The following is my attempt to give the reader an overview of the different styles of kettlebell training and pointing out the differences and also where they cross over.
As a coach I like to beg, steal and borrow what I see as the best techniques in each school of thought and apply to the individuals to get optimum results. At White Dog Studio we don’t like to fit square pegs into round holes. Everyone is different, moves different, has individual likes/dislikes, strengths and weaknesses. With this in mind, I can see all benefits of many different styles of kettlebell use and we try to employ a varied program with lots of options.
Origins of Kettlebells
Kettlebells have been getting people strong for a long time throughout Russia and the former Soviet Union. Introduced to the West in the late 1990s by Valery Federenko (Girevoy Sport) and Pavel Tsatsouline (Hardstyle). Although there is much contention who was the “first” to the post, it’s irrelevant to me as a coach.
Girevoy Sport Style
Valery Fedorenko is the grand-daddy head honcho of the World Kettlebell Club. He’s a beast no doubt and coaches some amazing athletes. However, there are other kettlebell sport associations, such as Steve Cotter’s International Kettlebell & Fitness Federation and many others outside of the U.S. Great video on technique from him here:
Sport style of kettlebell is all about endurance. Power efficiency over a long period of time. We’re talking long cycles over ten minutes long and the participant is is given the bullet if they put the kettlebell down. Conserving energy is paramount in the movements so the lifter can be efficient over time. CrossFit competitors take note, there is plenty to learn from these guys.
Everything is one handed (i.e. there are no two-handed swings).and generally the thumb locks the index finger onto the kettlebell, like an O-Lift hook grip), hence grip strength does not consume energy.
Another big difference is breathing. Breaths are taken efficiently and they flow with the movement. There is no pressurized breathing that is a critical concept to hardstyle.
Hardstyle Kettlebell Practice.
Enter the Kettlebell… Pavel Tsatsouline, who used this style to train Soviet and American special forces and like pictures of Putin, riding bareback on a stallion with an AK47, conjures up images of badassery and "bring the pain". Pavel's style can be summarized by high intensity and few repetitions and he's got some amazing people in his camp, Dan John, Geoff Newport, Andy Bolton and the original Beast Tamer Shaun Cairns. Power optimization is the key rather than power conservation and here is the major difference to Giveroy sport. Each rep should look just as powerful no matter if it is 12kg or 48kg.
With many martial arts connotations and references (and some unfortunate parallels with masochist, male dominated beliefs) hardstyle focuses on a balance between high tension and relaxation. In a kettlebell swing there is an explosive hip snap and then relaxation as the kettlebell floats. It is a ballistic exercise as the kettlebell is launched with an explosive movement and then is guided into position (as opposed to a grind where tension is applied throughout the movement like the Deadlift or the flow of long cycle endurance of Kettlebell Sport. Video from Pavel here:
This style has historically taken components from the martial arts, and it relies on being able to switch quickly from being tight to being loose. I can certainly relate with a strong Wing Chun background and both hard and soft energy's have their uses and their weaknesses when used wrong. Hardstyle is what Bruce Lee would have used.
Differences between the styles
Breathing is one big difference between Hardstyle and Girevoy. In hardstyle, the breath is used to bring more power to the movement, drive power and efficiency and ultimately one couple argue results. the abs are braced (think a punch about to land in your guts, brace!) with air and the air is released in small amounts as the movement is conducted (almost as little grunts). This style of breathing is different than what is done in endurance or power efficiency movements where the athlete is trying to use diaphragmatic breathing to keep the heart rate low. For example, someone doing an endurance event would use long, deep breaths to slow the heart rate.
Pavel’s style tends to be about being very strong for short durations of time. This type of training fits with what he has done for military and police units as most likely they need explosive strength rather than longer term efficiency in movements.
Much of CrossFit’s use of the kettlebell comes from Hardstyle (Jeff Martone who leads CrossFit’s specialty training on kettlebells was one of Pavel’s first students). However, there have been some major modifications of the lifts that have been quite controversial. One controversy is that the two-handed swing goes overhead rather than to shoulder height. As Andrew Read elegantly pointed out, there are many problems with mobility and the safety of this “American swing” movement. I have heard it compared to adding a shrug after a deadlift is completed. We can certainly add more movement to the lift, but why?
Another modification by CrossFit is the snatch. In Hardstyle and Girevoy Sport style, the kettlebell is not placed on the ground during the snatch until the competitor is done. Many CrossFit style competitions require the CrossFitter to set the kettlebell down on the ground between each rep (similar to the Olympic weightlifting snatch). The kettlebell snatch should have more of a hip hinge, but setting it on the ground can lead to a more vertical motion (I have seen it described as a starting-a-lawn-mower in a straight up and down motion). This vertical movement might be more taxing (i.e., dangerous) on the shoulder. I have not seen as much discussion of this issue. However, watching competitors do this movement leads me to believe that much more discussion of kettlebell snatch technique could be used by the CrossFit community.
Both the Girevoy and Hardstyle movements are probably relatively safe to perform and there are intensive certifications and courses for learning the movements. Some have questioned the safety of the CrossFit American-style swing based on the mobility requirement of getting the arms overhead (at the top position, the hands are close together, which causes internal rotation of the shoulder joints and might lead to shoulder impingement in those lacking the required mobility). Thus, from an anatomical discussion there might be safety issues with the CrossFit swing. However, there has not been a definitive research study showing this safety issue (and there might never be one).
What gets your fitter?
The Hardstyle and Girevoy Sport styles both promote fitness in different ways. To simplify the difference, Hardstyle promotes explosive, intense, and short duration exercises, while Girevoy Sport promotes power endurance movements that are efficient. An analogy might be a 100-meter sprinter and an 800-meter runner. Each runner will utilize strength, explosiveness, and muscle efficiency, but in different ways.
But you don't need to worry about all of this - that's what Dan's job is :-) Expect to see a range of different styles in our upcoming HIT classes - with an emphasis on the right balance between pushing yourself to better fitness and good technique/safety.