Archive for July, 2011

Kettlebells for Young Athletes: Part I

By now most fitness enthusiasts have seen a kettlebell and used them during training.  Their versatility and conditioning power are virtually unmatched when compared to many other pieces of training equipment.  I use kettlebells in nearly every single one of my athlete’s training protocols.  Although the power production and conditioning aspect are the primary reasons why I learned how to train with kettlebells, I have also found one other advantage with them; kettlebells are great for teaching young athletes proper set up and lifting mechanics of the major lifts.

In many cases I have found kettlebells to be much easier, safer and progressive to lift with than using the traditional bar and dumbbells.  In this article I will address the concerns parents may have with children lifting, the reasons why I choose certain movements and the progression to make during training.

Is Lifting Bad for Kids; Will Lifting Stunt their Growth?

There is no real direct way to answer this question other than Yes and No.  Obviously, it is not in the best interest of the young athlete, who has just turned the corner on puberty, with no training experience, to get under a bar, load it up with weight and have them squat it.  If they don’t hurt themselves on the first set then they should consider themselves lucky.  Repeated measures most certainly will lead to trouble down the road.

Research shows that a properly designed program “has a favorable influence on body composition, bone health, and reduction of sports-related injuries”

It is in the best interest of the trainer and young athlete to get a hold of the proper technique using their bodyweight initially, but there must be safe progression to allow for strength gains without jeopardizing one’s health.  With their shape and marginal weight increments, the kettlebells provide the athlete with this progression.

Kettlebell Deadlift

The deadlift is a highly effective movement to train the hips to extend.  Most sports are dependent on the athlete’s ability to extend their hips, whether it is to sprint, change direction or jump.  Being able to move and accelerate and object from the ground using one’s hips leads to great strength and power development essential in sports.

The problem with deadlifting is that it is usually done with a bar which makes the task of proper set up and execution a bit challenging for the young athlete.  The bar sits low on the ground and in front of the athlete.  The proper mechanics of sitting the hips back, grabbing the bar, locking the shoulders back to prevent rounding of the upper back, tightening the stomach, driving through the heels while keeping the bar close to the shins is a very tough task for younger athletes.

With the kettlebell, some of the biggest differences make the movement much safer for the young athlete to learn.  Kettlebell weight can start small and progress in small increments.  Your college-bound football player would probably laugh at the thought of deadlifting the heaviest of kettlebells, but for a Jr. High athlete who is just learning, the weight is perfect.  A standard Olympic bar weighing in at 45lbs. is probably too much for the rookie trainee, but take a 18-25lbs. kettlebell and it will be perfect.

The positioning of the bar in the traditional deadlift sits in front of the body close to the shins.  Properly grabbing the bar and pulling oneself into accurate position to begin the pull is very difficult for a new lifter.  If the stomach is not tense and the upperback not retracted, the pull will be disastrous and low back problems are most certain for the future if the practice is kept up.

In contrast, the kettlebell is positioned directly between the knees and ankles to perform a deadlift.  When the athlete sits back into position, it is much easier to grab the kettlebell while maintaining the safe, shoulder retracted position.

The deadlift set up is much easier with the kettlebell than the bar, making it more suitable for the young athlete (Note on the barbell version I am showing poor form to demonstrate what commonly practiced when young athletes perform the deadlift)


Kettlebell Squat

Much like the deadlift, the squat primarily trains the hips with the difference being, that in the squat there is an eccentric component that causes a stretch of the muscles that initiates the upward drive.  If you have an athlete that has mastered his bodyweight squat, great! But what is next?  Loading an Olympic bar on their back?  That might not be best for the spine.  Performing front squats with the Olympic bar might not load the spine as much, however, even with the two grip variations, the front squat can be difficult to perform especially without proper core strength and stability since the weight wants to pull the body forward.  There is also the overhead squat but this one takes practice and a lot of mobility of the shoulders and upperback; again maybe not the best for beginning lifter.

Which that all said, enter the kettlebell squat (or goblet squat).  The kettlebell squat is the ideal progression for young athletes.  There is hardly any spinal compression and the weight sits perfectly close to the chest with the arms resting right along the rib cage.

With Olympic bars weighing 45lbs. alone, it is much easier to start with the kettlebell because they come in smaller weight sizes.  Likewise, the small increment jumps in kettlebell weight makes the squat progression seamless.


K.Bell squat for young athletes offers a safe alternative to the spine compressing babrbell back squat and the tough to control front squat.  (Note on the barbell versions I am showing poor form to demonstrate what commonly practiced when young athletes perform them)

Kettlebell Swing

After the young athletes have displayed proficiency in the bodyweight squats and progressed successfully by adding some resistance, the time might be right to add some dynamic movements into the program.  Many strength and conditioning coaches tout the use of Olympic lifts (clean and snatch) to train the power element of sports; while these lifts may be great for power generation, ask the same coaches who push the movements whether they are easy to learn and most of them would say “no.”

Enter the kettlebell 2-arm swing.  The kettlebell swing is much easier to learn than Olympic lifting and targets a powerful hip drive that is coveted in sporting movements.  Not too many sports require and athlete to have one all-out-explosive movement that the Olympic lifts train; the swing allows for a little more versatility in its effect.  A beginning athlete may do sets of 10 reps to get the feel for the technique and the movement.  A more experienced athlete could replicate their sport more closely by doing timed intervals.  Sports like soccer and basketball are a series of repeated sprints and stops.  Performing a Tabata protocol (20sec of work, 10sec of rest) with the kettlebell swing not only trains the explosive hip power but the strength endurance required to perform repeated bouts of sprints required for their sport, another aspect that Olympic lifting does not target.

