The World’s Most Underrated Strength Sport (with Juan Pellot)

Today I’m talking to kettlebell sport world champion and Master of Sport Juan Pellot. Spoiler alert: Juan is actually my coach, and I interact with him pretty darn regularly. But we’re flipping the script this time, and I’m asking Juan to dive deep on the differences between kettlebells as a training tool versus contested sport, and why the latter — a sport popular in Eastern Europe — has taken so long to catch on in the Western world. And does a kettlebell sport set really feel like doing the CrossFit workout Fran for 10 minutes straight?

Kettlebell sport athlete Juan Pellot

In this episode of the BarBend Podcast, David Thomas Tao talks to Juan Pellot about:


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  • Finding kettlebell sport and early success in one of strength’s most niche disciplines (2:10)
  • Some of America’s early kettlebell pioneers, including Steve Cotter (6:30)
  • Progressing through kettlebell sport’s ranks, weights, and bodyweight categories (7:50)
  • What does it mean to be a “Master of Sport”? (9:40)
  • Why hasn’t kettlebell sport caught on more in the United States? (13:30)
  • Long cycle vs. biathlon (15:00)
  • Is a 10 minute long cycle set the most mentally challenging test in strength athletics? (18:20)
  • Kettlebell sport technique and knowing how to force relaxation (21:30)

Relevant links and further reading:


It’s a very challenging sport, and I think challenging in a very different way, in a very niche way compared to other string sports. There’s a strong strength endurance component to the sport itself. There’s a lot of repetition to the sport’s events.


It’s very difficult, not just physiologically but mentally for somebody to be standing modified by five platform and repeating the same movement over and over and over with proficiency for the course of 10 minutes.

David TaoDavid Tao

Welcome to the “BarBend Podcast,” where we talk to the smartest athletes, coaches, and minds from around the world of strength. I’m your host, David Thomas Tao. This podcast is presented by


Today, I’m talking to kettlebell sport world champion and Master of Sport. We’ll explain what that is later in the episode, Juan Pellot. Spoiler alert, Juan is actually my coach, and I interact with him pretty darn regularly, as you might imagine. We’re flipping the script this time.


I’m asking Juan to dive deep on the differences between kettlebells as a training tool versus contested sport, and why the latter — a sport popular in Eastern Europe — by the way, has taken so long to catch on to the Western world? Does a kettlebell sport set feel like doing the CrossFit workout Fran for 10 minutes straight? You’d be the judge.


Now, let’s get on with the show.


Juan, it’s a pleasure to sit down this way because we see each other a lot, but it’s always you breaking down my form and telling me how to be a better athlete. Sitting down, talking to you for a podcast is a new experience. I hope this isn’t super awkward. Hey, you’re still my coach. You can still call me out on stuff.

No, dude, this is a pleasure. I’ve been actually looking forward to this for a while. It’s definitely a different dynamic from what we usually do or sit down, but I’m looking forward to this.

David TaoDavid Tao

First things first, tell us a little bit about your athletic journey. I ask that for a lot of people, but it’s really important context as far as why you look at things the way you do today?


I know that your approach and your philosophy to training has changed a lot, even over the course of how long we’ve known each other, which has not been a decade plus or anything. Give us a little bit about your athletic background and journey, the CliffsNotes version.

I’ve been a trainer since 2004, I may say. To be honest, growing up, I didn’t really connect with a lot of different sports.


I played handball when I was in high school. I practiced, got buoyed on Brazilian jiu-jitsu when I was younger. It wasn’t until, I think, 2013, after having spent some time doing training at different big box facilities and independent facilities that I found kettlebell sport.


I remember trying out for the US national team and making it a point that I wanted to be on that team. I wanted to go to Russia. I wanted to compete. That’s not the version as far as my history [laughs] when it comes to bell training.

David TaoDavid Tao

‘ve talked to Steve Cotter about this, who did a lot to popularize kettlebell training and kettlebell support in the US.


There was a tipping point where kettlebells went from being this thing that if you heard about you may be could order online, and you’d wait four months to get them shipped to you if you were lucky, or you people were making kettlebells like homemade kettlebells out of concrete and metal scraps and things like that.


There’s this tipping point to where the kettlebells went from being this oddity, that were hard to find, to where they started becoming widely available.


