If you want results from kettlebells, it’s a two-way choice, Hardstyle kettlebell training or Kettlebell Sport (often called Girevoy Sport).
Kettlebells are everywhere. Gyms, fitness centres, health clubs, homes and garages. And they even feature in mainstream health and fitness marketing.
And why not? The kettlebell is a phenomenal training tool that can transform your fitness. It can singlehandedly deliver all the workout your health will ever need. And in a conveniently short amount of time.
But don’t be fooled by the kettlebell’s evolution into a free-for-all exercise accessory. The kettlebell isn’t a fitness Swiss Army knife. If you want real results for your hard work, it’s a two-way choice. A choice between two proven methods of kettlebell training. Hardstyle kettlebell training and kettlebell sport (often called Girevoy Sport).
How did kettlebells become so popular?
The 21st-century kettlebell tsunami swept in from Russia. Two separate waves each with a charismatic Russian figurehead.
Pavel Tsatsouline is credited with introduced hardstyle kettlebell training to the west in the late ’90s. In 2001 he published the iconic book “The Russian Kettlebell Challenge”. And in 2012 Pavel founded StrongFirst and set the bar for hardstyle instructor certification.
Valery Fedorenko, Girevoy sport’s first World Champion moved to the USA in 1999. In 2006 he founded the World Kettlebell Club. The WKC was central to Girvoy Sport’s adoption and growth in the USA and globally. Valery is still the WKC head coach today.
Two proven kettlebell training methods – Hardstyle and Girevoy Sport
Hardstyle and Girevoy Sport are tried and tested kettlebell training styles. Their effectiveness is proven by thousands of devotees. And to the untrained eye, they can be difficult to tell apart. Yet they’re distinct styles of training with radically different objectives.
But both styles require a commitment to mastering their technical skills to reap the full benefits from training. And that makes them less accessible, keeping them on the fringes of fitness culture. Together they paved the way for today’s kettlebell revolution. Then they stepped aside as mainstream fitness ran with it – sometimes literally!
Crossfit Kettlebell WODs
Crossfit embraced the kettlebell fairly early on in its evolution. It imported and diluted hardstyle kettlebell methods to suit Crossfit WODs and competitions. And, the global reach of Crossfit boosted the kettlebell’s adoption by the mainstream in the ‘10s.
The adoption of the Kettlebell by mainstream fitness – a double-edged sword
And the rise of the kettlebell has been spectacular. From a curiosity of grainy old-time strongman photos to shorthand for fitness in under 20 years. Kettlebells are mainstream. Today no gym, health spa or health insurance advert is complete without a cameo from a kettlebell.
But, the kettlebell’s newfound celebrity is a double-edged sword. Its conspicuous use as a fitness marketing prop has introduced this esoteric tool to huge numbers of people. But there’s a reason most kettlebells are gathering dust in homes and gyms across the country.
Most would-be kettlebell trainees get of to a bad start
The kettlebell’s rising popularity caught the attention of fitness franchises and personal trainers. Entertainment is a big part of mainstream fitness – and the kettlebell offered novel workout opportunities. Combine “kettle” with any random fitness adjective and an exercise class is born. And today, no PT session is complete without throwing in a random kettlebell move or two.
Keep the reps high and the weights low and even an inexperienced trainer can get a client or class hot and sweaty. And crucially they can do it without hurting anyone. The skills, so important to kettlebell training safety and effectiveness, don’t matter when the weights are light. And neither does the choice of exercise. But the training results and health benefits are second-rate. The franchises and personal trainers pushing whimsical kettlebell moves are short-changing their clients.
The benefits of kettlebell training come from expert coaching and consistent practice
Kettlebell training, Hardstyle or Girevoy Sport, is a skill that takes practice. A kettlebell is a heavy lump of metal. And the mechanics of bread and butter kettlebell exercises are deceptively simple. Sometimes even counterintuitive and difficult to grasp.
