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Kettlebell Sport | A Complete Guide

A girevik competing in kettlebell sport competitions.

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This blog brings you three kettlebell sport competitions to try. The same competitions featured in the official WKBD events where steely-eyed gireviks battle each other and their physical limitations. That’s what kettlebell competitions are partly about: breaking new ground and advancing on personal best performance. And, of course, the hope of carrying away a shiny trophy.


But what if you’re not planning on donning a leotard and competing at a WKBD event? Well, kettlebell sport competitions can serve a multitude of useful fitness-developing functions. For example, they can be integrated into your general training routine to spice up bland workouts. At the end of your obligatory Monday cardio session, you could complete a 10-minute continuous snatch cycle. Now that would seriously elevate your heart rate.


Then there is the option of introducing the kettlebell sport competitions into induvial or (better still) group circuits. Applying them in this way can open up a veritable vista of possible training opportunities. In addition to providing you with hundreds of potential circuit configurations, the competitions can also be used for team events.


However, the best way to use the kettlebell sport competitions (in my opinion) is as a means of monitoring fitness progression. Each discipline, as they are sometimes referred to, forms its own fitness test. Performing them in conjunction with a Training Programme will enable you to track physical development. I explain in more detail below how to use them in this way.


Before we consider applying the competitions, I’ve outlined the origins, ranking structure, and guidelines of the kettlebell sport events.


Best kettlebell sport competition kettlebell.

Kettlebell sport

First, let’s review the kettlebell sport ranking structure. Thankfully, it’s quite simple. Traditionally, kettlebells came in ‘poods’ – which is an old Russian measure of weight that equals roughly 16kg (or 32 pounds). Before the modernisation of the sport, only three kettlebell weights were available: 16kg (one pood), 24kg (one and a half poods), and 32kg (two poods).


It's useful to possess a grasp of the various weights because they dictate the classification of competitions. For example, all standard weights are lifted for repetitions. Juniors are assigned 16kg, men 24kg, and advanced me 32kg.


But what if you’re not a man? Is your only option a spectator’s seat? Nope! You’ll be glad to know that the sport of kettlebell lifting has caught up with the 21st Century and there is now a league of female gireviks. Depending on their body weight and experience, females use either a 16kg or 24kg kettlebell.



Kettlebell competitions

Girevoy Sports competitions are comprised of three core events. They include the snatch, two-arm jerk, and the long cycle. Each event is scheduled for 10 minutes, and the objective never changes: The man or woman who amasses the most repetitions wins.


You’d be forgiven for thinking that kettlebell events are simply a show of supreme muscle endurance, gratuitous grit, and cast-iron determination. While these are undeniably essential ingredients to success, as the legendary girevik Ivan Denisov made abundantly clear, technique, pacing, and a game plan are of paramount importance.


What follows is an outline of the core events. Accompanying each event is a list of tips that can help you improve your performance.


Kettlebell sport competitions

So far we have reviewed the rules, regulations, and origins of kettlebell sport. In addition, we have familiarised ourselves with kettlebell weights and how to select the right weight for your age and training experience.


Now it’s time to turn our attention to the competitions. Below you will find an outline of the core Girevoy Sport events. As well as assessing the merits of each discipline, I outlined a range of tips that can help you improve our lifting performance and training experience.


In addition to the exercise overviews, you will also find a competition scorecard for the three core disciplines. The idea behind these cards is to track physical progression. You’ll notice that, underneath the initial test, there are three additional time points. After establishing your current performance, schedule a retest, say, every two or four weeks. Between each time point, diligently work on your performance to advance your previous score.


A workout accompanies each competition card. The workouts incorporate the kettlebell discipline along with other exercises and training tasks. In conjunction with providing a whole-body fitness session, they also aim to improve your performance in the respective disciplines.


Kettlebell sport competition #1: Snatch

The snatch is an explosive, power-packed exercise that ‘will quickly humble even studly powerlifters,’ (Russian Kettlebell Challenge). Snatching for protracted periods involves a combination of strength, skill, and stoical self-discipline. Superfluous movements sap the muscles of energy and thus hasten fatigue. Suffice it to say, surviving ten consecutive minutes of snatching is a physical feat that few ever accomplish.


