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Kettlebells for Powerlifting and Strength

Scott Shetler - Categories: Workout, Basics

  • Posted by Scott Shetler
  • Has been viewed 21211 times.

Kettlebells can be a very effective tool in the powerlifter’s tool box.  While I do not believe they are of much benefit in improving maximal strength or explosive strength, I feel they are extremely valuable for general physical preparation (GPP) as well as weak point training.

In speaking with former world champion kettlebell lifter Valery Fedorenko at the American Kettlebell Club Classic in Las Vegas, he expressed to me that a powerlifter or strength athlete can best use kettlebells to improve recovery and GPP.  Essentially, they get you in shape to lift. 

In powerlifting it is important to be as strong as possible, everywhere, since a muscular chain is only as strong as its weakest muscular link.  However, at least in the lifters I train and train with at my gym, the shoulders, triceps, lower back, abs and hamstrings tend to be problem areas.  Various kettlebell lifts can be quite useful when performing extra work and GPP for these muscle groups.  Louie Simmons has written extensively on the importance of GPP for powerlifters, so I will not go into it in this article. 

The lifts we focus on are mostly the traditional lifts done for timed sets performed at the end of the training session.  In addition to his articles on GPP, Louie Simmons has also written about the value of timed sets of exercises when performing lifts using the repeated effort method in his training and that of his lifters.

One comment that stuck out to me is that it is important to hold the weight the entire set, regardless of how long the set time is, as this keeps constant tension on the muscles being worked.  This is very similar to the importance of not setting the kettlebell down during the performance of the kettlebell exercises we recommend.  If you take the liberty of setting the bell down at will, you will lose out on a valuable aspect of this training.  Usually only one set of one or two kettlebell exercises are performed in our training sessions. 

We typically work in the range of a 2-3 minute set, but will sometimes push it up to 5 minutes when conditioning is a priority.  We will begin at a slower repetition per minute pace with the kettlebell lifts and then begin increasing the RPMs as the workouts become easier.  The following is a list of exercises we prefer to focus on in our training.

Clean (1 and 2 arm variations)
Chair press (1 and 2 arm variations)
Push-Press (1 and 2 arm variations)
Jerk (1 and 2 arm variations)
Long Cycle (Clean & Push-Press or Clean & Jerk, 1 and 2 arm variations)

Swings are performed in a continuous pace with no resting component, so there is not a specific RPM designated for this exercise.  For snatches we typically begin around 12-14 RPMs and build up to 20-24 RPMs.  Rest in the snatch occurs in the overhead position.  For presses and jerks begin around 4-5 RPMs and build up to around 20 RPMs.  For long cycle begin around 4-5 RPMs and build up to 12-14 RPMs.  The rest for these lifts occurs in the rack position with the bell on the chest and the elbow, ideally, resting on the hip bone.

Newer lifters will start with 16kg bells then build up to 24kg and eventually 32kg.  It is wise to progress to a higher RPM for longer sets at the lightest weight before moving up in weight.  One of my training partners, Derrick a 242 class lifter, found this out the hard way.  He began adding timed sets of long cycle into his training program and during his first workout he tried to go 3 minutes with a pair of 24kg kettlebells.  He figured that since he has bench pressed in the mid-high 400’s how hard could 3 minutes with 106 pounds really be?  Well he just about made the 3 minute set and very soon after he deposited the pulled pork sandwich he had about 6 hours earlier at lunch in the bathroom of my gym.  He moved down to the 16kg bells for his next training session!

Aside from the traditional lifts performed for timed sets we have experimented with non-traditional lifting as well.  One of my lifters, David, in the 114 and 123 pound classes has made exceptional progress in his bench press with a special triceps exercise performed with kettlebells.  He does a triceps extension while lying on the floor with a pair of kettlebells, only instead of reversing the movement and keeping stress on the triceps he allows the bells to come to rest on the floor.  At this point he has to dynamically overcome a static position.

He will typically perform 40-50 reps in this exercise in various set and rep schemes as well as with different weight kettlebells.  Most of his work is done with the 16kg and 24kg bells on this exercise.  We feel this is a very beneficial exercise to him as one of the biggest things holding his bench press back was his ability to “turn on” his triceps quickly after starting the press phase of the lift.

Let’s take a look at some of the lifters I train and train with and how we work kettlebells into the training plan.

Malcom Gunter is a bench-only lifter who has made a 501 pound bench in the 198 pound weight class.  This lift put him at #78 in Powerlifting USA’s Top 100 lifters for the 198 weight class.  Malcom is currently making the transition to a full meet lifter and is using kettlebells to help bring up his lower back and hamstring strength for the squat and deadlift as well as the benefit he’s experienced with his bench press.  Malcom prefers kettlebell chair presses, standing presses, swings and long cycle after his main training exercises.

Malcom Gunter

David Cohn is a full meet lifter in the 114 and 123 pound weight classes.  In the 114 class David has the following best lifts; squat 400, bench press 275, deadlift 430 and an elite total of 1100 all at 111 pounds bodyweight.  David’s 1100 pound total put him at #3 in Powerlifting USA’s Top 100 lifters for the 114 weight class.  Recently David moved up to the 123 pound weight class and made a 300 pound bench in a push-pull meet.  At the time this article is being written David is preparing for his first full meet as a 123 and hopefully his second weight class elite total.  David performs swings, long cycle, and triceps extensions regularly in his training sessions.


David Cohn

Andre Cuadrado is a novice lifter in the 198 pound weight class.  Andre recently did his first meet.  He lifted raw and posted a squat of 455, a bench press of 330, a deadlift of 545, and a total of 1330.  He favors kettlebell long cycle and swings after his main lifts in his training sessions.


