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Powerlifting + Kettlebells: A Devastating Training Combination of Strength, Power and Endurance

March 27, 2006 09:13 AM

I've been a competitive powerlifter for the last thirteen years, with a modicum of success. I did a triple bodyweight plus squat at 181(545#) benched 435 at 190 in a three lift meet, and had a solid Masters rating (1485 @ 181) just missing my Class 1(1500) in 1997.

But, having herniated my L4-L5 discs in January of 2000 its been a slow comeback, volume wise in my squat and deadlift training. Hey, a few short months ago I was happy enough just to be able to do singles with any weight.

I've used Westside Barbell training almost exclusively, focusing on combining both velocity training as well as maximum force training for each lift. One thing WSB stresses is the consistent increase of loads, and thereby work capacity, both in the form of general physical preparation training (GPP) and on dynamic effort day.

So when I discovered kettlebells 10 months ago after hearing about Pavel and online I was skeptical, to say the least, about my ability to do any kind of volume with these things and still be able to recover enough for squatting and deadlifting. BUT, they peaked my interest. The swings looked like a dynamic good morning.

So now, almost a year later, I have a studio called Girya and as much (or more) interest in snatching the 24kg KB for 25+25 and getting a Class One Russian Kettlebell rating than I am in squatting 540! But I still love heavy powerlifting and want to continue to improve in both sports! This is the program I came up with to do just that.

Pavel suggests alternating RKC with his PTP program but what about us obsessive-compulsive types that want to supplement, not substitute? My idea was that the KB competitive lifts as well as the swings would substitute nicely for all the accessory exercises I was used to doing (glute hams, reverse hypers etc.), building the posterior chain and work capacity at the same time.

The biggest problem in designing such a program is where to put each exercise so as not to overtax the lower back, which takes such a beating with squatting and deadlifting, and even heavy benching (with a tight arch). Also, whatever one puts at the front of program will receive the most benefit, as you are freshest. The mechanics of the KB snatch, especially for high reps, demands that it goes first on one day of the week. Squatting also need to go first one day a week.

Now as a 46-year-old business owner with a wife, kids, and numerous injuries I've found three days a week training is all I can recover from. Especially when the squat and deadlift loads get heavy. That creates an even harder dilemma for fitting in all the desired exercises.

The combination of Pavel's writings, along with those of Russian National Powerlifting Coach Boris Sheyko's, convinced me that focusing on the actual lifts themselves would be in my best interest for increasing the squat bench and deadlift. It also simplifies the program design tremendously. Previously I had done box squatting and max effort variations for the deadlift. My back didn't like that anymore anyway.

I had used a 5x5 program given me by an Olympic lifter years ago with great success. The program uses goal weight and percentages thereof to determine loads. One does 5x5 with a set weight, increasing the weight each week until 80% of goal is achieved for 5x5. Waving the loads down after 4 weeks up is recommended. I ended with 5x5 with 452, 80% of 562.

The peaking phases is 3x3 working up to 90% of the goal. I ended with 500x3x3 and did 572 weighing 190 at the APF Masters Nationals in 1997 with a close miss at 601. Why I switched from that program is still a mystery to me!

So, one day a week is the squat. I squat on Saturdays to allow maximum recuperation over the weekend. Wanting to distribute the lower back pain over the week I also choose to bench press on this day. Here I still use the WSB maximum effort day, using two week cycles of board presses, reverse band presses, and max lifts with a bench shirt. I do singles following the Prilepin's table and get 3-4 singles over 90%. This has worked very well for me over the years.

This is a great article by Louie Simmons and the Prilepin's table on Dave Tates Elite Fitness site:

So Saturdays turn into a mini meet, sort to speak. Very specific work. I finish off with medium triceps work (pushdowns) and rotator cuff pre-habilitation.

Sundays are off.

Monday: Snatch and Clean & Press

This is also very specific, just the RKC lifts, i.e the one arm snatch and two Kbs clean and press. I will begin the jerks after a cycle or two of the presses. Now, how to cycle the loads on the snatches? I read Com. Ethan Reeve's Density Training article and decided to give that a try. Since my goal is 25+25 with the 24kg KBs I needed to be doing 100 reps (double the comp volume) or so each workout. Here is how the cycle breaks down:

Wk1 25x2+2 (100 reps)
Wk2 16x3+3 (96)
Wk3 12X4+4 (96)
Wk4 10x5+5 (100)
Wk6 8x6+6 (96)
Wk7 7x7+7 (98)
Wk8 6x8+8 (96)
Wk9 5x9+9 (90 reps-enter peaking phase)
Wk10 4x10+10 (80)
Wk11 4x12+12 (96)

For the full program design see Com Ethan's article on

Right now I have completed the week 8 and my condition improves weekly. This seems like a solid training concept (density training) but I also feel that if one wants to keep going hard for 50 continuous reps you have to train that specific energy system, as well as the mental toughness to get through at the very end. To that end we will do swings on Wednesday, the next training day, for very high reps! One and two arms will be done.

