KETTLEBELLS, AND WHY I QUIT POWERLIFTING
Updated: May 18
By Nikolai Puchlov, Owner & Head Coach
Seattle Kettlebell Club & Pro Kettlebell I got started in powerlifting and personal training through my former coach/personal trainer, Andrew “BULL” Stewart, a world champion powerlifter and coach.
I met Bull while I was in high school through the Willie Austin Program, a program at Gateway Athletic Club in Seattle which introduced kids to fitness. I met him again at age 24 when I randomly walked into his gym inquiring about a membership.
Bull convinced me to hire him as my personal trainer and began training me. I was drawn to his method of training because everything he did made sense.
We worked chest, back and biceps on Mondays and Thursdays, and legs, shoulders and triceps on Tuesdays and Fridays. The first two days were heavy compound movements and the last two days were accessory exercises.
I had worked out quite a bit before, but always on my own with no rhyme or reason. I had basically stuck with what I was good at and liked to do, but with Bull we had a plan and everything was well thought out and structured. Each week we would gradually increase the weight while decreasing the repetitions and after about six or seven weeks I was lifting way more than I ever thought I could.
I had only been working out with Bull for about six weeks when he asked if I wanted to do a powerlifting competition.
I was really confused.
I was in decent shape, but when I thought of a weight lifting competition I thought of people a bit more like Bull. Big.
I told him no. I was too small and would be humiliated. Plus, I hadn’t even trained for it. Bull told me we had been training for it, I just didn’t know it. He told me that all I had to do was show up and he would take care of the rest.
Bull was always very encouraging, made me feel good about myself and I felt really grateful for the training he had been giving me, so because it seemed important to him I eventually said yes.
Competition Day: The Alki Classic
I was so nervous I could hardly stand it. Bull gave me a singlet, and helped me sign up and weigh in. One encouraging bit of news was that we were separated by weight class and I was grouped with the novice lifters. This narrowed down my field a bit. It turned out there were only three other guys in my class, so I thought hey, the worst I can do is 4th place.
I was competing in bench press. You lie on your back and the weight is lifted off the rack to a starting position. From there, you have to hold it still until the head judge says “start,” at which point you can lower the weight to your chest. You then have to hold it until the judge says “press,” and then you can press it to the lockout position. At this point, you have to hold it until the judge says “rack,” and then finally, you can put the weight on the rack.
During this competition, there are three judges watching and at least two of the three need to give you “white lights” for the lift to count. It’s all very technical, and Bull had done a good job preparing me for this in training, so I was able to make all the attempts. I finished with about a 105kg bench press on my final attempt. Not spectacular, but good enough to win that day.
Powerlifting as a Blood Line
After that, I was hooked. The strategy, the training process, the rush. It was everything my mind craved, and I was getting in better shape along the way.
As I continued training, I added deadlift to my routine and Bull and I continued like this for about seven years. We would train in four- to eight- week cycles and then start over again. I would typically do one competition a year at the Alki Classic.
Over time, the weights gradually increased as did my body weight, blood pressure, and the wear and tear on my body. A doctor had told me I had early stage hypertension, which I thought was strange because I trained so frequently, but this type of training really wasn’t helping it.
Toward the end of training cycles, my body started to feel beat down as the reps would decrease and the weights would increase.
As my competition got better, I realized different body types fared better than others. Shorter, stockier types who were the same weight - just way more compact - were doing better than me. I kept slowly improving, but also found myself racking up little injuries here and there that would sideline me for a week or two.
In May of 2010, I made a big life change. I just turned 30 and was in the restaurant and hospitality industry since forever. But I decided to quit drinking.
After a few months without alcohol I realized I hated my restaurant job.
The only things keeping me there were my friends, but when we no longer had alcohol to bond over after work, I found myself feeling alone, dissatisfied, and bored. So, I began going to the gym even more frequently and talking to Bull more.
Bull convinced me to get certified in Personal Training and come to work for him at Columbia City Fitness. My now wife, Amber, could not have been more skeptical, but I quit my bartending job anyway and went to work at the gym full time.
My customer service background as well as lessons learned from Bull made me pretty successful in a short period of time and within three months, I had a full schedule of between thirty and forty clients.
At this point, I began training some of the powerlifters on Bull’s team.
As a coach, I was doing really well. I worked with a lot of novice lifters, young lifters and older lifters. Basically, everyone Bull didn’t have time to train.
Using the proven methods Bull had shown me and by being consistent and professional with my clients, they tended to do really well. There were some national and world records set, and a ton of personal records.
Why I Quit Powerlifting
In 2012 while attempting a 300 lb. squat, I pitched forward a bit and began to fall.
My spotter missed grabbing me and I put my right foot out to catch myself. I was able to get the weight up and back on the rack, but I knew something went wrong. My back began to tighten and I could barely walk. As it got worse, I could barely lift my left leg, and only did so through excruciating pain.
