Are Kettlebells Better for Strength, Cardio or Toning?

Double Kettlebell Renegade Row Omaha Elite Kettlebell

“Are kettlebells better for strength, cardio or toning?” – The short answer: “YES”.  

The following post is a response to a question posted by Laura Spencer
“Anyone have any insight as far as kettlebell goes? Is it more cardio based than most yoga or barre? Does it compare in the toning you see from barre? I’d like to hear some input from people personally before doing a listless web search.”

I originally posted my response to her blog, but after further consideration I realize that there are probably MANY more people out there asking similar questions.


Laura,

Kettlebells are simply tools that can be programmed and utilized many ways.

Put simply, kettlebells can be used to improve both strength and endurance. Of course, “it depends” on how your workouts are programmed, using the appropriate weights, reps and sets, rest, and safe technique.

Caution: There are a lot of fitness classes out there utilizing kettlebells run by instructors who know next to nothing about how to perform or teach kettlebell techniques let alone how to program a kettlebell workout. To find what I consider to be the highest calibre of Kettlebell training visit http://www.StrongFirst.com

Kettlebells are a form of resistance training, and when you think about it… so are Barre and Yoga. In Yoga and Barre you use your bodyweight and manipulated leverages as the main source of resistance while kettlebell training relies on… kettlebells. Any form of training that builds strength improves muscle tone. The more resistance you can learn to overcome by either adding an external load or manipulating leverage the stronger you will become and you will improve the “tone” of the muscles being worked.

Tone = Tension. Tension = Strength. Therefore, Strength = Tone
Muscle tone is partly due to the amount of resting tension your muscles have throughout the day.
Tension is strength. When you flex you are temporarily increasing the amount of tension in the muscles involved. So, to lift a heavier weight you need the ability to “flex” harder or generate more tension, which when done with a sufficiently heavy enough weight to elicit an adaptation response builds a stronger muscle capable of generating even more tension. The stronger a muscle is, the more tension it can afford to have at rest (consider the rippling muscles of Bruce Lee, a tiger or even a chimpanzee at rest… THAT’s TONE!)

Additionally, there are many unique kettlebell lifts that develop flexibility like the Getup, Cossack Squats, Pistols, crooked press, arm bars, windmills and Bent presses that many people like to refer to as Yoga with Weights.

SAMPLE KETTLEBELL WORKOUTS

KETTLEBELL STRENGTH & CONDITIONING WORKOUTS
A Kettlebell Workout that does BOTH Strength/Tone & Conditioning can be viewed on my blog
here: https://omahaelitekettlebell.com/2014/09/11/15-minute-advanced-double-kettlebell-workout-no-gym-membership-required/

KETTLEBELL “CARDIO” WORKOUTS
Simple examples of Kettlebell “cardio” workouts that melt fat to reveal the underlying muscle tone could be something like

– Using a light kettlebell you can snatch overhead for 15 to 20 reps and doing sets of 10 per arm with a 1:1 work:rest ratio for 15 minutes. A similar workout was shown to burn more than 20 calories per minute by the average person (study:http://www.acefitness.org/getfit/studies/kettlebells012010.pdf)

– Alternating 20 seconds of kettlebell swings with 20 seconds of goblet squats.
(20 seconds of swings: 10 seconds rest: 20 seconds of goblet squats: 10 seconds rest) x 8
Shoot for 10+ swings and 8+ squats per round.
THEN
(20 seconds of double bell Clean & Push Presses: 10 seconds rest: 20 seconds of renegade rows: 10 seconds rest) x 8

KETTLEBELL “STRENGTH” WORKOUTS
Key features of a kettlebell STRENGTH workout is that the rest periods are longer, the reps are typically lower and the weights are much heavier.

Simple examples of HEAVY kettlebell STRENGTH workouts that increase muscle tone
– 1 getup per arm per minute for 10 minutes.
– A pair of bells you can lift & squat for 5 reps: 2 clean & press + 3 Squats, rest & repeat. 
– Two VERY heavy bells you can swing for 5-10 reps and perform sets of 5  

As you can see, there are many variables you can manipulate in your kettlebell training to target the results you seek. 

Hope that helps. ;]”

15-Minute Advanced Double Kettlebell Workout – No Gym Membership Required

Double 32kg Kettlebell Setup

If your time is limited and you want to get stronger grab a pair of heavy kettlebells and practice the basics.
Don’t worry about what exercises are going to be in the next W.O.D.,
stop scouring through all the generic fitness magazines for a new routine and
immediately cease and desist with the endless buffet of home workout DVDs or youtube videos.

To maximize what precious little training time you have, you need to come to terms with the fact that less is more. Specifically, Less distractions and less techniques.

Resistance training isn’t new, it’s been around for millennia so there’s no need to reinvent the wheel. The biggest and most productive  movements in the weight room are common knowledge and according to Master SFG Dan John they can be narrowed down to about 4 categories: Pushing, Pulling, Squatting and Hip Hinging. As long as you hit all four categories in your training and stay strong in each, you’re ahead of the curve.

