The importance of strength in kettlebell sport

There appears to be some confusion whether or not kettlebell sport is an endurance sport or a strength sport, even among the competitors themselves. Let’s dig a little deeper into it.

First let’s clarify what we’re talking about here. In this article I examine the event long cycle where clean & jerk is done for 10 minutes straight. However it will apply to the biathlon as well. Marathon is not taken into consideration here. In all of the previously mentioned events the goal is to lift the kettlebells for the most amount of repetitions which by definition makes kettlebell sport a cyclical sport. Furthermore additional points are given depending on the weight of the kettlebells (the heavier the weight, the more points).

The above should really be case closed: heavier bells equals more points, still not everyone agrees, instead stating it’s an endurance event and not a strength sport. First let me pose the question if it’s an endurance sport, why can you then perform better with 16 kg instead of 32? Clearly it’s a strength issue. Why don’t men and women lift the same amount of weight for the same amount of repetitions? It’s a strength issue. Why are there weight classes? It’s a strength issue.

Let us define strength and endurance. Strength is a category, often defined by several strength qualities. I prefer to simplify it as maximal strength, strength speed, speed strength, explosive strength and strength endurance. In this definition kettlebell sport is a strength endurance sport, meaning that the key quality is strength endurance or muscular endurance (a resistance has to be overcome for a prolonged period of time). A pure endurance sport would be marathon running.

Strength endurance sports require both strength and endurance but the amount of pure endurance necessary for kettlebell sport is comparatively low. At the time of writing this, the IAAF marathon running world record for men is 2 hours, 2 minutes and 57 seconds, set by Dennis Kimetto of Kenya on September 28, 2014, at the Berlin Marathon. Compare that time to the time it takes to complete one of the above mentioned kettlebell events which is 10 minutes. Marathon runners don’t use any external resistance and the necessary force produced with each step by running for that amount of time is so low (in comparison) that very little, if any, strength training is necessary in order to produce results. For kettlebell lifters it’s a completely different story.

Let’s look at another cyclical sport where resistance is involved: rowing. At the present time the world reord for a 2000m row is 6:30.74 set by Robert Manson of New Zealand. While this is admittedly shorter duration than a kettlebell event it’s still useful to look at since rowing is also a muscular endurance cyclical sport. The world record for women at the present time is 7:07.71 by Rumyana Neykova of Bulgaria. Since rowing is an Olympic sport, and actually one of the oldest still in the Games, it has been studied quite a bit. Rowers typically take a logical approach to training: increase strength with the basic exercises, such as squats, deadlifts and presses, while training endurance in the water or on the indoor ergometer. It is true that a higher power output is necessary in rowing since more power equals more distance, compared to kettlebell where the only power necessary is the one needed for the kettlebells to reach their position. That is to say using more power in each repetition with the kettlebells doesn’t give you extra points.

However, if strength goes up, you use less effort per repetition, which means your endurance to lift the weight in question improves. There is actually a valuable guideline one can use for any sport that doesn't require a high power output to determine if strength training is important or not. If the resistance in competition is below 20-25% of the one repetition maximum (1RM) strength training is of very little importance.

Using the above information, consider that a kettlebell practitioner wants to use 32 kg kettlebells (as these will provide more points than 16 or 24 kg kettlebells) and we can determine if the weight fall below 20-25%. Let’s take the long cycle event as an example, where two bells are used which makes it 64 kg (32+32=64). Now, for the sake of the argument, let’s use the higher percentage of 25% to give the endurance proponents the benefit of the doubt. Multiply 32 (one kettlebell) by 4 (the 25%) and you get 128.

If you can confidently clean & jerk 128 kg kettlebells then strength might not be important for you. I have never seen kettlebells like that so let’s look at the closest thing which would be the barbell clean & jerk. It’s not a perfect example, but it’s as good as it gets. In that case we need to take our two imaginary 128 kg kettlebells into consideration so the total weight would be 256 kg. At the present time the world record in clean & jerk is held by Hossein Rezazadeh of Iran, set at the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens, Greece. His world record is 263 kg. Arguably the strongest weightlifter today is Lasha Talakhadze of Georgia, his best clean & jerk in competition is 258 kg.

Indeed, if you’re Lasha Talakhadze or Hossein Rezazadeh in 2004, strength might not be important to you for kettlebell lifting… Unless you want to use heavier kettlebells than 32 kg’s of course. I highly doubt that any kettlebell lifter ever has been even remotely close to these numbers however, which in my estimation means strength is important for every kettlebell lifter. In fact it’s more important than endurance as long as you can last a 10 minute set.

Arja Genot set a junior world record in long cycle at the age of 15 after 4 months of training for it. The way me and her head coach Emmanuel Genot (who writes excellent stuff on his own website) approached it was as follows:

  • Arja already had a very good strength base. She has spent 3 years in total doing powerlifting and weightlifting. She deadlifted 100 kg at the age of 13. Handling the 12 kg kettlebells necessary for the world record would not be a strength problem because to her and the lifts she has done it’s a comparatively light weight.
  • In her first competition we just wanted her to get used to competing in kettlebell sport and to achieve a rank. In the second competition we wanted her to break the world record.
  • Because of her strength base we could focus on maintaining it while building the proper technique and the pace she needed to complete the 10 minutes.

The key to Arja’s world record was her strength base built the years prior to starting her kettlebell training.

It should be perfectly clear by now, if she didn’t have her strength base created earlier it’s unlikely she would have beaten the world record in four months of training. Because we want her to use heavier and heavier kettlebells we constantly focus on strength training. Her endurance is fine. The endurance is trained with strongman events (which of course builds strength) and specific sports practice. Focusing on more pure endurance will not be key in helping her beat the next world record, strength will.

We use a simple model, a sports model as I like to call it, recognizing that the key quality is strength endurance (not endurance alone) and separate from that we do sports practice, which would be the kettlebell lifting itself.

The question that I’m sure will arise is how to train for strength endurance? Within the model we use just about any strength training system can work as long as it doesn’t drain the athlete from performing the sports practice. Some will logically draw the conclusion that using heavier kettlebells than in competition is key, and while that is indeed a good idea it’s also insufficient. Build up the entire body with big basic exercises, squats, presses, pulls, strongman training and so on and so forth.

The method used will not primarily be the maximum effort method (lifting the most amount of weight you can in a single repetition). While maximal strength is indeed a key quality, the maximum effort method takes a backseat in Emmanuel’s training of kettlebell athletes. The sub-maximum effort method (lifting weights but not to failure) is his primary method used at the current time. I would also suggest that you consider the repetition effort method (lifting weights to failure). Keep these things in mind and I’m sure you will see your kettlebell lifting improve.

Good luck.