Kettlebells can be a useful tool in your strength training for rowing toolbox to develop strength, power, and muscle, if you know what you’re doing with them! In this article, we’ll discuss some of the research on kettlebells in strength training, and methods for using kettlebells for rowing strength training. A fellow strength coach of rowers wrote me earlier this year with how she uses kettlebells for rowing training programs, and we’ll hear from her as well, plus some sample programs.
Kettlebells for Rowing: Pros and Cons
Kettlebells can be an effective tool for improving strength, muscle, and power. You can use kettlebells in similar ways to dumbbells, with the added advantage of the handle for explosive exercises like kettlebell swings that cannot be done as well with a dumbbell. Unlike the dumbbell or barbell, the kettlebell also adds a variable of instability, which coaches and athletes can use productively to teach stability in the wrist, elbow, shoulder, and torso.
One drawback to kettlebells is the cost and lack of adjustability. Dumbbells and barbells are more commercially available, and barbell weight is fully adjustable from 45lbs to 500+lbs. Kettlebells cost more per pound, are less available at commercial gyms, and trainees will typically have to use a limited weight selection and find exercises to fit the available weights, rather than the other way around. However, this may not be a limitation if your commercial, athletic, or Crossfit-style gym has a full range of kettlebells available for use, or if you’re willing and able to invest in purchasing an array of useful kettlebells for your own homegym.
An additional limitation is lack of scaling. I have seen a 200lb kettlebell once in a gym, and not only was the handle nearly 1.5 inches in diameter, posing a significant challenge to the grip, but I’m not sure the size of the bell would have allowed me to swing it between my legs. A barbell will have the same dimensions for lifting whether it weighs 135lbs or 495lbs, which makes it scalable for athletes of different strengths without modifying the movement. College male rowers in particular may outgrow the challenge of available kettlebells quite quickly. Even in well-stocked commercial and athletic gyms, it’s rare to see kettlebells above 100-120lbs, which is a reasonable weight for college male athletes to use for low-rep, power-focused swing exercises within a year or so of training. If we are using kettlebells to train the deadlift or squat, athletes will outgrow <120lb weights even sooner. Juniors, masters, or female athletes may not hit this limitation so quickly, prolonging the utility of kettlebells in training.
Finally, I’m always cautious of using implements or exercises around which non-rowing strength sports are based. For example, barbell deadlifting from the floor, low-bar squatting, and barbell bench pressing from powerlifting. Olympic lifts from Olympic weightlifting. Odd-object lifts from the sport of strongman. Crossfit workouts. Kettlebell lifts are their own strength sport. Elements of these lifts can certainly be used in a strength training program for rowers, so long as we are intentional about why and how we use them. I have seen a lot of coaches and athletes get swept up in strength sport training methods, and away from the goal of building a better rower. Rowing training usually merits different techniques, training methods, and standards of achievement than strength sports.
Kettlebell Strength Training Research
Kettlebell training is a fairly recent phenomenon in the USA. There is no research yet on kettlebells for rowing training specifically. There is early research on their use in general strength and conditioning settings, and we may be able to extrapolate these findings to strength and conditioning for rowing, in addition to anecdotal learning through experience. I’ve highlighted a few important findings on kettlebells in general strength and conditioning below, with possible applications to rowing.
Researchers Beardsley and Contreras (2014) reviewed the available literature and found that research supports using kettlebells to train for power, but is equivocal on strength and aerobic development. In a similar research review, Girard and Hussain (2015) also found improvement in power, some improvement in strength, and minimal effect on aerobic endurance. It is possible that this is due to the majority of literature using lighter kettlebell loads, as there is very little research on kettlebell loads over 80lbs. If heavier kettlebells become more available, they may be used more in research, and this may reveal greater effectiveness in strength development. A limitation of most strength and conditioning research is that researchers tend to study novice athletes or recreational trainees, and we’re left to infer application to more advanced athletes. We then compound this problem with a lack of commonly available heavy kettlebells.