  1. SQUATTING: Squatting or Lunging
  2. HIP HINGING: Deadlift variations, Cleans and Snatches
  3. PULLING:  Rows or weighted pull-ups
  4. PUSHING:  All manner of pressing

A heavy barbell workout consisting of the above movements can take hours or days and lots of expensive equipment, not to mention a steep learning curve for the Olympic lifts, finding a gym that permits these movements and enough available equipment & space to not have to wait or work in with others. However, with two appropriate kettlebells you can do all of this and more and be finished in 15 minutes.  The ways you can arrange these movements are endless… but here’s a great 15-minute full-body kettlebell routine that uses all four categories.

15-MINUTE Strength & Conditioning Workout

The following workout doesn’t mess around.
It’s intended for the experienced kettlebell lifter.
It consists of two parts: A strength routine and a ballistics routine.

QUICK & DIRTY WARM-UP
10 Pump Stretches, 3 Kneeling Hip Stretch per side, 5 half-kneeling halos each direction per leg.

GRINDS (You’ll perform the first three movements as a complex without setting the bells down)

Omaha Elite Kettlebell Double Kettlebell Grind Complex: double Kettlebell clean, double Kettlebell press, double Kettlebell squat, double Kettlebell renegade row.

  • Cleans x  3-5
    Hike the bells behind you between your legs, then stand up explosively. Guide the kettlebell to the rack position without crashing. Hold motionless for 1 second while building maximal tension in the legs, glutes abs and lats.  Repeat for reps.
  • Presses x 1 -5
    Picking up where the clean left off… adjust & narrow your stance.  Tighten up, press down into the earth and press the bells overhead. Hold the lockout motionless for 1 second and perform a strong active negative as you return the bells to the rack. Repeat for reps. 
  • Squats: x 3-5
    Picking up where the press left off…. interlace your fingers, inhale, stay tight and pull yourself with strength down into a squat. Pause motionless for 1 second, then drive your heels into the earth and wedge your hips underneath you to return to standing. Fully extend your hips, maximally contracting your quads, glutes and abs at the top before repeating for reps.
    Now you can set the bells down.
  • renegade rows: x 3-5
    Assume a pushup position using the kettlebells handles to support your weight.  Maintain hip extension as you stiffen your entire torso, glutes and legs.  Alternately pull one bell to your hip at a time. Left + Right = 1. Repeat for reps.
  • Rest & Repeat as necessary.  I like to perform 3 to 5 rounds and always strive to use weights that allow me to get 3 reps or more per technique.

FINISHER
Omaha Elite Kettlebell: Double Kettlebell Ballistics Swings, double Kettlebell High Pulls, double Kettlebell Snatches
I always enjoy wrapping up with a heart pounding lung burning finisher like so…

  • Snatches x 1 – 5 reps or (RM -1)
  • Rest Briefly
  • High Pulls x 1-5 reps or (RM -1)
  • Rest Briefly
  • Swings x 1-5 reps or (RM -1)
  • Start over with snatches and repeat this circuit for remainder of the allotted time.

OPTION A) Complete the entire workout with a moderate set of bells such as 24kg bells for men or 12 to 16kg bells for women.

OPTION B) “Weight Pyramids & Ladders”
Use up to three pairs of different size bells, light, medium and heavy and perform the workout like so

  • Perform the Clean, Press, Squat, Row complex with a weight pyramid: 
    Round 1: Perform the entire complex with Light bells.
    Round 2: Perform the entire complex with Medium bells.
    Round 3: Perform the entire complex with Heavy bells.
    Round 4: Perform the entire complex with Medium bells.
    Round 5: Perform the entire complex with Light bells.
  • Perform the Snatch, High Pull and Swing Circuit using a Descending Weight Ladder
    Round 1: Heavy: Snatches, High Pulls, Swings
    Round 2: Medium: Snatches, High Pulls, Swings
    Round 3: Light: Snatches, High Pulls, Swings
    Done.

There you have it, a workout that takes 15-minutes and includes variations of the all the big movements.

Efficient, spirited & brutal, just the way I like it… and in my humble opinion you should too.

Enjoy.

Life Liberty and the Pursuit of Strong(er)

Conquering The 5-Minute Kettlebell Snatch Test

In my opinion the Kettlebell snatch is the most powerful and beautiful movement one can perform with a kettlebell. Nothing looks as athletic or awesome as a girevik standing tall with perfect posture holding a kettlebell locked out overhead, victorious.

Aside from just looking cool as all-get-out the kettlebell snatch is just hard work. So hard that the average person measured burns over 20 calories per minute performing them.  The kettlebell snatch uses muscles from your fingers to your toes, the bell travels twice the distance as the kettlebell swing yet uses only one arm and therefore takes nearly twice as much effort… if not more. It requires more mobility than a swing, as well as the finesse to not crash the bell against your forearm. Then you have to drop the bell from the overhead position and master the backswing before gravity and the kettlebell conspire to master you.  The kettlebell picks up speed accelerating down and back until the moment you brace, drive your heels through the earth and rip the bell overhead for another rep. The bell floats upward as you steer the weight to catch it, pausing in perfect stillness… a timeless victory pose the likes of which have been immortalized in statues and paintings for millennia. Very few workouts feel as exhilarating to me as a hard set of kettlebell snatches. Something about it is primal. High rep sets leave your chest pounding, lungs burning and forearms swollen. It is literally about as close as you’ll get to feeling like you’ve been in a fight without throwing a single punch. During extended sets it is often a combination of simple tenacity, fighting spirit and nerves of steel that separates the casual exerciser from the disciplined trainee.  The perfect exercise. Vicious poetry in motion.

