Steve Cotter…and the Evolution of all things Kettlebells


I say it but maybe not often enough. I get to train and learn from some of the coolest people around. And they don’t come any cooler than International Kettlebell & Fitness Federation President, Steve Cotter. If you have been around Steve you will be aware that you can spot him at 50 yards. Steve has a very particular walk. His movement is fluid, relaxed, like a panther who is in no rush, he knows that the gazelles aren’t about to get away. This makes the transformation all the more striking when suddenly you see him lift two 32 kilo Kettlebells with apparent ease. It is humbling. But as Steve points out “there is a massive distinction between hoisting some weight with a handle and actually dancing with them”. Steve dances, Steve is a regular Kettlebell Baryshnikov. He’s also relentless in his own pursuit and practice which makes every chance to train with him an opportunity to learn more. The subtleties and nuances he delivers can make the difference between average and excellent performance. Steve will be in the UK to deliver the IKFF Certified Kettlebell Teacher’s Certification in June later this year at DMC Fitness in Glasgow. There simply isn’t a better person to learn from. Previous participants will be in attendance to hone their skills, and a new group of IKFF CKTS will leave informed and inspired. Are you going to join us?

Rannoch - Steve, we’ve known each other for quite a few years now. During that time one of the things I have been very aware of is your constant pursuit of knowledge. Seems you never settle,whether it’s teaching or training, you are like the James Brown of fitness. What is it that drives you when so many people reach a certain point, kickback and coast?

Steve - I am a philosopher at heart. I seek knowledge and wisdom, I seek progress and I seek understanding. So, I spend no time entertaining myself with thoughts of having made it, or being right. I want to get better. When I have had to lead, it is because someone else will not or cannot, not because I need to be in charge. When it is time for me to be the student, I am first in line. It is also a professional obligation. I get paid to teach and so if I do not continue to learn I am not doing justice to my position. Each generation of students has to end up a bit further down the road than the previous. If this cycle is broken, an art or system of knowledge will cease to exist within a few generations. There is no beginning or an end, there is a process. I am happy to be in a process, at one moment leading a lesson and at another learning the lesson.

RD - I vividly remember my very first IKFF CKT experience down in Harrogate at Stuart Agar’s Centre for Chinese Martial Arts. That first day was a revelation. Without going down the “my Sifu can kick your Sifu’s ass” route, I was stunned at the difference between the RKC system I had been taught and the methods you were using. It reminded me of the first time I sparred with my future Wing Chin instructor after spending years doing Shotokan Karate. I was a beginner again. It’s a shock to the system, when you have been absorbed in a particular method to suddenly find out there is a whole world to experience out there. How has kettlebell training evolved for you over the years?

SC - The evolution has stages of course.

Step one was introduction, this really cool tool, revolutionary for its time. Before that it was the body and then weight training, which prior to kettlebells was muscle isolation type of approach. So, the more dynamic, rhythmic and comprehensive way of combining weights with motion made kettlebells a natural progression for the martial artist in me. After learning those basics, what we learn from the RKC approach, you have a good idea about how to use the KBs to get stronger and fitter. But after awhile you go back to the barbell to get stronger so you can lift the heavier and heavier KB. At least that is how it was for me at first and for pretty much everyone who stays with RKC for long enough.  For a few years it was just a sort of round-table, where other leaders and myself would sit around and discuss ways to make the techniques better or teach the curriculum more efficiently. So that was sort of an evolutionary plateau, looking back. Then I thought more and realized that to get good, I mean to get really good with KBs, you have to figure out how to do more reps, and that is why I realized I had to look at the Russians, who were doing it first and longer than anyone. So I went to Russia in 2005, saw these top guys and it was a slap in the face to realize that they could do 4 times more than the best guys in the RKC world, myself included.  I had to realise from the evidence in front of me that what I knew was not a complete education in kettlebells.

Authentic Russian kettlebell sport methods were not readily accessible at that time. In US we had Valery Fedorenko. He was pretty raw and new to coaching at that time, but just a brilliant lifter, and still after many years not being around KBs. The motor patterns were just ingrained, stayed with him despite the deconditioning that came with time and being away from the bells.  I think he had picked up KBs again just recently when I had met him. But it is like riding a bike. If you want to talk about evolution, there is a massive distinction between hoisting some weight with a handle and actually dancing with it. The real top level guys can just float. I can tell you there are not talking about tensing the anus or packing the shoulders. Where to breathe, alignment, things like that. It is important to have examples to emulate. Before you can get the technique you have to get the idea.

That was the first introduction to KB really as a fine motor skill instead of strictly muscle-building but I had a few opportunities to learn his basic methods and that was far more impressive in terms of skill and work capacity than anything I had been exposed to previously. This brought about my understanding of the time-duration component of KB lifting, which is the endurance part of the Strength-Power-Endurance equation.

