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May 2012

Five Keys to Creating an Elite Kettlebell Training Program

By Chris McGrath

Q: I recently completed a kettlebell-training program and am getting ready to start training clients. Can you offer some tips or guidelines on what my program should include to minimize my clients’ risk of injury and improve the effectiveness of the program?

A: Kettlebell training has become increasingly popular among fitness professionals and is considered, in some circles, to be one of the most effective training tools in the industry today. However, kettlebells have also developed a reputation for being dangerous and responsible for training-related injuries. Before launching your program, think about how you can incorporate the following five essential components of a safe and effective kettlebell-training program.

1. Does your program provide objective training principles?

You should be able to articulate how a kettlebell differs from other forms of resistance training and why it would be uniquely beneficial for your clients or participants. It is easy to find kettlebell enthusiasts who make claims that kettlebells are the best way to train without providing objective reasons as to “why.” Individual biases alone are not enough to ensure quality instruction for individual needs. Make sure your rationale is greater than “just because” or “look at how strong and fit I am.”

2. Does your program prioritize phases to ensure proper development of skill and intensity?

All training modalities require some level of skill. Traditional kettlebell training features total-body movements to develop and coordinate strength, power, stability and metabolic conditioning—all of which is accomplished using a cast-iron ball attached to a cast-iron handle. A sophisticated kettlebell program respects the complexities associated with these dynamics and provides a progressive training model to meet individual abilities and needs. By simply prioritizing the fundamentals before challenging your participants with high-intensity workouts, you can drastically reduce the potential for injury while simultaneously improving the effectiveness of your program.   

3. Does your program screen for fundamental movements?

If your clients don’t move well, they can’t train well. Conduct movement screens and assessments to identify your clients’ faulty movement patterns prior to initiating an intensive kettlebell-training program. Movement screens do not include strength and/or conditioning tests to measure their physical abilities or limits. Instead, movement screens are designed to observe and clear basic, fundamental movement patterns before applying resistance and intensity. Launching a client into a high-intensity kettlebell program—no matter how well designed—without first addressing his or her limitations will dramatically lower the potential for reaching goals, and will greatly increase the risk of training-related injury.

4. Does your program develop foundational kettlebell-training skills?

Quality will get you quantity—it will never be the other way around. The total-body integration and coordination that kettlebell exercises are designed to enhance is not only the greatest functional benefit of this modality, but also its greatest functional risk. The body will naturally gravitate toward the path of least resistance, which is often accomplished through compensations. When quantity is emphasized before quality, injuries are more likely to occur. A sophisticated kettlebell program places the early training emphasis on the quality of the movements, not the quantity of the workout. Thus, training challenges should initially revolve around mastery of the basic techniques. The resistance, repetitions and speed of the movement should not be your initial priority. Those priorities will come later. Any calories burned or sweat produced are simply by-products of the quality of practice, not quantity of performance. Remember, even great musicians take their time putting complex pieces together. 

5. Does your program progress intensity sensibly and systematically?

One size does not fit all. Once your client has achieved movement mastery, you can create progressive challenges through gradually increasing intensities. Keep in mind, however, that not everyone will progress at the same level. Sound program design emphasizes this and waits for participants to earn their progressions. There are many ways of adding challenges with kettlebells, but these should not all be implemented at once. Progressions should be incremental and focus on one variable at a time. For example, if you increase the resistance, the speed and repetition target number should initially be reduced. Once the participant has adjusted to the heavier weight, you can once again increase the speed and repetition challenge.

Final Thoughts

It is easy for critics to label kettlebells as dangerous due to the dynamic, integrated nature of many kettlebell exercises. But blaming kettlebells for injuries without first examining the program in which the injury took place is unfair. Therefore, it is the fitness professional’s primary responsibility to create a program that emphasizes safety as well as effectiveness. While creating a sophisticated kettlebell program is not unlike creating a sensible program for any other form of training, kettlebell training does require greater attention and care due to the dynamic nature of the exercises. By taking the time to carefully evaluate and screen your clients prior to beginning the program, you will greatly reduce their risk of injury, while helping them realize the full benefits of this fun and dynamic modality.   



Chris McGrath, M.S., is the founder of MovementFirst, a New York City-based, health and fitness education, consulting and training organization. With more than 20 years of fitness and coaching experience, McGrath specializes in a variety of training modalities including sports performance, injury prevention, post-rehabilitation and lifestyle/wellness coaching. McGrath is a Senior Fitness Consultant to the American Council on Exercise and has established himself as an international fitness expert. 

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