Steve Cotter had said, “It’s when you could go into a hotel gym and you start seeing kettlebells, that’s when you know there was a tipping point.” That’s how people get a lot of exposure to kettlebells, especially through CrossFit, kettlebell swings, American swings, things like that.


Kettlebell sport is still something that’s much, much, much more narrow. The vast majority, I’d probably say it’s like 99 percent of people who regularly train with kettlebells don’t train in kettlebell sport and probably don’t even know what kettlebell sport is. What did you first discover that aspect of kettlebell training?

I’m going to say it was probably spring of 2013, when I was just looking. I’ve been working already since 2008 from 2013 with kettlebells. That was my initial exposure to hardstyle training, and it was through other colleagues that I had with me.


I remember one time one of my managers was saying, “Hey, you should you really good at this. You should really get kettlebell training. Why don’t you compete in it?” It let a spark under me where I was just curious. I didn’t even know that it was something that was contested.


I quick Google search. I found out that there was an event in spring of 2013 and decided to jump in using the information that I already had, as far as my own training. I pretty much remember hardstyling for 10 minutes, which did not feel too good, but it was a great experience.


I remember going in 16-kilo, did 97 reps my first time. Shaking hands with legends like Sergey Rudnev, who walked up to me. It was such an uplifting experience.


I think that’s when I said, “You know what, I can see this being something that I connect with something that I want to do long-term, and I prepped for the spring of the same year to do my USA Nationals competition, my first one.”

David TaoDavid Tao

For folks who aren’t super familiar with kettlebell sport, Juan is actually a world champion in what’s called the long cycle or just long cycle. It’s not the long cycle. I need to take that word out of there, which is 10 minutes straight of clean and jerks with two kettlebells, and you don’t put them down.


This isn’t like do as many reps in a minute, put them down for 10 seconds. As soon as you pick up the bells, the clock starts, the rep counter starts, and when you put them down you’re done.


You’re not breaking this in other sets, you’re going for 10 minutes straight. It takes an immense amount of breathing control, timing and technique, and you were coming in and doing that without a lot of technique refinement. You were just kind of muscling them in your first competition, right?

Yes, absolutely.

David TaoDavid Tao

After that first competition, you probably saw folks who had maybe more refined technique. You were meeting other people in the sport. What was your progression and like, “Oh, OK, I need to…” Did you find a coach? Did you know there were specific technical aspects you wanted to start working on?


Take us through that progression from that first competition and your first actual exposure to other athletes in the sport to, “OK, I need to refine. I’m actually going to try and make a national team and train towards this.”

That’s right. I ended up doing a quick search and ended up seeing that the IKFF was going to be hosting a level 1 certification a couple of weeks after my first competition. I decided this would be a great opportunity. I knew that Steve Cotter was basically like the head dog when it came to IKFF. I signed up for the event, ended up going to the certification.


It was a weekend long cert the way most of them would be for fitness pros. I didn’t meet Steve, but I ended up meeting Ken Blackburn there. Ken was just an amazing, this educator. He taught me so much when it came to my initial technique. There was a time where I was working with Ken as one of my coaches. He was [inaudible 6:40] for me.


From there, I’d say, I went to my second competition using some of the skills that I had learned doing the course, which was in New Hampshire as an IKFF event as well. That was kind of the progression that I used to be able to get ready for Nationals in September 2013.


It wasn’t until after Nationals when I decided, “Let me take on a coach for preparation for Worlds,” which is when I ended up working with a gentleman named Sergey Hepminanco, who was one of the head coaches for the USA National Team. I worked with him for a couple of months, helped me get ready for Worlds, had a great set, won my first world championship, which was just a super stoked experience.


I remember coming home with the medal, and my daughter was 18 months old, putting it around her neck. I was like, “Daddy got this for you.” It was great, man. I think the first swing was when I knew I was hooked.


David TaoDavid Tao

That’s a great phrase. You should get that made on a T-shirt. It’s like hooked on the first swing or something like that. By the way, this is making me really self-conscious because I’ve been training in kettlebell sport for over a year now. I’m nowhere near where Juan was. I’m not competing in any world competitions yet.


I will say your progression was obviously really fantastic early on. That first Worlds, was that with amateur weight 24-kilo bells?

Yes, it was. 24-kilo.

