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A Simple Guide To Designing a Workout for Kettlebell Instructors

LaurenBrooks article
You’ve trained hard. You’ve completed the grueling three-day weekend of the RKC/SFG or the full day of the HKC or Strong First User Course. Congratulations, you are now officially certified! You have proved that you can execute the basic kettlebell exercises with safe and correct form. You have proved that you understand the concepts and can relay them to a novice. You have proved that you are tough and can withstand challenges. You have developed the strength and conditioning needed to pass the certification process. These are all wonderful qualities, but now it’s time to work on the most important part, putting it all together. Actually designing a safe, balanced, and efficient program for your individual clients and group classes.
Now that you know how to do these exercises and you can do them well, you are probably anxious to teach (if you aren’t already doing so). Students will come to you because kettlebells are the new, cool thing and they’ve heard that they are efficient for fat loss, strength, and conditioning. Now it’s up to you to design workouts for both individuals and classes, that will not only deliver excellent results, but keep them engaged, excited, and most of all, safe.
Working with a group who are at different levels and have varying backgrounds can be very tricky. Here are some general points that you need to realize about the population who tend to participate in group classes.

1. Not everyone who walks through the door wants to be as strong as you or will enjoy training with kettlebells as much as you. Therefore, spending 6 long weeks on mastering the Turkish Get Up and treating everyone like they are at the RKC may have them running the other direction faster than you can swing a kettlebell.
2. LISTEN to the goals of your clients and RESPECT them. If they tell you they want to lose weight, feel stronger, and become more conditioned, then spending a few weeks learning the Bent Press is not going to be the smartest approach; unless, of course, that is what they specifically request.
3. Clients need to regularly feel some sense of accomplishment. If you design a program that your students can never get through, they will leave feeling like a failure as well as completely exhausted. Having unrealistic programs is generally why trainers have clients dropping like flies. People will come to you wanting to feel better and improve themselves in some way. Not to feel worse. If they wanted an "extreme" workout every time by performing an incredibly high amount of reps, they would have signed up for P90X. Causing a client, especially a new one, to become too sore to walk the next day or lift their arms doesn’t make you a good trainer. In fact, it shows that you didn’t educate them about putting on the breaks during their session. Have them leave your session feeling challenged but very accomplished. They need to have won, not lost.
4. Educate your clients, they will appreciate and respect you more. Exercise fanatics and ex-football players have a real hard time not doing more in my classes, especially in the beginning. They have been programed to assume that if they don’t feel like they’re going to vomit or are completely wiped out by the end of the workout, that it was a waste of their time. Spend some time throughout the workout, and afterwards, educating them on the importance of approaching the workouts as practice. You wouldn’t practice basketball until you could barely dribble the ball anymore or practice surfing to the point that you are so fatigued that you’re almost drowning. Show them all the people who’ve had success so that they have models to relate and aspire to. Whether it’s other RKC’s or inspirational stories of people who train using the same philosophy as you, show them that these people don’t train until failure yet they continue to add strength, conditioning and achieve fat loss. Real photos and stories will speak a thousand words and will get them to trust you. They need something relatable to them. An article I wrote 5 years ago, "The Need To Train Like A Man, Especially If You’re A Woman," has been found useful for so many. Trainers use it as an example to educate and show their female clients that it’s okay to use weights that are heavier than 5 pounds. Since I originally wrote the article, I’ve found it on the internet translated into several languages. Have some motivational material up in your gym and/or ready to show your clients.
Now for the fun part. Designing workouts for multi-level classes is a learning process that I’ve personally had the chance to evolve and improve over the last 7 years. Every year I learn more techniques, change my mind on certain philosophies, and am therefore making my programs better and better. This article would not be necessary if I didn’t see and experience unsafe, ineffective "kettlebell" classes. Just because someone is certified doesn’t mean that they have a clear understanding of program design. This, of course, is true with all fitness communities. For example, CrossFit coaches are getting a very bad rap for valid reasons. I have met several excellent ones that create smart programs and focus on proper form. Yes, just several out of thousands. Pretty scary! Just like the HKC or RKC, you represent all of us. I have had clients come and tell me the stuff they did with a kettlebell instructor and I’m surprised they ever decided to pick up a kettlebell again. Hopefully this article sheds some light and helps change some common mistakes.

