How to Build Functional Mass with Kettlebells

Posted by Kettlebell Kings on 14th Aug 2019

During my years spent as a sports and remedial massage therapist, I had the pleasure of working with athletes and everyday performers from most sporting, exercise and movement disciplines. Massaging yogis was always great for anatomy exploration, but some of my clients were everyday bodybuilders, forever chasing the Hollywood superhero body. Massaging through gym rats’ chronically tight and tense muscles was a workout in itself.

Arguably, the reason why many needed to see me in the first place was due to poor training habits (coupled with too much time spent in a chair). You’ll see such training habits in almost every mainstream gym you visit, where people train themselves to be really good at lifting weights for high repetitions from the fetal position (in a chair). They’ll also use external apparatus to stabilize movements for the sake of muscle isolation and “extra focus on the muscle fibers.” These training habits eventually rewire the nervous system to forget how to activate the stabilizers it was born with and effectively make the everyday bodybuilder prone to injury and, in the long run, substantially less capable at life.

When my first elite Olympic weightlifter walked in and I saw the massive size of him, I thought, “Here we go, another workout.” Much to my surprise, my fingertips made their way through the massive bulk of muscle with great ease. I was able to release adhesions and hone-in on trigger points as easily as I could with the yogis. But when I asked him to activate certain areas for the sake of muscle energy techniques, the otherwise soft muscles exploded into rocks. This is functional mass—muscle mass that doesn’t diminish movement. Training for functional mass involves protocols that build nice big Hollywood muscles while also making the body more useful at real life tasks and less prone to back, shoulder and knee injuries.

Experienced kettlebell enthusiasts have a similar thing going on. Their muscles are rock hard when activated, but unlike power lifters and bodybuilders, they have the ability to switch off when not in use and are not short and chronically tight. Kettlebell lifters are seldom as big as Olympic lifters, partly because most don’t manipulate the variables of their programs specifically for muscle building. Kettlebell training is more naturally suited to strength training, anaerobic conditioning, fat loss, functional movement and injury resilience.

If the goal is functional mass, arguably the best training modality would be Olympic lifting with a mix of calesthenics. O-lifting is a long and highly rewarding path, for those who possess the movement ability. However, it’s not accessible to the vast majority of everyday people, because we just don’t move well enough. I encourage anyone to start their O-lifting journey if they can pass my simple litmus test: being able to hold a naked (20kg) Olympic bar overhead while sitting in the deep squat for two minutes.

For the rest of us, there’s kettlebell training! And here’s how to manipulate the variables to achieve functional mass.

Golden Rules and Essential Considerations for Designing Functional Mass Programs

Stand, kneel, lunge, hang, locomote or sit or lay on the floor

Never use a bench, chair, pad, fixed resistance machine or anything to help stabilize movement or isolate target muscle groups. Smashing the muscle fibers to destruction so they’ll grow back bigger and stronger is absolutely achievable using the stabilizers you were born with. I think that avoiding the use of external apparatus for help with stability is the most important rule that should be applied to all training, no matter the goal.

Train to strengthen movement patterns, not muscle groups

Squat, hinge, push, pull, locomote, rotate and resist rotation. Forget back ‘n’ biceps, shoulders ‘n’ triceps or chest ‘n’ abs. Replace it with squat ‘n’ pull, hinge ‘n’ push, locomote ‘n’ resist rotation, say. Move like a human and work your joints through their full ranges.

Train extension more than flexion

We’re born in the fetal position. We’ll probably die in the fetal position. We spend most our lives sitting in the fetal position. Don’t go the gym and further train yourself to flex into the shape of a cashew nut (biceps, chest and superficial abs). It promotes feelings of depression and weakness and arguably brings you closer to the grave. The glutes and lats are the biggest muscles in the body for good reason—they extend. Be more superhero and train extension, with deadlifts, pull-ups, push-ups*, squats, cleans, military press* and loaded carries.

*A skilled practitioner presses from their lats while radiating tension throughout the midsection with their glutes.

Photo credit: Marcus Philly

Use offset loads where possible

For mass training, two kettlebells always beats one because this increases the work volume. However, never use pairs. Nothing in the real world is perfectly balanced. Training with offset loads stimulates muscle growth better and helps you reach all training goals faster (outside of competitive kettlebell lifting).

You’re only as old as your joints

Include 15-20 minutes of mobility training as an essential pre-workout activity. Lubing up your joints provides an abundance of input to the brain and primes your nervous system for performance.

Lift heavy!

Regularly heavy lifting for low reps and few sets (low volume) will make you strong but won’t add muscle bulk (unless you do it for many years and your nervous system strength overtakes your muscle capability). Building mass requires a high work volume. The stronger you are (achieved by lifting heavy) enables more load to be lifted per set, therefore a higher overall work volume. High intensity (big load) for low reps also stimulates the release of human growth hormone, which is useful when all these other components are in place.

