Accelerate towards your goals using this magical ingredient.
Like any obsessive self-employed kettlebell fanatic, soon after falling head over heels in love with kettlebell training, I made it my business to collect an entire family of pairs. Back then, I was into kettlebell sport so I had competition bells in all the weights from 8kg to 32kg in 4kg increments. A few years later, I converted to Hardstyle and collected pairs of cast-iron bells from 8kg to 40kg and singles up to 68kg. At the time, I thought that pairs were necessary and optimal.
I stumbled on the ever-surprising benefits of training with offset kettlebells by accident. The inconvenience was forced upon me when I turned my London business into an outdoors and at-home service. It simply wasn’t practical to carry more than 1,000 lbs of metal in my little van.
The initial period of feeling sorry for myself was completely blown out of the water when I began to notice the benefits. Training with offset loads instead of pairs featured heavily in my own training and with many of my clients. Various clients’ improvements were noticeable in strength, hypertrophy and conditioning. After repeated successful experiments on myself and many clients of varied abilities, my conversion from pairs to offset was permanently sealed.
Whether using two kettlebells versus one is entirely dependent on the desired outcome. Some of the highest value exercises possible only require one kettlebell: the get-up, bent press, single arm swing, windmill, snatch, loaded carry family. But in all training situations where you might use a pair of kettlebells, using offset instead is a much smoother and quicker path to Gainzville.
Obviously, those who compete in kettlebell sport (a.k.a. GS) must use pairs when competing. Training for GS requires pairs for building technique and specificity. However, I encourage any GS athlete to include mostly offset work in their program because it makes them stronger and more conditioned faster than using pairs.
Take any well-known, effective double kettlebell program (that doesn’t involve juggling): German Volume Training (by the late Charles Poliquin) with front squats, Gladiator Complex (by Gabrielle D’Angleo), Prometheus Protocol (by Pat Flynn). I’ve tested them all extensively, and many more of my own creations, with offset loads and pairs and I’m in no doubt about the superiority of offset training.
WHY IS TRAINING WITH OFFSET LOADS MORE EFFECTIVE?
1. Increased neurological drive = increased strength gains
Let’s compare performing 10 cleans with 2 x 24kg versus using 20kg and 28kg. Conventional volume calculations would consider the overall loads to be the same, at 48kg. 48kg x 10 reps = 480, so in theory they both have a volume of 480. However, the set with offset loads is a significantly more difficult and neurologically demanding. Especially when you pick the kettlebells up for a second set after having swapped them around. Just try it! It demands your nervous system to first sense the difference then adjust tension in different areas to maintain equilibrium/balance. This makes conventional volume calculations to measure workload only usable as a rough guideline.
Ten cleans with an evenly balanced pair of kettlebells offers no challenge to maintain symmetry. Lifting offset loads ignites your torso like a Christmas tree, especially when switching kettlebells after each set.
Increased muscular activation = decreased efficiency of execution and increased metabolic function
2. Offset loads require a higher level of neurological mapping
Imagine I gave you a pencil and paper and asked you to sketch a map from your home to a local destination where you haven’t been to before, but you know it’s there somewhere. Maybe the local scientology church? Imagine what this map would look like. No offense to your cartography skills, but it would probably involve some rough wiggly lines and the odd landmark.
Compare your sketched map to a scaled, topographical map with contour lines, perfectly placed features and a little blue dot that tells you where you are. How much easier would it be for you to find the quickest route to your local scientology church with the Gucci map? It’s the same for the neurological maps inside our cerebellums and their effect on your ability to move and perform.
Training with offset, uneven or awkwardly shaped loads, training barefoot, training three-dimensional full-body movements, training circular patterns and training with continuously varied intensities turns the sketch maps inside your brain into all singing and dancing Gucci maps. This means increased ability to move, increased performance and strength, and increased injury resilience.
3. Offset loads train the anti-rotation movement pattern
Every joint of your spine should move in all planes during all normal, unloaded human movement. The stability muscles of your torso serve several purposes. One of which is maintaining a neutral spine during loaded or potentially hazardous movements where you’re trying to lift something. This protects the vulnerable lower back and transmits force from your powerful hips to your upper body and vice versa. You should be able to resist movement in your torso just as easily as you can create it. Your ability to resist movement through the torso is called the anti-rotation movement pattern, originally coined by industry legend, Dan John.
Training with offset loads applies an external rotational force on your torso. Your intent of maintaining symmetry develops your ability to resist external force, improves oblique strength and increases injury resilience.
4. Higher level of grip strength required for all lifts
An uneven load encourages you to grip harder. Stronger grip = stronger body
5. Better preparedness for real-life tasks
Nothing you ever lift in the real world is evenly balanced, so why train with balanced loads in the gym? The beauty of proper strength training is its applicability to real life. You start to notice that everything in the world around you feels lighter. You relish at the opportunity to lift things up that others find difficult or impossible. When you see another able-bodied human struggling with heavy piece of luggage on a flight of stairs, you resist the temptation to offer help. You don’t want to cheat them out of the benefits of an offset loaded carry — but you jump at the chance to help physically disadvantaged or disabled people, naturally.
6. Training bilaterally facilitates and sometimes creates pain, weakness and dysfunction
What??? Lol. I thought I’d save that rather outlandish statement for last, seeing as you’re still reading. Nobody is neurologically or muscularly symmetrical. Everyone has at least one major stabilizer that fires before the other (glutes, obliques, etc). Everyone has an injury history and occupational habits that make them asymmetrical. This is absolutely fine. Our amazing brains easily adapt around these asymmetries to keep us moving through our environment.
In a physical training setting, regular bilateral stimulus (using even loads or using barbells) cements asymmetries and demands the nervous system to make even more compensations than pre-existing ones. This may or may not lead to pain depending on the severity of the existing asymmetries and the intensity of the training. Training with offset loads encourages adaptability and helps to reduce existing asymmetries.
LOAD PROGRESSIONS USING OFFSET KETTLEBELLS
I’m sometimes asked how to progress the load when using offset kettlebells. The answer is simple. Just imagine that pairs didn’t exist and you’ll figure it out pretty easily, or use this table:
Can you progress the load with a 12kg difference? Absolutely. A 12kg differential is actually really effective for conditioning sessions that involve swings, cleans and squats. This is especially true when the total load is higher (therefore 12kg is a much smaller percentage). But I find that a differential of more than 8kg obstructs progress when the goal is strength and you’re working in the 3 to 5 rep range for pressing movements.
Thank you for reading and I hope this helps. If you switch to training with offset loads, I’d love to hear how you get on. Shoot me an email (email@example.com) or hit me up on Instagram (@phil.mcdougall). Or come to one of my Killer Kettlebell Complexes workshops (Chelmsford UK in December, New York in April).
Strength and honor!