KETTLEBELLS V BARBELLSI have been wrong. And not just a little bit wrong, but apparently, a lot wrong. You see I have until recently felt that kettlebells have been wildly overrated as far as athIetic development, or more specifically, strength development goes. Outside of kettlebell swings (which for the record I have always loved), I have for the most part thought that any exercise you could do with a kettlebell you could do just as well, if not better with a dumbbell or a barbell.
However, recent experiences have taught me that this just isn't the case. Let me explain. It all started with my lovehate relationship to squats. I loved doing them, and have achieved some pretty good relative squat strength based results, but the fact is that I have never really been a great squatter. Every improvement in squat strength has taken a lot of dedicated effort and persistence and the most I have ever squatted without using chains or bands is 355lb (160kg @ 74kg, good for 2.16X BW. Also coincided with when I was jumping my highest).
So last year when I moved to Nashville, between the stress of the move, the displacement from my previously fully equipped gym to a cramped and only moderately well equipped gym in my basement, and my body just feeling being beat up all the time, I decided to stop squatting for a few months. Those few months pretty quickly turned into a year.
So what got me back into squatting? Well a number of things happened. Firstly I read an interesting article on T-Nation that stated:
"With kettlebells, you can decrease the training load by up to 75% and still make significant progress in strength, power, and body composition goals. While some may argue that kettlebells put you at a mechanical disadvantage (which is what forces you to use less weight), it really all boils down to tension.
The Central Nervous System (CNS) doesn't know the difference between 300 pounds on your shoulders and 120-pound kettlebells in hand. The CNS does understand tension though, and if kettlebell training offers any benefit, it's learning how to develop and use full-body tension."
I was intrigued by this. I have read many statements over the years by kettlebell folks claiming they could do near magical things from melt body fat to build crazy amounts of strength and lean muscle, and have always thought they were wild exaggerators. Initially I thought this guy was just another RKC spewing more kettlebell nonsense.
However, about this time I also started working out with my son to help him get stronger for basketball. In my view no good strength program would be complete without some form of squatting so I put together a basic strength routine of chin ups, push ups, kettlebell swings, and of course the ultimate beginner squat, the kettlebell goblet squat.
I started off goblet squatting a 32kg (70.5lb) kettlebell and pretty soon was doing sets of 15-20 reps. So I moved up to using a pair of 45lb kettlebells and began performing deep ATG double kettlebell front squats with those. By the end of July I was comfortably doing sets of 12-15 reps with the two 45lb KB's as well as wearing a 20lb weight vest, so I moved up again and started using a pair of 60lb kettlebells.
It was at this point in time I decided to do a bit of an experiment. Having not barbell squatted at all in over a year I decided to test the statement about strength and power gains using drastically reduced loads that I had read in that T-Nation article.
The plan was to test my barbell front squat 1RM and my standing vertical jump at the beginning of August. Then I would continue with my 3-4x per week full body training sessions which involved 3 sets of double KB front squats per workout until the end of September.
At the beginning of the test period my barbell front squat 1RM using my Getstrength Front Squat harness was 295lb (134kg) at a bodyweight of 167lb (76kg). This was good for a solid but not spectacular 1.76x BW squat. Given I had not barbell squatted for over a year this was still not a bad result.
My hands on the hips standing vertical jump (no arm swing) was measured at 20.5 inches on my Myotest device.
At the beginning of the experiment period I was able to perform 3 sets of double kettlebell front squats for 7 reps with the two 60lb kettlebells (120lb load total). By comparison when I was working my way up to my 1RM on the barbell front squats, the FIRST WARM UP SET I did was heavier and for more reps (135lb) for 15 reps) than my training loads or reps with the kettlebells at that point.
Lastly, I should add that during this entire time of this experiment I was trying to lose body fat so have been restricting calories and doing some sprint intervals 2-3x per week.
KETTLEBELL FRONT SQUATS V BARBELL FRONT SQUATSBefore I continue I just want to discuss the two key differences between the methods of squatting. With kettlebell front squats, the single most limiting factor is how much weight you can hold in your hands. In most of my working sets with kettlebell front squats the set ends because I can no longer hold the kettlebells in place, not because my legs are completely exhausted.
To illustrate, I own a pair of 80lb (36kg) KB's that I can clean into the double front rack position but do not yet possess the grip strength to secure them for even a single rep of a double KB front squat. I also own a pair of 70.5lb (32kg) KB's that I am just starting to comfortably hold for sets of 5-8 reps even though I have been performing sets of up to 15 reps with the same weight (140lb) in the form of 2 x 60lb KB's plus a 20lb weight vest.
It isn't the total weight that holds you back, it is the weight you can HOLD that holds you back.
