I was first intrigued by the relationship between Girevoy Sport (competitive kettlebell lifting) and martial arts when I realized how many amateur male Gireviks (practitioners of Girevoy Sport) were or are practicing martial artists. In this article, I will explore some features common to both pursuits and some conspicuous differences.
Let’s begin by exploring how a weightlifting sport can be considered martial (or its practitioners, warriors). It would be reasonable to question the relationship, since many Gireviks practice their sport without conscious awareness of any connection to martial arts or ways. Additionally, if asked, many would minimize or refute such a connection to their sport. However, a warrior mindset seems to be beneficial to those who embrace its meaning.
Truthfully, most martial arts do not prepare practitioners for combat with a trained and armed opponent. A few notable exceptions are Systema and Krav-Maga. Certainly Kali has few rivals in confrontation involving percussive or edged weapons. Most martial arts, at their highest level of expression, have a primary goal of the perfection of the practitioner’s character. As an example, Colonel Rex Applegate, the founder of Combato (a simple, direct, and effective combat method developed for the Office of Secret Services during WWII), saw his program as a confidence builder and a tool for instances of “last resort”
How might the practice of Girevoy Sport be influenced by its meaning to the practitioner? Perhaps a musical analogy would be helpful. While listening to a Bach concerto, some may be bored, others captivated by the melody or harmony, and still others profoundly moved by the beauty. Some may be moved to the point of viewing it as a metaphor for the orderly working of creation. For those at one end of the spectrum, the experience was meaningless (and perhaps unpleasant), while to those at the other end of the spectrum, the experience was deeply meaningful, a pleasure to be sought repeatedly. This suggests a powerful connection between meaning and behavior that may be relevant to Girevoy Sport and the attributes of being a warrior.
Girevoy Sport Training
Girevoy Sport is a cyclic (repetitive) activity requiring the prolonged demonstration of both power (defined traditionally as speed plus strength) and endurance. Implicit in the definition is an ability to relax at appropriate times. Its practice requires discipline and commitment. It is an exquisitely demanding sport wherein excellence requires physical, intellectual, and emotional life-style commitment. This implies that the practice would be quickly abandoned by many if the athletes’ motivations are not considered personally meaningful.
The reasons people train and compete can range from attaining and maintaining a reasonable level of physical fitness, to practicing a deeply spiritual method of character refinement. Along this continuum are motivations in numerous shades of grey. Some enjoy sharing the experience with friends, others have a strong desire to compete, and some simply love the refined kinesthetic movements of the lifts.
No motivation is “right” or “wrong”, but some can contribute to a more sustained and productive career as a lifter. Few athletes would endure the pain and sacrifice of serious practice simply to “stay in shape.” There are far easier routes to that end. A motivation to demolish the competition in meets is a reasonable and sometimes necessary motivation to succeed in a sustained practice. Many athletes, however, would find that competitiveness alone lacks the depth to nourish a lifter over a long period of time. Even wishing to consistently improve ones’ ranking and status in the sport has limits as a
primary motivator. How many medals or trophies must you win before saying “enough is enough – why am I doing this?” Certainly, the greatest among us have asked themselves those questions (and only the truly great have chosen to persist when challenged by such doubt).
Given these examples, we can see that the meaning given to Girevoy Sport practice, and the motivations arising from those meanings must be multiple, complex, and of varying potencies. Motivations similar to those found in martial disciplines have great power to engage and sustain a meaningful Girevoy Sport practice.
The Martial Art of Girevoy Sport
Initially, it may sound odd to compare a weightlifting sport to the martial arts. You could stretch your imagination and view the giri (kettlebell) as a percussive or projectile weapon, and thereby legitimize the connection. A well-known anecdote concerns an extremely powerful senior practitioner who, when engaged in an actual life and death combat situation (and in full possession of modern weaponry), regressed to beating in his enemy’s head with a rock. Such things do happen, and a giri would have been a fine alternative (it even has a handle!).
There is, however, a preponderance of similarities at the core of each activity. Once the deeper dimensions of practice are introduced, the two activities are more similar than dissimilar.