David TaoDavid Tao

Around what body weight were you competing? A lot of people don’t realize kettlebell sport has body weight classes just like weightlifting.

Yeah, It does. I was competing at the 78-kilo body weight division so that was 171.6, I believe. I remember I came in at about 171 pounds flat. It was a small division. Most of the guys kind of weighed in a little on the heavier side in the 85-kilo division.


It was just, if I remember correctly, me and one other guy who ended up tying for reps. I came in lighter than him. I came in lighter, the win went to me because I pound for pound, I was moving more weight. For the most part, whenever it was a bigger event, I would usually walk around at about 80 to 82 kilos. I would cut down to 78 whenever I had to do something like Nationals or go to Worlds.

David TaoDavid Tao

Now, I say amateur weight, that’s two 24-kilo bells. For men, 24 kilos is the amateur weight. 28 is semi-pro. 32 kilos is pro. For women, the pro weight is 24 kilograms. The men’s amateur weight is the women’s pro weight.


How long did it take for you to go from that progression from competing with 24-kilo bells to competing at 32-kilo bells, which is where you are now and where you had some extended international success as well?

Two and a half years. Two and a half years to progress from the amateur 24-kilo to professional 32. It wasn’t a huge set. When I did that 32-kilo first time, I think my first numbers were about 28 reps in 10 minutes. It was still impressive for considering where I was. At that point, I didn’t feel ready for it. I put it on the back burner as far as making sure I didn’t rush into competing with 32s again.


I took some time just to prepare. I think it was September 2016 when I did my first big 32-kilo competition. I ended up getting Master of Sport on the first try.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk about Master of Sport. What is that? That seems such a weird phrase. It gets thrown around a lot in some sports. You could be Master of Sport in a lot of different sports. In the US, we don’t necessarily have a similar thing here. What is Master of Sport? Which governing body gives you this? How did you know you had qualified for it, etc.?

Generally, the way that the rankings work, is that there’s a correlation between your body weight or the bodyweight division you fall in and the bells that you’re competing with. Then you do all that tally in accordance with the amount of repetitions you do.


With that, my quota for the World Association of Kettlebell Sports Clubs, which is the federation I competed in September 2016. Their quota I believe was 48 reps for a Master of Sport rank at 78-kilo body weight. First set was 50 or 51 the first time that I hit it.


Other federations end up having slightly different quotas. I know that the IUKL, their quota was 53 reps for the same bodyweight division. There’s a little fluctuation from one federation into the other.


Generally what Master of Sport it means, it’s almost like the first degree of a black belt that you would obtain. It earns you a state of honor, of notoriety, of accomplishment. I don’t think it’s the pinnacle of accomplishment, it’s more like the linchpin that leads you into further progression.


After Master of Sport, then you have international class Master of Sport, and then after several years of competing and earning those titles continuously, you can get to Honored Master of Sport, which for that you end up having to have world championship competitions long enough aside from having to get those numbers consistently.

David TaoDavid Tao

Got it. I like that analogy, it’s a black belt, and there are different levels of that. If someone’s a black belt, they know what they’re doing. They’ve reached a proficient or maybe even distinguished level of accomplishment. There are gradations above that, there are layers above that.


You keep climbing the ladder but it’s like, “You are a Master of Sport. You have checked the boxes and accomplished a minimum that is quite a bit of proficiency in the sport, competing in a tested, sanctioned environment.”


Yes, correct.

David TaoDavid Tao

Let’s talk about all these federations. It seems for an awfully small sport — at least kettlebell sport in North America is awfully small. It’s a little bit bigger in Eastern Europe, but it’s awfully small here. Why are there all these different federations? Any insight into that?

It’s been more of a grab for power than anything else. The needs of the athlete and the growth of the community for a while wasn’t at the forefront and it was a lot more of, “How much registration money can we get in? How much advertising and lining of certain people’s pockets can we do other than the actual growth of the community.”


Some events that I’ve attended, you can tell that there’s been a little skimping as far as where some of the funds go. How can I put it? It’s made it where some people have been a little demotivated to continue, when it comes to the actual comparison of the sport.


I think that if the division of the different federations and the consistent climbing to see who ends up being the top dog and who ends up being the governing body can be put aside, then we’ll end up having a lot more growth within the community.

