Kettlebell Strength and Conditioning for Sports

atleta svolge esercizi con kettlebell

When thinking about the equipment that can be used in the athletic training for athletes in all the sports disciplines, just few technicians consider the kettlebell to be one of them. Indeed, those involved in power sports prefer barbells, just as those aiming for endurance are more inclined to use cardio equipment (rowing machine, treadmill, bike, etc.).

In fact, kettlebells, due to their characteristic shape of off-center mass with respect to the handle, bring with them a whole series of extraordinary applications not only for fitness practitioners, but also for athletes of all sports disciplines, both from a conditional point of view (strength, endurance, speed and power) and at a neuro-motor and structural level (mobility under load, stability, coordination, dynamic proprioception, continuous stimulation of the body’s center of gravity, etc.). These are two aspects that are closely related to both increased physical performance and injury prevention, i.e., the two cornerstones of successful athletic training in any sport.

How modern Sports differ from the past

In modern sports, in fact, there are two training variables (related to internal load/training stress) that are much higher than in the past, namely the intensity of performance and the frequency of competitions. In many sports, especially in situational sports (such as team sports, or even individual mixed-demand sports such as combat sports, tennis, etc.), if in the past technical talent was sufficient to emerge even at high levels, already for a few years now if the soccer player or tennis player (just to name a few) is not supported by excellent athletic preparation, he will hardly be able to impose himself against opponents with continuity of performance. The pace is higher, and this trend will be on the rise more and more in the coming years. Here is where the athlete who combines an appropriate technical/tactical individual and competition component with an equally well-structured physical/athletic one will always make a difference as much as high intensity performance as injury prevention.

The athlete’s needs in competition: high performance and low risk of injury

Another aspect related to the increased pace in competition (which means increased energy demands) is the increased external stresses in terms of both coordination and agility and stability (which means increased biomechanical demands). The athlete, in a nutshell, will not only have to be improved at the level of energy availability according to the specific demands of sports competition (and thus work at the level of conditional and metabolic skills), but will also have to take care of all aspects of movement (and thus work at the level of coordination and joint mobility), according to the motor patterns he or she will want to reproduce in competition so as to not only perform more effective movements, but also safer ones. This is crucial if one wants to prevent injuries from indirect trauma (muscle, tendon, ligament and bone injuries as a result of trauma without contact with the opponent) and injuries from dysfunctional stress and overload (inflammation and pains that limit the athlete’s motor function and keep him away from competitions). And this is where the kettlebell fits in perfectly.

The characteristics of kettlebells for the Athletic Training

In fact, handling kettlebells requires a whole series of skills that will have to be built by the Athletic Trainer with progression and constancy, just as in the use of any other training equipment (from bodyweight exercises to barbells, etc.). These skills are related as much to the structural characteristics of the kettlebell, mass off-center with respect to the handle, as to the coordination and stability skills required in the management of ballistic movements from broad, multi-directional trajectories. Beginning with the simplest strength exercises (Deadlift, Squat, Lunges, Press, etc.), the off-center mass of the kettlebell requires the athlete to activate more of his or her stabilizing muscles, both those of the scapular girdle (foremost of which is the Lats, as the muscle that acts as a postero/ lateral bridge between the pelvis, the spine, the scapula and the humerus), as well as those of the trunk and pelvis (Abdominal and Gluteal muscles above all), given the upright position from which the exercises are developed. Consider, for example, the execution of a single Overhead Press. The kettlebell starts from the side rack position at the chest, with the elbow adhered to the side. Keeping the entire body well active (particularly with the Quadriceps extending the knees, the Glutes extending the hips and stabilizing the pelvis, and the Abdominals stabilizing the spine and pelvis), the goal is to bring the kettlebell up until the arm is fully extended in a vertical position relative to the rest of the body, without ever losing the stability of the lower base (legs and hips) and middle (pelvis and spine), and always with continuous activation of the Lats, due to its dual function of providing both greater stability and greater strength to the scapular girdle, the main motor focus of the exercise. For the athlete, this means going to condition his neuro-muscular strength in a global way, that is, improving not only his structural (hypertrophy) but also his coordinative (intra- and inter-muscular) components. It will benefit not only the strength of the arm and shoulder in overhead stretching movements, but also that of the whole body in terms of stability and coordination, characteristics that are essential in every athlete in every sport, since with global strength exercises the synergies of muscle groups functional to the motor pattern and the kinetic chains that are activated in order to optimize the gesture itself are called into play.

