Olympic Weightlifting vs. Kettlebells on Lower Body Strength and Power

By February 29, 2012 Power, Strength Training

I came across this study last week and chalked it up as “interesting.” All research is useful, but often you have to simply file it away in it’s place until more research is conducted.

The study was published ahead of print in The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research showing that Olympic lifting and kettlebells are both effective at increasing vertical jump and squat strength, but the Olympic lifts are superior to kettlebell training.

Let me teach you why it’s important to read studies carefully and not just rely on abstracts.

Study Strengths

  1. I really liked the exercises that the researchers chose as I felt that they are very comparable. The two groups performed 3 exercises each. The kb group performed swings, accelerated swings, and goblet squats, whereas the Oly group performed high pulls, power cleans, and back squats.

Study Weaknesses

  1. The Oly group used 80% of 1RM loads for their exercises. But the kb group stuck to solely a 16 kg (35 lb) kettlebell for their exercises. This is a HUGE flaw as it gives the Oly group a distinct advantage! I ran the numbers and the Oly group’s pre-test squat numbers were 133 kg’s. This means that they were using an average of 106 kg’s for their back squats (around 235 lbs), whereas the kb group was using a meager 35 lbs for their goblet squats. Moreover, the Oly group’s pre-test average power clean numbers were 84 kg’s. The means that they were using 67 kg’s (around 148 lbs) for their power cleans, while the kb group stuck to 35 lbs for their accelerated swings. Using 235 lbs for back squats is not the same as using 35 lbs for goblet squats, though I will say that based on experience goblet squats seem comparable to back squats with around half of the loading (at least at the hip joint). But the kb group used around 15% of the load for squats that the Oly group used. If you’re gonna do a study, do it right and purchase ample kettlebells to accommodate the subject’s strength levels. I wonder how results would have panned out had the subjects been able to use heavier kb’s.
  2. The tests (squat, power clean and vertical jump) used are more similar with the Oly group compared to the kb group which gives the Oly group an advantage. I’d have like to have seen a broad jump, 5-horizontal jump, and/or 20-m sprint included in the mix.
  3. I also felt that the protocol was a bit wimpy; subjects had weight training experience but no extensive experience with Oly lifting or kb training. They trained only twice per week with 11-14 sets. Progressive overload was reached through a combination of improved form, increased volume, and increased tempo. I believe that since the subjects were new to the lifts they could have seen much better results had they performed more volume or even better more frequency as they weren’t performing plyos or sprints and had plenty time/energy to recover. This might explain why the vertical jumps increased less than a centimeter for both groups. If you’ve trained athletes then you know that this ain’t shit for newbies over a 6-week period.
  4. The researchers didn’t make any mention of exercise form. Many researchers aren’t well-versed in ideal kettlebell training form, so I doubt the form was performed like Neghar “Poetry in Motion” Fonooni.

What Future Research Should Test

I’d like to commend the researchers for taking the first step in examining the question of which is better for lower body strength and power – Oly lifting or KB lifting. However, as with all research, we must continue to examine and improve upon our study designs.

I have a strong suspicion that Oly lifting is indeed better at increasing squat, power clean, and vertical jump measures compared to kettlebell training even if comparable loading parameters are used. However, I’m curious as to whether KB training is superior to Oly training in horizontal jumps/bounds and short sprints. My guess would be that if comparable loading was used, the KB’s would be slightly better. I could provide very good rationale for this hypothesis but I don’t want to get too in-depth right now.

Until more research is conducted, we won’t know the answer to these questions. So chalk it up as “interesting,” file it away in your memory, and wait for more studies to emerge down the road.

Future research should:

  1. Conduct a very similar study but allow for heavier kettlebells (I should mention that it would be difficult to standardize the kb loads as you can’t really perform a 1RM kb swing and therefore can’t utilize 80% of 1RM loads, but you could indeed offer heavier kb’s and simply make sure that form stays good)
  2. Possibly program slightly higher volumes such as 6 x 4-6 reps for all 3 exercises or better yet conduct 3 training sessions per week for a total of 18 sessions
  3. Test more performance measures such as a horizontal jump, horizontal bounding, and/or sprint test, and
  4. Include a brief description regarding how the exercises were performed

Reference

Otto WH, Coburn JW, Brown LE, Spiering BA. Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength, and body composition. 2012. J Strength Cond Res. Published ahead of print.

