Steve Cotter on kettlebell history, Kettlebell Sport's future, and returning to the platform


Steve Cotter is the founder of the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation (IKFF) and one of the most well-known kettlebell experts in the fitness world. Countless people who currently compete in the Kettlebell Sport learned technique from Steve, who travels worldwide to teach kettlebell workshops. When I had lunch with Steve and his wife Samantha a few weeks ago, I got to know a lot about Steve's background and the history of Kettlebell Sport in the U.S. (which you all know is something I love to post about) - as well as that Steve will be competing again in the near future! 

When did you first get interested in health and fitness?

In its origin as a young boy in upstate NY, playing a lot outdoors by myself, climbing trees, hiking by the local streams, exploring in the woods. More formally, when I moved to California in 1982, when I was 12 years old. Then I started serious study of Chinese internal martial arts.

How did you originally start working with kettlebells?

I did martial arts for a long time and I was subscribed to Dragon Door's catalog. Late 2000 I started seeing advertisements for Pavel Tsatsouline’s “Beyond Stretching” and I thought “that looks pretty cool”. After another year, I started seeing Pavel’s “Power to the People” and I thought “oh that looks interesting”. At this time I was done with doing martial arts professionally and I was a full-time student. I wasn’t training very much. I started seeing advertisements for the kettebells, but I didn’t have any money and the kettlebells were pretty expensive at the time (about $150 for 32kg, $110 for 16kg).

I was teaching martial arts on the weekends at a local park, and I had showed my students the Dragon Door catalog. A few weeks later, one of my students showed up with two kettlebells. I tried them out and decided to get some, a 16kg and 24kg. I got a copy of Pavel’s kettlebell DVD and taught myself how to use kettlebells in my living room. Eventually I started using kettlebells to train my clients.

How did you become involved with Pavel and Dragon Door? 

In 2003 I started getting on the internet and found the Dragon Door forum, and I thought “I need to be a part of this”. Something was telling me, this Pavel guy, I need to be a part of that. I ended up signing up for the Russian Kettlebell Certification (RKC) in April. I was young, 33, and at that age I was using 32kg for everything. We didn’t have any knowledge, just Pavel’s video. By the time I showed up to the course, I had been practicing for a while, so my technique was good. Pavel picked me out of the crowd and said he wanted me to be his assistant at the next RKC.

Why did you split from Pavel and Dragon Door? 

I worked with Pavel from 2003 until the end of 2006. Our split was related to Valery Federenko. Right after the American Kettlebell Club (AKC) began in 2007 Pavel called me and asked me, “What do you know about Federenko?”. He was suggesting that I was moonlighting. Pavel wanted me to start flying the RKC flag, but I didn’t want to identify JUST as senior RKC instructor - I have many things in my life I’m more proud of (being a father, being a champion in martial arts, being a college graduate). I didn’t appreciate him telling me how to run my business. He was not paying me full time; he was not my employer. I’m cool with being a team player but there has to be mutual respect. I only like team when everyone has that attitude of “we’re making each other better”, not “you’re my servants and I’m the king”.

You have traveled all over to lift kettlebells, including Russia. What is the kettlebell culture like in Russia? 

Not everybody in Russia uses kettlebells. Most of the older men will know what kettlebells are, because they used them in the army. Kettlebell is a communist thing; it’s for poor people, that sort of thinking among the modern, wealthier class. The Russians only have high-level athletes, there’s no one using Kettlebell Sport just to get in shape. The market was created here in the United States, and then it spread. It took the Russians until about five years ago to realize their potential in the market. They may be champions, but they don’t really know how to, for example, take your grandmother and help her lose 20 lbs using a kettlebell.

How do you stay fit when you travel so much?

I teach kettlebells, with the class. I show them how I want them to do it. If I can’t put [the kettlebell] down, they can’t put it down. But even if I didn’t workout for a year, people would still think I’m training all the time because I know how to regulate my weight.

How many Kettlebell Sport competitions did you do?

A local competition in San Diego in 2004, US Nationals in 2005, Russia in November 2005, Latvia in November 2006,  IGSF Italy in 2012, and the Bolt competition in July 2015. I’ve done 6 competitions in total.

What are your best results in competition? 

My first comp with 32kg was US Nationals in 2005. I did 60 Jerks. In 2005 I traveled to Moscow, Russia with Christine Uberti, Andrew Durniat, Lorrain Patton, Marty Farrell and a few others. That was when Denisov set his jerk record of 175 and broke Sergei Mishin’s record of 170. At that meet I competed in 32kg Biathlon, I did 42 jerks and 77 snatches. I have also competed in 24kg Long Cycle in Italy with Oleh Ilica; there I got 80 reps and earns my CMS with IGSF.

Why did you stop competing in Kettlebell Sport?

I was never in a situation where I knew that I could do my best. My business and IKFF are more important to me. I’ve never been in the same spot for an entire training cycle. I’m always off on some crazy travel schedule. And I know there’s people who do it, like Denis Vasilev, but being a professional lifter was his job before he started coaching and traveling.

