Death of the Kettlebell?
by Chad Waterbury
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I like kettlebells.
I like Pavel, too.
They're both assets to my training programs. Indeed, I've used kettlebells for years with success. And Pavel? He's a good guy. I definitely consider him a friend and a juggernaut in the strength and conditioning community.
Nevertheless, kettlebells have their limitations — just like everything else. So if you want to learn about a cheaper, more convenient, and more practical way to derive the benefits that kettlebells offer, keep reading.
The Missing Rope
A few years ago, after watching numerous Strongman competitions, I decided to mimic one event that seemed beneficial to strength and muscle-building. I'm sure you've all seen the event where a monstrous dude plops down his prodigious gluteal region on the ground, hooks his feet, grabs a rope, and proceeds to pull a mammoth bus towards him.
It's quite an impressive event, I must say. Hell, it's even fun for chicks! Check out this pic.
Grip strength, biceps strength, back strength, oblique and core strength — they're all taxed to a huge degree with this pulling event. And such a strenuous event is likely to cause some serious muscle growth.
So I "lifted" an old, large-diameter farm rope from a geezer who once turned me into the cops for speeding past his corn fields on a Friday night. Okay, that's not true, but I did get a rope from a farmer and I added to my repertoire of training tools.
The rope was massive. It was about 2.5" in diameter and reeked of hog shit and rotten soybeans. I'd drape the rope over the rafters and tell my clients to climb up and down it. Or I'd go outside and attach the rope to a heavy, odd-shaped object, like an old engine block, and tell my clients to sit on the ground and pull it towards them. These activities turned out to be demanding, exciting, and extremely effective for adding new muscle.
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Then I started experimenting with a vast array of different exercises using the rope. The more exercises I came up with, the more I thought of. In fact, my current repertoire of rope exercises is around 150.
Lassoing Your Own Rope
A few years ago I wrote my first Q & A column on T-Nation, Branding Iron. In it, I mentioned the benefits of using a large diameter rope to build forearms, biceps, and upper back strength with events such as the rope climb and seated rope pull. Readers were very excited and wanted to try it out for themselves.
But an unlikely problem surfaced: it was almost impossible for readers to find a large-diameter rope. Sure, they could find a flimsy 1/4" diameter one at any hardware store, but that wasn't going to do the trick. I needed to find a solution.
It was a dark and stormy night and ingenuity hung in the air like....ah hell, I'll get right to the point. My solution was so blatantly simple that I can't believe it took me a few months to find it. I was making one of my daily trips to Home Depot and decided to check out what ropes they had in stock. I checked out their selection and noticed the usual fare. But positioned quietly on the end of the display was a roll of 3/4" diameter rope.
Hmmm, I thought, as a symphony of bells and whistles rang in my head. What if I buy a 10' piece of 3/4" rope and wrap it a few times around a dumbbell or pull-up bar? I mean, hell, any simpleton could've done the math: loop the rope twice around any object, and bunch up four strands in your hand. What are you left with? A gripping surface that's damn-near 3" in diameter.
Your first step is to go to any local hardware store and purchase 10' of 3/4" diameter rope.
Go ahead. Go buy one. I'll wait here and read the new Victoria's Secret catalog that the mailman just delivered.
Fat Grip = Bigger Muscles
Some of you might not be familiar with the benefits of training with a fatter gripping surface. Specifically, you're probably wondering how a fatter grip translates into greater strength and size. Here are the main reasons:
1. Enhanced Gripping Strength: the most obvious benefit of a fatter gripping surface is that it increases the demand on your gripping muscles. Easy enough. Your grip will get stronger because you'll be taxing the gripping muscles with a more open-hand position — a position that you've likely never developed.
2. Bigger Lifts: the stronger your grip, the more load you'll be able to lift once you return to traditional barbell and dumbbell exercises. Many great coaches have extolled this phenomenon. In addition, your pull-up numbers will skyrocket since most people lose their gripping strength before their upper back and elbow flexors completely fatigue.
3. More Muscle: refer to points #1 and #2.
That's why you should train with a fatter gripping surface. But wait, kettlebells have a fat handle. Isn't that good enough? Well, I feel there are many reasons why you should consider rope training. To establish my points, let's do a shootout between the rope and the kettlebell.
Here are what I consider to be the key differences between the two.
Rope vs. Kettlebells
1. Price: a 10' piece of high-quality 3/4" rope will cost you about $10. Enough said.
2. Availability: how many gyms in this country have kettlebells available for use? Very few. If you train at a fitness chain such as LA Fitness, 24 Fitness, Bally's, and the like, you'll likely never find one.