10 Basic Rules For Designing A Strength and Conditioning Kettlebell Class

1. Include a Pulling movement in almost every workout. Whether it be One Arm Rows, Horizontal Body Rows using Rings, One arm Body Rows, Pull-ups, or Double Farmers Walks. Pulling and using the lats in a variety of ways through both vertical and horizontal is a must. Most of your clients sit too much and thus have an underdeveloped posterior chain, rounded shoulders and weak lats. Be sure to make it a priority to show them where their lats are and to help them make sure to strengthen them to counter balance their day job.
2. Program rests in your workouts. If you want your clients to achieve any kind of real strength, putting in a required rest before beginning the next exercise or round of exercises, will allow them to recover properly and use a significant load with proper form. Trainers that want to run their clients into the ground will have them go from one exercise to the next without any type of break. A workout like that might be okay on a rare occasion, but if they come to you hoping to get stronger, you are doing them a great disservice by not encouraging rest and mobility breaks.
3. Do not put the Grinds at the very end of a workout. I’ve seen it too many times where an instructor will wipe the floor with their class by having them do hundreds of swings, squats, push-ups and snatches. Then at the end they will have the students do an excessive amount of Windmills or Turkish Getups. By then the students are so tired and shaky that they can barely hold their arms up enough to complete a solid rep. Rule of thumb, place them in the beginning or after a significant period of rest so the student feels fresh. Asking them to perform slow, controlled exercises that require focus when they are very spent is basically like asking a drunk person to try a max rep of the Turkish Get Up. It’s a crap shoot, and with a group it’s never worth it nor is it beneficial. Hopefully I’ve made my point.
4. All out interval conditioning drills such as Tabata, Vo2 Max, and HIIT generally should go towards the end of a workout. Unless the entire workout for the day is a conditioning day with intervals throughout, then do not have your class perform extremely high intensity conditioning work, and then expect them to perform well for Heavy Double Presses and Double Front Squats. Just like #4, regarding the Grind Lifts as a general rule, heavy lifting should be done towards the beginning when the body is fresh.
5. Mix up your class focus from time to time. If you have your clients train heavy the majority of the month, surprise them with lighter days and slightly higher reps. I prefer strength training and consider anything over 5 reps to be a high rep class, but let’s get real here. As someone who wants to be overall physically fit, it’s nice to show your clients and yourself that high reps are achievable when done safely. Throwing in a new approach here and there can break them of feeling stagnant with the same old way of lifting! Same thing goes with high rep cardio kettlebell classes. If you are addicted to the cardio feel and are constantly having your clients reach for the lightest kettlebells so that they can make it through your high rep class without vomiting, then try and change gears from time to time and focus on heavier bells with low reps. It will take some adjusting for those clients that are programmed for the go-go type class, but educate them as to why you are changing to more of a strength focused class. Wow your clients with the size kettlebells that they can swing at reps of 5-10. Most will be pleasantly surprised and will feel empowered because they hadn’t truly realized their overall increase in strength.
6. Stick to Basic exercises, but vary it slightly for the advanced student to keep it fun and interesting. I’m all for practicing the same exact exercise for years on end, but I do have to remind myself that my clients are not me! Not everyone finds joy in doing Turkish Get Ups everyday like I do. If you want them to continue to get better at squats don’t just do Goblet Squats. Throw in variety. Split Squats, Front Squats, Over-head Squats, Bottoms up Clean Squats, TGU Squat Style, Deck Squats. Have fun with them. Most regulars will appreciate it. Your more advanced clients know how to do basic exercises and can easily do them on their own. They pay to come to your group classes to experience your smart, yet unique workout design with the hope of learning something new, whether they know it or not.
7. Hands and grip need to be considered when designing the program. Giving your class hundreds of snatches and swings with tons of farmers walks on a humid day will only do one thing. The rest of the week your schedule will be clear. Their hands will be trashed so that not only will they have to miss training sessions, but they may not even want to come back at all. Be sensitive and think how the workout you planned will effect their hands. I know it may not be an issue to you since you are used to it, but it’s a big issue for many students.
8. RKC is a school of strength not a school of endurance. Remember why you chose to be certified or affiliated with the RKC or HKC. We want our clients to first move well and then move well with load, gently adding speed and conditioning appropriately. Let’s not forget the philosophy we share. If your personal client only wants endurance training, then wonderful. I have never had a client of mine mad at me for making them too strong. My clients have become such believers in strength based workouts with finishers that they tested themselves with long runs after a substantial absence from running. Believe it or not, they ran like a champ. One ran over 8 miles with ease, which was their longest run ever. Another ran a half marathon without training. I don’t recommend you try it, but yes there is something to smart program design. It works!
9. Balanced Exercises for a balanced body. Going back to rule #1, regarding pulling exercises, you want to make sure you choose a balanced workout. If you have a workout that entails lots of of Push-Ups, Presses, and Burpees you are asking for fried shoulders and possible neck injuries. Leaving out pulling exercises such as rows or pull-ups places your clients that much further from a balanced body. Can you put all those pushing exercises in one workout and be safe? Yes you can from time to time, but very carefully. Throughout the week make sure you have included lower body strength. If you have your class focus on heavy or multiple squats, make sure that they get in deadlifts or more hamstring dominant lifts as well. It doesn’t all have to be in the same session, but program it in during the week for overall balanced training.
10. Include a warm up and cool down. Whether it’s correctives for your individual client, light body weight exercises, or mobility, warm up the class together in some fashion. Cool down the class with either light stretching and/or joint mobility. Encourage meditation, active recovery and restoration of the body in order for them to return to class feeling optimal and recharged.