Kettlebell swings; great for power production and conditioning


The key for young athletes to build a strong foundation of strength that will carry over to improved sports performance requires mastering the basics and then gradually progressing.  The kettlebell is a great tool for doing so.  In the second part of this installment, I will go deeper into more of the movement variations that kettlebells have to offer.


Faigenbaum, AD. Mayer GD. Pediatric resistance training:benefits, concerns and program design considerations.  Curr Sports Med. Rep. 2010. May-Jun; 9 (3): 161-8.


Considerations for Year-Round Athletes: Part II

In the first installment of this series we looked at the studies and learned that young athletes, who participate in the same sport for too long, without having adequate time for recovery, run the risk of several overuse injuries.  There are several studies like R.M. Malina’s that discuss the nature that specialization may not only hinder future athletic success within that sport but could also lead to more detrimental health problems down the road.

“Limiting experiences to a single sport is not the best path to elite status. Risks of early specialization include social isolation, overdependence, burnout, and perhaps risk of overuse injury.”

Unfortunately, it seems that the trend of focusing on a single sport is not going to stop.  Young athletes feel the need to play and the parents feel the pressure to give them every advantage as they can.  This includes traveling teams, private training and even strength and conditioning programs.

In this article I will discuss what we as strength and conditioning coaches can do to help the student athletes without adding to the overtraining problem.

Athletes have Goals and so should Strength Coaches

Ask one of the athletes what their goals are and they are most likely to respond with something physical; be stronger, be faster, be a better athlete.  Strength coaches are there to help them achieve these goals and make them more efficient at performing these physical tasks; however it is important for strength coaches to also have a set of goals for their athletes.  For my athletes, I remind myself that my main goal is to make sure they remain healthy.  I want to work with them and not contribute to any potential setbacks for training or athletic performance by adding more unnecessary training stress to an already busy athletic child.

I see myself as their coach but not the type of coach who is going to try to break the athlete.  Some strength and conditioning coaches have the mindset of making the training harder than the game and therefore pushing their athletes to the limit.  Athletes should be tested at times but never broken and never when they are unable to perform optimally.

At Rise Above Performance Training, the goal is to help the athlete.  I don’t try to bend, break or arbitrarily train athletes; I work with them to improve their overall performance potential.  When you help the athlete you are choosing correct movements, loading parameters, volume and duration for that given day.  Helping athletes in a positive and encouraging manner yields great results without less likelihood of sending the athlete down the road of self destruction.

Periodization with Improvisation

We might have heard the saying, “If you fail to plan, plan to fail;” I believe this to be true with strength and conditioning programs.  I choose to start my programs with asking the athletes about goals, what their timeline is and if they have any important events coming up.  Then I complete a physical assessment looking at basic mobility and stability of the joints and muscles.  After considering all of these factors, a program is designed and a few weeks training cycle is implemented including: the training movements, sets, reps, rest and duration.  In a perfect world an athlete would simply follow the program prescribed and get results; however there are other factors involved that could affect positive results, namely, the state of the athlete for that day.

With the athlete playing year-round, daily assessment of the athlete’s current condition is necessary to ensure progress, not regression.  How are they feeling today? Did they get enough sleep, nourishment, recovery between training and competing?  Looking forward to upcoming events also plays a big role in the athlete’s programming.  Big events, heavy sport training and weekend tournaments all should be factored into the equation and planned for accordingly.

If the athlete is coming off a weekend tournament where they played a total of five soccer games in the heat and plans on coming into the gym to train the following Tuesday, chances are that the athlete is not going to be able to handle the full intensity of the program provided.  Spending more time on restorative protocols like foam rolling, mobility drills, and stretching will deal with soreness and accommodate healing of the tired muscles.

Decreasing the volume and intensity allows the athlete to train without the heightened risk of potential overtraining.  If training programs calls for deadlifts, four sets of six reps, at 70% max weight, an adjusted protocol might be three sets of three reps at 50% for that day.  The athlete is still getting the movement in but the intensity and volume is much lower than planned so optimal recovery is gained.

Summing it all Up

As we learned from this two part series, participating in the same sport year-round is a very popular practice among young athletes and this trend seems like it is here to stay.  Coaches and parents need to realize that this participation increases the athlete’s risk of overuse injuries.

Strength and conditioning coaches should formulate programs that are part of the solution and not the problem.  Sport practices, training and games played are not likely to change much, therefore it is important for the strength coach to adjust his program to make sure that it continually helps the athlete, whether through strength training itself or through the restoration process.

Recognize these limitations so we do not have young athletes with problems like this:

Malina, RM, Early Sport Specialization:Roots, effectiveness, risks. Curr. Sports Med. Rep, 2010. Nov-Dec;9 (6):364-71.


Aj Demonstrates his Favorite Kettlebell Get up Complex

Aj demonstrates another one of his favorite kettlebell complexes that challenges both the upper and lower body and well as your conditioning. One kettlebells starting with get up, then into snatches followed by Overhead squats. Aj also tells you how to tailor this workout depending on your goals. However you do this complex it will be quite a challenge.


Thursday, July 28th, 2011 Kettlebell Training, Videos 1 Comment


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