Kettlebell schools of thought. Kettlebell training. How to train with kettlebells. Kettlebell training benefits.

Kettlebell Training – Schools of Thought

Introduction

Modern kettlebell training can be represented basically by five styles. Need to know which type might be of interest to you? Read on...

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The humble kettlebell has come a long way since first being utilised as a training tool.  Over that time theory over how best to train with KB’s has splintered in a number of directions.  The main two schools of thought are Girevoy Sport (aka GS/Competition Style KB training) and the ‘Hardstyle’ of KB training popularised by Pavel Tsatsoulin (see below).  Each style has grown to develop their own techniques, training methods and kettlebells. This article aims to cover the benefits of training using these respective styles and also to look at some of the other styles of KB training currently on offer.

Types of kettlebell training

  • Girevoy, represents the training regimen for the competitive sport of kettlebell lifting which focuses on muscular endurance.
  • Hardstyle has its roots in powerlifting and Gōjū-ryū karate training.
  • Crossfit kettlebell refers to implementation of kettlebell training as in CrossFit curricula, often with significant modifications to preceding styles (e.g. American Swing vs. conventional swing, placing the kettlebell down between snatches).
  • Kettlebell Juggling is a training style where the practitioner releases and catches the kettlebell with all manner of spins and flips around the body.
  • Kettlebell training can be classified as any training done with a kettlebell outside of the above 4 categories. Kettlebell training is extremely broad and caters to many different goals, some being, but not limited to: mobility, flexibility, cardiovascular endurance, strength, speed and power. This type of training is the training you might receive in a regular gym

Girevoy Sport (aka GS or Kettlebell Sport lifting)

A History of Girevoy Sport

Birth of modern weightlifting Kettlebell sport.

Girevoy Sport (Kettlebell Sport lifting) is a repetitive weight lifting sport performed using kettlebells within a set period of time.  Competitive kettlebell lifting has a long history in Russia and Eastern Europe and can be traced to the Union of Sport Societies and Organizations of RSFSR’s (the Old USSR) adoption of rules in the classical kettlebell triathlon.

The kettlebell triathlon included the following movements: kettlebell press with the left and right hand, jerk of two kettlebells from the chest and the one handed kettlebell snatch with no time limit.

There were four weight categories of 60kg, 70kg, 80kg and everyone above 80kg. For approximately 15 years kettlebell sport cultivated in rural groups and the Soviet military slowly gaining popularity in the 1970’s to the point of having 20 different regions competing.

The first official match between republics was on May 4, 1972 in Skadovsk city with many athletes coming from neighbouring regions to compete.

Between 1977-1978 kettlebell sport became a member of the National Sports Federation and a commission was created to unify rules, sports classification and expanded the sports calendar.  In 1982 after some deliberation and experimentation with competition the triathlon became a biathlon.  The final major rule change occured in 1989 with the introduction of the ten minute time limit.

Valery Fedorenko using Kettlebells. Girevoy Sport. Types of kettlebell training. Kettlebells for fitness. Kettlebell training.
Valery Fedorenko

Valery Fedorenko introduced Girevoy Sport kettlebell lifting to the US in 1999.  Kettlebell Sport has since grown beyond Russia and the former Soviet republics to the West (Europe and the United States).

Today there are many national and  international tournaments organised around the world, under various Kettlebell sport organisations.

There are strict rules, which differ slightly from organisation to organisation.

