Every modality has its pros and cons.
A barbell enables you to lift very heavy, which is plain fun. There is nothing like the rush of locking out a bar-bending deadlift.
Of all training modalities, the barbell allows one to make great strength gains with the lowest volume. You can develop a strong upper body benching for a couple of sets of five once a week. Bodyweight and kettlebell pressing exercises demand a higher volume.
The barbell is the most effective and efficient tool for building muscle.
You will make the greatest and safest barbell progress if you first put your time in bodyweight and kettlebell training. The former will teach you to get tight and linked up. The latter will prep your shoulders, hips, and back and teach you the fundamentals of moving with a load.
The most obvious advantage is accessibility. You can train anywhere, anytime.
Second, getting better at lifting your own body promotes a healthy body composition. You can “eat your way through a sticking point” in the bench press or squat. Don’t try that with pull-ups.
Third, challenging low rep bodyweight exercises will force you to develop key skills of a strength professional such as staying tight under load. You could have poor technique and weak abs—and still improve your bench press or jerk. Good luck cheating the one-arm/one-leg pushup.
The kettlebell is the most versatile training tool there is—a gym in your hand. Master instructor Dan John has famously quipped: “With this kettlebell in my bedroom I can prepare myself for the Nationals.”
Science and experience agree that kettlebell training develops a wide range of attributes: slow and dynamic strength, various types of endurance, muscle hypertrophy, fat loss, health, etc. “The more I do with kettlebells, the more I think of abandoning every other form of training,” wrote Rob Lawrence. “The workouts simultaneously train ‘everything’. Strength, speed, endurance. . . The thing that’s surprised me most is hamstring flexibility from doing one-armed snatches. There is a great deal of truth to the axiom that all training is a matter of trade-offs, but if anything out there threatens that wisdom it’s got to be KBs.”
Properly used, kettlebells lay a foundation for healthy and powerful movement. Hips become mobile, spine stable, shoulders mobile and stable. The body is becoming more symmetrical and resilient. You start moving like an athlete and are making dramatic changes to your body composition.
Kettlebells are compact, inexpensive, virtually indestructible, and can be used anywhere. Unlike dumbbells, you do not need a whole park of them. Several KBs are enough and even one will do.
The kettlebell ought to be your entry point into strength training. Even if you have spent decades under the bar, take on the kettlebell and you will be so much stronger and healthier for it.
Do not think in terms of modalities. Consider your training goals and the context of your life and your sport.
For instance, if you need to add as much quality muscle as possible in a short time before a football camp, the barbell is the most logical choice.
If you are a military operator on deployment, the bar would not be the best choice, given that power lifts and Olympic lifts demand a lot of food and rest (and a barbell, obviously). A mix of kettlebell (if available) and bodyweight training fits the bill.
If you are an old school boxer with a deep mistrust of iron and a fear of weight gain, go bodyweight.
If you want to keep it simple and wish to address all your fitness needs with one tool, nothing beats the kettlebell.
You get the idea.
No matter who you are, you owe it to yourself to take a basic SFG Kettlebell Course. It is the StrongFirst promise that it will be life changing.
Then consider expanding your strength education by taking the SF Bodyweight Course.
And finally, if the barbell suits your goals and your temperament, the SF Barbell Course.
Eventually you are likely to end up following a strength regimen that uses 2-3 of the above modalities. The key is not scatter your focus and do too many exercises. One effective programming approach that allows you to have your cake and eat it too is focusing on your main events three times a week and adding a “variety day” or two the way lifters of the past did. A variety day is dedicated to easy practice on the exercises you consider too important to drop. For instance, you are doing a powerlifting cycle but you do not want to lose your kettlebell skills and pull-up strength. So you maintain them with minimal amount of easy work.
“If everything is a priority, then nothing is a priority. You can’t prioritize without deprioritizing,” famously quipped Rob Lawrence.
A “kettlebell” or girya (Russ.) is a traditional Russian cast iron weight that looks like a cannonball with a handle.
The kettlebell goes way back, it first appeared in a Russian dictionary in 1704 (Cherkikh, 1994). So popular were kettlebells in Tsarist Russia that any strongman or weightlifter was referred to as a girevik, or “a kettlebell man.”
“Not a single sport develops our muscular strength and bodies as well as kettlebell athletics,” reported Russian magazine Hercules in 1913.
Because they deliver extreme all-round fitness—and no single other tool does it better. Here is a short list of hardware the Russian kettlebell replaces: barbells, dumbbells, belts for weighted pull-ups and dips, thick bars, lever bars, medicine balls, grip devices, and cardio equipment. Kettlebells are compact, inexpensive, virtually indestructible, and can be used anywhere.
Kettlebells forge physiques like antique statues: broad shoulders with just a hint of pecs, back muscles standing out in bold relief, rugged forearms, an armored midsection, and explosive legs without a hint of squatter’s chafing.
