Russian Style Kettlebell Training: The Best Way to Get Fit for Almost Everybody
I’m constantly in search of the 20% of the work that will get me 80% of the results. So it’s no surprise that my fitness journey has taken me through every program, routine, and methodology on the planet in search of the most efficient and effective training methods.
I’ve completed dozens of training programs from modalities such as bodybuilding, CrossFit, field sports training, Powerlifting, and everything in between.
Many of these programs have gotten me quite fit, but always at the expense of some aspect of my overall fitness goals.
Bodybuilding helped me put on muscle but hurt my mobility, leading to shoulder pain that nags at me most upper body workouts.
CrossFit-style training from Gym Jones and Bobby Maximus was a boon for my endurance, but left me with a hip injury and constantly feeling sapped of energy.
Powerlifting style training (like Jim Wendler 5–3–1) helped increase my strength but hurt my cardiovascular fitness and has a high-risk factor for injury.
About 80% of people who train with weights train using one of the modalities that I just listed. That same 80 % all pretty much have the same goals: Build muscle, and lose fat. Or in other words, look good naked.
I’ll add one other goal that is rarely talked about, but I can guarantee is a high priority — look good naked, without getting injured. If you train hard in any of these modalities, and I mean hard enough to make any actual progress, getting injured is somewhat of an inevitability. The hard truth is, most people just aren’t going to take the time to get in a 1 to 1.5-hour weight or Crossfit workout and take 20 to 30 minutes for mobility work — much less dedicate an entire day to mobility. And without mobility work (and even with), the question of getting injured is when not if.
So then, if our goal is to look good naked without getting hurt, what are our options?
Cardio alone isn’t going to cut it. Running, biking and rowing are great calorie burners and cardiovascular endurance builders — and will help you lose weight if your diet is in check, but they won’t get you looking “lean.” You need to be able to put on at least some muscle to get a lean, athletic look (unless you have great genetics) which means applying progressive overload to the body.
Bodyweight exercises and bands can work, but the amount of volume and variety you need makes the process inefficient, in my opinion. You can 100% get very fit doing only bodyweight work, but be prepared to get into some very challenging positions and do very high volume work to make progress. Because there is no weight to manipulate (given your body weight is only going to get slightly lower or higher), in order to achieve progressive overload with bodyweight training, you have to increase the reps or manipulate you’re positioning to force the muscle to work harder. This means accumulating thousands of pushups and pullups (etc.), or moving to more complex moves like handstand pushups and pistol squats. Again, all of which are completely viable, but inefficient.
There’s only one training tool that I’ve found that truly delivers 80% of the results with 20% of the work: The almighty Kettlebell.
Why the Kettlebell Is the Best For Most
First popularized in Russia in the early 1900s, the Kettlebell has been around for over 300 years. Russian magazine, Hercules, mentioned Kettlebells as early as 1903 — “Not a single sport develops our muscular strength and bodies as well as kettlebell athletics.” Since then it has been a mainstay in Russian weightlifting and strength training protocol, a critical component in Russian Olympic weightlifting programs, Law enforcement, and tactical teams, and the Russian military .
Kettlebell training impacts every aspect of your athleticism, without the need for specific training. This phenomenon is what Russian strength coach and author, Pavel Tsatsouline, calls the “what the hell” effect. In 1983, Russian sports scientist, Voropayev, observed two groups of college students training for a PT test that consisted of pull-ups, a standing broad jump, and a 100-meter sprint. The control group followed a typical military-oriented university PT program while the experimental group just lifted kettlebells. The results? The kettlebell group scored better in every activity, despite no specific practice in the tested drills (wth?) . World record powerlifter Donnie Thompson saw the “what the hell effect” when he started using Kettlebells to prepare for meets. In just 9 months of kettlebell training, Thompson added 65lbs to his deadlift and 100lbs to his bench press. As of 2018, Thompson held the highest powerlifting total in history at 3000lbs .
