Kettlebells used to be an obscure piece of equipment found in specialty gyms but are now a regular fixture in every fitness facility. They have become the hallmark status of a “true” fitness enthusiast, yet very few people know how to really use them. Let’s talk about why everyone (myself included) became obsessed with the full body movement, how each style is effective in its own right, a bit about their history and what today’s athletes are doing with them. If you already have buckets of experience with a kettlebell check out my friendly challenge at the end of this post!
WHY IS KETTLEBELL TRAINING SO EFFECTIVE?
Your body is basically comprised of chains of soft tissue (fascia, muscles, ligaments and tendons). Proper training with kettlebells stimulates the entire chain and promotes the correct firing sequence of muscle activation. This develops functional human movement and produces real-world strength.
Kettlebells also provide a phenomenon known as the “what-the-hell effect.” People who learn good technique hit training goals in a surprisingly fast manner. The applicability of their newly developed athleticism onto other activities and exercises is undisputable. As opposed to dumbbells, the main weight of a kettlebell is offset from the handle therefore enabling the bell to be:
Swung through two planes of motion
Held close to the body, on the chest in what is known as the rack position
Lifted overhead with a lower center of mass, which increases versatility
Used in an “upside-down” role
Placed on the floor and used as parallettes or push-up tools
The fact that a kettlebell can be swung through two planes of motion during one repetition develops applicability to real life challenges and activities. The highly dynamic and ballistic nature of many of the exercises exclusive to kettlebell lifting makes power development highly accessible and safe for normal, everyday people.
The requirement for solid technique and the rhythmical method of executing many of the lifts, also makes kettlebell training highly addictive. It’s the fastest way to work up a sweat, burn calories and reach your maximal heart rate (if that’s the goal). Due to the minimal impact on feet and knees, kettlebell lifting is also a great means to get back into shape after injury (under proper instruction).
A BRIEF HISTORY OF KETTLEBELLS
Ancient Greece: Although many ancient cultures used handled weights for training, the nearest resemblance to a modern kettlebell is an ancient Greek haltere, an oblong stone with a handle carved out at one end.
Late 1600s: Russian farmers used kettlebells as counter weights to measure grain at markets. The heavy metal objects then became used for juggling and physical exercise among the farmers and working class.
1800s: The kettlebells became heavier and wielded specifically for juggling and performing strongman feats such as a heavy bent press and heavy swings. Meanwhile, the Russian army discovered the incredible benefits of kettlebell training and it became a staple for physical training within the ranks.
1940s: Kettlebell sport was born, a.k.a. Girevoy Sport (GS). This is when kettlebells are used as a community spectator sport, implemented in Russian education establishments and sports clubs. Athletes attempt to perform as many reps of a specific lift as possible in a ten-minute period without putting them down. This demands a strong emphasis on technique, mental resilience, cardiovascular fitness and flexibility so athletes can perform high reps without over-exerting themselves for a sustained period. This sport spread to neighboring countries in eastern Europe and northeast Asia, where it exclusively remained for decades. The kettlebell first hit the American shores at this time, but only in strongman circles and circus training.
1970s: Russian military developed their style of kettlebell training (which later became known as Hardstyle). It promoted raw force production and power endurance as a complement to the soldiers’ standard karate training regimen.
1990s: Russian pioneers and expert kettlebell coaches Pavel Tsatsouline and Valery Frederenko moved to the USA and each brought their individual styles of kettlebell lifting. It could be said that Pavel is the godfather of Hardstyle and Valery is the godfather of Girevoy Sport (GS).
2000s: Pavel started the first western Hardstyle kettlebell school, called Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC). Valery started the first western GS schools, called World Kettlebell Club and American Kettlebell Club (WKC and AKC). In the late 2000s, CrossFit modified the Hardstyle swing to suit their needs, aptly naming the Hardstyle swing “Russian,” and naming their deeply criticized overhead swing “American”, causing further eyebrow raising within the purist kettlebell communities of GS and Hardstyle.
2010s: The kettlebell gains massive mainstream popularity due to its powerful effects. More and more coaches become kettlebell experts and the number of schools multiply. However, usual human behavior prevails. GS federations disagree about rules and some care more about profit than spreading kettlebell love. Hardstyle master instructors clash personalities, business direction and egos, leading to break-offs and new schools. Influential personalities in both communities continuously bash CrossFit. We wish everyone would just get along! But irresponsible and poorly trained educators in all camps make this very tough.
Today, you’ll find a plethora of places to learn the use of kettlebells including individual instructors (like me), YMCA courses, private organizations, federations and schools of strength. However, all kettlebell educators are not created equally. It’s easier to injure yourself with a kettlebell than it is using most other mainstream exercise equipment. The nature of kettlebell lifting involves using the entire body. When poorly trained chair-shaped adults attempt to swing heavy metal objects around using whole body movements at speed, injury occurs.