One element that is shared by both martial arts and Girevoy Sport is the early need to confront ones’ unrealistic expectations. Reasons for beginning practice are diverse and range from the difference the practice will make in ones’ life, to how quickly one can attain rank and status. When unrealistic expectations are confronted, the athlete must decide whether or not to persevere in the activity. This usually happens once the difficulty of practice is initially perceived (usually sooner rather than later).
Other shared elements include the necessity of mastering a staged and progressive curriculum of body awareness beginning with large movements and progressing to ever more subtle movements. An adversary or an unwieldy inert object (like a kettlebell) can fail to cooperate with the practitioner’s intent, thus slowing the learning curve. Both Girevoy Sport and martial arts demand commitment to the self-discipline necessary to sustain a practice that can be boring, excessively challenging, painful, and possibly lonely depending on the proximity of colleagues. In both activities, progress is seldom linear and may actually appear absent for prolonged periods of time. Finally, both require that one submit to instruction from a master practitioner without whom, learning would be difficult and outcome shallow.
In addition to the above commonalities which may be considered negative, some more positive elements may also be shared by the two activities including growth in selfconfidence, self-discipline, and sense of mastery. Dedicated practice can result in an enhanced ability to pare away those elements of life that are not conducive to larger goals or are possibly even self-defeating. Veteran practitioners can experience an increased capacity to withstand frustration, adversity, and pain. These are the building blocks of the development of an indomitable spirit. Practice may foster a new or renewed sense of joy in bodily movement. Hopefully, the outcome of these benefits will include an increased sense of respect for self and others and the opportunity to establish quality relationships within and outside the art and sport.
Foundational Similarities between Girevoy Sport & Martial Arts
Martial Arts and Girevoy Sport share a common learning sequence, i.e., observation, teaching, mastery.
The ideal match between teacher and student is when the teacher is skilled in performance and instruction and genuinely wishes to share knowledge and when the student is ready to learn and has the requisite qualities to absorb and integrate the teaching. The fact that few students become masters themselves is testimony to the infrequency with which all of these factors are present.
In both martial arts and Girevoy Sport, postures and movements progress from simple to complex. In both activities, students are taught to generate power beginning in the feet, progressing through the lower extremities, converting to directionality in the core, and transferring to upper extremities, which are relaxed until the moment of impact. Both martial arts and Girevoy Sport teach congruence of breath with movement. In traditional striking arts, these are taught through forms into which the student may “pour” themselves. These forms are encyclopedic compendia of possible vectors of energy (one’s own, as well as those of the “opponent”). In Girevoy Sport, instruction begins with the simple swing, from which increasingly complex movement is extrapolated.
The foundational goal of both martial arts and Girevoy Sport therefore, is creation of movement that is economical, efficient, and engrained beyond the necessity of conscious thought. This is achieved by constant mindful repetition and application in confrontational or competitive experiences. The IKSFA coaching manual states, “Reliability and economy of movement is achieved through the learning of the technique that eventually assures automation of movement and stability of the technique against various factors that might distract the athlete.”
Advanced Girevoy Practice
Many martial arts instructors maintain that there is no advanced practice, just a refinement of foundations applied in different combinations. Until one reaches the level of excellence Bruce Lee described as a punch is just a punch and a kick is just a kick, it is necessary to stress mindfulness in practice so that one is directed to every conceivable permutation of movement (or stillness) under consideration. Achievement of this in martial arts is illustrated by Bruce’s legendary one-inch punch. One can only achieve such explosive energy when the body’s muscular prime movers are recruited sequentially and antagonistic muscles are relaxed at the appropriate times. The kettlebell Jerk similarly requires a large amount of force in a small range of motion.
Factors confronting the developing Girevik might include: Where do my feet feel the weight of my body and the kettlebells? Could I save energy in the shoulder girdle by a deeper second dip? Would I generate a more powerful first bump if my knees were more parallel? Am I recruiting sufficient energy from my legs in the Snatch or is most or all of my power coming from my posterior chain? How many breaths in fixation are needed at any given pace? How do I deal with an excessively slow count in competition? What do I do if the skin on my hand tears? And the question that haunts many of us: What should I do when I want to quit during a set? The list is endless and truly comprises a palette of that which constitutes advanced practice. Actually, there is a much more fundamental consideration: has the athlete actually continued in practice? Without continued practice, there is no advancement.
