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Grind To Grow: Try Your Squats And Presses With Kettlebells!

I’ll never forget the first time I squatted with a pair of 32-kg kettlebells on my chest. It felt like an elephant was sitting on me. The pressure in my gut was immense, and I could barely breathe. Afterward, my abs were almost immediately sore. I was shocked, because as a competitive weightlifter I could front squat, butt-to-ankles, more than 400 pounds. But these two 70-pound balls of iron made me feel like I was fighting for my life!

I quickly learned that kettlebells are unjustly overlooked as strength equipment; they are often only favored as endurance tools for high-rep ballistic movements like swings and snatches. They’re equally adept and providing muscular overload on slow, heavy lifts like squats and presses.

Why? It’s simple: Your body knows that to get stronger, as well as to continue burning fat, it must adapt. Heavy kettlebells give it a challenge that is uniquely difficult to overcome. Because of their odd shape, kettlebells actually make the body do more work than traditional implements such as barbells and dumbbells. Sub them out even just for a couple of movements you already do, and you may be surprised at the benefits you receive.

The Toughest Squat You’ve Never Done

The reason the double-kettlebell front squat is so much more challenging than its barbell cousin is due to leverage. Consider the rack position: With a barbell, the load rests near the top of the spine, across the collarbone and the front of the deltoids, just below the head. In this arrangement, the barbell becomes virtually one with the lifter, making it easier to move the external resistance. This allows you to move much more weight.

With a kettlebell, it’s almost the opposite. In the rack, the weight rests low, against the outside of the forearms, with the elbows pointed down rather than out. The bells try to pull your body forward and off-balance, which forces your entire midsection to reflexively contract in order to keep you from folding in half.

If you’ve been lifting—or just reading about lifting—for a few years, you’ve probably heard this same argument used as a reason to do barbell front squats rather than barbell back squats. But the truth is that the simple substitution of two kettlebells—or even just one—for a barbell means your midsection will take even more of a beating. And this has benefits beyond building core strength.

To start with, you’ll become a better squatter. Because the spine is protected due to the increased reflexive core activation from the rack, lifters can usually squat deeper with kettlebells than they would with a barbell. The difference here is one you’ll likely feel on your backside for days after the first time you try it, so consider yourself warned.

Kettlebell Exercises
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Grind To Grow

The increased stability demands upon your core musculature during the front squat are also present in other slow kettlebell lifts—or “grinds,” as they’re often called. Look at the double kettlebell military press, for example: The increased demands placed upon your core mean your body has to work harder to stabilize your joints so your prime movers—the lats and delts, in the case of the press—can do their work.

The upshot, as with the front squat, is that you’ll need less weight to make all types of muscles work more efficiently—particularly the crucial stabilizer muscles around the shoulder and other joints. Efficiency, in this case, means they’ll do what they’re supposed to when they’re supposed to do it. To pick one painful example for many lifters, a strong rotator cuff stabilizes your shoulder joint so you can safely bench press. A weak or injured one, on the other hand, keeps you from benching heavy, or from doing it at all.

Double Kettlebell Military Press

I’m also of the opinion that one of the causes of what are commonly called workout “plateaus” are actually stabilizer muscles that are weak or don’t work properly. Faced with a heavy load that might damage the joint, your body intuitively protects itself by shutting down the nerve force to the bigger muscles—the prime movers—that traditionally do the work.

You may have heard similar logic used to tell you why you should train with free weights rather than with machines. Yes, it’s true: Core and joint stabilizer activation happen to a certain extent with any training tool, but both are more intense with a kettlebell, due to the increased muscular activation from the offset handle. Consider them the freest of free weights.

You Only Need One

“Resist the urge to let your stronger side set the pace. Train both sides to be relatively even with each other.”

Want to know what’s even tougher than a double-kettlebell grind? The same movement loaded unilaterally. Working one side of your body at a time, as with a single-kettlebell military press, requires your body to make all the muscles on the side opposite of the load—and especially the core musculature—contract to keep you from being pulled over sideways.

Another interesting result from training with a single-kettlebell is that you can even-out strength imbalances from side-to-side. Often, side-to-side imbalances are responsible for holding back your progress on traditional bilateral exercises like the barbell squat, deadlift, and military press. Many people find a single-kettlebell front squat to be much more challenging on the core than a double front squat. The same thing holds true for the military press.

If you find you have a strength imbalance, resist the urge to let your stronger side set the pace. Train both sides to be relatively even with each other, both in the number of reps and the amount of weight you put over your head. You may feel like you’re holding back at first, but don’t be surprised if your big barbell lifts get stronger as a result.

Grind to Burn

Strength is a worthy goal on its own, and it’s more than enough reason to try kettlebell squats and presses. But getting stronger is also essential for burning fat and getting leaner over the long term.

