The Science and Bullshit of Lifting (III) – Kettlebells

Can a simple piece of metal the shape of a cannonball with a handle turn you into a Soviet Superman? (Around 7.000 words, estimated reading time 35 min.)

Weights with hollow handles have been around since Ancient Greece, evolved into kettlebells sometime around the 17th century, became iconic of strength in Western Europe in the late 19th century, and fell out of fashion in the 1920s.

Except in the former U.S.S.R. There, their ruggedness earned them a second life. Kettlebells were incorporated in military training and eventually became a national sport in U.S.S.R. by decree (never by popular vote).

After the demise of the Eastern Bloc, kettlebell lifting returned into favor in the ‘West’ after an 80-year-or-so hiatus, thanks in large part to the efforts of two former U.S.S.R. citizens who had emigrated to the U.S. in the late 1990s.

A major part of today’s post will be concerned with them and their work.

Initially, my intention was somewhat different. I didn’t want to look too closely into the history of kettlebell lifting. I wanted to propose that everybody should learn some kettlebell sport lifts and to offer a variety of reasons for that proposal. But two things sidetracked me:

  1. A possible conflict of interest. I sell programs based on kettlebell lifts but I didn’t want to pen an infomercial and bullshit my readers into thinking that they can’t learn those lifts without my programs. So I decided to argue that you can learn kettlebell lifts on your own. But there’s a hitch.
  2. Kettlebell bullshit. You may have noticed that I wrote that kettlebell lifting had become popular, not kettlebell sport. That’s because the kettlebells Renaissance of the past 20 years is rife with drama and mercantilism and personal vendettas have hatched bullshit in epic proportions (in Harry Frankfurt’s sense).

The main issue is that kettlebell bullshit actually makes the learning curve harder to negotiate for self-learners. Which may be good for my business, but not for yours. And that’s how a plea for kettlebells morphed into part III of the Science and Bullshit of Lifting (see here and here for Part I and Part II)

Worse, there is no shortage of science-based bullshit sometimes to the point of distorting the actual science past the point of recognition. And so, this post includes unusually long and technical fine-prints asides, because the only way to clear out a path through kettlebell bullshit is to science the shit out of it.

Kettlebell history (in a nutshell)

Digging into the history of kettlebells is an exercise in coping with frustration.

For starters, the details of the history are sitting behind a language barrier that is as impassable as the Iron Curtain. Any page of the otherwise the RGSI website will easily convince you of that. Next, even well-informed summaries are surprisingly devoid of references. For instance, the 50+ years timeline of this comprehensive post by Lorna Kleidman is lacking even a single one.

In fact, everybody seems to be rehashing the same second-hand sources. Take for example this other excellent summary published in BarBend that, unlike others, has a reference section, and peruse it for references about the history in Russia. You’ll find a link to the International Union of Kettlebell Lifting (IUKL) “History of origin and development of kettlebell sport” (well, not exactly, because the link is dead, a common issue with Russian web resources for some reasons). The author of the IUKL document synthesized years of research and even listed references by name and date of publication in the text.

But then, they omitted the reference section at the end.

They also Google-translated their article from Russian. Reading it will strain your understanding and test your patience.

If you are curious about how I know what I know, I owe everything to Paul Tucker’s 2008 Downunder Guide to Navigating Girevoy Sports. Tucker had access to Russian sources and even drops a few names, but his ‘history of girevoy‘ is a 2-page long bullet list. I Googled like crazy cross-referenced names and dates, and that’s how I found the resources I linked above. This makes my knowledge third-hand at best, but so far, it’s not worse than other non-Russian-speaking scholars.

(As a side note, I highly recommend Tucker’s book, not for its crappy sketchy history of the sport but because it epitomizes Russian manuals and is an invaluable training resource. On the downside, the webpage for the book is crappy too antiquated, and I have no idea if the book can still be purchased. I own a dead-tree printed copy courtesy of one of my best friends, and if the book is not available anymore, I’ll scan it to the info dump when I have the time to do so.)

Now, with these caveats, let’s dive into the murky waters of kettlebell history.

Russia never forgets

Weights with hollow handles are to the physical culture of Western Europe what heavy clubs are to that of Eastern Asia or the Indian subcontinent. In fact, they may even be older. Milo of Croton (c. 500 BCE) was swinging hollow-handle halteres as part of his routines before pahlevhani-zurkaneh was codified in the Parthian Era (238 BCE-224 CE). Then again, the discussion of Milo’s routines are from around 200 CE, the game of “who started swinging what?” is only marginally interesting, and we’d be better off not to start playing it too soon because it’s endless.

Especially with kettlebells, as we will see in the next part, but let’s not anticipate.

image
Cover for “The Text Book of Weightlifting” (1910) by Arthur Saxon.

