass, but of the many levers you can pull, it is one of the smallest ones.
 
If you follow all of the outlined basic principles for building mass, you will get bigger using kettlebells. The only caveat is here that kettlebells might be a better tool for advanced lifters to build mass rather than for beginners. If you try certain exercises like cleans, overhead presses and deadlifts you will generally find that it is a lot easier to do the same weight with a barbell than with a kettlebell.
 
My favorite to demonstrate this phenomenon is the front squat. Most people do not do front squats so there is no movement pattern advantage. If you load a barbell front squat with 2.5kg on each side client's usually perform if they have the mobility to execute the movement. If you then proceed to give them two 12kg kettlebells, which is technically less weight and ask them to repeat they will struggle to get it done. 
 
Most exercises which are recommended to build mass with kettlebells are for advanced practitioners. If you do not believe me check out the Strongfirst certification structure. The snatch, double kettlebell movements and the fanciest stuff which you will find in kettlebell programs to build mass on the internet is part of the SFG2 and not the SFG1, less advanced certification.
 

Exercises

 
If you scan the internet for templates that use kettlebells to build mass you will find the following mentioned often
 
  • Double Front Squat.
  • Double Swing.
  • Double Snatch.
  • Double Windmill.
  • Turkish Get-Up.
  • Double Military Press.
  • Double Bent-Over Row.
  • Kettlebell Pull-Up.
  • Floor Press
  • Bent press
  • See Saw press
  • Single leg deadlift
  • Renegade Rows
  • Back Lunges
  • Weighted pull-ups
 
What all of these movements have in common is that you shouldn't do them as a beginner. When you are building mass and strength the stability that a barbell provides for you is your friend, not your enemy. If you are not strong enough to handle a 20kg barbell you have no business in entertaining any double kettlebell work. In my personal opinion, use thirty-day bodyweight challenges to progress to a place where you can handle a 12 to 16kg kettlebell. Do simple and sinister for three months which consists of the swing and Turkish get up once the pull-up, push-up and body weight squat are mastered. After these three months, you should have progressed at least one kettlebell size up. Do another three-month Stronglifts 5x5 cycle with the barbell. After these 9 - 12 months of training make a decision which tool you prefer and stick with that for another year.
 

5x5 template

 
The golden middle in training between building mass and strength is five sets of five repetitions at 70 - 85% of your one repetition maximum. This is commonly accepted canon and has the results to show to back it up. You can read my extensive review of the Stronglifts 5x5 template on this blog. There are also variations on the 5x5 template for more advanced lifters like madcow 5x5 or the Texas method. The basic idea is to do an exercise at challenging, but not crazy intensity, for five repetitions and five sets with 3 - 5 minutes rest between sets. Apply all the basic principles I have outlined and exercises which fit your level of fitness and off you go.
 

German Volume Training template

 
The German Volume training template has you do 10x10 so ten sets of ten repetitions of a certain exercise at 60% of your one repetition maximum. GVT is praised among bodybuilders for its capability to build muscle. There have been studies and observations across the board which report that while you gain mass on GVT you might decline in strength. I personally think that GVT is to be recommended to fit individuals who have training experience under their belt and not to beginners. My reasoning for that is outlined in my German volume training review for crossfitters. The main point is fatigue management and knowing when to quit before getting injured which makes this a no go for beginners. In addition form usually breaks down in sets of ten. A habit which you should strive to eliminate as a beginner especially rather than magnify the effect actively.
 

Kettlebell example template

 
This is a template I liked for hypertrophy with kettlebells
I can not overstate master the swing and get up first at least, maybe even a 100kg barbell squat for good measure, before attempting this.
 
A1: Double Kettlebell Snatch – 6 rounds x 3 reps*
B1: Double Kettlebell Clean & Press and Front Squat Ladder – 3 rounds x 1-6 ladders**
C1: Bent Press Practice – 5 rounds x 3 reps (each arm)
D1: Kettlebell Seesaw Row – 3 rounds x 8-15 reps
D2: Kettlebell Seesaw Floor Press – 3 rounds x 8-15 reps
 
You can progress to the next kettlebell when you do negative splits (meaning you need less time to recover than doing the exercises). Getting instruction from a certified Strongfirst is recommended.
 

Kettlebells vs barbell training

 
Barbells and kettlebells have their place and both are fun. Barbells have the advantage of added stability which lets you move bigger weights than kettlebells. Also once you progress you will have it easier with barbell training as heavyweights are more readily available than heavy kettlebells. Most gyms only stock up to 28kg kettlebells. As a male, you will have to look far and wide to find a place that has 32kg and upwards. 
 
Whether kettlebells or barbells are the better option for mass building I would be hesitant to say myself and is a different question from the one we started out with. I lack the experience of mass building training templates as my main focus is strength. My "Why" in training is to stay in control of my life and keep moving forward. I find strength training to be the ultimate tool for that as it is very objective, demands discipline, grit and consistency. it is only me and the barbell and only I am to blame if something does not work. 
 
The general strength community will not hesitate to point to the barbell as the superior tool for building mass. This is understandable as the golden times of bodybuilding heavily relied on barbell training and there are more bodybuilders around who got results from barbell training as it is more widespread and easier to learn than using kettlebells. An additional locker room undercurrent of kettlebells being "pussy" does not help. On this, I think there is not enough empirical evidence out there with heavy kettlebells and there is also not a lot of structured studies to be expected in the future due to the perceived higher risk of injury and availability of the tools and knowledge to conduct proper mass building with kettlebells.
 

Conclusion

 
Kettlebells can build mass in the sense of the question posed by a layman if the basic principles of mass building are being stuck to in the first place. There are fewer examples of success for this to work as for training with barbells as the base of use cases to pick from is smaller. To find good instructions and equipment if you travel down this path will be harder as it is less readily available as for barbell training. This does not mean that it will be less rewarding. I am convinced quite the contrary. If you can state that you build your 120kg herculean statue only with the help of kettlebells' it will turn more heads than achieving the same goal utilizing barbells and dumbbells. Since I have been using kettlebells my body feels more balanced, agile and resilient in all walks of life than when I did barbell training only
 

Further reading

 
Resources
 
 
 
 
 
 
 

Topics: Lift stronger, Stronglifts 5x5, German Volume Training, Kettlebell