500 Days of Kettlebells

I fancy myself a romantic. Or a serial infatuator. I tend to romanticize training philosophies once I buy into them, and allow myself to be absolutely immersed. 10 years ago I was an HIIT Jedi who believed that the world obesity problem could be solved by jacking-up people’s heart rates through interval circuits and “tabatas”. I drank the CrossFit Kool Aid, and approached every training session as a test. I came to believe that the barbell was the answer to everything--put more weight on your squat, deadlift, and press; everything else is a waste of time. I haven’t totally discounted any of them. When it comes down to it, everything works--there’s just an appropriate time and place. I am going to talk about when I ran into Hardstyle kettlebell training.

My first real venture into kettlebell training started when I got out of active duty in the Army. (Prior to that I had used them here and there in the occasional CrossFit WOD.) I was going to have to find employment somewhere and anticipated that I would not have regular access to a gym anymore. I had also just read Dan John’s 10’000 Swing Kettlebell Workout which persuaded me that it was a worthwhile goal. I found a guy selling a 45, 25, and 20-pound kettlebell set on Craigslist and started swinging with the 45. I had to downgrade in the final clusters of the first workout, and needless to say after the second one I couldn’t bend down to tie my shoes. The article had a good enough explanation and I had enough general training experience to kind of feel if the movement was generally correct (my hamstrings were blowing up the first two weeks, so I suppose it was). And even if it wasn’t, my deadlift went up 50 pounds and I pulled a near triple-bodyweight beltless Sumo Deadlift after 4 weeks, so I wasn’t complaining; I bought into the WTH effect and the power of the Hardstyle swing. This led me to eventually take CrossFit’s kettlebell specialty course led by Jeff Martone.

I tried.

My martial arts background and skill-based approach to training drove me to seek what some call virtuosity in the movements. After a few days of Google link-clicking I came to the conclusion that the best people to learn Hardstyle from were ones who had the title SFG, from the organization StrongFirst. It just so happens that one of my colleagues from back home is one, Mark Limbaga. He pointed me to the program Simple & Sinister and referred to Tim Shuman of Orlando Kettlebells, whom I was able to train with for a while until school started. With some form check videos and technique corrections, I followed Simple & Sinister 3-5 days a week, mostly disregarding any pressure to improve in any other area of fitness. Eventually after around 4 solid months I was able to reach the "Simple" standard of 100 swings in 5 minutes and 10 getups in 10 minutes with a minute in-between, with a 32kg kettlebell, which was mind-blowing to me as this was over half my bodyweight. This in turn provided a solid foundation which greatly accelerated my progress when I immediately jumped to the Rite Of Passage program (which seemed to be the next logical step). A month later, I was able to press that same weight overhead straight out of bed, no warmup. I would have moved to Long Cycles and Return Of The Kettlebell, but I had not yet achieved the Snatch Challenge so I listened to Pavel when he said “just keep your damn iron, lady.”

Half-bodyweight. Still easier than the get-up from the bed.

The simplicity of the training and the opportunity for movement mastery made me want to pursue more. Indeed Hardstyle was born from martial arts, and I found the similar training philosophy appealing. I looked into becoming part of StrongFirst by attending a kettlebell certification course, aiming for one 6 months out. Unlike most other certification courses though, the SFG has performance standards, particularly the dreaded Snatch Test. My main issue was that I was in the awkward size range (64 kg) where [at the time] it would be too taxing to both train and cut enough weight for a lighter test ‘bell, but small enough for the weight to be too heavy. To succeed, I figured I needed to eliminate all inefficiency by dialing-in my technique, and becoming as strong as possible. Being an Infantryman who took care of his feet, I also noted the importance of daily hand maintenance, as hand tearing seemed to be the predominant limiter when I got to the 70s. To achieve this I planned on following Dan John’s 40-Day Easy Strength protocol with a focus on the kettlebell snatch and press in addition to my other training, then concentrating on the SFG Prep Program for three months prior to the certification weekend. The GPP from Easy Strength and S&S allowed me to maintain enough strength and conditioning while skill training for other endeavors, and over the next three months I was able to win two gold and one silver medals in BJJ competitions and take first place in a local CrossFit competition.

