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Thursday, December 18, 2014

A few thoughts for those new to Kettlebell Sport

Because Girevoy Sport, a.k.a. Kettlebell Sport, has been named one of the fastest growing sports I'm feeling some responsibility toward new lifters to offer a reality check. This sport is not currently sponsored or funded by any major corporation. There is no pay-out for athletes at any typical competition in the US. With few exceptions, we who invest our sweat, time and money into the sport do it for the love of the sport.

Even still, it becomes a lifestyle for those who let it. This is an endurance sport, and as such attracts athletes with ridiculously strong will power. Most coaches are remote/online, and suggest 3 to 4 training days/week to prepare for a competition. This necessitates quite a bit of video and communication via email or other remote means to get the best out of a training cycle. Many athletes create home gyms or work in spaces separate from other gym activity. Meaning many of the aforementioned hyper-willed KBSport lifters do so alone.

Thanks to social media, many Kettlebell Sport lifters have access to community and training opportunities that simply would not have existed 15 years ago. If at all possible, a beginner needs to get one-on-one training from an accomplished coach/lifter. Workshops are very cost effective and worth the money.

Here are a few thoughts that may or may not be outlined at a workshop but will eventually become part of any serious athlete's training:

1. Endurance does not mean destruction
Do not push to failure in Kettlebell Sport training. Save it for the competition. It's not bodybuilding. We are not attempting to hypertrophy muscle groups. We are building cardiovascular and muscular work capacity through periodized training stages. Every Kettlebell Sport exercise is a full-body effort therefore overtraining it will result in full-body shut down.

2. Discipline includes the patience to develop new skills
Some of these skills are physical motor skills, such as the coordination of breath and movement for the Jerk. Some of these skills are mental, such as the ability to quiet the mind when the second hand seems to be moving backward. Some of these skills are emotional, such as knowing when to use nervous energy and when to calm it. Every lifter knows that we only grow with diligence and consistency and can not grow without adequate nutrition, rest and guidance.

3. Flexibility and mobility are valuable athletic qualities
When applied correctly to the technique, these assets are far more valuable than strength. For example, a lifter who has developed thoracic mobility will absolutely last longer than a lifter who relies on upper body strength in the rack position. Another example worth mentioning is the lifter who has developed shoulder mobility will get more rest in the overhead position than someone who is hoping his/her arm strength will endure. All high-level athletes put special effort into maintaining flexibility in KBSport. Just a hint.

4. Lack of efficiency is the greatest weakness
If you watch a World Champion lifter, then watch a beginner, you will see one glaring difference: the World Champion is doing nothing extra, every part of the lift is stripped down to maximize efficiency for the entire 10 minutes. Everyone begins with the idea that this is hard work, so correct technique becomes secondary. Hundreds of repetitions are practiced with extra movement and extra tension but no relaxation. Saving energy is key in endurance sports.

The right guidance at the right time can make all the difference in a training cycle. I hope these words of advice support new athletes and coaches in preparing for upcoming competitions.

I am happy to offer online coaching and mentoring for all who are willing to work remotely (or in person if you are in Boulder, CO!). Please contact me at for more details.

Best wishes for your lifting goals!

Monday, September 22, 2014

Comfort, Risk, Danger Zones in endurance training

...and are we electing to suffer?

Suffering is different for everyone. "Suffering" could be pain, it could be fatigue or too much unfamiliar experience. Suffering may be due to noise, wind, heat, or psychological/emotional factors, such as uncertainty, too much perceived risk or outright fear.

I think about this often in Kettlebell Sport training. Especially when I have a high goal in mind for myself such as the most recent training cycle. Challenging my physical and mental Comfort Zone, going into the Risk Zone, is the only way to stretch my capacity.

Let me define the physical and mental "Zone" concept:
  • Comfort Zone: refers to familiar experiences or ideas. We feel in control physically and mentally. We know what to expect, how to act and can predict a likely outcome when life is in the comfort zone. In general, our areas of expertise are in our Comfort Zone. Communication is easy, light and supportive and the attitude is slow-paced and confident. The benefits here are relaxation, rest, creativity and the ability to engage in communication (give-and-take conversations). The main disadvantage is a narrow perspective. In the Comfort Zone we filter new experiences to make them more predictable, thus reduce exposure to things that will generate a learning curve. 
  • Risk/Safety/Courage Zone: experiences or ideas that are outside the normally chosen realms. We do not know what to expect and often venture into this territory knowing we have something (or everything!) to learn. This is where greatest potential for growth and improvement can be found. The name associated here elicits a mental/emotional response, so it can be called whatever gives a feeling of adventure and alertness. Communication is inquisitive, the attitude is curiosity, humility and slightly excited/accelerated pacing. The benefits here are the rich potential for new experiences, adaptation, and learning. New skills are found in the Risk Zone, new friendships and greater perspective on previously acquired knowledge. People maximize their potential by staying in the Risk Zone to broaden the Comfort Zone. The disadvantages of the Risk Zone are 1) the outcome is unknown and we may learn through failures and 2) that new experiences will change us. This may be difficult to integrate with previously established Comfort Zone parameters. 
  • Danger/Terror Zone: experiences or ideas that send internal warnings, red flags and emotional responses. Communication becomes defensive or shut-down, the attitude is emotional, aggressive or retreating. Not a productive learning zone, when we reach this physical or mental state the best thing to do is calmly retreat to the Comfort or Risk Zone. In other words, the building is on fire, you cannot put it out but you can find a safe exit. Too much time here will result in injury. The parameters of the Danger Zone are not the same for any two people. The benefit of this Zone is that we get a full-body experience of our inner safety mechanism. This is Red Alert, and if not heeded will lead to damage. The disadvantages of the Danger Zone can be either 1) too much time here may desensitize someone to the natural self-preservation impulse to find safety or 2) it causes physical and emotional trauma.
Back to the original point, "electing to suffer" in Kettlebell Sport means getting more comfortable in the physical Risk Zone, but keeping a watch for the type of suffering that signals physical Danger. For athletes who have their eyes on great achievements the line between mental Risk and mental Danger is much less obvious. But it's there for everyone.

Now I want to give a personal example with intention to help others develop deeper understanding of endurance athletes.

