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Sunday, October 21, 2012

To chalk or no, the Girevoy Sport question.

It's somewhat of a trick question. The primary purpose for chalk (magnesium carbonate) in Girevoy Sport is to minimize friction between the handle and the lifters skin. There is one story of a 32kg Snatch lifter who did not use chalk. I hope this is an urban legend.  Rumor has it that the athlete lifted the entire 10-minute set with no switch to the second side. The lifter had apparently epoxied his hand onto the handle. eeeuuu! This may be the reason most current GS organizations clearly state that the only thing to be used on the kettlebell handle is magnesium carbonate, and also why the kettlebell must be placed on the platform in full view of the judges before the lifting starts.  ... just a thought.

It is uncommon to see anyone competing at a professional level with Snatch or Long Cycle who does not have some chalk on hands and/or handles. Less chalk is needed for the Jerk though it is still used with heavy weight loads (ie. +20 or 24kg for women and +24 or 32kg for men).

Lifters who avoid chalk are probably those whose hands stay dry through the work set. To this group, chalk causes friction and will create a skin tear. I would love to see this group advance to higher level lifting - the only reason for not using chalk for a 10-minute heavy weight load set is complete confidence in impeccable technique, so please show us how it's done!
Another reason people don't use chalk is because it's an "all-or-nothing" proposition. Too little chalk will become a layer of sand paper which eventually rasps the skin into a tear once the hands become sweaty. Those who need chalk, aka. the sweaty-hand group, need to go through a fairly involved process of cleaning up the kettlebell handle with emory paper, a wet cloth and spray bottle before getting to the powdered chalk. This can be messy in the learning phase.

Those who benefit by chalk also quickly learn that the right amount is key. It varies from person to person. In a 2012 Snatch seminar, champion lifter Alexandra Vesileva mentioned two chalking options, either a "fur coat" (for lifters whose hands sweat more), or a "thin layer" (for lifters whose hands stay dry). Both types of lifters cover their hands with chalk, especially the area between the thumb and index finger. Alexandra did not mention any other options and waited patiently for me to put a light weather jacket on my handle before beginning a work set later that day. (She told me it was not a fur coat because it was not yet one-quarter inch thick.)

Here is a video I made for some fellow GS lifters who asked how I get the handle so white:
Chalking for Snatch may be more thorough than OneArm Long Cycle.

Anyone who has attempted a 10-minute Snatch or Long Cycle with 20kg or more already gets the reasoning, but for those who would like more details, there are three moments in the cyclic GS exercises that warrant the use of chalk:
  1. The point of Maximum Inertia - this is when the weight, having been dropped from the overhead or rack position, reaches the point at which the lifter must change it's direction into a pendulum swing. The handle has moved from the thumb to finger side of the lifter's hand during the fall, but has not yet weighted the hand. There are a few techniques to minimize "grip shock" and if the handle is in a perfect position there will be no friction at this point.
  2. The Dead Point of the back swing - this is when the weight has reached the zero velocity point in the back of the pendulum. The kettlebell will stop moving upward and begin to fall. If the lifter is patient, he/she will wait for this course change and re-direct the downward movement into a forward swing in complete harmony with gravity. With the patience of a turtle climbing a mountain, there will be no friction during this point.
  3. The Dead Point before the Acceleration Pull - this is the other side of number 2, when the weight has reached zero velocity at the front of the pendulum swing. If the lifter waits for the kettlebell to stop moving upward along the pendulum arc, just before it changes direction on its own, he/she can "pull" the kettlebell into a vertical trajectory. With correct timing and technique there will be no friction in this movement.
Chances of learning and practicing correct technique at all three of these points in the Snatch or Long Cycle are slim. A motor-skills genius who can practice it correctly from the get-go will dominate his or her weight class. If this is you, please make videos of all your training sessions and post them for the rest of us to learn from!
After three years of practicing GS exercises I continue to refine these three parts of my lifts. Yes, it is the beginning of my competitive years, and thanks to chalk I am able to experiment. Mistakes mixed in with correct lifts do not devastate my sets.

For more information, questions or to find out where in Boulder you can practice these skills, please contact me at 
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Monday, October 1, 2012

A word on the schools of kettlebell lifting

Much like the many types of Martial Art, no particular school of kettlebell lifting is "better." All uses for kettlebells have specific benefits when performed correctly. Because I am asked so often, I figure it's time to spell it out the different styles of kettlebell lifting to the best of my understanding.

