Kettlebell Training: It's About Time

Finish your time!
coach holding a timer. Getty images

Time or reps, reps or time - which is the best to use during your kettlebell workouts? 

Most people are familiar with counting repetitions, such as 3 sets of 10, 2 sets of 15, and so on. However, using time as the guide may be a less familiar yet more effective way to build your conditioning with kettlebells. 

Psychologically, being fixed on the number of repetitions will present a limitation, in the sense that significance is attached to a number, which represents an upper limit of something.

For example, If the speed limit is 55 mph, it means not to drive more than 55 mph. 

In some cases, setting a goal for a certain number of repetitions may put a mental ceiling on what you could do, were it not for the number getting in the way or your potential. Since the number represents the upper limit of the thing being counted, the subconscious mind, knowing that you are getting closer to the goal number, will tell the body that it should be getting tired. If you remove the imposed restriction of a specific number and just work for as long as you can, you may find that you are actually able to perform more reps than if you planned to stop at a certain number. 

In practice, a kettlebell program will implement both time and repetitions. Put together, the time and repetition, or repetitions per minute, gives us information about speed, and therefore your power output. Power, or “work per unit of time”, will vary based upon the speed of lifting, the duration of time it is lifted for, and the weight of the kettlebell being lifted.

The more repetitions per minute, the faster you go and therefore the more work per unit and time and the more power you express. 

Strength without Speed is usually not sufficient to be successful in an athletic setting. All other factors being equal, speed will almost always win.

Of course, before you can safely go fast, you need to build up to it by learning how to go slowly and correctly.

Refer to the fable of the tortoise and the hare for a lesson on patience and doing things right. In kettlebell lifting, “correct” technique is that which does not cause injury, and progresses you toward the goal line. 

Here is how to use time as your guide for improving your fitness with kettlebells.

1. Select a basic exercise (e.g. Clean, Press, Push Press, Clean and Press, Squat) and select a weight that you can easily handle

2. Set a short amount of time as your goal for that set (e.g. 1 minute per hand for single kettlebell exercises; 1 minute for double kettlebell exercises)

3. Start with a slow speed (e.g. 4-6 repetitions per minute) and aim to finish the time goal selected. In most exercises, which have static phases (e.g. Clean, Press, going at a slow pace means “resting” in the static positions and taking multiple breaths before moving to the next position. For Swing, since there is no static phase, the rpm is going to be consistent and therefore Swing is an ultimate conditioning exercise, since there is no place to rest.

4. The more important goal is to finish the time, even if you have to slow the pace in order to accomplish it. 

5. If you make your goal for reps and time, progress by adding a little bit of time next session (e.g. move from 1 min per hand to 1 min 15s per hand). As the length of sets gradually increase, you may have to reduce the pace in order to meet the time goal.

6. To increase the power output, increase the rpm by 1 or 2 reps (e.g. from 4-6 to 7-8 rpm) for the same duration of time.

7. As you become familiar with this use of time and speed, you will understand how to manipulate the factors of time, speed and load to create unlimited variation in your kettlebell workouts.

Don’t be just a rep-counter. Learn how to use time in addition to reps, to power your kettlebell workout. 

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