A week before this competition I crashed on my bicycle and sustained deep scratches on my left ribs and abdomen.  Immediately I re-evaluated my goal for the competition. This set was more than a year in the making. I had endured 20kg Biathlon to prepare for this 24kg Long Cycle set so pulling out of the competition was not an option. Two training sessions remained, I informed my coach and proceeded. Session one showed me just how wrong the position of those scratches are and session two showed that lifting on the left side will be mental and emotional Danger Zone territory.

I made a plan to Duct Tape my injuries before the competition. Somehow planning a solution I had never tried brought everything back into the Risk Zone, maybe it was the excitement of a calculated risk. I headed for Las Vegas, followed the plan and slid into my warm-up on Saturday, taped around the ribs and in a state of controlled fear.

Well, in the end, the Duct Tape came off during the warm-up. My suspicion was confirmed, that I could get reps on the left but not what coach had programmed. I saw the Danger Zone on the platform, created the mantra "Go Until It Cannot Be Done or Time Runs Out," and endured until I could not distinguish between physical and emotional pain. If there had been $3k on the line, I might have gone deeper into this experience.
For the record, if I cry after a set I've sustained trauma on some level. Coaches and athletes, make note of this, as you may know people with a similar mental/emotional Danger Zone.

Top of the weight class! Photo by Sergey Rudnev.
Now, two days after the event I can say achieving Master of Sport rank on my first 24kg LongCycle attempt was worth the pain. Mostly. Retreat from the sport is an idea deep in my Danger Zone, but a complete rest-and-heal stage feels like a new level of Comfort (previously would have been a Risk).
I do not know if I will be ready for the One Hour Long Cycle in less than a month, an idea which totally pushes my emotional Risk Zone into Yellow Alert, but appreciate everyone who has already elected suffering for the great cause this year, research for effective treatment of Autism.

For those who have read this far, thanks for letting me debrief this experience in a  public forum. It is a Risk Zone exercise. If you have similar stories or comments to share, please leave them here or in the comment lines.

Best wishes for your growth in whatever sport you choose!
I'll be in the mountains for a while....

Sunday, July 20, 2014

One Event at a Time

You mean "one GOAL at a time," right?
My first 12kg Snatch set at a comp, 2011.

No. One event.

A long-term goal keeps us in practice, gives us inspiration and drive. But if there is one common sense rule in Girevoy Sport (aka Kettlebell Sport) it's work on that goal incrementally, one competition, one training cycle at a time.
Click this link for my previous post explaining GS.

Here are two vital aspects of GS training that help measure improvement through short-term successes. First, growth happens over time, and second, technique improves with effort.

Growth over time

More than one World-Class athlete/coach has pointed out the time required for goals such as Candidate for Master of Sport (CMS), Master of Sport International Class (MSIC) ranks, or breaking world records. Some of us have the goal of completing the 10-minute set with zero No Counts.

In any case, preparation for a single competitive event requires a training cycle of two to four months. Most athletes are able to train effectively three to four days per week with control sets every two or four weeks.
After four months of training with a focus on increasing total time, speed or weight load the nervous system, tendeno-muscular structure and emotional body require an "all stop" for recovery. Well planned periodization will prepare an athlete for a peak performance just before overtraining occurs.

My third 20kg Snatch set at comp, 2014.
If a training cycle is planned for longer than four months a peak performance day, which may coincide with a competition, is placed somewhere in the middle to allow the athlete's body to go through a recovery phase before continuing with a higher goal.

Note on increasing the competition load

It has been mentioned that ramping up a lifter's competition weight load requires a minimum adaptation phase of one month per 2kg increment. This means that an athlete wishing to increase the Snatch Only load from 20kg to 24kg will need two months of a training cycle to physically adapt to the increased resistance. After a lifter has gained strength to use the heavier load he/she may begin a productive training cycle with short sets (2 minutes, for example) at the goal pacing.

For lifters training with double kettlebell loads, one step up adds 4kg to the total load. An adaptation period of four months or longer is realistic for an increase from 2x20kg to 2x24kg. Meaning this is when a lifter may be capable of short training sets at the goal pacing. This implies that it will take more than one training cycle for a lifter to increase the competition load and complete an entire 10-minute set when increasing the load with doubles.

This does not take into account the inevitable technique adaptations, nor increased cardiovascular demand of double loads, which may require extended rest periods in the training cycle. A 5-minute event with the higher load is one way to allow completion of a micro cycle and get a control set before the athlete needs a rest phase.

Post-competition rest from GS training could be as short as 3 days and as long as 4 months depending on the physical, psychological and emotional demands of the training cycle. Most coaches require 1 week of rest before an athlete resumes GS lifting.

These rules are flexible, yet in my experience attempting to step over them yields less-than-favorable results. Each time I have attempted to train outside these guidelines I am reminded of a constantly repeated statement: Girevoy Sport builds humility, patience and mental discipline.

Constantly improve technique

As a sport that is gaining popularity outside Russia, many coaches are hard-pressed to find correct and efficient ways to introduce GS lifting to the American audience. The workshop environment is the most effective method I've experienced so far for both teaching basic form and improving technique. Even though I've been current with at least one certification since beginning this sport, I take the opportunity whenever possible to attend training events.

Coaches themselves are constantly evolving. For example, at my first IKSFA Level 1 training (Nov. 2011) the main teaching was quite different from the most recent IKSFA Level 1 where I assistant instructed (Dec. 2013). The way each lift was presented, particular points of each lift, physical dynamics and specific assist work was emphasized differently. At both events I gained volumes.

Ivan Denisov's impeccable shoulder mobility.
I have attended several training workshops run by similarly prolific instruction organizations. They all cover the same aspects of each lift. However there are unique tools and specific methodology used by each certification group. For example, IKFF directors have martial arts backgrounds, so incorporate unweighted flexibility drills as core warm-up elements. At OKC they emphasize Functional Movement Training-style elements and swinging Indian Clubs to support correct joint preparation. But do not expect all the tricks to come out at any one training. Each individual event will be different based on who shows up. When I attended OKC certification in 2013 we were instructed by none other than Denis Vasilev! Denis is known for his specific form refinements and post-work stretching. Clearly there is no one way to teach Girevoy Sport. The way it is learned is entirely based on the athlete.