In 2008 I took part in a KB sport camp in Greece at the local gym of Pantalei Filikidi, who was the coach of Fedorenko. It was by far the most hard core gym in the literal sense of the word that I had ever seen. Every young athlete in that place was super strong, with a background in OL, arm-wrestling, wrestling and KB and KB Sport. Was great to watch a master coach work. What I got out of that is two things. 1. That a great coach can teach even when there is no shared language. 2. If you really want to reach your athletic potential, you need to be in an environment in which you have other training partners who are as good as or better than you, with a coach who knows more than you. Those kids in Greece had nothing in material sense, but they were all strong, disciplined and had a place to go each day to hone their craft. There is a real shortage of those kinds of institutions today, in the physical training arena and also all other facets of personal and social development.

Having had the opportunity to train on a few occasions with Oleh Ilica gave me another piece of the puzzle, because of his Spetnaz (real Spetnaz, not just a marketing claim) background and Soviet Sport Science, and long time commitment to kettlebell sport in all aspects, athlete, coach, administrator and promoter. In some ways this exposure to his Ukranian training methods sort of consolidated the previous education and helped to round it out. Basically like getting a bigger, deeper toolbox. I think he is probably too intense for the average KB fan who wants to be in good shape, he is definitely really into pushing and promoting the sport, beyond the mainstream, but still it was good to see a guy who really loves Kettlebells and has a lot of cool training ideas.

More recently, having to learn directly with Russian coach Sergei Rudnev and some of the top Russian team GS athletes, was another evolutionary step, in as much as it is the most science-based and empirically tested method of kettlebell instruction and training that I have come across to date.  In terms of refining my skills as a teacher, having solid science and clear understanding makes a huge difference in my ability to teach and bring people along to their next level as the class is going on. It is awesome to see. When you get a piece of info that you didn’t have before, and put it into effect, something clicks and you just step up to that next level. As the saying goes, knowledge is power!

The consistent theme throughout this ongoing process is that 1. I continue to observe, assess, and practice and 2. I have developed a particular manner of communicating and teaching which enables me to study, understand than deliver in a clear manner. You can say that I continue to evolve as both a practitioner and a teacher.

RD - People are quick to look at some of the stuff they see on YouTube and label you as some kind of freak of nature yet anyone who has seen you work knows it is all earned with effort and practice. At the certifications you are constantly on the move, out-training everyone whilst teaching. With all your own commitments, how do you balance training and recovery?

SC - I have a positive mind. I believe in my inherent capabilities. The idea of not being able to do what I need to do just does not occur to me. I just see it as what I do, and the rest is having a positive outlook to sustain the demands of life. Like, I genuinely enjoy what I do, I like sharing with people, and I feel it is a positive use of force. There are a lot of things I do not do well, but for as long as I have been leading exercise, whether it is kettlebells or martial arts before that – it requires more to recover from the effects of not moving than from the effects of moving. As long as I keep moving, there is really nothing to recover from. If I take care of my mind and my basic health, I can do what I need to do each day. The mind is everything. I see myself as capable, and so I am.  No one is immune to bouts of stupidity and I am as human as the next guy. But for me the key is not being too stupid at the wrong times. I still push myself, probably not as much as I could, but I have to refer to experience most of the time. I am too far along to just blindly throw myself into workouts. For anyone who thinks I am a freak of nature, I just say you should have seen what I was up to when I was 25, haha. I think THAT guy was a freak of PRACTICE.

RD - We have Shifu Yan Lei, a 34th generation Shaolin Monk joining us in Edinburgh for a one day Qi Gong workshop in March. How much of a role does Qi Gong play in your own practice?

SC - I need to do it more often, need to integrate it into my daily again. Qigong was a big part of my foundational study in the arts and my appreciation for the internal approach to balance the external. I have moved a bit too far toward the external in the past years and not given enough attention to the internal. Thankfully i spent a lot of years in some form of qigong, so those habits are always with me. But I cannot be a hypocrite, I myself do not always do all the things I know I should and could. It is a matter or making time and priority. Thanks for the reminder man, really need to dust off some of my qigong practice. I would definitely suggest qigong practice to everyone, me included. It is to our energy what strength training is to our muscles and bones.

RD - Can you give me your distinction between GS for sport and GS for strength, fitness, endurance? Since the IKFF promotes authentic kettlebell training how do these apparently individual disciplines co-exist?

SC - I think there are really 3 distinctions. GS as a sport, GS for other sports and GS for fitness. In the first example, GS as a sport, GS is in fact SPP, Specific Physical Preparation. The backbone for each application is that the attention is on the quality of the technique. GS is precise mechanics, eliminating faulty patterns and wasteful expenditures, optimised breathing and total mind, body, spirit immersion into the set. What you do with the tool and techniques depends entirely on the desired outcome.

