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    Russian Kettlebell Challenge

    Kettlebell Training for USAF Pararescue
    By: Nathanael Morrison, Pararescueman, RKC

              Russian Kettlebell Challenge Book

    Authors Note:

    In writing this article, I have not used quotations or footnotes. The information taken from ARRSR 55-11 is in different print. The rest of this article is full of information taken from books written by Pavel Tsatsouline and from my time spent training with him. He is the master to whom the real credit must go for educating me, and thousands of others across the country. Anything written by Pavel is definitely required reading for anyone serious about strength training or human performance. Please visit his works at This is also the only place you can get Kettlebells in the USA. They are expensive but well worth the money. You will not regret it.

    PART 1

    The old Pararescue "Bible" ARRSR 55-11, Vol II (1 Sept 1983), Chapter 8, section 15 is titled Physical Readiness. This regulation was the collective work of the Vietnam era legends who fought hard and took the fight to the enemy in the most noble of military professions, Combat Search and Rescue. These men flew as far north as the Chinese border of Vietnam to recover downed aircrews. They operated in Vietnam, Thailand, Laos, and Cambodia. Many lost their lives, and many heroes were born. What’s more, the wealth of knowledge that was gained from ten years of fighting is still invaluable today.

    ARRSR 55-11, Chapter 8-15, Paragraph a. states the following: "Total fitness for combat includes technical fitness, mental and emotional fitness, and physical fitness. If any of these attributes are lacking, combat effectiveness suffers proportionately. Without technical fitness, a Pararescuemen lacks the knowledge and skill for combat, without mental and emotional fitness, he lacks the incentive and confidence for combat, and without physical fitness he lacks the physical ability and stamina for combat."

    The chapter goes on to identify several key factors that are vital for combat performance such as "the ability to recover from exertion rapidly". It further states, "A sound body, free of disease and defect, does not in itself constitute physical fitness." This is a point that seems to be lost on the majority of folks, and vice versa, working out with an unsound body does not constitute physical fitness either. There’s more: "Before an untrained Pararescuemen can be considered physically fit for combat, he must develop the following important traits.

    1. Strength
    2. Endurance

      1. Muscular Endurance
      2. Circulo-respiratory Endurance

    3. Agility
    4. Coordination

    The authors go further to ensure there is no confusion.

    Every Pararescueman needs sufficient strength to perform the heaviest task he may encounter in routine emergency activities. The basic areas of heavy-duty strength required in him are in the arm and shoulder girdle, abdomen, back, and legs.
    Each Pararescueman needs sustaining power to maintain his maximum ability without undue fatigue. There are two types of endurance:

    MUSCULAR ENDURANCE. The Pararescueman needs muscular endurance to perform his duties under the most tiring combat conditions. Muscular endurance is characterized by the ability to perform continuous work over long periods of time. The ability to endure depends on the ability of the blood and circulatory system to deliver large amounts of oxygen and nutrients to the muscles while rapidly carrying away the waste products.

    CIRCULO-RESPIRATORY ENDURANCE. The development of wind (circulo-respiratory endurance) is necessary to maintain muscular endurance. Circulo-respiratory endurance depends the efficiency of the blood vessels, lungs, and heart. The maximum effort a man can exert over a period of time is limited by his capacity to absorb oxygen and expel carbon dioxide. The average man’s circulo-respiratory capacity can be greatly increases by exercise.


    A Pararescueman must be able to change direction quickly and as faultlessly as possible. The ability to react instantly and to maintain equilibrium during rapid changes of body position may save his life. This important characteristic of agility may be developed by conditioning exercises that require varied and rapid changes of body position on the ground and in the air (e.g. when falling or jumping).


    Coordination is the ability to move all parts of the body in a smooth, efficient, and concerted effort (commonly called timing). A well-coordinated individual does not make useless movements. He moves with precision and accuracy and thus saves energy. Coordination is best developed by practicing diversified muscular activities and skills affecting all body parts.

