High Volume Kettlebell Training and its Benefits
by Bud Jeffries
First I want to say, “Thanks,” to Jedd for giving me the opportunity to step in and do a guest blog for the Diesel Crew. You guys have done great work for the fitness and strength community and I wanted to throw a bit back. When we talked about my contributing a blog post Jedd wanted me to answer, “Why would I do crazy high volume kettlebell work and what are the benefits of it?”
Bud Jeffries – 1-hand Swing
So if you don’t know I’ve specialized in the kettlebell swing for the past few years. I say “specialized,” in that it’s been one of my primary combined strength and cardio workouts and there’s an entire methodology behind why and what I do. It’s primary in that I’m also always working on much heavier strongman work and I’m also working on different types of cardiovascular capacity so the high volume workouts that I do are not just limited to kettlebells, but they’ll also involve barbells, dumbbells, bodyweight, sledgehammers, cables, maces, and strongman work for instance super high rep tire flipping, sled dragging, heavy bag punching, etc. I’m normally circulating through any of 100 or more different types of exercise.
Overall though I really have specialized in high-rep kettlebell work. When I say “high rep,” we need to quantify the term for the purposes of this blog. If you don’t know what I’m talking about already – I’m not talking about 100 reps – I’m talking about something in the neighborhood of 1,000 reps. Not all the workouts are that high, but some of them are much higher – Even into the 2,000, 3,000 and 4,000 repetition ranges.
Why Such High Volume Training?
Why would I do that since it seems counterproductive in the idea of building maximum strength and muscle? There are many reasons.
I Wanted to Remake Myself
I spent 16 years with one goal in mind – squatting 1,000 pounds. Over that 16 year course I went from 230lbs to 385lbs and went from a 225lb squat to a 1,000lb squat. I achieved my goal, but I also got freakin’ huge. I was huge and muscular and incredibly strong, but it was way too much fat to carry for a long period of time and I wanted to change that.
After much research and thinking it through the kettlebell swing was probably the primary vehicle by which to do that. I also believe that people who are like me who don’t have the easy, fast, fat burning metabolism that most people do either because they don’t eat right or they have years of gaining weight behind them instead of losing weight respond well to the kettlebell.
The idea behind “…years of gaining weight instead of losing,” is that the body is always learning to do one thing or the other. If you’re teaching it to gain weight then it goes permanently in that mode until you spend enough time going the opposite way and then it begins to lean out, resetting your hormones and whole body. I believe the kettlebell swing was the most opportune way to do create that effect.
1700-lb Rack Squat
The swing created the most muscular work that you could maintain for the longest period of time, spread across the largest range of the body, with the highest cardiovascular demand at the same time. On a rep-per-rep basis there are other exercises that you could argue create a higher cardiovascular demand, however not necessarily the right type of demand that I’m talking about.
For instance, rep-for-rep the kettlebell snatch (essentially an extended kettlebell swing), is possibly more aerobic, because on a rep-per-rep basis it covers twice the distance, but it also begins to pinpoint other muscles. That really long distance makes it, for most people, truly slow down until you have a massive cardiovascular and muscular base under which to work. I believe the spread muscular work of the swing combined with the idea that you can continue it for long periods of time and at the same time achieve an extended cardiovascular capacity and an extended muscular strength capacity made it the ultimate exercise for fat loss as well as a huge base from which to do 1,000 reps of thousands of other exercises.
It cut fat while not ripping into my strength which is a major factor for me. The average person might just want to cut fat, but I spent a lifetime building up massive amounts of strength and it would terribly hurt my feelings to lose all that strength just because I lost weight. I’m sure for most of you it would as well. The key in not losing strength as you lose weight, and this is a bonus here, is not doing it super fast. You can’t drop 50 pounds in a month and not expect it to take a hit to your strength.