The “what the hell” effect is the degree to which an exercise carries over to other physical activities. Take a low carry-over exercise like the leg press for example — if you do a lot of leg presses, a muscle isolation exercise on one plane of movement, you’re going to get really good at leg presses. On the other hand, if you do a lot of barbells back squats, a high carry-over exercise, you’ll get good at squats but you’ll also be able to jump higher and run faster. The key to selecting the best training protocol for most people is selecting the tool and the right exercises with the highest amount of carry-over to the broadest set of activities, with the least amount of risk for injury. For improving one's ability to do activities like walking, running, playing with your kids, doing yard work, playing sports, and hiking, nothing beats simple kettlebell training.
Pro bodybuilders and muscle heads have to do bodybuilding routines with a high variety of movements because that is the absolute best way to build muscle — at the expense of other things. That tradeoff is perfectly acceptable to a bodybuilder but rarely is to the average “I want to get fit” person. A bodybuilding program won’t carry over well to a lot of things that a lot of people do on a consistent basis. Kettlebells aren’t the absolute best tool for training for a specific goal, but they are the best for training a large crosssection of goals — perfect for 80% of trainees.
Kettlebells accomplish this by “working the muscles without killing them” . The combination of ballistics (Kettlebell swings, Snatches) and grinds (KB presses, KB Squats) done under the right style of program, provides just the right amount of acid (burn) to make an impact without making a dent. In order for the body to build muscle and get stronger, there needs to be a training stimulus and then recovery. Kettlebell training seems to strike the balance between burn and recovery better than any other method of training. The weight and design of the kettlebell make it hard to overdo it — try doing 50 hard kettlebell swings in a row with a 50lbs bell or a set of 10 double KB presses and you’ll see what I mean.
It’s important to note that the Kettlebell training I talk about in this article is not the version popularized by Crossfit boxes over the last decade. Kettlebells in Crossfit are typically used as cardio devices implemented into WODs (Workout of the Day). “Hard Style” Russian Kettlebell training has several key differences in form and function to the way KBs are utilized in Crossfit, which I won't review in this article. Most important is the overall approach to training between Russian and American modalities. The most popular training modalities in the US are too focused on the stimulus and not enough on the recovery — they’re obsessed with the burn. 90% of the classes at your local gym, P90X, Insanity, Orange Theory — they all have one goal: to make you feel like you got a good workout. Have you ever sat back and asked what a “good” workout actually is? If it’s working hard — that’s not challenging to accomplish. I used to regularly do a workout called ‘400-Meter Manslaughter’ — 5 dumbbell walking lunges followed by 5 dumbbell push presses with 2x35lbs for 400 meters. Do you want a “good” workout? This will do the trick — but have fun not feeling your shoulders or quads for a week. This was certainly a good workout if the goal is to work hard, then again so is walking 12 miles in bare feet — but will it give you what it is you actually want?
If your goals are broad and general: i.e. get stronger, build muscle, and lose fat and not just destroy your body, you need a new strategy.
Kettlebell training is it.
My Journey With Kettlebells
Kettlebells are the best training tool for general fitness out there. But anecdotal evidence and some research from a couple of books by Pavel are nothing without real first-hand experience.
My experience with Kettlebells started back in 2016. In the wake of a significant back injury, I started seeing a physical therapist (this will happen when you do heavy deadlifts after a weighted circuit). Several months went by and I was unable to make any significant progress. I didn’t want cortisol steroid injections and felt surgery was going way overboard — which meant scouring the internet for how to fix my injury myself. Luckily, I stumbled across the work of Dr. Andrew Lock, a chiropractor physical therapist who specializes in low back rehabilitation for athletes and powerlifters. Dr. Lock has several articles on Breaking Muscle on how he uses a hinge rehabilitation protocol to rebuild the musculature of the low back for strength athletes. Given I’d made no progress following the typical PT approaches, I created my own rehabilitation protocol based on his articles and several YouTube videos based on his work. After just a few weeks, leg and hip pain that use to plague everyday training sessions started to dissipate. Somehow, mild hip mobility and some light KB swings began to fix what thousands in physical therapy costs couldn’t. From then on, I implemented KB swings into almost every workout, which kicked me down a rabbit hole to learn more about the mysterious Kettlebell.
