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Saturday, June 13, 2015

How I moved from CMS to MS in Kettlebell Sport

Though I was able to achieve CMS with a coach who was not current with Kettlebell/Girevoy Sport programming, he did have personal experience lifting GS in his earlier years. To go beyond CMS I started working with Coach Sergey Rudnev who has prepared a few dozen athletes for MS (I was number 46). My first Master of Sport lift was almost a year after he started training me (20kg One Arm Long Cycle - before the ranking tables were upgraded). Coach Rudnev prepared me for Master of Sport rank in 20kg Biathlon and 20kg Snatch Only the following year.

A note on the upgraded ranking tables: at 4-year intervals the officiating body analyzes the number of athletes who have achieved Master of Sport with the current ranking table. If that number is higher than 300 worldwide the standard is raised. The most recent wave of re-writes happened in 2-year intervals, a reflection of the sport's growth globally. In my observation this growth is due to several components. In the last 5 years we have seen an increase in high-level athletic commitment, more clubs willing to host annual and biannual competitions, and an increased number of teachers/coaches capable of transmitting correct technique to their beginner students.

Grainy picture of a Men's Biathlon Jerk flight at a World Cup stage in 2014.
Another growth contributing factor not to be overlooked are the Grand Prix and World Cup series competitions. These are events featuring professional athletes and teams from places like Russia, Kazakhstan and Ukraine. These world-class lifters travel around the world to compete among themselves at big fitness conventions or well-attended regional events. Awareness of the sport is raised, and vivid demonstrations of the difference between professional level vs. rank and file amateurs add impact at these events.

But I digress. The point of this blog is to illustrate one variation of the differences between Candidate for Master of Sport and Master of Sport training.
It is possible to achieve CMS with a few mistakes in technique, but the margin for error is much smaller for MS numbers. I made three main corrections for each lift: 1) stop all excess effort to perform a single lift, 2) use breathing for maximal effectiveness, and 3) adjust diet and nutrition to maximize recovery. (If I had not already developed sport-specific flexibility and aerobic conditioning this would have been at the top of my list.)

Failed attempt at MS, too much effort! Photo by Nazo
1) Excessive effort could happen anywhere in any of the lifts. Many of us have noticed that the weakest physical link is the grip (i.e. muscles of the forearm and the hand).
The Long Cycle hand cramp phenomenon was my gauge for effective technique changes. First I took the correction from my coach to drop out of the rack faster with my upper arm still connected to my torso.  This reinforced my forearm stamina and reduced the impact of the weight during the re-grip.
Then I added a self-check habit in the last 10 to 15 seconds of each minute. I figured out that the hand cramp happens because of excessive muscular effort in the backswing and acceleration pull. I added this short rest to check the state of my finger flexor muscles. If my pinkie and ring finger were glued together I would focus on relaxing my hand before the Jerk, then wiggle my fingers overhead. This habit along with Coach's technique correction helped me head off the hand paralysis that had previously stopped me short of MS.

In the Jerk event the main place I found excessive effort was in my upper arm. First I took a correction from my coach to narrow my stance to maximize vertical force. Then I noticed there was tension in my hand in the middle of a set that would creep up to my triceps and deltoid by the end. The result was that my arms (mainly right arm) would fail to straighten in the under squat by the end of heavy or fast sets. It took time, but I learned to let the weight of the kettlebell soften my finger extensor muscles in the overhead position.

Hand trauma was (and is) my main indication of excessive effort in the Snatch. I had an opportunity to learn from Denis Vesilev a few years ago. When I told him I didn't like Snatch because it blistered my little hands he looked at me somewhat stunned. His response was something like "blisters are part of the process," and then pointed out the small hands of Mr. Dzonie (Johnny) Benitze.
Party pooper.

"Nothing says commitment to Snatch like blood blisters."
When I really got serious about achieving Master of Sport with Snatch, first I took a few corrections from my coach concerning correct mechanics of the drop-down, straightening my legs in the back swing and the acceleration pull (…okay, so the entire lift). Then I began the ongoing learning experience of how to use every other muscle fiber to take pressure off my hand during the Snatch. And I started using as much chalk as will go on the handle to minimize the effect of friction, because it was still happening. I know this is not much help. The Snatch remains the most challenging lift for me. I have an ever-expanding album of hand blister photos to prove it.

