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The soviet core blaster: The kettlebell

This is the in depth companion article to my short summary on the kettlebell swing. Read that first and come back here (I received some feedback that my blog posts are too long/in depth for beginners so I will be doing both short ones and long reads now). OK good, you know the bare bones but are hungry for more meat...lets get stuck in!


You may have seen them lurking in the functional strength part of your gym, watching, waiting, only to be taken out by an Eastern European man and juggled madly in the air. What are these strange cannon balls with handles? Where do they come from and what are they for? Joe Rogan loves them and gym bros hate them, so here they are:

Enter the Kettlebell

Kettlbells are a strength training tool that began as rather un-glamorous tools used for weighing farm produce in Russia. They were popularised in the West by a man called Pavel Tsatsouline. He wrote some great books on the subject and made some wonderful videos with a deadpan sense of humour that made loving fun of Russian stereotypes (lift Kettlebell weak fat American and become chiselled Russian comrade! Ok DA! etc.). His material is well worth checking out and he is still around to this day teaching and training in the US.

Pavel teaches the basic "hardstyle" method of kettlebell use, which is the approach I will cover in this in other articles. There are a number of different styles in which they are used:

1) Hardstyle: The basic way that focuses on strength and structure development. Good carry over to martial arts in terms of structure, breathing and bracing and where beginners should start. 80% of my experience with kettlebells is with this training style and it is what I will cover here. It has an interesting history with martial arts too. The soviets embraced some Eastern training once they made contact with China as communist allies. After their military fitness people did some cross training the Russian military started learning southern Chinese kung fu like the sānzhàn form (from White Crane kung fu but also features in karate styles too). These approaches combined with their strength training led to the development of the hardstyle very cool!

Mark demonstrating the hardstyle swing with a 40kg bell. Notice the hard contraction at the top of each swing and the sharp breathing, all hardstyle trademarks.

2) Competition style: There is an entire sport that developed in the Eastern Block countries that you have probably never heard of. It is an endurance event where you compete in a fixed lift (the clean and jerk, snatch or long cycle) with two kettlebells (for men either 24kg * 2 or 32kg * 2) for 10 minutes! If you put the kettlebell down once you get a 0. Yes that's right 10 minutes holding 48 - 64kg of weight and doing ballistic movements! As a result of the incredible demands of muscular endurance in this sport competition style kettlebell lifting is much more fluid and relaxed. I respect these athletes immensely (it is pure pain tolerance!) but I have no experience with this approach so wont be covering it in this or any other articles.

3) US style (or Crossfit style): I do not know much about this, an offshoot of the hardstyle developed by Crossfit instructors for use in their Crossfit games. If you have ever seen or been taught the swing with the bell ending up at or above head height then you are doing US style kettbell lifting. Overall I'm not a big fan but if you intend to compete in Crossfit then you must learn this approach. I wont be covering this here or in any other articles.

4) Juggling style: This is a really cool and fun way to train with kettlebells. Once you have mastered the basics you can start to link the movements together into a flowing combination and add in tricks where you flip or spin the bell. This approach began in Russia for the purpose of display and because its a fun way to keep fit once you learn the basics. I think it is great for martial arts as it trains flow and athleticism and hits all those odd angles that the big compound lifts miss, giving rotational strength and stability. I might well cover some juggling tricks and approaches in the future.

A short video of Mark doing some basic juggling with a 20kg bell.

What is a kettlebell?

It is basically and iron or steel ball (like a cannon ball) with a thick handle welded on. Some of them are plain metal and others have a rubbery coat on them to protect them a little bit. They come in all sizes ranging from little tiny ones (I have now seen little plastic ones in Argos at about 1kg, never buy one of these!) that really start at about 6-8kg for untrained ladies and ranging up to as much as 64kg (which is monster size, the largest I have and use is 40kg and that one is a beast).

For a quick guide on what size kettlebell to buy when starting out see here:

Either buy a cast iron bell or a competition style bell with a coloured rubber coating. Do not buy vinyl or plastic bells (they break) and avoid ones with a base welded on (they hurt). Don't buy a gimmick one with a gorilla/Darth Vader/skull face (they hurt a lot!).

Why should I use one?

Kettbells have a number of unique benefits based on their design and the moves that they facilitate. The key features of kettbell design are that they are very ergonomic. They fit around the body easily, they have the weight slightly off centre and a wide thick handle. This means they can be thrown around and moved around the body easily (ever tried to the circus dumbbell from painful and awkward!), they can be spun and flipped, they can be easily held in lost of different way, they are uncompromising in the grip department (often the limiting factor of many moves) and they are great at adapting to the specific body of the athlete (unlike the barbell which takes no prisoners here). This leads to several pros:

1) Great for ballistic movements giving explosive strength

2) Great for the grip

3) Great for dynamic flowing movements that help with martial arts

4) Good at working around mobility and structural issues in the athlete

5) Good at single limb (unilateral) exercises, which help identify and fix imbalances (ahem that is why you wont be seeing my left side 40kg press anytime soon...)

6) Good for the CORE. Far far better than crunches and your core bums and tums class! The most important and undeveloped part of the core (in most people) is the posterior chain (hammys, butt, lower back, mid back and spinal erectors) and Kbells toast this area.

7) Good for muscular endurance. 10 minute rounds of 64kg snatches... I dont need to say anything else.

8) Decent for cardio: See point 7 above...

But are they the perfect exercise tool? No not at all. The cons:

1) Poor for developing maximal strength. Here the barbell reigns supreme. You just cant go as heavy, generate as much force or as much tension with kbells. Also outpaced by the Olympic rings for the upper body in this department.

2) Hard to slowly calibrate with increasing strength. You have to be creative with your progression and programming as kettlebells jump up in weight in large units. Again the barbell is king here as you can incrementally load it in tiny jumps and linearly progress your strength with laser like precision.

3) Some movement patterns are complex and have a high skill ceiling. Unlike machines which basically teach you the movement pattern by sitting in them you must learn the movements in detail. In addition the ballistic movements have very specific breathing and bracing associated with them which is more complex than basic body weight or dumbbell movements.

4) Poor at hitting particular muscle groups. If you are into bodybuilding or have a particular imbalance or weak area you need to address kbells are not for you. You use the body as a whole in most movements and the grip is often the limiting factor in a workout. If you want to blast your chest for example there are not many kbell moves of note in this area. Your big leg muscles get work with a kbell but they can very quickly adapt and massively outwork the kbell squat variations, your grip and core will always fail first leaving potential strength gains in the legs ungotten! Pretty much all other strength training approaches are better here as whole body training, grip and core are a specific strength of Kbells.

How do I use one?

There are a large number of exercises that can be done with the Kbell. The key ones are:

1) The swing and variations

2) The clean and variations

3) The jerk/push press and variations

4) All manner of squats but particularity the front squat

5) The snatch

6) The Turkish getup, windmill and other structural moves

7) Carries and holds like the farmers walk or waiters walk

8) Pulling and rowing variations

9) Tricks, flips, grip moves like the upside down press, circular stability moves like halos

10) Associated bodybuilding moves that arent really kettlbell moves, like curls and raises

Next steps

I will be following up with a more detailed article on the mechanics of the swing and how to train it. The basics are covered in my previous post here.

Get yourself a decent bell and start swinging! Good luck comrade!!

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