Body, Mind, & Spirit
The kata (form) Sanchin, the basis of several major Chinese, Okinawan, and Japanese karate systems, has been translated as Three Battles, connoting the struggle for mastery over body, mind, and spirit. We have touched on some of the experiences relative to the body and mind that face both the martial artist and the Girevoy Sport practitioner. I would like to address the latter conflict, that of the spirit, in this final section.
To define spirit is not easy, but for the purposes of this article, let’s consider the spirit to be that which is neither corporeal (the body) nor cognitive/affective (the mind). That is, spirit is neither physical, nor is it simply a product of intellect or emotion. How do martial arts and Girevoy Sport training affect development of the spirit?
To answer this question, it is necessary to examine several layers of spirit. The primary core of spirit is thought to be eternal and unchanging; therefore, this level is to all practical purposes inaccessible to alteration as a function of any human behavior. A more accessible level of spirit might be thought of as ones’ composite character: how are you predisposed to self and others? What is your capacity for empathy with others? Can you defer gratification? Can you emerge unscathed from the fires of fear, doubt, and confusion? Can you give when you might otherwise wish to receive? These are qualities that belong to the spirit.
Furthermore, has your training allowed you the capacity to actually feel the relativity of time and space? This is taught implicitly in both martial arts and Girevoy Sport. In the strictest sense of the word, this is a selfinduced state of altered consciousness (selfhypnosis) and consequently more cognitive than spiritual, however, the boundaries are grey. Is a ten minute set or a three minute round interminable, or are you able to stand outside the space-time continuum and see minutes as though they were seconds and movement as though it were in slow motion? In spiritual tradition we are taught that the Creator of the universe is timeless and noncorporeal. He may occupy any given space; His existence is not confined to a specific place. As time and space are bound to our world of physical reality, to subtly manipulate your experience of these phenomena, if not spiritual, certainly exists at its borderline.
Some spiritual traditions consider refinement of the spirit and the repair of the world as our highest spiritual goal. I would submit that for most of us, spirit is best refined in the forge of adversity, and that few potentially non-lethal venues can equal or surpass martial training and Girevoy Sport practice in providing that stimulus. Both activities teach one to eat bitter so that they might enjoy sweet. Both involve experiencing and learning to cope with pain. Any delusions one has regarding their relative importance and/or invulnerability are soon shattered in either practice.
Where Martial Arts & Girevoy Sport Diverge
Those with a reasonable tenure in martial arts will acknowledge the existence of advanced practitioners (and debatably masters), who are selfish, arrogant, and self-aggrandizing. Why is this apparent absence of spiritual refinement such a rarity in Girevoy Sport? A compelling argument is that it is possible in martial arts to become fixated on the paradigm of self versus opponent. Unfortunately, as that construct is perverted over time, it becomes possible for anyone (including family and students) to become the enemy. At that point, ones’ focus is solely on the will to receive; others are objectified and the default assumption is what can you do for me? Unfortunately, those individuals never really incorporate the concept that the opponent is not other, but self.
Perhaps this is less frequent in Girevoy Sport due to the apparent lack of an external opponent. That is, no person or thing is actively assaulting you with unwanted physical aggression (although occasionally one is tempted to anthropomorphize and accuse the giri [kettlebell] of malice). To be first is not a bad thing, and you must want to get more repetitions than others to train harder and smarter and maximize your potential. Ultimately, however, each person on the competition platform has only one opponent and that is themselves. Can I rise to the occasion to do more repetitions than I did last time? That is the only decisive question; the only real conflict in training and performance is struggle against those factors which limit potential.