    Thus far, our forefathers have imparted their wisdom on the physical fitness traits needed to survive, and thrive in combat. This is not unlike reading something a great martial arts grandmaster has written. Every time I read it, something new pops out. Most usually I am reminded that most of us forget the basics. Further on the chapter lists and describes 21 "Basic Physical Skills":

    1. Running
    2. Jumping
    3. Dodging
    4. Climbing and Surmounting (walls, cliffs)
    5. Vertical Climbing (ropes or Poles)
    6. Running-Jumping-Vaulting
    7. Hook and Swing (low walls)
    8. Dropping
    9. Climbing Ladders and Nets
    10. Traversing Horizontal Objects (Horizontal ropes, pipes, etc with feet hanging)
    11. Crawling
    12. High crawling
    13. Low Crawling
    14. Throwing (kneeling and standing)
    15. Vaulting (low barriers, fences)
    16. Carrying
    17. Fireman’s Carry
    18. Saddleback Carry
    19. Single-shoulder Carry
    20. Balancing
    21. Falling

    In addition to those skills listed above, it is also stated that activities such as Rucksack Speed Marching, cross country running, wind sprints, and circuit training are vital parts of true combat fitness. I would include swimming to this list.

    With a guide like this you would think that life on the teams when it comes to physical fitness is a breeze. It isn’t. Unfortunately ARRSR 55-11 is not officially used any more. The USAF Air Rescue and Recovery Service (ARRS) doesn’t exist anymore, and the military has a funny way of discarding the past, doomed to repeat the mistakes made years earlier. The huge surge of bodybuilding and aerobics in this country clouded the minds of those who designed fitness programs in the military, and in branches like the US Army, rhyme, reason, and logic are non-existent in their daily PT.

    As a Pararescueman, normally referred to as a PJ, I received a very good education in athletics when I went through selection and the following pipeline of Jump School, Combat Diver School, SERE School, Military Freefall School, and Pararescue School. I was a farmer and logger from northeastern Vermont and while I did a lot of weight lifting, I knew little about calisthenics, running, or swimming. After becoming a lean machine, I started bodybuilding during my medical training to get ready for the field and tactics phase of training. I ate right, I slept well, I pushed myself, and I did in fact gain a good deal of lean muscle mass. But a few things happened when I did this. The first thing I noticed was that I couldn’t run nearly as fast as I needed to and with big thighs, comes lots of chafing. In combat, you do not have spandex to help you out. I didn’t worry too much though. According to all the muscle magazines I was strong as an ox and I was going to be able to kick some major butt in any area of life.

    That illusion faded after about the first 20 minutes in the field. Master Sergeant Copper, a thin wiry guy strapped on his ruck, and we followed suit. The packs weighed about 80lbs, sometimes more. Copper took off like a bat out of hell. It was all we could do to keep up in the steep mountains and high plateaus of New Mexico. According to the magazines I should have smoked that old man! I had trained for five months for this day and 20 minutes into it I faced the fact that it had all been a waste. Fortunately for my ego I was not alone. The rest of the class who had done some weight lifting and calisthenics was no better off. We were all in a world of hurt. All the weight I gained and those awesome muscles that turned women’s eyes vanished over the next couple months. I got skinny again and adapted to my new role as a pack mule. It was a very difficult time for me. I loved bodybuilding and I loved the gym. Muscle and Fitness was my bible and I was faithful to it. Now what?

    I spent the next 7 years trying to find the balance between lifting weights and endurance. It seemed that guys who did power lifting were always way too slow. They couldn’t run well with or with out a load and they tired easily. Bodybuilders are notorious for collapsing in the field because they have to be fed all the time, thus they are worthless. Runners can’t carry heavy loads and neither can calisthenics gurus. We are truly reinventing the wheel and with little success. Most operators have a deep-set defense mechanism and they will accuse someone of being weak if he admits that he feels he could be stronger. They say that they are good to go and that you should get back in the gym. This narrow-minded approach catches up with them eventually in the form of bad backs and knees to name a few ailments. By then their attitude has shifted and they have ruined their bodies. I am determined not to allow that.

    Last year I began a quest to find the Holy Grail of fitness. I knew it was out there. It had to be. I was about to give up until one day I picked up Muscle Media magazine and was introduced to Pavel Tsatsouline and Dragon Door Publications. That day my life changed and a few months later I had a set of Kettlebells, and a few months after that I was standing in front of Pavel in his Kettlebell Instructor Certification Course. Life hasn’t been the same since. I don’t have rippling muscles or anything. I spend too much time on irregular sleep schedules and my diet is a mix of anything I can get and MREs and lately I have been in the field a lot so I get to work out only a few times a week if I am lucky. BUT, my functional strength has gone through the roof. My legs, back, shoulders, abs, and arms are functionally much stronger than they were. I have to laugh now because on long patrols I see the young new guys suffering under the weight of their packs while I feel fine. I watch as their strength is sapped in the Florida heat and how they try to do anything they can to shift the load. I laugh at their foolish bull headed insistence that they know what they are doing and go to the gym more and only get weaker in the field. They may physically look better, but their performance in the field tells a different story. In the last couple months I have tested Pavel’s training in all manner of special operations missions on land and in the water. His knowledge and advice are worth his weight in diamonds. After all, it was his job to make sure that the Spetsnaz were as strong as they could possibly be. With Pavel at the helm, I’m glad I never had to fight any of them!