GS Theory

  • GS kettlebell training is the style of kettlebell training that prepares an athlete for competitions, which consist of fixed lifts within a certain time. Compared to other styles, GS emphasises endurance, relaxation and smooth technique.
  • The events in Girevoy Sport competitions are the jerk, snatch, and long cycle (clean and jerk). The jerk and the snatch are usually combined into one event called the Biathlon. For each event, the athlete has ten minutes to complete the lift as many times as possible, without putting the kettlebell down. 
  • There are only three weights of kettlebell allowed in traditional competition: 16kg, 24kg, and 32kg.
  • In events the athletes must wear shorts and shirt to reveal both knees and elbows so proper movement can be observed and officially judged. 
  • The rules are strict in competition.  For example, resting the kettlebells on top of the shoulder may result in warning or a no count of a repetition.
  • With regards to weight used, professional and higher level athlete men will use 32kg kettlebells for competition. Women use 16kg and 24 kg kettlebells.
  • Amateur men compete with 24kg kettlebells but often the host/promoter will allow the athlete to use a weight to the athlete’s comfortability to further promote competitive spirit.
  • In benefits it could be said if Hardstyle (see below) is about power, Kettlebell Sport is about muscular endurance. 
  • There are no grinds such as the Turkish Get up or any moves where total tension is the objective.
  • It is the opposite in many ways of Hardstyle in that relaxation, softer breathing and energy conservation are key.
  • Kettlebell Sport requires the ability to breathe smoothly and as relaxed as possible to improve performance.
  • The focus of GS training is more on the aerobic system.

Hardstyle Kettlebell Training

Hardstyle history

Hardstyle kettlebell training has its roots in the ranks of the Spetsnaz (the special forces of Russia and of the then Soviet Union). In the 1970s, Spetsnaz units adopted a karate-based style of unarmed combat. Kettlebell training  was used to support this training and to enhance strength, flexibility and endurance.

 

When Pavel Tsatsouline served in the Spetsnaz, his unit was among those who had adopted the ‘hardstyle’ Karate-based style of unarmed combat.

The martial arts training emphasised concentrating total body muscle tension into one extraordinary effort, essentially “one punch, one kill”.  This hardstyle mindset of fighting filtered into the kettlebell training. From this, ‘Hardstyle’ kettlebell training was born to support the hard style of fighting.

After completing his service, Pavel was determined to take Hardstyle strength training even further. As such he researched every possible venue that he believed would be beneficial.  This included old neuroscience and Soviet bio-mechanics papers, to research from the greatest minds in the fields of gymnastics, powerlifting, and arm-wrestling.

On his ‘defection’ to the United States, Pavel, brought the science of Kettlebell training with him.

Today it is extremely popular and this type of training can be found worldwide most popularly through organisations such as RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certification) school and StrongFirst.

Pavel Tsatsouline. Dragons Door. RKC. Enter the Spetsnaz. Hardstyle Kettlebells.
Pavel Tsatsouline during his time with Dragons Door and RKC.

After completing his service, Pavel was determined to take Hardstyle strength training even further. As such he researched every possible venue that he believed would be beneficial.  This included old neuroscience and Soviet bio-mechanics papers, to research from the greatest minds in the fields of gymnastics, powerlifting, and arm-wrestling.

On his ‘defection’ to the United States, Pavel, brought the science of Kettlebell training with him.

Today it is extremely popular and this type of training can be found worldwide most popularly through organisations such as RKC (Russian Kettlebell Certification) school and StrongFirst.

Hardstyle Theory

  • Hardstyle can be summarised by high intensity and few repetitions. Power optimisation is the key rather than power conservation. Each rep should look just as powerful regardless of whether it is 12kg or 48kg. This style focuses on a balance between high tension and relaxation. 
  • The idea of creating maximal tension in the body is to enable more rapid muscle adaptation.
  • Hardstyle’s objective is the application of force. Hardstyle kettlebell movement is in a less flowing motion when compared to the Girevoy Sports’s competition style since energy conservation is not the goal.
  • As in Karate, breathing and bracing techniques are used to maximise force production.
  • Compression, intra-abdominal pressure, stiffening of the body and using the ground properly are some of the key techniques used in performing the hard style lifts. 
  • The main differences between Hardstyle kettlebell training and Girevoy Sport is that Hardstyle kettlebell training promotes power production overpower conservation.  For example, the snatch test in RKC training is 100 KB snatches in 5 minutes.  This is in contrast to the 10 minute ‘long cycle’ snatches of Girevoy Sport where the Girevik (KB lifter) undertakes the snatch for 10 minutes and thus being forced to conserve power.
  • Hardstyle also distinguishes between ballistic lifts and grinds. Ballistic lifts can be classified as dynamic, ballistic fast lifts such as the swing and the snatch. Grinds are classified as the ‘slower’ pushing presses such as the Turkish get-up and the military press.

CrossFit Kettlebells

  • Crossfit exercises involve brief high-intensity workouts using exercises such as sprinting, gymnastics and weightlifting.
  • The objective is of Crossfit workouts is to improve endurance, speed, agility, power, balance and flexibility.
  • Kettlebells are just one tool of a myriad used in Crossfit workouts. A typical daily Crossfit workout may be comprised of sprints, sit-ups, barbell lifts, kettlebell swings, as well as other exercises.
  • In many ways, CrossFit’s style has become the middle ground between Hardstyle and the ‘softer’ more cardio orientated approach of kettlebell sport
  • CrossFit Kettlebell course incorporates both grinds (characteristic of Hardstyle) and ballistic moves  (KB swing, push press, and snatch).
  • The main difference between conventional kettlebell training (Hardstyle/GS) and Crossfit is with the KB swing. Crossfits variation (aka ‘the American KB swing) doesn’t stop at shoulder or eye level, but continues overhead.
  • Crossfit communities use the traditional KB swing as a ‘half-rep’.
  • There has been some criticism of the American KB swing from traditionalists. The main arguments are of the potential for injury when done without instruction and proper supervision. In particular to the lumbar region with overextension. Additionally, there is the potential for compromising the acromioclavicular and glenohumeral joints whilst using the movement.
  • Furthermore, traditionalists argue that once the KB has reached the chest there is no further benefit from letting it go any further. The extra movement does not offer much in return.
  • CrossFit coaches counter arguments are that any potential injury problems can be avoided by making sure that the athlete has mastered the required movement patterns. 
  • The rationale for continuing the movement to overhead in Crossfit is why stop at the shoulder when you can continue overhead to complete a full range of movement and is a more intensive exercise. To the Crossfit user power production is not the goal but maximum total effort.
CrossFit's 'American' Kettlebell swing.

Kettlebell Juggling

Kettlebell juggling Onnit style with Mark deGrasse.

Kettlebell juggling has exploded in popularity with the advent of social media such as Youtube and Facebook.

This type of training involves kettlebells being used with continuous movement, throw, catch and release, moving through various planes of motion. Training in this manner requires great concentration and awareness. Again, always better to start off using lighter weights until the fundamentals have been learned. Progression can come with time.

Naturally this is a more advanced type of kettlebell training, although anyone of reasonable level of fitness can start using lighter weights. 

Some of the benefits of this type of training include hand-eye coordination, improved grip strength, proprioception, reaction time, explosive power, flexibility and agility. Also, it’s a lot more fun than traditional KB training methods. A good method of Kettlebell training for creative people out there!

You will of course need room to practice that is free from obstacles and the possibility of injuring anybody else! Also you will want areas with soft floors for when you inevitably let the KB fall. Look at grassy areas, parks, gardens etc. to practice.

Kettlebell Training

This is a blanket term to encompass any other type of kettlebell training out there.  This covers the type found in regular gyms and circuit classes not affiliated with organisations such as Strongfirst, GS or Crossfit.  Kettlebell use within these areas for general all-round health improvement benefits.  They are very popular within HIIT classes, cardio workouts, muscular strength and endurance classes.

Conclusion

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There is no real right or wrong with regards to the type of kettlebell training you are interested in. It all comes down to personal choice and particular training goals. For me, its Hardstyle all the way, but that doesn’t mean I won’t entertain branching off and giving Girevoy Sport or kettlebell juggling a go at some point in the future.

The important thing is that you are moving and exercising in a way that you enjoy, that is effective and which benefits you!

Happy swinging!

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