Photo credit: Marcus Philly

Massive work volume = big muscles

This means lifting a lot of weight for a lot of reps. Life’s too short to spend hours in the gym several times per week. When I’m programming for my remote clients, any given functional mass session only lasts 40-55 minutes. Given that the first 15-20 minutes of that is spent on joint mobility, this leaves a short window for the main workout component. I find that the most work can be done by having each work set start every 60-90 seconds, unless using kettlebell complexes.

More grinds than ballistics

All kettlebell exercises can be categorized as either grinds or ballistics. Grinds involve kettlebells being lifted up and down (presses, squats, windmills, get-ups, etc.). Ballistics involve kettebells being swung through two-planes of motion (swings, cleans and snatches). For goals such as losing weight or improving conditioning, ballistics should outweigh grinds. Heavy ballistics using two kettlebells are great for boosting testosterone levels for a good hypertrophy session, but the bulk of a session should be made up of grinds.

Time under tension

Since the golden years of bodybuilding in the ‘70s, it’s been known that the more time the muscles spend under tension, the better for hypertrophy. I served in the Royal Marines Commandos with a dude who had a better body than Captain America. He only ever did thousands of really light reps and isometric holds with resistance bands and baby dumbbells. We may have admired his physical appearance, but we relished in the fact that he was weak and sub-par as an operational Commando. His deadlift was pathetic, he couldn’t outrun a hedgehog, let alone run a heavy backpack over a mountain, he often had lower back pain and he couldn’t reach his magazine pouches because his big, useless muscles were in the way. So how can we achieve time under tension without the dysfunction that usually comes with thousands of light reps? Kettlebell complexes!

Photo credit: Marcus Philly

Explosive movement

This is probably the biggest influencing factor that makes O-lifters so big and muscular. Look at the muscle size of sprinters. Muscles that are regularly trained to produce force very quickly, grow quickly. I think uphill sprinting (5m-30m) should be an essential ingredient of a good functional mass program.

Through my years of training I know that loaded jump squats are a very reliable ingredient for developing legs like tree trunks. But crippling injuries also usually come as a complimentary extra for those who can’t deep squat slowly without load. If someone can sit in a deep squat position for over 4 minutes, they qualify for adding load. Then after some months, adding explosive speed will induce miracle muscle growth.

Short rest breaks

Keeping the rest between multiple sets to 30-60 seconds will reduce your ability to lift anywhere near the amount that you would with slightly longer rest. But your goal is not strength, it’s mass. This is an age-old ingredient for muscle mass because it optimizes hormone release and facilitates the highest possible volume.

Shake it off

Strength is tension… How much full body tension you’re able to produce reflects your ability to apply force. Most everyday exercisers carry so much tension in their muscles (due to poor training habits and/or poor work posture) that their ability to turn their tension-o-meter up to maximal is restricted. The more you are able to relax and reduce tension between sets, the more tension you’ll be able to produce during the next. More relaxed, loose muscles = better blood flow, faster recovery, less chronic tension and related injuries.

Photo credit: Marcus Philly

Train close to failure

I may be scorned by strength enthusiasts for daring to suggest such a notion because if the goal is strength, training to failure is a big no-no. But if the goal is looking like a Marvel superhero in the shorter term, without breaking the first two (and most important) of these golden rules, training to failure in some lifts for 2-3 months won’t do any harm. Training to failure depletes the muscles and sends a message to the brain that it should grow bigger muscles in order to store the required fuel.

OK, I know this kind of hypertrophy is sarcoplasmic and not as long lasting as the more respectable, myofibrillar hypertrophy. But if you want to put on some muscle mass in a short space of time without cocking up your hormone balance by taking vitamin-S (anabolic steroids), train to failure and grow some sarcoplasmic muscle mass.

Dropsets

A great way to deplete the glycogen stores within the muscles and leave your arms or legs feeling like they might drop off.

No Pain No Gain

Expect DOMS—at least for the first couple of weeks. Many uneducated or inexperienced trainers think it’s their mission to create delayed onset muscle soreness (DOMS) for their paying clients after every session. Regular, weekly DOMS creates excessive muscle toxicity, which has a plethora of negative side effects and cripples good movement. Other uneducated or inexperienced trainers like to shout about how DOMS should never be experienced—trainers who give their clients DOMS should be hung, drawn and quartered!

Hamstring DOMS is unavoidable for brand new kettlebell lifters. Soleus DOMs in unavoidable for people who’ve been wearing foot coffins (shoes) all their lives and want to learn to run properly. DOMS in all major muscle groups is expected for the first couple of weeks of any good hypertrophy program.

Think outside the gym

Four hours (or more) per week in the gym will not grow muscle if the other 164 hours are left unaddressed. A fire needs three components to exist: fuel, oxygen and heat. Without one there is no fire. The same can be said for hypertrophy but with training, rest and nutrition.

Muscles grow during sleep and not in the presence of stress. If you live in a perpetual state of tiredness your training may be fruitless. Do you wake up naturally and feel like moving first thing in the morning most days of the week? Do you rely on stimulants to get you through the morning? If all the muscle chasers I know put half the energy and discipline into planning and executing their rest as they do their workouts, they would be bigger.

