As the title implies, I’m back after only a month away with another kettlebell program review. This one continues my journey to branch out a bit from kettlebell mainstays like Pavel Tsatsouline and Steve Cotter. This one is about as fresh as you can get, straight from the March 2021 issue of Men’s Health, Marcus Martinez’s 31-Day Kettlebell Power Play.
This program pushes itself as a way to “train like an athlete,” which is also fairly different than my usual preference for workouts that are more about strength and aesthetics. But, I’ll be 40 sooner rather than later and keeping myself capable of moving and keeping up with my kindergartener into his teens seems like a good idea.
How did it go? We’ve got measurements for that:
- Body weight: 187 lbs -> 188 lbs
- Arms: ~15.75 inches -> ~15.75 inches
- Legs: ~25 inches -> ~24.5 inches
Not too surprising that my arms didn’t grow much, that growth from last time around was incredible and I doubted it would repeat. Plus, this is only a four week program. That said, the loss of mass in my legs is likely fat loss because this program works the legs like crazy, so muscle loss is not an issue. Still, given the short time this program runs and the small amount of movement in numbers, I’d say this could be noise just as easily as anything else.
Mentally, I’ll say that I’m glad this is only 31 days. While there is a lot to like here, doing it every day, four days a week, eventually makes it feel more like a chore than a workout by the end. But I appreciate how different this program was from most standard kettlebell fare.
What Is The 31-Day Kettlebell Power Play?
Described as a change of pace program, this short program is simple and straight forward. From designer Marcus Martinez:
Some workout programs are designed for one purpose: building muscle. There’s plenty to love in those heavyweight splits, but unless you’re planning to commit to a long-haul bodybuilding plan, your day-to-day training might be a bit less active than you’d like. You can introduce some more variation to your workouts by focusing on other training goals.
So, the point here is to introduce variation. This is accomplished by not having a lot of swings, cleans and presses like most kettlebell programs I’ve seen to this point. Only one excercise is a swing while pressing is just part of one movement and there are no traditional kettlebell cleans (Martinez does describe one movement as a clean, but it’s not a tradition kettlebell clean). The movements are done in a set of four circuits of two exercises a piece. First a warm-up circuit. Then two circuits of work with some rest mixed in, then a final all out, five minutes of straight circuit.
This program also very much embraces the minimalist side of kettlebell training. There’s no different days here, just do the same eight movements per day, done four times a week. On off days, 20 minutes of cardio of any kind is prescribed. Martinez says you should just use one “medium-weight” bell for everything.
Since I have bells all the way from 8 lbs to 80 lbs, I went with 53 lbs for my medium-weight. However, one of the warm-up movements, Bottoms-Up March, was just not doable at that heavy of a weight. So, I bought my 20 lbs bell out just for that one. Half way through, I felt I had a good handle on the program and went up to 62 lbs for most of the work and 25 lbs for the bottoms up march.
So, what did I change up? For one, since this program has a big focus on the legs, I continued doing the arm day I designed earlier as a fifth day and just did cardio two days a week. I added strict presses to the arm routine during the triceps circuit just to make sure tris were getting work too.
Cardio was usually a walk or a bike ride. And it was usually a half an hour instead of 20 minutes. To be honest, this was because my AppleWatch wants 30 minutes of exercise a day and so I appeased the watch. But also, doing more work is better than less in this situation. I don’t do cardio much more demanding work than this because I suffer from asthma.
The rest times for circuits 2 and 3, as described, seem to make it look like you should take a rest between each side for movements that have alternating sides (like staggered leg deadlift, reverse rack lunge, etc). This would make this program last too long in my opinion. I removed the rest time between sides (45 seconds a piece) and cut the rest time between exercises in half (90 seconds to 45 seconds) to keep this thing moving. The result was each day taking about 40 minutes to do. If I did the rest times as written, it would have added about 15 minutes more time to this! I do think if you go even heavier than a “medium” weight bell, the longer rest times could be worth it.
End result: I took this four day a week program and made it five days and then drastically increased the density. I probably did it slightly heavier than Martinez envisioned since I did it with a bell that was too heavy for one of the movements. That’s not terribly different, but enough so that it’s worth mentioning.
Who Am I?
I have been program lifting for 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 a bit down due to COVID worries. Outside of the 20/30 minutes of cardio built into the off days in this program, I did see a little more in my day to day movement as the weather gets nicer.
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
This program 100% delivers on being something different. All these movements are ones I had never done before. Even the swing in this had the full stop variation that I’d never done before, which adds extra difficulty to the movement. So, let’s get that out of the way right off the bat: this program does what it says.
Speaking of variants, the staggered leg deadlift in this program was a revelation. After trying out the single leg deadlift with mixed success, I really felt what the staggered leg one was doing instantly. All the work was happening to my posterior chain and I wasn’t losing focus by trying so hard to balance instead of trying to get work in on the right muscle groups. I would highly recommend over the single leg deadlift in any program unless your balance is super good.
The other show stopping movement in this one is the figure 8 to hold. While this movement probably is most useful for basketball players, it’s just incredibly fun. You have to do some finesse moving the kettlebell around the leg and doing the hand off basically behind your back. But then have the strength and power behind your movements to keep everything moving. Plus it works the biceps in a big way and who doesn’t want that?
