Heavy kettlebells have been around since kettlebells themselves were first conceived; they were first made famous in the heyday of the circus strongmen back in the late 1800’s. Around the turn of the 20th century, Arthur Saxon could reportedly clean and press a 112 pound kettlebell while holding a 336 pound barbell in his other hand; This brought his two hands anyhow lift to 448 pounds. He performed the feat at a bodyweight of around 200 pounds.
Herman Goerner, another strength legend and a giant for his day, weighing in at a whopping 315, used to perform one-handed flips with a 171 pound kettlebell. Modern day Canadian strongman John Hadzi exceeded this by flip-catching a 180 pound kettlebell with one hand. Making the deed even more difficult was the considerably thicker handle than the one on Goerner’s kettlebell. Hadzi also routinely double flips 100+ pound kettlebells with one hand. Even the late great World’s Strongest Man Competitor Jesse Marunde trained with heavy kettlebells. Although nothing seemed heavy to Jesse, he credited heavy, 130+ pound kettlebell training for not only improving his loading times, but also his ability to lift heavier stones.
So, what is the point you wonder? Why bother with kettlebells that are heavy enough to test our limits? What is the benefit of performing low (1-3) rep sets? Heavy kettlebells test our grip and give the lifter whole-body strength. They make us pull, push and twist with everything we have, lighting our nervous systems up like a fireworks display. Heavy kettlebells will develop tendon and ligament strength like nothing else. Also, if it is power you seek, heavy kettlebells are certainly the answer. Whether your goal is to hoist a limit lift, add repetitions to a low rep set, or to confidently attempt a new feat of strength, you too can get in the game with heavy 100+ pound kettlebells.
There are four main ways to progress with heavy kettlebells they include gradually increasing your working weight, adding repetitions to your work sets, gradually working up to harder variations of the same exercise (i.e. progress from the jerk to the press), and gradually working up to more difficult exercises with the same weight (i.e. progress from the high-pull to the two-handed swing, then to the one-handed swing, and finally the snatch).
Heavy Kettlebells Tip #1: Increase Your Working Weight
Let’s examine each method of progression individually, beginning with the simplest. Obviously, one method to increase your working-weight is to gradually work your way into using progressively heavier kettlebells. This form of progressive resistance works well if performed consistently. Ideally, increments of no more than five pounds would be used to increase the working-weight.
Eventually, over time, it would be possible to hoist great weights overhead. At least once per week perform a handful of singles, doubles, and triples in key movements such as the clean, snatch, jerk, or bent press, using the next heavier weight. When you can comfortably complete three repetitions, increase your working-weight once again by five pounds or less. One downside with this method is that most kettlebell sets increase in increments of greater than five pounds. In fact, most kettlebell owners do not have access to more than a bell or two. Not to worry, we still have three more methods to boost your kettlebell poundage.
Heavy Kettlebells Tip #2: Additional Repetitions
Another great way to advance to bigger kettlebells is adding repetitions until the kettlebell becomes so ridiculously light that skipping a few sizes won’t matter. For example, when increasing from a 65-pound kettlebell to a 95-pound kettlebell, working up to a triple simply isn’t enough of a strength gain to make a jump of this size. You need to work up to ten snatches or more to safely move up thirty pounds. Try adding a repetition or two to your best set each workout. If you get tired, just rest and add another set.
However, make sure to perform every rep of every set as explosively as possible. Adding volume will not count for much if it makes you less powerful. This is probably my least favorite method, at this point you are losing the feel of the weight and will have a difficult time adjusting to performing singles again. Ultimately, the best way to learn to lift heavy weight is simply working with heavy weights.
Heavy Kettlebells Tip #3: Harder Variations of the Same Exercises
The third method of increasing your kettlebell poundage is to gradually progress from different variations of the same exercise. For instance, let’s say you are currently pressing a 50-pound kettlebell but pressing a 65 is still out of the question. What can you do? Well, for starters, try incorporating push-presses and/or jerks into the workout. Start out by pressing the 50, restrict your preliminary sets to five repetitions or less. You will be working with the 65 and will want to save your strength for the bigger weight. After a set or two, try push-pressing the 65 for a single. If that feels good try a double, and so on.
If, however, you are unable to push-press it, jerk it for a single instead. If your technique is good, you should jerk more weight than you push-press. As the weight feels lighter, attempt a strict press with the greater weight. You will eventually complete singles, then doubles, and so on. Eventually, you will again be ready for a heavier weight and the process will begin again.
Heavy Kettlebells Tip #4: Progressively More Difficult Exercises
The last method for progressing with heavy kettlebells is one that I employed to clean and press the famous “Baby”. This was a 145 pound kettlebell and, to my knowledge, the first “heavy” kettlebell produced in modern times. We created the “Baby” because the heaviest kettlebell my training partners and I could find was only 72 pounds. I wanted something more challenging. I overestimated my abilities, however, and could not initially work with this weight with only one hand. The next weight down that I owned was 65 pounds.
My goal soon became to comfortably train with the 145 for one-handed repetitions. The problem was jumping to the 145 was too great, regardless of the number of repetitions I could perform for any lift with the 65. I feared I would never use the 145 for anything but a doorstop. Undeterred, I gave much thought to solving this problem. The solution I came up with was to progressively perform harder exercises with my target weight, the 145, until I was able to perform my goal lift, a one-handed clean and press. The weight would not change, only the exercise. To make matters worse, the style of clean I developed for myself used a greater range of motion than the style used by the Girevoy competitors. I certainly had my work cut out for me. I decided to start with what I could, two-handed high-pulls.
High-pulls are pulls from the floor to the chin. I worked high-pulls every other day for several weeks before moving on to two-handed swings. My back and legs were getting strong, but my grip still lacked the strength to complete the one-handed clean. I could clean the weight to my shoulder with two hands and an alternating grip at this point, but I felt it changed the movement so much that I decided against using it regularly. From the two-handed swing I progressed to a one-handed high-pull. My grip was coming along nicely, so I after a couple of months I dared to attempt a one-handed clean. If I remember correctly, I cleaned the kettlebell on my second attempt. After a few more workouts, I was successful in completing a full clean and press with the Baby. Ultimately, I was able to execute this feat with greater weight for multiple repetition sets.
What is heavy to one person may not be heavy to another. The point of this article is simply to get you, the reader, to step outside of your comfort zone and try weights that you previously avoided either because you thought they were too heavy or because you did not recognize the benefit. Depending upon your goal, there is nothing wrong with performing high repetition snatches with a light weight or going through a fast circuit. For me personally, there is nothing like training with a heavy kettlebell. So the next time you can train with a slightly heavier kettlebell or if you decide that you want to go all out and push a limit lift, go for it. You will be surprised at what you are able to accomplish by simply putting your mind to it.