In the world of today’s kettlebell enthusiast the minimum mark of competence for a would be kettlebell instructor is the five-minute snatch test.  Men and women typically use a 24kg(52.8lb) or 16kg(35.2lb) bell respectively and are required to perform 100 repetitions to standard without dropping the bell or allowing it to touch the shoulder.  Although not everyone who trains with kettlebells needs to nor should become a kettlebell instructor I believe everyone should strive to achieve and eventually exceed the work capacity required to pass this minimum standard on any given day.

 

THE “OEKB SNATCH TEST CONQUER” PROGRAM

There are many proven methods for passing the snatch test.
You’ll find mine below.

Continue reading

BREAKING THROUGH THE WALL

 

Our bodies are designed to adapt and conserve energy.
The more skilled we become at something, the more efficient our technique becomes and the less mental and physical energy we need to expend to get the same amount of work done.

This explains why when we start a new activity, diet or sport we see dramatic results, but the same activity that helped us get in “shape” performed in the same way over time will cease to deliver the desired results that it once did. For example: I don’t care how much you love jogging, at some point you simply can’t spend more hours per week jogging and you’re body will stop adapting in the manner you desire. What then????

The answer to manipulate one or more of the following variables.

- Nutrition ( better fuel yields better performance, recovery and results)
– Technique (better movement improves safety, longevity elicits positive results)
– Physical Intensity (perceived difficulty or effort required per repetition)
– Volume ( the amount of work our repetitions performed)
– Density ( how fast you work per unit of time and how much rest your take. This includes managing sleep, relaxation and stress levels outside of training)
– Mental Intensity ( how focused you are and the INTENT you bring to your training. You can punch the clock or show up to kick ass and take names. )

If you’re mind and body are sufficiently primed to make progress then you can tweak one of the above variables and force your body to adapt in the desired direction.

If you are overtrained, you will need to cut back and makes things easier for a while by either reducing the volume, density or intensity before gradually increasing difficulty and building up to a new peak or personal best.

BIG 25 WORKOUT

By John Scott Stevens, SFGII

Once again, I’m not a fan of W.O.D.s or Workouts of the Day. Instead I prefer to stick with a few movements and hit them hard for several weeks using a program  then use a “WOD” as an occasional test to measure progress.
What follows is a nice challenging & heavy change of pace workout inspired by Dan John’s “Big 55” featured on T-Nation. My personal twist is to use slightly heavier weights and either use this as an occasional test or as a 6-12 week program.  Give it a shot and let me know what you think.

  • This workout uses heavier weights and has a 45 minute time limit.
  • Pick three lifts and choose a 5RM – 8RM weight for each and complete 25 total reps of each movement using sets of 2,3 or 5 reps. Example: 5,2,3,5,2,3,5
    • Two lifts should be grinds
    • One lift should be an explosive or ballistic lift
    • One of the three lifts should intentionally be a lift that is not your favorite. In other words, it is particularly challenging for you and addresses a weakness.
    • Pick lifts that compliment each other in such a way that each lift is a form of active rest from the other two. Sample technique selections:
      • Barbell Military Press + Double Kettlebell Clean & Front Squats
      • Bent Press Left + Bent Press Right + Double Kettlebell Snatch
      • Barbell Deadlift + Kettlebell Clean & Press Left + Kettlebell Clean & press Right
      • Double Kettlebell Push Press + Renegade Rows
      • Bench Press + Zercher Squats + Double Kettlebell Swings ( feel free to use a 10RM weight on swings and double the reps for the swings)
  • Rest enough between sets to feel strong and complete the next set with excellent form but no so much as to cool down.
  • Don’t be a slave to the numbers. Stop each set short of failure and leave at least one perfect rep in the bank.
  • When you can complete the workout progress to one of the following:
    • repeat the workout and compress your rest periods
    • When you can’t compress the rest periods any more…
      replace one or more sets of 2,3 with one set of 5 until you can complete 5 sets of 5.
  • When you can do 5×5 compress the rest periods again.
  • When you can’t compress the rest periods, move up in weight and start anew.
GETUP SIL BLACK copy-01

Progressing the Getup

The Getup is a fundamental kettlebell technique that I teach to all of my students and require them to perform competently before progressing to overhead movements like pressing, snatches, windmills, bent presses, clean & jerks etc…

The getup is wonderful for several reasons

  • It consists of many steps which can be added or removed to suit the abilities or limitations of the individual.
  • It places you under tension for a relatively long duration of time to complete a single rep, this builds serious strength.
  • It requires a high degree of focus for a long amount of time to perform correctly. For this reason learning a body weight or water bottle getup is a great tool for teaching athletes body awareness and concentration.
  • The Getup addresses, reveals and improves a great many movement patterns while forcing symmetry.

Using the program template from Simple & Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline men and women are expected to transition from performing getups with a 32kg to a 48kg and from a 16kg to a 24kg kettlebell. In either case that’s a dramatic increase of 50% in load. Conquering a bell that’s 50% heavier can take some time, and it should. What follows are four goals to help you divide and conquer this task.