I will say I benefited greatly from doing a “deload” week of this program at half weight for before doing it. The figure 8 to hold especially is a tough movement to master, the first three times I did it, I dropped my bell. At 25 lbs that wasn’t a big deal, but at 53/62 lbs, it is a bit more problematic. I dropped the bell at full weight a few times as well over the course of the program, which I attribute mostly to lack of focus. This movement requires you to be dialed in.
But it’s worth it, I will definitely keep this figure 8 to hold in the back of mind for any time I have another “do anything” type day, like RKC RoP had.
Additionally, having the figure 8 to hold in the final block, where you just do as much work as you can for five minutes was also really neat. Knowing you’re at the end of the program means you can just give that circuit everything you’ve got, you don’t need to save anything in the tank.
A lot of programs I’ve done over the years seem, and especially some kettlebell programs I’ve done lately, to have almost no rhyme or reason to the order work is done. Martinez’s design here feels purposeful. Another example: the toughest movement in the whole thing is the split jerk, so we do that in the first non-warm-up circuit while we’re still fresh and get it out of the way.
Side note: I really felt the split jerk in my abs. Didn’t think that’s where it would work the hardest, but it sure did for me. Regardless, I hope to never do one ever again. Talk about a thorough beat down.
Back on track: we do a slightly easier circuit with those deadlifts. While they do a great job at working the posterior chain, they aren’t explosive and don’t spike the heart rate quite as much. Then, lastly, you burn yourself to the ground with the final circuit that is five minutes of doing as much as you can. This rhythm in the workout made it really engaging and I was still having fun with it even weeks into the program, despite there doing the same thing over and over again four times a week.
The fun also makes the time go by really fast. I was impressed how quick this 40 minutes of work seemed to go by in a flash. Especially once I got done with those split jerks.
As I mentioned, the legs are hugely targeted in this program. This makes sense as most athletes in most sports need to use their legs more than anything else. This, coupled with me making the program more dense with lest rest time, means the program burns an incredible amount of calories. I usually burned 10 to 12 calories a minute. And that also makes sense given the athlete training focus; cardio is super important in a majority of sports.
About two weeks in (three if you count my deload week), I was starting to feel like I got the hang of the program and I didn’t have to be quite so dialed into form as movements became more natural. I also went from burning 450 calories to only 370. I figured this was a message to take it up a notch and so I swapped out my 53 lb bell for the 62 pounder and also increased the bottoms up march from 20 lb to 25 lbs. That did the trick and I was back to burning 440+.
Like many kettlebell programs, Martinez has no loading guidance (outside of recommending a “medium” kettlebell)and no progressive overload built into the design. Even programs that do have loading guidance often only tell you to get a feel for whether or not you are under or over belled. This program was all new to me movements (for the most part), so it makes sense that a good part of my gains was just teaching my body how to do the movements. Once you’ve got form down, you’ll probably find you can go heavier than you originally thought. I especially found that true for this program; I don’t think I got that much stronger in two weeks, so much as I could handle the weight better once I practiced the movements.
There is, however, one part of this design I question and that is the Bottoms Up March in the warm-up circuit. That movement is something that pretty much has to be done at a fairly low weight, but Martinez states you use only one bell for this whole program. But the nature of that movement: really demanding a lot of grip, just won’t allow higher weights. So, for many people, this isn’t as simple as presented and will require multiple bells. Also, being very taxing on the grip during warm-up may not be the best to make sure grip is doing fine the rest of the program. Fortunately, most of the movements aren’t super demanding grip-wise, but the figure 8 to hold definitely is. So, maybe that should be replaced with something else.
My solution if I were helping with design: just ditch the bell entirely and do some high knees, or keep that one bell and do bottoms up cleans instead.
Aesthetically, in four short weeks it’s tough to say anything. There’s not a lot of arm work in the main program, so I think keeping on with the arm day I designed for Cotter’s program again here helped out a lot with that arm size sticking around. Fat loss seems likely, given how many calories the base program burned and the decrease in leg size (a place I personally carry a lot of fat). Bottom line: this didn’t hurt my looks, but didn’t really help.
As a reminder, you can find the arm day I designed here (just scroll down to about the end). The only difference this time around was I added some strict kettlebell presses to the triceps circuit.
This is a tightly designed program that delivers on its promised variation. It conforms pretty well to the minimalist aspect of kettlebell training and also offers some very fun movements. While I think the bottoms up march is an odd duck, and I think there’s too much rest in the program, these are minor gripes compared to how it delivers.
I’d love an expanded version of this program that added in an extra day or three to keep it from being monotonous and it’d be a pretty amazing program.
I know it’s been a while since I’ve had a program I haven’t recommended, and none from kettleball land so far. But that really speaks to how great kettlebell workouts can be and the great work trainers and program designers are doing in delivering a great variety of programs.
Where to next for me? I’ve done a lot of beginner programs and I think it’s time for me to move on to more intermediate work. I’ve got Joe Daniels’ Kettlebell Only Muscle Gain Program in front of me and after a deload week, we’re gonna hit that hard.