For athletes who have previous experience with gymnastics, wrestling or possibly yoga, the shoulder and hip flexibility demands are minor. For anyone endeavoring to master the sport, if you cannot already do a full bodyweight rotation around your shoulders, you may run into some lockout and fixation issues. Apparently any Russian playground is equipped with monkey bars as primary apparatus, thus many Russian athletes are already mobile in this joint from a young age.

Actively learn the lift while preparing for an event

Every time I've really succeeded with an event I continually shaved off inefficiency from my technique and put extra effort into lift-specific mobility. I put time into studying the performances of high-level athletes and visualized my own lifts with more efficient patterns. I did the tedious work of taking video of warm-up sets to confirm that I had included technique nuances, and watched my training videos as if I were my own judge.

The first week of a new training cycle is the most opportune time to evaluate previous performances for necessary corrections. Especially if the new cycle involves a lift that has not been practiced for some time (ie. the lifter is switching from Long Cycle to Biathlon), this first week is ideal for making tweaks before the training gets intense.

These rules are not flexible. As it has been said many times by many experienced teachers, you will perform the way you have practiced. Technique improvement is the real art in Girevoy Sport. We need our coaches and fellow-lifters to help us see where improvements are necessary, but in the end anyone who really wants the results will forge his or her own lift.

Friday, July 4, 2014

Girevoy Sport training on "Princess/Prince" days

**Edited version: with the encouragement of more than one smart person I know, I re-submit this article with information about specific remedies and alternative medicines. Thanks to Wikipedia for the excellent info-links!!**

You know what I'm talking about, mainly the ladies who lift hollow steel, but also you men. It's the "weak as a kitten," emotionally sensitive and unable-to-ignore-discomfort days of the month.

Women's hormonal flow is quite well studied. Medical scientists refer to it as the "high hormone" stage, in Sex-Ed they called it PMS. In both cases culminating is the release of the uterus lining, aka. menses, aka. beginning of a new cycle, aka. "I'm a Princess today."

Men's hormonal flow, by contrast, is utterly mysterious. Publicly available studies focus on declining levels of testosterone associated with aging, offering little information for younger men. So I've been making field observations. Guys in the gym seldom admit to having emotionally sensitive days, but even the most aggressive athletes have them.

Symptoms of high estrogen phases in men may include, but are not limited to, distractibility or complete air-headedness, bloating, outbreak of pimples, intolerance to any type of discomfort (including loud noises and heavy kettlebell loads), irritability, and the desire to cry at inappropriate moments. Some guys just skip the workout on these days, some become disproportionately angry with failed lifts, some get picky about the music, you've seen this, right?

Men (and ladies past menses), if you don't know for sure when this unexpected weak moment women happen again, do what women have been doing since pre-recorded time: check the moon phase. 

We all have hormones. Why not support one another in getting through the Princess/Prince Phase (my term, you can use it)? Here are the most effective methods I've found to stay on track while training through Code: P, including the most reliably effective natural product support I have found.

Found in health-food stores.
1) Don't go it alone. Be it a profound limbic response or a placebo effect, the natural pharmacy is an abundant resource to help restore hormonal balance through pain relief

Homeopathic remedies are either very effective or completely harmless. For mild muscle cramps during training, I use the homeopathic arnica blend, Sportenine. This can be taken (chew a tablet) between sets and usually works within a few minutes.

Essential oils are highly effective limbic brain balancers, as part of the treatment includes inhaling the aroma. My essential oil blend of choice is Dragon Time, containing lavender, clary sage and blue yarrow, time-tested essential oils for "lady time." The blend recommended for men and women past the change is Mister, featuring sage and myrtle essential oils (supports natural estrogen-progesteron balance).  These essential oils are available only through Young Living, and I'm telling you now, if you become a distributor you will save 24%. Both of these oils blends are intended for topical application, which I do before arriving at the gym. I apply a few drops to my abdomen and/or back and inhale the fragrance that remains on my hands. If pain persists after 5 minutes I repeat this process. It has never taken more than two applications for cramps to subside.

The herbs are "big medicine" especially in formulas that produce results. If abdominal cramps are just happening for me, out come these "big guns." I take Curica, which contains white willow bark (the original aspirin) and a clinical dose of turmeric, with breakfast. Curica is best taken with food and needs about 45 minutes to start working. The effect on me is equal to 500mg of ibuprofen. 

2) Acknowledge your condition. Playing stoic is best reserved for times when you genuinely can be. Pretending the starving child in Africa commercial did not bring you to tears this morning is a loosing tactic. Let your friends know you are approaching the training with an emotional handicap. This is intense training and it will push your edge. Share with your friends, they get it.

I personally carry Rescue Remedy Pastilles for these exact moments. Also known as Five Flower remedy, this Bach flower essence blend contains remedies for shock, trauma, panic, and mental breakdown (all occur on a major or minor scale every time I get a new week of training from my coach). Because the Bach flower remedies are infused into grain alcohol, a typical dose is 4 drops in a cup of water, I prefer the kid-friendly pastilles. For me there is something wrong with ingesting grain alcohol in the gym, so I chew on one gummy candy during my warm-up. As with homeopathic remedies, the flower essences take effect within a few minutes.

3) Be realistic about training loads. If the feeling of dread or physical cramping is persistent, and the Rescue Pastilles are like spitting on a bonfire to put it out, work with your coach to drop a heavy load to what you know is achievable. Building confidence is just as important as building strength in this sport. If you go ahead with a hard test anyway, see point #4. 

Due to higher hormone levels, ladies are likely to overheat sooner. Increase rest periods between GS sets, use lighter loads with assist work, or cut down the cardio set to counter-balance your elevated internal temperature.

Found online at
4) Channel the emotional energy. If you go this route, prep yourself mentally with a motivational video, listen to your Power Play List, or crack some jokes to get a dopamine/endorphin response from your limbic system.

Keep in mind the words of Denis Vasilev:
"I may die, but I'm going to try this training session."
And be ready to go completely limp after the adrenaline rush subsides.

5) Keep accurate training logs. I use the C: P notation to keep track of weeks up to a competition. I also note when "Super Woman" wrist protection comes into play, if it took three doses of everything to stay calm, or if I spaced-out, left my platform shoes at home and did the Jerk sets in my sneakers (it has happened). It's in my log... you know, just to look back on those moments fondly.