Milo’s halteres eventually evolved into kettlebells and became iconic of strength in Europe. So much so that when strongman legend Arthur Saxon published his Text-Book of Weight-Lifting (1910) he pictured himself with a kettlebell on the cover. Kettlebells fell out of fashion during the 1920s in Western Europe, around the time Olympic weightlifting scrapped one-handed lifts from competitive events (and there may be some causation to that correlation).

But not in Russia, where the implement, under the name of gyra — which I was told by a native speaker simply means “weight” — was already available in the standard local sizes, that is, in multiple of one pood (about 16 kg). Kettlebells became part of Russian weightlifting training before the Bolshevik Revolution thanks to the effort of Vladislav Kayevski (about whom you can read in the IUKL document, with the aforementioned caveat). The rural origin of the gyra was actually exploited by the Soviet Era propaganda, for instance in a movie about Ivan Maximovich Poddubny where he is seen buying 2-pood weights in a grocery store (I’d embed it, but the copyright holder prohibits embedding). The video below shows an open-air museum display of ‘old kettlebells’ of various sizes.

The development of kettlebell sport is however a Soviet Era thing. Informal competitions are said to have started around the 1940s in collective farms (for obvious reasons) but this may be propaganda. More certainly, they spread in the military (army and navy) where kettlebells were already part of the weight-training tools (see the vintage footage at the beginning of next section, although I’m not sure of the date of the movie). In a typical display of Democratic Centralism, rules for the sport were enacted during the 1960s even before the sport was officially recognized. That would take another 20 years, no doubt another display of Democratic Centralism.

Girevoy Sport

The first Official U.S.S.R. championship of Girevoy Sport (GS) was organized in 1985 in Lipetsk, and marked GS legend Sergey Mishin‘s first victory (in the heavyweight class). Mishin had earned the rank of Master of Sports at his first competition in 1983 at age 23. In spite of a late start, he went on to be a 20x times Champion of Russia and a 10x World Champion, demonstrating a remarkable longevity.

As of 2014, at 56, he was still posting impressive snatching numbers in the veteran class. Mishin’s longevity, although impressive, is not unusual in GS, and I’ll speculate at length on its reasons in the future. Mishin’s records stood for decades, only to be beaten by Ivan Denisov (we’ll meet him soon).

By the time the first World Championship was organized in 1993 (aslo in Lipetsk), the rules had evolved to what they are today, to comprise two events:

  • Biathlon: a 10-min set of 2-Arm Short Cycle Jerk (or simply ‘Jerk’) followed by a 10-min set of 1-Arm Snatch (with on hand switch only), and:
  • Long Cycle Only: a 10-min set of 2-Arm Long Cycle Jerk (shortened ‘Long Cycle’), the GS equivalent to Clean & Jerk (hence the ‘long’ cycle, because of the added Clean).

The goal is to complete as many reps as possible in 10 minutes in a continuous fashion: dropping the kettlebells to the floor is not allowed, nor is resting in the hang position (since 2008). Resting positions are further restricted, based on the lift: in rack and overhead for Jerk and Long Cycle, and overhead only for Snatch. Below are summary depictions of the three competition lifts, courtesy of http://www.girevik-online.com.

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Beyond that, there are many federations that have varying weight classes, minimum competition weights, and ranking systems imported from the Russian ranking system that I alluded to when I mentioned Mishin’s Master of Sport rank. In general, local competitions let you choose from 8kg/16kg (female/male) and then up with 4kg increments. National and international competitions have a 16kg/24kg amateur division and a 24kg/32kg professional division, but some have ‘pre-amateur’ at 12kg/20kg.

The ranking system has the same ranks in all federations, but depends on the weight class (hence the differences) and the total weight you move. Ranks are achieved independently in each competition lifts. For each lift, you’d start at Rank 3 (that’s where I am in 2-Arm Long Cycle), progress to rank 2 (that’s where my daughter is in One-Arm Long Cycle), then to Rank 1; Candidate Master of Sport (CMS) is the last beginner’s rank; Master of Sports (MS) indicates that you’ve left the playground and are lifting with the grown-ups. Master of Sports World Class (MSWC) and Honored Master of Sports (HMS) are typically not managed by federations based on weight (with one exception mentioned below) but require to win competitions.

Whether this diversity is good for the sport, only time will tell. The differences in ranking systems make some ranks easier to achieve in some federations than in others. Igor Morozov (MSWC, multiple time world champion in the -95kg weight class, and multiple time world record holder) gave a thorough analysis of four ranking systems on the RGSI website for the Russian Girevoy Sport Institute (RGSI, his organization), the Russian Girevoy Sport Federation (RGSF), ther International Kettlebell Fitness Federation (IKFF, a US-based organisation) and the World Kettlebell Club (WKC®, also US-based, that I’ll soon mention again), discussing the advantages and drawbacks of those systems. I’ll come back to that someday, and for one of the rankings, in the next part, as Morozov argues that some ranking systems actually put lifters at a risk.

