What is Strong First and Russian-style training?

Explanation of Russian/SFG/Hardstyle Training, by Master SFG Geoff Neupert.

Strong First is a Russian “hard style” of kettlebell training born in the military, special operations community of the former Soviet Union. In the 1970s select units adopted a karate-based style of hand-to-hand combat. The “hard style” of kettlebell training evolved in the 1980s to support the hard style of fighting. Today SFG is a general physical preparation system for sports and professions that demand high levels of strength, power, and anaerobic conditioning.

Following are the five principles of the SFG system:

1. View of training as practice, not “working out”. To quote Soviet neurophysiologist and biomechanist N. Bernshtein , “Exercise is repetition without repetition.” We view strength, endurance, and other qualities as skills and approach our training as a “practice”, not a “workout.”

2. Yin/Yang focus on relaxation and tension. Tension and relaxation are the two sides of the performance coin. Tension is strength and power. Relaxation is speed, endurance, and
flexibility. The martial arts and many sports demand both. An expert punch stings out like a whip, the fighter’s body loose. But the moment the fist connects the puncher’s body tenses like a statue. Speed got backed up with power and mass. A blink of an eye later the fist is relaxed again as it snaps back to the guard. At AFG we aim to maximize both extremes, tension/strength and relaxation/speed, rather than stay in the middle.

Our slow strength lifts or “grinds” are performed like the Sanchin kata—with dynamic tension. Because muscles generate force by tensing. Tension = force. The tenser your muscles are, the more strength you display and build. We teach how to get stronger by contracting your muscles harder. At the same time we practice our relaxation skills. Mastery of relaxation is a hallmark of an elite athlete. Dr. Leonid Matveyev observed that the higher the athlete’s level, the quicker he can relax his muscles. The Soviet scientist observed an 800% difference between novices and Olympic level sportsmen!

SFG quick lifts, like in karate punches, are rapid-fire sequences of tension and relaxation. John “Roper” Saxon, Bruce Lee’s co-star in Enter theDragon, has told me that Bruce Lee showed him the kettlebell swing the day they met. Bruce would “freeze” the kettlebell momentarily on top of each swing to work on focusing the power of his punches. This is exactly how we do swings in our hard style SFG system.

3. Use of speed endurance training for development of power, different types of endurance, and promoting fat loss SFG chooses “power production over power conservation.” (Randy Hauer) Which allows us to build more power, lose more fat, and spend less time training. Dr. Fred Hatfield points out that at least 75% of a conventional set is wasted. Only certain parts of the lift are hard and only the last reps. The rest is just semi-work and inertia. Hatfield instructs to push as hard as possible against the weight every inch of the way and on every rep. F=ma. Force equals mass multiplied by acceleration. Within reason you can make a given weight as “heavy” as you want by accelerating it. “Now, what took a lifter four workouts to accomplish in the gym, it takes a lifter using compensatory acceleration only one workout!” states Dr. Hatfield who used CAT to achieve one of the first 1,000 pound squats and trained countless elite powerlifters, football and basketball players, and other athletes with great success.

Compensatory acceleration is also very effective for fat loss. In a study that compared the energy expenditures of the same exercise performed explosively and nonexplosively the former predictably burned more calories. “The swing is inefficient, which is why it is a great fat burner,” explains Senior SFG Dan John. “The bike is efficient—and fat people can ride it forever.” To make swings and snatches even harder and more productive we employ “overspeed eccentrics”. In addition to lifting the kettlebell as fast as possible we purposefully make it “heavier” by accelerating it on the way down. Louie Simmons explains the “virtual force” phenomenon: “Jump on a bathroom scale and see what it registers for a split second. The readout is much heavier than your actual body weight.”

In a Danish study by Kenneth Jay, light overspeed eccentric kettlebell snatches improved the subjects’ vertical jump a lot more than plyometrics. We do not allow the kettlebell to slow down during our quick lifts, even if the goal is conditioning. In our instructors’ experience, the least productive and most exhausting and injury producing training for a strength or power athlete is a high rep “semigrind”— think of the last reps of a long set of pushups or bodyweight squats.

Cuban coach Alfonso used to tell young weightlifter Geoff Neupert tostop his sets before his reps slowed down. Today this Master SFG admits that every time he got hurt or overtrained was after not listening to this advice. In our experience focusing on speed endurance is a great way to indirectly develop other types of endurance: muscular, cardiorespiratory, etc. We terminate sets of quick lifts when the speed is about to decrease, as opposed to when some muscles are giving out. As a bonus, we experience little soreness and muscle congestion, which usually accompany endurance training. This translates into better quality practice of one’s sport.

4. “Safety is viewed as a part of, not the opposite of, performance.” (Rob Lawrence) Safe exercise is about distributing the load across many muscle groups and joints rather than smoking the weak links. As Glenn Hyman, DC,SFG, has put it, “Healthy backs disperse forces away from the spine and unhealthy ones don’t.” The SFG techniques are designed to distribute the load evenly throughout the body. For instance, your glutes and the virtual belt of braced abs and compressed breathing back up your lower back. And making your back stronger enables you to work your hips and legs harder. At the SFG when we say safety we mean performance, when we say performance we mean safety.

5. Reverse engineering of what the strongest and most coordinated people do naturally. No one has explained what SFG is more succinctly that powerlifting coach Louie Simmons: “Pavel has reverse engineered what the strongest athletes do naturally.”