Think of it as a cycle. The increased muscle activation and range of motion you experience from doing deep, difficult squats and overhead presses demand that more muscles work harder than they would otherwise. When you work harder, you burn more calories. And since training the core, especially in an integrated manner while standing, makes the body stronger, you’ll be able to lift heavier and work even harder in the future—which burns even more calories. And so on …

The downside, if there is one, is that kettlebell grinds are known to leave bruises—on your ego. I think you’ll be just as surprised as I was at just how hard they make you work. But stick with them, and you’ll also be surprised by the fruits of your labor: A stronger midsection, a more powerful and defined body, and more strength you can put to good use.


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Get Growing: 7 Ways To Gain Weight For The Hardgainer

Gaining weight can be incredibly difficult and stressful for certain people. For these folks, commonly called “hardgainers,” adding even a little size can seem like a monumental task. Personally, I’m skeptical about the extent of this difficulty. From my time in the military to setting recent personal powerlifting goals, I’ve had my fair share of experiences gaining healthy weight.

At my lowest weight of 173 in the military, I had the energy of a bull and personal bests that included a 435-pound deadlift, a 315-pound squat, and a 285-pound bench press. Later, when I flew up to 230 pounds, these same lifts shot up over one hundred pounds apiece, and I still boast a better-than-average work capacity.

Over the years, I’ve learned that tackling any goal comes down to being honest, acknowledging how much work it will take, and pushing through that work. If you’re a hardgainer who wants to gain weight, you probably won’t feel hungry all the time, but you’ll still have to eat. If you really want to grow, you need to silence your fears of getting fat, of your performance suffering, and of eating 100 percent clean.

“Gaining weight can be difficult and stressful. With proper training and willingness to do the work, you can build quality muscle and add healthy size.”

I don’t care how hard it is for you to gain weight. With proper training and willingness to do the work, you can build quality muscle and add healthy size. Do you have the courage to actually step outside your comfort zone and get something done? If you want to grow, start with these seven tips!

1 Use data over guesswork

The guessing game and going by “feel” never give you an accurate picture of what you eat on a daily basis. So do the math and figure it out!

Write down your daily diet in a notebook or food-tracking mobile app, crunch the numbers, and seek help if you need additional eyes. You may be surprised by what you find. Perhaps you thought you ate 3,300 calories one day when, in fact, you ate only 2,900. That’s a 400-calorie difference that can add up overtime.

“Write down your daily diet in a notebook or food-tracking mobile app, crunch the numbers, and seek help if you need additional eyes.”

Often, you just need something as visual as a food log for a couple weeks to fully grasp what you put into your diet—or not, in many cases.

Action point: Spend at least one month writing down your meals, snacks, and calories of any form that touch your lips. This serves as a mental exercise to get yourself used to eyeballing portion sizes and grasping the frequency and size of the meals you can consistently suck in on a daily basis.

Take advantage of this experimental period to tweak your diet according to results and how you feel, and learn how your body responds. For example, if you haven’t been gaining as much muscle as you’d like, check your protein intake to see if it’s adequate; if not, bump it up by increasing protein portion size or shift foods around a bit. One gram of protein per pound of bodyweight is a solid daily target.

One month is all you need to get a good picture of your caloric intake, but if you feel like it really helps, by all means, continue doing it until you can confidently start assembling meals through approximation and still achieve the results you want.

Just be sure to avoid getting consumed by the idea that you need to count every calorie all the time.

2 Add calorie bonuses in addition to planned meals

Hardgainers don’t gain weight for a slew of reasons. Chief among them is that they don’t sneak in enough extra calories into their diet. Finding something to add as a surplus source of quick and easy calories is clutch for major gains.

Sure, this might be easier said than done, but it’s a matter of identifying foods and recipes that are calorie-dense but light on stomach space. These foods include nut butters, olive oil, coconut oil, avocado oil, grass-fed butters, honey, full-fat coconut milk, and full-fat Greek yogurt. Some other viable options consist of drinking milk throughout the day, making peanut butter and (insert your choice of condiment) sandwiches, homemade 1,000-calorie protein shakes, and homemade energy bars or “cookies.”

“Finding something to add as a surplus source of quick and easy calories is clutch for major gains.”

Once you figure out the foods which bloat the calorie count but not the stomach, plan to put them into your meals. That means making things in advance, thinking ahead, and having foods like full-fat Greek yogurt and nut butters within arm’s reach and ready. Don’t be lazy about it.

More calories = more growth, so pack on the calories and cram them in where you can.