Logically, that rabbit hole leads to Pavel.
Pavel brought the Kettlebell to the U.S. in 1998, and since then has been spreading the gospel of Russian style strength training through Dragon Door, and now through his organization Strong First. I started Pavel’s marquee KB program, Simple and Sinister in 2019 — a deviously simple program of just two movements: Kettlebell Swings and Turkish getups. 10 sets of 10 One Arm KB swings (switch between right and left) followed by 5 Turkish getups on each arm, repeated 5 times per week.
This program was so wildly simple I was very skeptical. Two movements repeated every day? Where were the auxiliary exercises? The squats, deadlifts, and bicep curls? Nevertheless, I stuck with it. After six months of S&S (Simple & Sinister), I went from a 35lbs bell to a 70lbs bell for the swings and the getups for the entire workout following Pavel’s protocol (the “Simple” standard).
After S&S I went back to my more regular training. This is where I discovered the “what the hell” effect first-hand — my pullup strength, bench press, squat, dips (weird one), and deadlift all went up in weight and felt significantly better. So what did I do? What most people do when they start making progress but get bored — I stopped KB training altogether, except for some sets of KB swings here and there. Within a month, aches and pains started to resurface and I went back to the drawing board.
Right about the same time, the pandemic hit and left me without a gym. I was discouraged, but given my experience with S&S, I decided to go all-in on Kettlebells.
Between March and September of 2020, I trained entirely with Kettlebells. I started with Pavel’s first KB program, Enter The Kettlebell, and from there moved through some more complex programs and circuits like Kettlebell Tension Complex, Return of the Kettlebell, and a few others. In that time I got leaner and had better mobility and less pain than any other training period in my training history — but also had no injuries and generally felt better. The magic for me was doing training that left my body feeling strong and energized for the day, rather than training that left me physically and mentally exhausted. I felt stronger and more able to play with my kids, run, play sports, go hiking, while also feeling and looking generally lean. In addition, every program I did was remarkably simple. One to four kettlebell movements, repeated every day or every other day. That’s it — a true 20% for 80% way of training.
Do I look like a fitness competitor or a bodybuilder? No.
Is my physique perfect? No.
Did I win a marathon? No.
Did I break a World Record? No.
But, I achieved a high level of general fitness and aesthetics without getting hurt, using extremely simple, inexpensive (or free) programs and protocols, in my garage.
The fitness industry and Instagram influencer culture tell people they should “do this program to look like this.” The problem is, it’s a lie. 99% of fitness influencers have both amazing genetics and are using expensive substances to look the way that they do. They’re also focused on mass or aesthetics at the expense of everything else. The best way to get fit for most people aren’t programs that a genetic freak on TREN or HGH uses to create as much mass as possible, it’s programs with high sustainability, using simple tools, that have high transferability. I discovered Kettlebells do this better than anything else.
If you’ve made it this far in the article, and you’re convinced to go out and buy some kettlebells and follow my advice, how should you start?
I have nothing to sell you. And like I said before, I’m not a trainer or a fitness influencer. I’m writing this article because I couldn’t find any blog posts like this when I was researching and looking for evidence on Kettlebells. As shown in my notes below — there is really only one source for “hard-style” Kettlebell training advice out there — and it’s Pavel Tsatsouline. Fortunately, there are a lot of articles, YouTube videos, and other supplemental material that helped me immensely to learn and implement Kettlebell training.
Here’s the process to get started that I recommend:
- Buy some kettlebells. Doesn’t matter from where. Kettlebell Kings, Rogue Fitness, and Onnit all sell KBs, but you may be able to find them cheaper through Amazon, at Walmart, or on your local classified pages/website. I recommend buying one each of 15 lbs, 25lbs, 35lbs, and 50lbs. You can buy in smaller increments if you wish but it will mean higher costs.
