In case you haven’t heard, I’m a kettlebell guy now. A girevik. This started with Dan John’s 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Workout and really took over with Pavel Tsatsouline’s Rite of Passage. This time I’m here with Steve Cotter’s Full-Body Kettlebell Workout, though to be honest I modified it pretty heavily and I’ll get into the how and the why below.
While John and Pavel are very close to each other in terms of kettlebell schools of thought, Cotter broke off from this tree and started his own certification body for kettlebells (IKFF). His workout here is less focused on the simple, minimalist aspect of kettlebell training and gets to a lot of different movements and requires many kettlebells per workout rather than just one. It’s a good program for someone like me who has done the basics and is ready to learn about a lot more movements available for the kettlebell.
How did it treat me? Well, here are the measurements:
- Body weight: 187 lbs -> 186 lbs
- Arms: ~15 inches -> ~15.75 inches
- Legs: ~25 inches -> ~25 inches
I have nothing to complain about. A near inch of growth in my arms in six weeks is incredible. Now I can’t thank Cotter too much for that, more Mike Rose, as I added an extra day just for arms to this program based on a Rose routine. See below for more details. But, that arm day didn’t exist in a vacuum, putting an arm day on Cotter’s design = major success.
Mentally, this program beat me down a bit. Though, to be fair, I modified it, including practically doubling the weight and adding that extra day of work. So, I can’t say it will be quite as much of a beat down if you run it exactly as written. All the same, where I felt most worn down was my shoulders and that’s because there is a lot of presses in this thing.
What is Full-Body Kettlebell Workout?
Straight from designer Steve Cotter:
The program we’ve provided here will have you training four days a week for six weeks, with one workout for Mondays and Thursdays and another for Tuesdays and Fridays. Swings are one of two movements that you’ll do every day of the program.
So it’s a four day a week, alternating day A/day B set-up. Cotter recommends a 35 lb and 45 lb kettlebell for most of this program. But that seemed too light to me, so I did a quick week of 40 lb and 53 lb as a sort of deload between Rite of Passage and this, but also to get a feel for the program. I ended up going up to 53 lb and 62 lb for the six week duration of the program.
I kept my warm-up from Rite of Passage: 3 sets of 10 on face-the-wall squats and Hindu push-ups. Then, since bottoms up cleans are in the program itself, I swapped those out for rows, which are not in the design.
Most stuff is done for one or two sets of ten before a 30–60 second break, with some sets getting up into the 30s or even 50 reps. This is much higher volume than Rite of Passage. The focus seems to be a bit more on cardio and hypertrophy than strength building. So, a nice change of pace after I spent 14 weeks in Pavel’s program.
I often commit sins against programs and detail them in this section of my reviews. But this is the first time I’m actually calling a program I’ve reviewed “modified.” Why? Because I really went and tinkered with this program. I think it’s fine to do as written, but for my specific needs and desires, I felt like changing it up quite a bit. Here’s everything I did:
Some of Cotter’s design requires two kettlebells of the same weight. This is another example of how Cotter eschews the minimalism typically associated with kettlebells. Since I don’t have that available to me, I just did the one handed versions of that work and doubled the reps.
Because of this, the original Cotter design, which is already a little lopsided, became very lopsided. Day A was short, easily done in 25 minutes. Day B was longer, sometimes 45 minutes a session. I didn’t like this much, so I took the lighter snatches from Day B and put them in Day A to balance things. Day B was still pretty long, so I removed the Turkish Get Ups, since I work out on asphalt.
While I was tempted to remove some cleans or swings from Day B, since the design has those both days, Cotter specifically mentions in his notes that this is very much on purpose because of that nature of those lifts:
Power exercises like cleans and snatches are included in both sessions and will help you build total-body strength and coordination. They’re not the easiest lifts to master and require just as much technique as strength.
So, to as still keep this (mostly) Cotter’s program, I left those as is.
Lastly, in terms of modifications, I technically did farmer’s walks both days. Every day I did my work outside (when there wasn’t snow/ice all over the ground), I walked about a minute with my kettlebells in each hand teach way from my condo to the back ally and back again.
The big thing I noticed this program lacked was direct arm work. As someone that has bemoaned my progress on my arms for years now, I knew I had to more than just modify the two days of work, I had to add a day of just arm work.