Learning to use a kettlebell without proper coaching is tricky and sometimes hazardous. Even with a good teacher, the skills take time to learn and even longer to master. I’ve been swinging kettlebells hardstyle for 15 years and I’m still chasing perfection.
But you don’t need to be a master Girevik(Russian for kettlebell athlete) to enjoy kettlebell training. But without good foundations, your kettlebell training won’t deliver the full health benefits. At best, you’ll achieve mediocre results and eventually give up disappointed. At worst, you could injure yourself.
Smart kettlebell trainees stick so the lifts that matter
The good news is the kettlebell’s benefits come from a limited number of exercises that exploit its unique design. And those lifts split into three main clans, ballistic hip hinges, racks and grinds.
Yes, a kettlebell can be used for other exercises. After all, “every tool’s a hammer”. But unfortunately, too many gym routines include a kettlebell only because it’s in vogue. Then expect clients to smack random square pegs into arbitrary round holes.
Instead, the unglamorous secret of kettlebell training is a handful of exercises that matter. Consistently train them and the results follow. But in today’s instant world of shortened attention spans, that’s not for everyone.
So, maybe boredom is another reason people move on before benefiting from the kettlebell’s true potential. A shame, because the right teacher can unveil the joy of incremental improvements. And small steps accumulate into spectacular progress over time.
Because, from teenager to septuagenarian, the benefits of kettlebell training come with practice. Practice consistently and the progressive strength increases and mobility improvements follow.
Any other approach relegates a kettlebell to a bit-part fitness accessory. History tells us fitness trends come and go. Soon a new gadget will squeeze into the kettlebells’ gym real estate. And kettlebells across the globe will be forgotten. Religated to dark, dusty cupboards with only Thighmasters and Bullworkers for company.
But if your training is a practice, not exercise, your kettlebell will never gather dust.
Find an experienced kettlebell coach
Fitness fashion has thrust the kettlebell to centre stage. And it’s enjoying the limelight. And that’s a good thing. After all, before you can train with kettlebells, you need to have heard of them and have access to one. And if you experience the transformational power of kettlebell training, you’ll stick with it even after the hip gym-goers move on.
So, if the sparkle of your local gyms well-polished kettlebells has caught your eye, pause. They’re pretty. But so is a Thoroughbred. And you wouldn’t jump on its back without knowing how to ride, would you?
Find a kettlebell coach. Or join a kettlebell club. Learn how to use this amazing fitness tool to get the results you deserve.
And there are only two kinds of clubs or coaches that deliver meaningful results. Hardstyle or Girvoy Sport.
Which style is right for you? Hardstyle kettlebell training or Girevoy Sport
So, which style is right for you? That depends on your goals and what motivates you to train. Because ultimately one style isn’t better than the other. They just have different training objectives.
Hardstyle kettlebell training improves your general physical preparedness for sport, work or life. Strength is a useful bi-product that can be used to measure progress.
And kettlebell sport is exactly that – a sport. Athletes compete in endurance kettlebell lifting competitions. The training focus is improving your competitive performance with a kettlebell.
Hardstyle Training for everyday fitness you can use
The hardstyle focus is improving overall strength and power. Getting you ready for sport, work or life. Absolutely, it can be used to increase cardiovascular capacity. But because the emphasises power production overpower conservation, it’s not endurance training.
The origins of hardstyle are a vague mix of marketing and folklore. But most credit Pavel Tsatsouline with introducing it to the West. Beneath Pavel’s gruff Russian persona is a very smart coach. And original hardstyle pioneer or not, Pavel’s influence on the hardstyle method is huge.
Yet, hardstyle is an unfortunately macho sounding name. It risks alienating a training method with universal potential for health and fitness.
Hardstyle is a reference to the “hard” martial arts like Karate and Taekwondo. The martial arts that use coordinated biomechanical breathing, relaxation and tension to develop striking speed and power. The same techniques generate power and keep you safe doing ballistic kettlebell exercises.
I was a Taekwondo black belt when I discovered kettlebells. I credit my martial art with my instant affinity with hardstyle training. And I credit kettlebells with extending my Taekwondo career.