Also notable are the ebbs and flows of international standards for female lifting. I’ll mention the One-Arm vs. Two-Arm lifting at the end of the next section, but I’ll stick to one example here: the recently created World Kettlebell Sport Federation has brought down the (professional) ‘Elite” female division in Biathlon and Long Cycle from 24kg to 20kg, while keeping the One-Arm Lifts at 24 kg. While this is a laudable effort to get more lifters into the sport, it has also led to a seriously depleted competition: of the top 2*24kg lifters of the day — Kim Fox, Brittany Van Schravendijk, Beate Kårstad Støfring or Andrea Lavoie — none bothered to attend.

But that’s a topic for another day, because today is not about today, but about how yesterday led to it. Back on track, then, the 1993 ‘World Championship’ was somewhat of a misnomer, because at that time, GS was still an East European sport, and a niche sport at that. All the athletes of the 1993 championship came from the former Eastern Bloc. Also, until 1999, they were all guys.

All of which was about to change, but not without some bullshit of epic proportions.

Enter the kettlebell… Wait! I meant, the gyra!

The tragedy with the kettlebell Renaissance of the past decades is not so much that it is rife with bullshit but that the strongest bullshitters are also legit experts.

There’s been enough bullshit about kettlebells to fill several Russian novels. (Sorry, I could not resist). The best option would be to try and ignore it but it is in practice impossible. Especially if you try to learn the GS lifts on your own, you are bound to be exposed to contradictory information. And to a lot of bullshit (again, in Harry Frankfurt’s sense) aimed at selling you one stuff rather than another.

Mostly certifications, because they are expensive and you have to renew them. But also kettlebells, exercise programs, books, and DVDs.

With 20 years of heaping bullshit over bullshit, I can only address a small part of it, so I’ll stick to 2 topics:

  1. the alleged existence of kettlebell lifting ‘styles’ and their differences;
  2. the alleged dangers of GS, in particular for the lower back but also (you’re not going to believe this) for… breast tissue.

‘Style’-talk has often been used to shit talk vilify GS in spite of the total absence of statistical data (and a massive amount of anecdotal evidence belying its dangers). But there is GS-based bullshit against other ‘styles’.

I have stated the historical undeniable facts in the previous section, and for the purpose of a discussion of ‘styles’ they can be summed up in one sentence: GS became a competitive sport in the 1980s in U.S.S.R. (and internationalized in the 2000s) after kettlebells had been used mostly as a training tool for military personnel.

And now for the alternative facts: GS is only the surface, the kettlebell is the strength secret of the Soviet supermen, and there is a ‘secret style’ that was taught only to elite military units, and it remained hidden to Westerners to keep an edge in the Cold War in case of conventional confrontation.

The crux of the ‘style’ issue is the fight for the title of ‘He-Who-Introduced-Kettlebells-to-America’, and from there, to the ‘West’. The two contenders are Pavel Tsatsouline (b. 1969) from Belarus; and Valery Fedorenko (b.1973), from Kyrgyzstan.

So sit back, grab a drink, and enjoy the match and its afterparty.

Stylish bullshit (first leg): Belarus 1 – Kyrgyzstan 0

Tsatsouline rocked the U.S. fitness world in 2001 with his book The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, and established a certification program based on it (the RKC©) that exists to this day. It transformed Tsatsouline’s publisher, Dragon Door, from a modest mail-order publishing house (specialized in martial arts) into an all-around fitness powerhouse.

Dragon Door has a well-documented history of bullshit. Case in point: Convict Conditioning: How to Bust Free of All Weakness-Using the Lost Secrets of Supreme Survival Strength (2009, I think), a method of calisthenics developed for surviving prison by ex-con Paul ‘Coach’ Wade. According to the website, that is, because the book includes a fine-fine…-fine print disclaimer that Wade’s biography is fictional and intended ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’. No sign of that on the webpage.

Before he broke up with Dragon Door and RKC® in 2012, Tsatsouline put up with a decade of Dragon Door similar bullshit over-the-top marketing with such titles as: Power to the People: Russian Strength Training Secrets (2000), The Russian Kettlebell Challenge: Xtreme (sic) Fitness for Hard Living Comrades (2001), and Enter the Kettlebell: Strength Secrets of the Soviet Supermen (2006), all of which also had DVD variants.

Before he broke up with Dragon Door and RKC® in 2012, Tsatsouline put up with a decade of Dragon Door similar bullshit over-the-top marketing with such titles as: Power to the People: Russian Strength Training Secrets (2000), The Russian Kettlebell Challenge: Xtreme (sic) Fitness for Hard Living Comrades (2001), and Enter the Kettlebell: Strength Secrets of the Soviet Supermen (2006), all of which also had DVD variants.

