Improving Strength with Limited Weight and Time

After the 2018 season, I retired from professional soccer and moved back to northern Virginia with my wife, three-year-old twin boys, and one-year-old daughter. I took a position as the director for a youth soccer organization, which I describe in my previous article Youth Soccer Conditioning Program.

I had four roles within the organization and private training student-athletes in my spare time. We lived in a townhome just outside of Washington, D.C. I had little space, little time, and little money. A gym membership was out of the question, so I turned to kettlebell training for convenience. My famous last words to my collegiate strength coach were: “I am trying not to drink the kettlebell Kool-Aid.”

Drinking the Kettlebell Kool-Aid

My goal was to safely train for the maximum strength a kettlebell could offer.

I read and researched various programs to find what might fit my specific needs. I was a washed-up athlete with major injuries, including a ruptured Achilles tendon, herniated disc (L5/S1 nerve damage), shattered knuckle, bone spurs, torn meniscus, torn labrum, Jones fracture, two broken collar bones, and an avulsion fracture of the ischial tuberosity. I wanted to train hard and do it pain-free.

Unless you are purchasing monster bells, kettlebells are limited to 80 pounds. I went onto the Facebook marketplace to find used 50-pound, 60-pound, 70-pound, and 80-pound kettlebells. The key was to find exercises that create the most muscle tension to achieve more strength with less weight. 

Traditionally, weight is added to a barbell to create tension on working muscles. I am not against loading a bar, but that was not a luxury I had. And unless you are competing, you don’t need the classic barbell variations to build strength.

Strength is also relative. Strength can be holding a human flagpole position on the jungle gym, performing a one-arm push-up, or benching 300 pounds. 

To truly appreciate the goals you want to set, you must adapt your thinking to what strength is to you. You must understand your Why. Why are you lifting? Is your goal to achieve relative strength or maximal strength? Is it to be functional and pain-free, or is it to compete in next year’s CrossFit® games?

I began where most kettlebell enthusiasts should. I studied Pavel’s books, read his articles, and watched any YouTube clips I could find. I began by following the program he outlines in Enter the Kettlebell.

After almost a year of Enter the Kettlebell, I moved to the 80-pound kettlebell for one-arm snatches, one-arm swings, and overhead presses. But eventually, I plateaued and developed tennis elbow. I won’t go into the program specifics out of respect for the book and author, but Enter the Kettlebell revolves around one-arm snatches, one-arm swings, and overhead presses using Russian ladders to progress.

I was missing the movements I was accustomed to, such as the squat, horizontal press, and horizontal pull. Pavel suggests performing kettlebell exercises not addressed in Enter the Kettlebell during off days. The exercises include get-ups, racked squats, windmills, carry variations, and bent presses. They are not programmed but recommended as supplemental work to fill in gaps.

 I took a step back, reevaluated my needs, and adapted a circuit training format to cover more movements. I kept the snatch and swing exercises for post-workout conditioning. Conditioning was timed using two dice to prescribe the number of minutes for the working set.

During my conditioning sets, I changed hands or set the kettlebell down as necessary. The random nature of the dice created natural undulated periodization without having to program it. My program is outlined below.

The Program

Day One

Circuit Training

  • SA Overhead Press
  • SA Bent-Over Row
  • SL Deadlift
  • Trunk Work: Russian Twists, Bent Press, Windmills, Halos, Planks, etc.   

Easy SA KB Snatches, 1-12 minutes

  • 50% of maximum repetitions 

Day Two 

Circuit Training

  • SA Push-ups
  • Pull-ups
  • SL Squats
  • Trunk Work: Russian Twists, Bent Press, Windmills, Halos, Planks, etc. 

Hard SA KB Swings, 1-12 minutes  

  • 100% of maximum repetitions

 Day Three

Circuit Training

  • SA Push Press
  • SA Bent-Over Row
  • Pistol Squats
  • Trunk Work: Russian Twists, Bent Press, Windmills, Halos, Planks, etc. 

Hard Long-cycle (SA KB Clean and Jerk), 1-12 minutes  

  • 100% maximum repetitions 

I completed five rounds of one to five repetitions for each exercise. If a weight was really heavy, I programmed fewer repetitions. If a weight was too light, I made it harder by moving the weight slower and squeezing the contractions. 

Single-limb exercises achieve a couple of things. By offsetting the body’s center of mass, the contralateral side must engage to maintain correct posture, and abdominal training becomes an advantage. These exercises also create more tension on the working limb because it does not have a second appendage to assist in moving the weight. Remember, the goal is to create more tension and improve strength with less weight. 

The Effects of Kettlebell Training

I found kettlebell training had a positive effect on my grip strength. My general physical preparedness and cardiovascular fitness were also improving. My physique and weight remained the same, and I was pain-free. 

There is limited and opposing research done on kettlebell training. However, in 2012 spinal specialist Dr. Stuart McGill of the University of Waterloo analyzed back and hip activation, motion, and low-back loads in a study using the kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry. 

Dr. McGill found that swings generated 461N in shear force on the spine as compared to 450N in Olympic barbell variations. But when looking at compressive force, the swing was measured at 3,195N and the Olympic variations exceeded 7,000N. He also found that bottoms-up carries activated the quadratus lumborum and lateral abdominal wall to create a stable platform for the spine. 

Pavel will assert that back pain is improved with kettlebell training due to the continual lengthening of the hip flexors, training of the glutes, and improving abdominal strength to stabilize the spine. Although unsupported by clinical evidence, he suggests that the endurance training of the spinal erectors also plays a role in low back pain prevention. I found all of the above to be true. 

A 2015 study concluded kettlebell interval training could be as effective as circuit training in improving cardiovascular fitness in elite-level, DI collegiate female athletes. 

