So, you’ve recently started kettlebell training because you read some blogs about the awesome fitness benefits. But now you’re not sure how to get started: How do you program a kettlebell routine? How many days a week should I use my kettlebell? How long should a workout last? And what are the best exercises to include in my program?
If you’re scratching your head over these questions, don’t worry, you’re not alone. Lots of new trainers find it a struggle to get going with kettlebells.
However, if you stick with me for the next ten minutes, all your questions will be answered. What follows is an outline of the four key steps to effective programming. These steps will enable you to tailor a kettlebell training program that can support you in reaching your fitness goals.
First things first, though . . .
How to program kettlebell training
Let’s establish one thing before we get started, designing a training program is no mean feat. Whole books have been written on the subject and leaders in the field argue heatedly over optimum methodologies.
The author of The Strength Training Bible, Nick Grantham, tells us that ‘there are a lot of professional coaches and athletes who struggle to pull all of their good ideas together in one coherent programme,’ (p97).
Grantham likens program design to preparing a new recipe with raw ingredients. You have all your training ideas, exercises, and bags of enthusiasm ‘but no real understanding of how to bring it all together.’
How to develop a program in four steps
To simplify the process, and to help you bring all your ideas together, I have organised the key features of program design into four steps. Each step has been framed as a question.
The purpose of these questions is to prompt you to think about important factors that play a crucial role in program design. For example, your fitness aspirations, your level of exercise experience, and your current capacity to commit.
Designing a program without this information is like starting a journey without any knowledge of where you are, where you’re going and why you want to get there. Before we pack our bags and leave the house, we need to decide on the destination. That is our first step.
How to program kettlebell training Step #1: What is my fitness goal?
It’s helpful to think of a training program as a map. Once drawn up, its purpose is to lead you in the direction of where you want to go. But of course, like a map, a training program can only do that when you’ve established a destination. The destination is your fitness goal.
Deciding on a fitness goal is a fine art. But you can simplify the process by applying the Goldilocks Principle: the goal you select should not be too easy nor too hard but just right for you.
Also, your fitness goal doesn’t have to be related to improving kettlebell performance. Though I use kettlebell lifting in the example below, a goal of your program could be any one of the following:
Whole-body strength development
Improved body composition
Enhanced muscle endurance
Gaining an edge in a particular sporting discipline
After you’ve resolved the type of goal that’s just right, you can see if it’s SMART.
Applying SMART to your fitness goal
S – Specific
Your ‘training goals should be specific to the things you want to accomplish through training,’ (NSCA Strength Training). What does the fitness goal relate to? A sport, competition, or health? Also, has the goal been specifically defined? The goal of improving general fitness is not specific. To be able to perform 100 reps of the long cycle in ten minutes with a pair of 24kg kettlebells is very specific.
M – Measurable
The more specific a goal is the more precisely progression can be measured. As P. F. Drucker famously said, what gets measured gets managed. How can you measure improving general fitness? What method would you use to assess general fitness development? Strength? Muscle endurance? Cardio? Or a combination of the three? In comparison, consider how accurately you could measure and monitor progression toward the fitness goal of performing 100 reps of the long cycle.
A – Achievable (or agreed)
Taking your current level of fitness and training experience into consideration, along with your lifestyle and the time frame of your program, is your fitness goal achievable? If you’ve never picked up a pair of kettlebells in your life, and you’re largely untrained, is a goal of 100 reps of the long cycle in ten minutes with a pair of 24kg bells achievable? You could argue that it is. But how long would you need to achieve it? Six months? One year?
R – Realistic
So, we’re in agreement: the above goal is achievable. But it’s going to require a 12-month-long program with a training frequency rate of five workouts per week. However, with everything else that’s going on in your life right now, is that realistic? Can you accommodate such an extensive program? Answers to these questions can be clarified by conducting a needs analysis, which we will discuss in Step #3.
T – Time-bound (or targeted)
A key factor of any goal is that the start, middle and end point are clearly demarcated. Factoring in fixed time parameters is beneficial for two reasons. First, it enables you to implement periodic ‘milestones’ – these are sub-goals or ‘steppingstones’ to your main fitness goal.
