Girevoy Sport (Pt. 3): The Jerk

The jerk rewards a lot of Gumby-like flexibility in the hip flexors and shoulder girdle. Each of these bells weighs 32kg (70lbs.), and during the 10-minute, your only chance to rest is in this position, but you need flexiblity. (battlebell.ru)

Whereas the snatch is a pulling exercise—you feel it most in your back and grip—the jerk uses the pushing muscles: the triceps, shoulders, chest, and most of all the quads.

The jerk also demands a more exotic technique. Sure, the snatch also improves enormously when you cultivate better technique, but you’ll probably find the process pretty intuitive. You’re just doing two simple things, absorbing the momentum of the falling bell and lofting it back upward gracefully, and your body gets the feel quickly. But the jerk demands things that feel terribly unnatural.

On the right, look at his hand and arm position. It’s awesome. He’s resting the handles across his wrist bones, so he can relax his grip. And he’s balanced the bells directly over his shoulders, again supporting the weight as much as possible with his skeleton, not tense muscles. In girevoy sport, you have to take your rest wherever you can get it. (Source: V.F. Tikhonov, Osnovy Girevovo Sporta [Basics of Girevoy Sport], 2009)
Textbook form. The athlete holds the bells’ center of gravity over his elbows, which are lodged firmly on top of his hip bone, which is over his feet atop straight legs. He’s not arching his low back but instead is stretched out at the hip flexors. And look how far he’s stretched his traps and shoulders down to get his elbow on his hips. (Source: V.F. Tikhonov, Osnovy Girevovo Sporta [Basics of Girevoy Sport], 2009)

First, you have kettlebells constricting your rib-box almost non-stop. You can’t breathe normally, and instinctively that is uncomfortable and frightening. (This is a big reason why people dislike long sets of barbell squats. And surf torture, too. In my experience, we don’t hate the cold as much as we think. What we hate more is actually how we instinctively tense up in cold water and breath in choppy, panicky gasps.)

Second, you bend backwards at the hips. Note that I say the hips, not the back. Only bend back at the hip flexors. That’s hard. And it doesn’t make breathing any easier. You’ve stretched your abdomen taught, loaded kettlebells onto your chest, and jammed your elbows into your belly. So what’s left to breathe with? Your upper back! To quote my old taiji teacher, “Suck in your chest and spread out your [upper] back” (含胸拨背). That way you can breathe into your back, so to speak, with your upper back rising and falling instead of your chest or belly.

You’ll need to relax your trapezius muscles. The more you relax them, the easier it all gets. You relieve some of the prolonged muscular tension, and better still, you can slide your elbows down your trunk to your hip bones and rest them there while you catch your breath. People who are really flexible and have good proportions—which is not me—report that they can relax fully in this position. Damn them!

The more you master this technique, the more the jerk becomes a leg exercise. In effect, you jump in place, bucking the bell straight up, and you only use your arms to catch them. Then you jump a second time to meet the falling bells in mid-air. Relax (if you can), breath, and repeat.

Even in an endurance-focused sport like GS, sometimes you find jerk specialists like Ivan Denisov who are beefcakes. (Source: Girevoy Sport magazine)

More than the snatch, the jerk builds muscle. The reason might be “time under tension” (TUT). Many coaches and researchers treat muscle growth as a function of “time under tension”—how long you’re under a heavy load without setting it down. Certainly people grow lots of muscle from heavy high-rep barbell squats and Javorek complexes, which are two very different things, but in both cases you stay under great tension for a vomitously long time. Jerks do the same. You spend 10 minutes under an awkward pair of cannonballs totaling 32kg to 64kg (70-140 lbs). (Imagine front squatting or back squatting one of those poundages to a high box for 10 minutes. Now, don’t actually do that (!!)—you’d lose form, making it unsafe AF. But you can imagine what a metabolic supercharger that would be.)

Girevoy Sport (Pt. 2): The Snatch, “Tsar of Kettlebell Exercises”

In the snatch, if you’re going to last the full 10 minutes, you must spare your grip. How? Use your legs. After you “pull” the bell up, bend at the knees and dip down. That way you won’t have to pull as high. Even more importantly, when you drop the bell back down, rise up on your toes and use your legs as shock absorbers. Tip your body back from the knees so that your arm falls across your chest and belly early in the drop—that will absorb more shock and slow down the bell’s fall.

This illustration isn’t perfect, because it leaves out some things like rising up on the toes. But you can see the athlete canting his body back a little (frame 3) and letting his arm press against the chest and belly (frames 4-6) to absorb shock and slow the bell’s fall. And you can see him bend the knees the first time, for more shock absorption (frames 5-7) and then the second time for the big “alley-oop” (frame 8). (Source: http://giri-narodu.ru/index.php?com=simplepage&elemId=18)
My first meet in 2002 or 2003, using an obsolete technique where you only bent your knees once and went into a low squat. This belongs in the dustbin of history, along with the thick-handled, cast-iron kettlebell I was using.

As the bell falls to the bottom of its arc, “give” at the knees a little to spare your grip muscles from sudden, abrupt wrenching. Then straighten your legs. When the bell pendulums forward again, bend your legs a second time so they can help “alley-oop” the bell upward. You’ll accelerate the bell more smoothly, and that way you’ll spare your grip even more. 

