As you age, the first fitness quality that you lose is power. This is not the same thing as strength. Power involves strength and speed. Which is why it is also one of the most important qualities to develop if you want to improve your general athleticism and performance in any sport. Power is about applying force fast. The most natural examples of power are sprinting, jumping and throwing. But there are many training tools that can be used to maintain and develop power.
One of the best tools available for this purpose is the kettlebell. Kettlebells are accessible and affordable. Unlike jumping or sprinting kettlebell power training is often zero impact – great for people with pre-existing joint issues. The preferred way to train power with a kettlebell is a type of exercise known as the kettlebell ballistics.
Kettlebell ballistics have a short learning curve compared to many other types of power training. In addition to developing power, they are also one of the best types of exercise for burning a huge amount of calories in a short period of time. And you still get the benefits of maintaining bone density and building muscle that you get from regular strength training.
This doesn’t mean you should drop strength training and focus on power training. In fact, you cannot learn how to do proper power training of any type until you build a base of strength.
Power is both a progression of and complement to strength training.
But once you have your strength base and movement patterns down – the next step is power.
What is a Ballistic Movement?
For a movement to be truly ballistic you have to apply enough force to an object that it continues to move without the further application of force.
This can be a confusing concept for you if you don’t have an understanding of physics. But here are two simple ways that you can understand it.
First take a moment to consider kicking a ball. You apply force to the ball for a moment (when the kick occurs) and the ball is off. Even though you aren’t still applying force to the ball after it leaves your foot, it keeps moving – on its own momentum. This is an example of a ballistic.
Another great example is a bullet being shot from a gun. The explosion inside the barrel propels the bullet forward. After it leaves the barrel there is no force being applied to the bullet – it just moves on its momentum.
Kettlebell Ballistics work the same way. There is a phase where you are causing the kettlebell to accelerate using your body, giving it momentum. And a point where you stop and the kettlebell keeps moving – without additional help from you.
Speed is key. The amount of momentum that the object has when the force is no longer applied is directly related to the speed the object is moving when you stop applying force. The faster you get it moving the more power you have generated.
In the two examples the object leaves your control completely. Not so with the kettlebell. Because of the design with an offset center of gravity, the bulk of the mass can keep moving while you still loosely hold onto the bell – until it returns and you can repeat the same action. All while doing smooth, controlled reps.
This is kind of like pushing a swing versus pushing a cart. When you push the swing away from you, it is still loosely connected to a top bar, which redirects the force up, until gravity stops it and then brings it back down to where you are standing so you can push again.
When pushing a cart instead, once you give it a good push it will rocket(1) away from you until it stops. Now you have to go to it to push it again instead of it coming back to you. This makes practicing a lot less efficient. And since practice is one of the keys to improvement, it helps when it can be efficient.
And while you are waiting for the kettlebell to return to you, you have the opportunity to practice two other important skills – patience and relaxation. Many people make the mistake of thinking that improving their fitness is only about working hard. When in reality it is about working hard and relaxing. For a kettlebell swing to work well you have to figure out how to relax your arms and wait for the proper time to hinge and generate force for the next rep.
The Two Types of Kettlebell Ballistics
There are two types of Kettlebell Ballistics you can incorporate into your training. Squat Ballistics and Hinge Ballistics. The names are based on the two lower body movement patterns that you use to generate the power.
Under a strict physics definition the Squat Ballistics are not 100% ballistics. But from a training standpoint they are. Think of it like how the tomato is a fruit under a botanical definition but even the Supreme Court of the United States ruled that it is still a vegtable .
These involve hiking the kettlebell into your hips while in a hip hinge, then explosively returning to a standing plank position. The kettlebell then continues to move forward and upward until you either catch it or gravity brings it to a stop and then back to you.
The hinge ballistics are the Swing, Clean, and Snatch. In the swing the bell is stopped by gravity, in the clean you catch the bell at chest level (in what is called the rack position), and in the snatch it is caught in the overhead position.
In squat ballistics the kettlebell is held in the rack, then there is a “dip” (which is a squat movement pattern), then you explode upward driving the kettlebell toward the sky. Often you will leave the ground too with your heels rising from the floor. The kettlebell maintains contact with your arms and you finish the lockout by either pushing to the finish (in the Push Press) or dip a second time while straightening your arms under the bell to catch it overhead. From there you can then stand up and finish the lift.
Your Squat Ballistics are the Push Press and the Jerk.
How to Incorporate Ballistics into Your Training
There are an infinite number of ways to work ballistics into your training. Here are a few ideas:
Pure Power Training
If you want to really focus on power then you need to do ballistics for low reps when you are fresh, with lots of rest in between sets.
This usually means 3-5 reps with at least 2-3 minutes between sets. There are ways that you can cluster the work and use more reps (such as the Quick and the Dead ) but those are beyond the scope of this article.
These reps should all be heavy, hard and fast. If you can’t keep the speed up, end the work – you are no longer developing power.
Conditioning is a vague term that is usually used as a catch-all of getting in shape. A better term for what you probably want is work capacity: the ability to exercise or perform tasks without getting overly tired. Kettlebell ballistics are a great way to get into this kind of shape.
There are two common ways to do this with kettlebell ballistics: high volume work or complexes.
High volume work means doing high reps of a ballistic. For example, the tried and true Simple and Sinister protocol of 100 swings a day in sets of 10 so that you can keep them quick and snappy which adds a significant power training to the practice.
Another example of high volume work is Kettlebell Sport. Here you are training to snatch or clean and jerk for 10 minutes – without stopping or putting the weight down – which means less power but more endurance.
A third great way to implement this is complexes. This involves doing multiple exercises without putting the kettlebell down. To learn more about this kind of training I suggest you read my article about it here.
Ballistics are among the best exercises for losing weight or burning off that last bit of stubborn fat.
It is important to remember that there is no exercise that can counteract a poor diet. Make sure that your diet is on point and you have all the basics down. And remember that a healthy diet and a weight loss diet are not the same thing. Health is about getting enough good nutrients into your body and weight loss is about being in a caloric deficit.
Pure power training and conditioning will both help you burn the fat. If you really want to take it to the next level I would recommend sessions that involve power training, strength training and conditioning.
But if you are short on time and want the most bang for your buck focus on the kettlebell complexes. This is a tried and true time efficient way to turn into a lean, mean, fighting machine.
First you need to move well, then you need to get strong. After that you need to learn how to apply that strength quickly and effectively. Kettlebell ballistics can be one of the most effective ways that you can learn to do that.
And by learning to do that you will age better, increase athletic performance, and improve your body composition. So it is a win all around.
The key word is learning. It takes practice but the investment in yourself (and your fitness) is well worth it.
You will learn faster with a good teacher or coach (I suggest a StrongFirst or RKC certified instructor) but if you do it on your own take your time, be patient, and find good detailed resources, so that you can stay healthy and injury-free on your journey.
And to keep updated on resources I put out to help you on your journey, make sure to sign up for my email newsletter. And get my eBook Double H'ai Workuts for free.
The book has 18 kettlebell and 18 bodyweight workouts for all levels that you can use to get started or advance on your journey.
1 - Rocket is a very poor word choice. In rockets an object keeps moving not just because of momentum but also because it is generating additional force to push itself forward. This is done through action and reaction with a propellant that is part of the rocket. But a deep discussion of physics does not need to be part of this conversation.