A former Soviet Superteen(without permission, fair use)

In both Dragon Door books and DVDs, Tsatsouline extolled the virtues of ‘hardstyle’ (HS), the ‘military’ style of kettlebell lifting.

According to his Dragon Door days biography, Tsatsouline taught these moves to Russian Spetsnaz in the 1980s.

When he was a teenager.

Hum.

I don’t know about you but it seems to me ‘For Entertainment Purposes Only’. and entertaining it is, for instance in the otherwise informative Enter the Kettlebell DVD that is regularly uploaded (and taken down) on YouTube.

Of course, that’s a secondary issue, but the ‘Soviet Secret’ thingy did a lot to encroach the idea that HS is a badass style and GS is a half-assed style. It also popularized the notion that the 2-Hand Swing and the Turkish Get Up (TGU) are foundational kettlebell exercises together with (to a lesser extent) the Kettlebell Squat and the 1-Hand Kettlebell Press. We’ll get back to that soon.

Eventually, Tsatsouline started his own company (StrongFirst®) and backed down on the Russian connection. For instance, StrongFirst® offers a kettlebell course whose presentation fails to mention Russia, Spetsnaz, or even ‘hardstyle’. GS lifts are still sorely missing, tho, since the course prepares for the StrongFirst® Level 1 Certification which includes the 1-Hand Swing, TGU, 2-Hand Clean and 1-Hand Clean and Press. The 2-Hand Jerk shows up in the Level 2 Certification, but for 5 repetitions only. Level 2 also includes a Snatch, but it’s a double (2-Hand) and also for short reps.

So, what’s that ‘hardstyle’ thing, exactly?

Well, to keep things simple, you’d lift ‘hardstyle’ if you’d: (1) use high-tension techniques, including the Valsava Maneuver (as part of ‘abdominal brace’) in the same fashion as powerlifters and weightlifters; and in particular: (2) exhale on effort, the ‘biomechanical breathing match’ in the certification standards linked above (which sounds sciency, but is made up, and probably bullshit, see the fine prints below).

Both (1) and (2) are big no-no in GS for reasons I’ll explore in future posts. Both make some kind of sense with heavy kettlebells lifts for low reps, as in the StrongFirst® certification. Then again, they make no more sense than with any other heavy implement. And contrary to popular belief, the practice does not protect the lower back (see biomechanical breathing match in the fine print below; read it if you have been exposed to HS already or if I made you curious).


Hip-hinge vs pendulum. After years of sterile opposition between HS and GS, some coaches are beginning to try something different, and distinguish between ‘hinge-based’ kettlebell lifting (HS) and ‘pendulum-based’ kettlebell lifting (GS). Indeed hip-hinging is all over the StrongFirst® standards, while in GS, using the bodyweight as counterweight reduces the need to generate power with the hips. A ‘sissy-squat’ swing ensues, where the knees hover sometimes well over the toes and where knee extension is essentially a means to accelerate the bell at clean height (see this video of me goofing around with the swing/clean transition). GS pendulum swings are outlawed in HS, but things are less black-and-white in GS: a ‘sissy-squat’ swing is more efficient than a full-power hip-hinge but there’s no principled reason not to hinge in GS.

The ‘biomechanical breathing match’. HS standards (and especially StrongFirst®) make a big deal of ‘biomechanical breathing match’: inhaling before the effort, building up intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) during the effort, and letting go after the effort. While IAP is a topic of study in biomechanics, “biomechanical breathing match’ is not a term of art (as a search on Google Scholar will convince you; try also “bio-mechanical breathing match” just for fun). In particular, it does not appear at all in S. McGill’s study of kettlebell Swings and Snatches (to which Pavel Tsatsouline participated) [1]. There are multiple problems with IAP. First, McGill’s research indicates that IAP increases spinal load, and so does the powerful contraction at the end of a HS swing, to an extent that McGill, who carried a case-study on Tsatsouline for comparison with his other subjects, does not recommend Tsatsouline’s technique to anyone with a history of back problems. Second, with his other subjects, McGill did not enforce ‘exhale on effort’ as part of the technique. He did compared Swings and Snatches with kime (abdominal pulse at the end of the movement) and without it, but found that the kime remained an ‘abdominal event’ and did not change the muscle activation or spinal loads. There was no ‘irradiation’ (see below). Thus, exhaling on effort during swings is not science-supported and may actually be harmful.

