Everything (and Every Trainee) Is A Nail

At a recent SFG Kettlebell Certification, Dan John and I were waxing poetic about the sheer perfection of a program of swings, goblet squats, and get-ups for anyone, from the proverbial “Edna” on Social Security to “GI Joe” the Army Ranger barely old enough to buy a beer and brimming with testosterone. One of the students respectfully asked: “Could it be that if the only tool is a hammer, every problem looks like a nail?”

Our answer was: “Every trainee is a ‘nail.'” Some are sturdier than others, but all undoubtedly are in the “nail” family.  All members of our species share the same anatomy and physiology.  What works for one, will work for another.  The difference is in the degree: how hard you pound the “nail” and how heavy of a “hammer” you are going to select.

Every Trainee Is A Nail

Edna and Joe may have different “sport-specific” goals. She wants to be able to pick up her grandkid and to get up from the floor with no help and no groaning, should she decide to get down there to play with that grandkid. She aspires to stand up from a chair spritely, to walk strongly, without fearing of falling and breaking her hip.

Joe’s goal is to be able to sprint with his 100-pound kit, quickly move in and out of different shooting positions, negotiate obstacles without blowing out an ankle or a hamstring, and carry a wounded brother-in-arms.

Different as they appear, Edna’s and Joe’s goals rely on the same elements: mobile hips and knees, powerful legs, a stable trunk, a well “knit” body that moves as a unit, rather than a collection of body parts. Once these general demands are met, specific skill practice may be needed—the Ranger needs to be taught how to correctly pick up a wounded comrade—but that becomes a piece of cake once the fundamental movement patterns are there, along with mobility and general strength.

There are many ways to develop these fundamental qualities. For instance, one could take up yoga to get flexible (in spite of a decided lack of squat-type poses), get strong with the powerlifts, and go to a physical therapist to attempt (in vain, unless his name is Gray Cook) to make everything fire the right way. Edna might get her arm twisted into yoga, but Joe would just as likely take up interior decorating. In turn, Edna would rather join a gun range than a powerlifting gym. Joe would not mind. Fortunately, many U.S. military bases in most unfriendly places are equipped with barbells. Unfortunately, the stress of nightly missions in Afghan mountains does not leave much adrenaline for heavy squats. And when he tried it, Joe almost let his team down as he was hobbling at half speed with sore quads on a night raid. It would not occur to either Edna or Joe to seek out the services of a physical therapist or some “movement coach.”

There are other ways, but most of them are just as cumbersome and unrealistic. Enter the kettlebell. Edna can easily afford one or two and Joe has them in his deployment kit.

Now You Need a Hammer

The swing, the get-up, and the goblet squat are the three most beneficial exercises anyone could do—period. Some might need to add other moves, but they must be planted on the foundation of these three whales.

The swing fills the hips with power and the back with vigor. The get-up makes the shoulders resilient and the abs bulletproof. The goblet squat unlocks the hips and puts a spring into one’s step. Muscles appear in all the right places while the fat beats a retreat.

When done correctly, these exercises are exceptionally safe. They are beyond safe—they are “antifragile,” to borrow a word from Nassim Taleb. The Program Minimum plus goblet squats is true health training. I can run out of fingers on both hands listing the various health benefits of swings alone.

“Customization” is just a euphemism for “differentiation” in the business world. The only “customization” you need is the size of the bell.

You are the nail; I rend you the hammer.

The “hammer”—Pavel’s book Kettlebell Simple & Sinister

Cover of Simple & Sinister book, revised and updated 2019

39 thoughts on “Everything (and Every Trainee) Is A Nail

  • Hi Pavel,
    I’ve read youre new book and i’m missing an upperbody pull in the program. Can you please explain to me why you’v eleft it out? Regards Adri

    • Adri, when you design a minimalistic program, you have to ruthlessly reduce. The swing will train your grip and lats.

    • Adri,
      If you’re missing an upper body pull in S&S it’s because you haven’t progressed to a heavy enough bell yet. I’m currently working into the 40kg bell and I assure you my upper body is pulling quite intensely during 1 Hand Swings.

  • Do weighted pistol squats free up the hips like the goblet squat? I do weighted pistols twice a week, swings twice a week, and turkish get ups twice a week.

    Should I purchase a heavy bell and replace one of the pistols with goblet squats?

    • Hold Up, pistols are great in their own right—but not for unlocking the hips.

      You may add pistol GTG to S&S—a couple of times a week.

    • Nick, the snatch is built on a foundation of the swing and get-up. Later, once you have met at least the “simple” goal, feel free to add snatches.

  • I have read and re-read and re-read “Kettlebell Simple & Sinister”. I LIKE IT! My question is this, can I use the Goblet Squat or Swing for a patient with advanced OA of the one hip? He walks with his leg in external (lateral) rotation and has very limited internal (medial) rotation. He is high functioning, very active and participates in Combat Hapkido (he says it just hurts, but he does it).

      • Ciao Pavel, pozdravleniya (Google translate). Clinicians usually do not ask such specific questions on an open forum. It is not fair. Thank you though for responding. However, I believe we can apply the “Hammer” analogy. The nail may be a particular impairment or deficiency. Implement the hammer (Kettlebell, or shoe/kettlebell get up) and reduce the impairment to achieve efficiency. If one can identify the shape, length, and type of nail (deficiency or impairment); then the correct tool (swing, get up, kettlebell dead lift) can be used.
        I have gained more insight with S&S, it has only added to The Naked Warrior, and Power To The People.