The last time I competed in Long Cycle it’s because I was staying in Italy with Samantha during that period. I was still doing seminars in Europe but I was flying on the weekends so I could train during the week at Oleh Ilica's gym a few times. I had him write me a program to follow for 5 weeks. That’s how I was able to get my CMS in Long Cycle from IGSF.

Having a name is a blessing and a curse. If I show up and I’m not really prepared… people expect a lot from me. Out of respect for myself and the competition, I’d have to train; I can’t just show up and do so-so numbers. It has to benefit my life, or there’s no point in doing it.

What do you do now for your own training?

I actually just decided I am going to do the WAKSC World Championships after I watched the Long Cycle Championships on July 9. My son’s probably going to do it too. Right now we are training for Biathlon; I’m not sure yet whether I’ll do Masters or Open. It's going to be a great [competition], it’s the kinder, friendlier World Championships. I’m sure it's going to become the most important meet in the world.

What thoughts do you have on preparing yourself mentally for something as physically demanding as a 10 minute set? What techniques have you used to get through a 10 minute set or any other intense tests of physicality?

As I am older and more mature than I used to be, I realize that everything is mind. There is the mental and then the physical preparation. By that I mean, there are some high level athletes, totally ready physically through training, that tend to underperform on the bigger stage.

For me, for Jerk, I can keep myself 10 minutes if I decide to. Snatch on the other hand, takes a lot more specific training to last 10 min, because of that grip and hand specificity. For me in Jerk the kettlebells can sit on me, so the mind can win out. But to excel to full potential, the tenacious mind has to be paired with smart physical preparation. One can only will himself so far in Kettlebell Sport.

The short answer is clarity. Know what I want and decide if it is important enough to endure for.

What do you think of BOLT competitions?

It’s a great common ground between people who train different styles. If you’re really good at hardstyle you should be able to step into a Bolt, and for Sport athletes doing a Bolt is like a walk in the park. So then you’re just looking at GPP and conditioning. I think it’s a great stepping stone, but like any organization they have their pros and cons. That’s why I like to stay focused on IKFF, because I don’t have to worry about what other people do or get people’s permission or play politics. I can just do what I think is best. My boss is my students.

What are your thoughts on the future of Kettlebell Sport? How do you think it can/will grow and progress?

It’s very interesting. If you were to ask me the same question maybe 1 or 2 years ago, it would be very different answer. Then I would have said that I think it has so long to go, because there appeared to be a strong political aspect with regards to who is controlling what and those kinds of barriers, which I think, would not appeal to the “mass” audience, including corporate sponsorship (sadly, but really).

That said, I have also noted in the past 1 or so, a shift. Some smart, more integrated group of leaders from within the Russian Kettlebell Sport system, who seem to “get it”. Meaning, they understand, respect and appreciate that the sport is about the people and the community. Without singling any one person or group out, because so much of this is grassroots and every person that contributes on any level. But there has been a more recent hands-across-the-globe initiative that has obviously captivated Kettlebell Sport lovers.

So my answer now is that I think there is a lot of growth potential and is a reason why I personally am more interested in supporting the sport. We always have, via IKFF, however I personally like the new leadership that is emerging and see that these people are easy to work with. It’s very important for me, because again, it is about the people, not any one person.

Do you follow the sport and do you have any “favorite lifters”?

I know who I need to know.

In terms of following, I am not a person to be a fan of athletes. I like Kettlebell Sport; I like all sports. But for me to be a fan, I have to know a person and then I may become a fan of the person. Great athlete is great athlete. Worthy of respect. However it is only one aspect of life, the physical. I am interested in how the champion uses that in life.

So, if I am to choose one favorite, I would say Denis Vasilev. Not because he is a great lifter and champion, that is plain to see... Rather because on top of that, he is a kind and respectful person. To me, it shows a lot of character when a champion is also humble. Never believe the hype about yourself, no matter how much others may compliment. That deserves respect in my book!

Other than that, everyone knows the great sportsmen and sports women in Kettlebell Sport; and you are one of them too.

What are your thoughts on “hardstyle” versus “sport” style kettlebell lifting; should there be a line between them, do they complement or work opposite to each other?

Hardstyle is a brand. Kettlebell Sport is a modern way to use kettlebells. Personally I don’t care too much for names. I like what is good and to me kettlebell is mainly an endurance or power endurance tool. So what do the best performers do? There are a lot of strong people lifting kettlebells, whether it is in CrossFit or some particular system. I do believe there is a balance. I mean, anyone can move how they feel like moving. More tension, less tension. What is the goal?

If it is to breathe hard and sweat there are so many ways. If it is to get maximal reps, well there is a sport and it is based upon modern science. Why reinvent the rules.

To be clear, there are many talented athletes who subscribe to all different types of loading and rep schemes. Yet it should be obvious that to be well-educated in kettlebells, one must be familiar on some level with all different applications.

Competition, juggling, heavy, light, special lifts, feats of strength.

In terms of starting a successful organization (IKFF) and having your own business, how did you learn to do that?

I’m learning as I’m going. But that’s okay because I don’t do anything just for the money. I love what I do, I love life and people. Money is just a tool. That’s never been THE single most important thing that drives my decision-making process. But as I become more mature in business I pay more attention to what it represents, so I don’t waste my time dealing with people who are full of shit and don’t offer anything. It took me a long time to realize that because I’m a very trusting person.