GS as a sport is the highest level of development with kettlebells. This is because it is the only form in which kettlebell is THE THING. It is all about raising a quantifiable goal to progressively higher results. In other words, in GS sport, you are not using kettlebells to get more fit per se, with “fitness” as the goal. You are testing what you can do TODAY in measurable terms, right now, and your program is designed specifically to show improvement the next time you test yourself. For a competitive athlete, that test is a competition. But for someone using GS protocols for their own private goals, you might just do your test by yourself in your home gym. The formula is the same and it comes down to reps and total volume per set. GS is about doing as much work as you can without putting the kettlebell down. That is how a GS athlete measure work capacity and fitness. In the other two examples, GS is GPP for other goals.

GS for fitness can be used interchangeably with Crossfit, or circuit training or almost any hybrid S&C template. The focus is on caloric expenditure, muscle toning or other general characteristics. The KB fitness crowd doesn’t use kettlebells to actually get better at kettlebell lifting per se. They use KBs because they find KBs to work better than the other options. They are not pushing the upper limits to the same degree as the GS athlete. If you look at the rep scheme of the fitness kinds of program it is typically going to be kept pretty low, and as fitness increases, the number of sets or load increases. The special endurance of the grip, low back and shoulders does not develop to the same level as a Kettlebell specialist does with GS protocols. Nevertheless, all technique, of all volume should have the same attention to detail and the aim is to be efficient and use precise mechanics to optimise fitness.

When people talk about GS as a competitive sport, that does not mean the technique changes. Certain aspects of technique will change of course. You do not have to spare your grip if you are doing heavy, fast, low reps sets of snatches. You may shorten the backswing, or squat more, etc. But look at the technique of the lift, try to smooth it out and be able to replicate each rep. That is the science and the details about breathing and timing of accelerations and finer mechanics.

So, talking about GS really does not even make sense except to the very small % of folks who step on the platform at a professional level. It causes confusion to talk about GS because it means that it is only appropriate for a person wanting to compete in KB Sport competition. Or that the techniques of these athletes are only correct for them, but not for the recreational KB user.
We should really just talk about kettlebells.

There is professional, there is amateur and there is recreational. KB for fitness is either amateur or recreational. GS is stepping on the platform, whoever can do the most is the best. But, the world of fitness is everybody else.

Technique is technique. Good technique is better than poor or fair technique. Not everyone can be a world champion and have great or perfect technique, but everyone can and should have good technique.

Kettlebells to supplement other sports is again GPP. Kettlebells will be used to address a weak link or limitation in the overall conditioning of the athlete.  The goal is not to get better at the KB lifts, or at least that is not the focus. The goal is to improve in some capacity that relates to that athlete’s sports performance. Typically this will have to do with endurance and mobility, more than raw strength. Most common here is to use core lifts such as snatch to increase anaerobic and aerobic conditioning. In some cases specialised lifts may offer a sport specific carryover. One such example might be to prescribe KB Farmer’s Carry or Bottoms Up Clean and Press to a grappler for increased grip endurance.

The way these different disciplines for KB coexist is that a fitness professional teaching kettlebells, if he wants to be honest, sincere and with integrity, owes it to the profession to have a thorough education. To me that means having more than a passing familiarity with ALL facets of kettlebell lifting. If all you ever do is low reps, how can you possibly have an informed understanding of the benefits of high rep sets?  Programming prescriptions should be based on having experience in many approaches and selecting a particular approach based on tested results.

Neither GPP or SPP is more important, they are both needed. Fitness stops at GPP, cross-training for other sports has the sport as SPP and kettlebells as GPP. But for GS, other things (BW conditioning, barbells, sports, running, stretching, etc) are the GPP and KBs are the SPP.

You tell me what your goal is and I can tell you which method will work for you. It always changes, we have to understand all applications to be at the top of our coaching game. The common theme is that the structure, alignment and breathing should always be precise. This is why kettlebell fitness professionals also need to look at the science of GS style of lifting. Those with the highest results have the highest understanding of effective and efficient technique. Apply this deeper experience and higher standard to everyday fitness goals.

RD - Like all of us, despite your boyish good looks, you are getting older. How does that influence your own approach to training, long term health and resilience and what challenges do you have in mind for the future.

SC - You still keep a younger man’s mind. Something I do which has changed is to try to pick up where I left off after going a stretch without training. Like if I have not trained much for a few weeks or longer then jump into training. My body can still do what it wants, most of the time. But I do not have the same rate of recovery and I can easily push too fast, too much volume too soon. The main thing is the speed at which my body adapt, it does take longer now for some things that I used to consider basic.

