Building Muscles with Kettlebells - What the Pros Say

Paul S. Chun • Tuesday, July 21, 2020 • Tokyo, Japan

How to Read This Post

So you're trying to build your body up with kettlebells? As you may already know, there are plenty of resources for you to figure out how to make it happen. Of course... sometimes the information is conflicting. Other times it might seem like people are just shooting hot air out of their lungs. How do you know what works and what doesn't when it comes to building up your muscles with kettlebell training?

I've decided that the best thing to do would be to take (with extensive references, of course) information from people who have written about this subject, present what they say in a digestible format, and then try to take away what I can based on what seems to be consistent with across all of the experts' advice, as well as anything that might be lacking.

Robert Miller — Owner and Trainer, In Kilograms

This piece from US Navy veteran and RKC II instructor Robert Miller, posted on the RKC School of Strength, is packed with thorough, detailed and useful information that might take multiple sessions with him to get down - it's that dense with useful information.

Though his "always look cool" philosophy might taste a bit too 80's Hollywood for some, his insistence on the importance of personal appearance is nevertheless what really builds the credibility of this information, which I believe he only lists because he's tested them and hand-picked the most useful exercises for the goal of building muscle.

The following is a minuscule summary of what he presents, which also includes what he calls a "Mass Template," which is available as a free download - no sign ups, no emails, no bullshit, just good, useful content.

What's Important What Not to Do Diet Other Considerations

  • Compound exercises are your best friend for muscle growth
  • Eccentric, Isometric and Concentric: Time them with 5s - 2s - 1s or 3s - 2s - 1s respectively
  • Have a wide range of Kettlebells, and double up with two-kettlebell exercises
  • Turkish Get-Ups as warm ups, Snatches after the heavy lifting
  • Technique, technique, technique. Technique is everything. Train with a coach to quickly master technique.
  • Limit inflammatory foods like sugar and alcohol
  • Eat for recovery, not for flavor
  • Drink a gallon of water every day
  • Leans, greens, fruits and nuts
  • Eat breakfast
  • Eat up to six small meals a day
  • Find a work/life balance and determine how long you want to gain muscle for, and how frequently
  • The full post and the template can be found on the blog for the the RKC School of Strength.

    Geoff Neupert, CSCS — Author, Kettlebell Muscle: The Secrets of Compound

    In his piece on Bodybuilding.com, Geoff begins by talking about how kettlebells are normally known to build a light sweat and not as a bulking tool. He then goes on to say that, used correctly, you can see some serious gains with kettlebell training. I guess that's probably obvious, given what the title of his book is.

    Then you can probably tell that he's all about compound exercises as well. He goes on about how the shape of kettlebells are what makes them good for muscle growth, specifically because their offset shape makes for the use of stabilizing muscles and are therefore good for growth. Neupert goes on to explain that there are three ways to build muscle:

    • Mechanical Tension — Heavier weights, low reps, like powerlifters
    • Muscular Damage — Moderate weights for medium-to-high reps, like bodybuilders
    • Metabolic Stress — High reps/complexes so you feel a burn

    He then goes on to claim that, for his 12-week muscle growth plan, you only need to perform three exercises, albeit in the different ways to target muscle growth via the three above-mentioned methods:

    • Military Press
    • Front Squat
    • Swing

    What's Important What Not to Do Diet Other Considerations

    • Learn the three different ways to build muscle: mechanical tension, muscular damage and metabolic stress
    • Do compound exercises, namely the military press, front squat and kettlebell swing
  • Don't worry about abs - the compound exercises will cover them
  • Eat a lot: a starting point is the number of calories equal to your weight, in pounds, multiplied by 15-20
  • Eat a diet consisting of 30% protein, 40% carbs and 30% fat
  • None
  • The full post can be found on Bodybuilding.com.

    Phil McDougall — Personal Trainer, PhilipMcDougall.com

    This former Commando of the Royal Navy begins his piece on Kettlebell Kings, How to Build Functional Mass with Kettlebells, by talking about his experiences as a massage therapist. He talks about the differences between gym rats' chronically tight muscles and those of an Olympic weightlifter, whose muscles were able to activate and deactivate on command and were much looser. He goes on to talk about how functional mass means you get to have those Hollywood muscles while still making your body useful in real life situations.

    His depth of knowledge also straddles the line between impressive and overwhelming, but it definitely feels like his advice has been experimented with and tested thoroughly. As a result, one should probably take the time to read over it a few times: there are a huge array of tips, including expected ones like focusing on grind exercises rather than ballistic exercises, and other surprising ones like the benefits of using two kettlebells, but never as pairs.