Ancient wisdom.
6) Cry, damn it! If it needs to come out, it's going to make things better to let it out. My personal cry sanctuary is during the run. Yes, the neighbors see a big-legged, chalk-handed weightlifter weeping her way around the cardio set, but this small emotional indulgence helps me get my head right.

Men, emotional sensitivity turns out to be a natural human experience. Be alone if you need. This will help you identify the same symptoms in your friends. Learning to show weakness in front of others is a powerful psychological exercise that strengthens us very deeply. Besides, you've already let them in on your moment, right?

7) Sleep, the natural hormone balancer. Rather than medicating a high hormone training failure with cake and ice cream, try a cup of herbal tea to help wind down that night. 
Decocting herbs in water to produce tea is an ancient medical technique that elicits the most gentle response to any medicinal plant. The most commonly known ingredients for relaxation are chamomile, peppermint, and valerian. Browse the tea isle for anything that appeals to you. Add milk and honey to taste, if you like.

I pull out my kava tincture and take a dropper full with a swig of water just before bed. Kava is a traditional herb of Pacific Island tribes and, though found to be effective for promoting deep relaxation, is much debated as a long-term frequent-use cure for sleeplessness. I find it effective when used once/month or less. 

Essential oils are another standard for me, specifically applying lavender oil to the bottom of my feet. As with all aromatherapy, inhaling the fragrance makes the treatment work. 

I do hope this based-on-science list of solutions enhances your own experience with GS training in "kitten time." It is a stand-out moment in the month, so I recommend reserving these special treatments for use on these days. Keep it in your gym bag, your lifting partner needs it, too.

As with all other aspects of this sport, whatever you do in training will serve or sabotage you in competitions. Why not consciously focus on perfecting your response to those inevitable high hormone days?

For information on how to acquire YoungLiving essential oils, or to consult with me on your GS training, including online training, contact

Best wishes for healthy, effective training,

Saturday, June 14, 2014

Chicago KB Classic keeps it real in the best way

Last weekend, June 7th,  Chicago Kettlebell Club and Rock Cox collaborated with IKFF in the 2nd annual Chicago Kettlebell Classic. The timing of this event was perfect for me to prepare a first ever 20kg Biathlon, taking two weeks of my own strength programming and eight weeks of Biathlon-specific programing from Coach Sergey Rudnev.

The event was an excellent moment for me, bringing together my favorite features of Girevoy Sport competitions and a wonderful group of people. All this justifies my most grueling training cycle yet!

Here's where I give massive respect to lifters who can do Biathlon at consecutive events! This is no small feat, especially if the lifter is planning to break personal records.
I learned several things in training for this Biathlon:
1) pine tar on the elbows
2) chalk for Snatch before doing Jerk sets
3) use electrolyte replacement drinks for "during workout"
4) it's not possible to get enough sleep, but try

The judging was the first thing that brought this event into the realm of "class act" for me.
Of the two judging perspectives (the easy "friendly" judge vs. the hard "prove it" judge) I conclude that the standard at the IKFF Chicago KB Classic was closer to the second.
As far as I could tell none of them participated as lifters. No-counts were given. Got one myself for a weak Snatch. The timer/counter electronics gave me immediate feedback from my judge, and aside from this she put no energy into communication before or after my sets. All business.

No music, at all. Some would say this makes the event too serious, for me it's easier to concentrate on my own preparation when the sound system has minimal presence. Yes, it did intensify the focus when a flight came down to just one lifter. I predict that next year a larger crowd will generate more of that trademark sideline encouragement known at larger meets. Folks got great results at this event, and as we all know, each little detail contributes to a good or bad set.

Holding the event in an airport hotel has it's pros and cons. The biggest positive was the shuttle service from O'Hare, giving me the fly-in, perform, fly-out experience of a Rock Star. We had a nicely discounted group rate, another plus, and the competition was in the same building.

The hosts and their teams were absolutely awesome! Bea and Rock each brought great sportsmanship and organization.
Bea craftily using a congratulatory hug to take my weight.

This event featured some exceptional women! Of note were Jamie Foster-Wolcott lifting double 12kg LongCycle (10 minutes), and Sandy Doyle with 2x16kg Jerk (5 minutes). Both of these women also performed second events!
It's worth mentioning, though it was a small field of competition, a high percentage of women showed up with 16 and 20kg lifts in 10 minute events. Renae Stritzinger stood out with 24kg LongCycle, earning CMS!
Speaking of ranks, three women (myself/Biathlon, Ada Wong and Sandy Doyle/both LC) showed determination to excel with MS ranking sets in 10 minute events.

This in not to diminish powerful performances by the men who showed muscle and shear love of the sport. Namely Nathan MacBrien with 20kg Biathlon and John Lesko with 28kg Biathlon. There is no rank for 20kg and the highest rank for 28kg Biathlon is 1, but both athletes demonstrated admirable sporting attitude with solid performances in both lifts. John showed us an amazing 200 rep Snatch set! That is no accident.
5 minute events dominated the Men's Division, with weight loads from 16 to 32kg. The turn-out of transition weight loads, 20 and 28kg, shows that these guys are working on long term goals and used this event for peak performances. Mike Salemi earned the only Men's MS rank with 32kg LongCycle (5 minutes).
That's Rock (left). Non-stop focus, but takes time to congratulate me.
**Late addition to the post**
The Relay was the fun and revealing conclusion to the Chicago KB Classic.

A KettlebellSport Relay an opportunity for individuals on a team to prove their collective excellence. Every competition can choose to offer this as a fun finale after the main lifts have finished. In large events all participating groups will enter teams. If a few groups don't have enough members they will collaborate to assemble one team.
The traditional time for each lifter is 3 minutes with a 15 minute race total.
The most important rule is that if a lifter does not finish his/her time, the next team member is not allowed to finish that time. The weights must sit on the platform for the duration of that leg.
The winning team is the one with the most correctly completed repetitions at the end of the time. It can be a very heated contest.

In this case, Rock assembled Men vs. Women, 5-person teams for a 10 minute race, meaning each team member had a 2 minute leg.
The Women's team was given the opportunity to choose the lift and kettlebell load, so we chose one arm Jerk with 16kg. The Men, bless their hearts, went along with the Jerk, but chose to lift 2x24kg.

Keep in mind it is a race.