A 2010 study found 12 minutes of kettlebell swings achieved 87% of an athlete’s heart rate max. 

The American College of Sports Medicine recommends training between 60-85% to achieve cardiovascular improvements. The study also concluded the swing demonstrated a metabolic demand sufficient to increase VO2 max. 

Kettlebell Considerations

Despite the many benefits, there are also some considerations to kettlebell training. 

  1.  Kettlebell snatches and swings can harm those with shear force load intolerance of the spine. If you are performing snatches correctly but experience pain, stop doing them. 
  2. Maximal strength is relative to the individual. A 100-pound trained female will achieve greater maximal strength gains than a 300-pound trained male with the same 50-pound kettlebell. To maximize strength gains, single-limb training and other methods to increase muscular tension are advised. 
  3. The kettlebell is not a sports-specific tool. There are varying degrees of dynamic correspondence to sport and activities of daily living; however, if you want to improve in a specific skill, you must practice the skill. If you are using kettlebells to help with your deadlift, you still need to deadlift to get better at deadlifting. 
  4. The kettlebell is also limited in horizontal pressing options. Single-limb bodyweight exercises suffice if the kettlebell needs to be lighter for a particular movement. One-arm push-ups are just one example of increasing tension without using weight. The floor press is your only option if a bench is not available. 

Despite the above considerations, kettlebells are a convenient tool for improving power, endurance, strength, and cardiovascular fitness when money, space, and/or time are limited. Modified single-limb exercises are also suitable for achieving strength with limited weight or without the use of equipment. Bodyweight training is also excellent for building relative strength. 

As Jim Wendler put it in his book 5/3/1, “When I want to start feeling athletic and healthy while still maintaining muscle mass, I do this [bodyweight training]… They’re a great way for older lifters who want to limit the stress they’re putting on their bodies.” 

The combination of kettlebells, single-limb exercises, and bodyweight training has improved my strength and positively impacted my health. 

You do not need heavy weight to build strength.


There is no such thing as the best program, and there is no one-size-fits-all. The possibilities for programming are endless. However, my advice is to begin with structure. Whether it’s Enter the KettlebellSimple and Sinister, or Quick and the Dead, beginning with a tried and true base program will help get you started. These programs are excellent for a healthy combination of conditioning and strength.

The next thing to do is to consider movement competencies. You can push, pull, squat, hinge (i.e., deadlift), and carry. Realize what the program of your choice is offering to you and begin filling in the gaps. Begin with a needs analysis. 

If you are a rock climber, consider adding pull-ups to your program. 

If you are a soccer player, consider squat variations like the pistol, skater, or front squat. 

A package delivery person might benefit from weighted carry variations.

Perform your extra work on the days between your normal programming. Or you can insert additional exercises before, after, or during your current program. 

In Enter the Kettlebell, pull-ups are an option between rounds of ladder work. The same can be done with a squat, dip, push-up, etc.

My last piece of advice is not to overdo it. Less is more. If you add a deadlift in between swings or snatches, you may put yourself at risk for unnecessary volume in your hinging pattern.


  1. Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. J. Strength Cond. 26: 16-27, 2012.
  2. McGill, et al. Comparison of different strongman events: trunk muscle activation and lumbar spine motion, load and stiffness. J. Strength Cond. 23: 1148-1161, 2008. 
  3. Falatic, et al. Effects of kettlebell training on aerobic capacity. J. of Strength Cond. 29: 1943-1947, 2015.
  4. Jay, et al. Kettlebell training for musculoskeletal and cardiovascular health: a randomized controlled trial. Scan J. Work Environ Health. 37: 196-203. 2011. 
  5. Tsatsouline. Enter the kettlebell! St Paul, MN. Dragon Door Publications, Inc., 2006. 
  6. Farrar, et al. Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings. J. of Strength Cond. 24: 1034-1036, 2010. 
  7. Beattie, et al. The effect of strength training on performance in endurance athlete. Sports Medicine. 44(6): 845-65. 2014.
  8. Hughes, et al. Adaptations to endurance and strength training. 8(6): a029769. 2018. 
  9. Wendler. 5/3/1 – The Simplest and Most Effective Training System for Raw Strength. Jim Wendler LLC. 2011. 
  10. Tsatsouline. Naked Warrior: Master the Secrets of the Super-Strong Using Bodyweight Exercises Only. Dragon Door Productions Inc. 2010. 
  11. Falatic, J. Asher1; Plato, Peggy A.1; Holder, Christopher2; Finch, Daryl3; Han, Kyungmo1; Cisar, Craig J.1. Effects of Kettlebell Training on Aerobic Capacity. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: July 2015 - Volume 29 - Issue 7 - p 1943-1947 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0000000000000845
  12. Farrar, Ryan E; Mayhew, Jerry L; Koch, Alexander J. Oxygen Cost of Kettlebell Swings. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research: April 2010 - Volume 24 - Issue 4 - p 1034-1036 doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e3181d15516

Header image credit: arseniipalivoda ©

write for elitefts

Andrew Dykstra played men's soccer for Virginia Commonwealth University in Richmond, Virginia, earning his BS in Exercise Science (2008) and MS in Sports Leadership (2010). He played professional soccer for 10 years in Major League Soccer (Chicago Fire 2009-2010, Charleston Battery 2011, DC United 2012-2016, Sporting KC 2017-2018, and Colorado Rapids 2018). After retiring, he became the Director of Goalkeeping and Sports Performance for Virginia Development Academy in Woodbridge, VA. Andrew was responsible for the conditioning periodization and injury prevention protocol for over 290 soccer players ranging from 13 to 23 years old. He holds his CSCS (since 2013) and SFG1 certification from StrongFirst (since 2022). Andrew is now a Health and Wellness Specialist, training both tactical athletes and the general population as a government contractor.