TRAINING ARTICLES

Kettlebell + Rope Training for Bodybuilding:

Is it possible to build muscle with “cardio?”

Success in bodybuilding is a combination of muscle size, muscle definition and symmetry.

A traditional (but not exclusive) approach to bodybuilding involves using resistance training to build muscle size and then using cardio to burn fat. This strategy is often tied into a bulking phase associated with resistance training, caloric excess and increase in muscle as well as fat mass. The bulking phase is followed by a cutting phase associated with more cardio, caloric deficit and a decrease in both muscle mass and fat mass.

To some extent, this process has a “two-steps-forward-one-step-back” aspect to it. Long-term progress requires that more muscle is gained during the bulking phase than what is lost in the cutting phase. Along the same line, more fat must be lost in the cutting phase compared to what is gained in the bulking phase.

Changes in body composition are in many cases more powerfully affected by nutrition than the training programs. Training studies with no control for nutrition often result in no changes in muscle mass, even though training in the classic 8- to 12-rep range has been used.1,2

Most scientific studies show greater hypertrophy of type II than type I muscle fibres as a result of training. High-intensity, low-volume training of Olympic weightlifters and powerlifters may selectively hypertrophy the type II fibres in muscle. High-volume training of bodybuilders may selectively hypertrophy type I fibres in muscle.3

Selective hypertrophy of a specific fibre type changes the relative area of that fibre type in a muscle, but not the percentage distribution. The average percentage of type II fibres in the vastus lateralis is 60% for weightlifters, 57% for powerlifters, 55% for bodybuilders and 52% for sedentary persons.4 Scientists cannot tell whether this distribution reflects a selection (e.g., a person has a lot of type II fibres, therefore the person is naturally more explosive and will do well in Olympic lifting) or an adaptation to training.

If a person begins with 52% type II fibres and increases this percentage through training to 55, 57 or 60, it would indicate that training has the potential to stimulate a shift in fibre types from type I to type II. A shift in fibre types from type I to type II could be favourable for a bodybuilder, because, as mentioned above, studies show greater hypertrophy of type II fibres from training compared to type I.

It has been controversial for a long time, but recent studies point in the direction that it is possible to stimulate a shift in fibre types from type I to type II:5

  • Endurance training might increase the percentage of type I fibres
  • High-velocity movements may stimulate a shift from slow- to fast-twitch fibres
  • 30-second all-out sprints on a bike ergometer two or three days per week can stimulate a shift from type I to type II

The review concludes that if strength/power athletes (here including bodybuilders) wish to attempt to increase fast twitch percentage, they should employ high-intensity, low-volume and high-velocity training programs.5

With respect to strength training, it would be relatively simple to employ a low-volume, high-intensity approach. Optimal muscle growth may come from maximizing the combination of mechanical and metabolic stimuli via periodization. A high-intensity approach would focus on building muscle by stimulating the mechanical factors (eccentric muscle actions, heavy loading with 2 to 10 repetitions per set (75 to 95% 1RM) and 1 to 2 minutes of rest between sets).

Traditional cardio is low intensity and high volume, and to stimulate a shift from type I to type II, traditional cardio should be avoided. If we embrace the idea that traditional cardio should be avoided, the logical question appears: What kind of training can I do to reduce my percentage of fat in the cutting phase?

Is there such a thing as low-volume, high-velocity, high-intensity cardio that has the potential to burn fat, improve cardio respiratory fitness and even build muscle in the process?

The answer is yes. High intensity interval training (HIIT), for example, in the form of 30-second sprints as mentioned above, is low volume, high intensity and high velocity and fits the criteria for the type of cardio that you would do if you wanted to create a fibre type shift.

From a muscular standpoint, a bike involves mainly quads, calves and hamstrings and hip flexors if your technique is good. Any other type of movement that can be done in a sprint fashion – for example, actual sprinting, if you can run fast enough – works as well.