Andre Cuadrado

In addition to the powerlifters I train with and coach, I work with conventional sport athletes as well. 

Cory Clemons graduated from Georgia Southern in 2007 where he played outside linebacker.  Cory came to me in January 2008 to begin training for his pro-day and Scout Camp regional combine and is currently getting ready for some Arena Football League tryouts.  Some of Cory’s preliminary test numbers were as follows; height 6’0”, weight 237 pounds, 40 yard dash 4.85 seconds, vertical jump 29”, bench press 225 pounds for 16 repetitions, squat one rep max 535 pounds, and bench press one rep max 335 pounds.  We also determined that Cory’s lower back was extremely weak and a limiting factor in his speed, strength and power.  We performed many of the same lifts in Cory’s training program that he performed while training throughout his college career.  The only new exercises I introduced were kettlebell swings and snatches with the goal of strengthening Cory’s weak lower back.  Four months later Cory made the following improvements in his tests; weight 247 (10 pound increase), 40 yard dash 4.71 seconds (0.14 second improvement), vertical jump 39.5” (10.5” improvement), bench press 225 pounds for 23 reps (a 7 rep improvement), squat one rep max 600 pounds (65 pound increase), and bench press one rep max 405 (70 pound increase).


Cory Clemons

The following are some of the training templates my lifters and I utilize at various times throughout the year.

Westside Barbell Inspired Training Template – this is the most commonly used training plan at my gym.  There is some variance for each individual lifter at different times of the year, especially when training for a meet.

Monday – Max Effort Squat/Deadlift

  1. Max effort exercise, we rotate between a squat, good morning and deadlift variation for a 1RM
  2. Supplementary lift, usually a posterior chain exercise
  3. Abdominal exercise
  4. Kettlebell swings, jerks or long cycle – 2-5 minutes
  5. Sled or prowler work

Wednesday – Max Effort Bench Press

  1. Max effort exercise, we rotate between different bench press variations for a 1RM
  2. Triceps lifts, usually one or two exercises
  3. Lats/upper back, usually one or two exercises
  4. Kettlebell snatches or presses – 2-5 minutes
  5. Sled or prowler work

Friday – Dynamic Effort Squat/Deadlift

  1. Box squats, waving between 50%-60% of a 1RM over 3 weeks for 8-12 sets of 2 reps
  2. Speed deadlifts, waving between 50%-60% of a 1RM over 3 weeks for 5-8 sets of 1 rep
  3. Supplementary lift, usually a posterior chain exercise
  4. Abdominal exercise
  5. Kettlebell swings, jerks or long cycle – 2-5 minutes
  6. Sled or prowler work

Sunday – Dynamic Effort Bench Press

  1. Speed bench, usually 55% of a 1RM for 8-9 sets of 3 reps
  2. Triceps lifts, usually one or two exercises
  3. Lats/upper back, usually one or two exercises
  4. Kettlebell snatches or presses – 2-5 minutes
  5. Sled or prowler work

Basic “Power-Building” Template – we call this the 4x4, four lifts over four days.  You may also rotate this over three days per week if you need more recovery time.  This plan is great for a new lifter who needs proficiency and strength while practicing the basic lifts.

Monday – Squat

  1. Squat
  2. Squat assistance lift
  3. Abdominal exercise
  4. Jerks or long cycle – 2-5 minutes

Wednesday – Bench Press

  1. Bench press
  2. Bench assistance lift
  3. Upper back
  4. Swings or snatch – 2-5 minutes

Friday – Deadlift

  1. Deadlift
  2. Deadlift assistance lift
  3. Abdominal exercise
  4. Jerks or long cycle – 2-5 minutes

Sunday – Military Press

  1. Military press
  2. Close grip bench (light)
  3. Lats
  4. Swings or snatch – 2-5 minutes

Powerlifting and Kettlebell Purist Template – no fluff, just the basic lifts for the powerlifting and kettlebell sport enthusiast.  Perform the jerk and snatch as you would in competition, the jerk is performed with two kettlebells and only one hand switch in the snatch.  You may substitute the long cycle with two kettlebells for the jerk and snatch if you prefer the long cycle over the biathlon event in kettlebell sport.


  1. Squat (heavy)
  2. Bench press (light)
  3. Jerk – 5-7 minutes
  4. Snatch – 6-8 minutes
  5. Abdominal exercise


  1. Bench press (heavy)
  2. Deadlift (moderate-moderately heavy)
  3. Jerk – 5-7 minutes\
  4. Snatch – 6-8 minutes
  5. Abdominal exercise


  1. Squat (light)
  2. Bench press (moderate)
  3. Jerk – 5-7 minutes
  4. Snatch – 6-8 minutes
  5. Abdominal exercise

These are just some of the ways that we have worked traditional kettlebell lifting into the training of our powerlifters and strength athletes.  Keep in mind that as a meet or competition draws near, the focus turns more to the specific lifts and events.  Hopefully this has given you some new ideas that may allow you to experiment with your own training program.

About the Author:
Scott Shetler is the owner of the Atlanta Barbell & Kettlebell Club and Extreme Conditioning and Fitness personal training.  Scott trains athletes and general fitness enthusiasts alike, and has competed in both powerlifting and kettlebell sport.  He is certified through the NSCA as well as the American Kettlebell Club.  This article was inspired by his upcoming book “Kettlebells for Sport, Strength and Fitness”.  For more information please visit Scott on the web at or contact him via email at

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