Something to note upfront: Kettlebells are designed to be one-handed tools. Strong folks have complained that the handles are too small or the weights aren't heavy enough. Keep in mind the two-handed swing is a basic exercise that leads to one-handed momentum exercises, such as Clean and Snatch. Swinging with two kettlebells is a simple solution to the above mentioned problems. (It is not advised to Snatch with two kettlebells.)

Kettlebell assisted aerobics vs. "Hard Style" strength training
(more weight = more need for technique)

"Kettlebell assisted aerobics" includes lower amount of weight, ie. 2, 5 or 7 pounds, which are incorporated with mostly un-weighted routines. Aerobic workouts focus on high repetition, movements outside the normal routine and maintaining a target heart rate for a duration of time. A light weight kettlebell intensifies the core aspect of this workout. The kettlebell exercises are basic enough to be taught on-the-fly, and small sizes provide safety from injuries if form is not completely correct. Fast paced music is common to keep the focus on perpetual movement and elevated heart rate. Using kettlebells with aerobics is a great way to loose weight and get started with resistance training.

"Hard Style" (a term applied to a specific style of kettlebell lifting) strength training makes use of kettlebells as free-weights rather than dumbells, cable machines and a weighted bar. A major difference in this style is the off-set weight of a kettlebell. (A variety of sizes come into play, such as those pictured to the upper left and lower right. These kettlebells are solid cast iron, thus the diameter of the bell increases in proportion with the weight.) This requires the lifter to use deep core contraction, specific breathing and technical knowledge to accomplish a lift safely. Another characteristic of "Hard Style" is improved mobility and flexibility. "Hard Style" kettlebell lifting is a great way to take your physical fitness to a higher level and learn valuable skills for daily life.

Kettlebells to assist in a workout vs. Kettlebells as the workout
(more kettlebell exercises = more need for technique)
"Kettlebells to assist in a workout" is when a few exercises in the workout include kettlebells, ie. a circuit style workout with kettlebell exercises mixed in with exercises using other pieces of equipment such as a barbell, pull-up bar, tire and sledge hammer, etc. This style is typically a group workout with minimal emphasis on teaching technique, which slows the pace. Great for those who need a diversified workout, this style is characteristically intense and supports functional movement. Can be an excellent way to condition the cardiovascular system and gain strength.

"Kettlebells as the workout" is when the entire set of equipment for a workout is a variety of kettlebell sizes and open floor space for bodyweight exercises such as push-ups and burpies. Skills must be developed to complete an entire workout with kettlebells only. It is a good idea to get a series of private training sessions or attend a certification workshop (such as "Hard Style" or Girevoy Sport training) so the lifts become correctly ingrained. Great for those who like to workout on their own. Also excellent for at-home training and for athletes who want to improve their performance in a sport.

"Hard Style" vs. Girevoy Sport (more time with one lift = even more focus on technique)
"Hard Style" has a trademark of high intensity with fewer repetitions. Which is not to say that cardiovascular endurance is left out. In fact, many long-time weightlifters pick up kettlebells for the added cardiovascular conditioning of the momentum exercises, ie. Swing and Snatch. Great for breaking out of a training rut and gaining relative strength due to the high focus on core conditioning. Excellent for short workouts with a minimal amount of equipment.

Girevoy Sport (GS) takes the momentum exercises to a whole new level. The diameter of these hollow steel weights are standardized so a lifter can move from 8 to 12 to 20 kilogram weights without adjusting their form to fit the different dimension. (A 32 kg kettlebell is more solid than an 8 kg kettlebell.) This type of kettlebell (shown in the picture above) is useful for all types of kettlebell training. A characteristic of Girevoy Sport is the initial challenge of learning the "classic lifts" which make it a sport: Snatch, Jerk and Clean & Jerk ("Long Cycle" in GS talk). The duration of a competition set, 10 minutes, is the next challenge of GS. At a competition, the amount of correct repetitions completed in 10 minutes are counted as a lifters set. In the beginning, just keeping a kettlebell in motion or in one of the "rest positions" for 3 to 5 minutes is a major accomplishment. GS training is great for developing work capacity, strength endurance and flexibility in shoulder and hip joints. Also excellent for athletes who want to learn a new, highly competitive individual sport.

I hope this is helpful for those who've been wondering about the various uses for kettlebells. Please feel free to contact me with comments or questions:  See my website for information about classes or private training:

Best wishes for a great season!