The single-arm power snatch was one of the original events selected for the first National Girevoy Sport Championship, which opened its doors in 1985. Back then barrel-chested Russians with rugged beards and hands the size of shovels snatched solid for 10-minutes. The only thing that’s changed is that modern competitors are better groomed.


During the stipulated time, competitors are permitted to a single-hand change. The standard procedure is to start with the dominant arm and go for as long as possible before blisters and an insatiable burn necessitate a switch. If you plan to practice this event frequently, say once a week, it’s recommended to change hands after every rep to avoid developing strength imbalances.


Snatch tips

Tip 1: A bit of a no-brainer I’ll admit, but, before you start snatching for reps, you should first polish your technique to perfection (or at least so that it’s safe). Even a minor blemish in your form could impair your performance.


Tip 2: But how do you polish your technique without a coach? This Guide to Snatching Like a Seasoned Girevik will set you in the right direction. It also helps to film your form so that you can analyse the playback. Also, watch Ivan Denisov videos. And finally, practice, practice, practice.


Tip 3: When it comes to building strength and fitness, it’s good to snatch with a range of weights. Don’t stick to your customary pood – mix them up: some sessions stay light and focus on form and volume, while other sessions go heavy for those strength gains!


Kettlebell sport snatch competition scorecard.

Kettlebell sport snatch workout.

Kettlebell sport competition #2: Jerk

At a glance, the two-arm jerk couldn’t be simpler: just press the bells above your head for as many reps as possible (AMRAP) before the sands of time drain dry. But anyone who has attempted to AMRAP even a modest weight pair of bells knows that to sustain competition pacing is a monumental feat. Before you’ve managed a measly 25 reps, your shoulders have caught fire, your heart rate is climbing, and your body is creaking under the load.


In competitions, you can see the effects of these physiological responses. The burly gireviks are bent and twisted like old trees as they try to find a less painful position. But alas! until the 10 minutes are up, or they are forced to down their bells, no such position is ever found.


The rules of the two-arm jerk are clear-cut. From the front rack position, the bells must be pressed above the head simultaneously, arms locked stiff. Before lowering back to the front rack, lifters typically pause until the rep is reflected on the electronic scoreboard.


Jerk tips

Tip 1: As with the snatch, when it comes to jerking technique is all-important. The single most common mistake made by beginners is to press the kettlebells from the shoulders. Unless you’ve got shoulders like boulders or your kettlebells are constructed from premium-grade polystyrene, it is positively impossible to apply the strict pressing technique for 10 minutes. As I attempt to show in this video demonstration, the jerk is initiated by the big muscles of the legs – quads and glutes. The shoulders merely serve the purpose of steering and guiding the trajectory of the kettlebells.


Tip 2: Another novice mistake to avoid is holding the kettlebells out to the side. This position places the deltoids under constant strain which quickly drains them of energy. When front racked, the arms should be resting on your upper torso. The kettlebells are being cradled in the nooks of the arm and the handles are clasped directly in front of your chest. Another bonus of employing this technique is that less energy is wasted during the transfer of force from the legs to the kettlebells. Thus, without venturing into the technicalities of this boon, I’ll simply say that you get far more bang for your buck. Test run the two techniques and see for yourself.


Tip 3: There’s no denying the fact that handling two bells requires considerably more skill than it does with one. And not just because you’ve doubled the load. Even a pair a pood lighter than your customary weight will initially pose a challenge. As Pavel Tsatsouline makes patently clear in his pre-exercise tutorial disclaimer, the two-arm jerk and other such complex movements can become downright dangerous when fatigue sets in. (‘WARNING! Most kettlebell exercises can be dangerous and even fatal.’ And that from a master of sport who trained the Russian Special Forces.) I’m none too proud to disclose a jerking misdemeanour that resulted in a bruised cheekbone. For this tip, then, I advise that you master the single arm jerk first. Only when you are fully confident with a single bell should you have a bash at two. And when you do, ensure to select a light pair. This advice is consistent with the official Girevoy Sport Competition Training Guidelines which states that ‘before talking the competition-level, two arm/two kettlebell C&Js, master one arm/one KB C&Js’ first (The Russian Kettlebell Challenge).