Simple conditioning, Easy Strength

I pretty much followed the SFG prep program from the site, paying particular attention to the snatch density day, while shaving off my calluses and applying Corn Huskers Lotion every day for the next three months. I still went to BJJ and CrossFit, and completed 4 out of the 5 CF Open WODs, to maintain work capacity, since the cert was going to be 3 days long culminating in a Skills and Snatch Test. I primarily trusted the foundational strength I developed from Simple & Sinister to carry me through.

Certification weekend was tough as expected, led by original Beast Tamer Shaun Cairns, with Delaine Ross and Joe Sansalone (also Jason, Thayne, Mark, Lauren, Manh, and Gui). Many swings, particularly on the first day, were done with my test weight, until I finally figured out that I was there to learn, not be destroyed. Ego was only going to deplete my resources and decrease my chances of passing on test day, so risking looking like a sissy, I picked up a female test weight of 16kg and completed most of my drills with that. At first it kind of felt like I was sandbagging and the CrossFitter in me did not like that at all, but remembering the concept of Feed Forward Tension (later reintroduced to me by Reneta and Gary Music of Hardstyle Body) I would say I was able to make the best out of every rep. Testing day came, and I don’t recall even being nervous. I figured the biggest challenge would be the press, which a few of lighter guys seemed to struggle with, and of course the Snatch Test. But I had previously already completed 5 rungs of Rite of Passage with the 24kg and pressed the 32kg, and snatched 20 reps on the minute for 7 minutes two weeks ago, so I knew I was strong enough to make it. I passed the skills tests with no issues (other than a lockout for the snatch on one side), passed the Snatch Test with a smile, and met some great people along the way. But probably what I was personally most proud of in the end was finishing the certification weekend without any blisters or even hot spots on my hands.

Really I chose StrongFirst because I'm allowed to wear cargo pants and no shoes.

So 14 months into focused Hardstyle kettlebell training and I had achieved my goal. However I saw that three months later there was going to be a Level 2 course hosted 20 minutes away from where I lived, to be instructed by Chief Brett Jones. I did not feel qualified; the SFG IIs I knew were very experienced people while the ink on my Level 1 certificate probably hadn’t even fully dried yet. But I figured an opportunity to be taught by The Chief only comes once in a blue moon, so I threw caution to the wind and registered for the event.

I jumped on the SFG II Prep Program a little over a week later. There was a big focus on the press, which is reported to be the main reason most people fail the Level 2. I of course was already fully capable of this, as my press weight was to be a size down from the weight I can comfortably press any day. I was also pretty comfortable with the double overhead position (as the press might be my strongest barbell lift). What I was nervous about, however, was [again] the Snatch Test, which I felt I was going to have to peak for again and was to be done at the very beginning of the certification weekend instead of at the end, and the double snatch, which I couldn’t comfortably hit because I couldn’t generate enough hip snap (it was a total of over 77% of my bodyweight). I decided that I needed to drop 5 pounds so I could test with a smaller size kettlebell. This was when things started going south.

Hardly fuel for strenuous endeavors.

With a sense of urgency, I fell into the common trap of trying to do too much too soon. I cut my calories to a steep deficit and started the 300 Swings-a-Day protocol, all on top of my SFG II prep. My body does not like being in a deficit, and it did not want to perform. I was running on fumes, and relying on willpower to carry me through the hard weeks ahead. Motivation was low and I wasn’t focused. The moment you don’t respect a kettlebell, it eventually shows you who is in charge. I pulled my lower back right around two weeks prior to the weekend of the certification. Swings hurt too much, and all I could do was some handstands to strengthen my overhead position. I couldn’t peak. I wasn’t prepared. This terrified me. I would have to rely solely on the foundational strength I had already built to carry me through.

