Maxwell Strength & Conditioning Blog

Enjoy a peek at the world through Steve's eyes as he delivers sermons on everything from training to peace of mind.


Monday, August 22, 2011

The Curious Case of Girya Sport

Photo: Daniel Ray Gutierrez

Long ago, I recognized the kettlebell as a phenomenal training tool. Like me, they are simple but incredibly versatile, and I've since used kettlebells to successfully train not only myself but a wide variety of world-class and would-be athletes. It's true that I enjoy kettlebell training, but it's important that people understand what kettlebells can--and cannot--do.

I'll start by tracing a history of kettlebells in the U.S.
Kettlebells were used by the mighty men of old and many photos still exist from the early 20th century. Up until the introduction of the plate-loading barbell, traditional barbells, dumbbells and kettlebells (which were referred to as “ring weights”) were fixed weights. The plate-loading barbell revolutionized training, as incremental weight increases could be made, and the old, fixed-weight kettlebells fell into disfavor and obscurity.

Note: While kettlebells became virtually extinct in the U.S., they remained in use in Russia.

The Saxon Brothers

Now when it comes to exercise, North Americans appreciate novelty and change of all sorts and throughout my career, I've seen the fads come and go. I've witnessed the vibration belt machines; stationary bikes; the running revolution; the explosion of exercise machinery; the acceptance of strength training for athletes; the birth of powerlifting; aerobic dance; step aerobics; power yoga and the reintroduction of the kettlebell. Now it's Zumba :-)

My point is, these things come in waves and each system promises amazing physical results. The financially motivated promoters write inflated copy so that whatever the merit of product in question, it can never deliver on the hype surrounding it. This is because in order to get the most people to buy something, you've got to over-sell it. It's also true that people seem to want to be “sold” on something...and expect it. I have fallen prey to it many times; liking novelty, I'm not immune to hype--but it's important to understand the mechanism.

This is my story of the kettlebell
At the time, the training routine I was on wasn't fulfilling my needs and I was looking for something different. I chanced upon an article on kettlebells in Milo magazine and became intrigued. I couldn't find a kettlebell anywhere so I commissioned one of my students, a genius at metal work, to fashion me a set of stainless steel bells, based on my description over the telephone. The day he delivered them, in the back of a pick-up truck outside of my gym, I was like a little kid in my excitement. A year later I met Pavel and John DuCane at The Arnold and we discussed the potential for a kettlebell certification. In the meantime, I kept experimenting and training with my homemade kettlebells, coming up with different functional exercises and novel uses...and this was the inception of the RKC.

While Pavel showed me many kettlebell techniques and filled in the gaps of what I'd been learning about kettlebells, I showed him an equal number of movements and concepts from my perspective, which was based on the breadth of my own training and extensive library of vintage and antique training books. It was a great time of creativity but I later felt discomfort when the marketing took precedence. The ludicrous claims, and faked biographies all in an effort to sell more kettlebells and engage more people (and their wallets). There was a conflict: I loved the limelight cast upon me; I enjoyed the crowds of appreciative seekers...but there was something underlying it all that began to trouble me, especially as I gained mastery of the kettlebell and became keenly aware of its strengths and lacks. They're good, but hey, they aren't that good! I'd maintained great physical condition before ever discovering kettlebells and I wouldn't lose an iota of it if they were to disappear from Earth tomorrow. What I see in my travels (and all over the Internet) are people using kettlebells like a do-it-all Leatherman tool when other tools are more appropriate to the task. For example, by judiciously incorporating certain body weight exercises, one can fill in the gaps in a kettlebell protocol...and this was the inception of Maxwell S&C.

A Primer in Kettlebell Bunkum
In case you didn't know, there's no vertical pulling with kettlebells. Kettlebells all but exclusively emphasize overhead pressing, which creates a huge imbalance in the upper-shoulder girdle and increased potential for overuse injuries. Anyone who understands anything about human motion knows movement of one kind must be balanced with its opposite. Yet in order to sell more kettlebells, this inconvenient fact is disregarded. One unfortunate example: my own DVD workout, 300 Kettlebell Challenge. It was my intention to include a max set of pull-ups before commencing the rest of the (kettlebell) workout but he producer vetoed this, since he wanted a “kettlebell-only” workout. For what? Certainly not in the best interest of the customer's fitness, but for the “image” of kettlebells as an everything-in-one training tool. I regret that I compromised on this point and I wouldn't do it today.

Another fantastical claim made by the kettlebell promotors is that kettlebells somehow evaporate body fat without dietary attentions. But this one is too easy: you only have to glimpse the many fat kettlebell personalities out there to know it can't be true. Body leanness for most of us requires attention to diet. The notion that kettlebells provide an adequate metabolic boost to achieve leanness from fatness is simply a lie.

Back to movement, there's no adequate horizontal pushing motion using kettlebells, which leaves the chest muscles neglected. There's the KB floor press, but I call shenanigans as it was invented solely to promote kettlebells and make claims for their versatility. It's a grossly inadequate movement for the job; there are many better ways to engage the chest musculature. Push-ups and dips, anyone? This is the paradigm of using the kettlebell like a Leatherman tool, i.e. pounding a nail with a screwdriver, i.e., you can do it, but it's dumb.