Combining Muscular and Cardiovascular effort
Every time you do a swing you’re teaching the muscles strength and teaching them to fire and you’re also creating high cardiovascular capacity. The high calorie burning and cardiovascular component of the swing burns off fat. That continuous repeated muscular motion teaches the body not to give up strength and muscle just because you’re doing it in an extended way. I found that by going to the one-handed swing I could switch hands every 10 reps or so and keep pushing my whole body for long periods of time. This began to reset my entire definition of what strength and cardiovascular capacity combined were, should be and could be.
I know right now it’s popular to do interval cardio and short cardio and I believe in that style of training and I’ve quantified it in my own way by calling it “short-intense cardio.” Through exposure to other people and through one of the brilliant things great strongman John Brookfield said to me, “You have to get past the interval to really get to strength and to really get to endurance,” I began to have a modified thought on this activity. Stopping just because you have a pre-planned set of time is actually teaching the body to quit versus just going as hard and as far as you can.
When you explore that deeply you find that you can go much harder, longer and faster than you thought. That’s what we’re all after. Why would you only sprint 100 yards if you could sprint 400? Now I understand you may want to repeat those things and I’m not saying anything against intervals and I certainly do believe in very intense, short levels of cardio so in comparing that I might take a 53lb or 24kg kettlebell and swing it for 1,000 or 2,000 reps without stopping, but I also might take a 150lb 2-handed kettlebell and swing it for multiple sets of 20 reps mixed with bodyweight exercises moving back and forth in a workout that only lasts 5, 10 or 15 minutes. That would be incredibly intense both from a muscular and cardiovascular standpoint.
The whole point to this is I want some of my cardio to be as intense as possible and as long as I want to make it 30 minutes or more, because I truly believe this creates a high calorie burn as well as a massive overhaul in your potential muscular strength and endurance. I want some of it to be as intense and heavy as possible and not governed by a time interval, but more by the weight and difficulty of the exercise often using more than one exercise switching back and forth so I can go as long as possible for the pre-set time period or repetition count – whichever I had chosen. The idea is to absolutely max out my heart rate for a short period of time and the other idea being the “Third way cardio” idea as put forth by Marty Gallagher which is long, extended, muscular and aerobic effort done in a continuous fashion.
Really it’s a type of capacity that most people haven’t tapped that most everyone does possess the ability to achieve. If you really want to be able to recover from those workouts, build the ability for your heart and muscles and lungs to fire for an extended period of time and then five to ten to 20 reps of squats just doesn’t feel very hard when you can do a 1,000 or2,000 swings without stopping. I felt there was an entire other level of strength to be had there, but what most people have missed and truthfully only a few people have explored, is not mixing them together and I think that’s why it’s more effective to do it the way I’ve done it.
John Brookfield is one example and a few other people have done things that go along the lines of this: 1,000 reps of push presses or 1,000 snatches or 2,000 swings and the ability to do other heavy exercises at the same time, but if you approach both capacities together, it is possible to have them at the same time. For instance; on my birthday this year I did 4,000 swings and a 1,500lb quarter squat just for fun to see if I could personally challenge myself.
What am I doing? I’m expanding my capacity in both directions, both my maximum strength and maximum endurance together. John has done all kinds of incredible strength feats and grip work in an absolute max capacity, but has also done incredible endurance work and I believe that is the upper end of physical capacity that most of us are missing. When you build into thosem you play them into each other – Your maximum strength will tie exactly into your ability to perform your maximum strain cardio or short cardio I spoke of, which will, in-turn pull directly into your third way or very long cardio. They will all play back and forth to each other as long as you begin to develop the capacities. That doesn’t mean you should do them all at the same time, it means they need to be mixed specifically. You should build a base first and build up to them.
