6 Reasons for the Leaps Between Kettlebell Sizes

When they first encounter Russian kettlebells, Westerners are always surprised at the large jumps between sizes. The original reason for limited sizes was probably as mundane as saving roubles and a few square meters of storage space. As science caught up with practice, multiple reasons why it is the best way were revealed.

The Reasons for Kettlebell Sizes

Reason 1

Soviet scientists like Prof. Arkady Vorobyev discovered that sharp changes in load are superior to small changes when it comes to delivering the message to your body: “Get strong!” Russians scoff at those mini-plates many Western bodybuilders add to their barbells. Powerlifting champ Jack Reape told me that at his gym they painted all 2.5-pound plates pink to attach stigma to their use. I approve.

Reason 2

The Reasons for Kettlebell SizesDan John, Master SFG gives the second reason:

Why I like kettlebells: you have so little choice. Dumbbells go up in many gyms by ten pounds, some five, some even a pound at a time. A thousand machines for bench presses… a million combos.

Stop! The brain can only take so much!

With kettlebells, I have really only up to three choices… often only one… for an exercise…

Less choice: less mental RAM going out the door. The more you choose, the less you have left over to push the workout. Those leg innie and outie machines can convince you that you are working your legs. You’re not… but you can use your brain to convince you that you are…

No choice. More work.

Reason 3

A Senior SFG has noted that a very gradual progression in weight enables the trainee to sneak up on a heavier bell. This robs him of technical “a-ha” moments. Allow me to explain.

Nikki Shlosser, SFG Team Leader
Nikki Shlosser, SFG Team Leader

At StrongFirst, we teach the “skill of strength,” literally reverse-engineering the body language of the strong. A decade ago, veteran gymnast Brad Johnson, future author of Bodyweight Exercises for Extraordinary Strength, conducted an experiment testing the effect of the three key strength techniques of my system: tensing the abs, cramping the glutes, and crush gripping.

Brad used the iron cross maneuver for his test. Since this elite gymnastic feat did not challenge this superman, Johnson took a hold of the rings with his arms in a “Y” shape, rather than the “T” shape of the traditional cross. He stood on a scale and pushed on the rings. Every one of the tension techniques yielded a dramatic increase in strength; all together they delivered forty pounds.

You do not learn such lessons by adding a pound at a time. Back to Dan John: “The 53 is a perfect choice [for a given exercise]… but I ‘could’ use 70. That is a seventeen-pound ‘could!’!! So, I have to back off the reps, tighten my butt… you know the drill.”

Reason 4

Baby steps rob you of an opportunity to man up against heavy weight.

Reason 5

Those baby steps also prevent you from developing the ability to accurately estimate your strength on a given day. Russian powerlifting coaches occasionally hold an in-house competition for their lifters—allowing only one attempt per lift.

Reason 6

Last but not least, most Russian strength coaches insist on doing a lot of quality lifts with medium weights. Russian kettlebells force you to do just that. Say you want to make a transition from pressing a 53-pound bell to pressing a seventy-pounder. That is a 32% jump, a true leap of faith! There is no way you can overcome the big one without first working up to pressing fifty or more perfect reps per workout with the smaller one. Bill Starr will tell you that the broader is the base, the taller pyramid you can build.

The leap of faith between kettlebell sizes is really a leap of science and experience.

Pavel Tsatsouline
CEO
Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.

31 thoughts on “6 Reasons for the Leaps Between Kettlebell Sizes

  • Small incremental jumps in weight imply fear. The message we send to ourselves is to be cautious, to go at the lift with an over abundance of concern, rather than a sense of confidence. This affects the mind, and approaches the activity from a deficit point of view. Jumping up quite a bit in weight involves risk. Overcoming fear, and taking a risk is what drives most of human progress. The added benefits include an understanding that the body was capable of much more than previously expected, and with each large jump, the next one becomes more of a possibility. It breaks a lie. The lies we tell ourselves. I can’t do that! When we say we can’t do something, we are absolutely right. When we do it, and succeed, we now know that we had not been honest with ourselves. Therefore, larger jumps in weight condition not only our bodies, but our ability to be honest as well.

  • Could you elaborate a bit on reason #1 (sharp changes more effectively deliver the “Get Strong!” message to your body)? I’m curious why this is the case. I thought that heavy weights delivered the (neurological) message and if the training weight were kept heavy with small increments, it would still be heavy. Please clarify for me.

    Also, to what extent does this wisdom apply to barbells?

  • Thank you for this post.

    Small increases in weight are misleading and in my experience cause people to be overambitious, train to close to their limit and compromise technique and safety. It’s counterintuitive but too small an increase in load seems to slow down progress.

    For me, it seems that learning to tackle a weight I can’t budge by training with significantly lighter weight forces a whole new level of understanding for both technique and programming. It also keeps me safer, which actually means faster progress in the long term.

  • Hi,

    I am about to but my first pair of kettlebells and simply wonder what brand I should go for. Do you still recommend the Dragondoor RKC kettlebells or are there any other brands I should have a look at?
    (Btw, I live in Sweden and will try to avoid buying from overseas because of the high shipping rates, but I assume quite a few brands are available in Sweden.) Thanks!

