5 Things Training College Athletes taught me about getting STRONG & LEAN with Kettlebells

5 Things Training College Athletes taught me about getting STRONG & LEAN with Kettlebells

One of the hardest things I learned from being a college athlete and then later training them as a full-time professional strength coach at Rutgers University was this:

15 college credits per semester + 20-30 hours a week of practice & competition =

Stress of a full time job (and then some).

Honestly, it was too much for me, so I bailed on wrestling my freshman year. 

I was too young (17), and too immature (should’ve waited a year to go to college, or enlisted in the military), and got bad/no advice from those I looked up to.

My wife however, was on a full scholarship for volleyball.

She played 5 years, and graduated “With Highest Honors” while being co-captain of her team and MVP at one point.

I met her at the end of her first semester of her freshman year, and became her strength coach midway through her sophomore year. (I’m 4 years older than her.)

We got married two days after she graduated college.

She was up early for 8am classes, and had practice around 3/330pm, and finished around 7/730pm during the weekdays. Then she did her homework. (So, 16-18 hour days.)

Weekends she either competed or practiced, except for the summer.

If she didn’t perform, she could’ve lost her scholarship.

It was the same for most of the athletes, except for the ones who weren’t on scholarships, like most of the wrestlers or the Crew teams.

They competed for the love of the sport. And a 12-18 hour day was common for all of them. 

(Some of them, like JJ Shutte, the starting heavyweight wrestler, also worked. He was a bouncer at one of the local bars.)

When I came on board, there was a transition in the strength & conditioning staff.

The old staff were “HIT Jedi’s” (HIT = High Intensity Training) – they believed in training to absolute momentary muscular contraction – and beyond, using primarily machines.

If you’ve never trained this way, it creates extreme fatigue and soreness, and is – 

And let me say this a clearly as I can –


… for training athletes.

My boss, a former NFL cornerback, was a “speed guy” and I brought in my strength and power  background from Olympic Weightlifting.

And as a result, I’d like to think that we turned the Olympic sports Strength & Conditioning programs around.

[+]  Injuries dropped to virtually zero

[+]  Measurable real world strength went through the roof

[+]  Sports-specific conditioning – on court, on field, on water stamina improved

[+]  Athletes were stronger than their opponents, ran faster, jumped higher than they used to

… and coaches were happy because we all functioned as a team and win rates increased.

So, with that kind of crazy and stress-fueled schedule, let me share with you some of the things I learned about getting strong and lean and how you can apply it to your kettlebell training.

We’ll cover Part 1 so you can apply something new and relevant to your training today.


1- Lift relatively heavy most of the time with 70-90% of your max

70-90% of your 1RM. 

My coach, Alfonso Duran, who was on the Cuban pre-select weightlifting team, and trained by Coach (and World Champion) Alexey Medvedyev, taught me this.

Most people think that they need to lift heavy all the time in order to get stronger.

This is simply not true.

If you train at near-maximums or maximums all the time, you will burn out, get weaker, and most likely get injured.

This was the problem the Rutgers athletes were experiencing with the HIT philosophy.

And the strength staff just didn’t want to hear it because they were stuck in their dogma – what should be – instead of what was.

And the key here is we NEVER train to failure.

As Dr. Fred Hatfield, a.k.a. Dr. Squat, the first man to squat over 1000 pounds famously quipped, 

“Training to failure is training to fail.”

(There’s more to “not training to failure” than this, which we’ll get into in upcoming emails.)

So when training for strength, we keep the reps lower – usually between 1 and 5.

You’ll notice that many of my programs are based on either a 4-5RM or a 10RM.

These RM ranges loosely calibrate to those 70-90% guidelines for most people. Perhaps a little more, perhaps a little less, depending on your training background and your genetic predisposition.

Keep the majority of your training skewed toward the lower end of the range – 70-80% and rarely touch 90%+ (about every 2-3 weeks).

How well does this type of loading work?

During the latter half of her sophomore year, my wife was put on a “toning” program by another strength coach – 4 sets of 20 reps, total body, 3x week, followed by 30-60 minutes of cardio.

She became ravenous, ate lots of pasta and ice cream, and bulked up to about 155/160lbs.

She looked like a female bodybuilder. 

But that bad news was, she lost her athleticism and almost 4 inches off her vertical jump.

I put her on a total body plan of Deadlift, Squat, Military Press, and Hang Cleans, with nothing more than 2 reps per set – between 10 and 2 sets, between 70-90% of her 1RM.

She did that 3x week.

The results?

She leaned out, and got her vertical jump back.

Remember, she was on scholarship, so she was “paid to play,” so to speak.

No room for error here.

I used similar loading parameters sets of 1-3 reps for 5 to 8 sets, 6 days a week, working up to max effort attempts back in 1996 when trying to qualify for Nationals.

It was definitely the leanest I’ve ever been – 3.3% body fat, measured through bioelectrical impedance, by Dr. Tom Billela, who’d just won the New Jersey NPC Light Heavyweight Bodybuilding Championships that year.

Incidentally, that methodology and my experience using it is nearly exactly what Kettlebell Burn EXTREME! – a 29-day rapid fat loss double KB program is based upon.

So, take-home point here is this:

Assuming you use the right loads – between 70-90% of your 1RM / 1TM, or base your training off a 4-5RM, you can not only get really strong, you can get leaner, and stay lean at the same time.

If you don’t want to plan this out yourself, here are 3 strength plans using this “lower rep” methodology which others have said have gotten them stronger and leaner:

‘THE GIANT’ (specifically 3.0)




The “Strong!” Program from Kettlebell STRONG!


Hope you found something helpful here.

Stay Strong,


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