The video link from Bea's Facebook page. Thanks to Mike Salazar!
Women's team in order of lifting: Bea Rodriguez, Christian Goldberg, Juliet Lederle, Renae Stritzinger and Kimberly Fox. Total reps = 242
Men's team in order of lifting: Leonel Ribas, Mike Salazar, Victor Culiuc, Rock Cox and John Lesko. Total reps = 191

Conclusion of this competition review?
For the record, attend next year. The date is set for Saturday, June 6th, 2015. If you need coaching or community, hit up Bea RodriguezRock Cox, or me for online programming!

For myself, Snatch Only!

I hope to see everyone who didn't attend the Chicago Kettlebell Classic at the IKSFA Michigan Kettlebell Sport Championship on June 28th!

Best wishes for safe, efficient lifting,

Sunday, May 4, 2014

The difference between "workout" and "training"

A.K.A. Short book report on the stages of learning motor skills.

The word "workout" indicates vigorous exercise, and may include specific physical skills. A second meaning of the word conjures images of people following a leader who orchestrates a routine of low-skills exercise for 45-minutes to an hour. In both cases, the desired effect is to elicit hundreds of breathing cycles (1 inhale + 1 exhale = 1 breathing cycle), turn off the critical cognitive function and make sweat pour out the body.
     A "good workout" incorporates few or no movements that require participants to slow down and learn new motor skills. This is not a criticism. Most workout material makes use of movements that exercise angles, feats of strength and coordination skills that are not typical in daily life. For basic health and fitness this is great for moving blood, lymph and synovial fluid through it's natural cleansing cycle. Plus the benefit of bringing the brain wave frequency closer to the alpha state, deep relaxation.
     The downside is that, even though the entire group may enjoy the experience if the combination of moves produces endorphins and sweat, perhaps one-third* of a group will be correctly addressed in an "exercise class." Because a majority will not get specific results, they will not be inspired to practice any part of the movement routine on their own.

*The comment "one-third" of the group is in reference to the somatic types (images below), which can be found easily with an online search. Every person is born with a physical disposition. The three broad groups are ectomorph, mesomorph and endomorph body types. Each of these types have specific strengths and weaknesses regarding muscle development, weight and fat management, thus each need a different workout to achieve desired results. Anyone who wants to achieve maximum physical potential or just plain good health will accept his natural build and learn how to use it. 

A person can no more change his natural physique than can a blue jay turn itself into a goose.

The word "training" is commonly used for dedicated armed forces and professional athletic team practice. We may also say "training" in place of "practice" or "drill" to indicate the act of ingraining cognitive knowledge into physical skills with focused concentration.
     Exercise is therefore a practice of skills learned through training. In contrast to the low-skill workouts described in the first paragraph, a proper exercise is a skilled movement pattern. Every sport has specific physical skills, such as footwork, ball-handling or efficient movement sequences that must be learned with intense focus. Athletes quickly understand that with repetition, specialized techniques become more automatic, thus increase their performance level in a competition or game. A committed athlete will engaged in "practice sessions" separated from her general workout. The result of hard earned skill-building is greater enjoyment of "play" outside of practice.

"Enjoyment" and "play" are desired effects of both workouts and trainings. "Concentration" and "challenge" rarely come in as desired factors for an average exercise enthusiast. It is my experience that the challenge of training new motor skills stops many potentially great athletes from participating in sports. 

"Training" has the implication of learning from the beginning, thus an outside resource is mandatory. Anyone undertaking to learn new skills must find some form of instruction, ideally a "trainer" with knowledge of the entire skill set. Because each person learns uniquely there must be trust in the trainer's awareness of how much time and input to give each stage of motor skills learning* and when to tell the student "practice on your own until you get this part."

*Information about the three stages/phases of motor skills learning is easy to find online. The first stage is cognitive or verbal phase, second is associative phase, and third is the autonomous phase. Everyone wants to be at the autonomous phase as soon as possible, however the first two parts are essential for correct learning.

I surmise that the cognitive phase is what separates those who intend to learning
Sergey Rudnev demos GS Swing.
Photo by Diana Yap
from those who don't want a new hobby. At this stage the learner knows there is something they don't know and need to learn. This must take place in methodical steps with verbal cues and clear demonstrations by the teacher. 

The learners' tasks in the cognitive stage are:
1) to conceptualize the logic and form of basic moves
2) begin putting these moves into physical practice

In this stage the focus is connecting understanding with a chunk of motor skills. The learners cannot be judged on performance at this point, but encouraged to talk themselves through initial attempts. This helps merge the mental and physical experience, thus the name "verbal stage."
     In workshop-style training a good teacher will allow up to 3 hours for a group of new learners to grasp the cognitive phase. There will be plenty of time for short breaks and note taking. To maximize this time, assistant teachers and advanced student must be available to answer questions. 
     The Motor Skills Genius will not take breaks, knowing it's only a matter time and patience to leave the cognitive stage behind. People of this nature know that frustration in this phase is a sign of new synaptic firing patterns, and may exhibit more irritation at being interrupted to help someone else than at the slow, stilted process of programming their own bodies. These folks know that after lunch break the initial rote repetitions will have paid off.
     Learners less familiar with the physical learning stages are advised to neither compare themselves with fast learners nor indulge in negative self-talk. Rather they should clear up any gaps in understanding and then push away from the safety net of follow-the-leader. 
People will become frustrated in the transition between cognitive and associative phase. The best cure for this is a light-hearted mood.

     Moving into the associative phase will occupy another few hours, or the entire second
Ken Blackburn coaching associative phase.
day in a workshop setting. If skills are being learned in on-going classes or a seasonal training it is best for learners to practice after and between classes to speed up this transition. 

