Hardstyle kettlebell training is notorious for its goals of strength and power, short training sessions, using compound lifts, practicing the same movements over and over again, and using low rep ranges: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps being the standard format.
Bodybuilding is notorious for its goal of muscle hypertrophy, ultra-long training sessions, employing both compound and isolation movements, using variations of exercises, and going across rep ranges including using high-rep sets to induce pump.
And interestingly enough, those who do bodybuilding, aside from issues with steroid abuse and spending inordinate lengths of time at the gym, have remarkably healthy joints.
Having done bodybuilding training before, I can attest that this is probably due to their good technique, muscle awareness and relatively high-rep sets.
I think that if hardstyle Kettlebellers want to keep their joints healthy, they would be wise to take a leaf out of a bodybuilder’s book and vary both our rep ranges and exercises just a little bit more.
I’m not suggesting going full CrossFit with insane exercise variability, or going full Girevoy Sport with extreme high rep range. Those are sports, and sports are always extreme.
Here’s what I mean:
First, maximal strength isn’t everything. Most of life’s activities don’t require maximal strength feats, instead they require a repetitive and sustained moderate effort. Think hunting and gathering, DIY house renovations, gardening, hiking, chasing after toddlers, playing social sports, cleaning etc. Our bodies must have capacity to keep going over the longer haul. And pure low-rep strength training doesn’t deliver in that regard as much as you might think.
Yes, the skill transfer of maximal strength is huge, but the cost of maximal strength *training* is also huge. And you don’t need to engage in maximal strength training in order to get very strong, you just need to train consistently for a very long time. I’m a living testament to that, as well as my family.
Second, our ligaments and tendons don’t recover as fast as muscles during strength training, because they don’t have as much blood supply due to their structure and lack of capillarization. Constantly working on strength and in low rep ranges (even with varying weights) will increase muscle tensile strength, but since the ligaments aren’t catching up as quickly, they get strained by being pulled on with the ever stronger muscles.
Higher rep training with moderate weights pushes more blood and nutrients into the tissues, and pumps toxic byproducts out faster. High lactate is not the problem if you don’t go crazy on volume and allow your body to recover with proper rest. That’s why a physiotherapist will give you endurance and hypertrophy training in order to strengthen your rehabilitating tendon or ligament. They will never give you 3-5 reps of high load, unless they’re trying to keep you coming for longer.
Third, kettlebells actually lend themselves to a progression from low rep training to high rep training. Back in the day of Russian kettlebell fitness, one would start with a kettlebell that feels moderately heavy (we could only have 16kg and above back then), and uses it for whatever lifts one can do with it (sometimes all you can do its just deadlift and carry it, which is fine). As you become stronger overtime, your Kettlebell feels lighter, and you add more exercises such as cleans, squats, and eventually jerks, snatches and strict press. Then, instead of purchasing a heavier kettlebell right away, a Russian would ‘milk’ the current kettlebell for all it’s got. They would do higher and higher reps with it, building endurance, tissue resilience and capacity. ‘Owning the Kettlebell’ in other words. Then, once it’s got so light that one can lift it overhead for 5-10 minutes non-stop, one goes and buys a bigger one.
Nowadays, we don’t need to be so limited, but there’s a benefit to both exercise variability and to building high reps before you upgrade to a heavier bell.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do pure strength training. 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps definitely has its place and I recommend doing it regularly if your goal is strength gains.
However, if you aren’t in a hurry then you might choose a more moderate rep range, such as 3 sets of 8-12 reps. The risk to benefit ratio of constant heavy lifting is pretty high and isn’t the magic bullet it is sold to be over the long haul.
Having compared how my body feels and performs on heavy lifting and on moderate lifting, I would take moderate any day. And I have achieved feats of strength *without* heavy lifting, but instead but doing moderate reps with moderate weights for over 20 years. No joint injuries either.
My mom is in her 60s, and she’s doing 16kg get ups and jumping lunges like a pro, no joint issues. And she has never pushed for heavy weights.
My father is in his 60s and he can perform 25 pullups unbroken, he has never pushed for heavy lifting.
Both of them have exercised their entire lives.
Heavy lifting with low reps sells because, just like an extreme diet, it promises to deliver fast results. And just like an extreme diet, it does deliver, but with side effects of unpleasant long-term consequences – joint problems, lack of motor control, a fried central nervous system, a lack of capacity in higher rep ranges, and a higher risk of injury.
Also, few people know that one can get the same strength-building effects with higher reps (8-12) when applied consistently over time. The key word here is *over time* and in our instant gratification culture, many people forget the value of consistently doing something relatively easy for a long time. Instead, we fall for the bootcamp mentality of ‘strength gains in 6 weeks’. And we pay the price.
So, if you are playing the long game, I recommend going like the bodybuilders and old school Russians, and doing higher reps with moderate weights more often and focus on consistency over time.
Example of rep range variability over a month:
Week 1: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps
Week 2: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps
Week 3: 2-3 sets of 15 reps
Week 4: active recovery, yoga, swimming, hiking etc