The ‘Law of Irradiation’. HS insistence on high tension techniques comes from what Pavel Tsatsouline calls “Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation” or ”muscle cheering’ in Power to the People (p. 34, quoted in the article linked). This ‘Law of Irradiation’ allegedly governs the co-contraction of neighboring muscles: if you make a fist or grip a kettlebell, the forearm muscles contract powerfully, and so does the triceps, which impacts the shoulder, etc.. Irradiating tension (allegedly) prevents the stretch reflex, (allegedly) allows to generate more force, and in the case of hip-hinging, (allegedly) protects the lower back. We’ve already seen that the latter is bullshit unsupported and that muscles do not cheer the abs particularly loud (cf. The ‘biomechanical breathing match). Had there indeed been a ‘Law of Irradiation’, it would have been either invalidated or severely restricted. But fortunately for his legacy, Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) never formulated any ‘Law of Irradiation’. Sherrington’s Laws (there are two of them) do not describe irradiation: Sherrington’s First Law describes the relation of posterior spinal nerves to dermatomes, and Sherrington’s Second Law (often called simply Sherrington’s Law, because it’s much more interesting than the first one, and earned him a Nobel prize) describes reciprocal inhibition of antagonists during the stimulation of agonists. Now, ‘irradiation’ is supposed to counteract reciprocal inhibition and the Liddell-Sherrington Reflex or myotatic reflex, which are two names for the ‘stretch reflex’) which may cause some tension leaks. So ‘Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation’ is probably the result of a big mess in Tsatsouline’s memory circa 2001, when double-checking Google was not a common practice. There is no such excuse for the StrongFirst® post I linked to, written in 2017, that is to science what gloubi-boulga is to French cuisine.


Summing up, the Soviet-science, super-hush-hush secret of military ‘hardstyle’ is abdominal bracing when lifting heavy stuff for low rep. When the heavy stuff is a kettlebell. Plus some iffy pseudoscience straight out of Tsatsouline jumbled-up brain attic (Sherlock Holmes joke: check). Later amplified by the echo chamber of StrongFirst® lazy writers.

With secrets like that, no wonder that Soviet Supermen lost the Cold War.

Stylish bullshit (second leg): Belarus 0 – Kyrgyzstan 1

Unlike Tsatsouline, Valery Fedorenko has a verifiable pedigree in kettlebell lifting in a ‘style’ that is not made up. He did win the first-ever world title in 1993 at 20 years of age (in the -80kg weight class) and earned a rank of Honored Master of Sport. Then, in 1999, Fedorenko moved to the U.S. with the goal to cash in on his reputation in hard dollars develop the sport internationally.

But things didn’t go smooth and Fedorenko struggled to popularize GS. Perhaps because, compared to Tsatsouline’s publications, Fedorenko’s sounded really bland (with DVDs like: Everything about Snatch Technique, Everything about Jerk Technique, Everything about Long Cycle Technique). Perhaps because, unlike Tsatsouline, Fedorenko could not easily capitalize on a tongue-in-the-cheek persona. ‘Evil Russian‘ sounds good, but ‘Evil Kyrgyz’ sounds like bait for a travel ban.

Anyway, Fedorenko did not meet the same success as Tsatsouline, and that soon became an issue for him, because when he eventually managed to get some fitness media coverage for his World Kettlebell Club (WKC®, founded in 2006) he was forced to spend way too much time answering questions about the relation of GS to HS and CrossFit®.

(CrossFit® started its own ‘American style’ sometimes in the mid-2000s, and I won’t address it because it’s a circus act it would open another can of worms. But you can start here to get an idea of what the ‘American Style’ is about.)

Fedorenko deserves more credit for popularizing kettlebell sport in the U.S. than he usually receives. He surely thinks soscholars agree, and I won’t dispute that. But he doesn’t deserve any credit for his attempts at debunking the ‘style’ myth (as in the opening card of the video embedded below): in that department, Fedorenko has spiraled down into major bullshitting.

He could have stated the obvious. That high-tension techniques do not depend on a ‘style’ but on how much weight you move and for how long. Instead, he added fuel to the fire and did not balk, on occasion, at making the same kind of unsupported claims as Tsatsouline in the Dragon Door days. I’ll take three examples of this, in increasing order of relevance to GS.

First, Fedorenko has spent way too much time shit talking lambasting the 2-Hand Swing and claiming that the 1-Hand Swing is more athletic. Needless to say, there’s not a shred of evidence to support this claim. The only difference biomechanics has ever found is (expectedly) in the symmetry of muscle activation. Then again, Fedorenko does not claim support from science, but from experience, and how 1-Hand Swings helped him build a 175kg 1-Hand barbell deadlift. (Check this interview again, for the interviewer’s reaction, which is hilarious. That guy must be a Bayesian.)

Second, Fedorenko has spent way too much time shit talking pillorying the TGU which he considers a demonstration of force and not a movement that should be trained for reps, on the grounds that it’s too dangerous for the shoulder. Needless to say, there’s not a shred of evidence to support this claim. I’ll cover the TGU some other day, because it’s truly a unique lift, but let’s say for now that it’s really, really hard, when you sit a lot, to develop the overhead mobility for GS without it.