The learner's tasks in the associative phase are: 
1) to practice movement segments until all major steps become part of the physical experience
2) to string segments together into a completed pattern that can be practiced without supervision

At this stage supervised practice provides correct demonstrations, questions answered and physical feedback cues. A mirror is most useful at this stage.
     In a workshop, a night of rest from the practice often does wonders for new learners. Athletes will naturally group together based on the speed with which they make this transition or the ability to make each other laugh. Seasoned teachers encourage these groups for the magic they can produce. Through focused practice a learner gradually moves into competence with basic movements and can incorporate nuances to improve fluidity. Performance has a disjointed quality, but becomes more consistent as learners relax into the practice. Teachers can introduce intermediate training drills to help smooth out common sticking spots in this phase. 
The associative phase may last several months or years, depending on the learner.
     Some people say it takes 100 repetitions of the basics to achieve competence, some say 1,000. Before a learner reaches the autonomous phases there will be countless hours of practice. I think of this as the "obsessive" phase. Indeed, the more effort a learner puts into studying new skills the sooner he will begin to enjoy the flow of practicing them.
     As the athletes skill become autonomous he can practice with little input from the teacher, but will benefit from subtle form corrections and new mental tasks. Athletes will have specific questions, so staying in contact with the teacher or class mates as solo practice ensues is beneficial

In the autonomous phase the learner's tasks are:
1) remain open for points of refinement that will make their skills more efficient
2) develop mental discipline and positive self-talk while training for important events

     In subsequent training events the teacher will see an athlete's personal style as mental focus is now available for improvisation and variation. Performance is consistent and the athlete "makes it look easy." This is also the most tenuous phase for high-performance athletes, as mental distractions may inhibit results.

Some useful habits for learning new motor skills:
  • use of video, mirrors and coaches to mark progress
  • study video of high-level athletes in action, especially those with a similar body type
  • visualize the movements while practicing the breathing pattern
  • search for a local or online groups that practice your sport
  • set goals and find a coach to help achieve them
    At this point I'd like to bring back the importance of the "workout" even to advanced athletes. World Class sportsmen organize their training with skill refinement built into every practice session. After the high-skills technique session is over, athletes take a short break and then move into a normal looking exercise routine with focus on physical rather than mental effort. This may be a calisthenics circuit, 20 minutes on the rowing machine, or both. This elicits the well-known endorphin release needed to "feel good" after a training session. In other words, these powerful engines need to run through all the gears to get the full mental and emotional benefit of their gym time.
     The above summary of motor skills learning phases is intended to illuminate the universal process of learning a new sport. In my observations, the only thing that separates a Motor Skills Genius from a Motor Skills Moron is that the former approaches the process determined to do what it takes to learn, while the later allows frustration and negative self-talk to put a stop to the entire process. No matter where you have been on this continuum, please bear in mind the philosophy of every person who succeeds at sports:
"It's 10% talent and 90% hard work."

Wednesday, April 2, 2014

Motivation to start Kettlebell Sport

As a Kettlebell Sport athlete I find it very important to maintain connection with the reason I started in the first place. People in the gym think I'm crazy. I'm the only person there willing to log 8+ hours/week crushing myself with the same three exercises.

For any one who determines to excel at an activity there must be an underlying motivation. In my case, I know I'm a physically oriented person and can ingrain complex movement patterns into skills. This training helps me pick up less intricate sequences quickly, so I can enjoy playing with new movement during the learning phase.
Of course, each lifter has a different motivations for learning this sport. Here are some that may give inspiration to anyone wondering if Kettlebell Sport is good for him/her.

Physical challenges light me up! This is the type of person who enjoys climbing as many 14K-foot mountains as possible in one season. It's the exhilaration of meeting the task head-on and standing victorious or nobly acknowledging defeat at the end. Kettlebell Sport offers endless challenges to this type of athlete who sees him/herself as the ultimate opponent. Technique improvements happen at every step of the way offering a constant puzzle, or meditation, to athletes who want the workout to simulate constant growth.
Need a mountain to climb?

My lifestyle needs intense activity. These are people who sit at a desk most of the day, have a long commute, or simply need a healthy hobby. The good news for this group is that Kettlebell Sport starts at an amateur level and progresses at a natural pace. Rushing to a competition is not required, nor is getting a particular rank in the first year. People who are seeking vigorous exercise at a regular human pace will enjoy the gradual improvements that come with this sport. This group will find additional motivation to continue once the hard work turns into improved results!

I need a counter-balance for less healthy habits. In other words, "I need me my donuts but don't want the extra flab." This motivation could work for a while. Unfortunate for this group, endurance sports makes our metabolism more efficient. Fortunate for this group, one of the side effects of healthy habits (such as regular exercise) is that we tend to let go of things that compromise the natural high accompanying them. If motivation is based on compulsiveness or impulse control, check out the mental discipline gained from an obsession with Kettlebell Sport! It will transform your life and view of "calories earned," amid other surprising benefits.

I'm looking for something new and am curious about how this sport works. Folks who have the habit of regular exercise find themselves losing their edge now and then, especially if there are no goals or cycles within the routine. This type of person will enjoy the changes in intensity of a full-length Kettlebell Sport training cycle, complete with a competition or two. Many first time competitors get the pleasant surprise of a medal after their first event! You don't get that after four months on the stair-stepper and nautilus machines. There is a high likelihood that after a competition season, re-engaging in the old routine will prove how training "outside the box" can produce massive strength and cardiovascular improvements!

I love to compete but don't love the aggressive crowd. The first rule of Kettlebell Sport is sportsmanship. At one event, the Head Judge followed that statement up with "but I've never seen that as a problem with this sport." We all know what it takes to complete a 10-minute set with any kettlebell load, there is no faking it. The most succinct way I've heard it translated is this text applied to the picture (left) of Sergei Merkulin, Master Long Cyclist, Snatch lifter and Coach:
"In Girevoy Sport - there are no bad people;
all the junk sweats out under the weight of kettlebells, especially on the 10th minute."

If any of the above motivations appeal to you, your next step is to get specific training, figure out where you're going to train or buy the equipment to get started at home, and find a coach! Not to worry, all who seek earnestly will get their needs met. And with the whole internet at your fingertips it's only a matter of due diligence.

Best wishes for your health and athletic goals!

Friday, February 28, 2014

The California Open World Grand Prix

What makes it a World Grand Prix? The number of countries represented?
Buckley, Solodov, Vasilev and Mishen open the event.
Six countries and 13 states sent their best lifters, including an impressive team from the birthplace of Girevoy Sport, Russia! The fact that this event coincided with the finale of the Winter Olympics seems to have raised the quality and sportsmanship.

Credit must be given to Denis Vasilev for serving as translator for all the announcements between American and Russian communities. I have tremendous respect for the Russian Girevoy Sport Association President, Solodov, for making the trip to observe this event.