The problem with using only one movement for your interval training is that it is a somewhat inefficient approach because you have to rest between intervals. If you truly want the maximum bang for your buck in the shortest amount of time possible, you would choose two or more movements that each fit the criteria of high velocity, high intensity (and low volume) and have minimal overlap in terms of the involved muscle groups.

Two such exercises are battling ropes and kettlebell swings.

Here are some scientific findings on the two-handed kettlebell (KB) swing (Click on reference 6 if you’re not sure what a two-handed KB swing looks like):

  • Subjects performed as many swings as possible in 12 minutes and reached an average heart rate of 87% of maximum. It was concluded that KB swings can be performed in a way to stimulate cardiorespiratory training.7 Another study using a similar training protocol reached the same conclusion.8
  • Training with the two-handed KB swing can improve the vertical jump, due to a “unique strengthening effect on the trunk and posterior chain muscles.9,10 The improvement in the vertical jump is supported by power measurements of the two-handed KB swing that indicates power values on level with weighted jumps.

Summary

Two-handed KB swings performed in an interval fashion (30 seconds on, 30 seconds off) result in high heart rates, high power output (the movement is high velocity) and a unique strengthening of the trunk and posterior chain.

If you’ve tried two-handed KB swings, you will know that they’re pretty easy on the arms, grip and quads. Here is where Battling Ropes come in.

Battling Ropes is a training system developed by strongman John Brookfield as a system to train “sustained power.” The inspiration was the waves on the sea.12 Briefly, the primary exercises in Battling Ropes involve a 50-foot rope one to two inches thick that is wrapped around a pole. The goal is to grip the ends and create waves that run all the way to the pole with a high-frequency whipping motion. (If you’re not sure what Battling Ropes look like, click on reference 13). This whipping motion involves fast shoulder flexion followed by shoulder extension possibly in combination with elbow flexion (simultaneously with shoulder flexion) and elbow extension (simultaneously with shoulder extension).

Thus, even though many muscle groups are involved in Battling Ropes, the prime movers are the anterior deltoids, the elbow flexors and the elbow extensors. Thus, there is minimal overlap between the two-handed KB swing and the Battling Ropes training.

A recent study had 11 recreationally active individuals perform 10 repetitions of 45 seconds of a standing vertical double wave (each end of the rope is held in each hand and simultaneous waves are created) with 15 seconds of rest in between. A 15.24-meter (50-foot) long rope was used. The subjects averaged 25 rope undulations (movements) per 15-second interval (high velocity). The average heart rate was 86% of age-predicted max (high intensity) and the peak lactate was 11.9 mmol (high anaerobic workload – metabolic stress).

Combining the two-handed KB swing and Battling Ropes in a circuit style may fall under the category of High Intensity Power Training (HIPT). HIPT is characterized by the use of high-intensity resistance training exercises, multiple joint movements with a lack of a prescribed rest period and a focus on sustained power output. The total time for HIPT workouts is often in the range of 10 to 20 minutes (low volume) and performed for “best time” or with a focus on as many rounds as possible in that time frame. A HIPT-style program can lead to improvements in VO2 max and a reduction in body fat but can also lead to overuse injury and must therefore be used in a careful program design.15

A program structure based on performing a certain amount of repetitions in the shortest time possible or the maximum amount of repetitions in a fixed time stimulates fast, high velocity movements. Therefore, a HIPT-style program using two-handed KB swings and Battling Ropes is a valid choice for a bodybuilder seeking to make a fibre type shift with CR training.

The Kettlebell + Battling Ropes Interval Training Program

To safely and effectively start the Kettlebell Swing + Battling Ropes Interval Training Program, you must familiarize yourself with the techniques of the two exercises.

There’s not a lot more to be said about Battling Ropes technique than what was described earlier. Just make sure not to round your back, but to keep the movement to the shoulder and elbow joint. Additionally, to last longer and achieve a higher frequency of movement, it’s recommended to not grab the handles too hard. (If you don’t have a rope in your gym, you can do push-ups instead – chest to ground!)

