Can Kettlebells Build Muscle?

The question “can kettlebells build muscle” comes up almost weekly.
My answer?
Yes. End of article.
Ok, you might need a little more information than that.
Any modality can build muscle as long as there’s progressive intensity and volume combined with a caloric surplus and enough rest to facilitate growth. That goes for bodyweight training, dumbbells, barbells, sandbags, etc. As long as the muscle fibers are stimulated with enough weight for a long enough time you’re golden.
So why don’t we see huge kettlebellers?
There’s a few reasons here…
  1. Too much ballistic work with not enough weight
  2. Too many circuits that burn too many calories
  3. That’s not the goal for most
When I owned and operated a kettlebell-centric gym do you know how many people came in saying “I want to get huuuuuuuuge!” 
I can’t even remember one. 
The goals were always I want to lose fat, move better, get stronger in that order. 
Kettlebells grew in popularity in the late 1990s early 2000s thanks to the work and efforts by Pavel Tsatouline. From there old-time strong men and women were highlighted as huge fans of kettlebell training for it’s “odd strength” they deliver. 
A common thread of these old school lifters was being lean, strong, sinewy, and powerful. Of course, there was a big guy thrown in here and there, but it was Saxon, Arco, Sandow, etc we saw most and revered for their pound for pound strength. 
Most workouts performed with a kettlebell are high rep, high intensity, and highly ballistic. You get lots of swings, cleans and snatches with sub-maximal (and sub-optimal) weight for muscle building. You’ll see a huge assortment of exercises performed in a circuit fashion or flow that will leave the client sweaty, potentially stronger, but are rarely intense enough to stimulate growth. 
This focus on ballistic exercises also takes out the eccentric load (lowering phase) of the lift that’s so important for musle building. You have the end range on the bottom of the movements, but you bypass the muscular control necessary to lower the weight.
This is great for building explosive power, but not for a lot of muscle. One could argue “What about Olympic lifters? They’re not lowering the weight, but they still get big!” Well, they’re also using near-maximal loads for those lifts along with plenty of accessory work through heavy squats and presses. 
With these circuits you’ll get a huge amount of calories burned, but that’s it. That’s fantastic for increasing endurance and dropping bodyfat, but again, not great for building muscle.
Going back to the original question, can kettlebells build muscle?
Going back to my original answer, yes. In order to do so a few things need to be in place.
  1. Ideally you’ll want to have a specific plan that you can progress from. Random workouts create random results. With a plan of a few movements combining slower and ballistic patterns you’ll have the framework to progress with heavier weights, more reps, less rest, etc. 
  2. You need to go heavy enough. Notice how I didn’t just say “heavy.” Heavy enough implies that you pick the right weight for the reps you’re selecting. You can build muscle with a varying number of low to high reps (1) so whatever reps you choose, make sure the weight isn’t too light. If you’re performing presses for example and you’re aim is 12 reps, but you can easily perform 20, that weight isn’t going to work
  3. You need enough volume. If you do pick a lighter weight, you’ll need to make sure you accumulate enough volume for muscular adaptations. High reps swings don’t inherently build muscle. 
  4. You need a caloric surplus. I want to say “duh” but I won’t. If there’s no bricks, how’s your building going up? All the hammers and saws in the world won’t create anything without the building material. 
  5. You need patience, Daniel son. Too often we get into a  “I need it yesterday” mentality and try to rush the process. A solid plan with patience will get you anywhere you want to go. 
  6. You need to CHILLLLLLL. Rest is where your muscle is built. Your workouts are the ignitor, but rest and nutrition are the wood. That’s what keeps the fire building. Don’t keep focusing on the lighter. That’s a fairly small, albeit extremely important part of this.
We see plenty of anecdotal evidence of someone gaining muscle on certain kettlebell plans which leads us to think that that’s the norm. The problem is there are too many factors to base even a handful of people’s experience as fact. We need to look as the principles and then it doesn’t matter what tool you use. 
Methods are many, but principles are few.
In short, as long as you pick the right plan, with the right amount of progressive overload, with the right amount of weight, with the right amount of volume, with a well-designed nutrition plan, then yes, muscle is around the corner. 

Check out the Double Gains program on Living Fit to get your gains on with kettlebells!


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