Program Review: The Russian Kettlebell Challenge Rite of Passage

In my slow descent in being a kettlebell guy, I’m here with a review of arguably the most commonly run kettlebell program on the planet: The Russian Kettlebell Challenge Rite of Passage. I am running the version described by kettlebell evangelist Pavel Tsatsouline in the Second Edition of his famous Enter the Kettlebell book.

While running Dan John’s 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Workout was good for me in terms of pushing myself to complete a challenge and dipping my toes in kettlebell work, this is the real deal. Even as Pavel has narrowed this program down in terms of movements quite a bit, the only required moves are clean & press, swings and snatches, this is still a fuller kettlebell experience.

Here’s some metrics compared to where I ended on the 10K Swing Workout:

As you can see, I lost mass in my two primary places I track it while keeping about the same weight. Not ideal for my arms, which keep shrinking. This is fine for my legs, which are huge, and could stand to be smaller (and also is a spot where my body stores a fair amount of fat). My best guess is this mass was mostly expressed by my growing back, as this program hits the back all the time. And there’s nothing wrong with a big, thick back.

Aside from those, more aesthetic, progress metrics, the actual goal of this program is to get to 200 snatches in 10 minutes using a 53 lb/24 kg kettlebell. The program recommends testing every 4–8 weeks. So, here’s how many snatches I was able to get in 10 minutes every test:

While I haven’t reached the goal of the program yet, I think after running it for almost four months, I can give an accurate review. This one is a long one, as I decided to just put my thoughts on kettlebell training in general in here in addition to thoughts on Pavel’s specific program.

What is The Russian Kettlebell Challenge Rite of Passage?

A peaking program, the Russian Kettlebell Challenge Rite of Passage’s (sometimes written RKC Rite of Passage, or RKC RoP) goal is to get you to press and snatch a 53 lbs/24 kg kettlebell 200 times in ten minutes.

The program is five days a week: three days of defined work, an easy, medium and hard day, and then two days of variety where the lifter just gets out there and does some work. You’ll need two kettlebells to do this as written, your current bell and your next step up bell. Every 4–8 weeks you are to spend the hard day testing where you are in the challenge.

The defined work days run on a ladder set/rep system for clean and press and then a randomized amount of a work for snatches and swings. Pavel writes ladders out like this, for example: (1, 2, 3), which is a ladder of three rungs (sets), with 1 rep on the first set, 2 on the second and 3 on the third. He’ll toss a number in front of it like this 5 (1, 2, 3), which means doing that ladder five times. Each day do the ladder, you add or subtract rungs based on the difficulty of the day.

The randomized movement is to keep you on your toes a bit. You roll two six sided dice (2d6 for my tabletop friends) and the number you roll means you do either snatches (day 1) or swings (days 3 and 5) for that many minutes. The intensity you do this at depends on the day, the easy day is mostly taking it easy, resting when you feel a little worn down, whereas on the hard day, the goal is just to push yourself to do near full capacity work for however many minutes you roll.

Pavel recommends some pull-ups in between sets on working days, just use the same ladder set-up you have for clean and press for pull-ups. Because I do not have access to a pull-up bar, I did single arm rows instead with my kettlebell. I would do these rows immediately after the clean and press, like a superset, and then do my rest.

On to variety days. Pavel has nothing recommended for the first variety day. Just get some work in. I spent this day doing a variety of movements:

I usually did these in some sort of 5x10 type of set/rep thing just based on what I felt like doing. But I did almost always get in the goblet squats because I do feel the rest of this program doesn’t hit the quads hard enough.

The other variety day has some heavy work in it recommended, where you do some lower volume versions of the main work with the heavier kettlebell and also some Turkish Get-ups. Because of the lack of volume on these days, I would occasionally add some work from the above list to this variety day as well.

Every day I did a little warm-up based on this write up of the program from an anonymous blogger. Namely, 3 sets of 10 reps on face the wall squats, halos and Hindu push-ups. While this blogger did five sets, It took me about six minutes to do three sets, which is enough warm-up in my opinion. However, halos felt like they were hard on wrists once I got up to a 62 lb/28 kg bell. This might just be bad form on my part. But regardless, I switched to bottoms up cleans instead of halos for warm-up starting week 5.

I also used the rest times as this guy described as a general guide as well, 15 seconds after 1st rung, 30 seconds after rung 2 and so on up to a minute tops.

My Lifting Background Up to This Point

I have been program lifting for over five years. First six months were Stronglifts 5x5, then a year of Greyskull LP (during which I injured my back and spent months in recovery, losing a lot of deadlift and squat progress). I started 5/3/1 in February of 2017, switching to Forever style 5/3/1 in February of 2018. Then in 2019 I started various powerbuilding programs. 2020 was originally going to be a year of “extreme” programing, Deep Water being the first, but the covid-19 pandemic closed down and gyms and encouraged social distancing. So, I had to improvise. First with suspension training and now with the kettlebell.

Before all that, I had been on fuckarounditis for two years of varying intensity and absolutely no progression plan in an apartment building gym similar to a hotel level gym. I spent my 20s largely an out of shape obese guy after being an athletic teenager.