The upside to this is that you rarely go to failure for the larger muscles of the legs which results in less overall fatigue from the workouts. It also helps explain why I can do KB squats 3-4 times per week without too much trouble.
The barbell front squat using the Getstrength harness is the EXACT opposite. With the front squat harness your ability to hold the barbell in place is completely taken out of the equation and how much you can lift is almost entirely dependent on how strong your legs are. It is for this reason that squatting with the front squat harness has resulted in my biggest ever squat (195kg with chains at 80kg bodyweight. This figure is 77lb (35kg) higher than any back squat I have ever performed).
Also with the kettlebells it is much easier to go ATG deep with hamstrings touching the calves. As you can see from the picture I am not struggling to hit rock bottom depth.
The Getstrength front squat harness on the other hand tends to crash into the ahem, genitals, as you get deeper into the squat. You can still go comfortably below parallel but achieving the same depth as the kettlebells is not possible without a great deal of crushed man-bits related pain.
SO WHAT HAPPENED?By the end of September I had made obvious improvements in the kettlebell front squats. I had now worked my way up to a maximum set of 15 reps using the two 60lb kettlebells PLUS the 20lb weight vest (140lb total). I also managed to lose a further 3.3lb (1.5kg) and was now down to 164lb (74.5kg).
And my barbell front squat? Well here is where it gets interesting. Much to my surprise it went up by 25 pounds to 320lb (145.5kg). This represents an 8.5% increase in absolute strength and a 10.9% increase in relative strength (up from 1.76X BW to 1.95x BW).
My hands on hips standing vertical jump also improved by nearly 10% going from 20.5 up to 22.5 inches.
DISCUSSION POINTSThere is obviously a pretty huge limitation of the findings in that n=1, or for the non-statistically minded, this experiment was only conducted on me. For there to be a higher level of validity you would need to repeat the experiment with a much larger number of test subjects and see if you got the same or similar results.
Still, despite being on a calorie restricted diet and also further fatiguing myself with the sprints, I still managed to get stronger in both the KB and the barbell lifts. Surprisingly I got stronger on the barbell front squat despite not actually doing any barbell front squatting, and more importantly, I did so despite using a training load that never at any point exceeded 50% of my 1RM.
The 2 inch increase in my vertical might be partially due to the decrease in bodyweight, but it was also almost certainly contributed too by the regular deep squats with the KB's improving both total force production and improvements in generating systematic tension.
Lastly, and this is not an insignificant point, since I have started doing the kettlebell front squats using the lighter training loads and greater range of motion my knee tendonitis has completely disappeared. I have suffered from this to various degrees pretty constantly for about 4-5 years and have managed it with ice, foam rolling, stretching, rest, stopping nearly all high impact jump training, diet and so on, and aside from max effort jumping it hasn't really hasn't prevented me from doing anything I wanted to, but at the same time, it has always been there. Now though, I feel ZERO knee pain.
Obviously I have been pretty excited about the results I have gotten from my kettlebell squatting. The increase in strength, feeling dramatically less beat up after my workouts, and of course, my knees feeling healthy again have all contributed to a very positive view of their use in my training.
It is also worth noting that just because it has worked well for me doesn't me it will work well for everyone. There needs to be more research conducted with larger sample sizes and less variables in the training and diet.
Another point to consider is that I am a recreational athlete only. I take my training seriously and I work hard but I am not competing at an elite level in any events. To my knowledge no elite track and field, or jumping athlete has developed their athleticism through primarily kettlebell lifting alone, and even after what I have seen in the last few months I would still be very reluctant to take a purely kettlebell based approach with any athlete wanting to maximize their speed, vertical jump and general athletic power.
However, what my kettlebell experiences have shown me is that there is definitely a much bigger place for kettlebells in strength and power training than I had previously imagined. It is quite possible that the combination of heavier loads provided by the barbells plus the increased tension levels that kettlebell training provides is in fact a superior method of strength development than either method alone. I would loveto see some studies done that compared barbell training to kettlebell training and also a combination of both barbell and kettlebell training.
There are some other applications of this experiment that come to mind too. Due to the significantly lighter loads used, kettlebell front squats seem to be an ideal way of maintaining strength during blocks of training where the focus is on explosive power and speed. My HRV readings tell me that this type of training isn't too taxing on the CNS.
Also my knee health improvements suggest they are also a great way to increase joint mobility and potentially help treat knee pain issues without sacrificing strength.
CONCLUSIONEven if you aren't fully prepared to abandon the barbell just yet I would highly recommend incorporating some nice and deep kettlebell front squats into your training as the added ability to generate more systematic tension definitely has a carryover to other strength and power activities. That might be in the form of a few sets to warm up with for your regular squats, or taking a few months to substitute them in while you focus on converting your existing strength to extra vertical jump inches. Whatever you decide to do you won't be disappointed.
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