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 sports 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:
Sports style kettlebell training 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 given the bullet if they put the kettlebell down. Conserving energy is paramount in the movements so the lifter can be more efficient over time. CrossFit competitors take note, there is plenty to learn from these guys.
Everything is one-handed 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 used this style to train Soviet and American special forces. And, like pictures of Putin, riding bareback on a stallion with an AK47, he conjures up images of badassery. Pavel’s style can be summarized by high intensity and few repetitions. 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, 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. It is then 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. 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 energies 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. The abs are braced with air released in small amounts as the movement is conducted. This style of breathing is different than what is done in endurance or power efficiency movements. There, the athlete is trying to use diaphragmatic breathing to keep the heart rate low. 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 they need explosive strength rather than longer-term efficiency.
Much of CrossFit’s kettlebell training style 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 to 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. We can certainly add more movement to the lift, but why?
Another modification by CrossFit is the snatch.
In Hardstyle and Girevoy Sports 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. 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 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 both have intensive certifications and courses for learning the movements. Some have questioned the safety of the CrossFitswing 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. This might lead to shoulder impingement in those lacking the required mobility. So, 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 Sports 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.
Expect to see a range of different styles in our Bar+Bell classes. With an emphasis on the right balance between fitness and good technique.