Why Kettlebells, Barbells, and Bodyweight Demand Different Programming

At every Barbell Certification and Bodyweight Certification I get the same question: “If StrongFirst is a principle-based school of strength, why does it teach different approaches to programming for different modalities?”

A fair question. I will limit the discussion to the “grinds” and leave the quick lifts out, as they do play by a different set of rules.

The Important Ways Kettlebells, Barbells, and Bodyweight Differ

The fundamental programming principles (continuity of the training process, waviness of loads, and specialized variety) will remain the same, regardless of the modality. The same low reps and high tension will be employed and muscle failure will be avoided. What will change are the progression tactics.

Two variables impose the need for change: weight adjustability and equipment availability.

The Important Ways Kettlebells, Barbells, and Bodyweight Differ

When it comes to precise load adjustment, the barbell rules. There is a very exact 1RM and the coach can program something like 88.5% of that number. Or he can choose to add a small amount of weight as a means of progression. The bodyweight is the least cooperative in the weight adjustability department. You weigh what you weigh. The kettlebell is in between. The weight is adjustable, but only in large increments. It is a 33% jump from 24kg to 32kg and a 25% jump from 16kg to 20kg, and so on.

When it comes to availability, the tables turn—bodyweight rules. As George Samuelson, SFG II, has put it, bodyweight training is “strength for everyday carry.” Like a gun. A police officer will leave his “barbell” of a shotgun in his cruiser and bring his “bodyweight” Glock to his beat.

The barbell is not easily accessible throughout the day—unless you work at a gym or own one. The kettlebell is in the middle again. You could keep one under your desk and shut your office door here and there. A rare apartment is big enough for a barbell, but even a small studio can handle a couple of kettlebells.

SFB Bodyweight Certification

How This Affects Programming

There are different ways of progressively overloading the body. Add weight, add reps, reduce the rest periods, etc. However, when absolute strength is the goal, the choices are narrowed. Adding reps beyond five or increasing the density are off the table, as these types of progression build mass and endurance and not a lot of strength. 

Two strategies remain:

  1. Increase the intensity. To remind you, in strength training “intensity” does not refer to a subjective effort. It is an objective measure of the weight or the resistance, e.g. % of your 1RM.
  2. Increase the volume while maintaining high intensity and limiting the reps per set to five and fewer. “Volume” is the total number of reps done in a workout, a week, etc.

Both strategies must be used over a long haul but, as you are about to see, the barbell is more biased toward the first and the kettlebell toward the second. Bodyweight is somewhere in between.

The barbell makes it easy to up the intensity. Just plug in your numbers into a proven powerlifting cycle template (the SFL Barbell Cert manual offers more than thirty choices), and you are in business.

The barbell frowns upon the second strategy because exercises like deadlifts and back squats take a lot out of the body and demand extra recovery. The second strategy can work if you lift several times a day and practice sophisticated recovery techniques, the way elite Russian lifters do, but this is impractical for most people with real jobs.

Bodyweight demands creativity in resistance adjustment: shifting more weight to one limb, elevating the feet, manipulating the range of motion, etc. You cannot adjust the resistance with barbell precision, hence cycling is out and specialized variety is in as a means of increasing intensity. Volume is easily added, as the exercises are a lot less systemically draining than the powerlifts. Besides, your bodyweight is always handy for a strength training session, which enables you to make dramatic strength gains on the grease-the-groove protocol. In summary, bodyweight strength training employs a balanced combination of both strategies.

The kettlebell is a special case. You can add weight—but what would it take to make a 10 to 33% leap of faith between sizes? What seems like a problem at a first glance is a blessing in disguise. The kettlebell forces you to increase quality volume and to pay special attention to tension techniques.

Russian specialists like Robert Roman established that a “functional base” of high volume is needed to reach high strength levels. As Bill Starr has put it, the broader the foundation of volume, the higher you can build your pyramid of strength.

The ladder is the best way to put up crazy volume while maintaining a high quality of each rep. The Rite of Passage kettlebell military press program calls for building up to 75 reps on the heavy day: (1, 2, 3, 4, 5) x 5. Once you dominate the 24kg bell in that manner, you are ready to press the 32—if you remember your tension skills and your head is in the right place. It takes patience to build up your press from 24kg to 26 to 28 to 30 to 32. It takes courage to go straight from 24 to 32.

The Important Ways Kettlebells, Barbells, and Bodyweight Differ
It takes courage to strictly press a big one. SFG II Mike Sousa’s PR is 60kg or 132lbs.

The Big Picture on Kettlebells, Barbells, and Bodyweight

Once you take a step back and look at the big picture, it becomes apparent that you must be tactically flexible to accommodate to the opportunities and limitations of each implement—while firmly abiding by the fundamental, unshakable training principles.

14 thoughts on “Why Kettlebells, Barbells, and Bodyweight Demand Different Programming

  • Pavel,
    will you elaborate on progression tactics in the quick lifts? I’ve been bitten by the Olympic lifts bug and I wonder how to go about adding plates.

    • Andrew,

      The best way to make progress in the Oly lifts is a combination of volume and intensity play along with some well thought out specialized variety exercises to challenge technical deficiencies of the lifts. If you have the ability to attend a PLAN STRONG seminar, I strongly recommend it to get down the inner workings of soviet weightlifting system. The PLAN STRONG seminar manual and Weightlifting Programming by Bob Takano are the two books I have by my side any time I write a program.

  • Very right and in-depth article, Pavel. While with bodyweight and kettlebells intensity jumps are high, it doesn’t mean that they obey different training principles. Progressive overload is the king. The trick is to split huge jumps into smaller ones. Thank you for the article.

    – Alex

  • “Everything should be made as simple as possible, but no simpler.” — Einstein

  • At first I thought you were crazy talking about ‘practicing’ everyday in your book The Naked Warrior. But after 8 months of HSPU, pullups and pistols 3 times a day….I’ve never been stronger in my life. And at 59 everyday life is so much easier and fun. The best part is your advice about cardio….GET AN ACTIVE LIFE! Thank you for my new life!

  • Excellent article! This was one of the things i did not realise before (duh!) – after your and Fabio’s speach at our SFB Cert it felt almost like enlightement to me. Thank, you, sir.

  • Dear Pavel,

    Thank you for the great post.
    I have a couple of questions regarding kettlebell as a strength tool.
    There is a debate about KB as a strength tool compared to barbell in an internet community.
    Some people say that KB can be effective strength tool, and the others say that KB should be regarded as conditioning tool because barbell is much more efficient to build strength.

    Assuming that one with around 200lbs BW trains only with standard weight KBs (16, 24, 32… kg)
    1. Is it possible for one to reach the same level of strength or beyond compared to x1.5 BW BP, x2.0 BW SQ, x2.5 BW DL which you mentioned in Easy Strength?
    2. If possible, can KB only training be as efficient as barbell training?

    Thank you.

  • Great, great post. Pretty much why StrongFirst is my go-to…the methods logically fit your goals and lifestyle instead of assuming a one-size-fits-all approach.

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