How to address nutrition for hypertrophy in one paragraph? I’ll give it a shot:

Eat until you’re full every time you eat, 3-4 times per day

All meals and drinks should fall within a 10-hour window. In the other 14 hours, strictly water. Intermittent fasting has endless health and body composition benefits. Muscles grow when your metabolism isn’t busy digesting food

Eat a large portion of complex carbs (yams, quinoa, rice, buckwheat) with most meals, particularly after training

Eat within 45 minutes of finishing training

Shoot for 1 gram of protein per day for every pound that you weigh. Protein should come from wild-caught fish or happy, healthy meats. Avoid whey – it’s likely that you have a dairy intolerance. Seek high-quality grass-fed beef protein powder. I put a scoop of Designs For Health (PurePaleo) in my morning oats, along with 6-10 other ingredients and call it “oats jazz”

Leafy and colorful veggies should take up most of your plate for most meals—you need the nutrients for growth. I like Athletic Greens as a daily supplement to help cover my bases

Supplement with high quality BCAAs and drink before or during the training session

Maintain hydration!

Avoid processed crap, cook for yourself, prep meals, plan shopping

Functional Mass Program Sample

Every session should begin with 20 minutes of joint mobility and muscle activation, relative to your individual movement needs and injury history. When using offset kettlebells, switch KBs after each set. Cycle through these four sessions, trying to do one per week, for 6-8 weeks. Then take a week off and try another functional mass program to change the stimulus.

All programs should contain all human movement patterns and should obviously be suitable for the person it’s written for. This is a pro-level program because it contains high volume loaded squats and snatches. The following requisites should be satisfied before indulging in this program. If you disqualify, there are literally thousands of other effective functional mass programs that are suitable for you.

Ability to perform 6 pull-ups

Ability to sit in a deep squat for over 4 minutes

Ability to leopard crawl in an infinity shape for 3 minutes

Ability to walk for 30 seconds holding two snatch-weight kettlebells overhead (the amount you want to snatch with)



Session 1: Squats and Push-Ups

Part A: High volume offset kettlebell front squats

Set timer to bleep every 90 seconds, 10 times. Go on the bleep:

8-10 offset kettlebell squats, shake it off

When all 100 reps can be completed, add load and drop reps to 8 per set

Part B: On-the-minute kettlebell push-ups (hands on KB handles for extra depth)

Set timer to bleep every 60 seconds, 15 times. Go on the bleep:

One set of kettlebell push-ups (hands on handles, for depth), shake it off

Vary hand position. Add reps every session. When you can’t add more than 10 reps since the previous session, add an extra 5 sets (20 minutes total)

Session 2: Deadlifts and KB Complex

Part A: Heavy deadlifts

Set timer to bleep every 3 minutes, 6 times. Go on the bleep:

2-4 conventional barbell deadlifts, 2-4 offset kettlebell military press, shake it off

If/when you achieve all 24 reps of either exercise, add load next time and drop reps to 2

Part B: Kettlebell Muscle Complex

Set timer to bleep every 2 minutes, 10 times. Go on the bleep:

3 offset kettlebell cleans

3 offset kettlebell military press

3 offset kettlebell squats

3 pull-ups

Shake it off

When you can achieve all reps to the given cadence, next time add load

Session 3: Sprints & Push-Ups

Part A: Uphill sprints – 100% effort

(5m uphill sprint, 30s rest) x 2

(10m uphill sprint, 60s rest) x 2

(15m uphill sprint, 90s rest) x 2

(20m uphill sprint, 2m rest) x 2

(30m uphill sprint, 3m rest) x 2

Part B: On-the-minute kettlebell push-ups (same as session 1)

Session 4: Press & Pull-Up

Part A: Heavy load

Set timer to bleep every 90 seconds, 8 times. Go on the bleep:

3 offset kettlebell cleans, 2-4 offset kettlebell military press, 3-5 explosive wide arm pull-ups, shake it off

When all 8x4 military press can be achieved, next time add load

Part B: Medium load

Set timer to bleep every 2 minutes, 8 times. Go on the bleep:

5 offset kettlebell snatches, 5-7 offset kettlebell military press, 3-5 explosive pull-ups, shake it off

When all 8x7 military press can be achieved, next time add load

Part C: Light load

Set timer to bleep every 90 seconds, 6 times. Go on the bleep:

8-10 offset kettlebell military press, 3-5 explosive chin-ups (supinated grip), shake it off

When all 6x10 military press can be achieved, next time add load

Part D: Single arm kettlebell military dropset

Set timer to bleep every 60 seconds, 6 times. Go on the bleep:

1st bleep: Heavy KB, non-dominant arm military press to failure

2nd bleep: Heavy KB, dominant arm military press, match reps

3rd bleep: Medium KB, non-dominant arm military press to failure

4th bleep: Medium KB, dominant arm military press, match reps

5th bleep: Light KB, non-dominant arm military press to failure

6th bleep: Light KB, dominant arm military press, match reps

I hope this helps! To assess your own ability to move please visit my website.

Thanks for reading,

Phil McDougall

Instagram: @phil.mcdougall

Website: www.philipmcdougall.com