You can spare your grip further by how you hold the bell’s handle. When holding it overhead, let the handle rest diagonally down your palm. Go ahead and insert your hand as deep as you can. That way you can relax your grip. (Expect some growing pains as you get accustomed to steel pressing against unyielding, bony places. That only lasts a few weeks.)

When dropping the bell, do your best to hold it with just the first two fingers and thumb. Try not to grip the handle tightly. Just make a firm ring with those three fingers and let the handle rotate somewhat loosely within it. We don’t want a lot of muscle tension from over-gripping the bell, nor do we want torn callouses. This is one of the reasons that you will progress faster if you err on the side of lighter weights for higher (50+) reps. Master that, and you will progress to heavier bells naturally and swiftly.

Over-gripping is also a reason that you should use competition-style bells if possible, rather than the cast-iron ones. With their more slender handles, you can snatch them for much higher reps without a death-grip that will tear up your palms and cost you training time. Nor are they so very expensive, and since you will have these for the rest of your life (hell, your grandchildren’s lives!), you might as well get the good ones.

With some experimenting, you’ll feel most comfortable and efficient when dropping the bell if you hold the handle at the corner, not the middle. (See picture above.) And on the backswing, when you relax your arm, the bell will rotate on its own so that your thumb is pointing back (or at your bottom). Let it do that. 

These handsome old pugs would look callow and dorky if they had a bright, glossy paint job.

And if you’ll permit me a moment’s snobbery, for heaven’s sake, don’t pay more for “chip-resistant enamel coating.” Kettlebells are not fine china or ladies’ silk undergarments. They are like blue jeans—when new they look weird and a little embarrassing; when battered and worn, they look legit.

Want to learn more? Start ransacking the archives at Dr. Smet’s site, Girevoy Sport After 40. He’s been experimenting for years and translating materials from his native Russian about the evolving state of the sport. Girevoy sport is still fairly young and people are still making advances in technique and training methods. (If you follow martial arts, just compare the karate of the 80s with the early UFC of the 90s and then the far more advanced state of MMA today. It’s like three different geological ages.)

In particular, check out of two of Smet’s recent translations with commentary of snatch tutorials by Sergey Rudnev, five-time champion of the world. A small-framed man, Rudnev was competing with bells that weighed half his own bodyweight (!), and he developed a snatch technique that is exquisitely efficient. As Rudnev and other champs advise, whatever care and attention you invest in efficient technique, you will be repaid for amply.

Girevoy Sport (Pt. 1): Russian for “What Means This ‘Pain’?”

In Russian, a kettlebell is called a girya. As an adjective, it becomes girevoy. And someone who lifts kettlebells is a girevik. (Provenance of photo unknown.)

Russians have been lifting kettlebells for health for a long time. They originally used them as “counterweights … to weigh out dry goods on market scales. People started throwing them around for entertainment and they were later put to use for weight lifting.”

https://www.kettlebellsusa.com/pages/what-is-a-kettlebell

When Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina in 1873, at the novel’s moral center he put Konstantin Lyovin, a plain-living country gentleman who lifts kettlebells. Kettlebells also show up in plenty of photos of old-time strongmen from the “tiger skin and waxed mustache” era, such as George Hackenschmidt (a Russian German) and Eugen Sandow (an East Prussian with a Russian mother), and later in photos of early American health clubs.

Though Americans dropped kettlebells in the 1930s and 1940s for modern plate-loading barbells and forgot they existed, Soviet sportsmen kept snatching kettlebells for fun, health, and sometimes in informal competition.

Ksenia Dedyukhina, best women’s snatcher in the world

In the 1970s, the Soviet Union organized girevoy sport (“kettlebell sport”) as an officially sanctioned sport, originally consisting of three events: the two-arm jerk, the one-arm snatch, and the one-arm press (later dropped from competition). After a few rule changes, girevoy sport (or “GS”) settled into its present form: you jerk (with two bells) and snatch (with one bell) for as many reps as possible in ten minutes without setting the bells down, and in the snatch you may change hands only one time. 

Denis Vasiliev demonstrates the jerk.

That means kettlebell lifters dwell in the no-man’s land between strength sports and endurance sports, inhabited chiefly by rowers and middle-distance runners. You’re under load for 10 minutes at a time, with bells that might weigh one-half your bodyweight, so you develop some very serious cardio. In fact, girevoy sport is essentially weightlifting turned into an endurance sport. The metabolic demands are incredible, and kettlebell lifters tend to develop a wrestler’s physique: muscled but tending toward the lean, rangy side rather than the puffy, hypertrophied side. Maybe it’s the wrist wraps, but gireviks make me think of the famous “boxer at rest” statue: wiry arms, somewhat meaty shoulders and thighs, and big, pronounced back muscles.

Boxer at Rest at the Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. (Courtesy of TripAdvisor)

Kettlebells have a way of “right sizing” people, writes Andrew Read: If you’re chubby, they’ll lean you out. “Likewise, if you’re scrawny and need some muscle they’ll do that, too, without that exaggerated puffed up bodybuilder look.”