Tuesday, October 7, 2008

Acclimation and Adaptation

I have recently reached a short-term goal of one-arm long cycle with a 28-kilo going 20 minutes, one hand switch. I did 6 rpm throughout. It was like a competition--all I had. For me, it is best to back off for a time after hitting PRs and do something fun and with less pressure. I spent a few months only doing long cycle, with a little jerk and swing assistance, occasional pullups and jumprope, and nothing else. No snatches or double jerk sets. I found that just like snatch, jerk, squat, etc, if I am going to train for anything specifically, different body parts get acclimated a certain way.

One of my new short term goals is to lose some fat. Friday I had 10 minutes to train, so I picked up a 12-kilo and did a 10-minute snatch set. Not too bad...I hung in there at around 17 rpm, all is well. Then Monday I hit a 10-minute snatch set with 16kg at 16 rpm. For some reason I did not feel like using chalk, and I used a first-production run bell with a thick handle. That was a mistake. Not the bell or the chalk necessarily, but going 10 minutes of snatch when I had not done one snatch in months. My technique was still good, but I noticed my right forearm pronator tendon off the elbow (don't know its real name) flared up, and it is burning to this minute.

While long cycle still includes a clean (just like the bottom of the snatch) and a jerk, and in many ways is the best of both worlds in one set, it still lacks 2 things if you are still into snatch and jerk: the rack endurance, and the drop from the snatch. I know, it still puts the bell in the rack, and the drop from the clean should be almost identical from the snatch, but it seems I have de-acclimated from the snatch and traditional jerk. That's ok.

Obviously, I still want to train, and I do not want to injure myself any more. That is where I have had to adapt. I picked up 20kg and started swinging and 1-arm jerking today. The swings did not bother my arm, but the jerks did. So I did a circuit of swings, shooting hoops, pushups, and bodyweight squats. I did what I could keeping my long-term and short-term goals in mind, while working around a potential injury, including active recovery for the sensitive spot, still practicing kettlebell technique, and working muscle groups the I need for the kettlebell moves I cannot do today.

It can be frustrating, but it turned out fun. Sometimes narrowing our options can make things more interesting, and more fun, and it teaches us to think and plan.

Friday, September 26, 2008

Body Asymmetry and Efficiency

We are all given a body to use it as we please. Very few of them are perfect in terms of function and health, both from inherited sources and things we do to it. If you look at me, at first glance I seem normal or average. As I get more into kettlebell lifting I notice just how different the two halves of my body are.:

I broke my left collarbone when I was about 12. If you look closely, it is a slightly different shape and size than my right. It makes my left shoulder a little farther from my midline and makes that trap muscle appear a little bigger. My overhead flexibility is a little more limited than my right. I drove a truck with a hydraulic clutch for 5 years, so my left calf is more cut around the bottom of it, making it appear shorter than my right. The horizontal lines in my abdominals are staggered, not straight across. My chiropractor says my spine is a big S-curve (If that's true, it is slight and recent). I am a bass (upright and guitar) player by former profession. Each forearm and hand muscle group is trained to function a different way. The strap hanging the guitar on my left shoulder for thousands of gigs may have further "asymmetrized" my upper body. I strap a 2-pound pistol on my right hip all the time, and a full gunbelt every day at work. I also wear body armor, so my hip and trunk mobility is decreased and I naturally find ways to compensate. I have crashed on my left knee twice, so it will probably never feel the same as my right.

I can deadlift, squat, and press all I want, and I feel great doing it. But as a lifelong strength and conditioning routine, The asymmetries in my body lead me to focusing on ballistic work, kettlebell lifting is way more forgiving to my two unequal halves.

Whether I do single-kettlebell work, or doubles, there are asymmetries. Over the months, I have learned that what is the best for one side may not be for the other.

From the ground up:

On swing sets, I follow all the rules: grip position rounding the inside corner of the bell, the thumb lock, head following the bell, anatomical breathing, etc. But when I switch, it just feels different. My right hand has more strength when the handle is positioned lower on my grip. My left is better off contacting my index-thumb circle and laying across farther down the fingers.