Ivan Denisov does not even own a 40kg Kettlebell

Valery Fedorenko

The problem is that Fedorenko is full of shit gets carried away. The claim that GS athletes only train with kettlebells at GS-competition weights will sound suspect to anyone who knows something about GS training methodology (from another source than Fedorenko). For instance, Rank 3 for guys with the RGSI only requires 10-min set with 2*12kg (it’s 2*16kg with most other organizations) but their training for Rank 3 preparation includes sets with 2*20kg at a slow pace from day one.[2].

The good-hearted humor of this video could make you forget the bitter comments about HS (in all but name) of the opening card. But it does not, because Fedorenko doubles down in the description box, claiming that this strength results from training GS only, with GS weights only, and building strength over the years that way.

As for Denisov, he may not have owned 40 kg kettlebells back in 2011, but nowadays, he sure does.

Also, Denisov is a beast, and if you roam his Instagram feed, you’ll see him deadlifting, pressing, and squatting barbells loaded with respectable amounts of weight for insane amounts of reps. I doubt that he’d have started training with that kind of workload only after 2011, or that this kind of training has nothing to do with his strength.

Now, if the drama was just bad press, it would be bad enough. But there may be worse: the WKC® war of position against RKC® (and StrongFirst®) may eventually claim GS lifters for collateral damage. Why so? Because of how the WKC® adapted the Russian Ranking system.

[T]o lift 40 kg which in essence is closer to competitive weight- and powerlifting (…) render[s] athletes prone to muscle-skeletal injuries as well as increased blood pressure typical of lifting heavier weights.

Igor Morozov

As Morozov’s analysis for the RGSI pinpoints, the highest ranks in WKC® for guys can only be achieved with 40 kg kettlebells (the irony will be lost to no one). Moving 2*40kg is moving 25% more weight than 2*32kg and shifts the emphasis away from power-endurance and more towards higher strength. Let’s put this in terms of relative strength to give you some perspective. Most federations only have only one weight class where guys put their bodyweight or more over their weight (-63/64kg), but there would be up to four of them if the WKC® system were adopted (for instance, in the GSU where I compete: -63, -68, -73, and -78). In the light of that, I let you appreciate Morozov’s ominous conclusion

Fedorenko’s pissing contest with Tsatsouline personal beef with HS may or may not have influenced his push (pun intended) for heavier weights. Fortunately, so far, there is no discernable trend toward heavier weights.

And that’s a good thing.

Afterparty: patriarchal bullshit and the Martian option

Until recently, female lifters could only compete in one-arm Snatch. Among the alleged reasons was that the rack position is dangerous for breast tissue.

That’s some serious patriarchal bullshit if you ask me, and it’s barely credible.

There’s not a shred of evidence in support of the claim. And no-one ever warned women about similar risks associated with breastfeeding (infants pounding at breast tissue). Or rough sex (use your imagination). And yet, the allegedly science-based StrongFirst® standards keep peddling the myth of ‘the-rack-position-is-dangerous-for-health’ (here for Level 1, and here for Level 2).

Having “boobs” can make a rack harder. Does it pose a threat like some say? I’m not sure it does and would probably say no.

Catherine Imes

I don’t think that this sexist nonsense deserves more exposure than that, but it may have hindered the development of female kettlebell lifting, even on the GS side. As evidence, this interview of Catherine Imes, the first non-Russian woman to ever receive a rank of Master of Sports. Then again, Imes somewhat downplays the ‘boobs’ issue and does not seem to believe that it was a major factor behind the development of one-arm GS (rather than two-arm GS) for female lifters. That would be a topic for another post, but there’s a fine-print digest for today.


Two steps forward, one step back. In the mid-to-late 2000s, when GS was just internationalizing, some badass female lifters began to try-out doubles. In 2006, Tatyana Potyomkina was competing against guys in the 2*24kg amateur division, with numbers comparable if not better. For comparison, Catherine Imes recalls that Potyomkina jerked 70 reps and snatched 140 in biathlon, numbers that compare favorably with some of the guys in the 24kg division at the last WKSF worlds, and would have earned the Bronze in her weight class in the male division (either the -74kg or the -80kg). A few years later (2009) Catherine Imes posted a 5-min Jerk set with 2*24kg on YouTube, without having specifically trained for it. Not too shabby, innit.

Then things kinda died out, female 2-Hand lifting did not take, and the decision was taken to promote one-arm lifting, which soon gained recognition on national and international stages. One-arm variants of the Short and Long Cycle Jerk became popular among female lifters, first in the U.S. and then everywhere else. This changed the narrative and opened the conversation about 2-Arm lifting for women.