Second, working within a timeframe can fuel motivation. If I said to you, you’ve got from now until whenever to perform those 100 long cycle reps, how motivated would you be to get going? But if I said you’ve got exactly 12 months from this day, and I’ll be assessing your performance progression every four weeks, how much more motivated would you feel?
We could go into much more detail about how to make a fitness goal SMART. However, I’m conscious of overloading you with too much information. If you feel further clarification would be helpful, you’ll find a full outline of the SMART principle in our article How To Create A Strength Training Program.
Factors to consider when choosing a fitness goal
Your current level of fitness and exercise experience.
Your level of motivation – how determined are you to achieve that goal? Are you prepared to put in the training necessary? Can you see yourself making sacrifices? When the going gets tough, will you crack, crumble, or carry on?
Your health status. A fitness goal must make allowances for past or present injuries and/or disabilities. Of course, these shouldn’t stop you from pursuing a fitness goal. But it would be a mistake to dismiss the.
Your age and body composition. In the book Physical Fitness & Athletic Performance, Watson specifically identifies elderly and overweight people as potential risk factors when participating in an exercise program – especially if it features ‘very strenuous activities’ such as fitness tests. But the point made above is applicable here. Though these are limiting factors, they should not prevent a person from pursuing a fitness goal.
How to program kettlebell training Step #2: What’s my start point?
At this point, you should have a fitness goal in mind – better still, written down. The goal should be personal to you and SMART. Now you’re ready to take the next step on your journey to creating a kettlebell training program.
Our second step requires that you conduct a ‘needs analysis.’ If you’re unfamiliar with the term, Grantham defines it as a ‘simple process of pulling together all the information you require to provide you with a clear understanding of where you are at this precise moment in time,’ (The Strength & Conditioning Bible).
Many people make the mistake of overlooking the needs analysis when designing a training program. They regard it as unimportant and a waste of time. However, you could go and create a brilliant program, but if you neglect to look at your lifestyle and see that you’re already overcommitted, it’s likely that you may not be able to accommodate the program just yet.
Training program needs analysis
Below I have listed the key elements of a needs analysis. Before progressing to the next step, go through the list and answer each point. When you’re done, use the information and insights to optimise your program.
The ability to fully implement your program is heavily influenced by your lifestyle. As Grantham points out, ‘Your day-to-day living will shape how much training you can complete, when you can take part in fitness sessions, how long those sessions will last and how quickly you recover from training,’ (The Strength & Conditioning Bible). The lifestyle factors that you should consider include:
Travel time to the training facility
Diet and nutrition
This differs from determining a fitness goal. In this section of the needs analysis, you are encouraged to assess your current level of fitness and training history. For example, are you currently training? When was the last time you trained? What type of training do you like and dislike?
In addition, it’s helpful to consider your attitude to training and exercise. Do you find it challenging to get motivated? Have you quit exercising in the past? Are you willing to push yourself through challenging workouts?
Only when these questions are answered should you move on to the final element of the needs analysis.
We briefly considered this point in the context of establishing a fitness goal. But Grantham reminds us that ‘Understanding your medical history is important prior to embarking on a programme of physical preparation,’ (The Strength & Conditioning Bible).
Understanding your health is helpful for other reasons beyond program design. Knowing your body mass index (BMI), resting heart rate and blood pressure can provide you with valuable metricises to monitor as you progress through your program. They can also form part of the primary focus of your fitness goal. For example, your goal could be to reduce your BMI by six points or reduce your blood pressure so that it is no longer in the hypertensive range.
When reviewing your health, take the time to consider these questions:
Q1: Have you had any major or minor surgeries?
Q2: Are you currently on medication or using drugs recreationally?
Q3: Are you suffering from regular headaches?
Q4: Do you often feel fatigued without any obvious reason?
(List adapted from Grantham)
How to program kettlebell training Step #3: What’s the best way for me to get there?
The two previous steps form the theoretical foundations of your program. Now, you’ll be glad to know, it’s time to start building. The third step is where you decide on which days and at what times your workouts will take place. In training program parlance this is called frequency. To make programming easier, it’s wise to use a visual aid when plotting your workouts such as a calendar.