On the rack. Again, I follow all the rules: leverage the weight by leaning back and rounding the upper back to let the elbows contact the hips, relaxed wrist position, filling the bell handle by choking up to the corner, with it sitting diagonally against the "hip" of the hand, the ball distributing evenly on hand, arms/shoulders, and chest. But my torso is minutely asymmetrical all over the place. It is most relaxing and efficient if my right hand rotates inward, and my left slightly outward. The handle sits on a slightly different place on the "hip" of each hand. We're talking millimeters difference here. The result is my right forearm is at a different angle and closer to my midline and my left is rotated slightly more outward. I do not interlace fingers in the rack, but the handles overlap so I could if I want.

The lockout: My right shoulder feels flexible and relaxed because I can easily lock out with the bell more internally rotated. My left takes a little more tension to hold a stable lockout. And I cannot rotate it as much. I think It has to do with my collarbone, or possibly my spine.

All my kettlebell movements themselves have slight differences (I follow all the rules still) from side to side. I have worked hard to make them equal, trying what feels the best for each side on the other. I have come to the conclusion that since my strength and endurance on both halves from top to bottom is about equal, it is ok to work with what is best for each. Until I notice a difference in performance or health, I will continue to embrace that different quirks can be addressed and as long as I am following the basic rules of safety, efficiency, and use proper mechanics, I can do it my way. Since almost no one is perfectly symmetrical, find what works for you for each body part and listen to how it feels. pay attention to how it performs and you can maximize your kettlebell lifting.

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

A Test

I train simply and narrowly. I have done the "biathlon" lifts (jerk and snatch) for 1.5 years and their assistance moves (heavy jerks and heavy swings), almost to the exclusion of everything else. When I felt I hit a mental wall earlier this year, I switched to long cycle.

Even with the best training program, there will be walls and plateaus, both mental and physical. Everything will work, but only to a point. At that point, one must re-assess, ponder, and figure out some new way to stimulate progress. That almost never means switching up the routine completely, but commonly means tweaking a variable, taking a little rest, doing something fun, or a test. A test will re-establish your baseline in whatever you test, and like the stock market, the results over time should show a average increase in progress.

In the past, for me a test was commonly a long set of snatch with lighter weight and multiple hand switch. That test would stimulate me to think about my weak links and the long sets would show me how my mind and body behave under long durations of work and fatigue. My last 2 tests were earlier this year. One was a 12kg snatch set to 1000 without putting it down. It took 51:50 to complete. That was after a 32kg PR snatch set (5 min., 30/28). Next time I will strive for less hand switches, less time, or more reps. Probably not more than one of those at a time. 2 Weeks later, My next test was 16kg snatch set to 500. That took 31 minutes even.

In December there is a cross-world type competition that spans kettlebell camps and philosophies. It is a 20 minute set (10 snatch, 10 long cycle), highest reps wins. You can switch and put it down and rest anytime you want. Obviously I will not put it down until the end of my set. I have only been doing long cycle for the last few months.

Today I tested myself to establish a baseline and to measure off it every so often in the future. In the meantime, I will continue to train long cycle only, both 2-hand and 1-hand.

10 minutes snatch
202 reps, switching every minute, ~20 rpm.

immediately to 10 minutes long cycle
114 reps, switching every minute, ~11 rpm

316 reps total.

Next time I will use 20kg and use the same time and format. The pace will undoubtedly be a little slower. I could have gone a little faster in both lifts. It may have meant putting it down to rest, which I refuse to do, or compromising technique, which I will also not do. I locked out still every time. I actually denied myself 2 snatch reps during the last 40 because I felt I did not land the lockout vertical enough.

Cate Imes recently said "We can play by their (hard-style) rules and still put up good numbers, but not the other way around." paraphrase, parenthesis added.