Notes:
Take as much time as needed to master each step before moving on the next.
I recommend applying the StrongFirst principles of “Waving the Load” and “Specialized Variety” to your getup training so that every day is not exactly the same as the last. – If you are unfamiliar with the application of these principles see a StrongFirst instructor.

“STRONGER ISN’T ONLY ABOUT MUSCLE, IT’S ABOUT TECHNIQUE & SAFETY AS WELL”

Aside from getting stronger, improving your technique and understanding of the getup is one of the best ways to progress safely. Invest in learning the subtleties of this technique from a certified instructor and you’ll be amazed at the benefits the getup can deliver.

Goal 1: Partial Getups
Every minute perform 30-seconds of continuous partial getups without setting the bell down.
Switch arms every minute.

From the supine firing range position, proceed to the elbow-sit or the tall-seated position, then reverse the movement. Without setting the bell down continue to perform as many slow & continuous reps as you can perform safely  until the the full 30-seconds are up. The number of reps you perform does not matter, the goal is to gradually build up to keeping the bell aloft for a full 30-seconds at a time.

Goal 2: Get Downs
Perform one “Get-Down” each minute, switching arms every minute.

Push-press the bell overhead and perform a Reverse Getup or “Get-Down” without standing back up.

Starting from the standing overhead lockout position you will descend into a lunge, progressing to the 1/2 kneeling windmill, and finally the supine firing range position. From the supine firing range position, lower the bell with both hands to your midsection then roll to your side and set the bell down. Perform fast & loose exercises for the remainder of the minute. Build up to moving slowly and smoothly taking up to a full 30-seconds to perform one get-down.

Goal 3: Get-Downs + Partial Getups
Perform one Get-Down + a Partial Getup every minute, switching arms each minute.

Push-press the bell overhead and perform a Reverse Getup a.k.a. “Get-Down” to the supine position, then perform a partial getup to either the elbow-sit or tall-seated position then  back down. Feel free to perform as many partial repetition from supine to the tall-sit as time allows.

Goal 4: Full Getups
One full getup per minute, switching arms every minute.

Perform a full getup from the floor, to standing and back to the floor again.

 


 

Common Mistakes to Avoid in the Getup

  • Don’t treat the getup like a weighted sit-up. Instead treat the movement like a moving plank and learn to wedge under the weight.
  • Avoid curling up and curling down, putting the spine into flexion.  Instead, learn to brace your midsection and maintain a neutral spine throughout the movement.
  • Don’t even think about “Tomahawking” the neck and kettlebell arm forward to build momentum on the ascent. Aside from looking sloppy it is very dangerous and is poor strategy that cannot be safely applied to a heavy bell.  Instead take the time to develop sufficient strength to move smoothly and safely under control.
  • Don’t allow yourself to bend the airborne elbow and/or wrist. Instead,  take the time to develop the mobility and proprioception to achieve a safely locked out wrist and elbow throughout the movement.  This will develop healthy and stable joints, while promoting a healthy degree of flexibility.
  • Don’t bend laterally or sideways from the spine during the transition from half kneeling to the tall-sit.  Instead learn to hinge safely and strongly at the hips while keeping your spine in a neutral position.
  • Don’t shrug the shoulders or allow the chin to jut forward. This will reinforce horrible posture and lead to neck and shoulder stiffness, pain and injury
  • Avoid quick jerky transitions. These often occur when you attempt to rush through difficult portions of the movement without first developing the flexibility and skill to move smoothly into position. Always strive to perform techniques that are smooth and aesthetically pleasing to watch; this likely means the movements are biomechanically correct for your body.
  • Don’t rush and jump right into getups with weight added without first becoming proficient at the movement using bodyweight only. The full getup is a complex series of movements that requires memorization and must be performed gracefully under the stress of an additional load. The last thing you want to happen is to get into an awkward position with a heavy  weight overhead and panic because you don’t know how to complete the movement or bail out safely.
  • Don’t automatically think that full getups or heavy getups are for everyone.
    Not everyone is ready for the full Get-up or a heavy weight, however it has been my experience that EVERYONE can perform a partial getup with at least their bodyweight. Be patient. Build better movement and strength safely by working WITHIN your limitations and gradually expanding them outward.
  • Not Seeking Feedback
    I have yet to witness an untrained individual perform a safe and controlled getup without first learning how to do so from an a certified instructor. Yes, this applies to people who have learned kettlebell techniques from a DVD or book as well. Sign-up for a one-hour lesson with an expertly trained SFG instructor for the purpose of correcting errors you can’t see yourself making as well as to learn technical subtleties that will make a dramatic difference in performance, safety and the ability to more efficiently obtain the results you desire.
  • Ignoring Pain
    It is your responsibility to become the world’s foremost expert on your body. Just like seeking out feedback from a trained expert you need to learn to listen to and interpret the feedback your body provides. Some muscular soreness is fine but bruising and pain is a sign of injury. If your training is not making you feel better and move better, then something is wrong. Consult with the appropriate medical and fitness professionals to learn what is right for you and how to perform strength training techniques correctly.

SIMPLE SAMPLE KETTLEBELL WORKOUTS

Image

I usually avoid workouts of the day and I’m typically not one for posting them.  I believe that stringing together a random series of single workouts simply can’t deliver the kind of results that a well thought out program can.  Additionally, if someone tackles a “WOD” before they are ready for it, then the chance of injury is high.