When the days and times are set, your next task is to select exercises to populate your workouts with. The exercises selected should be specific to your fitness goal. Also, the training protocol should be appropriate. This means that if your goal is to increase strength in all the major muscle groups, you would prioritise compound lifts and apply the most effective formula for bringing about the desired training effect: low sets/reps and high resistance. (But more on these factors below.)
Though Step 3 is the more enjoyable part of designing a program, it is labour-intensive. Here’s what I mean. If you’re building a 10-week program with a frequency rate of five workouts per week, you will have to create 50 session plans.
Keep your kettlebell training program simple
To avoid becoming entangled in a web of complexity, it would be wise to garner a few lessons from Grantham. He observes that ‘Training plans can be extremely complicated’ but ‘should be kept as simple as possible,’ (The Strength & Conditioning Bible). When you start designing your program, consider things like:
What kind of training do I enjoy?
What type of exercises am I capable of performing?
Will I need to incorporate other forms of exercise?
Another positive of keeping your program simple is that it will be easier to modify. Why and how we modify our program forms the fourth and final step.
How to program kettlebell training Step #4: What if my program fails to deliver the results?
On completion of Step 3, you will begin making the journey to your fitness goal. This means following the map that is your carefully designed training program.
As you travel along the route, you will assess physical progression against your fitness goal. If you are getting fitter and your body is responding as anticipated, that's a greenlight to stay the course, checking as you go.
What invariably happens, however, is that you undershoot your target. Fitness gains don’t come as readily as hoped. But this is to be expected. After all, ‘Programme design is a ‘process’ and you must be prepared to make changes to the route if necessary,’ (The Strength & Conditioning Bible).
How do you make changes though?
Making a change suggests a substantial overhaul of your program. Unless you skipped Steps 1 and 2, this is rarely necessary. Usually, getting back on track and heading in the right direction of your destination, requires minor modifications of the training variables. Using the FITT acronym, I have briefly explained each variable and given an example modification.
Frequency: As we’ve already seen, frequency relates to the number of weekly workouts your program features. If your fitness levels are not rising as rapidly as expected, or worse they are stagnating, it might be a matter of adding one or two more workouts to your week. (If you're ever in need of training ideas, see our Workout & Fitness Page.)
Intensity: This is about how hard you push yourself during a workout. When intensity increases it can amplify the effects of overload which ‘leads to increases in muscle strength and size through a process called hypertrophy,’ (The Complete Guide To Strength Training).
Time: Also referred to as ‘training duration,’ time at its essence refers to how many minutes or hours you spend working out. Training duration is the totality of the sets, reps, and number of exercises you squeeze into a single session. Similarly to intensity, increasing time can result in overload.
Type: The final variable that can be used to tweak your program is type. Sometimes referred to as ‘specificity,’ type is about the training methods and exercises that comprise your program. If your fitness is stagnating, it could be because the type of training you are doing is not specific to your goal. Think of it this way. If I told you I was training for a marathon and, intrigued, you asked what my program consisted of, if I said mainly biceps curls and ab work, you’d quickly identify a mismatch between my goal and training method. And it wouldn’t surprise you if I quit before mile ten. Type, in sum, is about making sure that your training process is tightly tailored to your fitness goal.
Hard though it is to believe, I tried to keep this blog short. The problem I found, when I got going, is that there’s so much to say about how to program kettlebell training. What we’ve covered up to now barely scratches the surface.
However, there is more than enough content to begin building a program that delivers results. To conclude, I’ve outlined the key takeaways and compiled a list of useful reading material.
Kettlebell programming key takeaways
Start by establishing a fitness goal. Your goal, remember, is the destination and the training program a map of the journey.
Conduct a needs analysis of your current lifestyle habits and personal commitments. If you have a lot on your plate, can you realistically accommodate a program?
Once you’ve selected a fitness goal and assessed your lifestyle, it’s time to start building your program. This involves identifying days and times for your workouts and selecting exercises and training methods specific to your goal.
Keep ‘KISS’ in mind when designing your program – that is, Keep It Simple Stupid!
Don’t become discouraged if your fitness fails to respond as rapidly as you expected. This is a normal part of the process of physical development. When it happens go back to the drawing board and start tweaking those training variables.
Never be without a workout!
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