On the other hand, I've yet to visit any gym in this country (and I've visited a lot) that don't allow you to bring in a piece of rope.
3. Convenience: You can loop a piece of rope around any object. Dumbbells, plates, barbells, and pull-up bars are the most obvious choices. But you can also loop it through the accessory clip on any cable stack. Now you're left with a huge number of movements that can be enhanced — and that's just at the gym.
But maybe even more beneficial is the fact that you can loop the rope around any object at home. The handle on a paint can, a bucket handle, small chairs, a tree branch, your mother-in-law — the options are endless! With a simple piece of rope you can turn your homestead into a strength and conditioning mecca.
4. Loading Progression: One of the kettlebell's biggest limitations that I encounter is excessive jumps in loading.
Let's say I wanted my client to do a one-arm overhead kettlebell press for 12 reps, with the last rep being near failure. A 70-pound kettlebell might be too light, and an 88-pound kettlebell might be too heavy. Sure, I could throw a bunch of Platemates on the side of the kettlebell, but that becomes a pain in the ass — and expensive. And I know you can purchase a kettlebell handle that allows you to attach plates to it, but refer to points #1-3.
With the rope, you're only limited by the number of dumbbells or plates at your disposal. You could loop the rope around a 70-pound dumbbell for one workout, and then progress to a 75-pound dumbbell. The same holds true with plates. Loop the rope through two 25-pound plates for one workout; and add a 2.5-pound plate for the next workout. Since most people have a sufficient supply of both dumbbells and plates, smaller increments in loading become a more viable option with a rope.
How To Do It
Now that I've mentioned what I consider the advantages of the rope over kettlebells, let me show you how to get started.
Buy a Rope: As I mentioned, you can go to any hardware store and find 3/4" rope. Purchase 10' of it. (That's not to say that you can't buy a longer piece and use it for more movements, but 10' is sufficient for the exercises I'm about to show you.)
Burn or Tape the Ends: Burn each end of the rope so it doesn't fray. The other option — if you're a pyrophobic — is to wrap some strong tape around the ends to keep the strands from separating.
Learn to Loop: Here's how you should loop the rope around a dumbbell or plate. Stand a dumbbell up on its end. Loop the center point of the rope around the dumbbell handle in one direction, and then loop it again around the handle in the other direction. This will keep the dumbbell from falling out of the rope during dynamic movements. Bunch up the four rope strands in your hand as if you were squeezing four pencils tightly together. Use the same technique with a hole in the plate.
The following video shows you how to loop the rope around a dumbbell. With plates, you'll loop the rope through the hole. With a barbell, you'll loop the rope around the center of the bar. Here's how it looks for a dumbbell:
The most obvious question that pops up when I mention a rope is, "Won't a towel do the same thing?"
The problem with using a towel for these movements is that it can usually be compressed to such a small diameter that it becomes ineffective for fat grip training. If you can find a towel that's long enough, and can maintain a 3" gripping surface, by all means, use it. But I think you'll find the rope much more beneficial. If a rope wasn't more beneficial, I'd recommend a towel (since I've got no stock in either).
Rope Revolution Workouts
The Rope Revolution workouts revolve around circuits. You'll do the first exercise on one side (most exercises are single-limb), and then do the same on the other side. If you're weakest on your right side for a particular exercise, start with that side first. Without resting, move immediately to your left side. Then, you'll rest for the prescribed period before moving to the next exercise. This holds true with all the circuits.
I'm a huge fan of circuits, but I often neglect to write workouts based around them. Why? Because I'm frequently told by readers that it's tough to find open stations in crowded gyms. With these workouts, that won't be a problem. Virtually every exercise only requires a dumbbell and the rope. (The exception being pull-ups. You'll need a pull-up bar or similar apparatus for the exercise).
Reps Per Exercise: 8 (8 on each side for a total of 16)
Rest Between Different Exercises: 45s (A1, rest 45s, A2, rest 45s, A3, etc.)
Load: 9RM (a load you could lift for 9 reps before failure)
A1. Pullthrough Raise
Description: With a wide stance, pull the dumbbell up into a front raise while rising up on your toes.
A2. Bent Press
Description: Start with the dumbbell on the ground at your side. Curl it up and proceed into a bent press by pressing it overhead as you lean away.
A3. Bent-over Row
Description: Hold one arm behind your back and perform a bent-over row with your other arm.