But beyond sports and martial arts conditioning, hardstyle has even greater utility. 15 years on, I teach the same biomechanical breathing and tension cycling. In clinic, it helps clients recuperate from back pain and prevent it from reoccurring. And in my regular hardstyle kettlebell classes, it helps students of all ages improve their strength and mobility.
The Hardstyle Kettlebell lifts
There six primary hardstyle lifts. Three ballistic lifts and three slow grinds. Together they develop a solid foundation of functional strength and power.
The ballistic lifts cycle momentary full-body tension with controlled relaxation. They develop the dynamic hip power essential to human movement. Tennis, golf, kicking a ball, a martial arts strike, lifting heavy groceries into the car or running up the stairs, your power comes from the hips.
Training the hardstyle ballistic lifts gives you the hip power you need to enjoy living and moving like a human.
The three ballistic lifts are:
- the swing
- the clean
- the snatch
Grinds use continuous tension throughout the entire lift. Both the concentric and eccentric portions. Sure they develop strength. But the real health benefit is increased stability and force resistance under load. Your power may come from your hips. But if you can’t stabilise your body when you need to, you can’t direct that raw power into useable brute strength. Strength you can use to move furniture, lift a heavy suitcase into the overhead storage, open a stubborn jar lid, lift up the kids or grandkids or to resist a judo takedown or a heavy tackle.
Training the hardstyle grinds translates into more strength for an active life.
The three slow grind lifts are
Ballistic and grinding lifts all work your back muscles and core. They demand strong, coordinated muscle engagement. It’s reflexive training. And it translates into better trunk stability from diaphragm to pelvic floor. And that improves back mechanics and health.
And the clean, squat and press all use the rack position where the kettlebell is held at chest height. Carrying weight in the rack develops more real-life core strength than any “core-workout” can.
Hardstyle training is practice, not working out
A work out gets you hot and sweaty and any unfocused high activity exercise can do that. But the long-term benefits of feel-the-burn style workouts are questionable.
The goal of a Hardstyle training session is the perfect performance of every rep. If your form starts to deteriorate it’s time to stop.
The explosive power required to perform ballistic lifts or the sustained tension needed in the grinds takes practice. And it’s energy-sapping. Keeping the form perfect is a skill. Remember, the emphasis of hardstyle training is power production, not efficiency and endurance.
And over time, you’ll make far more progress if you walk away from a training session with a little left in the tank.
Hardstyle kettlebell progress
Hardstyle kettlebell training is a personal journey. There are no hardstyle competitions. Still, there are simple pass or fail standards to compare your progress against. The 5-minute snatch test is the most notorious. 100 snatches in less than 5 minutes with a 24kg kettlebell for men and a 16kg for women.
Hardstyle kettlebells design
Hardstyle kettlebells are made of solid cast iron. And the handle has rounded corners designed for a comfortable one or two-handed grip.
The standard weight increase is 4kg between kettlebell sizes. The solid design means a kettlebell’s size is a function of its weight. And it’s not just the size of the ball that increases. Heavier kettlebells have thicker handles. Still, as the kettlebell weight increases, the relative size of the ball compared to the handle increases. And the kettlebell’s changing dimensions add an extra challenge with every weight jump.
Kettlebell Sport is best described as endurance weightlifting.
The first kettlebell sport competitions were held in the post-war USSR. After 50 years as a mainly Russian sport, kettlebell sport made it to the world stage in the early 2000s.
Girevoks (Russian for lifter) compete in timed ten-minute kettlebell lifting events. All competitive lifts are one-handed. But in some events, the Girevok lifts two kettlebells – one in each hand.
To keep events competitive, athletes compete in different weight classes. Typically men compete with kettlebells between 16 and 32kg and women 8 to 28kg.
Chalk, belts, and wrist, elbow and knee wraps are all legal lifting aids in competitions.
The athlete who completes the most legal lifts without returning the kettlebell(s) to the floor wins.
