The Science and Bullshit of Lifting (III): Kettlebells

A simple piece of metal the shape of a cannonball with a handle can take care of all your physical activity needs, build your cardiovascular fitness, maintain your strength, and even relieve your stress. But can it turn you into a ‘Soviet Superman’?

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The main issue with kettlebells as a training tool is that kettlebell bullshit (in the technical sense) actually makes the learning curve harder to negotiate for self-learners. Which may be good for my business, but not for yours. And that’s how a plea for kettlebells morphed into part III of the Science and Bullshit of Lifting (see here and here for Part I and Part II)

Worse, there is no shortage of science-based bullshit sometimes to the point of distorting the actual science past the point of recognition. And so, this post includes unusually long and technical fine-prints asides, because the only way to clear out a path through kettlebell bullshit is to science the shit out of it.

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Now, I’ve stated the historical undeniable facts in the previous section, and for the purpose of a discussion of ‘styles’ they can be summed up in one sentence: GS [Girevoy Sport] became a competitive sport in the 1980s in U.S.S.R. (and internationalized in the 2000s) after kettlebells had been used mostly as a training tool for military personnel.

Now for the alternative facts: GS is only the surface, the kettlebell is the strength secret of the Soviet supermen, and there is a ‘secret style’ that was taught only to elite military units, and it remained hidden to Westerners to keep an edge in the Cold War in case of conventional confrontation.

A former Soviet Superteen(without permission, fair use)

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So, what’s that ‘hardstyle’ thing, exactly?

Well, to keep things simple, you’d lift ‘hardstyle’ if you’d: (1) use high-tension techniques, including the Valsava Maneuver (as part of ‘abdominal brace’) in the same fashion as powerlifters and weightlifters; and in particular: (2) exhale on effort, the ‘biomechanical breathing match’ in the certification standards linked above (which sounds sciency, but is made up, and probably bullshit, see the fine prints below). […]


The ‘biomechanical breathing match’. HS standards (and especially StrongFirst®) make a big deal of ‘biomechanical breathing match’: inhaling before effort, building up intra-abdominal pressure (IAP) during the effort, and letting go after the effort. While IAP is a topic of study in biomechanics, “biomechanical breathing match’ is not a term of art (as a search on Google Scholar will convince you; try also “bio-mechanical breathing match” just for fun).

The ‘Law of Irradiation’. HS insistence on high tension techniques comes from what Pavel Tsatsouline calls “Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation” or ”muscle cheering’ in Power to the People (p. 34, quoted in the article linked). […] Had there indeed been a ‘Law of Irradiation’, it would have been either invalidated or severely restricted. But fortunately for his legacy, Charles Sherrington (1857-1952) never formulated any ‘Law of Irradiation’. Sherrington’s Laws (there are two of them) do not describe irradiation. […] So ‘Sherrington’s Law of Irradiation’ is probably the result of a big mess in Tsatsouline’s memory circa 2001, when double-checking Google was not a common practice.

Summing up, the Soviet-science, super-hush-hush secret of military ‘hardstyle’ is abdominal bracing when lifting heavy stuff for low rep. When the heavy stuff is a kettlebell. Plus some iffy pseudoscience straight out of Tsatsouline jumbled-up brain attic (Sherlock Holmes joke: check).

With secrets like that, no wonder that Soviet Supermen lost the Cold War.

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Unlike Tsatsouline, Valery Fedorenko has a verifiable pedigree in kettlebell lifting in a ‘style’ that is not made up. Unlike Tsatsouline, Fedorenko could not easily capitalize on a tongue-in-the-cheek persona. ‘Evil Russian‘ sounds good, but ‘Evil Kyrgyz’ sounds like bait for travel ban.

Anyway, Fedorenko did not meet the same success as Tsatsouline, and that soon became an issue for him, because when he eventually managed to get some fitness media coverage for his World Kettlebell Club (WKC®, founded in 2006) he was forced to spend way too much time answering questions about the relation of GS to HS and CrossFit®.

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Now, if the drama was just bad press, it would be bad enough. But there may be worse: the WKC® war of position against RKC® (and StrongFirst®) may eventually claim GS lifters for collateral damage. Why so? Because of how the WKC® adapted the Russian Ranking system.

[T]o lift 40 kg which in essence is closer to competitive weight- and powerlifting (…) render[s] athletes prone to muscle-skeletal injuries as well as increased blood pressure typical of lifting heavier weights.

Igor Morozov

As Morozov’s analysis for the RGSI pinpoints, the highest ranks in WKC® for guys can only be achieved with 40 kg kettlebells (the irony will be lost to no one [who has read the full post]). Moving 2x40kg is moving 25% more weight than 2x32kg and shifts the emphasis away from power-endurance and more towards higher strength. Let’s put this in terms of relative strength to give you some perspective. Most federations only have only one weight class where guys put their bodyweight or more over their weight (-63/64kg), but there would be up to four of them if the WKC® system were adopted (for instance, in the GSU where I compete: -63, -68, -73, and -78). In the light of that, I let you appreciate Morozov’s ominous conclusion.

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 I asked one of my friends, an engineer with a background in biomechanics, to give me a rough estimate of the compressive forces on my spine if I were to rack [Hardstyle and GS style]:



Now, like I said, the calculations are very, very crude, and for compressive forces on the L5 vertebra alone. In particular, they do not account for the contribution of the mandatory HS/StrongFirst® IAP in rack position (1). But that’s not an issue, because IAP increases the compressive forces, the calculated compressive forces on my spine are already 22% greater in the HS than in the GS position, and I do not maintain any IAP in the GS position.

After I’d flashed the two pictures a couple of times, the concerned conversation in my club died out. We had scienced the shit out of it.

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Science and evidence don’t give a rat’s ass about personal preferences. Like Aristotle said: “Between my friends and the truth, I prefer the truth.” And the truth is that Tsatsouline and Fedorenko almost blew my Bullshit-o-Meter up, requiring no less than 30 occurrences of the b-word, all of them deserved.



I still like Tsatsouline, at least for entertainment purposes. I still have nothing against Fedorenko, but I wouldn’t necessarily trust him with my training. And if anything, I get his frustration even better now.

So what to make of it all?

Well, if you ask me…

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See you in the Starting Girevoy series.


[*] This is a theoretical maximal under the assumption that each word carries marginal information. The actual information content may, in fact, be lower.

[1]McGill S.M &, Marshall L.W., Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads, Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research. 2012, 26 (1):16-27, doi: 10.1519/JSC.0b013e31823a4063.

[2] I’d link to the program, but the website is a mess. Furthermore, I read that program while browsing resources for the RGSI Level 1 Certification, and I suspect that I was not supposed to see it in the first place, and that it it may have been taken down since my last visit.

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