David TaoDavid Tao

 Interesting. Let’s talk about kettlebell sport in America. It’s still a super niche sport. We cover niche sports at BarBend. We cover weightlifting, powerlifting, bodybuilding, CrossFit, strongman, arm wrestling.


Obviously, I’m a little biased because I enjoy kettlebell sport maybe more than the average bear, but it is still very much I would call it — the smallest spring sport that is contested in a sanctioned environment in the United States.


Do you think there’s any reason, beyond what you said about maybe different federations maybe not always having the athlete’s interests in mind. Is there any reason it hasn’t caught on more in the United States, especially with the greater accessibility of kettlebells?

It’s a very challenging sport, and challenging in a very different way, in a very niche way compared to other spring sports. There’s a strong strength endurance component to the sport itself, and there’s a lot of repetition to the sport’s events.


It’s very difficult not just physiologically but mentally for somebody to be standing on a five by five platform and repeating the same movement over and over and over with proficiency, for the course of 10 minutes. It takes a lot out of you.


If there was more of a generally cyclical approach into preparation for these events, people would end up finding a lot more interest in it and it would have a lot more growth within the states.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I like it as someone with a little experience in the CrossFit community. I like it to doing Fran for 10 minutes straight. When you say that, Crossfitters automatically go “Oh. Oh, I get it.” Then they go “How can I get into that?” You know what I mean? [laughs] I don’t know.


I have a pipe dream that we’re going to see long cycle contested at the CrossFit games to give folks a slice of humble pie about how difficult it is. We’re talking about…

That would be epic if that happened.

David TaoDavid Tao

It would be. To see what some of these fit monsters could do without refined technique, going deep into the tank. Let’s talk a little bit about the state of kettlebell sport, because we’ve talked about the long cycle, which is doing 10 minutes of clean and jerks without putting them down. You’re resting in a front rack position.


A front rack position is probably different than what a lot of people think it is if they haven’t seen kettlebell sport, but you’re doing clean and jerk for 10 minutes straight. That is one half of kettlebell sport. Maybe even less than one half, because there are more divisions and events that are becoming popular.


As far as the two big events of kettlebell sport, that’s one. People often compete in long cycle. You are known as a long cycle competitor. There’s also the biathlon. Describe the biathlon for folks?

The biathlon is divided into two, 10-minute sets. The first 10-minute set is a set of jerks, which the same principles apply. There’s bodyweight divisions, there’s bell divisions, and then there’s quotas as far as the amount of repetitions you have to hit.


Typically, you’ll have the athlete do the first 10-minute jerk set, and then there’s an allotted amount of time in between until rest before they do a second 10-minute set, where they’re doing snatches.


Now, where the snatch set in biathlon differs from what some people’s experience of snatch sets in either StrongFirst or IKC settings is, is that this one does not entail multiple hand switches and it’s twice as much the duration.


It’s a 10-minute set where you are only allowed to switch once, whether it’d be a third of the way through, or half-way through, or whatever it is that you training has prepared you for. You get a single hand switch, and your goal is to try to achieve as many well-executed repetitions as possible within your 10-minute bracket.

David TaoDavid Tao

This is a very shoulder dominant sport. Every movement in this sport involves putting weight overhead. It’s a little bit like weightlifting in that. Actually, the movements are variations on that.


The only difference being in weightlifting, there is no event at a standard competition that is just the jerk. I guess that’s the main difference. Which audiences do you think kettlebell sport could appeal most to in the United States?

I would love it if Crossfitters got bit by the bug and got on board. I think strongmen competitors also would be really great, because they’re used to being very stable, very efficient in awkward positions.


When it comes to what they can do as far as expressing force from awkward postures — I’m thinking like a stone carry, atlas, things like that — they can thrive when it comes to sport.


I started coaching a strongman competitor who wants to include kettlebell sport in her preparation for Brazilian jiu-jitsu. Strongmen are definitely top of my list as far as people who can get really good and grow within the community of kettlebell sport.


I find it most difficult in some cases to work with people who are strict endurance athletes, not because of the engine but because of the structural limitations that they might have accustomed to over time.