Two steps forward. Nowadays, gals can compete in one- and two-hand events (even in Russia) and female 2-Arm Long Cycle has been all the rage in the last past years. Brittany van Schravendijk deserves a special mention here, not only as a multiple-time world record holder but for keeping track of those records across multiple federations since 2014. You can follow the #LadiesLongCycleToo, #GirlsLongCycleToo and #WomenLongCycleToo on Instagram. The #[Ladies/Girls/Women]BiathlonToo is still sorely missing, tho.

As a side note, Imes remarks in the interview I linked to, that some body types may have issues with double lifts irrespective of gender. But it’s only recently that some federations have opened one-arm divisions for guys (for instance the Girevoy Sport Union (GSU), where I compete). This might be not to lose too many lifters to Kettlebell Marathon, which is predominantly One-Arm. Then again, the International Kettlebell Marathon Federation (IKMF) has also opened Two-Arm divisions, so there seems to be more cross-pollination than competition there. Anyway, overall, things are improving on the gender-equality front.


When people ask you doesn’t that hurt your back? But never say a damn word when I carry my kid around in the same fashion.

Kimberly Fox

There is unfortunately still a lot of HS-fueled mansplaining going on on social media. However, even the most die-hard HS zealot cannot argue with the fact that more and more women are competing in GS, and that their boobs are doing just fine. And thus, the conversation seems to have shifted from breast tissue to back health, another staple of HS-vs.-GS confrontation. For instance, Kimberly Fox recently made a point about the shit she has to put up with the comments she receives about the kettlebell rack position on Instagram.

Interestingly, that’s a conversation that I can weigh in.

In November 2017, I was trying to get my numbers up with a pair of 16 kg to earn my Rank 3 with the GSU. My worst days were long gone, I had just cured myself of gluteal amnesia with GS rack holds, something I had never been able to do so with HS swings (I touched upon gluteal amnesia in that post, see the fine prints at the end of this section). I was feeling better than ever, so I might as well just kept on.

But there was an RKC®-certified zealot in my club who is somewhat of a minor fitness influencer in Sweden and a local big deal. He had been rehabilitating himself for some injury or another with HS lifts multiple times and had posted them on Instagram. And I began to receive concerned comments about my own back, and also about my daughter’s (she was prepping for Rank 2 at the time).

Although I know that correlation is not causation, I began to feel a little paranoid about becoming a collateral victim of the HS-vs.-GS 20-year conflict. So, faced with the overwhelming odds, I was left with only one option: the Martian option.

First, I did my homework and read McGill’s study. It does not bear upon the Jerk or Long Cycle, but includes a discussion of spinal loads during Rack walks, which made me hypothesize that GS rack might be less stressful for the lower back for some people than HS rack. For instance, people with my body type. Or my daughter’s.

Now that I had a testable hypothesis, I had to find a way to test it. (I did not say ‘falsify’, and if you don’t know why, go refresh your memory with Part I). I asked one of my friends, an engineer with a background in biomechanics, to give me a rough estimate of the compressive forces on my spine if I were to rack:

  1. According to the StrongFirst® Standards. This raises my elbows pretty high: I have very long arms, and when I contract my lats for support, I can’t maintain contact between the arms and torso without looking like a hunchback I have an excessive T-spine kyphosis.
  2. According to girevoy best practice. This lets me rest my elbows on my iliac crest and relax my L-spine erectors (I had someone poke me multiple times to check that). I can also relax my shoulders and traps, as the only support for the weight is my legs. I have to keep my butt reasonably tight to push the hips under the elbows tho (‘keeping-the-butt-plug-in’ tight, not ‘preventing-prison-rape tight’).

We took a couple of the pictures before I competed, and my friend sent me some crude calculations when I got back, with some explanations.

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Now, like I said, the calculations are very, very crude, and for compressive forces on the L5 vertebra alone. In particular, they do not account for the contribution of the mandatory HS/StrongFirst® IAP in rack position (1). But that’s not an issue, because IAP increases the compressive forces, the calculated compressive forces on my spine are already 22% greater in the HS than in the GS position, and I do not maintain any IAP in the GS position.

After I’d flashed the two pictures a couple of times, the concerned conversation in my club died out. We had scienced the shit out of it.

I suspect that the HS zealots would be unmoved, thanks to their documented Donald Trump-level ability to call upon alternative facts. But for whoever else is genuinely concerned that the argument above is a bit short, here are some fine prints to indicate what kind of additional data would be relevant.


Transcript. My friend’s text messages read: “Fv is the force put on the vertebrae, Fw is the force from the kettlebell (The weight of the kettlebell *9,81). Fs is the force erector spinae have to produce, Ls is the leverage (distance) from the centre of the vertebrae to where erector spinae is active. Lw is the leverage (distance) from where the weight of the kettlebell is active to the centre of the vertebrae.” Also, you can follow him on Instagram (@captainhugokarlsson)

Shear Forces. McGill’s study was motivated by the anecdotal evidence that Kettlebell Swings have been successfully used by many athletes to rehabilitate injured backs, while others find them irritating. The culprits of the latter are the anteroposterior shear forces that the swings generate. Catching a clean also generates shear forces that may pose a similar issue.