When I would walk, my foot would drag slightly and I needed to pull up on my pant leg to get my leg in the car. When I train my clients I never sit down, always hand them their weights and spot them. But now I could barely hold the 5lb weights out in front of me.
This was a real wake up call. If I couldn’t move or lift, I couldn’t work.
One of Bull’s friends, Dick Schuller (also an athletic coach) saw me limping around and asked what happened. After giving an explanation, he pointed towards the kettlebells in the corner that no one used and told me they would strengthen my back and joints. He set me up with a guy named Tom Corrigan to learn how to use them.
Kettlebells for Powerlifting
The first time I used one of those small kettlebells I was amazed at the feeling it gave me.. It was a sense of freedom and power I had never felt lifting weights the traditional way.
The way I could counterbalance the swinging weight to get it to literally fly while engaging nearly every muscle in my body from the ground up made me feel like the kettlebell was working me from the inside out.
After a single workout, I felt like my whole body had been changed for the better. Within a very short period of time, I was able to easily run 5K without even training and felt much looser and mobile.
The cardio was one of the biggest surprises and kettlebell benefits of this training. As a powerlifter, my goal was to lift as much as I could in one lift, which gave me the ability to be very explosive for a very short period of time. While beneficial to more strength, it did very little for my cardiovascular health. Powerlifting also made me very tight, which meant as I was getting close to lifting at my maximum potential I also increased my potential for injury. This was something I started to experience more frequently.
The more I used kettlebells, the more I realized this is how we are supposed to move, in complex coordinated movements. A series of levers and counterbalances to help you do the work while keeping you safe.
One of the major benefits of kettlebell training? Realizing my true human potential. I began incorporating kettlebells into the programs for my personal training and powerlifting clients and it was like shifting into another gear.
Suddenly, we could incorporate full body movements that built strength, mobility, cardio and coordination. It has been amazing watching people who claim to not be strong or have no coordination develop all of those things in a relatively short time!
One of the other kettlebell workout benefits was making exercising a lot more fun. It’s a fact that it is impossible to think about anything in your life while lifting kettlebells. You just forget your problems and think about the swing. Many people, myself included, really feel it’s like therapy.
My powerlifting clients were seeing their best results. Records were being broken. Their increased core and tendon strength reduced injuries, which helped them train more consistently. Plus, the increased cardio had their bodies firing on all cylinders.
In 2014, when Bull was unable to travel with the team to the AAU World Championships in Las Vegas, I was asked to go in his place. I did, and with a small team of both our lifters we took second place, as well as some world records.
Later that year, probably at the encouragement of Bull who was always my biggest advocate, I was awarded the 2014 WA USAPL Coach of the Year. One of my biggest honors.
That same year, I began training for my first kettlebell competition.
At that point, I was pretty confident in my kettlebell snatch and wanted to see how I would fair. The only thing is, I signed up for a 5-minute snatch with a 24 kg kettlebell and you’re allowed only one hand-switch. This was something I had never done before. There was also very little proper training for this type of competition in the US.
I reached out to Tom Corrigan and he introduced me to a Russian kettlebell coach who just happened to live near me. Mikhail Marshak is a master of sport in 32kg kettlebell biathlon and he gave me my first taste of kettlebell sport training. This type of training really factored the entire volume of weight lifted over the entire workout with a goal of building your endurance and overall work capacity.
I was in love!
I wound up taking first place at that event and decided then and there that kettlebells and I are a match made in heaven.
Shortly after that first competition in 2014, my wife Amber and I created Seattle Kettlebell Club, where we taught kettlebell classes for fitness and sport. We couldn’t help but combine everything I learned and loved from powerlifting, personal training, kettlebell training and kettlebell sport training into one.
It worked. The structure and care of powerlifting programming for strength (balancing progressive work of specific muscle groups and rest) combined with the accessibility, fun, and ability to get a great cardio workout using kettlebells was a hit.
The ability to get incredibly strong and entirely healthy using kettlebells is not reserved for the lucky few with great genetics and/or a particular body type. Clients were getting great results and many people who otherwise couldn’t exercise because of previous injuries or limited mobility were stoked that they could not only do this, but in many cases, now they were more fit than ever.
By 2018 SKC was one of the largest kettlebell clubs in the world.
Since Covid-19 hit and closed our gym we’ve had the “crisitunity” to take our training online with Pro Kettlebell.
The Benefits of Kettlebell Training
I’m grateful Bull and powerlifting taught me an immense amount about goal setting, planning, preparation and a positive attitude, but at the end of the day the risk of injury when approaching my max lifts was not worth the reward.
With kettlebells, I feel stronger and healthier than I did 20 years ago. My blood pressure and resting heart rate are amazing and even though we’ve already been at it for eight years, I’m just as excited about kettlebells as I was the day I first picked one up.