50 Comments

  • Cian Lanigan says:

    Great review of the study Bret. I personally think that it’s not about which is better, both provided fantastic benefits. I think the Olympic lifts blend themselves well to developing maximal power and starting strength where as the kettle bell lifts work really well for power endurance and offer unparallelled eccentric overload. I also think that comparing the goblet squat to a back squat is silly. The goblet squat is a fantastic variation of a squat when learning proper mechanics. It’s design forces you to go light and having the ability to open your knees with your elbows is a brilliant addition. The back squat, I feel, is a advanced variation in the squatting world as one can load the hell out of it and most newbies have the tendency to lift with their back. Finally, I think that for the average athlete KB’s are a smarter choice initially as they put a higher focus on the area that’s normally the weakest link, the posterior chain. Spending time learning to develop a good hip snap with a KB initially is only going to help when the athlete transfers to the oly bar. Both are fantastic tools with unique benefits, we should use them both if possible.

    • Bret says:

      Cian, nice thoughts bud. I think it is important to see if one method is better than the other for specific performance measures…this way we can better understand transfer of training (if one is better or if they’re the same). For a strength coach these are good to know. But of course when we design programs we can easily incorporate both so in that manner I agree – both are great.

      Agree about power endurance for the kb’s, but rhythmic jump squats or good mornings (done the Oly way where you come up onto your toes) could be good for this purpose as well…but not as good as the kb’s IMO.

      As for the eccentric overload, I disagree. I’ve heard this argument time and time again with the kettlebell folks and I myself am able to really accelerate the kb at the bottom of an eccentric swing, but I don’t think you can get more eccentric overload than the catch position of a power clean or jump squat. Due to vertical (axial) loading and gravity, I think it would be hard to beat the eccentric overloading of standing barbell exercises. However kb’s do so in a unique manner through more horizontal (anteroposterior) loading so the torque and activation requirements would be unique. Great point of contention there.

      As for the goblet squat, I do agree…but I purchased a 104 lb kettlebell and find goblet squats to be equal to around a 225 lb back squat in terms of difficulty, so it can definitely be challenging for the hips (but I don’t feel as much knee torque which makes sense if you analyze the resistance arms).

      Great thoughts Cian – you’re a bright dude.

      • Cian Lanigan says:

        Again, really interesting points Bret! This eccentric discussion is getting interesting! You’ve really got me thinking 🙂

        I think we’re both right as I think we’re talking about different types of ecc. loading. The ecc. overload is probably higher in the catch position of a power clean. I agree. But it’s more quad dominant and though a smaller ROM. I think the specific eccentric quality that the KB swing offers is overspeed eccentric loading. I think this is a more athletic specific quality and a extra benefit is that it’s developed thought a big ROM.

        Great discussion, and thanks for your kind comment. Just like this research, chalk my name up as “interesting,” file it away in your memory, and wait for me to spend more time in the trenches. 🙂

        • Ben says:

          How would the eccentric overload in a deep catch clean performed barefooted compare? That would bring the posterior chain more into play. Of course, that also requires really good flexibility to do right. My 10 year old does them perfectly. She is a sprinter.

      • Sven says:

        I am confused as to why the goblet loading produces less knee torque, as I thought it would be mechanically similar to a front squat. Could you please explain?

  • Kyle says:

    Good post. I’d be interested to hear why you think kettlebells would produce better results in horizontal jumps and short sprints

    • Bret says:

      Kyle, I had a feeling someone would ask this. I’d rather write it up in a proper post and give it full attention as it’s actually a well-developed theory of mine (and I have force plate data to support my claims). So I apologize for not answering right now but will do so in a future post.

      • Kyle says:

        Thanks. I look forward to it Bret

        • Christian Vassallo says:

          Bret wrote a great article about Vector Loading which I believe will answer your question!

          • Bret says:

            Christian, I’ve built upon this model and can explain the theory much better in terms of biomechanics. I just need to write it up, juggling to many things right now 🙁

          • Christian Vassallo says:

            That would be great, don’t worry i’m sure it will be worth the wait. In the meantime i’m in a constant battle with people who swear solely by cleans, squats and snatches for power development (axial!).

    • clifton says:

      looking forward to Brett’s response. But, the swing when done in a RKC style generates lots of horizontal power, whereas a snatch is all vertical.

  • Jason says:

    Bret, I’d really like to see a post on the theory you have of what I’m assuming to be some type of horizontal power production. I also have my own ideas on the topic and hope to see something up soon.

    • Bret says:

      Jay, I’ve had this theory and data for quite some time but it deserves to be a TNation article rather than a simple blogpost as more folks need to read it. I need to write it up though!

  • Matt B says:

    Thanks for the insight Bret! Yea I already saw another blogger out there post this study and conclude that Olympic weight training was superior to KB. Glad to see you emphasized careful analysis of the study rather than an immediate conclusion drawn from the abstract (if not I think I would have fallen to the same trap!).