Kettlebell sport jerk competition session plan.

Kettlebell sport jerk workout.

Kettlebell sport competition #3: Long cycle

The long cycle is the undisputed king of kettlebell exercises (of all exercises – in my opinion). While it’s not as technical as the Turkish Get-up or as sophisticated as the snatch pull and spin, for building whole-body brute strength the long cycle reigns supreme.


But it’s not a surprise that it packs such a fierce fitness-promoting punch. After all, the long cycle is an amalgamation of multiple movements. In this multifaceted monster, you can see aspects of the swing, snatch pull, clean, and, of course, the jerk.


Because the long cycle engages such a broad range of muscle groups, even a comparatively short AMRAP provokes physiological responses similar to a series of high-intensity hill sprints. Suffice it to say, if you put in the requisite training to sustain output for a full 10 minutes, you’ll reap some serious health and fitness benefits.


Long cycle tips

Tip 1: If you can clean and jerk with two bells, you can long cycle. In essence, you simply have to perform the two exercises in succession – clean followed by a jerk. Once the key technical foundations are firmly in place, you are ready to focus on the nuance. This comes in the form of more esoteric techniques such as pacing and pause points. We’ll start with the latter because it’s easily stated.


Tip 2: Across the extensive range of motion of the long cycle there are two distinct pause points. The first occurs at the front rack position and the second when both bells are pressed above your head. Pausing is important as it provides you with brief rest periods. Also, during a competition, the second pause point signifies to the adjudicator the rep is complete.


Tip 3: Concerning pacing, this is a technique that is acquired after considerable practice. In principle, it’s no different to the pacing of a runner, the cadence of a cyclist, or the strokes per minute of a rower. Why is pacing important though? Establishing your pacing, which is expressed by the number of reps performed in a minute (RPM), provides you with a metric that can be used to monitor performance. For example, let’s say that you can currently perform 10 reps per minute for 10 minutes (an RPM of 10). And there is a kettlebell sport competition in a couple of months that you would like to enter. However, to stand any chance of a podium finish, you will have to raise your RPM to 14. Armed with a start and end point, you could devise and then implement a structured 6-Week Training Programme to increase your RPM by four. Over the six weeks, you would track progression. This process, which forms the very basis of physical development, is not possible until you know your pacing.


Tip 4: Though the objective of the 10-minute long cycle is to amass as many reps as physically possible, your training should still include strength sessions. Putting time in on the big bells will pay dividends when you drop a pood. Plus, packing on a few extra pounds of lean muscle mass will provide you with more cushion for the pushin – if you know what I mean.


Kettlebell sport long cycle competition.

Kettlebell sport long cycle workout.

kettlebell sport training

To many Russians, kettlebell sport is a form of religion. Across the country in anachronistic gymnasiums that reek of rusty steel and stale sweat, they hold annual kettlebell competitions. It’s their equivalent to a country fate except that, instead of cake sales and polite lawn games, gireviks duke it out over the 10-minute snatch. Even the Russian military boasts a Girevoy Sport armed forces program, replete with league tables and scientifically formulated workouts.


This love of kettlebell sport has resulted in a complex training methodology. Internationally acclaimed powerlifting practitioners and prominent scientists such as Alexander Falameyev and Prof. Alexey Medvedev have contributed to this cannon.


What follows is a brief overview of the kettlebell training recommendations as per the official Girevoy Sport Competition Training Guidelines. These recommendations offer practical advice on how to structure your kettlebell routine and get the most out of your workouts.



Kettlebell training guidelines

  • Aim for a minimum of three weekly kettlebell workouts. To provide the body with sufficient recovery, place the workouts on non-consecutive days – for example: Monday, Wednesday, and Friday.

