Since the early part of this millennium, it seems reams of paper, hundreds of thousands of words, and millions of kilobytes have been dedicated to the kettlebell in the exercise industry literature. And while the tool’s elegant simplicity belies its brutal effectiveness, the true ‘secret sauce’ of the kettlebell’s efficacy is not its appearance, but the principles engaged when this cannonball-with-a-handle is used.
Basically, there are three methods to using kettlebells. The American or CrossFit (CF) style, the Girevoy Sport (GS) style, and then there is Hardstyle (HS). For me and my students, hardstyle is the only system used.
A word about each, in reverse order. . .
Hardstyle was originally the name used to denote the system of hand-to-hand combat taught and used by Russian military special operators (the ‘Spetsnaz’), and, as the lore goes, the Soviet military tasked the Soviet sport scientists with finding a way to use the cheaply-produced kettlebell to turn their average soldiers into superbly-strong fighting machines.
The Russian sport scientists searched various martial arts ideologies the world over to enhance the practice of kettlebell use and settled on Okinawan Goju Ryu, a system of karate that emphasizes proper breathing techniques and the duality of hard (“go”) and soft (“ju”) styles.
Hardstyle kettlebell training incorporates two distinct ideals within. The first is the principle of full-body tension. The second is the principle of maximum acceleration. Both embrace and insist on proper breathing methods and cadences.
I liken hardstyle training to sprint training. This is a form designed for short bursts of incredible intensity. Our focus here is power production.
Girevoy Sport is the older method of using kettlebells, and today is officially recognized as a sport in Russia and Eastern Europe. Today, the main competitive lifts in GS are the Snatch, Jerk, and Long Cycle. GS is performed over a specific period of time, most often ten minutes per set.
Because of the length of time spent in each set, it is both impractical and physiologically idiotic to demand maximum tension or explosiveness in the GS lifts and competitions. Instead, competitors employ a much more gentle and “flowing” style of lift than a HS practitioner. (Frankly, GS lifts are pretty to the eye.) The popularity of GS is increasing globally, and annually, meets are reporting greater numbers of entrants from outside the traditional markets of Europe and Russia.
Where hardstyle training can be generally framed as more of a martial skill, girevoy sport can rightfully be considered so much more of an apex athletic endeavor. Neither is ‘better,’ per se. Just different.
In sporting parlance, if HS is sprint training, GS is competitive long distance running. This is a form designed for long bouts of significant effort with an eye toward safety. Rather than power production, girevoy sport is focused on power conservation.
Making no bones about it, CrossFit style is an abomination. Where Hardstyle is about generating maximum force and stabilizing the midsection to generate that force, and where Girevoy sport is about finding the ideal niche to intelligently lift a heavy load repetitively for a long period of time, I can’t find a whole lot of positive to say about the CrossFit or American style of kettlebell lift.
Generally speaking, it ignores all the principles of bracing and honoring the frame of the human skeleton that HS does, and completely overlooks the safety elements of GS. When discussing the risks involved in the CF kettlebell swing, I often ask my students over the age of 40 to put the thumb of one hand into the palm of the other, make a fist around that thumb, and then to raise both with straight arms overhead. I have yet to perform this experiment without people reporting discomfort and/or pain in their shoulders. Yet, this is where the CF swing ends: overhead, hands close to one another, elbows locked out, only with one extra special ingredient added: increased load!
(While I could spend hours covering the many ways CrossFit has benefited the fitness industry, I could spend days discussing the terrible things CF has done to people, and by extension, the fitness industry. There’s a reason smart physical therapists open offices near CrossFit studios.)
When we get back to sporting analogies among the styles, this one is pretty easy. If hardstyle is sprinting, and girevoy sport is long distance running, CF kettlebell work is rollerskating across a busy freeway at midnight with a blindfold on.
While girevoy sport is taxing, hardstyle is incredibly difficult because of the demands placed on the entirety of the body. Learning to engage every muscle on every repetition is mentally draining. With hardstyle training, the concept that strength is a skill that requires constant and consistent practice is blaringly obvious. And of all the organs in the body, the biggest and best calorie burner is the one between our ears.
I train my students to treat their time in the gym as their preparation time, not their challenge time. Occasionally, we will push the limits and find where the boundaries are, however the overarching idea is that time in the studio is time spent preparing for real life. While GS is an incredibly challenging sport with benefits to spare, HS is a method designed for warriors. They want to spend as little time as possible preparing their bodies while still leaving enough in the tank to conquer the daily struggles of life. This is the same approach my students and I take together in their journey towards strength and improved health.
I’m a hardstyle kettlebell instructor. I honor the history and intent of the principles in which I’m trained. Come work with me and discover the same for yourself.