  • “All members of our species share the same anatomy and physiology.”
    This is gross overstatement of fact.
    I have been an athlete for 55 years. I have been in the Strength development business for more than forty years.
    My experience is that we are all quite different in our response to stress and our ability to adapt to it.
    Sometimes a tack hammer will work, other times a ball-peen hammer will work better and at other times a sledge hammer will be the better tool.
    Some are long distance runners some are discus throwers and others are sprinters,
    you will never make the short stocky shot putter into a long distance runner.

    • Mike, if you have the genetics to be a shot putter yet you have decided to become a distance runner, you will have to train like a distance runner.

      There are individual dose/response curves—but that just describes the “size of the hammer”.

      • So, do I throw out with last week’s newspapers Dan John’s “Never Let Go”, “Intervention”, and Pavel’s “Power to the People”, “The Russian Kettlebell Challenge”, “Enter the Kettlebell” and all the other books I have learned from in the past – or do I keep them to remind me of the silly training we used to do?
        I believe that there are many ways for many people to get to their many varied destinations – as teachers / coaches we should learn from every available source.
        So, I will keep my books and add to them as I continue to learn.
        Your teaching has been invaluable to me, I can not bring myself to abandon all but the latest.

        • Mike, my point is not to abandon these programs and others. All the books that you have listed offer effective generalized approaches. Different hammers. Pick one.

          • I was misreading “The only ‘customization’ you need is the size of the bell.” believing it to mean that those three exercises do not need to be changed (customized} only the weight used needs to be changed according to the individual.
            I appreciate your clarification.

  • ” I can run out of fingers on both hands listing the various health benefits of swings alone.” and if you included where you believe the “WTHE” transfers from the swing to ……the world would become a stronger place.

    Respectfully submitted


  • Pavel, if squats are an essential movement, how would you recommend you incorporate them into the workouts when doing this program (and not just in the warmup exercises)? I love this book by the way…what a remake of the program minimum!!! It has so much more information and fleshing out of ideas and the tension/breathing aspects are great and I wish I had them in this more elaborated form when I was working on the ETK book a few years ago! Any plans for a simular expansion or revamp of the Rite of Passage? Also how would one work on presses (want to press the 16kg more than just once each arm and long term goal a 20kg press) while keeping S&S as a “baseline” program without trashing your shoulders?

    Once again sir, thank you and Strongfirst for putting out such excellent no fluff material, much appreciated!

    • Tina, thank you for your kind words! (3×5)x7 adds up to 105 goblet squats a week, so you are already doing them.

  • Pavel, Dennis, that is not Mikela! I will bet somebody at SFG knows exactly who that lady is and where that pic was taken. I think the lady in the image looks quite healthy and athletic. Mikela has a more long and lanky build, and that location is not one we have ever used. I do like that Mikela has written me another long list of the things she has accomplished with my help and guidance. Maybe I’ll post that if she gives permission.

  • This was an incredible article. You hit the “nail” right on the head! I am a beginner with 16 life-changing days of progress into Kettlebell Training. It has me seeing life from a grand perspective. Last night I wrote a blog post featuring my StrongFirst SFG Level 1 Trainer, Matt Powell. I apologize if this is the incorrect forum to share this within, but it is an honest testimonial from a student on the ground floor. Thank you for everything StrongFirst team!!


    Scotty J.

  • Hi Pavel, the picture you have of Edna is 3 years old. Edna now deadlifts Volkswagens for fun. Actually Edna (Mikela) is my wife and truly is an amazing Pavel student focusing on form and function. She has been working with Erick Kenyon in Grass Valley, Ca. Since that picture was taken she has transformed herself from small nail to RAILROAD SPIKE. She can throw a 40lb. saddle up on a 17 hand horse and ride her thoroughbred over and endurance course. Oh, if the grandkids weigh 120lbs, she can deadlift em! Thanks Pavel, we have your DVDs and Erick keeps an eye on our form.
    Sincerely, Edna’s Husband, Dennis

    • Keith, not sure.

      Last year Mark Toomey and I made a video through 5.11, “Breacher Strong”, about the strength basics for breachers and other LE operators.

  • Amazing article and as a senior personal trainer age 64 with 2 rotator cuff repairs, I review your descriptions of swing, and get up from “Enter the Kettlebell regularly. Looking forward to attending SFG course in Modesto and then going for the certification. Is is ok if I share your post with my clients giving you full credit?

  • I’ve been training with kettlebells for a couple of years now;using only the original Russian Kettlebell Challenge book as my manual. Should these goblet squats be done only in the low(5 and under) rep range?

    • Graham, on S&S—yes. Otherwise, not necessarily. Dan John uses sets of 10 and even 30.

  • Simple and Sinister has made everything I do easier. This post and the program/book are exceptional tools for any human who wants to be strong, move well, and endure. Semper Fi!

  • Genius Pavel! I think this is one of your greatest posts (and I don’t say that lightly!)

    I concur with Noe’s response about Simple and Sinister as well. It is a brilliant and insightful book and has already been read and re-read many times in my household. A modern day classic.

    Keep blazing your trail!

  • Pavel – great article!

    And once again the reader finds himself staring into the window of the obvious. A few well picked basic exercises and frequent practice is the best battleplan for any special operator, be it military or law enforcement (and I guess for any housewife, too).

    Thanks for reminding us!

  • The high school track and field team I coach might as well be called the kettlebell team instead with all the time they spend over, under or behind the bells. Swing on!

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