Theory, Thoughts, and Design Behind New MTI Kettlebell/Dumbbell Strength Programming

Above: Veteran MTI Lab Rats, Cody and James crank through some heavy 2-handed kettlebell clean + squat + strict press – one of the exercises we deploy in our new programming.


 

By Rob Shaul, Founder

Over the past 3 weeks, I’ve had MTI’s Lab Rats, myself included, testing and developing new kettlebell/dumbbell strength programming.

Background

MTI currently offers several Kettlebell/dumbbell-specific training plans, including the 3 Stooges Packet and the Kettlebell Strength Training Plan.

For the strength progressions in these training plans, we’ve taken one of our 7 existing strength progressions built around barbells and applied it to kettlebells and dumbbells.

For example, we a modified version of our TLU Strength Progression for the Kettlebell Strength Plan, and use a modification of our Big 24 strength progression for the strength work in “Moe”, from the 3 Stooges Packet.

The trick with developing strength work for kettlebells and/or dumbbells is unlike a barbell, it’s often difficult to work up to a 1 Repetition Maximum on a particular lift. As well, if the athlete is completing a 2-handed exercise, the weight jump in kettlebells is approximately 16 pounds, and dumbbells, 10 pounds – unlike a barbell, which can be increased in 5-pound increments using 2.5 pounds plates.

Also – the single limb element of kettlebells/dumbbells simply makes them “heavier” than a barbell. For example, I can easily do a hang squat clean with a 145 pound barbell, but don’t ask me to try to do the same with a pair of 32kg kettlebells (approx 144 pounds total) or a pair of 75# dumbbells …. I’d get worked!

Finally – while some gyms will have pairs of dumbbells in excess of 100 pounds, few gyms have kettlebells heavier than 32kg – my gym included! What this means is some big, strong athletes could simply run out of weight for 1-3 Repetition Maxes.

For these reasons, it’s simply more complicated to use dumbbells or kettlebells to build strength the way we do with the simple barbell.

 

Pivot from “Max Effort” Strength to “Working Strength”

In developing this new theory, I wanted to cast aside the idea of taking one of our proven barbell strength progressions and modifying it slightly for kettlebells and dumbbells. 

The primary goal of our barbell-based strength progressions is to increase an athlete’s “Max Effort” strength. Max Effort Strength is the max weight an athlete can lift for 1 rep on any given exercise.

But Max Effort Strength is not the only type of strength. Under my programming approach, we also have strength endurance (think high-rep bodyweight stuff), brute strength (strength in the real world), strongman strength (sandbags, sleds, tires, etc.), relative strength (strength per bodyweight) and, finally, working strength.

“Working Strength” is a unique concept to MTI – I’ve never seen another coach use this term or idea.

We define “working strength” as the ability to lift a high percentage of your 1RM for a certain exercise, multiple times, or a few times, but for multiple sets.

Over the years we’ve found that the higher an athlete’s “training age” – or years he/she has been training, generally, the greater his or her working strength.

To best explain this concept, I’ll use an example from several years back when we were still Mountain Athlete.

My assistant coach at the time was John Murie – who is an excellent Olympic Weightlifting Coach, and very strong in the Oly lifts, and interning for us was Beau Burgener – who’s Dad, Mike Burgener, is the leading Oly instructor for CrossFit. Beau himself was a Junior National Champion Oly Weightlifter.

I’ve always used myself, assistant coaches and interns, as “lab rats” and this day was no different. I was curious about how long it would take to complete 50x Barbell Burpees at a load of 135# for men.

Each Barbell Burpee includes a power clean and a push press,. Suffice to say that both John and Beau had 1RM power cleans and push presses much heavier than mine! My guess is that Beau could have managed 225 pounds plus for a 1RM Power Clean + Push Press with John not far behind in the 190-pound plus range.

The push press always gets me on this exercise, and my max ever power clean + push press is an “ugly” 175# or so.

So – high rep Barbell Burpees at 135# was using a load at a higher percentage of my 1RM than John or Beau’s.

But I had training age on them – I was 20+ years older than both, and had that training time in the gym.

Long story short, we started the effort and I managed to finish first – despite being far weaker in terms of max effort strength. How? …. I had a greater working strength, and this effort, 50x Barbell Burpees @ 135#, was a working strength challenge.

Back to dumbbells and kettlebells …. as I was developing this new theory I decided to pivot from max effort strength to working strength and for inspiration, I looked at some of the “Hard Style” kettlebell training books in my strength and conditioning library – specifically a couple from Pavel Tsatsouline.

Interestingly, Pavel’s set/rep scheme progressed the reps, not the weight. For example,

3 Rounds
3x 2-Handed Kettlebell Front Squat @ 20kg

Assume the athlete got all 3 rounds of 3 reps unbroken.