- Buy the $6.00 Kindle Reader version of Kettlebell Simple and Sinister from Amazon and read it. You can download the Kindle Reader app on any phone. It’s short and packed with insights and your starter program.
- Watch YouTube videos of the basic KB movements several times. Bookmark the videos for KB Turkish Get Ups and KB Swings and watch them a couple of times before performing both movements. Mark Wildman on YouTube has great KB content and has multiple instructional videos on the basic KB movements. (One Arm KB Swing (He calls this the ‘hand-to-hand’ kb swing, but the same principles apply to the one-arm swing). KB Turkish Get Ups.) I also like this video from StrongFirst talking about overall swing technique.
- Follow the S&S Program to the letter for at least 4 to 6 months or ideally until you reach the “Simple” standard. This is where most of you will probably fall off. Sticking to a single program comprised of just 2 movements is going to be mentally challenging. It will get boring and you will ignore it because of its simplicity. But if you stick to it, I promise you it will change your fitness completely.
- Once you’ve reached “Simple” move on to Enter The Kettlebell, and then other programs from there. This article from famed strength coach and fitness author Dan John provides an amazing framework for KB training that will take you all the way from starter to advanced (In fact you could just stop reading this and go read that article and you would be in great shape.)
You can’t talk about fitness without at least briefly mentioning diet. Dieting is a complex topic and everyone has an opinion. The problem with dieting opinion is that they are all mostly extreme and unsustainable. I say ‘diet opinion’ because diet programs and books are not set-in-stone pathways of getting healthy and lean — they are informed (sometimes) opinions on an extreme way to eat that will help you reach a caloric deficit (or if your goal is to build muscle, a caloric surplus). The best “diet” for almost everyone is to forget dieting and find a healthy sustainable way for you to live. Here are some principles that I follow that might be helpful to you: **Note that just because these principles work for me, doesn’t mean they will work for you — a healthy and sustained eating lifestyle is unique to each person.
- Eat protein at every meal. If you want more muscle to eat more protein. Use protein shake and protein bars because they’re convenient.
- Find and make 5 to 7 recipes that you genuinely enjoy from YouTube or from cookbooks that are healthy (low calorie, high density) and high in protein.
- Count calories and macros (Lose It! is a good app for that) a few times to figure out what a normal day of eating looks like for you (I don’t recommend continuing this practice past a few times per the next two principles). Just do this for a couple of weeks so you can get an idea of how much protein/calories/macros are in the foods you eat.
- Don’t worry about macros — just focus on a protein target and maybe a calorie target (be careful with calorie targets though).
- Don’t become obsessed with food — indulge cravings by getting the thing you want and eating some of it. Don’t eat from the bag or from the box. Put it on a plate or in a bowl and eat till you’re satisfied. Diets and restriction lead to obsession, which leads to binging.
The Best Way To Train
Last March, when almost everyone went out and bought Peletons and treadmills, I bought a few pieces of iron. I didn’t know then that I would uncover an entirely new world of training that has changed my perspective on fitness forever.
I started training with Kettlebells because I ran out of options.
Hopefully, by reading this article you won’t have to.
- Kettlebell Simple & Sinister Revised & Updated Edition, Pavel Tsatsouline, 2012, location.30 (Kindle Reader)
- Enter The Kettlebell: Strength Secret of The Soviet Supermen, Pavel Tsatsouline, 2006, location.249 (Kindle Reader)
- Pavel Tsatsouline: Return Of The Kettlebell Master, Nick Collias, https://www.bodybuilding.com/fun/pavel-tsatsouline-return-of-the-kettlebell-master.html
- Joe Rogan Episode #1399: Pavel Tsatsuline, https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=PWESVqOwMHw&t=1s&ab_channel=JREClips