I started with this biceps routine from Mike Rose of Anabolic Aliens for the majority of the work on my new arm day. But, to keep things balanced I also added some kettlebell skullcrushers and triceps extensions to make sure both sides of my arm got in work; with there being a lot of overhead/push pressing in Cotter’s design, I didn’t feel the need to add too much triceps work, since I was already getting some. I did the five minutes on of the biceps routine, then a one minute break, then two minutes of the triceps routine, then a minute off, then repeated it once or twice. Ran all of these lifts at 20 lbs and mostly tried to push myself to get more reps in minute of work throughout the program.
So, I turned this into a five day a week program with one of those days being invented entirely outside of Cotter’s design AND I modified the two existing days in the program. While I still consider this program to be more Cotter’s than mine, there’s no doubt it’s heavily modified.
Who Am I?
I have been program lifting for almost five and a half years. First six months were Stronglifts 5x5, then a year of Greyskull LP (during which I injured my back and spent months in recovery, losing a lot of deadlift and squat progress). I started 5/3/1 in February of 2017, switching to Forever style 5/3/1 in February of 2018. Then in 2019 I started various powerbuilding programs. 2020 was the year of COVID where I was forced to try new things outside of the gym. This program continues that.
Before all that, I had been on fuckarounditis for two years of varying intensity and absolutely no progression plan in an apartment building gym similar to a hotel level gym. I spent my 20s largely an out of shape obese guy after being an athletic teenager.
Work Outside of Kettlebell Training
During this program, I tried to continue to take a daily creatine supplement of 5g, D3 5,000 IU vitamin supplement and Fish Oil for Omega-3 1000 mg. But, this was more weekly than daily for the vitamin D and fish oil. I do also supplement about 1/3 of my daily protein from a shake.
Kettlebell training practically is a cardio workout. Which is good, because my cardio outside of that continues to be way down due to shelter-in-place orders. My walking went down even more with the cold weather, usually at least 1.5–2 miles a day. No weighted vest this time around. I don’t do cardio much more demanding than this because I suffer from asthma. While I got an occasional bike ride in, nothing consistent.
Diet-wise, I’ve been sticking with a low-carb diet that I developed when doing Deep Water. Still doing one to three cheat meals a week (usually some pizza). But otherwise it’s poultry, some fruits, lots of vegetables and a little bit of legumes and fat free yogurt.
Impressions of the Program
The grind is real.
As I mentioned at the end of RKC RoP, all those presses were giving me sore shoulder joints. This program has less emphasis on pressing, but there’s still presses on both days and so I don’t think my shoulders ever truly recovered. The result was sore joints pretty much all six weeks of this, which also made the presses a bit of a slog.
But even outside of that, the rest of this program feels very grindy. I think part of it is there’s no progression. With RKC RoP, you’re always pushing to get that 5 x (1,2,3,4,5) ladder done so you can move up to a heavier kettlebell. With 5/3/1, there’s a loading strategy to keep increasing difficulty. This is just six weeks at the same weight, reps and sets. It’s tough to feel engaged. Add in there’s only two days of work you bounce back and forth between over and over again. So, about three weeks in, I was feeling a combination of less motivation and more worn down.
This may be more on me than Cotter’s design. When I saw those low weights, I assumed it was more of a beginner program. But given that this is four days a week of full body workouts, including the exact same exercises two to four times a week, a lower weight may have been best to make sure I didn’t get worn down! All that volume on the same muscles over and over again added up!
That said, having a full day dedicated just to arms was enough to keep me getting 5 days a week most weeks (I missed one day all program and that was due to getting the COVID-19 vaccine and dealing with the side-effects). Vanity is a good motivator, but also without any overhead shoulder work, and less emphasis on lungs/cardio and more on hypertrophy, I knew I wouldn’t be suffering when those days came up. At least not in a way I dislike.
One thing I wish I could have done is do this with more than two weight choices. I understand that Cotter likely wanted to make his program accessible and so putting all these lifts at different weights starts to mean only people with gym access or a large collection of bells can do it. But he’s already asking quite a bit with three different weights and two of each of those. So, why not go all out?
Particularly, the presses being at the same weight as stuff like swings seems really unbalanced. Strict pressing engages a small amount of shoulder and arm muscles and doesn’t use gravity or momentum to help. Stuff like swings engage the entire posterior chain and have the benefit of gravity helping out, meaning you can do those much heavier than presses. But that’s not how this program is designed.
I thought about further modifying this program to fix just that. Use 80 lbs for stuff like two handed swings, 40 lbs for some of the overhead presses, for example. However, I like to work outside and carrying more than two bells outside seemed more trouble than it’s worth. So, I slogged through some 62 lb presses. Considering the progress on my arm size, I’d say pushing myself to press that heavy worked out.
