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Tip 293: Lift With A Barbell To Get Stronger—Add Modified Kettlebells To Challenge The Strength Curve

Tuesday, February 28, 2012 8:59 AM
Lift with a barbell to get stronger and increase explosive power. New research shows that traditional weightlifting with a barbell will induce greater strength and power adaptations than performing a similar kettlebell lifting program for six weeks.

Athletes will get best results from sticking with traditional lifts such as the back squat, power clean, and high pull, but kettlebells can offer novelty and variety for a trainee who is bored with traditional lifts. They will produce power and strength gains, just not as dramatically as with a traditional lifting program. In addition, modified kettlebell training is a great way to challenge the strength curve and trigger further adaptations.

The study, published in the Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research compared the effect of a traditional barbell weightlifting program and a kettlebell program on strength and power development in trained men. The programs were designed to use kettlebell movements that were similar to weightlifting movements as follows: kettlebell swings vs. high pull, accelerated swings vs. power clean, and goblet squats vs. back squats. Participants performed four sets of six for each exercise using a barbell load of 80 percent of the 1 RM or a 16 kg kettlebell.

The traditional barbell program resulted in significantly greater strength gains than the kettlebell program in the back squat. Participants increased back squat strength by an average of 18 kg or 14 percent from barbell training compared to gaining 5.5 kg in strength or 4.5 percent from the kettlebell program.

Statistically, gains in maximal vertical jump height and 1RM in the power clean were comparable between the two training styles, but when you take a closer look, the barbell training resulted in a more significant increase in power clean max. The barbell training group gained an average of 7.7 kg in power clean 1RM, whereas the kettlebell group gained 3.35 kg in power clean 1RM, which is not surprising since, although the kettlebell group trained a “power” movement that is suggested to be similar to the clean, accelerated swings using a 16 kg kettlebell just aren’t the same as performing power cleans from the ground with a barbell.

It should be noted that a 16 kg kettlebell isn’t the same as lifting a barbell with an 80 percent load. Another possible flaw of the study is that the tests used to measure strength and power were similar to the barbell training so that participants in that group got more experience in the lifts tested, whereas the kettlebell group trained movements that were not equal to those tested.

Aside from these concerns, this study shows that if you want to get the greatest performance and strength gains from your time in the gym, perform barbell lifts. If that’s not your goal, and you want to try something new, kettlebell training can help you gain strength and power, just not as much as traditional lifting. 

I like to use a modified kettlebell in my gym because doing so is a good way to challenge the strength curve and make you stronger. To get faster adaptations and not suffer a strength plateau from doing the same thing for months on end, you will benefit from challenging the strength curve with modified kettlebell lifting. A modified kettlebell will spin so that it doesn’t stress the wrist or hit the forearm—see the video at the end of this tip.
For example, if you do seated dumbbell curls with a modified kettlebell in which the center of mass is three inches below the handle, you have a different strength curve from a regular dumbbell where the center of mass is in line with the handle.  With dumbbells, the point in the strength curve that is overloaded is much earlier in the motion than with a modified kettlebell. All other factors being equal, by just changing the implement from regular dumbbells to kettlebells, you change the lift and can trigger greater strength gains.
Although using kettlebells will not produce the greatest strength and power adaptations in lifts such as the power clean and back squat due to the biomechanics of these lifts, there is a time and place for such implements. Use them wisely and get stronger. Check out the video Resistance Curves Vs. Force Curves.
Otto, W., Coburn, J., et al. Effects of Weightlifting Vs. Kettlebell Training on Vertical Jump, Strength, and Body Composition. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012. Published Ahead of Print.

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