Enter the Kettlebell! Strength Secret of the Soviet Supermen (review)


For Russian strongmen, elite military forces, and hardened criminals in Chechnya, the kettlebell has been an essential tool for developing a balanced musculature, endurance during the most grueling physical trials, functionally explosive strength, and a whole host of other benefits.

A tiny iron cannonball doesn’t seem that impressive, but after gripping at its cold handle and ripping into the momentum of a swing, there is nothing more punishing or more addictive.

Kettlebells come in poods. For example, the average male beginner uses 1 pood (16 kgs. or 35 lbs.) while the advanced lifter uses 2 poods (32 kgs. or 70 lbs.). There are different weights for every level. One must master the lighter weights to progress onto the heavier ones, but even the most powerful athletes can accomplish their goals with 1 pood.

In “Enter the Kettlebell,” Pavel Tsatsouline describes the correct (and most thorough) techniques available for exercises like the sumo deadlift, face-to-wall squat, halo, swing, snatch, clean, and get-up.

Pavel encourages a daily practice, not a burnout. Kettlebell training requires a lot of skill and patience to do well. For instance, to do a proper two-handed swing, one needs to maintain a box squat alignment, keep a straight but not upright back, generate power from the hip but not in the arms, sit back rather than dip down, and so on.

This book uses a minimalist approach and recommends two kettlebell exercises for the most benefit: the swing and the get-up.

“The swing will take care of your back, legs, heart, and lungs. The get-up will temper flexible and resilient shoulders, ready for exercises and spots skills that traditionally trash them: punching a heavy bag, grappling, heavy pressing and jerking, and so on.”

Once one has practiced these exercises for a long time (weeks to months to even years), focusing on finesse over speed and technique over high repetitions, additional exercises can be incorporated.

Kettlebell cleans, snatches, and presses are demanding. One needs to use strength and flexibility to do them well. Pavel argues for slow strength training with lower reps. Rather than championing the popular fatiguing way of strength training, he believes that slow training minimizes injuries, while building resiliency and power.

When using kettlebells, one is always in the Yin Yang of relaxation and tension. Like any good martial artist knows, it’s all about timing.

“Tension and relaxation are the two sides of the performance coin. An always-tight powerlifter can hardly move. An always-loose yoga practitioner is weak. A karate master, who moves like lightning and then freezes for a split second to put all of his mass behind the punch and then recoil with relaxed quickness like a snake’s tongue, has both. In the words of the late Okinawan karate master Chozo Nakama, this is ‘relaxed tension.’”

Kettlebells bring the entire body into each movement. One exhales with control like a boxer throwing a cross, relaxing and then tensing, building up their combat conditioning. Kettlebells reduce injuries through a stabilization of numerous muscles, strengthening the back, arms, shoulders, abs, legs, glutes, and grips.

Pavel recommends training everyday. Stay consistent but always vary in the workouts each time, switching from heavy to light weights, focusing on proper technique in between sessions, never exercising until fatigue.

He suggests using ladders, starting low. Switching hands, resting. Then slowly building up to fifty repetitions, one hundred repetitions, in a short period of time. Eventually, as one progresses, one will build 1 ladder (1, 2, 3, 4, etc.) to 2 ladders, 2 ladders to 3 ladders, and so on. This can take a few minutes, a few hours, or even a full day.

When it comes to rest in between sets, that depends on individual goals.

“Either extreme of rest between sets — less than a minute on one end, and 10 minutes and more on the other — will make you strong for different reasons. Extremely short breaks will make you stronger by building muscle in the tradition of Charles Staley’s EDT (edtsecrets.com). Extremely long breaks will make you stronger by improving your skill of strength in the tradition of my GTG program from The Naked Warrior. Medium breaks will give you a mix of muscular and neural adaptations. This is why I have not specified how long you should rest between your sets in this book. Why complicate?”

Kettlebell training can be timed as well. Alternating rep/rest periods at random, experimenting daily to build up to high reps in a short amount of time, can be challenging and rewarding. HIIT and Tabata are two beneficial methods for intense, short workouts.

Kettlebells are versatile, adaptive to both the person and program. They’re simple, effective punishers, training raw power and strength, conditioning and balance, flexibility and skill.

One can combine kettlebells with intervals of pull-ups and pushups, shadow boxing and sprints. Athletes can alternate with barbells and machines and dumbells and ropes. They can skip those tools all together and use kettlebells alone.

From stretching hip flexors to stabilizing joints, from building raw power to reducing the chances of arthritis, from lowering heart rate to increasing balance, kettlebells are underrated in the fitness world.

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