Let me point out a few differences between workouts and programs:

  • Workouts are about being entertained and challenged right now, while programs are about long term results and preparing your for a challenge.
  • Workouts have a one size fits all mentality, while programs take the individual’s goals and limitations into consideration.
  • Workouts are there to kick your ass, while programs are designed to make you better.
  • A workout is simply something you do once then repeat rarely or never again, while a program often consists of the same workout repeated daily, for weeks on end with a few variables changing over time.

The Right Time and Place
While I’m clearly in favor of following a good program over working out… I do believe that there is a right time and place for a good workout every now and then.

The Right Time
The right time is when you need variety, need to test yourself after completing a program, or need to blow off some steam AND you don’t have any conflicting goals that the workout can interfere with such as needing to perform at a high level within the next day or three.

The Right Place
Your are in the right place in your training for these workouts when you have all of the featured techniques  dialed-in at such a high level that there is practically zero chance of you doing it incorrectly even under a high level of fatigue.

Here are a two sample kettlebell only workouts for your amusement. Be sure to use them only at the time and place.

WORKOUT #1: “GOING BALLISTIC”
The idea behind this workout is to start out with a relatively difficult movement then move on to progressively easier and easier ones as fatigue sets in. Every movement is ballistic and done with maximum hip drive.

Grab three different sized bells  small medium and large.
Men: 16kg, 24kg, 32kg, Women 8kg, 12kg, 16kg

Whatever technique you are using, perform an all out set per arm with the heaviest bell, then do the same with the medium bell and finally then smallest bell. When you are done, start over with the largest bell using a slightly less demanding lift.
Keep moving on to less and less demanding lifts until you are thoroughly “worked out”.

Example:
Using three single bells

  1. Snatches: Heavy x all out left & all out right, Medium x all out left & all out right, Light x all out left & all out right,
  2. High Pulls: Heavy x all out left & all out right, Medium x all out left & all out right, Light x all out left & all out right,
  3. Cleans: Heavy x all out left & all out right, Medium x all out left & all out right, Light x all out left & all out right,
  4. Swings: Heavy x all out left & all out right, Medium x all out left & all out right, Light x all out left & all out right,

Of course if  you’re advanced and have the means you can always Double the Pleasure by using three pairs of bells instead.
Example

  1. Double Snatches: heavy all out,  medium all out, light  all out
  2. Double High Pulls: heavy all out,  medium all out, light  all out
  3. Double Cleans: heavy all out,  medium all out, light  all out
  4. Double Swings: heavy all out,  medium all out, light  all out

Note: Using this double format I was able to perform a 15-minute workout that burned 26 calories per minute.  I never repeated it.

Workout #2: “MR. CLEAN’S LADDER”
This workout features the clean and reminds me of the telephone game we played in grade school.
Using one or two bells perform 1 rep of a clean, then one rep of a technique of your choice.
Remember this sequence and repeat it adding another clean and another technique, then repeat this new sequence adding again and again and again.

  1. 1 Double Clean + 1 Front Squat
  2. 1 Double Clean + 1 Front Squat + 1 Clean + 1 Military Press
  3. 1 Double Clean + 1 Front Squat + 1 Clean + 1 Military Press + 1 Clean + 1 Snatch
  4. 1 Double Clean + 1 Front Squat + 1 Clean + 1 Military Press + 1 Clean + 1 Snatch + 1 clean + 1 Push Press

Climb as high as you can then rest as little as necessary.
Repeat the same ladder with the chosen techniques stacked in reverse order

  1. 1 Double Clean + 1 Push Press
  2. 1 Double Clean + 1 Push Press + 1 clean + 1 Snatch
  3. 1 Double Clean + 1 Push Press + 1 clean + 1 Snatch + 1 clean + 1 Military Press
  4. 1 Double Clean + 1 Push Press + 1 clean + 1 Snatch + 1 clean + 1 Military Press + 1 clean + 1 Front Squat

The same workout can be performed with higher reps per ladder or a single bell so you’ll need to repeat each ladder twice (once with each side of your body).

 

 

 

IMPROVE YOUR PULL-UPS BY LEARNING TO RIDE WAVE

RIDING THE PULL-UP WAVE

The pull-up is possibly the king of bodyweight exercises. It encourages a healthy strength to bodyweight ratio, builds strong abs, lats and a mean grip. Most people think of the pull-up as an exercise in upper body strength, but when it comes to conquering a pull-up or adding more reps strong abs and timing of the breath are essential.

THE PULL-UP DEFINED

First, let’s be clear on what a pull-up is:
A pull-up begins with you hanging motionless from the bar in an overhand grip, with arms extended and your feet off of the ground.
From this motionless dead-hang, you will pull yourself up without swinging or kicking until your throat or chest touches the bar.
Consecutive pull-ups require you to lower yourself under control and start each rep anew from a motionless dead hang.
No kicking, swinging or kipping is allowed. Ever.

THE STICKING POINTS OF THE PULL-UP
During any lift there comes a point in the movement where you experience poor leverage or a transition between muscle groups that can cause your lift to slow down or grind to a halt.

Here are the three most common sticking points I’ve found in the pull-up.