Let’s Be Honest
Let’s be honest – Real long term health and long term strength has to have a strength endurance capacity. It’s wonderful to be able to squat 1,000lbs, but not great to be 380- 400lbs to be able to do it and give up years of your life if you carry too much body fat or you aren’t physically or cardiovascularly as healthy as you could be (that doesn’t mean that big guys can’t be healthy. I believe I’m still living proof of that,) or you’ll ever achieve a physical Adonis perfection which I’m pretty sure the men reading this site aren’t terribly worried about.
Though if we’re being honest we all want to look better. I’ve been able to rip 120lbs of weight off, but I’m still not “perfect,” by contemporary standards. My physical perfection by others standards is not what concerns me, what I care about is having an increased cardiovascular and endurance level and a totally different level of physical capacity and I found this by doing it with those explosive muscular and continuous movements. I got better at the short cardio and maintained and built types of strength I didn’t have before.
You can have maximum muscular strength, maximum short term endurance and maximum long term endurance and not spend every waking minute in the gym. I cut that 120lbs and didn’t work out more than an average of three hours per week. That includes one third way cardio session, one max intense cardio session and one max strength work session per week and all of them reasonably short and most of it not with incredibly high volumes. However when I worked high volumes in specific work such as circuits of 8-10 bodyweight exercises done for 25 reps a piece, repeated 4 or 5 times so I get more than 1,000 reps in a 30 or 45 minute workout, or one exercise done as far and as hard as possible I saw massive results.
Both have their place and are incredible ways to build world class cardiovascular capacity as well as world class muscular strength and endurance and keep your body fat low in a way that lets you still be a normal guy – eat real food, have a beer occasionally and be able to play in any world you want to.
I was able to maintain a schedule that had me doing 300 strongman shows in 9 months. I was able to keep high level strength in pressing, rowing, deadlifting and squatting. I was able to burn off a tremendous amount of body fat and play into any other type of training that I wanted, inclusive of martial arts, without having to specialize in them, all on four or five hours per week by training all those capacities together. The health you build in your tendons, ligaments and bones and muscles by that extended work, the incredible circulation, the heart and endurance capacity, is impossible to beat in just about any other way. It is far superior to the average slow cardio.
So – What Is It Doing?
So what is it doing? It’s taking what the average person thinks is hard cardio and extending your possible ability to do it for the same amount of time that you would do easy or slow cardio. Thereby you are building a really elite capacity for strength and an elite capacity for short term strength endurance. It’s building the ability to do amazing physical things and max out every area of strength as well as max out your health. It’s keeping your body fat low and doing it in a way that gives you the ability to play for a lifetime in any way you want with simple implements. That my friends is an amazing amount to get for just a few hours of training per week and that’s why I went to the super high volume kettlebell work.
I believe in working with the swing it allowed me to build the base to jump off to every other type of kettlebell work – For instance I’ve been able to do massive snatch workouts, massive one arm pressing workouts, which are my other favorite work to do with the kettlebell and set some incredible PRs inclusive of 200 one arm presses in 5 minutes and 7 seconds with a 24kg/ 54lb kettlebell. 340+snatches with a 35lb kettlebell in 10 minutes as well 1500 snatches in 68 minutes. Also 1,100 one arm push presses with that 24kg bell in one hour.
You can do amazing things if you just set your mind to it and treat your cardio with the same type of intensity as you would your strength work. We all want to get incredibly muscularly strong and you can if you follow all the smart stuff Jedd and the guys and I talk about, but you also need that high level capacity and I believe they can be reciprocally inhibited. What does that mean? If you don’t keep your cardio up high enough, eventually the strength work becomes so taxing you that you cannot recover from it and then your body does not allow you to become stronger.
Similarly speaking, if you do not keep your strength high enough your body will eventually interpret your cardiovascular movements as so difficult in their percentage of perceived intensity as well as their actual physical level of strength that it won’t allow you to go further because you won’t have the strength to keep going. But if you work them together you can get max world class capacity at both if you just learn to do it the right way. High rep kettlebell stuff is really one of them – You can do amazing things if you just put your mind to it. See the video for more training info.