The lack of rows, or direct biceps work at all, is also not ideal. I’m perhaps more tuned into seeing that since my arms are very tough for me to grow, so I look for arm work almost right away. But this program, outside of biceps, seems to hit basically everything really well. The closest we get are the cleans, which do engage the biceps a bit, but the primary movers on kettlebell cleans are the posterior chain, with the biceps taming the arc at the end. That’s stabilization more than direct work.
I also think this program may over work the posterior chain a little bit. There’s almost too many cleans and swings, all of which heavily engage those muscles. While these are fun, explosive movements, at a certain point we can accept the chain has been worked. Then on top of those, we add in some deadlifts. The deadlifts are a bit of a dead zone in the program, they aren’t explosive movements, so they don’t spike the heart rate, in addition to working muscle groups already thoroughly covered. I guess they’re a good rest before doing snatches, which are very demanding.
That said, this program really taught me a lot about many of the movements available for the kettlebell. Truthfully, this was the very first kettlebell program I was going to do, which I alluded to in my review of the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Workout. That’s how I knew so many movements to do on variety days during RKC RoP. So, if you wish to learn many different common kettlebell exercises, it’s tough to top this one.
Particularly the windmills really pushed me. After doing a bunch of swings, cleans and presses previously, the windmill hit me entirely different. The emphasis on core muscles was very good for me, I think, as I’ve had weak core as long as I can remember. But those absolutely kicked my ass and were a good change of pace. They focused more on time under tension rather than hammering out reps and putting my heart rate in the aerobic range.
A E S T H E T I C S were off the chain. As I progressed through this, one thing that kept me working out was seeing myself in the mirror and saying “If you want to keep looking like this, you gotta grind through another day of this program.” And that worked. My shoulders and back continued their growth from RKC RoP according to the eye test anyway.
Let’s talk about those arms. Obviously devoting a whole day to just arms is going to do something (you hope) and boy did it. And while Cotter’s design didn’t directly engage the arms much, it is because of that I felt motivated to add that extra arm day. So, a perceived flaw in the program actually lead me to over correct, which is a point for it, in my opinion. Because you can never over correct on arm size.
But even outside of that, Cotter’s program burned a lot of calories and worked every other part of my body super well. I gained muscle size while staying about the same weight, which implies some body recomposition. That’s my goal right now. I’d like to stay under 190 lbs while converting some of this fat mass to muscle mass. I’m almost 40, and being super huge isn’t really what I want (or all that healthy for my heart). So, this moved me closer to my goals aesthetically all around. Can’t argue with that.
Arm Day Written Out
Because I made up the fifth day of this program, the arm day, and it worked, I figured I’d write it out here in full for anyone that would like to see exactly what it was:
All of these exercises are done for as many as possible (AMAP) for one minute before you move on to the next. This was done interval style: 1 minute on, 15 seconds off. I did all of these with a 20 lbs kettlebell for the course of the program.
- Straight Curl
- Upright Curl
- Concentration Curl (each arm 30 seconds a piece)
- Drag Curl (each arm 30 seconds a piece)
- Pass Curl
One minute rest, then circuit two:
- Skullcrushers (each arm 30 seconds a piece)
- Triceps extension
Rest one minute and go back to circuit one.
I’d usually get through this three times. Because Cotter’s program had presses on both days, I didn’t have as much triceps work. However, the next program I’m looking at is another four days a week program and doesn’t have any presses, so I’ll probably add a set of strict presses in during the second circuit.
I’ve said this before, but even with goals, loading strategies, motivators or whatever, at the end of the day getting stronger is moving a lot of heavy things over and over again. And so it’s hard to knock a program too much for making me feel like I’m doing what needs to be done: moving a lot of heavy things over and over again. But I will say it’s a point in a programs favor when it doesn’t feel that way. But Cotter’s program feels like the grind all weight training, at its core, is.
It’s also a little odd to say, but the lack of direct arm work in this finally made me sit down and set-up my programming to address my specific needs (how hard it is for me to grow my arms). While a flaw like this may be considered a point against the program, I consider it a point for it. Otherwise, who knows if I ever would have done such a thing.
The large amount of movements makes this a great intermediate kettlebell program to learn a lot of great movements. Even without all the modifications, a learning experience like that is worth it. Add in all the changes I made, I can’t argue with the results. These six weeks may have been a slog, but slogging it is how we make progress.
While I am vaccinated, my child isn’t. So, I’m staying out of the gym for now and sticking with kettlebells. My next program is something completely different though. No snatches. No presses. It’s athlete-style training from yet another branch of the kettlebell tree. We’ll see what happens, but I think my shoulder joints will thank me.