    A few weeks ago I stumbled on to a box of old books and regulations that Master Sergeant Dave Young had left at the 41st RQS when he retired. In that I found the old ARRSR 55-11 Volumes 1&2. I read chapter 8 with amazement. Had we forgotten all that wisdom so soon? Unfortunately yes we have.

    PART 2

    Enter Mother Russia. A hard land filled with hard people. For you and I, their research concerning physical culture is a gold mine. It may be difficult to understand, but Mother Russia has done more than her fair share of research in what I call "Human Potential". Many of us remember Russia as the enemy, a cold war villain. These days we tend to think of it as a poor and starving country, which may or may not be a threat. Looking deeper at this society, we see a country with few frills and little luxury that was determined to show the world what they were made of. This took the form of sports and military might. This is significant because unlike the US, Soviet government money poured in to support research and development in the "Human Potential" arena. In the US, sports training was left to a handful of coaches and relied on trial and error. Literally reinventing the wheel. Very little money was given to universities to study human potential. Here in the land of plenty we fell behind.

    In many ways, the Soviets failed in the military department. In some ways they excelled. Did you know that every single unit had a gym? Even submarines! Clearly they had some good direction. Can you imagine if every company or squadron in the US military had a gym?

    Russian sports have excelled in many areas. Hockey, wrestling, weight lifting, swimming, etc… The Russians cleaned house in events involving strength. The techniques they used from day one are only now being discovered and touted as revolutions in fitness by the powerlifting communities and in sports arenas such as the NFL, NHL, Soccer, and basketball to name a few. Much of this is due to the work of Pavel Tsatsouline and Coach John Davies (the secret weapon of many winning sports teams today). What was their secret weapon of choice? Kettlebells.

    Kettlebells (KB) are a little intimidating at first. Shaped like a cannonball with a handle attached, most people look at them and raise their eyebrows. Some even laugh. Then they pick them up and find the balance of a KB is just plain weird. They then try to look like its no big thing and walk away quickly. Its lots of fun to watch. Kettlebell origins are lost to history, but their track record is proven. The KB can be used for a number of things. It is an awesome tool to improve your cardiovascular fitness. It is common for your heart rate to hit 190-200BPM during the ballistic lifts. When I first started I worked out attached to a LifePak-10 and Pulse Oximeter just to confirm the fact. Its true! Many KB lifters (Girevik) experience a 25BPM drop in the first 2 months of their resting heart rate. With just a few reps you will be gasping for breath so badly that you will have to stop. Be assured this is the beginning to a hard but rewarding journey. With ballistic drills, your strength endurance will skyrocket.

    KBs are awesome for working the whole body. One unique way they do this is through a very distorted placement of balance. The weight of a dumbbell is well balanced. Not a KB! It is always off to one side or another. It’s never quite right. It takes the whole body working together to actually perform the lift. Another very important point is that a KB will never allow you to daze off the way you can do through a set of leg curls or a cardio work out. The instant that you divert your attention, the KB will get your attention in a hurry and it may hurt like hell. Nothing gets your attention faster than a 24kg KB on your foot or head. Thus you are definitely training the mind as well as the body. Many articles in magazines talk about using a concentrated mindset to improve your lifts. A KB requires it; there is no choice in the matter.

    KB lifting dramatically strengthens the tendons and ligaments of your body. They also promote development of stabilizing muscles like nothing else due to their balance. They are also superior for building muscle because in all lifts, there is a greater load on the muscle through out the full range of motion. A dumbbell or barbell curl drops its load at the end of the rep, not so with a KB.

    Kettlebell lifting will also build an iron core, strengthening your back and legs at every turn. They are also superior in abdominal development due to the required high-tension techniques.

    Simple workouts with kettlebells lasting from 10-45 minutes will do amazing things for your Strength, Endurance, Agility, and Coordination. Because you are performing these movements and lifts with weight you build all of the four combat fitness traits at the same time. Specialization can be done, but seems unnecessary for the combat soldier.

