This article is aimed at anyone who has discovered the delights of kettlebell training and yet may well not even realise that kettlebell sport even exists. Believe me, you’re not alone!
In my experience, one grows into kettlebell sport, it’s highly unlikely that your decision to pick up a kettlebell for the first time will be driven by a desire to compete with them.
Once there is an actual awareness that such a sport exists, some will naturally gravitate towards it as they become proficient in their own training and look for that next step.
Finding a local club that uses kettlebells is a good start. But we’re not looking at one of the franchised options here such as Kettlercise and so on. These are fine in their own right but will not help you get into kettlebell sport. Seek help from some of the governing bodies in your own country to get advice. I know for example that if you’re UK based, you can gain information about local kettlebell sport clubs from the GSU website.
So, lets look at some of the options:
My own route into kettlebell sport came about by way of the Pentathlon. At that time, back in 2013, there were 4 competitions running each year to coincide with the 4 seasons here in the UK.
Pentathlons are a different variation of traditional Girevoy Sport (GS) but a very worthy discipline and an easier route into the competitive arena. See my Pentathlon article here
Briefly, pentathlons consist of 5 different disciplines each done for 6 minutes with a 5 minute break between each. These are all done with a single bell and multiple hand changes are allowed. The total lifting time is therefore 30 minutes with 20 minutes of resting.
The 5 disciplines are
- Long Cycle Press (clean and press)
- Half Snatch
- Push Press
There is a points value associated with each bell and any weight from 8 to 40 kg plus can be used and there is a max rep count for each lift. The key is to strike the correct balance between kettlebell weight and reps lifted. Go too heavy and you risk a low score due to a lower rep count. Likewise if you go too light and complete the reps too easily, you will also fail to maximise your score.
I really enjoy competing in pentathlons for two reasons. The single bell stuff better suits my current level of mobility and the tactical element. Pacing yourself is key to a successful outcome in pentathlon. If you go all out on the first couple of disciplines, you’ll potentially burn out before the end. It’s all about knowing how hard you can push and how soon.
There is a greater overall volume of lifting in comparison to GS but the single bell and multi switch elements certainly make it more accessible, especially for those with less than great mobility.
Within Pentathlon, there are 3 body weight divisions for male and female.
In the UK, there are generally 3 or 4 events each year.
This is the traditional form of kettlebell sport. Contestants can compete in a number of disciplines. For men, it is either double long cycle (clean and jerk) or biathlon which is jerks and then snatch. For women it can be long cycle with single or double bells and Biathlon. Women may also have the option to choose to compete in snatch only. All of these sets are performed for 10 minutes. In the case of the single bell lifts, there is only a single hand change allowed. For biathlon, there is usually a break of an hour or so between the jerk set and the snatches.
There are numerous entry points into this sport with many countries holding regional events at many times of the year. It’s a fast growing sport, particularly in the United States and here in the U.K. Regional events usually have a bigger choice of bell weights that can be used, typically for men, 12 16 20 24 28 and 32 kg bells. For ladies, 8 12 16 20 and 24 kg bells.
Once you make the move to international competitions then the bell choices become more limited with 16 24 32 for the men and 12 16 24 for the women.
There are a number of body weight and age categories within GS and veterans start at 40 years of age.
For those interested in GS, this is the perfect starting place. The Grassroots league was set up specifically to encourage people into kettlebell sport. All of the lifts are as traditional GS but with a couple of difference which are designed to make the events more accessible.
- All lifts are performed for 5 minutes instead of 10
- Judging is less strict and aimed more towards guidence
- You are competing against other beginners as well as more experienced individuals but medals are only awarded to the beginners.
- The events are smaller and tend to be in a more relaxed setting.
- There is a great opportunity to work with the more seasoned athletes either to gain inspiration or knowledge.
You can work any combination of the 3 lifts. These being Long cycle, jerk and snatch Guys and girls may choose to use a single bell for Long cycle.
Like pentathlon there is a points value awarded to each bell. Unlike Pentathlon, the points for the bells as they go up in weight isn’t linear as it’s designed to encourage participants to use heavier bells. This applies in particular to the experienced athletes as this is the perfect opportunity to move away from your usual competition weight and try experimenting with something a little heavier.