Work Outside of Kettlebell Training

During this program, I continued to take a daily creatine supplement of 5g, D3 5,000 IU vitamin supplement and Fish Oil for Omega-3 1000 mg. I do also supplement about 1/3 of my daily protein from a shake.

Kettlebell training practically is a cardio workout. Which is good, because my cardio outside of that continues to be way down due to shelter-in-place orders. My walking went up with the nice weather though, usually at least 3 miles a day and occasionally 6 miles. No weighted vest this time around. I don’t do cardio much more demanding than this because I suffer from asthma. While I got an occasional bike ride in, nothing consistent.

Diet-wise, I’ve been sticking with a low-carb diet that I developed when doing Deep Water. Still doing one to three cheat meals a week (usually some pizza). But otherwise it’s poultry, some fruits, lots of vegetables and a little bit of legumes and fat free yogurt.

Thoughts on Kettlebells

I bought a few

This shit is fun.

Pavel has a pull quote on the back of the book that kettlebell training is “the closest thing to you can get to fighting without throwing a punch” and I’d say that’s pretty accurate. This feels like you are doing martial arts with 20+ kilograms of iron strapped to your fist. The movements take a little while to master, and once you do it feels very satisfying.

I found myself a few times deciding to do some more work even after my “required” (by my own definition, I always got a half an hour of work in at minimum) time was done on variety days. Why? Because it felt good. I’ve written in the past that getting a fifth day a week has been difficult for me, but I mostly managed to with this one. I think part of that is the fun factor. Rest days felt out of sorts for me. I honestly couldn’t wait to get back out and push myself against the iron. Another nice thing is that I am doing all this from home, in the ally behind my place. I get out, breath in the crisp autumn/winter air, listen to the ol’ gym playlist and swing around a bell. It’s really nice with no commute.

Snatches and high pulls are the real show stopper movements, in my opinion. Snatches for the extreme satisfaction of learning how to navigate your arm around the bell (rather than flopping the bell around your arm) is near impossible to describe. You just gotta do it. The high pull, closely related, feels satisfying as well. You swing this weight from all the way behind you, in front, up to next to your skull, it hangs in defiance of gravity for a brief moment before you drive it back down and do it again.

It’s very metal.

Speaking of aesthetics, I’ll quickly address this, but I don’t want to dwell on it: if you pick up the book be ready to read some insecurity around masculinity. Pavel knows his shit about a kettlebell and has a fun persona with all his cool Soviet era tough guy stuff. But he goes out of his way to trash on aerobics (despite kettlebell training keeping the heart rate in the aerobic range), the HIIT trend (despite having a whole page dedicated to Dr. Sears’ research on the benefits of INTERVAL TRAINING) and super oddly, Jane Fonda. If you read a lot of fitness books you know that these occasional digressions into machismo are common, but fair warning if you’re not up for that.

Impressions of the Program

On to the program itself. Pavel has recommendations for kettlebell weight in his book. I went with 44 lb/20 kg for my regular bell and 53 lb/24 kg for my next level one to start. This is his recommendation for “a stronger than average gentleman.” I guess I should have had more confidence in myself and went with “a very strong gentleman,” as I blew right through the 20 kg bell in the first week. Pavel tells you to graduate to a heavier kettlebell if you can 5 (1,2,3,4,5) clean and press a bell on the heavy day.

I guess doing five years of program lifting gets you into “very strong” in Pavel’s book. If you need a comparison to power lifting numbers for your own consideration buying some kettlebells: when I last tested myself 9 months before starting, my 1 rep maxes were 435 lbs squat, 280 lbs bench and 175 lbs overhead.

It’s not a bad idea to learn some form with lower weight, so it wasn’t hugely problematic for me to start underbelled. It definitely helps you get the proper form on your wrist and forearms for cleans and snatches. But having a heavy bell really made sure I was doing a proper pull at the beginning of swings, cleans and snatches. When you have a lighter bell, it’s very easy to just let your arms and shoulders do the work of pulling the bell from the start position. A heavy bell forces you to employ your full posterior chain and really feel the power from there flowing up. So, don’t go light too long, push yourself early.

For me, the jump from using the 53 lb/24kg bell for regular work to the 62 lb/28 kg bell was when I really felt I was pushing myself. The 28 kg bell tore my palms quite a bit and gave me a pretty good back strain that took a couple days to stop hurting. And well, it just generally felt heavy. It was good though, I made the switch up to the 28 kg bell seven weeks into the program and I was jonesing for something to make it feel more challenging at that point anyway, so good design from Pavel on when to go up a bell.

One word of warning: I was not prepared for how much my forearms wouldn’t care for having the weight sit on them. Pavel mentions that you should not bang the bells against your forearm, you learn to move your forearm around the bell rather than the bell around your forearm. And indeed, back when I first started doing kettlebell training in September I did find myself banging against my forearm until I got the form down. But even after taking a month off to just do swings, heal up my forearms and then coming back with good form, I still found my forearms tender after work outs. No bruises, nothing I couldn’t work through, but still sore.