    The fact is Kettlebells may well be the single most effective work out tool in existence. They will allow you to become functionally stronger than you have ever been, and prepare you for combat operations. It WILL directly improve your ability to perform the 21 "Basic Physical Skills" as well as ruck marching, swimming, etc…

    To further emphasize this point, in 1983, a Soviet scientist named Vorapeyev finished a multi-year study using the standard Soviet Military PT test as the test criteria: Pull-ups, Standing Broad Jump, 100m Sprint, and 1k run. There were two groups tested. The first trained specifically for these exercises and used the most modern facilities. The second group used nothing but Kettlebells, an ancient weight resembling a cannonball with a handle. Much to the researchers’ surprise, the Kettlebell group always came out on top by a long run! This despite the fact that they never trained specifically for the tested exercises! More tests and studies were done immediately testing grip strength, strength endurance, and three powerlifts. They found that a Kettlebell lifter has far superior strength-endurance and strength-coordination than other weight lifting athletes. Further more, despite the fact that the KB group never specifically trained for certain exercises they always came out on top proving that Kettlebells better prepared the athlete for a full range of activities.

    This point was not lost on the military. They were ecstatic. Here was an activity that would prepare the troops physically for anything they faced in the field; and all with out expensive fancy gym equipment. Immediately, all military units were outfitted with a full compliment of Kettlebells.

    The government’s discovery was nothing new to the Russian sporting communities. Kettlebells had always been the primary strengthening tool of athletes and they were put into legend by strongmen like Arthur Saxon and Eugene Sandow. Nor was the Kettlebell unknown to the military. There is an official military KB competition every year, and the soviet airborne and special operations units have always used them.

    In the early 90’s, a Soviet Spetsnaz Drill Instructor immigrated to the USA and became a revolution by himself. A nationally ranked Kettlebell lifter with a degree in Physical Culture, Pavel Tsatsouline has been spreading this priceless training around the country developing a following of amazingly dedicated and powerful students. I had the great pleasure of training with this man, and I am now a Certified Kettlebell Instructor. It is with this knowledge I now possess, that I will now talk to you about incorporating Kettlebells and high-tension techniques into your workouts resulting in enhanced sports performance and true Combat Fitness.

    Kettlebells for Combat Fitness

    Bodybuilding won’t help you in the field. Powerlifting has some benefits. Olympic Lifting has more benefits than strict powerlifting. Kettlebell lifting directly benefits every single activity that special operations soldiers engage in.

    I have explained that they build superior cardiovascular endurance, strength endurance, strength coordination, tendon and ligament strength, and mind-body coordination. But how do you work them into your daily PT?

    First you have to buy a set. I won’t lie. They are expensive. Once you have them and get used to them you will never look back. They are only available at along with the books and tapes from Pavel Tsatsouline, which explain everything I have, but in greater detail.

    Next, get rid of your current routine! Replace it with joint mobility exercises when you wake up. Doing so will remove the need to "warm up" which is a silly idea for a soldier in the first place. If you think that a cave man warmed up before he ran down a deer you are sadly mistaken!

    Then begin a combination of bodyweight exercises and Kettlebells. For example, do the following exercises for your Monday morning work out: Jump rope, Windmills (KB), 1 arm push ups, Military press, 1 leg squats, Pull ups, and KB snatches.

    After much progress in these or other exercises spelled out by Pavel, be sure to begin to gravitate towards a strong core. You do this by working in exercises that work the legs, back, and abs. Perhaps by doing more squatting lifts, deadlifts, pull-ups, and Janda sit-ups.

    When your core has reached great strength, now you can begin to get really serious! Advanced lifts like the Bent Press and the Two Hands Anyhow will challenge you in new ways. Increase the number of reps in ballistic lifts like the Snatch. Try for 50 reps per arm with 24Kg! As you begin these new trials of strength and endurance you will become something of a machine in the field. Rarely tiring and able to go on like that damn pink bunny in the old Energizer commercials.

    What about Running and Swimming? Do not stop doing these activities, but be sure to follow these two rules:

    1. DO NOT do any cardio immediately prior to KB lifting!!!! The KB will win and that will hurt you!
    2. If you do run or swim before lifting, be sure to space these activities out throughout the day. For example, I love to run or swim in the mornings. I do my KB lifting at night in my living room.

    Here are some more guidelines for working out with or with out Kettlebells.

    The authors of ARRSR 55-11 obviously did their homework. The "Strength Circuit Conditioning" section provides the following guidance. My comments are in parentheses.

    -Be sure to warm up and cool down before and after exercising. (Use joint mobility exercises to "warm up". Use walking and light stretching to "cool down")

    -A circuit is a circle of men who perform the exercises together.