But to finish the Mondays, I next do the clean and jerk with two kettlebells. To be honest, I am just maintaining in this exercise right now, focusing on the KB clean & press and alternating between one and two arms every other week. I just received my 32kg bell and this will soon step up the progress. Six to eight sets of five. Then I go put my feet in the hottest bath I can stand!

This workout seems to compliment Saturdays with heavy lower body work and the overhead pressing as bench assistance (upper back, shoulders, and triceps). Short, intense, and to the point. KBs are so efficient!

Tuesdays are off.

Wednesday -Swings and Deadlifts

The real question here is which to do first. I was doing DLs after swings and feeling pretty beat in the legs. Com Maxwell does heavy pulls or farmer's walk before he snatches to activate the CNS. The real question is what is the first priority? For me right now it is that 25+25 in the snatch, as I have no power meets scheduled. So it is swings first.

Again, I believe you must condition the correct energy system, especially if want to do strength endurance stuff. I used to race road bikes and let me tell you there is no substitute for hill climbing if you have to climb in a race. So high reps swings, both one and two arms, seems to be a great way to get the physical and mental loads done with minimal shoulder stress. So this is an all out endurance day.

Start week one with two arm, one KB swings. I am using the 53# until I can do 50 reps with it whereupon I will start with the 72# and build that up. I will do 2-3 top end sets expecting a five to ten rep decrease each set. I rest two full minutes or until my HR is 120 or less. The next week use the one arm one KB swing, shooting for 25 reps in each arm. I start with my weak arm first. Again 1-3 total sets depending upon recovery levels.
The third week I do the same exercise but concentrate on just one arm taking each set as far as possible, resting until HR is down and then do the second arm. This allows each arm to be fully overloaded at its own strength level. I am working to 35-50 reps per arm when done individually and 25-30 when both arms are done sequentially.

Now deadlifts. I have had a reasonable success with WSB's singles only approach using short rest periods (the submaximal method). The idea is to ramp up weekly starting with 65% of goal and doing 12 sets of 1, going up 5% each week and dropping the volume. After 80% you can take one-minute rest between sets.

With the singles you don't have an eccentric component so you save a lot of wear and tear on the back here:

Wk1 65%x12x1 (30 sec rest/sets)
Wk2 70%x10x1
Wk3 75%x8x1
Wk4 80%x-6x1(60 sec res/sets)
Wk5 85%x4x1
Wk6 90% x2x1

This is still based on Prilepin's table and connects loads to training intensities. This can simply be re-cycled after the fifth week or a test max or meet can be done. Remember though it is impossible to peak everything at once.

Triceps work. One thing I have noticed from all my recent KB work is how much THEY WORK THE ARMS, especially the biceps! I seem to need more triceps work to keep the joint balanced, tension wise. So I have added in band extensions on this day, as much for active rest and blood flow as anything.

Band Extensions: 100 reps in as many sets as desired. I shoot for max reps the first set and then just keep doing as many as possible each successive set till 100 are done. Bands are very forgiving on the joints.

So, to sum it up:

Power Squats 5x5 to 80% then 3x3 to 90%
Bench Press Max Effort day boards bands or shirts (or use the 5x5 system as above)
Pushdowns sets of 8-12
External rotation exercises (prehab)

KB Snatch: density training
KB Clean and Press or C&J 6-8x5 sets

KB Swings (one or two arms) all out sets, high reps
Deadlifts: 65-85%x12-2 singles
Band triceps extensions: 100 reps

This is obviously a modified, compromised program. The workouts are short, intense and meant to maximize my recovery ability while working the specific competition movements exactly. Work capacity is built very slowly, over time. I was doing singles for the last two years as that's all my back would handle. Now I am up to fives.

KB snatches, swings and cleans make up for any loss of volume with the traditional assistance exercises. The key is to start slowly, recognize priorities and train them accordingly while doing maintenance work for the other lifts, and keep the total number of movements down. This is especially true for "assistance" exercises. The massive work loads created by KB training effectively targets virtually every muscle you own. When combined with the classic power lifts I don't know if there is a more devastating training combination of strength, power and endurance.

Mark Reifkind, RKC, has been a competive athlete,coach and student of physical culture for the last 34 years. A former national level gymnast he has trained Olympic gymnasts, was the World team Head Coach for team USA in powerlifting,and has written for Milo, IronMan and Muscle Mag International.A masters level rated powerlifter he now focuses his training on the kettlebell and the depth of its applications.

Rif is the owner operator of Girya Kettlebell Training, the first studio in the country to use the kettlebell as its primary method of conditioning. Girya offers private and semi instruction and classes as well as specific workshops, seminars and instruction for the Mixed Martial Artist. Visit