  • The start: Overcoming the inertia of the dead-hang.
  • The Mid-Point: the point where your elbows approach shoulder level
  • 3/4 The Way Up: The point where the bar approaches eye level.

As with any lift there are a lot of little tricks of the trade to develop the strength to pull or push your way out of your sticking point such as partial reps, isometric holds and so on. But another way is to learn to shift gear and accelerate before you get stuck. I’ve found that hardstyle abdominal training and power breathing as taught in the StrongFirst School of Strength are two great ways to cruise through these sticking points.

HARDSTYLE ABS
To improve your pull-ups you’ll need stronger abs. You don’t need a visible six pack, but you will need a strong midsection. This can be accomplished through a variety of methods, but before your start cranking out worthless traditional crunches putting your spine into flexion I strongly recommend the methods found in Hardstyle Abs and the StrongFirst Bodyweight Instructor Course. The methods are vastly superior to traditional sit-ups and safer. With a qualified instructor these methods can produce dramatic results in a single session and life-changing results after 8-12 weeks. After learning these methods you’ll find ways to strengthen your abs anywhere with little to no equipment in a manner that will actually strengthen and protect your back instead of injuring it through commonly practiced methods.

During a pull-up strong abs can be used to knit the entire body into a solid and more manageable piece to be controlled in space.
This becomes evident with the following mental experiment: Imagine pulling a friend up over a wall who is holding still then another friend who is flailing about. The one who is holding still makes your job easier by allowing you to direct all of your effort into pulling, while a friend who flails about causes you to expend extra energy toward steadying or steering him as you pull.

The ability to both strongly and quickly contract and relax your abs means you relax at the proper time during a pull-up and quickly tighten in time to cruise through a sticking point.

Note: “Hardstyle Abs” is the title of a fantastic book on abdominal training by Pavel Tsatsouline. ALL of the abs drills I use and teach are derived from his methods contained in the “Hardstyle Abs” as well as what I’ve learned from attending his courses and bodyweight strength instructor certifications.  I recommend them because they are 1) Safe, 2) Simple and 3) Devestatingly Effective. One of the principles behind hardstyle ab training is learn to generate MORE tension with your abs and to do so faster. This ability to quickly contract your abs AND contract them harder is the equivalent of putting in a powerful engine so your car.

BREATHING
Athletes such a powerlifters, martial artists, boxers and volley ball players understand that breath control is the key to producing power, or relaxation. A long sigh can relax, while a short intense grunt produces maximal strength. Listen to a pro tennis player hit a ball with power and you’ll notice a sharp and loud exhalation similar to a grunt to produce power followed by longer drawn out sigh to promote quick relaxation. To learn power breathing, I recommend visiting a StrongFirst certified Instructor, preferably one who is certified as bodyweight instructor as well.

RIDING THE WAVE
One way to get better at pull-ups is to coordinate your abdominal contraction around your breathing.
Initiate the pull-up with a grunt, pushing the diaphragm down and zipping up the abs with the intention of shortening the distance between your sternum and belly button. If done properly, you will feel like you are braced for a punch to the midsection. By strongly and quickly contracting your abs in this manner while hanging from a pull-up bar your feet will pull up quickly and start a shockwave that travels upward within the body. When you can do this strongly it’s like getting a small push from below to start your pull-up.

Practice this combination by hanging, then tightening/grunting as you give an initial pull, do this repeatedly for several reps.
Notice sensation it creates as well how far it gets you into the pull-up. Also, take note of how quickly the tension from the initial explosive grunt dissipates. This is the initial “wave”. It will only get you so far, to your first sticking point to be exact, but it’s a great start.

Now that you have practiced this explosive take-off it’s time to learn to quickly change gears and keep accelerating.
Just before you hit your first sticking point where the upper arms are approaching parallel to the floor tighten up your abs and glutes again with a sharp powerful hiss and pull. This second contraction of the midsection momentarily increases the tension in your midsection and surrounding muscles to facilitate a stronger pull. The key is to time it perfectly so that you get tight-ER just before you hit the sticking point and you continue accelerating. When done properly you’ll practically glide right through your first sticking point. The next sticking point occurs just before you are about to clear the bar. By adding another strong contraction / sharp hiss just before this sticking point you improve your chances of cruising past it as well.

So the pull-up is initiated with a grunt, then quickly followed by a short hiss and increased tension when necessary before a sticking point.

NOTE: It’s important to point out that in both types of breathing an audible grunt and hiss are not the goal of the power breathing but the result of an incredibly forceful abdominal contraction. Simply making noise misses the point and will not give you the desired result. The grunt is the result of the initial contraction and the hiss is the result of breathing out while tightening the midsection further.

Like anything that requires timing, this skill will require practice.
To practice and get this down you will need a partner to help you through the sticking points at first. Your partner will place their hand on the center of your back. When you get stuck, your partner’s job is to give you just enough assistance to keep moving and finish the rep.The speed of the assisted rep should be as close as possible to the speed you intend to do an unassisted rep. As you practice your partner should give you feedback and communicate to you when he or she feels you are improving and requiring less assistance. Eventually your partner will need to push less and less or not at all.

Give this a shot and let me know how it helps your pull-up training.