Posture and different degrees of rotation of the hips and the knees, and how that can influence their performance when it comes to the skill of kettlebell lifting.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s a strength endurance sport, or maybe it’s an endurance strength sport is the way to say it because you’re moving weight, it’s sub-maximal weight. You’re moving it for many repetitions, and you’re trying to do it in such a way that you don’t burn out the first few minutes.


I’ve had a few folks ask me, “Well, why don’t you just go as hard as you can out the gate and just go until you can’t go anymore?” That’s not going to be the most efficient. You might only get about half the reps you’re capable of if you pace over the course of a longer set.


One, I am preaching to the choir here. 10 minutes is a long time. Set a timer for 10 minutes and imagine doing the same strength movement over and over again for 10 minutes, and it gives you some insight. It gives other people some insight because I know you’re well aware of the mental game.


You talk about that mental aspect and you talked about it as maybe a limiter in the fact that kettlebell sport has not grown super fast in the United States. It is growing, it is getting bigger, but it’s grown slowly. How does the mental component of this differ from other sports that you’ve coached in, tried out, or just have access to?

I think in a lot of strength sports, there’s an initial approach of embracing violence of going in aggressive the ACDC blasting and the headphones before you go for a heavy build of set and it’s very different.


What I find helpful for myself is spend the time before my big sets, listening to things that calm me and soothed me and help me down-regulate a little bit more so that my heart rate doesn’t peak as quickly because again, it is an endurance game when it comes to your performance.


I think that the mental preparation or the mental approach if it was different, it would be a little bit more inclusive for a variety of athletes. Predominantly, going in there and knowing how to stay calm and composed. Then, part of my [inaudible 19:48] keeping your shit together when you’re in the middle of a set.


Also just that the repetition being OK with the fact that you’re going to have to do thousands of rest before you get that one good one. Then you have to repeat it again another thousand times to really feel proficient in it.

David TaoDavid Tao

 I fear not the man who has practiced a thousand punches, but the man who has practiced one punch a thousand times or something like that. I’m paraphrasing that.


Let’s talk about the technical aspect. That’s something I always kick myself over is the technical aspect is really something. I want to point out, I have competed in weightlifting before and trained in that sport.


Weightlifting, incredibly technical. You are carving a statue and trying to get in the fine, little cracks and polish every aspect of the movement in order to move very efficiently. Kettlebell sport’s a little bit like that except you’re doing it for many repetitions, so your level of fatigue is changing over the course of your set.


In addition, not only do you have to be efficient with how you’re moving the weight above your head, getting it from the ground position or from the hang position in kettlebells for overhead. You have to be efficient about how you’re bringing the weight down and cycling into the next reps.


This is probably sacrilege to say, but I almost feel like it’s twice as technically demanding because you’re doing both aspects of the movement as efficiently as possible. What are your thoughts on that statement?

I agree with you. I don’t have the experience of having competed in weightlifting, so I can’t throw my card in that.


When it comes to my experience in kettlebell sport, yes, I think that the mechanical adjustments you have to make within your structure, the way that you have to accommodate your spine, the way that you have to know how to load the weight onto your body so that you can mitigate any sense of fatigue, discomfort, and, again, be able to breathe and keep yourself calm while you’re performing.


It may seem as if it’s very upper-body dominant because you’re using sub-maximal weights in this repetition, but it’s actually very light dominant. Aside from the fact, there’s a lot of extensor activity coming in from the spine.


Whenever I look at some of these patterns and movement, even when we’ve had conversations in the past, it’s trust your legs. Make sure that you can shift your weight back and forth, so you can depend on your body weight and your displacement to be able to maneuver the bells with as much finesse as possible.


It’s knowing how to feel comfortable within the rack position and know where your breath needs to be directed so that you can maximize your rack, use it for recovery, and use it for force transfer in that vertical position. There is a lot to it in that sense.

David TaoDavid Tao

Interesting. When you were prepping for a competition, what is your training generally look like, in a given week, call out a training cycle, a 12 or 16-week training cycle leading up to a competition?

I typically will start off focusing on bigger compound movements. I do includes a lot of strength work within my preparation.


I’m a believer that unilateral training should actually come before bilateral training and to be able to assess and address any kind of imbalances that you may have from left to right side. A lot of inclusion of things like Bulgarian split squats, Front Foot Elevated split squats, Kickstand RDLs, things to basically make it where your hips are generating force asymmetrically as possible.