I will do the best I can in that test, and it will be interesting that my training will be 1- and 2- handed long cycle, occasional heavy 1- handed jerks, and swings. All one-handed stuff will be only one hand switch. Like Marty Farrell said, the point is to perform the test while training like we train, and not switching up our training just for this meet. Proper training should make the performance strong anyways, especially with easier rules.

It is good to test one's self every now and then. Every workout should not be a test per se, but it can offer good, constructive self-criticism and a different stimulus for the mind every now and then. It is a good practice for when the tests come in life unexpectedly. It shows long-term growth and progress and motivates me to keep training right. Try it. you'll like it.

Thursday, August 7, 2008

Jump Rope

Ron, this one is for you, buddy.

Disclaimer: I am NOT a jump rope expert, or even close. I am not an expert at anything other than music. I can hold my own in pistol shooting and I am following in the footsteps of kettlebell masters, but otherwise I am just a guy with a little personal experience. In fact, everything I write and publish anywhere, even stuff someone else has said or taught me, comes from personal experience and is my opinion based on that. You probably want to learn jump rope from a real expert, like Buddy Lee.

Here is my personal experience with jumping rope:

From my experience, it has great benefits for kettlebell lifters. Valery recommends running to massage the innards and build wind. I have only been a runner twice in my life, and only when forced to in the police academy and ROTC. I so loathe it. Jump rope is a great alternative to get the above benefits and more.

The consensus is that it is 3 times as effective as running. That means 10 minutes of skipping rope is like 30 minutes of running. A no-brainer for me.

It builds wind

the rotation action of the wrists are very therapeutic for the forearm and is a great warm-up and active recovery exercise for any kettlebell lifting. Swing, clean, and snatch work the grip when holding onto the bell, and the snatch, press, clean, and jerk put pressure on the back of the forearm. Jump rope is great to work out the whole arms and help recover.

The rhythm is variable, and requires coordination. Again, obviously a benefit for kettlebell lifters.

The shoulders and upper body are under resistance, but do not move much. It is almost "static" like the rack position and the overhead lockout. Great practice in building endurance and energy efficiency without weight on your body.

Technique and programming:

Like anything else, here the goal is performing the set with ease and efficiency. Do not do more work than you have to. That means jump an inch off the ground and go a steady pace. Or you could vary it and do intervals, etc. The possibilities are limitless. Experiment with what muscles are doing what share of the work getting the rope to spin and get you off the floor. Be light on your feet.

Buddy Lee recommends a "500" program for beginners. Like anything else, the learning curve will be steady and you will get it if you stick to it. I was so frustrated when I first started. Work on not skipping and being able to do at least 140 skips in a row. Do sets of 140, 140, 140, and 80. That adds up to 500. Rest as needed in between, but as you get better, cut the rest time down until the whole set is around 3- 4 minutes. Do that at that pace without a skip and you can move on from there.

I like to alternate sets of 100-200 with sets of swings. My rest lasts until the second hand gets to the 12 again. This is after my money kettlebell sets.

More on other beneficial exercises I like on another day.

Happy Jumping!

Mental benefits of "GS" lifting

As you know, there are 2 or 3 main philosophies of kettlebell lifting in this country.

1. The first (not necessarily the best!) and most popular for now: The kettlebell is a tool for physical development, mostly metabolic. The purpose is to lift it as "hard" as you can with maximal tension. The set/rep scheme is usually freestyle and as fast and as dense as possible. You mix bodybuilding moves, feats of strength and a few ballistic moves (swing and snatch done as hard and fast as possible).

#2 comes from decades of collective experience and research from top athletes and scientists. They have done all the leg work for us and have observed that, with a kettlebell, the most sure and best, life-long gains in strength, wind, resiliency, etc., come from lifting heavy things off the ground and over your head many times. The snatch, jerk, and long-cycle clean and jerk rule. Swings and occasional presses can fill it in when necessary. These few lifts are done within a time period, without putting the weight down until you are done. Reps are spaced out evenly in order to focus fully on your lifting technique. Efficiency and relaxation and deep, purposeful breathing with your body's movements help maximize your work capacity. This matrix is a true test of mental endurance and physical fitness.