  • I was going write about this study (I probably still will, as I have a different perspective on things to you).

    One aspect that is hugely overlooked, IMO, is that the are treating KBs like “regular” weights in their set/rep parameters.

    If you look at how kettlebells are used in sport, it is for time, for high repetitions. This would develop power endurance.

    If you look at weightlifting. It is max weight for single lift. So strength/power is tested.

    I don’t see why people want to do low rep work with kettlebells, just as I don’t see why you would want to do high rep Olympic lifts.

    • Bret says:

      Nick, I was going to include this information in my post as well (I’m in agreement with you on this), but then I started thinking about my own training. I’ve gotten really good at low-rep swings (say the 48 kgs for 5 explosive reps). So it can be done, and I can feel wiped out after just 5 reps because I put so much into it. This is why I didn’t end up writing about that. But I’m of course more advanced than a beginner so what you said has plenty of merit. Good thoughts!

      • When you say 5 explosive reps, I assume you mean you are forcefully ‘over accelerating’ the KB on the concentric phase?

        I’m sure you feel wiped out after the 5 reps, but (and I really hate to potentially start a debate about KB styles), could that excessive energy be used more efficiently to do more reps? I’d argue yes.

        Will you get as much out of it? Not sure, but recently Ivan Denisov (multiple world record holder in KB sport) was filmed performing a 270 kg/597 lb deadlift, with claims that he does not train deadlift specifically – just KB sport.

        My point is, that in their context (high rep ballistic lifts), KBs may be able to develop strength and power to high levels, or they may not, but the key is to test them in their context.

        However, this is just anecdotal reporting, and Ivan is a world class athlete, weighing around 114 kg at 6’4″, so chances are he would be good at any strength sport.

        It would be interesting to see deadlift/squat/vertical and broad jump stats from high level KB sport athletes, and then make the judgement call.

        I think this study has good intentions, but in general, there is much confusion in the West as to the proper application of kettlebells, and it shows in this paper.

  • Jay says:

    Nice article Bret, I’m no scientist, but sometimes there are such big and obvious holes in research.

    I know Pavel talks about overload eccentrics being key to kettlebell training. In terms of adding them in training, I always though they were a dynamic effort type exercise because of the speed, how can it be used for a more supplemental manner? say to replace a pullthru, would you just use a lower weight?

    Thanks,

    Jay

    • Bret says:

      I see the pull-through as more of a medium-high rep strength/strength endurance exercise, whereas the kb swing is more of a medium-high rep power/power-endurance exercise. The pull-through has constant time under tension, whereas the swing is an explosion followed by relaxation and waiting, then another explosion, etc. I like them both for different reasons!

  • Bruce Cleaver says:

    Bret – Love this site!

    I agree that study was flawed by using tiny KB weights compared to heavy barbell weights. This brings up a good question: what would constitute ‘heavy’ KB weights for KB swings? A weight heavy ebough to limit you to (say) 5 reps? 10 reps?

    • Bret says:

      Bruce, I just bought a 48 kg (106 lbs) kettlebell and I freakin’ love it! Finally have a weight that feels right for swings. I don’t like double kb swings nearly as much but for single kb swings I need a heavy load. When you get good at them, you can really exert yourself with just 5 reps. But like reverse hypers, I rock back and forth a couple of times to gain some momentum before I count my reps and really explode.

  • Robbie-O says:

    One of the homemade plate-loaded t-handles a la Ross E. or Ferris could potentially work quite well to add significant load to the swing movement. I recall a Pavel article where he was stating that an athlete had returned to explosive 24kg snatching (after a period of 32kg use), and had regained their dunking ability, hmm.

  • Bret says:

    Robbie-O: I have a homemade Hungarian Core Blaster and I don’t like it that much. With the kb’s it swings closer to your COM which allows you to explode much better. The core blaster has too long of a lever which diminishes your ability to control the load and explode maximally. So kb’s are better IMO. I remember Poliquin telling a story about the same thing way back in the day.

  • Ted says:

    Bret, Thanks for starting this outstanding discussion, very interesting points raised by yourself as well as your readers.

    Personally, I have very little experience with Kettlebells (used them for about two weeks well over a year ago, and the weights were tiny).

    I am considering buying some KBs for my homegym because I continue to hear great things about them.