Action point: one of my favorite quick and easy snacks

  1. Grab a jar of all-natural peanut butter (none of that added sugar and oils funny business!) and empty it into a bowl.
  2. Add two or three scoops of quality protein powder, a little honey to taste, and about 1/2 cup of dried oats.
  3. Add just enough water to make it mixable but not soupy at all.
  4. Mix all together.
  5. Separate into little balls that can hold together and refrigerate.
  6. Eat one with each of your meals over the next few days.

Other good options include many awesome high protein recipes by Protein Powder Chef, Anna Sward.

3 You need to eat carbs (yes, even the starchy ones)

This tip seems pretty straightforward, but you’d be surprised by how many people ask me why they’re not gaining weight when their only carbohydrate sources come from vegetables, trace amounts of sugars, fruits, and legumes.

I’m not saying to go completely crazy on trashy carbohydrates, but your body will gain better results from additional carb sources such as rice, oats, sweet potatoes, and—dare I say it—bread. This is especially true with heavy weightlifting, since carbs are needed to replenish glycogen stores that a particularly grueling lifting session devours. Some studies suggest that timing the majority of your starches around when you train may shunt unnecessary fat storage. For example, eat these starches either pre- or post-workout.

Action point: Add two bananas, a bowl of oatmeal (one cup measured uncooked), or half a cup of rice (measured uncooked) to your post-training meals.

4 Fat is where it’s at

Fats are essential to your diet because they cushion your vital organs, help you digest certain types of vitamins, maintain optimum brain function, and more. Plus, fats are the easiest way to add extra calories. Fat sources are calorically dense, go down quickly, provide a lot of energy, and of course, they’re damn tasty. Before you go to town on heavy cream and lard, fats should come from quality sources, like raw nuts, sunflower seeds, nut butters, avocado, fattier cuts of meat, olive oil, real mayonnaise, and some cheese.

Fats should comprise most of your meals when you’re not training or close to training times.

Action points: things you can do to add more fats and thus more calories to your diet

  • Liberally douse your veggies in grass-fed butter or olive oil.
  • Pat some butter in your sweet potato.
  • Add extra olive oil in your marinara sauce.
  • Use real mayonnaise in your sandwiches.
  • Eat a whole avocado with your meal (they go with everything!).
  • Snack on macadamia nuts, cashews, Brazil nuts, and any of the other more nutrient-dense nuts throughout the day.

5 Eat faster

Before your body has the chance to feel satiated, fill ‘er up! If you eat too slowly, you give your brain a chance to catch up on your stomach’s actual satiety levels, which is usually about a 20-minute delay. When you sit down to eat, start shoveling as much food as you comfortably can into your gaping maw. That means the opposite of what most weight loss experts will tell you. Never put your utensils down during your meal.

Action point: Make it a point to eat your meals with training buddies or friends who eat more food than you do. That way it becomes sort of a competition. It also puts “eating a lot” into a humbling perspective when you can see how much other people eat in comparison to yourself.

6 Drink more calories

Chewing takes work and time. Drink your calories whenever you can, whether that ends up being milk, coconut water, or a simple shake. Big, nutritional shakes you make at home are the real moneymaker here. You can add extra calories from coconut milk, nut butters, high-quality protein powders, and fistfuls of greens to make that shake give you both weight and nutritional gains.

Action point: Drink beverages like coconut milk, milk, or coconut water with each meal.

7 Have a positive relationship with your food

Far too often, people get consumed by the act of eating that they forget to savor food and view food as more than just numbers. Learn to cook, enjoy your food, and stop eating alone.

Having a positive relationship with food will do wonders for the poor habits you don’t even realize are taking place. It’s often the negative association that stems from the “need to eat” and makes hardgainers less likely to be able to adhere to consuming more calories. In these cases, it just helps to have a friend to be there along the way.

Action point: Plan to have dinner with a friend at least twice each week over the next month. As I already mentioned, try to make plans with friends who aren’t afraid to say yes to two entrees or second (or even third) helpings!

Do you have any other weight-gaining secrets to share with other hardgainers? Share your thoughts in the comments below!


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Medicine ball workout

Get your cardio fix and target your upper body with this medicine ball workout by Theresa Jenn Lopetrone.Images by Dave Laus.Complete this routine as a timed circuit or do five rounds (20 reps each exercise).The gist:A medicine ball is a weighted ball roughly about 35 centimetres in diameter, and comes in a variety of weights from one kg to 11 kg. They are inexpensive, and available in hard plastic, dense rubber or synthetic leather material.Medicine balls add a twist to your current workout to keep it challenging enough to elicit progress. This workout is designed to improve your overall athletic performance, firm up your core, and increase your muscular power and stamina. Use of the medicine ball will also help improve your coordination, balance and flexibility.The kit:You will need a timer and a medicine ball for this full-body workout

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