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Training Around Sub-Optimal Equipment Options

By: Bill Been

Bill recently received some questions arising from one of our recent podcasts. The listener was looking for some ideas on how he might be able to train at home with a single 24kg kettlebell and a jump rope, as his gym is currently closed due to COVID19. Presented is a summary of their Q&A.

Question: Can you strength train with kettlebells?

  • Yes you can. However, the commonly large (8kg/17.6lb) jumps in bell weight are too large to be leapt in the preferred, optimal manner of simply adding a manageable increment of additional load to the implement. So successful Kettlebell strength programming like Geoff Neupert’s “Kettlebell Strong” and, to a lesser degree Mr. Tsatsouline’s “Rite Of Passage” programs use Volume manipulation to accumulate the stress necessary to drive a strength adaptation. Double kettlebell programs are to be favored for strength training.

Question: What about “kettlebell ballistics,” the Swing and the Snatch?

  • Not strength training. Commonly assumed to be strength training because they’re unfamiliar therefore hard and tiring and they tear up your hands and run you out of breath and when they’re done in a coordinated way by an experienced practitioner they appear to be “powerful”. They are a novel stimulus to an untrained posterior chain and can therefore make an untrained individual feel and move a good bit better. The outsized effects often attributed to kettlebell ballistics - the Swing and the snatch primarily - are in reality simply The Novice Effect put into action with an unfamiliar movement. This is also what is happening with what in Kettlebell Land is called the “What The Hell? Effect” wherein the fact that you get better at something you didn’t practice is attributed to the kettlebell, rather than generalized physical improvement.

Question: What about the Turkish Get Up?

  • If progressively overloaded in a methodical way, the TGU can be an okay developer of strength. It is difficult to progressively overload the movement however, because each “rep” takes so long, and the movement itself tends to concentrate stress in the shoulder muscles, removing force production as the limiting factor and substituting fatigue resistance of the shoulder girdle. So, the large jumps in KB weights requires the methodical insertion of the next heavier bell in a substitution scheme. For example, 5 TGUs with the 32 becomes 1 TGU with the 36 followed by 4 with the 32; the 2x36, 3x32, etc. Note that even well-equipped commercial gyms seldom offer bells in 4kg increments.

Question: Well, isn’t that how the progression is described in the program you alluded to, “Simple & Sinister?"

  • Kinda. Like much of the “programming” that arises in what I tongue-in-cheek refer to as “Kettlebell Land," S&S has way too much allowance for deferring to your Feelz. No real nods are given to the adaptive physiology detailed with such awe-inspiring clarity and rare insight in Episode 6 of the Engineered Strength podcast. So, the idea of the systematic addition of training stress, the recovery from and adaptation to that stress as the driver of progress is not meaningfully embraced. There are numerous examples of trainees in KB Land spending well over a year diligently using Simple & Sinister and still being nowhere near the “Simple” standard of 100 x 1-handed swings in 5 minutes plus 5 Get Ups per side in 10 minutes. Ignoring the vague progression scheme described in the book, I did it in a little over 5 weeks. At Age 51. The program basically tries to do easy stuff at high frequency hoping it turns into a capability to do medium-hard stuff. And it just doesn’t work.

Question: So if swings are not strength training and GetUps are only strength training if they are programmed in a way that’s not commonly applied, what is the value of “Simple & Sinister?"

  • I have tried to discern the rationale for the unending enthusiasm for S&S for several years now. The nearly completely nonexistent progression scheme, the too-broadly described workout frequency, and the vaguely described aims of the program combine to disqualify S&S as a “training” approach. It is, and should be content to be, an “exercise” program.

  • As such, it can serve as a way to burn calories, relieve stress, do some cardio, improve coordination, temporarily relieve boredom. Just like every non-kettlebell exercise program like Jazzercize, ‘80s Hair Step Aerobics, or Dance Dance Revolution.

  • There are much better designed kettlebell programs, and if Simple & Sinister were just another ineffective kettlebell program that no one had ever heard of, it wouldn’t be worth a mention. Unfortunately, it’s the most commonly recommended program in Kettlebell Land whether someone wants to know how to “get strong”, “get in-shape”, get ready for a Special Forces acceptance course, age gracefully and independently, be ready for a physical confrontation as a LEO, whatever, as if it were an all-purpose program capable of developing every quality from power to bone density to hypertrophy to flexibility to strength to agility to sustained high power output.

So, what do you do when you have a single 24 kilo kettlebell?

Geoff Neupert’s programs generally used double kettlebells and are not replicable with 1 kettlebell. Rite of Passage is a single-bell program designed to increase your kettlebell Press 1RM. It employs what are called “Ladders” or “Laddered sets." So, as an example if you could press your 24 three times, your ladders might look like:

  • 1 Rep Left/1 Rep Right (L/R), Rest,

  • 2 L/R

  • 3 L/R

That’s 1 “ladder," consisting of “rungs” of 1, 2, and 3. Start over at 1 L/R and repeat. Do perhaps 3 ladders for a total of 18 Reps with each hand.

There are two ways to increase the session tonnage:

First is to add rungs to the ladders. That means instead of stopping at 3L/R, you do one more rung of 4L/R. Assuming this was quite difficult, you would return to 3 rungs on the remaining ladders. This might constitute a Rep PR, but it also certainly adds session stress by adding another 8 reps to the workout. Next session you try to add that 4th rung to the first 2 of your ladders: 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3, 4, 1, 2, 3

The other approach can be employed if you have doubts that you can make that rung of 4 L/R. You simply add another ladder of 1,2,3. Now you’re doing 4 ladders, each containing 6 reps for 24 total session reps - another useful increase in tonnage/stress.

As you can see, it matters a great deal that my hypothetical involves the 24 being a “ballpark” appropriate Press weight for you. Where things go off the rails is, what happens if your 1RM KB Press is 16? For new trainees, even males, this is not unusual at all. Your 24 is now pretty worthless as a Press development tool. Sure, you might be able to Push Press it. If you can figure out how to do a KB Jerk, you could Jerk it. I’m personally fairly skeptical of the ability of either of those to develop your Press, but either can be used in some sort of conditioning protocol - again just to get hot, sweaty and tired. Meanwhile, if your 1RM KB Press is 32 or 36, there’s really no number of 24kg Presses that is going to get you a 40kg Press. See if you can “bottoms up” Press the 24. Excellent grip developer and you have to be well braced throughout that one. Obviously, any kind of leg strength improvement with a 24 is not realistic – there’s just no way to create a sufficient training stress to drive a leg strength adaptation with that little weight. In summary, if a 24 is a good bell for you to amass Press Volume with, have at it. If it’s a reasonable bell to do Turkish Get Ups with, do some of those. Contrary to S&S do them before any conditioning.

To get REALLY hot, sweaty, and tired, do “segmented Get Ups”:

  • Up to the elbow, back down

  • Up to the palm, back down

  • Up to the palm, raise your hips, down

  • Up to Tall Kneeling, down

  • Stand all the way up, down.

  • When this gets too easy, add a Press at each position.

For conditioning, do Snatches if you know how. If not, Swings are OK. 1-handed is preferable, or you can do overspeed two handed swings where you accelerate the bell downward. The denizens of KB Land impart all sorts of magical qualities to kettlebell ballistics, but as I insisted earlier they’re not strength training. They are a conditioning option for times like these when there are limited other tools available. But even now - go run some sprints. Go push your car 20 or 30 feet as fast as you can.

I’m far too spastic to know what to do with a jump rope.

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