THE SNATCH TEST, CONFIDENCE AND THE THEORY OF RELATIVITY

If you don’t already know, the 5-minute kettlebell snatch test involves men using a 24kg(53lb) kettlebell and snatching it overhead 100 times in 5-minutes.  Women use a 12kg or 16kg bell. Individuals over 50 years of age or under a certain weight class are allowed to use a lighter bell.  If you’ve never experienced it before it’s a real eye opener.
 I remember the first time I attempted it back in 2007. I had read somewhere that to be considered a man among men you should be able to pass the 10-minute snatch test and achieve 200 or more reps in with a 24kg bell. Challenge accepted. I bought a kettlebell, practiced for a few weeks and took the test. A few minutes into the test, my lungs and forearms were on fire, I felt dizzy, light-headed and noticed my heart rate monitor was beeping at me. I decided to set the bell down and check my heart rate… it was 214 bpm.

I casually walked over to the EAD and performed some fast & loose relaxation exercises while waited for my heart rate to come down.  Needless to say I  didn’t finish my snatch test on that particular day.

If I would have stopped there, I would probably be terrified of the snatch test to this day. Instead I simply found a proven plan, followed it for a few months and rocked the snatch test.  Since then I’ve passed it many times and have achieved 220+ reps in the 10-minutes snatch and 94 reps in 5 minutes with a 32kg.There are a lot of things that go into successfully passing the 5-minute snatch test and lots of great articles and books already exist on the subject. However, what I don’t see or hear enough of is advice on the mental approach to passing the snatch test. The reason I say this is that so many people especially kettlebell instructor candidates seem to place a disproportionate emphasis on the snatch and waste a lot of energy worrying about it.

“Put your hand on a hot stove for a minute, and it seems like an hour. Sit with a pretty girl for an hour, and it seems like a minute. That’s relativity.” – Albert Einstein

IT’S ALL RELATIVE
Confidence can only be earned through experience.
In other words, to confidently pass the snatch test you must intelligently and systematically make your training harder than the test.

THE ELEMENTS OF THE SNATCH TEST
I’m absolutely not implying that you head off and start doing something crazy like a 15-minute snatch test once a week. Instead, break the snatch test down into its most difficult elements and strategically tackle the elements that challenge you the most.
Start off tackling one element of the snatch test with a relatively easy effort and gradually build  up to a point that slightly exceeds what the snatch test requires. For example, build up to 200 snatches in a single workout, or learning to snatch a heavier bell for 5 to 10 reps. Once you know that what you’ve experienced and conquered before is equal to or greater in difficulty than what you are about to do, then you’re going to walk in with confidence and overcome.

“Cry in the dojo. Laugh on the battlefield.” — Samurai Maxim

4-Points to Consider When Preparing to Pass the 5-Minute Snatch Test

  1. Getting comfortable with heavier weight overhead
    This goes back to getting stronger, and surprisingly it is often overlooked. Nothing will make you feel relaxed with your snatch test bell overhead like knowing you can snatch a bell 1/3rd heavier or better for several reps or control a bell twice the size overhead with a movement like a getup. The whole idea is to put heavier weight overhead and hold it there, so that holding your snatch test bell overhead feels relatively easy by comparison.

  2. Getting comfortable with higher reps
    The standard approach to passing the snatch test is to perform 10 reps, switch hands and repeat for a total of 100 reps.

    If this is your strategy for passing the test, then your training should involve doing more than 10 reps per hand for a grand total of more than 100 reps, I recommend 150… so that by comparison 10 reps per hand switch for 100 reps feels relatively easy.

  3. Get comfortable with snatching for more than 5-minutes at a time
    This theme shows up in the Rite of Passage by Pavel Tsatsouline as well as Brett Jone’s snatch density training in his SFG Prep article. In the Rite of Passage a pair of dice is rolled to determine how many minutes of snatches you perform on snatch day, so an unfortunate roll of the dice may result in you doing 12-minutes of snatches. In Brett Jone’s Snatch Density Training a candidate will be performing anywhere from 7 to 14 minutes of snatches.

    If the five-minute snatch test is your goal, then your training should consist of snatch for more than 5-minutes so that the snatch test feels relatively easy by comparison.

  4. It’s a minimum standard
    The 5-minute snatch test was never intended as the end all be all of kettlebell prowess. It is an entry-level minimum standard for instructor candidates. The stronger you get and the more experience you get under your belt, the easier it should become.  While many say that the 5-minute snatch test never feels easy and I believe this is true to some extent… I argue that it’s all relative. If you’ve completed something much harder in training, like the 10-minute Snatch Test or SSST, then the snatch test will feel easy by comparison.
TAKING ACTION
One day a week perform each of the following:
  • swing variations and even snatches with a bell heavier than you intend to use for your snatch test.
  • Getups with a bell heavier than you intend to snatch.
  • Take several weeks to build up to snatching your snatch test size bell for up to 150% of the reps required in the snatch test and using up to 150% or more of the reps per hand you intend to us during the snatch test.
  • I’ve personally found that when it comes to conditioning, going all out one day per week is enough to elicit and adaptation. The other days of the week I recommend  focusing on high quality strong/powerful reps with plenty of rest in between, sort of an aggressive playfulness. To the outside observer you should look calm and never tired.
CONFIDENCE BOOSTING SNATCH TEST ROUTINES
Routine A: The Relatively Heavy Warm-Up
Perform either one getup per arm with a bell 1/3 or heavier than your snatch test bell – OR – Perform 3 to 5 snatches per arm with a heavier bell rest a few minutes Destroy your snatch test.