Wow, what a show! The DJ did his best to help us forget we were competing on an international playing field. Loud rock music disturbs my calm, and that was my personal least favorite part about the event. Naturally, I could not expect to find the same peace of mind I seek at home, so I take the ongoing craving I had for still space to be a sign that my inner cultivation is not complete. As was mentioned repeatedly in interviews by Olympians, and demonstrated by the Russian National Team lifters present at this event, we need to be ready to perform at our top level under all conditions. That’s what makes a champion.

The 5-minute set lifters started us off at a super high pace. In general, 5-minute sets are “entry-level” events that allow multiple hand-switches for Snatch and one arm lifts, and count just about anything that gets overhead as a good rep. That said, seasoned lifters enter these events to achieve rank and medals with clean sets (only one hand switch), including Ivan Denisov. I will most definitely do a 5-minute set myself in the future.

This World Grand Prix event drew an exceptional group of Elite level lifters. They each took the opportunity to do an “exhibition” set. A some members of this group focused on breaking personal records for reps with amateur level kettlebell loads.
Vasilev and team mate Pavel Petrov.

Okay, you have to consider 24kg amateur. Both Sergey Rachinsky and Denis Vasilev put up ridiculously high numbers. 
Rachinsky showed us 151 Jerk and 230 Snatch reps (which came down to an all-out sprint against Aaron Guyett’s 222 rep 24kg Snatch set in flight 9) on day one, and a nice and slow 101 rep. 24kg Long Cycle reps on the second day. 
His student Denis Vasilev reserved his effort for a 10-minute 24kg Long Cycle sprint, getting 152 reps total. For the record, this is just over the known speed limit for double Long Cycle. 
Another member of the super-fast-with-a-drop-weight club was Sergey Mishin, who ripped a 246 rep 16kg Snatch Only. This sort of thing is not meant to represent the specific quality of Girevoy Sport lifts, but rather demonstrates the excellent speed technique and physical conditioning of World Champion athletes. 
In contrast, Ksenia Dudhenkina performed a technically perfect 201 rep 22kg Snatch Only, dropping 2kg off her World Record Snatch Only load for the event.

Sergei Merkulin demonstrated World Champion technique with 32kg Snatch Only x 160. In the final Long Cycle flight loaded with 32kg kettlbells, Evgeniy Goncharov kicked out 63 reps well ahead of the 10-minute timer. This reminded me of the Super G ski racer who did her run first and still won Gold.
Merkulin, Khvostov and Farrell.

In the other extreme corner of Elite were examples of higher-than-professional weight loads perfomed as if they were normal. The King of Kettlebell Sport, Denisov amazed us with 36kg Snatch Only x 156 and a 5-minute 2x36kg Jerk Only x 85. Aleksander Khvostov pulled out the white kettlebell for a demo of 40kg Snatch Only x 100.

The Russian community had easily identifiable lifting uniforms and team sweat suits (that’s classy, I tell you). Clubs from all places wore their coach’s logos or team shirts. The flight announcements introduced the lifters, their rank achievements and their team affiliation, another detail that brought the California Open up to World Class standard.

Speaking of teams, this event provided an amazing opportunity to see how teams work in various ways with such distinct personalities. The teams were most evident by their t-shirts. The one thing I don’t quite understand is why women wear sports bras as their shirt on the platform. Maybe it represents athletes from CrossFit, maybe it’s the loud rock music… just a thought.

One out-of-country team that made an impression was Sistema Movimento Integral Acadamia (SMI)
Me with SMI Brazil! Photo by Luciano Oliveira.
Brazil, under coach Luciano Oliveira. These folks had fantastic cohesiveness as a group and demonstrated high-level lifting on the platform. If it wasn’t impressive enough to see 51.8kg Julia Oliveira Jerk Only with 20kg x 100 reps in the same flight with team mate Valentina Cesar
making MS rank with Jerk Only (28kg x 83), just imagine 61.7kg Davi Oliveira on the platform with the 24kg Biathlon next to team mate Maricelio Correla, same event, same load. Not impressed enough? SMI Brazil’s Roberto Rocha stepped up to a 28kg Biathlon, completing 72 Jerks and 107 Snatches. These folks have put some time into this sport. On the second day the entire team crushed the 24kg relay (Julia and Valentina used a single kettlebell while the men pushed double 24) with 207 repetitions in 15 minutes.

Kat Helcmanov. Photo: Jennifer Tan.
Individual athletes really stood out, namely self-coached Paul White of Way of Art, New Zealand, who lifted 32kg Biathlon the first day and 32kg Long Cycle the second, earning MS rank for both events. Why not join forces with the League of Extrordinary Jerks to finish the meet with a 3-minute leg of 24kg Jerk Relay?

Another stand out individual and sole representative of Commando Temple Gym, UK/Slovakia, was Katarina Helcmanov, under coach Gregor Sobocan. Katarina earned every woman’s respect with her 147 rep, 20kg Snatch Only set, standing side by side with world-famous Dedukhina. On day two Katarina earned the women’s absolute lifter award after 24kg Long Cycle x 120 repetitions (that’s MSIC if you don’t have a KETAcademy rank table handy), but not before working the middle leg of 2x24kg Jerk relay for the League of Extrordinary Jerks.

Amazingly, I met facebook friend Jennifer Tan the sole competitor from Singapore at this event, a true testament to the supportive community offered at OKC/Juno Fitness hosted events. Jennifer came with a 16kg Long Cycle set and to connect with her online coach, Sergei Merkulin.

My Snatch Only set. Photo by Jennifer Tan.
Having prepared a Snatch set with “the next weight up,” I was ready to see my deficiencies. It is a very vulnerable thing to take a first-time-ever lift to competition, especially one as big as the California Open. Even though I was going with a very small group from Colorado, there was great support for my first effort with 20kg Snatch Only. With Sergey Rachinsky as my judge, I knew the stars had already determined my set and didn’t even watch the rep count until the end. Unfortunately I lost feeling in the first hand before half-time and ended up folding early with only 107 reps, just 3 shy of the MS rank. Considering I did my own programming for this event I feel good with this result, and look forward to improving the set in upcoming events.

