Barbell enthusiasts say there is no substitute for heavy barbell training—and they're right. A bar and and a decent selection of plates allows you to create a heavier load than anything else in the gym, and you can dial it in to the point exactly. Most strength criteria are based off of this implement, and for good reason.
Kettlebell fans posit that there's nothing better for building movement quality, work capacity, and "functional strength" than kettlebell training—and I'd say they also have a good case. Kettlebell training offers more comfortable hand positioning, especially in overhead pressing movements, emphasizes core control, and provides a great alternative to highly technical Olympic movements. Those balls of iron are also awesome tools for complexes, warm-up flows, and adding overall training volume for size and strength.
Both implements offer great advantages—and lifters make great progress with both tools and styles. So why not take advantage of the benefits of both and create a hybrid system? If you're not a competitive lifter in either modality, then there is no reason why you shouldn't.
But like anything, there's a random way to do it, and there's a way that maximizes the best attributes of both tools. Here are five ways to blend barbell and kettlebell training, and a sample program to put it into action.
Option 1: Use one for the upper body, one for the lower body
There are couple of ways this could work. One is to stick with the heavy barbell squats and deads, and use kettlebells for all overhead pressing work.
Alternatively, during a heavy bench press or barbell overhead pressing cycle, you could utilize the kettlebell to maximize leg development without overtaxing the CNS. Double kettlebell front squats are more than up to the task of building your lower body, but they do it with less loading necessary than barbell squats. Try a set holding a pair of 32 kilogram (70 pound) bells in the rack if you have any doubt.
Option 2. Use kettlebells for activation during warm-up and/or conditioning
Kettlebell swings, snatches, cleans, and complexes are amazing for conditioning. Add these movements in at the end of each workout for high reps or time, building up slowly each week or month.
For example, if you're looking for a quick warm-up or a conditioning burner at the end of a training day, three rounds of a complex of 10 goblet cleans, 10 goblet squats, and 10 swings will give you all you want. No setting it down between movements!
Kettlebell activation series 1
Or you could start any day of training with this powerful warm-up flow of 3 snatches, followed by a get-up starting from the top.
Kettlebell activation series 2
Or you could prime the shoulders and hips with 5 reps per side of halos, bottoms-up presses, swings, and racked squats.
Kettlebell activation series 3
Option 3: Use kettlebells for power/olympic movements, and barbells for strength movements
There's a great quote from renowned back expert Dr. Stuart McGill: "Olympic lifting must find the lifter, not the other way around."
The hidden message here: Most people don't have the motor skill, mobility, or anatomy for full barbell Olympic lifts. And trying to develop them isn't always going to work.
By using the kettlebell, the average lifter can reap the benefits of these quality overhead power lifts without the danger and mobility limitations. And yes, power work with kettlebells, such as swings and snatches, can definitely boost your deadlift.
Option 4: Alternate training blocks of barbell-dominant/kettlebell-dominant work
For competitive lifters wrapping up a 12-16-week program, a "re-composition" or back-off training block can be an effective way to progress without the fallout from long overloading programs.
Option 5: Follow a completely blended program
Think of this like an undulating periodization training system, frequently changing your training stimuli both in rep ranges and training implements. This helps boost skill acquisition, prevent overuse injuries, and just makes you as well-rounded in your training as possible.
There are many, many ways to blend the two together in the same program at the same time. For example, a barbell-focused lifter could structure their four-day strength program like this:
- Day 1: Heavy barbell squat, high-rep kettlebell snatches
- Day 2: Heavy bench press/incline press, kettlebell single-leg training (Cossack squat, lunge, or skater squat)
- Day 3: Speed/lighter squat work, heavy single-arm kettlebell military press
- Day 4: Higher volume bench press, conditioning work with kettlebells (think high-rep snatches, squats, or get-ups)
For someone looking for three solid full-body sessions a week, here's a sample program that similarly uses each tool for what they do best: