FIRST A NOTE. I use kettlebells, I like kettlebells and if your take away from this email is that you shouldn’t use kettlebells or that they are a fad, then maybe I need to write better.
We love to throw some Eastern European into our workouts and exercises, it just makes them sound heaps cooler than an equivalent Australian name. Turkish get ups just sound innately superior to a a ‘Bondi shoulder press’ or a ‘Tassie crunch’. Bulgarian is such a powerful exercise description that Google auto completes Bulgaria into split squats and power bags before it mentions cities, language or the nation itself. Maybe no nation or culture resonates as powerfully as Russian does when it comes time to making an exercise sound hard core. The most obvious Russian themed exercise doo-dad is with out doubt the Russian kettlebell.
Now firstly it has to be said that the kettle-bell is as Russian as I am. Archeologists working in Ancient Greece have uncovered a stone carved into the easily recognizable shape of a kettle-bell that weighs 142kg’s and has an inscription that reads “Bibon heaved up me above his head by one hand”, which means kettlebells are probably Greek, that their use pre-dates the birth of Christ and that ye old timey weight lifters make modern strongmen look like wee little girly men. Second point to make is that kettlebell use flourished throughout Europe and the United States throughout the 1700 and 1800’s and they, alongside other unevenly weighted lifting tools like heavy clubs, maces and sand bags and awesome gymnastic equipment like the parallel bars and the rings, were the main thing people used in old school gyms. Like ironic hipster moustaches, the modern kettlebell is just a reintroduction of old techniques.
So who bought them back and who made them Russian? Pavel Tsatsouline
Back in 1998 he wrote an article with the best ever title in the history of fitness magazines, ”Vodka, Pickle Juice, Kettlebell Lifting, and other Russian Pastimes.” Now Pavel used to train Russian Spetnatz troops, who are heroic bad asses, his article was littered with the tales and exploits of the old Girevoy (Kettlebell athletes) who were without fail also heroic bad asses. He trained many of the Russian Olympic team, who probably injected an entire racehorse worth of testosterone before competition, but even with the track marks were definitely heroic bad asses. Pavel himself, thick Russian accent, incredibly ripped, flexible and powerful, he was most assuredly a heroic bad ass. This created a rock solid connection in the public mind between using kettlebells and being a heroic bad ass, a connection kettlebell afficionados promote to this day.
Which leads us to the single greatest fallacy in the fitness industry, a misunderstanding that explains the existence of so many witless fads, celebrity endorsed fitness products and people’s dedication to diets and programs that observably do not work. To be a heroic bad ass you need to do what other heroic bad asses do, which does NOT mean use what they use. You need to be able to separate that which has an effect from that which is just hanging around while the effect is occurring. Buying a Tiger Woods hat will not make you a better golfer. Buying Tiger Woods clubs will not make you a better golfer. Hitting balls at the driving range for 3 hours every day will make you a better golfer. Fitness, more than perhaps anything else in life, comes down directly to what you do. Not who you know, not how well you present, not how well you speak. The only thing that matters is how hard and how often.
You know what made kettlebells ubiquitous in Russia whilst they fell out of use elsewhere? This answer will surprise anyone who has tried to buy the bloody things recently. They were cheap. So cheap that everyone, even stone poor Russian peasants in the frozen waste of Siberia, already had access to them. To train kettlebells, like the heroic bad asses Pavel described, all you need is your Babushka’s cast iron pots or kettle, take something as heavy as you can get your hands on and then make it heavier by filling it up with river stones or sand or what ever you have at hand. Once it is fully loaded you swing it until the flesh of your hands gives out, or press it over head as fast as you can as many times as you can until you see stars and fall down in the snow. Kettlebell exercises are what people who had to get stronger and wouldn’t accept any excuses used to do to get stronger. Excuses like there is a blizzard going on or I haven’t had anything to eat since last week’s potatoes or frostbite has taken away most of my fingers. The type of person so committed to getting stronger that they start swinging their grandmother’s crockery around the room in an attempt to get their pump on are definitely heroic bad asses who are definitely going to get strong. But they are going to get strong because of how hard and how often they work, not what they were holding in their hands at the time.
Now it’s true that some types of training are easier to do with a kettlebell than with more traditional weights equipment but these are small differences, easily adapted around. They are an inherently uneven load but so is a barbell only loaded on one side. They are well shaped for swinging and for performing explosive lifts like a clean or a snatch with but a dumbbell is well shaped for swinging and a barbell is much better at explosive lifts. Truthfully, the kettlebell as a weight, possess only very few advantages over traditional weights. Where the kettlebell does shine is in the programming, kettlebell use is a demanding and vigorous combination of cardio and strength. In kettlebell training, when performed at the right intensity, the strong ones lack the fitness and the fit ones lack the strength. This is how the kettlebell really made such an impact early on, by forcing strong guys to use their cardio and fit guys to use their strength, it made people who thought of themselves as really physically capable struggle to finish a workout. Rather than pandering to their strengths kettlebells challenged them on their weaknesses which was a revelation for many at the time.
Kettlebells are still great for this but do not confuse the example for the lesson. Being a heroic bad ass and acquiring truly functional fitness involves competency in lots of aspects; strength and power; flexibility and agility; and cardio fitness in both the lactic sprinting sense and the low output long duration sense. Identifying where your weaknesses are is hard, deliberately making yourself do more of them is even worse. But it is a much greater achievement to train hard enough to finally be capable of running a respectable 5k than it is to put another 5 kilograms on top of an already impressive bench.
Some interesting pages
This is a good post on the subject
Pavel’s new site
Get some history into ya!
See you in the gym