2) Using the breath for maximal effectiveness needs to be part of basic Kettlebell Sport lessons. The correct use of breath makes sets longer than 5 minutes possible, but I needed to look deeper to jump that MS wall. For 20kg Long Cycle I decided to break in a lifting belt. As many know, it's an ordeal in patience and persistence to get a belt softened and stuck in a position to do more good than damage.

My great breathing revelation occurred while figuring out how to wear the belt. I started using an old martial arts method after struggling with it flopping out of place during sets. Beyond the purposes of holding the tunic closed, the belt in martial arts also provides a mental and physical point of focus for breathing. This supports gradual and continual energy cultivation in the lower body, widely considered the seat of power. Thus breathing deep into my low back was a well-practiced adjustment for me. As it happens this did more than stabilize my gear. The shift of breath focus to my low back also helped me maintain my tempo and control my heart rate, allowing just a little more space in my mind to keep my forearms relaxed.

The change in breathing awareness was so effective in Long Cycle that I automatically transferred it to the faster paced Jerk. Because my coach excels at squeezing the best results out of his athletes, having a plan for recovering my heart rate was immediately useful in the first two weeks of Biathlon training. I learned to use "belt breathing" in the overhead position, which helped maintain a calm awareness during fixation. By the time of competition I was pacing 15 reps per minute: one inhalation in the rack position and two breaths overhead (the second specifically for fixation).

The Snatch has a different rhythm than either LC or Jerk, and my pattern had been to train for speed (17 – 19 reps per minute with 16kg). My coach quickly corrected this after watching me flail through my first 20kg Snatch videos. He added a breath in both the swing and the overhead sections and slowing me down to 14 or 15 reps per minute. This improved my performance and amped up my cardiovascular work load immediately. Once I adapted to the aerobic work my goal was in reach.

3) The diet and nutrition factor were entirely my own discoveries. It only took a few incidents of eating too close to a Long Cycle training session to figure out how defeating that can be. Next I learned exactly what foods to eat before training. This continues to be true for me today.
If training is early in the day I keep meals focused on dried fruits, oatmeal and protein in the form of Greek yoghurt. If training happens after 1pm, I plan a light lunch with rice, cooked vegetables, soft cheese, and either eggs or a small amount of light meat such as chicken. If I can't get lunch together I pick up a gluten free cookie and maybe more dried fruit. If training is at 4pm or later I be sure to have lunch before 2pm and include a bit more meat.

I somehow stumbled onto a book about sports nutrition between my second and third attempts at Master of Sport. There is plenty of information out there, so I will not attempt a book report here. The main take-away for me was to look at Kettlebell Sport as endurance training (this is especially true for Biathlon) and make use of powdered drink mixes to recover electrolytes during and micronutrients after the workout. This was a major improvement in many ways. I found my appetite directly after the workout less ravenous, slept better and felt more alive on days in between training. I also started supplementing with antioxidants and cycles of Eleuthero Ginseng and Echinacea for immune system support.

Making weight is a concern that we love to ignore, but some athletes just can't. Before I had my special sports nutrition in place I modified my diet thusly: for the week or two before a competition eat celery as a snack and with every meal, cut out desserts and candy, switch grain carbohydrates for vegetables when possible and eat more meat. After discovering the special sport nutrition (and giving up chocolate - it was a bad habit) I easily made weight with the same modifications mentioned above plus taking a serving of the recovery drink on rest days.

So that's my story on making the jump from CMS to MS in all 20kg events. As of 2015 I've been working my way through 24kg events, which has required even more technique, breathing and diet/recovery changes, but that is a blog for another day. Just for the record, as much as I love Coach Rudnev and his creative genius in getting me through many growth stages, his programming has yet to get easier for me. Also, please take the above statements as my personal opinions and experiences. I hope some part of it is useful to you, but not by any means meant as a basis for comparison with your own progress.

I now offer online mentoring for Kettlebell Sport athletes! Contact me via Facebook private message if you would like me to help you.
Best wishes for your lifting goals,
Christian Goldberg