Pick any one and stick to it and you will get great physical results. But in my opinion, they sharply divert when it comes to the mental aspects of training and its effects on the rest of your life. In the long run, even the physical will divert. One will take you to a plateau and eventually diminish your returns, and the other will keep you like the turtle in the race: slow, steady, methodical, focused. It is easy to see which philosophy requires more mental sharpness and discipline.

The whole concept of paced lifting over a relatively long time is special and unique. One must hone deep concentration to:
1. Perform a perfect rep, 1 at a time, every time.
2. Relax in between reps to save energy
3. Breathe deep, slow, and along with the body's movement.
4. Find mental strategies to reduce stress and deal with fatigue.
5. Use leverage and manage pain.
6. Improve body awareness in space.
7. Discipline one's self to be safe but not to fail, to stick it out to the end.

Building these skills with regular, daily practice helps the body and mind deal with a load. Obviously there is the physical load of weight that your body is holding and moving. Also, weight or not, there is a mental load, or stress. This practice primes your mind to command itself and the body to behave under the load, or "stress" of any other area of life.

At work, I drive a car or pedal a bike. Sometimes I must go very fast then immediately stop and deal with a tense situation, mental or physical. Would I want to let the stress build on the way, or would I want to breathe, relax, and prepare for the possible "fight for my life?" I can go 110 mph on a city street with clenched teeth and white-knuckle, or do the same with steady breathing, relaxed, and calm. It makes a huge difference in the mind and body.

Our lives in the 21st century are filled with stress. Most fitness programs maximize stress and tension. Why should you get fit for an hour and have to spend another hour (which I do not have) doing yoga or qigong (all great things), just to come down off the physical stress? Why, when you can do it while you are lifting weights? Tension and stress come in physical, emotional, and mental forms. They will always be there and there is only so much we can do to minimize them. What matters is what control we have over our minds and bodies under them and how we react during the load.

When I was doing workouts labeled by 3-letter combinations (ETK, RKC, etc.), the mental component was never addressed. Relaxation and restoration was only addressed in other forms, but not while actively working. In a year and a half, there are already many personal events where classical kettlebell lifting philosophy has benefited me in very profound and unexpected ways. I will highlight them in future installments. Happy lifting!

Tuesday, August 5, 2008

Expert vs Novice Part 3

What do we gain from the relentless practice of a few primal exercises (lifting heavy things off the ground and over our head many times)?Besides the obvious strength, endurance, resiliency, and technique?

I've already mentioned the mental skill from months and months and thousands of reps: the mental "groove" to move efficiently and effortlessly. Also comes the discipline to relax, de-stress, endure pain, and not waste your energy with overstated and un-needed tension. The practice and ability to relax under a load and breathe has several other surprising benefits that I will will expand on later.

We also gain better body awareness from those correctly performed thousands of reps. Our brains and nerves learn about force generation, speed, gravity, momentum, acceleration, leverage, joint angles and ranges, and timing, all from practicing the basics. We also learn how our body moves through space with all those forces and variables affecting us and the weights we are holding.

My favorite move is the jerk. If I do a few hundred perfect jerks, I will gain enough body- and spatial-awareness to easily perform a heavy windmill, side press, get-up, or half tweaked spinning bottoms-up jumping one-legged bent push press. I will not waste my time practicing those unless I am being paid to perform them. And I am still gaining a deeper understanding of the basics, the backbone, of my sport, making me a better athlete.

Sadly, this staple of the kettlebell sport and fitness arsenal, the jerk, has fallen by the wayside in America until recently. I think it does not fit the doctrine of exaggerated tension and bodybuilding-type philosophies of the hard-style movement. Fortunately a few open-minded trainers from this group are discovering its value with a little commitment. They are stumbling onto training ideas that resemble those of AKC/WKC. It has to be practiced to realize the potential gains.

