We all love new personal records, especially when they are one-rep max or max-rep records—that first time deadlifting your bodyweight or ten pounds more than your last TSC, the first pull-up or when you finally get twenty. While testing absolute or relative strength is fun stuff, we also know not to just chase weights and that we should strive for consistent and constant progress.
How can we test ourselves without testing our 1RM or max reps?
The answer is testing mid-range personal records.
Like setting a new 3RM or turning your 5RM into an 8RM. When you can take your double press with the 16kg kettlebells from doubles to triples, that’s progress. When you take your 5RM front squat from double 24s to double 28s, that’s progress. Stronger is stronger.
The issue with absolute testing is we need to earn the right for an absolute test and this can’t be rushed. Unless of course you enjoy dealing with injuries and setbacks. For a newer student, this may take a while, but really the same goes for the advanced lifter. Any advanced student knows it can take months to bump that 1RM. Both groups of students need to work on their foundation—building or widening their base. A pyramid is only as high as its base. We want our house of strength to stand the test of time.
But why not give students a motivating win while they’re working on building that foundation or strengthening that base? This was my motivation for creating a 5RM kettlebell front squat program. I wanted to show my students how their strength would improve with focus and planning.
As a bonus, the kettlebell front squat transfers into so many other lifts. Need a bigger press or stronger clean and jerk? Start with a strong rack position. Working on that pistol? Overload the legs. Want a bulletproof core? Spend sixty seconds with 100lbs on your chest.
I like six weeks as a program length because it offers the best middle ground. It’s long enough to practice skill and build strength, but short enough to keep my students’ attention. I also love the 5×5 system. It’s so simple, yet has room for some manipulation. Here’s how it works.
The 5RM Kettlebell Front Squat Program Template
In this program, we will take the 5×5 format and combine it with the principle of spending the majority of our time in 70%-80% of 5RM. This kettlebell front squat session will only need to be practiced once a week. That’s it.
This squat program can be used in conjunction with any other program. I recommend some “play” on your other sessions, but keep it to a light or medium type of legwork.
The idea of “play” is something that is out of focus and can be fun or assist in other goals. Since our focus is the kettlebell front squat, any other lower-body movement would be extra credit. Maybe you recently learned of a new pistol progression—play could be feeling out that new progression. A student could also play with any other leg work from light goblets squats to single-leg practice. Play is something that doesn’t have to be planned, but should still be noted.
As an example, here is a three-day split I use:
- Monday: Kettlebell front squats, heavy day
- Tuesday: Barbell deadlifts, medium day
- Friday: Single-leg work, light day
Just make sure you take a rest day before and after the kettlebell front squat session. Remember, the kettlebell front squats are the priority in the session and in the week.
Week 1 test week, take 5 sets to find a 5RM. This can be done as a goblet squat or front squat (the program works either way). Start light and work up in five-rep sets.
- Set 1: 12kg x 5
- Set 2: 16kg x 5
- Set 3: 20kg x 5
- Set 4: 24kg x 5
- Set 5: 28kg x 5
- Set 1: 24kg x 5
- Set 2: Double 16kg x 5
- Set 3: 44kg x 5
- Set 4: Double 24kg x 5
- Set 5: Double 28kg x 5
The combinations are endless but the idea is to jump up 10%-20%.
A question to address: should you do single or double kettlebells? I would stick to one or the other as much as possible so that practice is consistent. That said, during the program some percentages may work better with one bell versus two bells (more on how to handle percentage jumps comes next). Just make sure if the test week is done with a goblet that retest is done with a goblet, as well. Same with double kettlebells.
Kettlebell Sizes vs. Percentages
There are some caveats to the percentages in the chart above. Sometimes the jumps between percentages are smaller than the differences in kettlebell sizes. I think this is a good thing.
If a student tests out with double 16kg kettlebells (which totals 70.4lbs), then 75% of that would be 52.8lbs. A 24kg kettlebell or two 12kg kettlebells both equal 52.8lbs, so that works great.
But 80% of our double 16kg kettlebells would be 56.3lbs, or 25.6kg. And we can’t lift double 12.8kg kettlebells—because they don’t make those. So, this student would stick to double 12kgs until the programming indicates to use 85% at which point I would recommend lifting with the 28kg goblet. Stick to the bells as close to the % as possible.
Here is what this student’s program would look like:
As you can see, the 5×5 stayed constant, but the combinations changed slightly. Any combination will work on weeks three and four as long as it’s a combination that adds up to 5×5. The actual combination will be dependent on the student and bells. Err on the lighter side if anything is in question.
Just remember, the focus is of the program is to:
- Never practice with test weight.
- Build up load over time.
To simplify, here is an easy breakdown going by kettlebells instead of percentages, based on the typical 4kg jump in bell size.
Here is another student’s log with a heavier front squat:
As you can see each student used slightly different 5×5 combinations, but stayed true to the two rules: never practice with the test weight and build up load.
Week 6 Retest: How to Organize Test Day
As with any test day, make sure sleep, stress, food, and mindset are in check. After warm-up (use the one of your choice), we use 5 sets to build up to test weights, but in a modified descending latter, with all percentages based off the 5RM from week one:
- Set 1: 5 reps at 50%
- Set 2: 4 reps at 70%
- Set 3: 3 reps at 80%
- Set 4: 2 reps at 100%
- Set 5: 5 reps at new 5RM
What to Expect from the 5RM Kettlebell Front Squat Program
When it came to how each of our students worked through this program, we had several students use several different combinations. But, in the end, each student achieved the same result—a new 5RM. We saw a 100% success rate. When it comes to this program, the only limitation you may encounter with some students is how well they can clean.
But, in the end, the proof is in the pudding. We had a female student bump from double 24kg kettlebells to double 28kg kettlebells. We had students move their goblet squats from 20kg to 28kg, 44kg to double 24kg, double 32kg to double 36kg, and everything in between. We project that we will have multiple students squatting bodyweight for reps after our next cycle.
Follow the plan and strength will follow. You will be able to squat more for more reps than ever before. You will build a solid core built on pressure and time.
I encourage you to embrace (pun intended) every set and finish every rep with a smile. By the end of six weeks, you will become more resilient and harder to kill. Please, let me know how the program goes for you and feel free to ask any questions.