    I have several questions, if you found the time to reply to just one, I would be very grateful. Thanks.
    Everybody else is encouraged to share their thoughts just as well. Thank you, and God bless!

    a) How does your double kettlebell front squat strength compare to your barbell front squat strength?

    b) In the double kettlebell front squat, is the upper back the limiting factor or is it more the arms/shoulders? And what is usually the upper limit rep-wise?

    c) For a strong man, are 40kg (88 lbs.) a piece sufficient? I have yet to find a store in Germany that offers heavier bells.

    d) I have great squatting technique (atg, only about a 20 degree forward lean on back squats, arched back throughout the movement). But despite this, I find double dumbbell squats (the weights resting on my shoulders) to work my thighs much better than barbell variations. Any idea why this may be? I guess it will be similar if not the same with KBs.

    e) I know some amateur fighters (boxing and MMA) that swear by kettlebells. Do you think for a middleweight fighter who needs great amounts of relative strength, kettlebells are the best choice for developing power endurance?

    Thanks again!

    All the best,
    Ted

    • Bret says:

      Ted:

      a) Don’t know; never tried a double kb front squat. I have a 48 kg kb (106 lbs) and can do around 12 goblet squats, I can do around 5 front squats with 225 lbs. So it’s definitely not the same. I’m guessing I could do 12 front squats with 185 lbs, so there’s around a 57% adjustment there.

      b) Not sure; I really feel it in my hips. But it’s really hard to hold up…for the upper back and the awkwardness of holding it. So prob upper back.

      c) You could do very well with that size kb (goblet Bulgarian split squats, single leg RDL’s, goblet squats, swings, one arm rows, etc.)

      d) It’s all about leverages. Your body is a lightning bold (torso, femur, tibia) and how it collapses (as well as tendinous attachment points) play a large role in determining where you feel exercises.

      e) Definitely a great tool. As for the best, I’m not sure. I love barbells, db’s, kb’s, JC bands, trx, etc.

  • Andy... says:

    Bret says:
    I’d have like to have seen a broad jump, 5-horizontal jump, and/or 20-m sprint included in the mix.

    A 20-m sprint?. Isn’t that faulty logic?.

    • Bret says:

      Andy…why is this? Please elaborate and I’ll try to provide an answer.

      • Jason says:

        Bret, I commented earlier this week when this article was put up, and I got to thinking about the theory on the 20m sprint. While I haven’t seen your force plate data, I’m interested to see how the 20m sprint compares to the broad jump and continuous broad jump, because for most athletes, the first 10-15m will a drive phase. I would think what it comes down to is the joint angles and directions of force application during the specific exercise. I’m really excited to see some numbers on this stuff…really cool!

  • Derrick Blanton says:

    I couldn’t help but notice in the first picture, the Olympic weightlifter who is about to toss double body weight over her head is not observing the commonly prescribed “neutral neck” technique..Hmmm..

    • Bret says:

      Barely any of them do! That’s why I’ve always been skeptical of neck packing/neutral neck for Oly lifters. I think there’s an extension reflex (Mel Siff talks about it in Supertraining) but this phenomenon needs to be examined. Good call Derrick.

  • Firebird says:

    I totally believe that many areas of my body’s strength increases are attributed to kettlebell training. I know most people would eschew the leg curl, but I happen to like the movement and like to keep it in my leg training routine. I perform swings 2x week with an 88 lbs. KB, 200 reps within 15 minutes. I’ve recently been able to do a leg curl with 170 lbs. I’ve been training for 35 years, my leg curl has never been that strong.

    Once in a while, I will check barbell strength vs. my KB strength (Snatches with 80 lbs. KB, cleans with the 88…and the bent press, too), and the strength just does not go down. It maintains, or in some cases, gets stronger.

    What doesn’t seem to happen is muscular endurance increases, but I feel that is just a product of my physical make up. I’ve never been able to get my reps up above 10 reps and generally keep in the 6-8 rep range.

    • Bret says:

      Thanks for the anecdote Firebird! I’m growing to love my kb training (but am a novice). I also like the leg curl too (don’t tell anyone :)) Actually I can provide a pretty good argument for throwing in leg curls from time to time. My buddy allowed me to collaborate on a paper we’re trying to get published on the hamstrings…we used a special MRI technique to show muscle damage…hamstring exercises work different aspects of the hammies.

  • Jared says:

    Bret,

    Can you expand on this a bit?

    “My guess would be that if comparable loading was used, the KB’s would be slightly better.”

    So are you saying a study looking at 50 kg cleans our 100 kg + kb swings and squats?

    • Bret says:

      Jared, not comparable loading in terms of absolute load, but in terms of % of rep maxes or rep maxes. For example, if a 10RM hang clean and 10RM kb swing was used (would be tough to determine a 10RM kb swing but could be done I suppose).