The three competitive Girevoy Sport lifts are
- The Snatch
- The Jerk
- The Long Cycle a.k.a. the kettlebell clean and jerk
They are all one-handed lifts, although events are often double-handed – one kettlebell in each hand.
Girevoy Sport Kettlebell Design
Girevoy Sport kettlebells are hollow and made of steel. The square handle design reflects the absence of two-handed lifts in Girvoy Sport.
In contrast to hardstyle kettlebells, Girvoy kettlebells are all the same size. The hollow design keeps the kettlebell size fixed irrespective of the weight. And the uniform size helps a lifter maintain their most efficient lifting technique even as the weight changes.
To make it easier to identify the kettlebell weight, the body is colour coded. For example, an 8kg kettlebell is pink and a 32kg red.
Girevoy Sport is endurance training
Elite Girvok athletes achieve phenomenal feats of strength.
But ultimately kettlebell sport is an endurance sport. And endurance is achieved through a combination of increased aerobic capacity and economy of effort.
The longer the athlete can remain in the aerobic training zone, the longer they can keep lifting. Cross into anaerobic training and fatigue quickly cuts the set short.
Girevoy technique works with the kettlebell’s momentum and gravity not against it. To keep the effort below their anaerobic threshold the Girevok must stay as relaxed as possible. The lifts have to be as efficient as possible but still technically correct. And that’s a skill that takes practice. Co-ordinated anatomical breathing, twisting, leaning, relaxing the knees and lifting the foot at different stages of the lift all reduce the effort.
The result is a fluid lift with a deceptively simple appearance. But don’t be fooled. A good lifter is constantly refining honing their technique. And 10 minutes without rest will test both your physical and mental fortitude.
Hardstyle Training or Girevoy Sport – Which is right for me?
Both hardstyle and Girvoy Sport are proven systems of kettlebell training.
But a technically perfect kettlebell sport lift would fail any Hardstyle technique assessment.
And the powerful hardstyle method would have a Girevok wheezing and blowing long before the 10-minute whistle.
But don’t get hung up on the apparent paradox. It’s just kettlebell training. Both will dramatically improve your fitness.
So, which is the right choice for you? As ever, that depends. Ask yourself,
- What are your goals?
- What motivates you to train?
Are you competitive? Would the prospect of an upcoming competition motivate you to train regularly? Consistency is essential to benefit from any training. If competition keeps your training consistent then Girevoy Sport may be for you.
Or are you struggling for time? Do you need an efficient training system that you can fit into your busy day? Training that will prepare you for an active life or your chosen recreational sport? Then Hardstyle kettlebell training is probably for you.
Choose Kettlebell Sport if:
- You’re motivated by competition
- You’re looking for maximum endurance
- You enjoy endurance athletic activities
Choose Hardstyle Kettlebell Training if:
- You’re training for general physical health
- You’re a recreational athlete needing strength, power and resilience for your sport
- Competition leaves you cold, you measure improvement at a personal level
- You want time-efficient strength training for life
The choice of kettlebell training style is yours. But whether you choose Kettlebell Sport or Hardstyle training, learn from a qualified coach. Proper technique and safety are essential to getting the most from your kettlebell training.
And for the same reason avoid kettle fitness franchises and random acts of kettlebell training prescribed by your personal trainer.
If you’re based in Edinburgh and would like to try hardstyle kettlebell training you can find out more here.
If you’re interested in kettlebell sport and live in Edinburgh, find out more here.
Hi, I’m Ralph
I’ve been training with kettlebells for 15 years and certified as a StrongFirst instructor in 2015. And I’ve been teaching kettlebells ever since.
Why StrongFirst? Because StrongFirst sets the standard for kettlebell instructor certification.
Kettlebells build the strength and mobility needed for life’s physical challenges. The essential fitness that’s vital for your long-term health and longevity.
I teach regular kettlebell classes in Edinburgh.
If you’re not local to Edinburgh, I can help you 1-2-1 online.