And we have analyzed a strength exercise that is performed at low speeds and on a trajectory close to the axis of the body’s center of gravity such as the Overhead Press, if we then bring into play the true essence of kettlebell exercises, that is, ballistic ones, the whole thing is amplified exponentially. In fact, if with the kettlebell one can also perform a whole series of global strength exercises for the two primary motor fulcrums of the human body (the hips and the scapulohumeral-thoracic girdle) and for the essential stability fulcrum (the spine) in the three planes of movement (sagittal, frontal and transverse), the true potential of kettlebells is extrinsic with ballistic exercises.

athlete with kettlebell

Ballistic exercises: the essence of kettlebell training

The profession of the Athletic Trainer is indeed complicated and fascinating when one considers how much he or she must study in order to fully understand all the dynamics that underlie the increased performance of his or her athletes. From Anatomy to Biomechanics, from Physiology to Training Program Design, without neglecting subjects that to the outside eye might seem irrelevant, one of them being Physics. For example, by analyzing the physics formula of force (F = m x a) in Kinematics we see how to increase an athlete’s force levels one can act on both the load being moved and the acceleration imparted to that load. From Hill’s curve (force and velocity relationship) we know how these two physical quantities are inversely proportional to each other, that is, as one increases the other falls and vice versa. So if you want to achieve maximal strength the load must be so high that the acceleration must be zero (maximal isometric contractions), while if you want to aim for maximum speed the load must be zero so that you have maximum acceleration (sprinting). Reported in overload training, in this case with kettlebells, in relation to one’s maximum load that can be lifted (1 RMax) in a given exercise (load that is set for maximal strength), the corresponding load for maximum speed is around 35% of the 1RMax. So if my maximum Overhead Press with the kettlebell is 105 lbs (48 kg), I will have to use a 35 lbs (16 kg) kettlebell to train maximum speed. Obviously then you have to remember that maximum speed, as well as maximum power and maximum strength fall under the first energy system (Anaerobic Alactacidic) which develops between 8 and 10 seconds continuously at maximum intensity, so if I decide to use 35 lbs (16 kg) of kettlebell I will have to perform the exercise at maximum speed within the 8 to 10 seconds, so that I do not break out into the second energy system (Lactacid Anaerobic), unless my goal is to condition speed endurance, and then it makes sense to work in the lactacid regime. But from Physics we also see how to train speed and power.
Speed (S = d/t) is equal to the distance in which the force is exerted, that is, the displacement (d) over the unit of time in which the force is exerted (t). Power (P = F x d/t i.e., P = F x S) is given by force times velocity, and reported in overload training, in this case with kettlebells, in relation to one’s maximum liftable load (1 RMax) in a given exercise (load that is set for maximal force), the corresponding load for maximal power is around 85% of the 1RMax. So if my maximum Overhead Press with the kettlebell is 105 lbs (48 kg), I will have to use a 88 lbs (40 kg) kettlebell to train maximum power. And again, as explained for maximal speed you have to stay within the 8 to 10 seconds continuous at maximum intensity to meet the maximum power reference energy system (Anaerobic-Alactacid).

After all this technical analysis of the physical formulas of interest to us regarding exercises for maximal force, maximal speed and maximal power, the feature that must remain clear in mind is that both maximal speed and maximal power require greater acceleration than maximal force, here it is that once the appropriate load percentages (35 percent for maximum speed or 85 percent for maximum power) and working time (8/10 seconds to remain within the Anaerobic Alacactacidic Energy System) have been set, one must avail oneself of exercises that by their executive dynamics allow the expression of acceleration starting from the lower and middle base of the body, where the largest and most powerful muscles of the human body are present and which can therefore express more explosive force in the gestures. Here, ballistic exercises that take advantage of the global involvement of muscles in the kinetic chain, through the execution of broad trajectories, are able to impart great acceleration to the external load, such that both power and speed are optimally conditioned (depending on the loads and training structures used). So instead of choosing the Overhead Press (an exercise best suited for maximal strength, hypertrophy and resistant strength, depending on the loads and training techniques used), we will opt for exercises that although remaining on the same planes of motion as the Overherad Press (sagittal and frontal), make use of hip and lower limb thrust to have more speed in the overhead stretch, and thus the Push Press and Jerk for power or the Viking Push Press for speed.

The example given with the Overhead Press also applies to other movements involving, for example, the fulcrum of the hips and in the various planes of motion. If we take a look at the basic ballistic exercise of kettlebell training, the Swing, we see how the primary motor focus is the hip and the main plane of movement is the sagittal plane. In fact, the Swing is aimed at conditioning the power of the hip extension muscles (Glutes and Hamstrings over all), which are fundamental in all sports that require sprinting and/or jumping. 
Yes because it is good to remember how even jumps have the hips as their primary focus and before developing in the frontal plane, they begin in the sagittal plane. So I will choose the Swing instead of the Deadlift (similar motor scheme, but which with its trajectory and speed of execution is more suitable for strength conditioning), if I am interested in training speed (load 35% of the 1 RMax of the Kettebell Deadlift) or power (load 85% of the 1 RMax of the Kettebell Deadlift).

