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Why the Kettlebell Part 3- Programming

So now you know the exercises (or most of them). You have a comfort with techniques, you’ve practiced and are confident you can execute all of the requisite exercises with a level of mastery to keep yourself safe and advancing forward with your development. How do you put it together?

Well, take it from a couple of old timers in the game that it’s not super hard. A large dose of common sense coupled with a little science and you can not only program for yourself effectively but also have multiple options for all aspects of your fitness. Do you only want to integrate kettlebells in a minor role within your existing barbell program? Great, we got you. Do you want to go the complete opposite direction and become a kettlebell fundamentalist, only training with kettlebells for all your fitness needs? Perfect, you came to the right place. Do you only see the usefulness of this type of training existing within metabolic programs and for cardiovascular/fat loss purposes? No worries, we have recipes for that too.

Our biggest concern is can we make this simple without you needing to enroll in the your local 4-year university to get an exercise physiology degree? So, how we are going to do this is to give you some very concrete rules to work within as you think your way through your goals. Keeping things simple is the name of the game and anyone who tries tell you that you must use complex methods and unusual programming schemes is trying to sell you magic beans. Programming, in this day and age, has some very steady rules that have been scientifically supported for long time now. Rest assured, adopting a couple standards to program by, and results are quickly on their way.


Knowing how the body is going to respond to certain stimulus is critical. So we are going to lay out a general framework to think from and situate you in the best possible scenario to succeed. Here’s what you need to think about:


How much, per rep, or if you think in total tonnage, per set of weight you plan on moving. And what is critical, how close to a single maximal effort is that load? These are cogs in the physiology of adaptation. Where kettlebells find themselves in a unique place is how the standard loads for kettlebells work with general rep ranges, seen below. The kettlebell is actually much lighter than other ways of training (barbells and such), compared the perceived idea of heavy. Convoluted and mysterious, I know, but this lone fact will allow for a tremendous amount of creative license later.


What am I working for and what rep range supports that? Linear thinking states that if you want size (hypertrophy) you are working with the above load that will elicit momentary muscular failure between 8-12 repetitions. This means, that with the exercise you chose, and the load you assigned, you will hit the wall in that range. For strength, that range decreases to roughly 3-6 reps. Power, 1-3 reps. Anything past that 12 number begins to take more of a cardiovascular/endurance adaptation. This will be important later.


Like rep range and load, how many sets will further our existing goal of size, strength or power? Standard science says, 3-5 sets of a given exercise is the sweet spot for any of the adaptive goals.


This has more to do with exposures over time, typically thought of in the duration of a week. Here is where much of the recovery efforts must be considered. Sleep, diet, life stress and supplementation all get weighed into a complicated formula where the safest yet most productive repeated bouts are used to aim the client to their goal. Traditional bodybuilding (size) formats things around body parts while incorporating a standard 72 hours between repeats. Strength and power closes that window down dramatically, where much of the programming will allow exposures to certain movements to be performed nearly daily, 4-6 times a week.


Great coaches, great trainers know that you can’t fly by the seat of your pants when putting together bullet proof routines. You need to have a couple concrete, very clear forecasting targets to situate yourself as you put pen to paper. If your coach is worth his/her salt, one of the first questions they should ask you is, “Where are we going and WHEN do we need to get there?” Trust me when I tell you, when one of Don’s A-listers comes to him for prep for a movie, the studio has given both of them concrete dates on when they need to be dialed in and what the end result needs to be. For Chris, when his teams are prepping for their respective seasons, the dates are set, the goals are defined and the blueprint, then, can take shape.

So, where are you going, and WHEN do you need to get there? And then, program backwards. Yes, think of what it’s going to take to reach goal X, take into consideration your timeline, and then formulate the plan from the last day of training all the way to the first day. Take into account the client’s current level of skill, a large dash of their “want to” and finally how hard they willing to go- or not (meaning, is this a critical thing like Don’s clients where not hitting targets does not exist or are the deadlines a bit more fluid)? Frequency, intensity, volume and grit all need to be taken into account, then you will have a clear path on how to get there.

Where programming begins to fall apart is when the coach and the athlete are grabbing at straws as they train day to day. “This sounds good here, let’s do that today”, “We did that on Monday, let’s do something completely different”. I’m aware it sounds a bit reckless and should not be common practice, but I can assure you, it happens all the time. Think of getting in your car and just driving. No destination planned, about $5 in your pocket for gas and just getting on the freeway. Yes, at some point you will end up at a random location, but is this where you want to be? This is how most of our training culture plans.