MY KETTLEBELL EXPERIENCE
Kettlebells changed my life, as is the story with most avid kettlebell lovers. I faced the threat of permanent disability while serving in Her Majesty’s Royal Marine’s Commandos. Following a riot training accident and a surgical procedure in 2008, I was told that I would probably not be able to use my right arm over shoulder-height ever again. I chose to ignore the good doctors. I internet stalked the works of Steve Cotter and Pavel Tsatsouline, then spent the next year teaching myself the get-up and windmill. Thanks to Indian club and kettlebell training my shoulders are not only fully rehabilitated, but much stronger than ever before.
Excited at my new discovery, I attended Steve Cotter’s IKFF certifications and soon became fixated on kettlebell sport. I was thirsty for more education and attended workshops and certifications by well-known Masters of Sport such as Sergey Rudnev and Anton Anasenko. However, in 2013 competing with two 28kg kettlebells, the state of my bashed up, ex-military body caught up with me. Being able to hold two heavy kettlebells overhead is required in kettlebell sport, because that’s a rest position. No matter how much therapy and education I received, advancing in competition was not possible for me without experiencing mid-back pain. After years of carrying heavy rucksacks, my thoracic spine was just too hunched forwards and kinked. I hung up my lifting belt and sought a new path.
I received advice from a good friend and mentor (Rob Blair, Commando Temple, London) to seek Hardstyle kettlebell education, so I signed up for my first StrongFirst certification. I’d already attended most of the other kettlebell courses that British fitness had to offer and the StrongFirst SFG1 certification was on a whole other level. This game-changer sparked a massive turning point in the way I viewed training and caused me to rethink everything. The intelligent training principles and techniques were applicable to all forms of training and were safe for all demographics and abilities (under proper instruction).
I subsequently became obsessed. After attending all of the StrongFirst kettlebell and bodyweight certifications I started turning up to assist the lead instructors, sponging up more of their knowledge. Fast forward five years and I’ve taught at 13 Hardstyle kettlebell certifications (StrongFirst and Strength Matters) and held the position of Chief Instructor for the final two. I authored and co-published a book about the bent press (called the Bent Press Manual), forwarded by professional strongman and former RKC and StrongFirst Master Instructor Dave “Iron Tamer” Whitley and industry legend, Dan John. My passion for opening people’s eyes to the powerful effects of pure Hardstyle runs deep and I’ve enjoyed teaching dozens of private workshops and seminars all over the world.
THE FIVE STYLES OF KETTLEBELL LIFTING
In my opinion, there are five styles of kettlebell lifting alive today:
Kettlebell Sport or GS:Repetitive competition lifting for anaerobic conditioning and muscle endurance, using anatomical breathing and maximal efficiency. Respectable schools include WKC, AKC, AKA, IUKC, IKSFA.
Hardstyle:An intelligent training system for developing strength and power endurance, using inefficiency, tension and mechanical breathing (power breathing). Only trust instructors with certifications from either RKC, StrongFirst or Strength Matters. Otherwise, it’s freestyle (if safe and effective) or cowboy style (if not safe or effective).
Freestyle (a.k.a. Flowstyle): Not pure Hardstyle, not GS, but a diluted or modified version of one (or both) of them, sometimes with Circus style elements mixed in. When a respectable education establishment (such as the Onnit Academy) make up their own kettlebell training system based on Hardstyle and Circus, I’d class it as Freestyle. World class teacher and well-known kettlebell guru, Steve Cotter took his extensive Hardstyle and GS knowledge and created IKFF. A great system that I would also put in the Freestyle category.
HOW IS HARDSTYLE DIFFERENT TO GIREVOY SPORT?
The point of GS is to perform as many reps as possible in a ten-minute period without putting the kettlebell(s) down. The entire emphasis is on the ability to relax under load and make each rep as efficient as possible. This involves using anatomical breathing which is the type of breathing used in yoga, BJJ, boxing, distance running and other endurance activities. Minimizing tension in the body while skeletally supporting the load is necessary.
During your ten minutes on the lifting platform, the only rest positions available involve holding the kettlebells on your chest (rack position) or with your arms locked out overhead. Not putting the kettlebells down requires and develops significant mental resilience. To geek out a little about movement patterns, GS lives in the world of rotation — the transverse plane is the most powerful, so athletes use it for efficient force generation.
The essence of Hardstyle on the other hand, is the complete opposite. It’s all about creating tension and making every rep as inefficient (and as hard) as possible, for force production and to maximize the bang for one’s training buck. Mechanical breathing is used to create intra-abdominal pressure and load is supported with the neuromuscular system (versus skeletally).
If GS is like jogging, Hardstyle is like sprinting. There is as much emphasis on the skill of producing tension as there is on the art of relaxation between short sharp sets. The more like binary one’s nervous system has the capability of being (100% on – 100% off – 100% on – 100% off) the higher the available force production and athletic potential. Hardstyle is less dependent on mental resilience (although it can be made very tough by manipulating the right variables) but more so on mental focus and intent.
Hardstyle develops the hinge and the squat movement patterns very well and lives in the world of resisting rotation through the torso. Being able to prevent movement in the torso while an external force is applied, especially during other movements such as the hip hinge, is an ability that most power and rotational athletes/fighters tend to neglect. Those who do train anti-rotation bring their rotational force production to a whole new level. Most everyday people benefit greatly from training anti-rotation and developing a good hip hinge.