  • Robbie says:

    Check out Fedor Fuglev doing 24kg snatches for some crazy neck movement..
    http://m.youtube.com/index?desktop_uri=%2F&gl=US#/watch?v=-14iSUYL7sw

  • Domenic says:

    Bret,
    What do you think about the centripetal force aspect of the kettlebell swing, eccentric and concentric? Its a pretty unique exercise in that regard.

  • gene s says:

    I cant see how this study has any value what ever considering the restrictions of loading with the the kettlebells. I mean, why do a study when the outcome is so obvious as to be absurd? Someone needed something published? The set-up was ridiculous from the start. In general just a Very poorly designed study.

  • Aaron says:

    Of course they are, can you squat with a 300 lbs kettlebell ? no
    but with a barbell the weight you can squat with is endless, and so is your strength

  • Brett says:

    for one of my graduate classes I was measuring the effects of hang clean, kettlebell swing, and tuck jumps and their effects on horizontal broad jump, Pro agility, and 40 yard sprint. The test was done to measure post activation potential and looking at the three different exercises that required three different skill levels and intensity. The hang clean was completed using 75 percent of their one rep max and the kettlebell used half the way that was used during the hang clean. baseline numbers were obtained before testing and then each exercise was performed 2 X 3 with 3 minutes of rest to maximize their post activation potential.what we found from the data results was broad jump and 40 yard dash improved the most significantly from kettlebell swing and the Pro agility improved the most from Tuck jumps. two things that I thought were fascinating was that power clean do not show more significant increase than the other two exercises, and that although kettlebell swings used only half the weight used from hang clean, kettlebell swings demonstrated greater improvement in performance the Olympic lifts.

    • Darren says:

      Hey Bret.

      I’ve experimented with numerous PAP combinations, for me personally I find that a triple hip dominant combo of hang power clean x 3(approx 60%-80% of 1rm) – 90sec recovery – DB swing(30kg)(don’t have kettlebell) x 5 – 90sec recovery, depth jump with horizontal emphasis x 3 – followed by a 3min recovery then repeat x 3 sets, is a superb way of increasing hip dominant power.

      For vertical power I use a similar combo of heavy squat x 1-2r/squat jump x 3/depth jump for height x 3 x 3 sets, with the same recovery times.

      In each case I would use a ramped set method for the heavy PAP exercise eg hang power clean set 1 x 3 x 60%, set 2 x 70%, set 3 x 80%. I’d keep the DB swing the same at 30kg hoping to increase the speed of the swing due to the PAP of the clean.

      For the squat combo, It would go something like this: heavy squat at 75%, 85%, 95% with the jump squat element at 40%, 50%, 60%. With the vertical depth jump I would keep the knee’s straighter than usual for leg stiffness, as this increased the GRF. With this kind of combo you will find a definite and immediate improvement in jump height, be it by only a few CM from the first to the final set. Same goes for the hip dominant combo.

      I use a standard weight bench for drop height for both the vertical and horizontal emphasis depth jump.

      I also use a similar upper body triple combo, of heavy bench press, speed bench or bench press throw and a depth push up. Usually in a 1/3/3 rep scheme with a 75% – 85% range for the heavy bench, 40%-60% for the speed bench or bench throw and about a 8 inch drop height for the depth push ups.

      These types of combo’s work very well indeed, and I do find that my sprint speed also tends to improve both from 0-30m and from 40m-70m as a result of using both combo’s. Overall 100m times tend to improve by a couple of tenths of a second, when employing these methods. Obviously I’m not world class, more of a recreational athlete, hence the larger improvement margin’s.

      One ting I have found though is that trying to use unilateral versions of these exercises just doesn’t work as well. I think that this is because total load is limited so you simply cannot stress the FT fibers in the same way, and of course the coupling times for single leg depth jumps are longer than for the double leg version. But what I might sometimes do is link these with an end of session set of 3 x 10 contact alternating leg speed bounds to bring in a more sports specific element.

      Obviously I don’t use these combo’s all the time – I use them in a 5 session cycle over a 3 week period. eg 2/2/1 session’s for weeks 1/2/3. This allows the 3rd week to be used as a taper week, before going on to my next cycle.

      I would use only 2 session per week. 1 x quad dominant + 1 x hip dominant, so in essence each is emphasised once every 7 days. But you also have to take into account that I also train track x2/wk. And in reality I do 2 x full-body routines in each micro cycle.

  • Fabien says:

    Thank you Bret for this informative article.
    Especially the links to the researches of the backsquat and the deadlift
    are very interesting. I was searching such information for a long time.
    Please continue your work and have fun by watching Narcos in your new office 😉
    Bye

    Fabien Mpouma
    Manager Training & Education
    aerobis Fitness GmbH
    Cologne Germany

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