Beardsley and Contreras also found consistent emphasis on hamstring activation in research on the kettlebell swing. In one reviewed study, researchers found that hamstring activation was highest in high degrees of hip flexion during the kettlebell swing, compared to other hamstring exercises where highest activation was at low degrees of hip flexion. See the diagram below for what high degree versus low degree means. Hamstring activation highest in high degrees may be more useful for rowing, due to the active torso range-of-motion in the stroke. Given the importance of hamstring strength for reducing low back pain in rowers, it may be beneficial to use exercises with high activation in high degrees (ie. kettlebell swing), as well as low degrees (eg. Nordic curl, glute-ham raise, leg curl, etc.) for overall posterior chain development.
Lake and Lauder (2012) found higher horizontal-to-vertical ground reaction forces in kettlebell swings than squats or jump squats, possibly due to the forward motion generated by the hip extensors in the kettlebell swing. This suggests utility for sports requiring horizontal propulsion, possibly including rowing.
Maulit, Archer, Leyva, et. al (2017) found that a training group using kettlebell swings improved deadlift one-rep max (+10kg/22lbs) and vertical jump performance (+1.3cm) similarly to a training group performing explosive barbell deadlifts. While the subjects were resistance-trained before the study (average starting deadlift 1RM was 160kg/350lb), a major limitation of this study is that participants only performed eight training sessions over four weeks between pre-test and post-test. However, this does suggest that kettlebell swings are equally effective in short-term training as explosive barbell deadlifts, which may be a useful takeaway for in-season rowing training and maintaining maximal strength and power.
Overall, research on kettlebell strength training is still in the early days, and there is no research on kettlebells for rowing strength training specifically. Early research suggests that kettlebells are effective for power training, and may be effective for strength training if the available weights are sufficiently challenging. We can extrapolate some of these general takeaways to rowing training, so long as we focus on using kettlebells for the goal of building better rowers, not better kettlebell lifters.
Kettlebells for Rowing Exercises
The kettlebell swing is one of my favorite exercises for rowers. Most strength training exercises are targeted to improving general strength and muscle. It is then up to the rowing coach to teach the athlete how to apply that strength and muscle to the rowing stroke. However, the kettlebell swing is a rare strength training exercise that can help teach and improve rowing technique, as well as improve strength and musculature. To perform the swing correctly, athletes must generate the force from the lower body and hips through a stable torso and shoulder joint, to the implement held in the hands. This should sound familiar to rowers! Athletes who struggle with the hip hinge of a kettlebell swing also tend to struggle to achieve reach and power in the stroke through the hips, not the spine. Athletes who use too much shoulder and upper body force in the kettlebell swing tend to do the same in the stroke. In addition to training the posterior chain and torso strength and muscle, careful coaching of the kettlebell swing can also provide a different teaching stimulus to help athletes improve their stroke technique.
As long as you have kettlebells of appropriately challenging weights, you can use them interchangeably with dumbbells for any pressing (horizontal and vertical) or rowing (horizontal pulling) exercises. In addition, exercises like the bottom-up kettlebell press and waiter’s walk can be effective to train wrist, elbow, and shoulder stability, much more than the more-stable dumbbell variation. Kettlebells can be a great tool to teach the deadlift and squat exercises, and you can train these lifts with kettlebells as long as you can challenge yourself with the available weights.
I do not use kettlebells to train aerobic endurance for rowers. I believe in keeping the “strength” in “strength training” and focusing strength training time on development of qualities that cannot be developed in rowing training. Kettlebells are effective for improving power and can be used similarly to dumbbells and barbells for general strength training exercises (as long as the weights are appropriately challenging), and this is enough utility from one piece of equipment for me. My goal as a strength coach for rowers is to improve general strength, build muscle, and reduce risk of common rowing injuries, so that the rowing coach can develop technique, aerobic endurance, and rowing-specific anaerobic power through rowing training.