I would say you’re the most well-known kettlebell expert in the fitness world. What would you contribute your success to?

(Samantha: The jumping pistol squat video!)

My martial arts background, because without that I wouldn’t have been able to do any of the things that were impressive.

Connecting with Pavel and his organization at the right time.

I got well-known for a few unique skills. Honestly, everything is God’s will, or however you want to call it, we don’t get to control things. We get to have a say in the direction but we don’t get to control all the details. To a certain degree you can, through visualization, but the lord works in mysterious ways. I can’t really say why, I can only guess.

Timing. If I would be just starting out now instead of then, I might not get the same results. It was at that moment, combined with making good decisions and having good instincts. For example, making the instructional DVDs. I already had a name within the Dragon Door community so whoever was following Pavel was following me, to a slightly lesser extent.

I did the “Beast challenge”: 1 pull up, 1 arm press, 1 pistol with 48kg bell. I was the second or third guy to do it but I was the smallest one to do it. Dragon Door posted it on the internet.

By association and because I was good - that was the bottom line. if you’re good, eventually people find out about you. If you stand up with a loud speaker and say it, or somebody says it for you - it gets out faster.

Are kettlebells for everyone?

Almost everyone! My rule of thumb is, if the person can get herself into a chair and out of a chair without assistance, she can also begin to swing, since it is the same movement (hip action). And if you can swing, you can do kettlebells!

What made you decide to go vegan and how has that changed your energy and your approach to training?

I would say it’s one of the crucial/best choices of my adult life. It’s changed everything health-wise. I’m the same bodyweight as when I was competing full contact martial arts. People might say oh you’re so skinny, but my strength to weight ratio is higher if anything. I feel good, emotionally and spiritually, more connected.

You can look at whatever study you want to look at and draw any conclusions you want from it. I don’t really value the studies; what I value is my experience and the example that I set. For me, are you healthy? Are you happy? Are you energetic? I feel better than I ever felt. I’m getting older, but I feel like I’m getting younger.

I didn’t [go vegan] originally for health reasons, I did it because I love my friends (the animals) and I don’t want to kill my friends. I don’t want to contribute to suffering. I feel that how we treat animals also speaks about how we treat each other. Because here’s the thing with animals: we live in a society where it’s taboo to eat a dog, but the dog and the cow are equal. It’s just our belief that we can’t eat our cat or dog. It’s called speciesism. You should choose knowing all the details; not by putting blinders on.

Was there a turning point where you decided to be vegan?

We went to see this nationwide showing of “Unity”; the guy who wrote it also wrote the movie “Earthlings”. The first scene was so powerful and captivating that I started crying. At that moment, I decided I would never eat an animal again. I finally understood.

How do you keep to a vegan diet while traveling? 

I make it one of the host responsibilities to have sufficient food that meets the standard. On the occasion that I go to a restaurant that doesn’t have anything I can eat, I don’t eat; I just drink tea or get a salad.

The first thing I do when I travel somewhere is find a market and buy fruit and water. I bring nut butter and food with me. I can just eat an apple and nut butter if there’s nothing else. That will sustain me for a day. Nuts, dried fruits.

Would you say you are a vegan activist? 

I’m not an activist; I don’t try to convince anybody or criticize the way they live their life. I don’t want to make people uncomfortable; I want to lift people up. If I tell 10 people and 9 of them don’t want to hear it, I’m not really talking to those 9 people anyway. I’m talking to that one person who is going to make a positive change. It’s adding drops to the water, eventually it will make a difference.

What’s a go to meal for you?

Beans and avocado. Lots of potatoes with olive oil. Nut butter. I travel with protein, I don’t eat a lot but I do take some (pea, hemp, brown rice).

What is the best kind of training program for holistic health?

The BEST can and will change; however whatever it looks like, it has to include knowledge of basic exercise science principles such as law of adaptation, law of overload, law of individual difference; also how to structure a training to include warm up (prep) main part and cool-down; it also has to include knowledge of flexibility and how to care for your own body

There has to be a mind-body connection, not only during training (concentration and focus), also when not training (keeping goals on track and in mind, imagery, visualization); knowledge of breathing, deep breathing is a must; and then the technical knowledge has to be solid; if it is weightlifting, gymnastics, kettlebells, running, yoga, some combination of all and more, it has to have the correct learning and performance of the techniques to have good results and no injuries.

Lastly, in my book, it has to be sustainable, meaning you can still do the same or similar 20 years from now and beyond.

They say hindsight is 20/20… looking back now is there anything you wish you had known before you started lifting kettlebells?

Well I have zero regrets and would not change a thing because life is a true blessing and sometimes those blessings are in disguise.

So the way I see it is, what would I do different or better yet, how would I teach my own child. That is easy to answer, I would have gone directly to the best sources for information and not learn bad habits in the beginning that may take a long time to unlearn! Learn the breathing, static strength, how to relax and alignment from day one.

For more interviews with instrumental members of the Kettlebell Sport community, click here and here.