  • For the first two months, beginners are advised to limit each kettlebell workout to 30 minutes. In addition, at this stage only apply the sets-reps-rest formula to kettlebell exercises and keep the loads low.

  • The loads selected should allow you to perform between 5 and 20 clean repetitions per set.

  • Always transition through the full range of motion and never cheat on an exercise.

  • When the lift patterns become physiologically integrated – that is, you no longer have to think about the movements – turn your attention to the synchronisation of your breathing.

  • Factor in rest periods between sets. During rests, ‘calmly walk around’ or, better still, isolate and practice particularly troublesome techniques (with ‘phantom bells’ – i.e., no resistance).

  • Prioritise the practising of the following core exercises: the one-arm snatch, jerk, and clean and jerk cycle (3 to 5 sets of 5 to 20 reps). For this training approach, you can rest after each set. However, once a week, aim to complete a set on both arms before resting. This tactic helps to build muscle endurance and lifting stamina.

  • As your training confidence and kettlebell handling skills improve, begin integrating two-arm exercises into your routine.

  • It is acceptable practice to include barbell lifts in your kettlebell workouts. In addition to diversifying your training, the supplementary use of barbells enables you to go much heavier than is possible with kettlebells alone. However, when training for an event, as the competition approaches, kettlebell lifting takes priority.


Suggested training process

Though largely comprehensive and robust, the Girevoy Sport Training Guidelines are riddled with limitations. For example, no mention is made of the importance of observing the correct training protocol – warming up, cooling down, and stretching.


Furthermore, it fails to provide advice on how to begin a kettlebell workout. Neither does it cover the process or importance of facilitating neuromuscular activation, an essential function of the warm-up that can enhance training performance while reducing injury risk.


I have attempted to fill in the gaps left by the Girevoy guidelines. So, as part of every workout and every time that you attempt a competition, observe the following process.



Kettlebell workout process

  1. Always spend 10 minutes warming up. The warm-up should consist of aerobic exercises – such as rowing and the cross-trainer – and light resistance exercises. Also, ensure to raise exercise intensity gradually across the duration.

  2. Before venturing into the main training tasks of your workout, perform 3 to 6 light sets of 8 to 20 reps of kettlebell swings. The swing is a terrific foundational exercise that activates every link in the posterior chain and primes the muscles for resistance training. I never start a kettlebell workout without swinging.

  3. It is of paramount importance to prioritise the quality of your lift over the quantity of the weight lifted. Bruce Lee put it best when he said, ‘Above all else, never cheat on an exercise; use the amount of weight that you can handle without undue strain,' (The Art of Expressing the Human Body).

  4. When performing complex exercises for reps, it is wise to isolate yourself from the general gym population. In the possible eventuality of losing control, you may have to jettison your kettlebells. Of course, it’s best to do so without running the risk of crushing that unsuspecting narcissist to your right frantically trying to sculpt their abs.

  5. Conclude your kettlebell workouts with a 5- to 10-minute cool-down and 5- to 10-minute stretch. These two training principles, though often omitted, have been shown to ‘improve muscular relaxation, remove waste products, reduce muscle soreness and bring the cardiovascular system back to rest,’ (Strength & Conditioning Bible – pp.88/89).

  6. Don’t forget to replenish your body after training. The ‘golden hour’ rule isn’t a myth. In the highly informative book Food, Nutrition And Sports Performance 2, we are reminded that the ‘early intake of carbohydrates after strenuous exercise is valuable because it provides an immediate source of substrate to the muscle cell to start effective recovery,’ (Burke et al – pp.28/29). Put another way, ingesting quality nutrients within the first hour after exercising supports the repair of damaged muscle tissue in addition to replenishing depleted glycogen stores.

 

 

Enjoyed these workouts?

Atomic Kettlebells book of workouts and circuits.

 

About Adam Priest –

A former Royal Marines Commando, Adam Priest is a content writer, college lecturer, and health and wellbeing practitioner. He is also a fitness author and contributor to other websites. Connect with Adam at info@hungry4fitness.co.uk.

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