Large gains

Few years ago I had a session with the Starting Strength affiliate in Sydney. When it came to planning the progressions the coach said: get fractional plates. If you add 1 kg to 110 kg squat you are getting stronger without too much effort.

Few years before that I trained under the guidance of Sergey Rudnev, a coach who hardly needs an introduction. Being five times World Champion he also produced scores of Master of Sports in Girevoy Sport. One of the first things I was supposed to do is to get intermediate kettlebells. I got an adjustable one.

More recently I did a post about Dmitry Sokolov and his method, Megarepeats. This method is also about slow, gradual progression in the number of reps and the load in your given lift or movement.

Enter the Strong First and its King, Pavel Tsatsouline. I don't need to advertise that guy - he has books, seminars, articles and what not and is an acknowledged guru of all things kettlebell. Pavel's greatest strength is the ability to read in Russian, and translating Russian sports research is a very productive activity. Something I have been doing here when GS info elsewhere has been very limited.

I don't have a problem with Pavel's writings in general. Every training method has its ups and downs. The same about Russian research: some is great, some is so-so and some of it comes up with unsubstantiated conclusions. This is not the point of this post however.

The point is when something debatable becomes a law. Something that is supposed to be followed with the dedication of of that to the Biblical commandments. I am talking about weight progression in kettlebell training. More precisely, in the program Simple and Sinister.

In 2013 Pavel wrote an article: 6 Reasons for the Leaps Between Kettlebell Sizes. In Pavel's opinion the progression should be done in large jumps - from 16 kg to 24 kg and from 24 kg to 32 kg. Not immediately, of course, but gradually adding a set or two Ove the course of several weeks with the kettlebell next size.

The article is an opinion piece, and all of the six reasons presented by the author are debatable. Let's quickly go through each of them.

Number 1. 

Soviet scientists like Prof. Arkady Vorobyev discovered that sharp changes in load are superior to small changes when it comes to delivering the message to your body: “Get strong!” Russians scoff at those mini-plates many Western bodybuilders add to their barbells. 

Pavel doesn't do a great jib referencing his articles, and this one is not an exception. The link "Arkady Vorobyev" takes you to the Wiki page with Vorobyev's bio, not his research that supports the statement in the paragraph. I don't have the time to look for Vorobyev's research, but I am certain of two things. One - his research relates to weightlifting's which is maximal effort for one rep and not to kettlebells, which - never mind GS or Hardstyle - is lifting for many reps. Including S&S which is 100 reps. Two - he did not mean 50% increases in training load which what going from 16 to 24 kg is. 

Number 2. 

Dan John, Master SFG gives the second reason. 
Why I like kettlebells: you have so little choice. Dumbbells go up in many gyms by ten pounds, some five, some even a pound at a time. A thousand machines for bench presses… a million combos.

Stop! The brain can only take so much!With kettlebells, I have really only up to three choices… often only one… for an exercise…Less choice: less mental RAM going out the door. The more you choose, the less you have left over to push the workout. Those leg innie and outie machines can convince you that you are working your legs. You’re not… but you can use your brain to convince you that you are…
No choice. More work.
I suspect there is context to this statement. Sure, there is time when limited weight selection is useful - such as when coaching a group of students - and there is also time and place when weights in small increments are useful. The quote is a little bizarre - it mixes together exercise selection and weight progressions, but can argue there is a connection. My mental RAM is pretty capable of 1 kg weight increases though. 
Number 3. 
A Senior SFG has noted that a very gradual progression in weight enables the trainee to sneak up on a heavier bell. This robs him of technical “a-ha” moments. 
Technical a-ha moments do not require heavy weights. From my modest experience, it's the reps that give you the realisation of technical aspects of a lift. There is a actually a cognitive disconnect here. On one hand, Pavel is against the grinds and Easy Strength is a common theme in his writings. On the other, in this instance you have to all tense up and brace for a weight that is much more challenging than your current one. Remember - we are talking about 50% increase. 
I may be ignorant, but I don't get it how "sneaking up on heavier bell" is a bad thing. 
Number 4. 

Baby steps rob you of an opportunity to man up against heavy weight.

Baby steps also decrease the risk of injury. "Man up" ego trips are the main reason lifters get injured. "Heavy" is relative and it varies from day to day. If you are training for a GS competition pushing yourself on regular basis in training makes sense: you may not be in your top form on the competition day and have to learn in advance how to deal with it. On the other hand, if you are lifting for general fitness you don't have to do it. 

Number 5. 

Those baby steps also prevent you from developing the ability to accurately estimate your strength on a given day. Russian powerlifting coaches occasionally hold an in-house competition for their lifters—allowing only one attempt per lift.

And so you will not be able to accurately estimate your strength on a given day... And if you get injured by doing a TGU with the weight that is beyond your abilities you will know for sure that you shouldn't have tried it...

Number 6. 

Last but not least, most Russian strength coaches insist on doing a lot of quality lifts with medium weights. Russian kettlebells force you to do just that. Say you want to make a transition from pressing a 53-pound bell to pressing a seventy-pounder. That is a 32% jump, a true leap of faith! There is no way you can overcome the big one without first working up to pressing fifty or more perfect reps per workout with the smaller one. Bill Starr will tell you that the broader is the base, the taller pyramid you can build.

I have no problem with lots of quality lifts with medium weights. I just still don't see how this calls for 32% up in weight progression. Start with a given weight, gradually build up the volume. When you are ready increase the weight by 2 kg. Repeat. What's wrong with that?

I want to clarify couple of things about kettlebells in the former USSR. Girevoy Sport as such became more or less popular only in the 1980-s, and before then kettlebells were used to supplement other training. Nobody knew of KB lift other than one arm press. I may be wrong, but I am talking from the point of view of an average Soviet citizen. Moreover, everything in USSR was in short supply, and to me it is no surprise that kettlebells existed in only three sizes. It's not because of some sophisticated science, but because that's what we had. Sure, it had advantages, but limited selection made training difficult. 

Most importantly, it is dogma and following someone's ideas blindly that interferes with the training progress and get people injured. A few days someone asks about his troubles progressing from 16 to 24 kg in S&S. He can barely press 24 kg off the floor with two arms, what should he do? What is the problem for him to use smaller increase in weight, say moving to 18 or 20 kg bell? Is this going to rob him of a-ha technical moment? Should he be worried about not being able to estimate is strength on a given day? Will his mental RAM get overloaded by using a smaller kettlebell? According to Steve Freides the answer is yes to all of the above. 

I am a strong believer in slow progress. Small incremental increases that are almost unnoticeable. own the weight, increase it a little and so on. Kettlebells are not very cheap, and the idea of dishing out considerable amount of money for intermediate sizes can put some people off getting them in the first place. It shouldn't. Kettlebells are a useful training tool. You can also save a lot of money by getting adjustable kettlebell, like I did. Or you can still progress from 16 kg to 24 kg, but not in a way described in S&S. Instead of doing the same lifts - TGU and swing - you can do something else, such as clean and jerk, rack squat, loaded carries etc. and get stronger that way first. The try the S&S lifts with heavier bell again. 

After doing many stupid things over the years I would say the most important thing in training is to not get injured. Progress is less important. Forget about the dogma, progress slowly, and you can do it until the old age.