The smart thing is to pay closer attention to habits in general, from eating to sleeping to exercise volume and intensity to the little things that help me to deal with the stressors of life in a more elegant manner. Experience has to keep pace with the natural level of degradation. Do more with less, it is the only logical way to keep pace with Father Time.  I personally believe that the will to live is the most significant driving force. For me it is all about having a will to live and learn and push the boundaries of this life.

RD - I know you have been very focused on your diet over the last couple of years but I am also aware that you enjoy the pleasure of good food. What are the key points you consider when it comes to nutrition?

SC - There is a lot to cover, I will throw some topics out there that work well for me but each one is an area of study. We cannot do justice here, but an overview is in order.
The keys points

  • Eat mostly alkaline food, which means greatly reducing and ideally restricting more acidic foods. Acidic foods are things caffeine, alcohol, meat, fried foods, processed foods.
  • Combine foods properly. Certain food types should not be eaten together. There are rules and guidelines for this such as eat fruits alone, do not mix proteins and starches, and taking into account the transit time for the foods you eat and the proper order and timing of what and when you eat.
  • Juicing, in particular the green juices, chief among them kale, then celery and other important veggies
  • Use of super foods
  • Periodic fasting
  • Cleansing

One last thing, figuratively and literally – Poo often. Seriously, there is always talk about what goes in but if you are not having good success with what goes out, you cannot have good nutrition. Elimination is what is going to determine how clean your body runs. The subjects of healthy digestion and elimination is a whole topic in itself, ties in nicely with the whole concept of food combining.

RD - Your new DVD is out, The Extreme Strength 12 Week Kettlebell Program. I understand it’s very different from the previous DVDs. Who is it aimed at?

SC -
It is the first video, at least to the English speaking audience, that gives a real strength and conditioning template for Kettlebell training. Sounds like a bold statement, but it simply has not been done before. It is not just a collection of exercises, it is a legitimate program using Russian and Ukranian methods to increase strength and endurance with Kettlebell Sport methodology. It is not strictly a kettlebell workout DVD. It is a strength and conditioning program that features KBs as the main tool. This is serious, bare bones GPP and you can take to a level that will smoke you no matter who you are. There are some exercises that most viewers will have never done or seen, and there is absolutely no fluff.  Many people ask how they can combine kettlebells with barbells and bodyweight conditioning into one program. This DVD answers that question for them in a logical and highly effective way. Best thing about it is it does everything it is supposed to, there is absolutely no need for hype because it will kill you, plain and simple!

R - Pop Quiz! Read any good books lately?

SC - Robb Wolf just sent me a copy of his The Paleo Solution and simultaneously I was given a copy of Sean Croxton’s The Dark Side of Fat Loss: Lessons from the Underground. Both are looking good. Two very smart guys who I personally like and respect a lot. I will end up agreeing with most of what I read in these two books.

RD - I think Robb Wolf is a wondefully sane voice in the Paleo world, the Paleo Solution is excellent and no animal skins or wooden club required. Sean Croxton had an interesting piece on his blog recently on the chemicals we ingest, scarey stuff.

What are you listening to these days?

SC - I don’t listen to a lot of music currently. Mostly just when I am driving around running errands, but I more often will listen to sports radio than music and I actually prefer my own silence most of the time.

RD - Any movies you can recommend?

SC - Most movies are really poor now in the plot development department. I have watched a bunch lately but the best I have seen recently is MoneyBall. Well acted and good story. Wish there were more good ones to suggest.

RD - You have 48 hours to go anywhere, with anyone and do anything…what you planning?

SC - My wife is with me whatever is going on. You know I am looking for the time keeper at this point and negotiating for more time. You know I have been almost everywhere so for me it is not a place anymore, it is a feeling. I want to be very relaxed and just no worries, preferably on a hammock with my honey in my arms, I am either in a wife beater or topless, with some shorts on. Needs to be warm so I will say my own private island since I do not like to be bothered while relaxing. I am a bit more toward the South Pacific than the Caribbean. Some drinking water nearby, I am pretty much set!

RD - I think everyone should get to have their own private isalnd for 48 hours. Just in case any of our UK readers are wondering, a “wife beater” is just a vest…Hombre, looking forward to catching up in June. This time we are getting you in a Kilt…

The IKFF CKT 1 Certification with STEVE COTTER takes place  in Glasgow on June 16 and 17. You can book your place HERE.

About the author

I am a movement maverick, exploring beginner's mind and beginner's body through mobility, bodyweight training, breathwork, mindfulness, kettlebells and martial arts, focussing on self care, pain free movement and resilience. Find suggestions to get you moving over at Want to move with ease and imagination? For individual or group instruction please contact me.
  • Rannoch


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