And we could continue with examples on the transverse plane such as the Cross Lunge for strength and the corresponding ballistic exercise for speed and power, i.e., the Side Swing (primary fulcrum also, primary plane of motion, transverse).

Or the Bent Press for scapular girdle and trunk strength in the transverse plane and the Torsion Snatch as a ballistic exercise, and so on.

Kettlebell exercises: how to learn them effectively

By analyzing the ballistic exercises with kettlebells, one cannot but devote a space of excellence to the King of kettlebell training, the Snatch. This is an exercise that encapsulates at least six other kettlebell training exercises, and this introduces us to another key aspect of learning kettlebell exercises: the progression of motor patterns. You cannot learn how to correctly perform an exercise from such a wide trajectory and with such a high execution speed, characteristic of ballistic exercises, requiring high coordination and whole-body stabilization skills, if you have not learned and metabolized them first:

  1. The Deadlift (which teaches you to lift the load with hip extension and not with your back or arms);
  2. The Swing (which teaches you to slew the load in the sagittal plane through the same primary motor focus as the Deadlift, the hips, but with greater acceleration and with greater instability, thanks to the kettlebell moving away from the body’s center of gravity during concentric extension, thus learning to master it while remaining well stable at the central level of the body, the Core);
  3. The Single Swing (which fortifies what you learned in the Double Grip Swing and conditions it for you in the Single Grip, the same one you will have to master in the Snatch);
  4. The Single Clean (which teaches you how to coordinate the power of the hips with the speed of activation of the Lats, to provide the stability necessary for the scapular girdle and upper limb to accommodate the kettlebell in rack position);
  5. The Single Military Press (leading you to assimilate the correct overhead position, through a more controlled exercise than the Snatch);
  6. The Single High Pull (through which you will continue the coordination work undertaken with the Single Clean, between the hips and scapular girdle, with a trajectory that approximates the final extension of the Snatch, i.e., the arrival at speed at the overhead position).
teaching learning progression

As you can see, analyzing the application potential of extraordinary tools like kettlebells in a compelling context like Athletic Training is a wonderful journey inside the physiological and biomechanical mechanisms of the human body. And we have only touched on some initial aspects of this scenario. We should go deeper into the intrinsic characteristics of kettlebells (starting with grip strength conditioning, with its related positive impact on the functionality of the 12 kinetic chains that connect the eyes to the upper and lower extremities of the body, and thus improve posture and efficiency of the entire body), their significance within the concept of Functional Training (understood as training the movement of the human body and its overall functionality, multi-directional and multi-systemic) and in relation to Athletic Sports Preparation (understood as high intensity performance enhancement and injury prevention), to understand how they should not only be introduced with continuity and precision in the training sessions of every athlete of every sport, but how they are actually indispensable to fully center an all-round athletic preparation.

That is why I have devoted an entire 600-page book, where I thoroughly analyze all these issues, with an approach that is within everyone’s reach because it is designed for the athlete (technical concepts explained in simple language and transferred to practical exercises and training protocols). In my book published on, “Kettlebell High-Performance Training for Sports“ you can find:

  • 400 kettlebell exercises categorized by level of difficulty, primary motor fulcrums, primary motion planes and related physical characteristics;
  • 50 bodyweight joint mobility exercises (drawn from the Primitive Functional MovementTM system) essential basis not only for injury prevention but also for ensuring proper posture from which to then develop exercises with any external overload, including kettlebells safely and with maximum effectiveness;
  • 50 Training Protocols categorized by athlete level, target conditional capacity and competitive season cycles;
  • Data sheets with detailed illustrations on the execution technique of the exercises.

All with in-depth analysis of what are the characteristics and benefits of kettlebell training, the principles and applications of Functional Training and the energy (power sports, endurance sports and mixed-demand sports) and neuro-motor demands of sports (cyclic sports, acyclic sports and situational sports). In addition, for a better understanding of the exercises, the book is enhanced with all the videos of performing the 450 exercises featured (with the kettlebell and bodyweight joint mobility).

banner of the author's book



Table of Contents

Discover What We Can Do for You

👉🏻Since 2009, we’ve been by your side, helping you create the perfect training spaces for Cross Training Boxes, Personal Trainer Studios, and professional Home Gyms.

Request your customized quote today to discover our tailor-made 3D design services, transportation, and assembly. And don’t worry, we’re here to support you with any needs even after your purchase. ⬇️

On Key

Related Posts


RECEIVE 75 points

Receive 75 Xenios USA Club points that you can use on your very first purchase.