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Training for Kettlebell Sport:  Kettlebell Sport Program Design Basics

Training for Kettlebell Sport: Kettlebell Sport Program Design Basics

Posted by Kettlebell Kings on 11th Oct 2019


We first met Chris Doenlen in Austin, Texas at The Texas Open Kettlebell Sport Championship. We were pretty new to the world of Kettlebell Sport competitions at the time and that weekend was the debut of our now popular Kettlebell Sport model. He also picked up a pair of 30 KG Kettlebell Sport style kettlebells that day, which we really appreciated. Thanks, Chris!

We reached out to Chris about writing a post about competitive kettlebell lifting for us because he competes in the biggest events in the country and we want to educate more people about this great form of competitive lifting and how to be involved. We mutually decided that some of ideas for training toward a competition would be most helpful for our readers. These concepts do apply for simply improving your workouts as well. Here is what Chris wrote for us.

Kettlebell Sport Program Design Basics

By Chris Doenlen

On the fitness spectrum, with pure strength like the powerlifts on one end, and pure endurance work like running, cycling, and swimming on the other, Kettlebell Sport falls right in the middle. As such, designing a training program for this unique sport requires a special blend of both strength and endurance work. Accounting for all of the training variables – weight, pace, and time – can understandably seem overwhelming at first, and so I’ve outlined a few aspects of program design that I consider to be the most fundamental.

Set a Goal and Then Work Backwards

Setting quantifiable goals in Kettlebell Sport is pretty straightforward – it’s a very results oriented discipline. You either get the reps or you don’t. But setting those goals in the first place can be a bit more complicated, especially for those new to the sport.

A lifter’s first goal with a new kettlebell weight should simply be to go the distance – lift for ten minutes without putting down the bells. This should be true whether it’s a beginner lifting 12kg or 16kg or a new a more experienced lifter transitioning up to the professional weights, which is 24kg for women or 32kg for men.

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Next we can consider results – a great place to start is looking at different ranking tables to see the different milestones at each weight for your weight class. The Ketacademy ranking tables , for example, may serve as a sort of map to guide the lifter from beginning to world class level.

Be patient and work through the ranks – if you’re not at Candidate for Master of Sport level now, you shouldn’t be focusing on hitting Master of Sport. There are no shortcuts in Kettlebell Sport.

Once you’ve determined the appropriate goal, it’s time to plan how and when you’ll reach it. Pick a competition or a future date to test yourself and work backwards to design your training program. How much time you have will help you determine what you’ll need to focus on and what kinds of training milestones you should strive to hit. A twelve-week program will and should look very different from an eight-week or sixteen-week program. Keep in mind that it may take more than one training cycle to reach your goal!

Start Light and Fast, and Increase Weight Gradually

An intelligent training plan will progress the lifter from lighter kettlebells up to competition weight so that he or she is ready to give a true max effort on test day. An all too common mistake is to start working with the competition weight too soon – this often leaves the athlete feeling beat up and over-trained on the big day.

In the initial phases of the training cycle, start with light bells and focus on speed work to build a strong foundation. Then increase the weight by 2kg every one to two weeks, depending on the length of the training cycle, and reduce the pace by one to two reps per minute for every one kilogram increase in bell weight.

It’s possible to plan a sound training cycle with weights in 4kg increments, but keep in mind that the smaller the jump in weight, the less likely you are to lose speed and technique!


Use a Variety of Training Sets

A marathoner does not strictly run marathon-distances at race pace in training just an Olympic lifter does not only use his or her max weight for single-rep sets. And so it should be no surprise that when training for Kettlebell Sport, we will very rarely go the full ten minutes with competition weight at competition pace before the big day.

Training methodologies for Kettlebell Sport closely resemble those of other endurance sports. As a general framework, we may consider three main types of training sets to prepare the athlete for competition:

Competition-Style: 6-8 minutes at or a little faster than competition pace. This training will be mostly aerobic.

Repeats: 3-5 minutes x 3-5 sets at a pace faster than in competition; rest should be +1-2 minutes of set length. This training will be a mix of aerobic and anaerobic.

Intervals: 30 seconds to 2 minutes x 5-20 sets at a pace much faster than in competition; rest period should be about equal to working time. This training will be mostly anaerobic.

There are a number of ways to add variety to this framework to customize the training program to the athlete’s individual needs.

(pictured: Chris Doenlen)

A few examples for Long Cycle or Jerk might be

  • Weighted-Ladder Intervals
    • 2x20kg / 2’ (2’ Rest)
    • 2x22kg / 2’ (2’ Rest)
    • 2x24kg / 2’ (2’ Rest)
    • 2x26kg / 2’ (2’ Rest)
    • 2x28kg / 2’
  • Weighted-Pyramid Intervals
    • 2x28kg / 2’ (2’ Rest)
    • 2x30kg / 2’ (2’ Rest)
    • 2x32kg / 2’ (2’ Rest)
    • 2x30kg / 2’ (2’ Rest)
    • 2x28kg / 2’
  • Time-Based Ladders or Pyramids, like the (In)famous Merkulin Pyramid, created by Honored Master of Sport, Sergei Merkulin
    • 2x32kg / 1’ (1’ Rest)
    • 2x32kg / 2’ (1’ Rest)
    • 2x32kg / 3’ (1’ Rest)
    • 2x32kg / 4’ (1’ Rest)
    • 2x32kg / 3’ (1’ Rest)
    • 2x32kg / 2’ (1’ Rest)
    • 2x32kg / 1’

Denis Vasiliev doing the Merklin Pyramid / 2x28kg Long Cycle

The options really are only limited by the coach’s imagination. While variety is essential for breaking up the monotony of training, don’t use variety simply for the sake of it. Each training session should serve the purpose of bringing the athlete closer to his or her goal.

Train smart, train hard, and focus on what’s essential to the training plan!


What Is Next?

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Also, we recommend you subscribe to our posts so you can be notified when we publish more in this series. Additionally, you can be notified when we publish new articles about specific kettlebell movements or techniques as well as niche pieces like this designed for specific training.

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About Chris Doenlen

Chris Doenlen is a competitive Kettlebell Sport athlete and coach, nutritionist, doughnut enthusiast, and self-proclaimed Excel ninja based out of Oakland, California.

He is a Master of Sport ranked Kettlebell Sport competitor, multiple time national champion, national record holder, and one of the top lifters in the U.S. His experience is drawn from more than ten years of weight lifting and endurance training, lots of personal experimentation, and a unique blend of formal and unconventional education.

Chris currently trains at OKC North in Berkeley, California and offers online or in-person coaching for Kettlebell Sport and nutrition. You can learn more about him on his website.

Let us know how we can help by emailing us at info@kettlebellkings.com or calling us directly at 855-7KETTLE.