Jerks are to kettlebells as scales are to music. Like I said before, the mental gains of sport kettlebell lifting and training have some very unexpected benefits that carry over to "unrelated" areas of life. I will expand later. Remember, "make it look easy" by practice and imitating the masters, and anyone can be on the road to mastery.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Novice vs. Expert - Part 2

Say you want to use a basketball and a hoop as tools to get in shape. Obviously you would want to learn the game of Basketball, with all its rules and strategies. That would maximize your potential with those tools and make you the best equipped to improve physically using those tools. You would want to select a teacher that would acknowledge and imitate the best basketball players, past and present. Know that no one is going to take an orange ball, hoops, and a gym and create a better game than basketball as we know it.

Classical Kettlebell lifting is a sport. It has rules, strategies, and some amazing athletes to imitate. It is an ultimate strength-endurance test, the ultimate fitness-sport.

There is a popular movement of "experts" in this country who use the kettlebell as a tool to get stronger and more in shape. Their ways of using the tool delivers great gains for a time. Sadly, many of them display their "power" for all to see and practice the "impressive" feats of strength (not bad in itself) and their basics are horrible. It is like a "basketball player" who only does twirling dunks and half-court shots but cannot function in a game of basketball. Even though many of their students are getting good physical and metabolic gains, they make it look hard. How? They are full of needless tension. This is not maximal powerlifting, folks. Wasteful tension has another name: stress. Purposeful relaxation, especially under a load (mental, or physical), takes a lot of discipline and skill. It is an integral strategy of the kettlebell sport and wellness in life. Efficiency and confidence (the opposite of tightness and stress) is how the experts make it look easy.

A kettlebell is a mass of weight that can be used for any lifting habit. I encourage you to explore what is was designed for: lifting it off the ground and over your head many times with a purposeful efficiency and make it look easy. You have to feel it to believe it.

Tuesday, July 29, 2008

Novice vs. Expert

In any art form, sport, or discipline, even the unschooled can easily pick out an experienced practitioner that truly knows his craft. It is also relatively easy to recognize a novice: a young pup new to the discipline. How is this differentiation so easy to spot? Simply put, the expert makes it look easy. The novice routinely displays his power for all to see.

Everyone goes through a novice stage when he or she is new to something. Eventually, what will determine how fast one will attain mastery is how one practices. The one who patiently and steadily focuses on the basics becomes refined and efficient through practice after practice of the fundamentals. Think about John Coltrane and Jazz music. Even as he invented a sub-genre of jazz and spawned a whole generation of saxophonist-disciples, there are many first-hand accounts of his many practice sessions: He played scales. Over and over. He played standard jazz tunes. In all keys and at all speeds. In performance, he could smoke and exhaust anyone. all because he had such a deep mastery of his instrument and the basics. How do average, untrained know he is a master? He made it look ( and sound) easy.

As this relates to kettlebell lifting: a lifter working towards expert status seeks deeper mastery of the basics and practices them day in and day out. The perpetual novice displays his "power" for all to see. The novice gets bored with the basics and spends his time on the latest circus tricks and "variations."

It is interesting to note that the masters can do all the "circus tricks" and odd feats of strength, but not because they practice them. It is about doing fewer things better, working towards perfection. Along the way, there will be some unexpected gains, but with a solid foundation. More installments on this topic to come...

Tuesday, July 22, 2008


Jerks: A staple and main move of my kettlebell training. They simply must be done and done correctly. The pioneers who paved the way for our strength-endurance sport have narrowed the lifts down to jerk, snatch, and long cycle clean and jerk.

Interestingly, the predominant (read: first) kettlebell movement in our country has focused on press, swing, and snatch, the snatch being the "Tsar" of the lifts. Where did the jerk go? It seems the jerk does not fit well into the American style of kettlebell training.

I am seeing a growing number of American people who train with kettlebells show interest in the jerk. The few who try it and learn how to do it correctly are astounded at how it toughens the shoulders with less stress than high volume presses. That has been my experience as well.