Liberating and aggressive as medieval swordplay, kettlebell training is highly addictive. What other piece of exercise equipment can boast that its owners name it? Paint it? Get tattoos of it?
The shape and compact size of a kettlebell allow one to safely accelerate it on the way down in exercises like swings and snatches. There is a growing body of research that such “virtual force” is exceptionally effective, efficient, and safe at improving many components of fitness: dynamic strength, many types of endurance, muscle building and fat loss.
Obviously, you cannot swing a barbell between your legs and a dumbbell encourages a stiff shoulder raise if one tries to swing it. The kettlebell’s offset “live” weight amplifies the feedback and forces one to swing it ballistically using the hips while relaxing the arms, the way an athlete is supposed to move.
Another unique benefit of the kettlebell’s offset center of gravity is the special manner in which the shoulder is loaded in overhead lifts. This promotes mobility and stability, which set up a foundation for extraordinary upper body strength and resilience.
Because the unique nature of the kettlebell lifts allows you to get a powerful training effect with a relatively light weight, you can replace your whole gym with a couple of kettlebells. Dan John, master instructor and highly accomplished power athlete, has famously quipped:
“With this kettlebell in my bedroom I can prepare myself for the Nationals.”
Vinogradov & Lukyanov (1986) found a very high correlation between the kettlebell snatch and jerk numbers and a great range of dissimilar tests: strength, measured with the three powerlifts and grip strength; strength endurance, measured with pull-ups and parallel bar dips; general endurance, determined by a 1000 meter run; work capacity and balance, measured with special tests.
Voropayev (1983) tested two groups of subjects in pull-ups, a standing broad jump, a 100m sprint, and a 1k run. He put the control group on a program that emphasized the above tests; the experimental group lifted kettlebells. In spite of the lack of practice on the tested exercises, the kettlebell group scored better in every one of them! This is what we call “the what the hell effect.”
The official Soviet armed forces strength training manual approved by the Ministry of Defense (Burkov & Nikityuk, 1985) declared kettlebell training to be “one of the most effective means of strength development,” representing “a new era in the development of human strength-potential.”
“I CAN’T THINK OF A MORE PRACTICAL WAY OF SPECIAL OPERATIONS TRAINING. I WAS EXTREMELY SKEPTICAL ABOUT KETTLEBELL TRAINING AND NOW WISH THAT I HAD KNOWN ABOUT IT FIFTEEN YEARS AGO.”
—NAME WITHHELD, SPECIAL AGENT,
U.S. SECRET SERVICE COUNTER ASSAULT TEAM
Kettlebells improve coordination and agility (Luchkin, 1947; Laputin, 1973), develop professional applied qualities and general physical preparedness (Zikov, 1986; Griban, 1990). Kettlebells lower the heart rate and blood pressure and increase the heart’s functional capacity (Shevtsova, 1993).
Kettlebells melt fat without the dishonor of dieting or aerobics. American Council on Exercise (ACE) commissioned a study by Porcari & Schnettler (2010). The researchers concluded that in a kettlebell snatch workout, the subjects “were burning at least 20.2 calories per minute, which is off the charts. That’s equivalent to running a 6-minute mile pace. The only other thing I could find that burns that many calories is cross-country skiing up hill at a fast pace. We knew it would be extremely intense. It’s a quick workout, and you do get a big bang for your buck in a very short amount of time.”
The original “style” of kettlebelling was what the West knows as the “odd lifts”. Strongman stuff, like Ukrainian Ivan Sedyh bent pressing three 70-pound kettlebells—not tied together!—and similar “hold my vodka and watch this” feats.
In the Soviet times odd lifts lived on, especially in the circus, and two additional kettlebell uses developed. One was girevoy sport, or kettlebell sport, a competition for a maximal number of reps with a given weight in the snatch and jerk. It was born in 1948 when the first official competition took place.
The other was strength training for sports. Roman Moroz, the coach of weightlifting great Alexey Medvedev, explains in his 1958 book Develop Strength:
“Exercises with kettlebells are a wonderful means of developing a person’s physical strength. They can be used in the training of athletes of different specialties: track and field, skiers, weightlifters, wrestlers, gymnasts, rowers, boxers, acrobats, etc.”
This is what we teach at StrongFirst.
“KETTLEBELLS ARE LIKE WEIGHTLIFTING TIMES TEN… IF I COULD’VE MET PAVEL IN THE EARLY ‘80S, I MIGHT HAVE WON TWO GOLD MEDALS.”
—DENNIS KOSLOWSKI, D.C., RKC, OLYMPIC SILVER MEDALIST, GRECO-ROMAN WRESTLING
Champions in a widest range of sports from powerlifting to MMA to triathlon.
Elite military and law enforcement special operators.
Hard men and women from all walks of life.