There is a lot more to be said about optimal technique for the KB swing. The exercise has many similarities to a wide-stance deadlift. Below are some key points for optimal execution of the two-handed KB swing:

  1. Place the KB on the floor
  2. Place yourself behind the KB with a medium-wide stance so that you can grab the KB with two hands on the handle while keeping your back straight and your kneecap tracking your second toe (next to the big toe). Inhale while the KB is still on the floor.
  3. Because you have placed yourself behind the KB, it will naturally swing back between your legs when you lift it off the floor.
  4. Complete the lift by explosively “pushing your feet through the floor and driving your tailbone forward.” Perform a pressurized exhalation in this phase (exhale while keeping your abs flat and tight). As a result of the leg drive, the KB should swing to approximately shoulder height. The elbows are locked and the shoulder blades should be locked down at the top of the swing.
  5. Guide the falling KB back between your legs by “pushing the tailbone back” (“sitting back”). The knees are slightly bent, and the backward movement stops when the arms (still straight) touches the body/legs. Inhale in this phase.

    Throughout the set, it’s recommended that you “reach in opposite directions with the crown of your head and your tailbone.” This subtle action helps secure a stable spine.

If you don’t have access to a kettlebell, a dumbbell can be used instead.

Ideally, you’ve performed circuit training with resistance-type exercises before. If you’re new to circuit training, simply start the exercises in a slower pace rather than moving as fast as possible.

Depending on your fitness level and training capacity, the program is performed two to four times per week at the end of your resistance-training workout or on a separate day.

To set up for this program, make sure that the kettlebell and the rope are next to each other so you can quickly transition from one exercise into the next.

Day 1 (High-Intensity Day)

Week 1/2/3/4/5/6 = 10/12/14/12/14/16 minutes total exercise

  1. Start load:

    For the KB swing, choose a load that allows you to perform 15 to 20 swings to shoulder height in 30 seconds when you aim to complete as many swings as possible in that time frame.

    This test for the right size KB for you should be performed on a separate day.

    For Battling Ropes, the “load” is adjusted based on where you grab the handles; grab the handles at the end of the rope.

  2. Start your stopwatch and begin with the KB swing and perform a set as fast as possible with perfect form. When you subjectively feel that your speed drops, place the KB on the floor and continue with no rest into double vertical waves with the Battling Ropes. Perform the set of double vertical waves as fast as possible and stop when you feel that the speed drops. Go back to the KB swing with no rest. Go back and forth in this manner until you feel that your speed from the beginning of the set has decreased. Stop your stopwatch and note the time.
  3. Take a longer rest until your rate of perceived exertion is about 12 on a scale to 20 (this corresponds to approximately 120 BPM).
  4. Repeat step 2 until you have accumulated the target time for the day.

    Note: The time is stopped during the rest periods. The target time is the accumulated time of action.

Day 2 (Low-Intensity Day)

The intensity in interval training can be described as percentage of peak power output. The peak power output is the optimal combination of load and movement velocity. When Day 2 is termed the “low intensity day,” it should be understood as a relative term. The intensity is not low – just lower than on Day 1. The intensity is lower because the start load chosen is lower. Thus, even though we don’t measure the length of any intervals here, we expect the average interval to be a little longer and subsequently the average movement velocity is a little lower as well.

Week 1/2/3/4/5/6 = 14/16/18/16/18/20 minutes total exercise

  1. Start load:

    For the KB swing, choose a load that allows you to perform 25 to 30 swings to shoulder height in 45 seconds when you aim to complete as many swings as possible in that time frame.

    This test for the right size KB for you should be performed on a separate day.

    For Battling Ropes, the “load” is adjusted based on where you grab the handles; grab the handles one arm’s length inside the rope.