Catching with the Glutes. Speaking of the clean, an analytic argument (read: supported by reasoning, not data) would be that catching the clean by throwing the hips under the bell generates less compressive forces on the spine than catching with an abdominal brace (another stone in the HS garden, by the way). However, gluteal amnesia may pose a genuine threat here: failure to contract the glutes on impact may force the trunk to absorb the impact by leaning back, leading to overworked the L-spine erectors and increased shear forces.

Offsetting the benefits? McGill suggests that the cycle of tension-relaxation is a probable cause for the anecdotal evidence of the efficiency of swings-as-rehab. This is one more stone in the garden of HS, since the goal of the ‘biomechanical breathing match’ is to maintain tension through and through: the abdominal wall pressurizes when the muscles relax, to prevent tension leaks, etc. (At that point, the StrongFirst® garden is turning into a rock garden.) Irradiation or not, that continuous tension is one of the arguments that can be made, based on McGill’s study, against the HS Snatch/Swing and high-tension techniques in general for people with a history of back injuries. Since the tension-relaxation cycle is shorter in the GS Long Cycle, and even more so in the Jerk, than in the Snatch, there may be a concern that the argument may extend to them, as they require more tension overall.


Conclusion: Beyond the Bullshit-o-Meter

One of my secret reasons to write this blog was the opportunity to use the word ‘bullshit’ on occasion in a rigorous way. But I never expected that a single topic would give me as many occasions to use it as that one.

Honestly, when I decided to re-purpose my initial plea for GS into a bullshit-busting exposition, I expected to use the term a couple of times. Literally. Once about that Spetsnaz thing. And once about that you-can-Jerk-a-70-kg-kettlebell-for-17-reps-training-with-32kg-kettlebells-only thing. As for the rest, I thought I’d bitch complain about the difficulty to access online Russian sources, and then meet GS and HS somewhere in the middle.

Because I liked Pavel Tsatsouline. Because I really wanted to like Fedorenko, not so much for his pedigree but for his genuine dedication to the sport (read this interview), and because I understood his frustration. Because I like people who try to be the voice of reason and talk about ‘hinge-based’ vs. ‘pendulum-based’ kettlebell lifting. And finally, because there was enough drama already, and I’m not in it for the drama. Otherwise, I wouldn’t be on WordPress. I’d be on YouTube (wearing military clothes).

But science and evidence don’t give a rat’s ass about personal preferences. Like Aristotle said: “Between my friends and the truth, I prefer the truth.” And the truth is that Tsatsouline and Fedorenko almost blew my Bullshit-o-Meter up, requiring no less than30 occurrences of the b-word, all of them deserved.

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Almost.

I still like Tsatsouline, at least for entertainment purposes. I still have nothing against Fedorenko, but I wouldn’t necessarily trust him with my training. And if anything, I get his frustration even better now.

So what to make of it all?

Well, if you ask me…

  • I wouldn’t mind too much about ‘hinge-based’ kettlebell lifting. The science behind it is iffy, the history behind it is made-up, and when you cut the crap, its boils down to common sense (don’t relax too much under heavy weights). Plus, there are better (and safer) ways to train strength and power. Speaking of which:
  • I would not give up too soon on old-fashioned resistance training. GS have benefits that other sports don’t have, and in particular, can improve cardiovascular fitness without risk of muscle loss. But kettlebells build strength only to a point, and in order to best use them safely, you may need to train your strength past that point.

That being said, if you are new to strength training or returning to it after a long hiatus, I wouldn’t bother too much. Training GS with a light-to-medium weight and having a kettlebell or two at weights you can’t comfortably Snatch, Jerk or Long Cycle would get you a long way.

And if you are already training for strength, and are a little wanting in the cardiovascular fitness department, weight does not matter much as long as it’s challenging enough for your body not to give up on maintaining muscle mass.

You have now a clear path to learn GS on your own without being bogged down by bullshit. So the next question is: why should you?

The short answer: ‘because science’. The long answer involves quite a bit more physical anthropology, biomechanics, and neurology than this post already includes. Still, I paved the way for that science in the asides, and the fine prints are enough to piece out an argument. But I won’t do that now, because I’ve been long enough already.

Also, it has made crystal clear the benefits of doing one’s own thinking. And so, I’ll let you do yours.

See you in the Starting Girevoy series.

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[1] McGill S.M &, Marshall L.W., Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012, 26 (1):16-27, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823a4063.

[2] I’d link to the program, but the RGSI website is one big mess. Furthermore, I read it while browsing resources for the RGSI Level 1 Certification and I suspect that I was not supposed to access it in the first place and that it may have been taken down since my last visit. Then again, it might still be there, hidden in the mess.

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