In the UK in 2016, there were nearly 20 grassroots events. There were also a couple in the United States so expect to see many more from this organisation in the coming years.
There has been a keen interest recently in kettlebell marathon events. These is run by the International Kettlebell Marathon Federation and they are very popular within the Scandinavian countries.
There is either half marathon events which are 30 minutes or full marathon which is 60 minutes. There will soon be an option for children to compete with 15 minute events. These are all multi-switch with the one caveat being that you have to complete the the full time otherwise your score will be zero.
There are 4 events to choose from
- Long cycle
- Half snatch
You are also able to compete within a league system called The Ultimate Girevik League. This is run by the IKMF annually. There are 3 rounds and you can compete in any of the 4 lifts, all of them if you are feeling brave enough. They also hold European and World Championships annually.
All of the above with the exception of pentathlon, have ranks. Ranks enable you to gauge your own progress. This is what a typical ranking structure may look like.
Ranking varies according to the organisation so best to check the requirements on the relevant website. You will need to achieve a certain rank if you want to be eligible for your national squad. The entry requirements are generally not set too high though so as to encourage participation. Kettlebell sport is quite unique in that you may well find yourself competing in a World Championship after only a few years of lifting.
So, what’s it like to compete in GS?
Personally, it’s a combination of a thrill and a dread! Most GS athletes will get where I’m coming from with this. Training for these events can be brutal. There will be set backs, disappointments when training numbers don’t match yours or your coaches expectations. There will also be days where you walk out of the gym feeling invincible, you’ve smashed it, exceeded your numbers and you feel totally on track.
On the day, if your preparations have gone well and you’ve put in the hard work at the gym, you may well think that you should smash out a personal best but what about those pre-competition nerves? What about your judge, are your reps going to be of a high enough standard?
You will probably be a bundle of nerves prior to stepping up on the platform. You may wonder why am I doing this? I think nerves come from two things, the fear of failing and the fear of the pain that awaits you. I can’t sugar coat this. This is 10 minutes of ever increasing levels of discomfort and you will need to dig deep into your physical and mental reserves.
I have, to my shame (or so it feels) twice put the bells down before the 10 minutes was up. Both were in the 9 minutes area. On both occasions, I was physically beaten not mentally. There were literally no more reps in me. On the first occasion it was due to the strictness of judging as I had asked for a judge who was approved by the IUKL as it was a qualifying event for Team England. I made the grade and qualified but fell some 15 reps short of my target due to the longer fixation that was required on the over head position. On the second occasion, it was simply bad prep due to an injury. 4 weeks prep simply doesn’t cut it for this game. This is why it’s vital to gain as much experience as possible with competitions. Always be looking to increase your standards and ask for the judge to be critical of your performance.
Once up on the platform, nerves will dissipate to a degree. Once you get a couple of reps under your belt, you will feel reassured that the judge sees your reps as passable. I had this fear at my first international competition which was the IUKL World Championships. I literally thought I’d be getting a succession of no counts. It didn’t happen of course and I scored 81 reps in veterans class of 24 kg Long cycle and won a World Championship Gold medal in the process.
If you perform well, the feeling afterwards is fantastic. It’s all over and you’ve done good! This is when you forget about all of the pain of training and the nerves you’d had just moments before. I always like to say that most of the enjoyment for me, seems to be retrospective!
Conversely, perform badly or below your expectations and you may well feel quite miserable. But it’s important to always take away a positive from every event.
The community spirit
One of the greatest aspects of our sport is the tremendous community sprit that exists around it. The support is always there from the other lifters and the supporting audience. When I go to a competition, I always enjoy catching up with friends as well as meeting new people. We also support and encourage each other via social media. Its like a big kettlebell family and it’s a great thing to be a part off. Of course, once you’re up on the platform, you want to beat the guy next to you but I have found that win or lose, congratulating the other contestant will always be the first thing you do once you’ve managed to pick yourself up off the floor.