A4. Overhead Squat
Description: Hold one arm up overhead. Drop down into a squat and allow your knees to come forward, and your heels up. You should use a wider than shoulder width stance with your feet angled out slightly to open up your hip region. If you have an aversion to this exercise, you can perform the same movement by pushing your hips back before you squat, thus allowing you to keep your knees behind your toes and your heels flat.
Description: Fold the rope in half, then fold it in half again. Loop the rope around a pull-up bar and perform a pull-up. The video shows me looping it around the neutral hand position pull-up spot. You can also loop it around the tubing, thus creating a narrower hand position. For this exercise, I prefer the wider hand position. This is the reason why you need 10' of rope.
A6. Bench Press
Description: Lie on a flat bench and perform a one-arm bench press. If you don't have a bench available, you can lie on the floor. To use the floor, move your hand closer to the dumbbell to shorten the rope. This will allow you to rest your upper arm on the floor before the dumbbell touches the floor.
A7. Standing Biceps Curl
Description: Perform a traditional standing, one-arm biceps curl. Go for a full range of motion.
A8. Overhead Triceps Extension
Description: From a standing position, hold one arm extended overhead. Bend at the elbow until your hand touches your upper back. Keep your elbow close to the side of your head.
A9. Reverse Woodchop
Description: From a standing position with your feet wider than shoulder width, reach across the front of your body with one arm. While keeping your arm relatively straight, pull up and across your body to the overhead position on the opposite side.
WORKOUT 2 (48 hours after Workout 1)
Reps Per Exercise: 12 (12 on each side, 24 total)
Rest Between Different Exercises: 60s (A1, rest 60s, A2, rest 60s)
A1. Reverse Woodchop
A2. Pullthrough Raise
A3. Bent Press
A4. Bent-over Row
A5. Bench Press
A6. Biceps Curl
A7. Overhead Triceps Extension
WORKOUT 3 (48 hours after Workout 2)
Reps Per Exercise: 4 (4 on each side, 8 total)
Rest Between Different Exercises: 45s (A1, rest 45s, A2, rest 45s, A3, etc.)
A1. Overhead Squat
A2. Bent-over Row
A3. Bent Press
A4. Biceps Curl
A5. Overhead Triceps Extension
1. Some of the exercises might be named differently from other coaches (we only do it to create confusion). Call the exercises whatever you like — you won't offend me.
2. All "single-arm" exercises should be performed for the same number of reps with each arm. The only exception is the overhead squat. For example, if I prescribed 8 reps for the overhead squat, you won't do 8 squats with each arm overhead (16 total). You should only do one set of the prescribed reps with, say, your right arm overhead. The next set (circuit), hold the left arm overhead.
3. Feel free to hold your hand in a position as far up the rope as possible. Most of the videos demonstrate a hand position that's 4-6" from the dumbbell handle. You can move your hand up the rope, towards the dumbbell, as far as you'd like (keep in mind, you'll need some slack for the Reverse Woodchop and Pullthrough Raise).
4. Those of you who follow my writings know that I'm a big fan of constantly changing the motor pattern of each exercise every 3-4 weeks. Switching hand or foot positions, even slightly, can make a big difference in terms of controlling fatigue. I suggest you make small alterations to your technique with each workout.
Rope Revolution Progression
Workout 1: Add one rep to each set with each workout until you reach 10 reps. At that point, increase the load slightly and drop back down to 8 reps.
Workout 2: Decrease each rest period by 5s with each workout until you reach 30s. At that point, increase the load and start the progression over.
Workout 3: Increase the load the smallest amount you can with each workout. If the load increase forces you to drop below 4 reps, that's fine. Remain at that load until you can complete 6 circuits of 4 reps before further augmenting the load.
As I mentioned in the opening paragraph, I'm a fan of kettlebells. I've used them in the past, I use them now, and you'll see pictures of a few kettlebell drills in my upcoming book. I don't ever foresee a time when I stop using them.
And in terms of development, I'm not saying that kettlebells are inferior to a rope. But I wanted to lay out the reasons why I typically favor rope training. I encourage you to get creative with the rope. Post pictures or videos of your own exercises that you found beneficial with the rope. I'm creating new ones almost every day. You can use a longer rope and swing a dumbbell around like a sledgehammer, for instance. Trust me, there are hundreds of exercises out there just waiting to be discovered. I've only touched on a few.
Is this the end of kettlebells? Nah, they're good training tools. Is a rope more effective than a kettlebell? Maybe for some exercises, maybe not for others. Give my workouts a try and judge for yourself. I think there's plenty of room for both.
And yes, you can loop a rope around a kettlebell.
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