  2. Start your stopwatch and begin with the KB swing and perform a set as fast as possible with perfect form. When you subjectively feel that your speed drops, place the KB on the floor and continue with no rest into double vertical waves with the Battling Ropes. Perform the set of double vertical waves as fast as possible and stop when you feel that the speed drops. Go back to the KB swing with no rest. Go back and forth in this manner until you feel that your speed from the beginning of the set has decreased. Stop your stopwatch and note the time.
  3. Take a longer rest until your rate of perceived exertion is about 12 on a scale to 20 (this corresponds to 120 BPM).
  4. Repeat step 2 until you have accumulated the target time for the day.

Comments

The program employs – within the parameters of high-intensity, high-velocity, low-volume interval training – principles of autoregulation. Autoregulation is a fancy way of saying that the program adapts to you, instead of you having to adapt to the program. The key way that autoregulation is used here is by not having fixed duration of each interval. The duration of each interval is based on your performance (the interval stops when your performance drops). The number of intervals before the rest period is not fixed, either. Lastly, the rest period is not fixed either, but is based on your actual recovery, which can change from day to day and from week to week.

PURPLE•K REPS – which is formulated to maximize explosive strength and support muscle endurance for maximum lifts and longer sets, ensuring muscle growth – will support your efforts on this program.

Conclusion

This article discussed the relevance of attempting to perform interval training in a way that could have the potential to stimulate a shift from type I to type II muscle fibres. Further, a program consisting of kettlebell swings and Battling Ropes training was suggested to accomplish this objective.

Scientific References

  1. Hartmann H, Bob A, Wirth K, Schmidtbleicher D. Effects of different periodization models on rate of force development and power ability in the upper extremity. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Oct;23(7):1921-32.
  2. Monteiro AG, Aoki MS, Evangelista A, et al. Nonlinear periodization maximizes strength gains in split resistance training routines. J Strength Cond Res. 2009 Jul;23(4):1321-6.
  3. Fleck S, Kraemer W. Neuromuscular physiology and adaptations to resistance training. In: Designing Resistance Training Programs. 3rd Ed. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2004:83
  4. Stone MH, Stone M, Sands WA. Biomechanics of Resistance Training. In: Principles and Practice of Resistance Training. Champaign, IL: Human Kinetics. 2007:51.
  5. Wilson JM, Loenneke JP, Jo E, et al The effects of endurance, strength and power training on muscle fiber type shifting. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Jun;26(6):1724-9.
  6. Jensen K. High frequency kettlebell swings to maximise the heart rate. YouTube.com. Accessed December 7, 2013.
  7. Farrar RE, Mayhew JL, Koch AJ. Oxygen cost of kettlebell swings. J Strength Cond Res. 2010 Apr;24(4):1034-6.
  8. Hulsey CR, Soto DT, Koch AJ, Mayhew JL. Comparison of kettlebell swings and treadmill running at equivalent rating of perceived exertion values. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 May;26(5):1203-7.
  9. Lake JP, Lauder MA. Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Aug;26(8):2228-33.
  10. Otto WH 3rd, Coburn JW, Brown LE, Spiering BA. Effects of weightlifting vs. kettlebell training on vertical jump, strength and body composition. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 May;26(5):1199-202.
  11. Lake JP, Lauder M. Mechanical demands of kettlebell swing exercise. J Strength Cond Res. 2012 Dec;26(12):3209-16.
  12. Brookfield J. Personal communication.
  13. BattlingRopes. Battling Ropes Tsunami. YouTube.com. Accessed December 7, 2013.
  14. Fountaine CJ, Schmidt BJ. Metabolic cost of rope training. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Jul 26. [Epub ahead of print]
  15. Smith MM, Sommer AJ, Starkoff BE, Devor ST. Crossfit-based high-intensity power training improves maximal aerobic fitness and body composition. J Strength Cond Res. 2013 Nov;27(11):3159-72.

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