I put on some powerlifting wrist wraps to help with it and that was super useful. And, after a while, my forearms just weren’t tender anymore. I think it was kind of a calluses from knurling on barbells or a toughing your finger tips to play guitar situation; you kind of just have to develop a bit of toughness that you didn’t have before because nothing you’ve done to this point involved 53 lbs of iron resting on your forearm.

And speaking of calluses, my hands also developed some new ones from kettlebell training. Get ready for that too. Pavel does have a whole section in the book about hand care though, if you really find yourself roughing up your hands. I started moisturizing more regularly around week 7 (the 28 kg week) and had to even remove some callused skin with some scissors to keep it from scratching up my palms.

One sin against the program I did was to replace the 2d6 swings from day 3 with high pulls after week 3. The reason for this was two fold: 1) I just really like high pulls, they are fun and 2) this program is supposed to peak your snatches, so why are we swinging so much? The swing is a fine exercise, but I also just came off of five weeks of doing 2,000 swings a week. All that put together made that change easy to justify.

By about eight weeks in, I had a good handle on the program (and actually wrote most of this review), but I kept with it until the new year to see how well it works at getting me to peak. Seeing as how I started off only be able to do half the snatches required to graduate, I wanted to observe how my body would respond to doing this program for a long while. I think that Pavel probably should have programmed in some sort of rest or deload week, ala Jim Wendler’s 5/3/1, because while this isn’t linear progression, it never really tells you when to take it easy. Doing heavy clean and press three times a week over and over and over again still seem to start taking its toll on me a bit. Of course, I’m also almost 40 years old, so maybe the young guns out there can just climb and climb and climb as the design here recommends.

By week 13 I was really starting to feel worn down using the 70 lb / 32 kg bell for regular work and the 80 lb / 36 kg for the heavy day. My shoulders were starting feel sore in the joints even when sleeping. This is a peaking program, it’s not meant to be done forever. But it’s still important to note that it gave some (likely) repetitive stress type pain from the incredible amount of clean and press that is in this program.

Conclusion: it’s really, really hard to snatch a 53 lb bell 200 times in 10 minutes. The rate of 20 snatches a minute isn’t truly breakneck, but it basically means you never ever get even a slight rest. Whether it’s my asthma, being almost 40 years old or just not strong enough, I found my lungs gave out far before my muscles. I got plenty of practice in on snatching a 70 lb bell, sometimes for 10 minutes as the dice fell that way, and it was rarely my arm, grip, shoulders or posterior chain that failed. It was my lungs. For some people Rite of Passage may be a muscle test, but for me it was a lungs test and I failed it.

Aesthetically, the numbers say I lost arm size and that’s never a good thing. I would think with all the pressing, my triceps would have grown. And I got some biceps work in with all the rows I supersetted with those cleans and presses (and I did more rows on variety days specifically to hit biceps). This program never claims it’s going to give you a beach body, it’s much more about practical strength (which is a kettlebell thing overall). So, I can’t knock it too much. But, it’s clear that if aesthetics are part of your goals, you gotta supplement some pure arm work in there (and maybe some chest stuff too).

My reactions and observation-wise on my look, I can say a lot of people mentioned I was looking bigger in general. Doing all these cleans, swings, pulls and rows seemed to grow my back like crazy, so I think that’s where I added some general thickness. I felt like my arms were looking the best they have since I started working out and I did hear that from some people as well even with the loss in overall size. I think my traps were the biggest area of growth. Traps are very in right now in bodybuilding and weightlifting. A lot of people think you can “fake” biceps and triceps while abs are just a body fat achievement, but trapezius muscles are considered real deal muscles. All this clean and press absolutely blew up my traps.

There’s something about what a program can make you feel though, and feeling-wise, I just felt badass. Swinging around a kettlebell in the cold while listening to some banging tunes left me feeling confident, which is a boost on its own.

Closing Thoughts

I’m well aware that Pavel has a mixed reputation within the lifting community. His claim that he trained Russian special forces seems to be a little bit of resume padding, if not something even less connected to the truth, among other things. But fact is this program is a lot of fun and Pavel knows how to introduce the kettlebell really well. He’s a bit of a salesman, which is at the same time fun but also can feel a little tiresome.

But this program was super fun. I had a lot of fun going after bigger bells and better numbers on the snatch challenge. If it had delivered on arm size, I would have absolutely loved it. But instead, I just mostly loved it. And Pavel’s book has way more than just this program in it, it’s a total introduction to all things kettlebell and gets you started on the path to proper form from the beginning with a lot of great movements.

Overall: Recommended

Where to next? Well, technically this would be the start of a new year for me, so I would try something entirely new. But this last year completely bulldozed any sense of normalcy, and my lifting life has been no different. I’ll probably keep on with the kettlebell because even with asthma, I doubt I’m getting vaccinated any time soon. So, no gym, no barbells, no where to go but back to home solutions.

Hi. I make movies and lift weights. I write about the latter here.

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