Certification weekend came, hosted at MAVRX (owned by Jay Hunter, whom I went to my SFG I with). I saw Tim there assisting, as well as Arryn Grogan, Mike Kurkowski, and Michael Wille. I was very nervous and a bit hungry. Luckily I weighed-in at 60 kg (a little over, but they gave me that pound). My back was feeling good from 2 weeks of total rest; no real pain. I was just hoping my hips would remember how to bend and snap. Brett first asked if anyone had any pre-existing injuries, and I, with my lying ass, just kept my head and hands down. He told us first and foremost not to hurt ourselves during the certification weekend. We were already instructors and were there to learn. We should know better. I’m telling myself this: “Don’t be a hero. Be smart; you have nothing to prove.” Also me: “Yeah right, dude. You wanna live forever???”

The Press Test came easy. The ‘bell came up and was locked-out, no struggle, no emotions, no problem. Then it was the Snatch Test. Failing this and re-testing wasn’t even in my mind; I was going to finish. I tested with the 20kg. I remember the first 40 or so were fine. I was straining a bit, but it was flowing rather nicely. At about halfway, I felt my back tell me “nope.” But I was not going to stop midway; I had plenty of time and would be able to finish if I grind it out a little more. Of course, with the pain feedback my technique was altered, and I ended up tearing my hands in three different spots. I completed (or maybe the appropriate word is survived) the Snatch Test with quite some time to spare. And I still kept my injury a secret. So far, so good. But the Level 1 Skills Test was next. This became a problem. On the first skill, the swing, it was apparent that I could not hinge without pain. My Skills Test was cut short, and I became the example of “don’t hurt yourself” and how an injury can alter your technique. Live to fight another day.

I took it easy during the rest of day 1. I watched the skill performance, but mostly sat out practicing them, particularly the ballistic movements (my partner Rick made sure to reel me back in every time I got too eager). Part of me felt bad that I wasn’t able to participate, but the other part of me was saying “you deserve this, you dumbass.” I came home that night and got some good sleep. (I slept through the sirens in downtown Orlando, but that’s a story for another time.) I woke up refreshed the next day, with no pain, and glad I sat day 1 out. Day 2 went by smoothly, and I was even able to participate in the practice sessions, with a little added caution--I mostly squat-curled the ‘bells to the rack position. (I wasn’t impressing anyone with those 20kg ‘bells anyway.) As the day went by, I skipped the new athletic drills, and testing came. With no pain, I figured (considering the previous day) I had maybe 50 or so ballistic hip hinges in me, and that I’d test out on my Level 2 skills. Easy stuff, as long as you're proficient in the basics. After passing those and wrapping up, I determined that I came this far and my back was feeling good; I wanted to leave with my SFG II certificate that day. I talked to Brett and he re-tested my Level 1 skills then and there as they were packing-up. Without a prior Snatch Test to mess me up, all the skills came easy (thanks in part to Shaun’s advice that I followed of casually practicing Level 1 skills once a week)--I’d done this a hundred times. He gave me a "go," Craig took care of my paperwork, and I came home that day an SFG II--17 months, approximately 500 days, after my first set of Hardstyle Swings. I couldn’t believe it.

I was so obviously elated.

I’m not a good multi-tasker. I tend to get absorbed in activities, and infatuated with one thing I am pursuing at a time. I don’t actively try to stop this. I figured I’d make hay when the sun is up, and the rest of the time just put in minimal work--typical Park Bench, Bus Bench approach. This Bus Bench period just happened to stretch out a bit too long. Some may say I should have quit when I was ahead, but then again it all turned out all right in the end. I am not completely infatuated with kettlebells presently. I maintain my skills and I play around with them, Park Bench, while working on other things. But now it’s in my repertoire and it’s always there when I need it. So whenever I’m confused and in need of some kind of physical practice session I can always fall back to Simple & Sinister, because I still have a long way to go.

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