Kettlebell training has completely transformed my relationship with my body. It was a grey afternoon in Berlin in 2013. I sat in my apartment, hunched over at my desk, reading through online fitness forums.
Due to an injury, I couldn’t run, and I was searching for an alternative sport that would bring me the benefits running has given me and that I now craved: the endorphin high that painted the day a little more colorful, the feeling of complete physical exhaustion after a challenging run, and the sense of wonderous victory after I had achieved another bold and slightly unrealistic goal.
Somehow I stumbled upon kettlebell training. And I was immediately hooked.
At that time, I was still too shy to join a gym but didn’t have the means to set up a home gym with barbells and dumbbells. These odd-looking Canonballs with a handle seemed like the perfect solution.
Little did I know then that my first 2 bells and Pavel Tstatsouline’s “Enter The Kettlebell” should change my training forever.
From wanting to workout to wanting to build muscle.
When I started to apprehensively swing my 8 kg kettlebell around in my flat, I only wanted to feel the “cardio-high” I was missing since I had stopped running.
And not long after I had started to acclimate myself to the kettlebell swing movement, I was happily swinging every morning. My training sessions increased in length until I swung for 30, 45, and even 60 minutes each day.
However, after a couple of weeks, I got bored. Like, “I will never do another kettlebell swing in my life” type of bored.
You see, running for 2 hours is easy when you’re running outside and get to experience different environments. Staring at your wall for 60 minutes daily, repeating the same hip-hingeing movement hundreds of times, gets old fast 🙈.
And so I decided to expand my kettlebell lifting repertoire and vowed to follow the “rite of passage” as outlined in Pavel’s book. I no longer only wanted to “work out.” Now I wanted strength. And I wanted muscle.
How I gained muscle with kettlebell training only.
If you have heard other fitness fans saying that working out with kettlebells can’t get you muscular or even think this yourself, think again.
A kettlebell is a tool, just like the barbell, dumbbell, or those boring exercise machines. Building muscle is possible with all of these tools. You just have to know how to use those tools, follow muscle-building principles, and put in the work 😎.
And while I can not pick up those weights and lift them for you, I can provide you with the knowledge you need to grow muscle with kettlebells. I have only been training with kettlebells and developed a decent amount of muscle, especially in my arms and back (what I wanted).
The following tips are based on my experience with kettlebell training and theoretical concepts from exercise science. Enjoy.
Choose grinding movements most of the time.
Kettlebell practitioners divide kettlebell exercises into two categories. Grinds and ballistics. Grinding movements are exercises where you stay tense and slowly move the weight. Those exercises are similar to your typical barbell or dumbbell exercises, such as the squat, the press, or the deadlift.
On the other hand, ballistic movements are quick lifts that teach you to quickly switch between tension and relaxation. The swing and the snatch are examples of ballistic movements.
If you are an endurance athlete like me, you might be drawn to high-repetition sets of ballistic movements. They are fun and can give you a similar post-workout feeling that a good run or bike ride gives you.
However, you need to focus on the grinding movements to build muscle. The double front squat and the double military press are the best kettlebell exercises for building muscle. Add double bent-over rows, and you have a simple yet great program for building muscle 💪.
Lift in the suitable rep range.
Building muscle with kettlebells differs from building endurance or maximum strength. And while there is still some debate about the best rep range for building muscle, these are the general guidelines you should follow:
muscle building: 6-15
You must use a weight that challenges you. If you use a weight you can easily lift for 20 reps and perform only 6, you will have difficulty building muscle.
Apply the principle of progressive overload.
Lifting the same weights for the same number of repetitions and sets week after week and month after month will yield very little muscle growth.
You need to be constantly challenging your muscles if you want them to grow. This principle of progressive overload applies to all training.
To run faster, you need to challenge yourself with speed training. To become stronger, you need to progressively lift heavier weights. And to build muscle, you must continually challenge your body to grow.
You can do this by adding more reps, sets, and more weight. However, you can also make your next workout more challenging by shortening your rest time between reps or choosing more difficult exercises.
Focus on time under tension.
If you want to build muscle, it is a good idea to take some advice from those whose specialty is building muscle: bodybuilders.
An important concept those muscle-worshipping folks adhere to is time under tension.
Time under tension simply describes how long your muscles get challenged with the weight. And if you want to build as much muscle as possible, you need to extend your time under tension as much as possible.
How do you do that? You do that by lifting slowly, in the suitable rep range, and keeping your rest periods short. Ideally, you keep your rest between sets to 30-60 seconds.
Dial in nutrition and recovery.
The best muscle-building protocol will fail to get you the results you’re after if you are not taking care of your nutrition and recovery.
If your diet consists of cereal with skim milk for breakfast, a pop-tart for lunch, and a vegan frozen pizza for dinner, you will have difficulty building muscle. Make sure you get sufficient protein and micronutrients by choosing whole foods most of the time.
But your muscles need more than challenging weights and nutritious foods. They also need rest. After stressing your body, you must let it rest to recover and adapt.
Rest days matter as much as the effort you put in when you train.
Similarly, make sure you get a good night’s sleep most days. I know it’s not always possible to sleep soundly or even enough hours each night. But try to optimize your sleep as much as you can. Avoid drinking alcohol each night, staring at a screen until you go to bed, and having coffee late in the day.
Kettlebell muscle is functional muscle.
The beauty of building muscle with kettlebells is that the muscle you gain is usable in the real world. Instead of sitting on an exercise machine to isolate a specific muscle group, you move your body as a unit. That means you will grow muscles that actually “know” how to work together. You will become strong for everyday life 💥.