The AK-47 of Exercise Equipment

Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor the (in)famous AK-47 assault rifle, recently passed away at the age of 94.  RIP.

Revered in Russia, the inventor of the deadliest personal weapon of the 20th century is often reviled in the West. Gen. Lt. Kalashnikov never let it bother him. “I invented weapons not for murder but for defending my Motherland.” If not for the Nazis, he would have become an agricultural equipment designer.

On one hand, Kalashnikov was a dedicated communist. On the other, he is the author of a famous quotation worthy of the NRA: “My dream is a country very much like the USA where men and women do not fear armed citizens.” So if you want to peg or judge the man, good luck with that.

Kalashnikov and his AK-47

The Story of Kalashnikov and the AK-47

Peasant son Misha Kalashnikov finishes nine grades and gets a job at the railroad. Then he is drafted into the military and studies to become a tank mechanic. A born MacGyver, he loves tinkering with things. A gizmo for the tank cannon earns him a watch from his commanding officer Georgy Zhukov, future marshal who played a decisive role in winning World War II.

The war breaks out and Kalashnikov becomes tank commander of a T-34 tank. In October 1941, his tank takes a hit from a German tank. The young soldier suffers a contusion and is taken off the front line. Burning to help the war effort, Mikhail sets out to design a reliable automatic rifle. Haunted by the memory of Russian soldiers with obsolete rifles getting slaughtered by Germans with automatic weapons, he reads, draws, and tinkers like a madman. Kalashnikov is fortunate to show his ideas to the right people. On merit alone, he becomes a weapon designer.

He makes his game changing invention in 1947—this is what “47” stands for in the name of the firearm. “A” stands for “assault rifle” and “K” is Kalashnikov’s initial. He recalls:

A soldier made a soldier’s weapon… a simple, reliable, effective weapon. AK works in any conditions, shoots without fail after being in the mud, in a swamp, after being dropped from a height on a hard surface. It is very simple, this assault rifle. But I must say that making it simple is sometimes many times harder than making it complex.

Making It Simple Is Sometimes Harder Than Making It Complex

The same can be said about strength training methods—and exercise equipment. It would not have occurred to me to write a blog about Kalashnikov and his rifle, if not for a post by Jason Ginsberg on StrongFirst forum. He remembered I had referred to the Russian kettlebell as “the AK-47 of exercise equipment” and posted a link to a New York Times article. The following quotation caught Jason’s eye:

Shorter than traditional infantry rifles and firing a cartridge midway between the power of a pistol and the standard rifle cartridges of the day, the Kalashnikov line was initially dismissed by American ordnance experts as a weapon of small consequence.  It was not particularly accurate or well made, they said, and it lacked range and stopping power.

It cemented its place in martial history in the 1960s in Vietnam.  There, a new American rifle, the M-16, experienced problems with corrosion and jamming in the jungles, while Kalashnikovs, carried by Vietcong guerrillas and North Vietnamese soldiers, worked almost flawlessly.

Jason commented:

While the AK-47 was initially dismissed because it didn’t do some things as well as other weapons, some of its perceived flaws were actually virtues in the right circumstances. Similarly, you can find people bashing the kettlebell for not being a barbell but many of the features that seem like disadvantages to some actually lend themselves to very useful applications that the kettlebell is better suited for.

Although kettlebells are not heavy enough to enable you to bench press 500 pounds, they will make you plenty strong. Strong enough to at excel at most sports. If I am to pick a football team and one candidate can bench four wheels and the other is a Beast Tamer, I will choose the latter without hesitation. A gent who can do a strict one-arm military press, a tactical pull-up, and a pistol with a 48kg kettlebell is a dangerous individual. Ditto for an Iron Maiden who has done it with a 24kg kettlebell. In addition to strength, the kettlebell delivers the total package of mobility, conditioning, and resilience.

Kettlebell and Kalashnikov
The kettlebell and the Kalash. Afghanistan war vet Michael Yilek has appreciation for both.

If reaching the highest levels of absolute strength and muscularity—250-300 pounds of meat and enough plates on the bar to lose count—is your goal, then the barbell is the equivalent of the more accurate M-16 rifle to hit your goal’s bull’s eye. If everything goes right.

The Russians tested both rifles side by side. Dug them into sand, dropped them into water, dropped them from heights. After a drop from 6m (20 feet) to a concrete slab, the M-16 failed to fire. The AKM (a later version of AK-47) kept firing even after being dropped from 10m (33 feet).

Master SFG Geoff Neupert has pointed out that the barbell is a lot less forgiving than a kettlebell or even a pair of kettlebells. Your body has to adapt to the barbell while the kettlebell works with your body. In my strongly held opinion, the kettlebell is the most ergonomically perfect piece of strength training equipment.

The barbell demands you are seriously dialed in the mobility, stability, and coordination departments. Program design has to be spot on, as heavy weights make it easy to burn out your nervous system and overtrain. Many pages of the SFL Certification manual are dedicated to teaching you how to dodge that bullet.

Geoff Neupert and Jeff O’Connor even concluded that, “[O]ne of the smartest ways to train is to actually ‘work out’ with double kettlebells and practice your lifts with a barbell.” (You may have noticed that the SFL has an SFG Cert or Course as a prerequisite.)

Whether you need the barbell or not, you cannot go wrong with the kettlebell. Kalashnikov could have said it about the kettlebell: “a soldier’s weapon… simple, reliable, effective.”

The kettlebell. It hits the target without jamming.

Simple and deadly as a Kalashnikov:
Pavel’s new book Kettlebell Simple & Sinister

Simple & Sinister Pavel Tsatsouline

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

17 thoughts on “The AK-47 of Exercise Equipment

  • Pavel, the gentleman that posted a negative comment didn’t seem to read your article closely enough. Circumstances that were not under his control took MK into designing weapons. As you noted he was a farmer before a warrior and he did what he had to do with the where and when of the situation. Also, a hearty dose of gratitude for the sacrifices the Russian people shouldered during WWII – it needs to be recognized more openly in world history. Thank you for not only the training advice but for the classy reminder of civility in discussion and conversation. I will use your wisdom with my students, “(Y)ou are entitled to your point of view. Learn to express it with good manners.”

  • This was a nice read for the metaphor comparing and contrasting barbell to kettlebell. Someone properly motivated but perhaps (relatively) inexperienced with serious barbell training, like myself, certainly runs into the risk of nervous system burnout. And perhaps I kept smashing into the wall of repeated burnout from improper training 😉 Something that is so incredible about the S&S is the decided lack of CNS burnout.
    I can keep training and sparring and working. The “gun keeps firing” so to speak.

  • Mikhail Kalashnikov, the inventor the (in)famous AK-47 assault rifle, recently passed away at the age of 94. RIP.

    Pathetic article.. Why would you send a rest in peace to someone who has contributing by making a weapon which has kill millions of people through wars, global domination, and the destruction of other countries so america can sit at the top smiling at the cost of others.

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