There are two fish in the kettlebell pond, don’t fool yourself. The RKC (the gold standard for nearly the last 20 years) and StrongFirst (the offshoot of the RKC). Both programs are nearly identical and preach much of the exact same philosophies and programming rules.

If you follow either program, you will see that the rules for the “grinds” (slower, more strength focus exercises) rest between 3-5 (sounds familiar, yea?). For the ballistics, the typical recipe calls for about 1-20 repetitions. That’s fundamentally it. Very clear, very basic yet quite powerful and transformative. Where the genius lies is in the simplicity. Most people expect some crazy schemes and programming maneuvering and it’s just not there. The elegance is if you live by those rules, you will dramatically change your body. Consistency and adherence and you can take this elementary program and make tremendous strides in your fitness.

The only piece that is not addressed is hypertrophy. This is by design. Both programs pride themselves in creating strong, fit, but not bulky bodies. They both tend to scoff at the idea of packing on thickness with kettlebell training, so the sets of 10-12 in the grinds are not considered.

If you are going to become a kettlebell fundamentalist, something Holder knows a lot about, this is a bulletproof way of doing things. Keeping things very simple and allowing consistency and lifestyle to make the major adjustments.


Most coaches want to blend training styles to reap the overall benefits of all modalities. Both Don and Chris spend most of their coaching focus here. The blending of barbell/dumbbell/machine work and then adding kettlebell training to accent.

Chris’ strength program is this: We are an Olympic lifting program, complimented by kettlebell training. Athletes need power and speed. All of these things come from, or originate in his mind, by having extraordinary coordination, CNS activation and a huge engine. Then, and only then, can true power and speed be nurtured.

Don’s clients need elements of Chris’ programs along with a ton of sculpting qualities that can be helped along with smart kettlebell programming. Both agree that nearly every time you can substitute a kettlebell variation over a barbell or machine, you should opt for the kettlebell. The physics of the bell “marries” the lifter’s hand and arm in a way that makes things much safer and almost creates leverage advantages that a barbell or dumbbell never could. So, pressing variations, all of the dynamic lateral movement exercises along with get ups and kettlebell-centric exercises should always be performed with a kettlebell. Additionally, much of your unilateral leg work (lunges etc) are better served being performed with kettlebells over the others- all of this being said unless the lifter is going after massive tonnages. Then all bets are off and it is best to load a barbell and work that direction.


The cream rises to the top, and this is the category where kettlebell training reigns supreme. The level of conditioning, manipulation of calories burnt, EPOC and transfer of quality to competition cannot be matched by any other tool. Here is where the creative license mentioned earlier gets to spread its wings.

The beauty of the reactive exercises (swings, cleans and snatches) is even the heaviest load is still “not that heavy”. This allows reps per set to take on a very different look than any other type of training. And what is most exciting is, the only rule is- there are no rules.

Volume, volume, volume. Manipulate rest, get creative with exercise selection and then more volume. Sets? You tell me… what are you made of? Now, let’s be smart and not work in the ‘bend don’t break’ place, but you can take your programming into some really funky places and still get incredible results. This is where Don and Chris venture into feel vs format. How are you feeling today? We just did 10x10 swings with a 1:1 work: rest, can you go more? On deck, a total of 250 ballistic reps for the day, working from heavy to light with volumes starting lower and working up to extraordinarily high volume sets. Drops. Escalating sets. White buffalo routines. The limits are truly in your mind.

And, as we begin to wrap this up, the beauty of much of the programming is how many of the exercises flow into one another seamlessly. Swing to snatch to clean and press to front squat. Your creativity is really where the boundaries are established and your level of comfort as both the athlete and coach determine where a session ends.

Where the kettlebell gains considerable traction over other training tools is in the intelligence of the programming. Programming is where the science expresses itself and where the artist creates his/her canvass. If this article was something that was interesting to you, join Don and Chris this January for the third and final installment of their Why the Kettlebell free webinar series.


• Owner of Drive Fitness in NYC
• One of the most sought after coaches in the world, with a high-profile clientele roster ranging from professional athletes to celebrities and business moguls
• Men's Health Advisory Board Member as well as launched multiple digital platforms and is the founding partner in half a dozen brands


• Director of Performance for Mater Dei High School in Santa Ana, California
• Doctor of Medical Qigong
• Strength and Conditioning Coach for 22 years
• Division I Strength Coach for 20 years
• One of the pioneers of kettlebell training for athletes
• Writer for multiple websites