In Practice: Kettlebells for Rowing Strength Training
I received an email earlier this year from a coach named Chelsea, who subscribes to my email list and wrote to introduce herself and talk about using kettlebells for rowing strength training with the group of young rowers she coaches. After some discussion, I asked if Chelsea would contribute her experience to this article.
A multi-sport athlete herself, Chelsea currently manages a fitness center for a corporate facility, and has been personal training for over 10 years. Among her current clients are a family of three competitive rowers, ages 12, 16, and 18. The older two row for a local elite sculling club, compete on USA junior high-performance teams, and the oldest will be rowing in college this fall. Chelsea travels to their home for twice-weekly training sessions, where the family has invested in several sets of kettlebells ranging from 18-60lbs as their primary fitness implements.
Stage set, I’ll turn it over to Chelsea for the rest of this section to tell you more about how she developed a training plan around these parameters.
I have been using kettlebells as the athletes’ primary strength and conditioning fitness tool for a year and a half. The two older athletes have been rowing competitively on elite teams for over six years, and had basic weight room training experience prior to working with me. I was brought on to help take the athletes to the next level. We do strength training sessions twice per week with the two older siblings, and once per week with the youngest, as he is still relatively new to the sport and training.
I have a versatile background with several different sports, but I never rowed or coached rowing. When I started to work with these athletes, I searched for resources to become educated on the sport to provide the appropriate strength training programs. I came across your “Rowing Stronger” book in 2018, and used it to understand the movement specifics and requirements of the sport, and as a guide to develop a sport-specific strength training program. I found it concise and easy to follow, with all the information I was looking for to guide my athletes’ training.
I have used kettlebells for over 10 years and have always found them to be one of the most accessible, versatile, effective, and technical fitness tools available. They require full-body integration in a different way than a barbell or dumbbell, as the design of a kettlebell challenges the body in a unique way due to the displaced center of gravity several inches away from the palm of the hand. Kettlebells allow users to utilize different types of momentum based movements coupled with classic lifts that quickly increase total body strength (especially all of the core muscle groups), power, cardiovascular fitness, joint stability (especially shoulders), flexibility, and mobility. In my opinion, kettlebells are the fastest way to get from “point A to point B,” especially in a limited-equipment training situation. In the last year and a half, all three athletes have seen clear improvement in their strength and power, shaving off several seconds from their 2k sprints and achieving new PR’s, which both athletes have told me they attribute to our strength training.
Below are two sample kettlebell-focused strength maintenance and power routines from my training. The general audience is an in-season competitive junior rower who rows on an elite club team five days per week, and strength trains twice per week. We do strength maintenance on one day, and power development on the other. I’ve included exercise progressions as well. My general idea is to do more unilateral exercises in the off-season to develop muscular balance and general strength, then focus on power development and strength maintenance during in-season training with specific exercises geared toward rowing. Exercise variety is much higher in the off-season.
Chelsea’s write-up and sample routines are an excellent example of creative coaching to work around limitations and provide the best training possible for the athletes. I’m extremely pleased to see another trainer researching sport training methods and seeking to learn about a new sport and provide appropriate training. Chelsea also provides a great example of shifting focus from off-season training to in-season training, helping the athlete manage their energy to row and race while still maintaining the strength and muscle they worked hard to develop in the off-season.
More on Kettlebells for Rowing
If you’d like to read more about kettlebells for rowing strength training, Strength Coach Roundtable co-host Joe DeLeo wrote a guest chapter for “Rowing Stronger, Second Edition,” detailing his favorite kettlebell lifts for rowers and providing sample programs for the kettlebell swing for the fall specific prep block and the winter pre-competitive block of training. I credit Joe with turning me onto kettlebells through our discussions on strength training for rowing, and I’m very happy to get to share his coaching on using the kettlebell for rowing training through my book. Joe has also written some helpful resources on kettlebells for rowing training at the links below, and discussed kettlebell training at length on his “Leo Training” podcast.