For the popular masses I refer to as the disenfranchised exercisers -- people who see fitness as a way of improving themselves--the RKC et al provided a sense of identity and belonging. People (including me) believed the advertising--that something could be a silver bullet..and a small, gullible part of me still wishes it had been true.

The kettlebell movement quickly turned cultish. A cultist trains outside of conventional mores under the direction of a charismatic leader--but I'm not knocking unconventionality! I'm as big a kook as they come. The problem I saw--and see--is that the unknowing person may accept the tenets and precepts of the group and if this is exploited for personal profit, it can grow into something ugly.

Someone pointed out to me that as kettlebell training grows more sectarian, in order to maintain status, participants must accordingly perform key exercises at a set level...and this was the inception of girya sport (GS) as the standard in kettlebell fitness.

GS has always been around as an obscure activity (not even popular in Russia, not even listed in Wikipedia) but only recently has it been touted as a worthwhile pursuit for generalists.

Here's the thing: GS is a competitive sport wherein lifting kettlebells is an end unto itself, that is, lifting for lifting's sake. I've always used kettlebells as an implement to indirectly improve my performance (or a client's performance) in an independent sport, (or if there is no sport, as a way to improve levels of general fitness.)

Let it be on the record I have no grievance with the sport of kettlebell lifting...if that is indeed your dream. My problem is with the preponderance of claims that the only “correct” way to lift a kettlebell is according to GS protocol. In this case, GS is BS. The idea that practicing sport kettlebell lifts will improve non-GS-related physical activities goes against the principles of specifity of exercise and ye, physics itself. Practicing a chosen activity will not improve you for another activity, e.g., cycling won't improve your running, nor running improve your swimming...etc. Increases in muscular strength and endurance will support any sport activity, yet GS is by no means the best activity to make general strength and conditioning gains. There is a lot of rubbish talk about GS and the phenomenal work capacity of its athletes--and there is no doubt these guys and girls excel in the genre--but they've developed specificity to optimize their actions in kettlebell-specific movements. That is, they can heft the kettlebell up for more reps than another competitor--but how does this activity transfer to general fitness? Sub-optimally.

In any competitive sports endeavor, when skill is of an equal nature, the stronger, more conditioned player will always prevail. Often, brute strength can in fact overcome a higher skill level. And the best way to build brute strength is with non-specific exercises. As competition time approaches, these general exercises are effectively combined to address different energy systems. You see, it's not that you need different exercises, but you need to address different systems...and each sports activity has its own specialized protocol based on energy systems. Thus the exercises with which I'd train an MMA fighter are quite different from those I'd assign a rugby player. This is something GS doesn't address; it works only one energy system...and this is the inception of the following sentence: The idea promoted by GS enthusiasts, that performing GS lifts will improve everyone across-the-board, is ludicrous.

I get thisclose to naming names
Here's a good example: I am friendly with a kettlebell personality who is absolutely smitten with GS training and protocols. He loves training with kettlebells and has attained a respectable level of performance. He adheres to the concept that GS training improves work capacity and thus his ability to do anything else. Well, first, he's overly fat/borderline obese in spite of lifting kettlebells for many years. So there's that. Second, I asked him if his running times are improving and his answer is telling: I never run and so it hasn't improved.

And this is my point: if GS activities are everything they're said to be, then he should be getting faster -- but he isn't! Which revisits the principle that you'll only make gains in what you train, i.e., if your goal is to be good at running, then you've got to run, son.

Another case in point: a well-known GS champion who is genuinely a phenomenon at kettlebell-related activities. The f*cking guy is amazing and I hold utmost respect for his skills. Yet he claims there's only one “proper” way to perform the swing and it comes down to his way or the highway. I agree that to achieve greatness at the sport of kettlebell lifting, this statement is correct. But I avow this guy knows nothing of training athletes outside his own chosen sport and anyone using his techniques outside this sport would in fact achieve only mediocre results. Interestingly, the Russian mystique in regard to sport has without judgment been accepted in the west and Russian training methods are uncritically acknowledged as superior. Yet the last time I checked, the U.S. and China were leading the world's medal count in the Olympics and no one's yammering about Chinese training methods. Maybe it's the next big thing? Maybe I need to visit China...

My point is that no single culture or country has a lock on effective training; each country (like each athlete) excels at what they're interested in.

Here's the finisher
While GS may be a commendable sport, it must be recognized as a distinct sport.

The way a kettlebell is used in training for this sport is to improve performance in this sport. This means certain skills are honed in training, one of which is endurance utilizing a specific energy system.

As for there existing a single correct way to lift a kettlebell, you may notice that many GS champions use completely different styles from each other, as far as grips, body postures, etc. With one common thread: every lifter is conditioned to exert as little energy as possible. And the techniques used to attain this level of efficiency are not the best way to train for other sports and activities.

v silu i zdorov'e!


In Other News:

A Recent and Brief Interview with Extreme Fitness Brighton
Click here to check it out

Just dropped is a 3-DVD set of my seminar with Jim “Smitty” Smith:

Advanced Strength & Mobility for Athletes
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This is an entire seminar captured on video. I am very proud of the information shared in this seminar and if you want to experience a seminal event without getting on a plane to Iceland, this is your gift to yourself.

Topics covered:

     Joint Mobility
     Key Body Weight Exercises
     Kettlebell Swing Variations
     Bench Press

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