Routine B: Chunking the Snatch Test If you’re the type of person that struggles at 60-80 reps or the 3-minute mark then this method is for you. Warm-up as stated above in routine A then perform your snatch test like so 2 minutes  all out, 1 minute rest, 2 minutes all out. Done. Most people can get 50 to 60 reps done in the first two-minute sprint and nearly recover entirely in the 3rd minute. Once you realized how little remains, the last two minutes feel like a breeze and typically end in a Personal best.

StrongFirst Instructors and Candidates

StrongFirst Instructors and Candidates from the April 2014 SFG I & SFG II Certification in Chicago where I had the honor of serving as an assistant instructor . I’m the only guy in the front row looking the wrong way. ;]

How to Achieve More from Your Training with Less

When it comes to achieving your fitness goals most of us have been taught that more is better,  it’s the make more money by working more hours mindset.  We do things like join more fitness classes, spend more time doing cardio, purchase more nutritional supplements… more, more, more.  Sometimes it works for a short while, but then our bodies adapt and we become so efficient at our routines that the results we seek stop coming.  

When things stop working, don’t get fed up because you don’t have the time to do more, instead start finding ways to achieve more by doing less. 
 

“Prior to taking Mr. Steven’s kettlebell class, I was maintaining my weight with running and weightlifting 1.5 hours 5 days/week. I was bored and in need of something new. I then began doing kettlebell 1 hour 3 times a week. Not only did I maintain my weight with less than half the time spent at the gym, but I saw added muscle definition as well. When I decided I wanted to lose some weight, Scott encouraged me to keep a food journal and we upped the intensity of some of my workouts. I quickly lost 12 lbs and am on my way to losing more. Thanks to Scott’s fun and challenging class I enjoy working out and am in the best shape of my life. For the first time ever I feel like an athlete. It is a very professional class- he is very knowledgeable and always makes sure we are doing the movements safely and explains why this is important. There are people of all ages and walks of life in our class and we are all very addicted to kettlebell.”-Janae Henry

 
INSTEAD OF DOING MORE, BECOME MORE SKILLED AT WHAT YOU DO
While there is a limit to how busy you can be, there is no limit to how skilled you can become. The art of achieving more by doing less comes down to skill. The more skilled you are with the tools you have the more you can accomplish in less time. 
 
When it comes to fitness, the more skilled you are with your body, the less techniques, the less equipment and the less total training time you will need to achieve results that are superior compared to someone who is less skilled.  As you become stronger, you will develop the skill of contracting your muscles harder.  Contracting your muscles harder not only takes more energy to do, but it takes more energy to recover from as well.  The more skills you can internalize, the more advanced skills you can learn, allowing you to squeeze more and more transformational potential out of every repetition. 
 
As an example, when I first learned to the perform the kettlebell swing there were no instructors in Nebraska at the time, so I was forced to teach myself from a book. I trained hard and got to the point where I could swing a 62lb kettlebell at 40 reps minutes for 12 minutes non-stop and I thought that I was pretty awesome…., as it turned out I was making some novice mistakes such as trying to conserve energy instead of maximizing force production. When I finally had my first real instruction from Master StrongFirst Instructor Jon Engum it took me only ten reps with a 35lb kettlebell and I was feeling muscles I never felt before.  You see, when I improved my technique I was able to achieve superior results and be more challenged with 1/48th the reps and 57% of the weight. Ever since that day I’ve been fascinated with the less is more approach to strength training. 
 
In the book “The 4-Hour Body” author Timothy Ferris, SFGII describes how Tracy Reifkind, SFG was able to lose 100lbs of body-fat and keep it off by only doing 20-minutes of kettlebell swings 3 days per week for a total of 4-hours a month.  Tracy’s husband happens to be Master StrongFirst Kettlebell Instructor Mark Reifkind, so you can be assured that her technique is dialed in. 
 
In a 2009 study* performed by Chad Schnettler, M.S., John Porcari, Ph.D., and Carl Foster, Ph.D., the exact kettlebell snatch technique we teach in our group classes was proven to burn at least 20.2 calories per minute for the average participant and that does not include calories burned afterward during recovery.   In fact, in 2010 using this very protocol I conducted my own personal experiment and found that I was able to burn 26+ calories per minute and I was able to lower my resting heart from the mid 70’s to the 44bpm in just 5 workouts and less than 2 cumulative hours in 5 weeks. 
 
One of the most brilliant coaches I’ve had the honor to meet and learn from is Master StrongFirst Instructor Dan John. On more than one occasion he would talk about how some of his workouts consisted of a little as 6-reps. On his first rep he’d snatch 225 lbs or more overhead, then add weight to the bar and repeat this process 5 more times building up to a near all out effort.  
 
If you value your time and believe in treating strength as a skill then you’ll feel at home with our Omaha Elite Kettlebell classes. We will find ways to keep you challenged by making you more skilled at becoming stronger not busier.
 
References: http://www.acefitness.org/getfit/studies/kettlebells012010.pdf