I find that to be a strong foundation in preparation for the sport work that comes into play. Early on in the training cycles, it’s very strength-wise with technical work in the form of clean jerk push presses, just rack position holds on the backend of these sessions.


Then they start shifting everything where the ratios are leaning more and biased towards sport work as we get closer to the competition. There’s a level of specificity that goes into play as you approach your actual meet day depending how much time you have and preparation for it.

David TaoDavid Tao

What are some of the most common myths or misconceptions surrounding kettlebell sport you think?

Does your lower back hurt from being in that rack position? I’ve gotten that a lot. I’ve gotten people posting on videos that I’ve put up on social media asking me if my lower back is OK. I’m like, “Yeah, my lower back is fine. Between the 32-kilo rack and carrying my kids and every other thing that I got to do, my back is [laughs] better than it’s ever been.”


That’s one thing to come into play. Thinking that you have to keep your eyes on the bell the entire time as you are progressing through the movement. Eyes on the bell is something that’s usually taught in more hard style communities.


If you implement that within kettlebell sport, it makes you chase the bell too much and it ends up altering your position so much. It’s probably the biggest ones that come into play when it comes to techniques.

David TaoDavid Tao

It’s always funny we’ve posted on BarBend. On social media we’ll post like, a really beautiful kettlebell sport rack position. Not everyone, the comments immediately fill up with, “Oh, that guy or that woman they’re going to hurt themselves.”


Like, “Oh, their longevity is going to really suffer.” In fact, Lorna Kleidman won a recent challenge that Rogue Fitness put out about Max Snatches in 10 minutes. Of course, Lorna being she’s an American, I think she’s around 54 years old.


She’s an all-time great in kettlebell sport, multiple world championships, multiple all-time world records. She’s still probably one of the best in the world in her 50s and that’s compared to everyone else regardless of age category.


She won this challenge Rogue put out. The comments immediately started with, “She’s going to regret that when she’s older. Her back is going to be shot by the time she’s in her 50s.”


She was responding to the comments like, “Hey guys, I’m in my 50s. My back is absolutely fantastic. I’m still a world-class athlete.” That’s something that is brought up because it is a structure, it is a position that we’re not used to even in strength sports.


I think that what folks what they aren’t used to, it’s easy for them to call out and say, “Oh, that’s different, ergo it’s bad or has a deleterious effect.” What are some things that you wish people knew about back health? About the positions this kind of a sport puts you in relative to the actual impact on longevity?

If you look at a good rack position in kettlebell sport, it doesn’t require the degree of lumbar or lower back hyper extension that people assume it does. That’s where they come, they start assuming that it’s detrimental to lower back.


There’s a lot of thoracic mobilization you end up having to have. There’s a lot of breath control and redirection of your breath that comes into play in order to have a good rack position. If I’m racking bells, I’m thinking of loading my elbows and loading the weight onto my pelvis, not stacking it up onto my collarbone.


It’s not a barbell so I can’t load it onto my front belt and my clavicle and assume that it’s going to feel comfortable and I’ll be able to express force in that manner. I’m looking to load the weight onto my pelvis so that my hips can direct it upwards.


In doing so, my goal is to try to move my spine out of the way to be able to create in fancy terms, a combined center of bass.


I want to make it feel as unified as possible so that when I transverse force vertically, I’m able to launch the bells with the most minimum amount of effort on my part because I got to play the long game. I need to last 10 minutes and I need to last more than the other guys beside me.

David TaoDavid Tao

That makes a lot of sense. Juan, we’ve waxed [inaudible 27:01] on kettlebell sport. I’m going to link a bunch of resources to the sport in the show notes and in the corresponding article on BarBend.


Where is the best place or the best places for people to follow along with you, your coaching, your competing? I will say you are a student of movement. You are always trying to learn and express new things. How can people get in touch or follow along with you?

Everybody can reach out to me on social media. On Instagram it’s @urstrength, so that’s letter U, letter R, strength. My website is Anybody looking to reach out to me just shoot me a DM, shoot me an email, and I’d love to be able to support somebody in any way possible.

David TaoDavid Tao

Amazing, Juan. I appreciate you joining. It’s such a pleasure to talk with you in a different environment and I’ll see you again soon.

Copy. It was a pleasure, man. Thank you for having me on.