    What's Important What Not to Do Diet Other Considerations

    • Don't use anything to stabilize yourself other than stabilizer muscles
    • Train to strengthen patterns, not muscle groups
    • Train extension more than flexion
    • When training with two kettlebells, NEVER use pairs!
    • Lift heavy!
    • High intensity for low reps (stimulates HGH)
  • For muscle growth, skip ballistics and do grind exercises
  • Avoid eating processed "crap"
  • Eat 3-4x a day within a ten hour time frame
  • For the other fourteen hours of a day, only have water
  • Take a large portion of carbs after training
    • A sample exercise program is available on the actual post

    The full post can be found on Kettlebell Kings.

    Alex Roberts — Health & Fitness Editor, JOE Media

    In direct contrast to Phil McDougall, Alex Roberts recommends grabbing a pair of kettlebells in his article written for JOE Media. You should choose a weight that's about 70-80% of your max, and the exercises he recommends are:

    • Overhead press
    • Clean & jerk
    • Snatch
    • Double swing

    Roberts also emphasizes the value of kettlebell training as a foundation-building method for traditional muscle-building methods, citing a study where lifters were able to increase their max deadlift weight by 10kg after just four weeks of kettlebell training.

    What's Important What Not to Do Diet Other Considerations

    • Use a pair of kettlebells
    • Shoot for 6-10 reps of 70-80% of your max for the overhead press, clean & jerk, snatch and double swing
  • No things to avoid
  • No dietary information
  • Seems to see kettlebell training as a supplement to "traditional" muscle building exercises
  • My Take-Aways

    There Is a Clear Consensus: Compound Exercises and High Work Volume

    In one form or another, literally every single one of these sources mentioned the importance of doing compound exercises, meaning targeting multiple muscles with a single exercise.

    In particular, the overhead press and swing seem to get a lot of love, with the front squat and the clean/jerk cycle getting good recognition as well.

    Since everyone seems to implement these exercises into their own philosophy of fitness, I'd recommend choosing just one trainer's advice and following it to a tee, rather than taking bits and pieces that you like, buffet-style.

    Focus on Eccentric Reps for Muscle Growth

    From both Robert Miller's recommendations on focusing on the Eccentric portion of an exercise and the muscle damage mentioned in Geoff Neupert's piece, it seems that negative reps are a good bet for growth, and my approach would be to focus on negative reps of grind (not ballistic) exercises, regardless of which trainer's program you end up choosing.

    As a good motivator, given the kettlebell's shape, negative reps mean putting more stress not just on the main muscles but on the stabilizer muscles, which, if I understand correctly, means that you will experience growth in both primary and secondary muscles. This is a huge benefit unique to kettlebell training!

    If You Feel Like a Program Isn't Working For You, Switch!

    Hey - everyone's different. That means that instructors can differ in terms of advice for building muscle, and that also means that you might respond better, in terms of either muscle growth or motivation, to a certain philosophy over another.

    Try out with the one that seems to resonate best with you, and if you aren't seeing the results that you were expected after a certain period of time, there's no shame in trying out the advice of someone else. Either way, it's far better than doing nothing at all, because couches are a guaranteed non-path to increasing muscle mass.

    Whichever program you decide to try out, please do consider using an Elbower account (including the no-bullshit Elbower FREE edition) to keep track of your daily progress.

    Less Appreciated: Kitchen Time

    All posts tended to shy away from suggesting anything major in the diet category, though Geoff Neupert did mention the importance of (a) knowing how many calories you should be taking in, and (b) what percentage of each macronutrient you should be taking in.

    I'm a bit surprised that none of the articles mentioned the importance of having a caloric surplus, which is just a fancy way of saying that you need to consume more calories than you burn in a day. This is incredibly important for muscle growth, and possibly more important than any of the information shared by anyone. JC Deen wrote up a nice article about caloric surplus on his website, describing it in much further detail.

    Knowing that one needs to eat more than they burn can sometimes lead people to poor dietary choices where they hound down their favorite foods, which in the short term is fun, especially if you love the odd cheeseburger here and there and are happy to wash it down with a chocolate protein shake. But obviously this isn't a healthy solution, nor is it a desirable habit to build. Therefore, I'll leave you with a recipe that I tend to make (or at least follow to 80% with my own improvisations) often: Alan Thrall's take of Chanko Nabe.