  • I have always loved the attitude of Russian training. Be Tough! From my side of the fence this looks like the science of progressions. You know that 1 rep = 100%, 2 reps 95% , 3 reps 90% and 4-5 reps 85% and so on. The jump is no big deal if you know your numbers and you trust the science. One must also have the proper attitude, recovery plan and focus. When making the leap – the mind has got to be ready so the body can follow or injury is right there.
    What is your take on preparation specifically stretching for the day of leap of faith? Thanks.

  • I personally do not train with kettlebells but this stood out to me: “the broader is the base, the taller pyramid you can build”. I always preach and champion high rep/high volume work and my buddies think I’m crazy. I always say this to them, ‘get used to doing lots of reps with a moderately heavy weight and watch your one rep maximums shoot up’.

  • Most of what you wrote in this blog post is simply broscience and honestly sounds more like a pitch for kettlebells than anything else (which I do use and like for reasons other than the large weight increases). I very much appreciate your contributions to the field, but this is the sort of thing that makes people roll their eyes when you are cited as a reference.

    It is simply wrong to say that someone somehow needs or will do better with a bigger increase in weight rather than numerous smaller ones. All that matters is that the stress keeps pace with the adaption to it, which is actually much easier to do acurately with smaller increments. There may be a phychological benefit to getting used to making big jumps in weight (mental toughness?), but if a certain % of you 1RM requires you to brace, use a certain amount of effort, ect. then so long as the increases in weight stay on pace with the increases in adaption, it will always require the same amount of effort.

    Lifting too light a weight will certainly rob someone of the many “ah-ha” moments, limit the perceived need to “get strong” and “man up” as well as the need to learn to move efficeintly via better form and tension, but once the ‘right’ amount of weight is found it is totally irrelevent how big or small the increases are so long as they are on pace with the adaption of the body.

    As to the idea that smaller increases in weight somehow hinder “developing the ability to accurately estimate your strength on a given day”: simply nonsense. The ONLY way to truly get better at “developing the ability to accurately estimate your strength on a given day” is simply to learn (through testing) what ones maximum reps at a certain weight are and what that relationship to othe RMs at other weights are. In time you will learn that if I can do “x” reps with “x” weight then I can do “y” reps with “y” weight.

    • George, you are presuming that linear double progressive overload (add a little weight, then add a few reps, then repeat) is the only way to train. It is not. Valid for beginners, though.

      On the matter of “stress keeping up with adaptation” you may want to read A. Viru’s works; some of them have been translated into English. Also, as I wrote in the blog, larger weight jumps necessitate a broad volume base—which is a great way to prevent any “high intensity” shortcuts.

      Regarding estimating your ability on a given day, have you competed in PL or WL?

      • I was actually thinking along the lines of microloading, which is single progression rather than double, which guys like John Christy, Stuart McRoberts, and Mark Rippetoe all use once people get PAST the beginner stage and can no longer make big jumps in weight.

        I am not thinking linear at all. There is always going to be some form of wave loading when you hit a plateau. It can be planned deloads or self regulated on a day by day basis along the lines of what you and Dan talk about it ‘Starting Strength’ and ‘Intervention’.

        My point is simply that nobody who is no longer a beginner is making big jumps in weights they have never lifted before. They are creeping up on that weight via small gains in complementary exercises and/or, more often than not, are doing some form of wave loading that is mostly made up of revisiting old weights they have already lifted. The new PRs are really not big jumps.

        Trying to sell big jumps as working better than smaller jumps is like folks who insist that going on the Paleo diet will cause them to lose weight RATHER than cut calories. The fact is the ARE cutting calories (when it works), they just have a different focus and so they don’t notice they are doing it.

        The same is true with adding weight to the bar or moving to bigger bells. Nobody other than a beginner is making big jumps on their lifts WITHOUT some sort of small incremental strength increases.

        Jumping from a 16kg one arm press to a 20kg one arm push press is not an increase in strength. It is comparing apples to oranges. Once you move up in weight the small increments of weight increase are still made, it is just done by slowly decreasing the amount of momentum and the amount the other muscles are helping you ‘cheat’ the weight up. Nobody is going from lots of volume with a lower weighted bell to being able to do the same exact movement with a bigger bell they have never lifted before. Anyone can increase the weight they are using by simply changing their form, but that is not a strength increase.

        My point is that adding 1lb increments would allow soemone to keep all the other variables the same, which is the only way to truly say you are stronger.

        • Goerge, here is the problem with microloading if you are cycling. You will be training light too long—and then heavy too many workouts in a row. Hence first undertraining, and then overtraining. When cycling (at least linear), jumps of 2-5% are optimal. Tiny plates only deserve to exist in PL and WL competitions.

          That was for barbells. With the kettlebell press, powerlifting style cycling is not an option and large jumps force one to increase the training volume. This is positive for reasons I have explains. It also encourages one to do other exercises (say, cleans and get-ups) with the heavier bell, accustoming the nervous system to it.

        • George,

          The fact that you placed the calorie theory of weight loss in the same boat as the food choice theory of weight loss communicates that you have not even a basic understanding of how the body works and adapts on a systemic level, let alone down to the cellular level.

          Thanks for playing, though.

          -Al
          -Al

  • why pavel u left dagron door ? i have dvds and books that u wrote u are the best ! i also have muscle mag thank u pavel!

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