Updated: Aug 29, 2020
The harsh fact of the matter is that there is an increasingly large number of young Americans who are neglecting their bodies - whose physical fitness is not what it should be - who are getting soft. And such softness on the part of individual citizens can help to strip and destroy the vitality of a nation… in a very real and immediate sense, our growing softness, our increasing lack of physical fitness, is a menace to our security.
John F. Kennedy penned The Soft American as President-elect in December of 1960 as a call to action for the American people. According to Kennedy, physical fitness was a “vital prerequisite to America’s realization of its full potential as a nation” and a key factor in defeating the Soviet Union should the Cold War turn hot. As President, Kennedy’s Council on Physical Fitness and Sports developed programs to encourage youth fitness, and the administration promoted the La Sierra High School Physical Education program as the gold-standard in youth fitness development. He dubbed this attempt to create a stronger, more vigorous and productive society “The Great National Effort.”
Back in the USSR
While teenagers in La Sierra, California learned how to move, climb, carry, sprint, and burpee, Soviet teens experienced a different, less democratic national effort. The state-sponsored physical programs developed by the Soviet Union were designed to develop high-level athletes and Olympic champions that could represent Soviet power on the world stage. Rather than teens doing calisthenics, picture a scene closer to the Ivan Drago training montage from Rocky IV (if he dies... he dies). From 1952 to 1988 the efforts of Soviet coaches and scientists paid off; they not only produced the highest gold medal counts in six out of nine Olympic appearances, but also pioneered advanced training techniques (fine print: and the use of Performance Enhancing Drugs). The exercise science literature written in the Soviet Union during that period continues to influence Olympic and sport training across the world today.
Not all of the Soviet techniques were advanced or complex, however. Since the turn of the 20th century, the Soviet Army has used the same tried and true method of kettlebell training. Here’s a necessary history of kettlebell training in Russia:
In 1898, Russian Tsar Nicholas II’s personal physician attended a gathering of strongmen in Vienna. While in Vienna, Vladislav Krayevsky, the Tsar’s physician, was exposed to strength and conditioning via kettlebell. Krayevsky returned to Russia and introduced the new techniques to the Tsar; Tsar Nicholas II fell in love with kettlebell training and popularized it in the Russian Army. The kettlebell, with its minimalist presence, persisted as a training tool for the “working man” until 1948 when the government declared Girevoy (the sport of kettlebell lifting) the national sport. In 1981, for many of the same reasons JFK promoted the La Sierra High physical education program, the USSR mandated kettlebell training for factory workers.
This is the political and cultural landscape that shaped Pavel Tsatsouline. According to kettlebell lore, Pavel, an experienced kettlebell competitor, trained Russian Spetsnaz in the art of kettlebell training in the late 1980’s. Sometime after the fall of the Berlin Wall, Pavel planted roots in St. Paul, Minnesota and began sharing his “Russian strength training secrets” with the West. Starting with an article titled “Vodka, Pickle Juice, Kettlebell Lifting and Other Russian Pastimes,” Pavel argued the kettlebell was an ideal tool for improving strength, building endurance, and shredding fat. Since his first article in 1998 Pavel has taught his kettlebell training methods to American SOF, elite law enforcement units, three-letter organizations, and thousands of paying certification customers. It took almost 20 years, but strength and conditioning research has begun to confirm the effectiveness of Pavel’s “simple, yet sinister” techniques.
The Kettlebell and the Soft American
Kennedy’s Great National Effort was actually an extension of a program established in 1956 by the Eisenhower administration in response to an international study that “found American children far less fit than children in other countries.” Strangely, this is around the same time that kettlebells began to disappear from American gyms. Some have speculated that American gyms ditched the kettlebell due to Cold War sentiment and the kettlebell’s association with the Communists. Thus, the rise of the Soft American coincided with the fall of the kettlebell.
Surely jettisoning the kettlebell didn’t cause American softness; other factors, like the battle for American muscle between Joe Weider and York Barbell and the rise of “glamorous Hollywood” physiques, contributed to an overall shift in American fitness culture. But what if the return of the kettlebell could contribute to a recalcification of American fitness?
Perhaps all this was a little bit dramatic, but here’s a fact: very soon, most U.S. Army battalions will possess their very own storage locker full of kettlebells in support of the newly minted Army Combat Fitness Test (ACFT) -- sixteen lanes per battalion, two forty pound kettlebells per lane. When the kettlebells are not creating “baby deer legs” during the Sprint-Drag-Carry event of the ACFT, they should be used for so much more than just a farmer’s carry. It’s time for the American Soldier to tap into what Pavel has taught in America for the last 20 years, and what the Russian Army has known for over 100 years. Here’s one more “call to action” from JFK:
Now it is time.
Of course, modern advances and increasing leisure can add greatly to the comfort and enjoyment of life. But they must not be confused with indolence, with, in the words of Theodore Roosevelt, “slothful-ease,” with an increasing deterioration of our physical strength. For the strength of our youth and the fitness of our adults are among our most important assets, and this growing decline is a matter of urgent concern to thoughtful Americans.
Be a thoughtful American. Grab your kettlebells and start training.
10 Powerful Ways to Use the Kettlebell to Improve your Strength and Conditioning
Kettlebell Swing - Grip with one hand or two hands depending on the load, volume, and intensity you need. The kettlebell swing is not a squat, front shoulder raise, or any combination of the two. Instead, the kettlebell swing is all about developing the glutes and hamstrings (a.k.a the posterior chain). A forceful contraction of the glutes and hammies should send the kettlebell floating to eye-level with generally straight arms. When properly integrated into a well-planned training program, this one exercise has the potential to significantly increase your performance on every single ACFT event.
Turkish Get-up (TGU) - Rumor has it that in Soviet Russia, you couldn’t come of age until you could complete a 100 pound TGU. The TGU is a ridiculously effective tool for simultaneously developing coordination, mobility, trunk strength and stability, and can even be used to develop elite conditioning.
Goblet Squat - The goblet squat is an ideal exercise to use as a natural progression from air squats to front squats with a loaded barbell. Holding the kettlebell in the goblet position may actually improve the squat mechanics of a novice squatter and assist in “grooving” the appropriate movement pattern prior to advancing to a heavier load. Tabata goblet squats should be a mainstay in every platoon’s physical readiness training.
For Experienced Trainees
For All Athletes and Aspiring Athletes
Carries like the single kettlebell waiter carry and the suitcase carry are proven effective at developing smaller muscles critical to athletic performance that squatting and deadlifting do not develop. For a more in-depth description of how these exercises contribute to athletic performance, check out this post.
“The kettlebell is an ancient Russian weapon against weakness.” - Pavel Tsatsouline