When I started training with kettlebells a few years ago, just about everything was novel to me. The shape of the weight, the movements themselves, and even the way that kettlebell sets are timed or measured. I had never before tried to increase the amount of time I spent performing an exercise, and I was not familiar with the concept of the “ladder” workouts that seemed so popular in the Russian kettlebell community.
When I train for strength or muscle mass, I am only interested in one thing: progress. That is how I view my sets. If I did five minutes of kettlebell swings last week, did I do five minute and ten seconds today? If so, I win. If I did 300 reps of the 16 kilo kettlebell press in ten minutes last week, but I pressed the same amount of reps in less time this week, that is progress I care about.
And of course, if last week I could only press the 48 kilo bell for one rep, but this week I am pressing 52 kilos worth of stacked bells, then that is progress. More. More is what I care about. Not more according to the guidelines in a book. Not progress according to what a trainer thinks. Just progress according to my own performance and the data I can read in my training log.
I don’t always stop when a book says to stop if I feel good and the movements are still testing well. I don’t call it a day when I’m having a good time and know I can still get more benefit out of my sessions.
When I was in my bodybuilding-magazine-buying phase, I did whatever I was told in those glossy pages. Three sets of ten is the best way? Okay! 5×6,8,10,12? Okay! And while this paint-by-numbers approach did result in some gains, it was not until I got into kettlebells that I really started to grasp the value of free-form workouts. That was because of the goal of building work capacity through timed sets, a la the monsters practicing Girevoy sport, the Russian sport of kettlebell lifting.
Reps were not the issue with timed sets–more reps were better, sure, but more time and fewer reps was also acceptable, because it was building a different type of strength. That was what I loved–another direction to proceed in. The more avenues you can progress in, the fewer plateaus you will experience. And the more ways you can track progress–density, intensity, total volume–the stronger you can become because you will always have something to improve, even the magazine says three sets of ten today.
The numbers either go up or they go down. One is preferable.
I train with Gym Movement. I train for me, not for the wallets of people making products. I lead myself and my progress has never been better. I measure my kettlebell sets by the only metric I care about–that they are superior to yesterday’s results. And it has been a long time since I didn’t make progress from day to day.
Reps and sets. Weights and minutes. If the numbers aren’t going up, something could be better. Unless we’re talking injuries! In that case, you want those numbers doing a nose-dive.
Enjoy your training. I do it because I love it and it makes me happy. All the other benefits are just extra.