Kettlebell training is not for sissies but it is not elitist. Dr. Krayevskiy, the father of kettlebells, took up training at the age of forty-one and twenty years later he was said to look fresher and healthier than at forty.
The price of admission is a strong spirit and attention to detail.
“KETTLEBELLS—A WORKOUT WITH BALLS”
The “G” is for Girya.
Do I have to train barefoot, wear a kilt, and hate chicken to join the StrongFirst iron brothers and sisters?
Not mandatory, but recommended.
“America got into ‘sports specific’ training 15-20 years ago and forgot the fundamentals,” laments Gray Cook. “This created throwing athletes without legs and running athletes who could not do a single push-up correctly. It created swimmers who could not control their body on dry land and cyclists who could not stand up straight.”
A solid foundation of general strength is a must before one takes on specialized training. Punching with rubber bands might be useful to an experienced boxer. A beginner who is lacking the skill and the strength has nothing to gain and a future title to lose by emulating a pro. Russian experience shows that practicing the special without the general leads to short term gains followed by a long-term plateau and likely injuries. Skipping the hard and boring general training and going straight to the fun sport-specific stuff is akin to going to college from grade school. It doesn’t work.
Professor Nikolay Ozolin stresses: “Pay special attention to the development of general strength as it concentrates many components of physical preparedness.” He clarifies that the term “general” refers to “the ability to perform any physical work more or less successfully.”
General strength built with exercises not intended to duplicate any athletic movement becomes a foundation of the pyramid on which special or sport-specific strength is built. The tip will never reach high if the base is thin and narrow or not there at all.
Before getting specifically strong you must get generally strong.
Here is the StrongFirst prescription for athletes. Forget sport-specific training until you are almost a contender. Until then practice only basic strength exercises (kettlebell, barbell, bodyweight) plus the skills of your sport.
Kettlebell training is famous for making you better at a whole lot of things you have not practiced, from powerlifting to distance running. Kettlebell lifters or gireviks call this effect the “what the hell effect.” This is general strength training at its best. Powerlifter Donnie Thompson stopped deadlifting altogether, started kettlebelling and took his deadlift from 766 to 832 in less than a year. Brazilian BJJ black belt kettlebell students of Senior SFG instructor Doug Nepodal have seen superior results on the mat once they have switched from a fancy periodized “sport-specific” conditioning regimen to kettlebell swings and get-ups.
From an SFG certified instructor. See the instructor directory.
Russian kettlebells are traditionally measured in “poods.” One pood, an old Russian unit, equals 16 kilograms, approximately 35 pounds. The most popular sizes in Russia are 1, 1.5, and 2-poods.
The 1-pood or 35-pounder is the right kettlebell for a typical male beginner.
The 1.5-pood or 53-pounder is the standard issue in the military and the choice of boxers, kickboxers, and full contact karate fighters.
The 2-pood is used by wrestlers, MMA fighters, and lifters.
Heavier, 2.5-3 poods, 88-106 pounds, kettlebells are the domain of advanced men who put a premium on strength development.
An average man should start with a 35-pounder. What is “average”?—Given the bench press as a typical standard of strength, a BP under 200 pounds will put you into that category. If you bench more than 200, a 44-pounder—the weight of a large barbell plate—will do the trick. Unless you are a powerlifter or a strongman, you have no business starting with a 53. It does not sound like a lot, but a kettlebell feels a lot heavier than its weight suggests!
If you have the funds, get the three best sizes for strength development (35, 53, and 70 pounds) right off the bat.
You may have noticed that, unlike dumbbells, kettlebell weights do not go up in small increments. Our training methodology allows one to safely make large leaps between sizes—while saving space and money.
Do you need two bells of the same size? Maybe later. Training with “doubles” is an extraordinarily powerful way to build muscle and conditioning. But do not even think about it until you have put in a solid year of training with a single bell first. Exercises with two bells demand much greater flexibility and coordination.
Once you have advanced to heavier bells, do not retire the lighter ones. Even super-powerful men like 1,000 plus pound squatters Donnie Thompson and Marc Bartley find plenty of things to do with 35- and 53-pounders.
Kettlebell power to you!
Russian kettlebells are traditionally measured in “poods.” One pood, an old Russian unit, equals 16 kilograms, approximately 35 pounds.
Since women have proportionally weaker upper bodies than men, they tend to need a larger kettlebell “park.” If you aim for an exceptional set of legs, you will eventually want to do swings with a 70-pounder.
But for now three kettlebells will do: 18, 26, 35-pounders. The first bell will ease you into the upper body exercises. In a few months you will progress to the second. The third bell will serve you for your leg and hip exercises right from the start.
If you are strong enough to do a pull-up, start with 26, 35, and 53 pounds
Do not go any lighter than 18 pounds—these kettlebells are meant for rehab and corrective exercise by professionals.
Kettlebell power to you!
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“I’m not saying you are wrong. I just know I’m right.” (Steve Baccari)