Spiritual Refinement & The Repair of the World
Martin Buber said that the place at which one may best know the Unknowable is the nexus between individuals in relationship. He called this place, the Between I and Thou. Such a place is one of stillness, listening, and empathy and is only possible once the ego or small self has been destroyed (in our case, in the rigors of hard training). As achievement of this quality of relationship with other, places us in the closest proximity to the Devine, it can also serve as a vehicle to improve or repair this broken world of separation, confusion, strife, and nihilism.
Just as in martial arts where there is always someone bigger, stronger, and faster waiting to kick your butt - in the gym and on the platform, the laws of gravity can be defied only so long. The Girevoy Sport practice teaches humility. We know what it feels like to hurt, we can imagine that feeling in others, and resolve to go out of our way to avoid inflicting pain on others. The other can become a Thou rather than an It.
I’ve been amazed in five years of Girevoy Sport practice to experience the humility, kindness, and generosity of most Gireviks. How many times have you witnessed one athlete helping another with advice, emotional support, or simply chalking their kettlebells before a set? Even spectators frequently comment on the typically great atmosphere of a meet. As regards instruction, in over 50 years of sports I have never encountered a more generous group of seniors willing to share their knowledge without reservation or conditional expectations. Nowhere was this more apparent to me than recently in St. Petersburg, Russia at the IKSFA elite sport camp where the who’s-who of Girevoy Sport behaved toward students as though they were closest family. In this respect, we are quite different than most commercial martial arts, where teaching is occasionally denied and always comes at a price.
How does this gentle warrior spirit arise? It is a function of practitioners sharing a common bond of severe training and our unique form of competition. Any Girevoy Sport master can teach you everything about the Jerk event, can share their training program, can suggest a diet, provide a personalized training schedule, and advise about how to prepare for and engage in competition. You will still accomplish only what your genetic gifts, perceptivity, work ethic, and life circumstances prepare you to achieve. You are no threat to them whatsoever, therefore, why should they withhold from you? Happily, the same paradigm applies to us mortals, beginner or veteran.
Thus, in my opinion, the refinement of spirit acquired through hard training and random acts of kindness to others fulfills the dual prescription for achieving full humanity repair of the world one deed at a time - a thing of the spirit.
I suspect most women come to Girevoy Sport from backgrounds other than martial arts. If that is true, other factors contribute to their warrior qualities. We know from empirical research that women excel in endurance sports and have great capacity to tolerate physical discomfort. Capacity to empathize with others and potential to enter I-Thou relationships is taught to girls while young men are pushing each other off hills, learning to establish dominance. I think most women come by warrior traits via genetics and childhood learning experiences. Unfortunately, the composite of the female warrior is not usually valued by society, which may explain why women have emerged as a vital force in Girevoy Sport where these attributes are not only accepted but actively rewarded. My experience is primarily limited to the United States, therefore, it is from that perspective from which I write; I apologize for any statements that may seem foolish in the context of another culture.
Conclusion & Inspiration
Inspiration from a legendary Russian weightlifter:
"The blood of your fathers has turned to water in your veins. Not your lot is it to be strong as they were. Having tasted neither life’s sorrows nor its joy, like a sickling you look at life through a glass. Your skin will shrivel, your muscles grow weak, tedium will devour your flesh destroying desire. Thought will congeal in your skull and horror will stare at you from the mirror. Overcome yourself, overcome yourself. I tremble, I seethe, I clench, I seize the haul." - Yuri Vlasov
Are these not the thoughts of a warrior? Go then to your training with resolve, and strip away all that is not Girevik, and may the time come when men and women can be gentle, and when women and men may be strong Judy Chicago.
This article was featured in the Dec/Jan 2011 Issue of the My Mad Methods Magazine. “Girevik as Warrior: Similarities & Differences Between Girvoy Sport & Martial Arts" was written by the David Elkins. Learn more about the My Mad Methods Magazine by Clicking Here
David Elkins has trained in striking and grappling martial arts for over thirty years and holds a third degree black belt in Uechi-Ryu Pangainoon Classical Chinese-Okinawan self-defense. He began strength training at age 16, and for the past five years has been the United States GS Champion in the senior, 85 and 90kg weight division, 16kg giri, with competition PRs of 130 jerks and 220 snatches. Find out more.
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