The Hero of this event for me is my student, Kimberly Hodes (that’s Hodees, with one “e”), who braved her first 16kg Long Cycle in a weight class with one other competitor! She truly has a sporting attitude about her results: this event provided a baseline number, not to mention Personal Records of rep count (48) and time (just shy of 10 minutes) with the 16kg bell. Her pay-off was a Silver medal (amazing on so many levels) and Rank 2! She lost to a more seasoned 16kg Long Cycler from Team Blackburn who definitely earned the Gold with 99 reps.
Way to end your first year in GS, Kimberly!

Last weekend gave me deeper respect for the integrity Orange Kettlebell Club brings to Girevoy Sport. This organization is truly focused on bringing new lifters to the sport, seeing lifters from all clubs improve and meet their goals, compete with a fair sporting attitude, and they attract athletes that can show us how World Class lifting looks. They gave away great swag from their sponsors, co-efficient cups for both Biathlon and Long Cycle, as well as the first ever Sergei Mishin Cup to the best overall male and female lifter. In his closing remarks, Mr. Solodov announced that based on this competition, it appears that Girevoy Sport lifters in America are ready to compete in Russia for Gold medals!

Bring an extra luggage if you plan to win one of these!
Even those of us who did not get the one of these beautiful prizes got well-made medals for first, second and third place. When I say this is “well-made” I mean this is a weighty piece of bling that could be used for self-defense. Though with the massive circle of friends surrounding OKC, it is more likely to be a gate pass at any given club or concert out of respect for the Awesomes.

I hear that in Russia athletes with Master of Sport or greater are afforded certain privileges.  What these are I do not know, but if there are any inherent privileges for MS athletes in the US, my feeling is that they are to be gained through OKC and it’s sister organization, Juno Fitness. This idea is yet to be proven, so I will continue doing research and report in future blog posts.

Thanks for reading!

Tuesday, January 21, 2014

What are the gloves for?

Anyone who has learned GS lifts from “the Sergeys” and their peers (circa 2009 - 11), learned the evil beauty of using gloves in GS Snatch training.

The glove is for overload sets. This might seem wrong to someone who has embraced the mentality that there is no “train to exhaustion” in effective endurance conditioning. In fact overtraining is an easy mistake to make with Snatch programming, so use this tool with discretion.

It soon becomes obvious to beginner GS lifters that the grip is the weakest link in the
Just plain, innocent work gloves. 
muscular chain. Though it is a full-body exercise, if the lifter does not learn correct technique in the beginning the fast-twitch muscle fibers in the forearms will fail sooner than expected. Once the grip fatigues in a Snatch set it’s a matter of seconds (at best 120) before the weight simply launches. For the record, launching the kettlebell is not a good skill to practice in training. Not only does it give GS lifting a bad image in the gym, like it or not, in a competition it’s the end of your set.

If you’re going to try using gloves for training, get simple work gloves. No non-slip surfaces, thumb/finger pads or cut-off fingers. Cotton work gloves. Start with whatever you consider a "drop weight," and attempt 200 reps of non-stop One-Hand Swings. See if you can perform 100 reps on each side in one go. One hand switch.

There are at least three reasons for glove training. Beefing up the grip is at the top of the list, but let's not overlook its effectiveness as a technique training tool.

Grip strengthening:
The glove reduces friction between the handle and hand. Like the old-style method of olive oil on the handle for a friction-less surface, with a glove you don’t need to de-grease your gear before you use it again.
Another “hard-style” grip trainer is swinging two kettlebells in one hand, thus putting the muscles in a position of compromise and under a heavy load. However, as a finishing set the Snatch lifter does not benefit by this load increase, which may cause deterioration in form, or increasing workout volume at the end of a training session.

The glove set load is at least 4kg less than the competition load. Because the glove creates a friction-less surface, more finger flexor activity is required to keep a hold on the handle. This increases the physical experience of the weight by about 4 kilograms at the points of maximum inertia, so the lifter practices with a drop weight, loading the grip without overtraining the entire body.

Technique tool:
"This is how the glove landed."* A thick glove.
The aim of a Snatch lifter is to use as many muscle groups as possible to keep the ‘bell in play. Glove sets create an excellent opportunity for the lifter to find ways to use lower body muscles and timing to achieve this goal. Using the glove early in a training cycle can help the lifter discover correct technique to reduce handle rotation at the points where blisters most often occur.
There are a few variations that could make all the difference in a lifter's training cycle. Glove sets may include One-Hand Swings for rep count (excellent for training correct timing and leg movement), adding a Swing to each Snatch (helps the lifter integrate nuances in the acceleration pull), and adding time to the overhead hold (if you don't have fixation, you don't get a rep count, so learn to love it) to name a few.
I personally use fast paced glove Snatch and high-rep glove Swing sets for testing new form ideas. With the drop load there is opportunity to experiment with subtle movements. This translates to the training load in subsequent workout sessions.

Protect the skin:
It is generally unwise for a Snatch lifter to put his/her hands at risk of tearing off a callous. Torn skin can be an unwanted turn in the training cycle, requiring up to a week of partial to complete stop from Snatch training to heal. Rather than attempting a third or fourth heavy set in Stages 2 or 3, a wise lifter will drop to a long glove set for skill and grip training. This allows all the fight to leave with the sweat, and the lifter ends the training session with hands intact.
Within two weeks of the competition the gloves preserve skin while continuing high-rep/low volume skill practice. No matter how well conditioned a lifter may be, there is no place for over-confidence in the Snatch these last weeks. Glove sets will help keep reality in check when used correctly.

By way of last paragraph disclaimer, this is certainly not all there is to GS Snatch training. In fact, I discourage anyone from taking blog post advice as reason to re-vamp the entire training program. I advise all GS lifters to get first-hand instruction at training seminars. Hook up on Facebook and you will see there are many good options. To prepare for a competition, employ a coach. Unless you are lucky enough to live near a Kettlebell Sport club, few GS-specific coaches are available in most gyms, so you will most likely need to work with someone remotely. Any online coaching will require you to video lifts and report training results regularly. If you choose a remote coach, make sure you enjoy communicating with this person, he/she will hold you accountable for your goals.

If you need my advice, send me an email at I am happy to give initial consultation on your GS lift video, and am I available as an online coach. 

Best wishes to all for productive, and tear-free Snatch training!
Glove Snatch Bloopers video
* Thanks to Amanda Wagner for permission to use this photo and her quote.