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