The next progression looks like this:

3 Rounds
5x 2-Handed Kettlebell Front Squat @ 20kg

Once he/she can get all of these rounds unbroken, the next progression again increases the reps per set and total volume, not load:

3 Rounds
7x 2-Handed Kettlebell Front Squat @ 20kg

Once all rounds/reps were completed unbroken – then you re-set the progression with a heavier load and repeat. So ….

3 Rounds
3x 2-Handed Kettlebell Front Squat @ 24kg,

Then ….

3 Rounds
5x 2-Handed Kettlebell Front Squat @ 24kg,

Then …

3 Rounds
7x 2-Handed Kettlebell Front Squat @ 24kg,

I deployed the same general approach but used 6 Rounds and acknowledged that even with a warm up, once into the strength circuit, it will take athletes a couple rounds to work up to their “working load.” I also manipulated some the reps per round, based on the exercise – for example, a total body exercise like a kettlebell/dumbbell Craig Special has fewer prescribed reps per round than a kettlebell/dumbbell front squat.

Here is an example of the set/rep scheme I went with:

Week 1:

(1) 6 Rounds
4x Kettlebell/Dumbbell Front Squat – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6

Week 2:

(1) 6 Rounds
5x Kettlebell/Dumbbell Front Squat – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6

Week 3:

(1) 6 Rounds
6x Kettlebell/Dumbbell Front Squat – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6

The goal here is that the athlete will ideally use the same load for each week for rounds 3-6. Even though the load is the same, the effort is greater as the reps per set increases weekly

Week 4:  … Reset the progression ….

(1) 6 Rounds
4x Kettlebell/Dumbbell Front Squat – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6

Week 5:

(1) 6 Rounds
5x Kettlebell/Dumbbell Front Squat – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6

Week 6:

(1) 6 Rounds
6x Kettlebell/Dumbbell Front Squat – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6

The goal here is with the drop in reps per round in Week 4, the athlete will be able to increase the kettlebell/dumbbell size/weight – for example, go from 20kg to 24kg …. and still make all the reps across the progressions. In this way – by keeping the reps the same, but increasing the load, I hope to train “working strength”.

 

Using Level Changes to Chose Exercises

In building each strength session, I moved from thinking about body parts, to thinking about level changes and choreographed the exercises in each session to move from …. squatting to standing … to …. standing to overhead … to …. ground to standing …. to ground to overhead.

Using this level change approach, I designed two strength training sessions:


SESSION 1
Obj: Strength

Warm up:
2 Rounds

Training:
(1) 6 Rounds

  • 4x Kettlebell/Dumbbell Front Squat – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6
  • 2/4x Pull Ups

(2) 6 Rounds

  • 4x 1-Arm Kettlebell/Dumbbell Press – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6
  • 3/6x Chin Ups

(3) 6 Round

(4) 6 Round

(5) 6 Rounds

  • 1x Corrective Getup – increase load each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6
  • 1/2x Mixed Grip Pull Up

Comments: “Grind” Through these circuits. Unlike many of our strength circuits, most of these today don’t include “working rest” in the form of a stretch or mobility drill. Work steadily, but not frantically. Most important is to get up heavier weight. Working steadily and with purpose, you should be able to finish this training session in 60-65 minutes.

 


SESSION 2
Obj: Strength

Warm up:
2 Rounds

Training:
(1) 6 Rounds

  • 2x Dumbbell/Kettlebell Craig Special – increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6
  • 2/4x Pull Ups

(2) 6 Round

  • 8x Kettlebell Floor Press– increase load rapidly each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6
  • 3/6x Chin Ups

(3) 6 Round

(4) 6 Round

(5) 6 Rounds

  • 1x Corrective Getup – increase load each round and aim to get at your “hard but doable” load by round 3, and us this load “across” rounds 3-6
  • 1/2x Mixed Grip Pull Up

Comments: “Grind” Through these circuits. Unlike many of our strength circuits, most of these today don’t include “working rest” in the form of a stretch or mobility drill. Work steadily, but not frantically. Most important is to get up heavier weight. Working steadily and with purpose, you should be able to finish this training session in 60-65 minutes.

Notes: You’ll see I replaced the mobility stretches common in many of our strength circuits with some type of upper body pull exercises (with the exception of Part (4)). You’ll also see each session finishes with a Corrective Getup exercise – a true “ground to overhead” movement.

 

Summary

It took me the better part of 2 weeks to refine the exercises and round/rep schemes, but by Week 3, myself and the other Lab Rats, working steadily, were able to grind through these sessions in 60 minutes.

The single limb work with a few of these exercises, and simply the more dynamic nature of kettlebells/dumbells really works the midsection during these training sessions and demands chassis integrity. The strict, Corrective Getup, finisher at the end really brings it all together – strength, mobility, fluidity, movement, body tension, and chassis integrity.

 

Questions, Comments, Feedback? Email rob@mtntactical.com

 


You can find the plan around this progression here → Kettlebell/Dumbbell Strength – Working Strength Progression