I personally believe the snatch is physically harder to master, but the jerk is more mental. The purposeful relaxation under the weight sitting on your chest and arms is a discipline that takes dedication. The explosive, measured "pop" and the timing between relax-contract-relax-drop, all the while saving energy is the ultimate mastery of body awareness and coordination.

I will write more later on the jerk, but I encourage you to look into it if you are into kettlebells. I guarantee that with proper technique and training philosophy, the jerk will deliver the gains!

Basketball Instruction ad

Advertisement-a parody:

Come learn to use "basketball" to get lean and in-shape. You will learn the fundamentals of this great sport. The fat will melt off you, the muscle will come in and you will be like Mike (Jordan).

All you will need is a ball, and we will start with the core drills, such as two-handed dribbling and sprinting down the court. Also, a steady diet of three-point jump shots and slam dunks are in order. Don't worry too much about making a basket, as long as it hits the backboard. We even do drills where you hold the ball a certain way and lay down on the floor and get up.

Once you learn these basics, we will work out a routine of the above using the fantastic game "HORSE." You know, the game where you take turns shooting and the most baskets the fastest wins? If you get really good, we'll work on half-court shots, spinning dunks, and one-handed dribbling through the legs.

Would this be ludicrous or what? Would you learn basketball from a teacher who leaves out the philosophy of the game? Sure, doing select drills using a fitness tool can help you lose weight and get stronger. But it would be cheating the student not to teach the rules and strategies of the game of basketball. To get the most benefit, one would want to learn the rules: scoring points, fouls, times, shots. Every basketball player regardless of position must be able to shoot (from all distances), pass, block, steal, dribble, and tip. You'd watch videos of the best players and learn what they do. You'd work up to playing a game while following the rules to get the most benefit. You would do specific drills to strengthen your weak links AS THEY FIT INTO THE ACTUAL GAME OF BASKETBALL.

With a thorough understanding of the game, right down to the nuances of mental strategies employed by the best players, anyone would ultimately achieve even more "fitness" and physical gains. Learning an incomplete and sometimes incorrect set of drills using an existing sports tool can improve your physique, but a serious student would explore the game and learn the rules, then imitate the masters that have gone before them.

When searching for a kettlebell coach, I urge you to assess whether you will learn some fitness drills using a fitness tool, or will you get quality instruction from someone who has learned the rules of the sport that for decades has been refined by expert scientists and amazing athletes. Will your coach have been practicing the game and refining the basics? Has you coach learned from Michael Jordan, or Jamal from the street cour, that everyone says is good?

Basketballically speaking, others may want to spend all their time working on half-court shots, spinning dunks, and full-court sprints. That is fine. I will work on my free throws, blocks, passes, and lay-ups, and I will play as many games as I can.

Monday, July 21, 2008

First post

I have always been interested in strength and how the beautiful human body moves and functions. My background in sports and fitness is not much until my adult life. I went to the gym in college and ran and did PT and played racquetball, and it all worked for me at the time, except for those nasty shin splints. After that was cosmetic, bodybuilding type workouts.

In 2002 a friend introduced me to Pavel's "Power to the People" which changed my thinking and direction. Through further exploration, I got a DragonDoor kettlebell in 2004 with an "RKC" book.

Life has been busy since then. With a career change and a growing family, It has been necessary to stay strong, clear-minded, conditioned, and flexible, and with very unpredictable and limited time to train. I need something that will take care of everything, take little time, and have speedy recovery. Obviously, the Russian Kettlebell, properly lifted, gets #1 on my list for all of the above.

In 2007 I had the honor to train at the American Kettlebell Club coach certification with world champion Valery Fedorenko. His experience and philosophy has been proven time and again that classical kettlebell lifting with a solid training program is the best "minimalist" fitness routine. It is about perfection through reps, making every rep a purposeful, effecient movement. The classical sport of kettleebll lifting done by the masters is hypnotic, a beautiful display of the ultimate strength-endurance sport.

I invite you to cut through the fat of other programs and explore this minimalist philosophy. Doing fewer things better may be just what you need.