    -Each member will take a turn deciding what the next exercise will be. For example, after a set of pushups, the next man to the right will choose the next exercise and reps.

    -Vigorously accomplish low reps of each exercise. (Excellent!)

    -Do multiple repetitions of the circuit. (Be sure to do the same exercises for each circuit, i.e. C1-Pushups, pull-ups, Janda sit-ups, Military press. C2-Repeat C1)

    -There are no set exercises you have to use for each circuit. (Variety is essential, but do not vary too much from day to day. Have some core exercises that make up ¾ of the circuit an ¼ is anything the team wants. Feel free to vary the order each day or even each circuit)

    -The interval between exercises should be two minutes or less. (Yes, for soldiers who must build their recovery capability. Be sure to walk around during this rest interval to assist your body’s recovery)

    -Not every man will be able to complete the workout. Some may only be able to do two full circuits while other will be able to do five or more. Regardless, everyone will get the maximum benefit from this type of training.

    -Normally five complete circuits will be completed in 30-45 min. (Excellent, notice the time does not exceed 45 minutes. More than this results in Neurological decline and injury)

    -Rarely exceed 25 reps per exercise. (Excellent for exercises like push-ups. For 1 leg squats and similar difficult exercises, do no more than 5 reps. For ballistic lifts like snatches, there is no limit)

    The same guidance applies to Kettlebells. Some additional guidance is required though.

    1. Train 2-7 times a week (5-7 if military or law enforcement)
    2. Each session do as few or as many exercises as you wish but do not work all of them equally hard on every one of them.
    3. Perform your exercises in a circuit.
    4. The order of the drills in the rotation is up to you.
    5. Start your practice with the most technically demanding exercise.
    6. The total number of sets is up to you. (3-20, what ever works. Vary it)
    7. Never go to failure but do vary the difficulty of your sets.
    8. Generally perform no more than five reps per set.
    9. Snatches, cleans and jerks can be performed for any number of reps, from one to hundreds.
    10. Periodically speed up or slow down the movement from the comfortable pace.

    More tips for Kettlebells:

    -For pure strength, rest longer between exercises.

    -For endurance, shorten your rest.

    -For Muscular endurance, meet in the middle.

    -For military personnel warming up is not exactly required. You should perform a Super Joints circuit when you wake up. That is more than enough. On the battlefield, you will not have the opportunity to warm up.

    -Do not exceed 45 minutes per workout. In the beginning you will be wiped out in 5-10 minutes. More than 45 minutes and you have reached a point of diminishing returns.

    As you can see, Kettlebells fit in perfectly with team PT. If you follow the model given to us in ARRSR 55-11 you can successfully run a fun and challenging PT session anytime. For variety you can choose to do just calisthenics from time to time and once a week the team should run an obstacle course and/or conduct a road march for time (I prefer the idea of a road march once a month when you are doing a lot of KB work). When it comes to large teams, break down the team so you have two or more circuits going at the same time. The optimum number of men per circuit is 10. If you have 20 or more, obviously you will have to restrict the number of people who get to name exercises. Too many exercises will take you over the 45-minute time schedule. Be creative and use variety.

    A good NCO or Commander will also see the value of Kettlebells from a deployment standpoint. I have been in forward areas many times with inadequate gym facilities and we were forced to improvise. It never worked out quite right. Kettlebells on the other hand are the perfect forward area workout tools. All you need is a couple KBs of different weights and you will always have the ability to work out effectively in any place. You don’t need any more space than a broom closet or a small patch of outdoors. They take up next to no space in the ISU-90 and you can keep them in a corner or under a table in the tent. How could it get any better?

    I hope by now you see and understand the amazing versatility of Kettlebells. I have given you history, scientific studies, US and Soviet workout tips, and explanation on why the Kettlebell is the best combat fitness and conditioning tool available. Dare to break a few so-called rules, get back to the basics, and start living and thriving again with this amazing tool. ENJOY!


    As I finish this article, Pavel Tsatsouline has gone and done it again! He has created the long anticipated Tactical Strength Challenge! Be sure to check out this awesome contest of combat fitness at Tactical Strength Challenge! and be humbled by the criteria to simply compete! This should be your goal that fuels your workouts!

    Nathanael Morrison, RKC has been a member of USAF Pararescue for eight years. He is currently stationed at Hurlburt Field, FL. Due to frequent deployments he is not normally available for one-on-one training. He is available for training advice, especially for those interested in joining special operations teams and the occasional client. Contact him at

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