Sample Class Workout Ideas for an All Level Group

Sample 1
A1. Turkish Get Up (Alternating) 2 reps
A2. Heavy Swing 10 reps
Rest and Repeat 2-3 rounds
B1. Goblet Squat 5 reps
B2. Push-Ups 5-8 reps
B3. Double Cleans 8 reps
Rest and Repeat 2-4 rounds
C1. Horizontal Body Row or One Arm Row 3-6 reps
C2. Forward Lunge 5 each side
C3. High Plank or Ab Roll out for 15-20 seconds
Rest as needed and Repeat 2-4 rounds
Finisher: Take a comfortable bell and make it look pretty, fun and fast. Ladder it down. 5 each arm, 4, each arm, and so forth. If the class is very advanced feel free to add
1 Arm Swing or Snatch 5,4,3,2,1
Sample 2
A1. DeadLift (Double or Single Bells) 4-6 reps
A2. Double Press (or single press for beginners) 3-5 reps per arm
A3. 2 Hand Swing 10 reps
Rest and Repeat 2-4 Rounds
B1. Pull-ups or Stabilized One Arm Row 5 reps or (75-80%)
B2. Stationary Lunge (Single or Double Bells) 5 reps
B3. 1 Arm Swing 5 reps each side
Rest as needed and repeat 2-4 Rounds
Finisher: 15 seconds on 15 seconds off for 4-5 rounds. Use a bell for the snatches that is challenging, yet allows you to move quickly. Make it look good.
Snatch or 1 arm Swing Left
Snatch or 1 arm Swing Right
Squat Thrusts
Ropes Waves or Vertical Jumps
Final Point
I admit that I am a bit of a snob when it comes to poor program design. Teaching a group class is not something that I believe one should take lightly. Do your homework and put together solid workouts for your class in somewhat of an orderly fashion that makes sense. Hopefully the two sample workouts focused on strength with conditioning will be a helpful guide if you are just beginning your journey into teaching. I do a lot of traveling so don’t be surprised if I jump into one of your kettlebell classes. Remember the more simple the better. Stick to the rules and your clients will continue to see strength and conditioning gains. As Dan John says, "It’s just that simple." See you soon!


Anonymous said…
Hi Lauren! couple of questions.. should I be doing Smoker+Finisher, then Abs or Smoker, Abs then Finisher completely last?
Anonymous said…
Any other 2 moves work best for Tabata Finisher?
Unknown said…
Lauren, thank you very much for this!
Provides me with more guidance which I needed to organize the workouts that I have been creating on my own with kettle bells. You are one awesome, excellent trainer who knows how to share your knowledge (love you dvds, too!!).

Unknown said…
Thanks so much for this, Lauren!
Provides me with the guidance I needed to create more workouts with kettle bells. You are an amazing inspiration since the very start.
(btw, love your dvds !)

Claudia Serpa

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