Both styles require high levels of technical execution in order to make progress but in very different ways. I advise beginners to become skillful at one system before even trying the other because they differ so much.
THE GREAT WHITE SHARK OF EXERCISES
The Hardstyle swing is at the center of the system and it is the great white shark of exercises — it doesn’t need to evolve. In its true form, it’s a perfect exercise. It’s perfect because it has a higher carryover effect to other training exercises and everyday physical tasks than anything else available, in my humble opinion. Any modifications make it considerably less effective. Hence the requirement for expert instruction because there’s a lot more going on under the surface than meets even a coach’s eye.
Heavy Hardstyle swings make everyday people stronger at deadlifts faster than training deadlifts, up to a certain level. Training deadlifts do very little for Hardstyle swings. Therefore, heavy swings are a higher value exercise than deadlifts.
CrossFit’s overhead (or “American”) swing negates the all-important eccentric phase of the Hardstyle swing. Gravity does it for them and cheats the lats out of a job. Competitive CrossFit athletes would greatly benefit from learning and training the Hardstyle swing. It would help create a much more efficient overhead swing and builds hinge power for the Olympic lifts. Please note, the true-to-form Hardstyle swing looks similar to the “Russian” swing but is quite different — there’s a lot more going on. Competitive CrossFit athletes would also benefit from learning the relaxation under load, recovery and breathing techniques from an expert GS coach.
We’re born in and, most of the time, we die in the fetal position. Westerners spend most of their lives sitting in the fetal position (in chairs). The two largest muscles in the body are the glutes and lats. These bring you out of the flexed fetal position into extension. They bring you upright, tall and proud with your chest forwards and palms open. Flexion promotes sadness and weakness. Extension promotes power, confidence and life. A lot can be said for the positive psychological effects of training extension promoting exercises. When performed correctly, the Hardstyle swing primarily works the glutes and lats. It is the exercise of eternal youth. It lights up the posterior, anterior and spiral chains simultaneously. It also develops a grip to be reckoned with and a torso of steel.
Let me show you the way of the Jedi. Check out one of my workshops and experience the transformative power of Hardstyle for yourself.
That’s mostly it, but I’d like to start a light-hearted conversation. Here’s a little something for the experienced coaches out there.
THE HARDSTYLE SNATCH TEST
The two existing Hardstyle schools of strength, RKC and StrongFirst use a snatch test as part of their level one syllabus. A candidate must snatch a kettlebell (women 16kg, men 24kg) 100 times within five minutes to pass the certification. Although they can put it down and change arms as many times as needed, strictly speaking, this is not Hardstyle.
Completing reps for volume in a given time window goes against the very essence of Hardstyle. It ceases to be Hardstyle when:
The lifter becomes too gassed to create intra-abdominal pressure with a sharp squeeze of the deep abdominal muscles during an exhale
Reps slowdown from being explosive and sharp
The lifter fails to build tension like a coiled spring at the bottom of the snatch
The lifter performs a breath cycle more than once per rep
The mechanical breath fails to match the movement (the lifter exhales at the top of the snatch instead of at the point of hip extension)
Sufficient rest for inter-set relaxation must be present for it to be called Hardstyle. Otherwise, it’s freestyle.
I love the snatch. It holds everything I love about the swing but offers explosive power and beastly grip training. It puts mental resilience and anaerobic capacity to the test and makes my heart bang against the inside of my chest like an angry, caged bear (a good thing). I’ve trained it extensively to the point of being able to complete this snatch test with a 32kg, but it stops being Hardstyle after the first 15-30 reps and becomes freestyle. I think it’s entirely possible to maintain the integrity of Hardstyle for competitions by setting a standard cadence with sufficient rest intervals, where the variable factor for competing against would be load lifted.
Example One: Set something to bleep every minute, ten times. Perform five snatches per arm on every bleep then put it down. The winner is the one who can complete all reps to the given cadence with the heaviest kettlebell relative to their bodyweight.
Example Two: Set something to bleep every 30 seconds, 20 times (10 minutes total). Perform six snatches with one arm on every bleep, then put it down. That’s six snatches left — put it down — wait for the next bleep — six snatches right — put it down — wait for the next bleep. The winner is the one who can maintain this cadence with the heaviest kettlebell relative to their bodyweight.
Ok loads for both of these challenges: 16kg for women and 24kg for men
Good loads: 20kg for women and 28kg for men
Exceptional loads: 24kg for women and 32kg for men
Jedi master loads (but entirely possible): 28kg for women and 36kg for men
Any kettlebell activity where the goal is to complete a given amount of reps as quickly as possible or within a given timeframe is either freestyle or GS. To call it Hardstyle would be like asking someone to go for a one-mile sprint. As soon as a certain short distance is passed (up to 200m max) the pace slows down, and it ceases to be a sprint.
Thanks for reading! And if you disagree, I’d love to hear your opinion. Let’s start the conversation.