Q: Hi Kat. Do you ever incorporate Tabata into your Kettlebell training? I’ve recently added KB swings with this protocol. Great for increasing VO2 max .
A: Hi Andy,
I have used Tabata before. Mainly because I had to, back in the CrossFit days, and also because I didn’t know any better as a trainer. I don’t use it now, and especially not with kettlebells.
Tabata, when done correctly, is very high intensity protocol (170% of VO2 Max intensity for 20 seconds, times 8!), majority of movements people use for Tabata (swings, burpees, squats etc) are not appropriate as they don’t generate enough intensity.
Tabata also allows very little recovery after all that intensity, its work:rest ratio being 1:0.5 which makes it extremely fatigue-inducing. As a comparison, a regular interval training work:rest ratio is 1:3 or 1:2, at most 1:1, with intensity dropping as rest decreases. Sprint training, which is very high intensity, has at the very least 1:5 work:rest ratio, often more.
This combination of high intensity and little recovery lead to a rapid accumulation of fatigue and lactic acid, which together interfere greatly with the quality of movement. This, when combined with complex movements can lead to injury or the formation of dysfunctional movement habits. You can often witness this deterioration among people who do bootcamp and Crossfit, where Tabata features a lot.
Since kettlebells involve complex motor skills, and I value quality of movement very highly, I don’t use Tabata with kettlebells.
Instead, to improve one’s conditioning, I recommend:
– running, 20-30 minutes 1-3 times per week is enough
– sprints (with 1:5 or more work:rest ratio), or hill sprints which are safer on the knees and better for glute strength, once every 7-10 days
– hiking, once or twice per week for a couple of hours, preferably with a backpack and on hilly terrain.
– kettlebell EMOMs and complexes, 1-3 times per week
– regular interval training (1:1 to 1:2 work:rest ratio).
Those options are just as good at increasing VO2 max while maintaining technique integrity, are less risky, less exhausting and more sustainable in the long run.
My personal preference is that I’m not into high intensity training in general, as I don’t like to suffer 🤪 However, I know many people who do and while I would still recommend the alternative methods above, the Tabata protocol might be useful for the more… erm … masochistic individuals, in small doses.
So, for that, I would recommend using simple cyclical ‘cardio’ exercises like jump rope, stationary bike, rower etc so as to avoid the fallout from technique breakdown and achieve necessary intensity.
‘When we adopt a squat stance, we can play around with the width of our stance and turnout of our feet, depending on individual hip structure and the upright torso requirement (Goblet, Front or Overhead Squats have different requirements when it comes to upright torso position, thus the stance for them will be different).
I wanted to know if similar principles of foot angles and width may be applied to hip hinge as well. I ask this because I have seen many people swinging with their toes turned out and a wide stance. ‘
Hinging is a different movement pattern from squatting. Hinging is horizonal and squatting is vertical, so there are different rules. Hip hinge is related to gait (walking, running, bounding, long jump) rather than squat. In those movements, powerful hip extension is a primary mover, while a squat is a knee-extension dominant movement and is far less powerful.
While turning the toes out when squatting might be okay, though should still be minimized if possible, turning the toes out when walking, running, bounding, jumping or pure hip hinging is a dysfunctional motor pattern that leads to drastic reduction in the power production, can lead to joint issues and lack of athletic ability.
When performing loaded hinging movements such as deadlifts, swings, cleans and snatches, toe turnout should be minimal in order to maximize glute activation and torque.
The most powerful stance width for hip extension is with legs vertical aka feet directly under hips.
Naturally, when we swing a kettlebell between our legs, we might have to stand wider than with feet hip width apart (though we should make every effort to stand as narrow as we can possibly get away with, without taking out our kneecaps or compromising the quality of the hinge). The wider the stance, the more the toes will have to turn out. So, there could be a little toe turn out, depending on your height and leg length. For example, I’m a short person 5’1 (155cm) and to pass a 24kg kettlebell between my short little legs, I have to stand wider than a 6ft (185cm) man would have to do. So my toes might turn out a tiny bit, while his won’t.
This turnout, along with deviation from vertical legs, will reduce hip power production. But we should make it as minimal as possible by standing as narrow as possible and keeping the toes as parallel as possible.
In sumo Deadlifts and double KB movements, a wide stance might force more toe turnout, which will reduce power production. Such is the trade-off for picking up large things, but even there we should aim to stand as narrow and as parallel as we can get away with. No movement should cause joint pain.
Those wide-stance movements are also much less horizontal (hinge) and more vertical (squat) for that reason. Since the hinge pattern is impaired by the wide stance and toe turnout, the body needs to generate power through another pattern – the squat. So, a movement like a double KB clean would be more of a hinge-squat than a pure hinge.
This is totally normal, because in nature there are very few pure movement patterns, we always combine them depending on what needs to be done. Still, it’s important to know how you can optimize each pattern so that you can make a decision with your eyes wide open when the time comes for throwing heavy things around.
In general, any degree of deviation from vertical legs and parallel feet in a pure hinge movement pattern will lead to a reduction in power and less glute activation. However, if the nature of the load dictates a wider stance (eg double Kettlebell lifts), some hip power might have to be compromised and other movement patterns engaged to complete the task.
Hardstyle kettlebell training is notorious for its goals of strength and power, short training sessions, using compound lifts, practicing the same movements over and over again, and using low rep ranges: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps being the standard format.
Bodybuilding is notorious for its goal of muscle hypertrophy, ultra-long training sessions, employing both compound and isolation movements, using variations of exercises, and going across rep ranges including using high-rep sets to induce pump.
And interestingly enough, those who do bodybuilding, aside from issues with steroid abuse and spending inordinate lengths of time at the gym, have remarkably healthy joints. Having done bodybuilding training before, I can attest that this is probably due to their good technique, muscle awareness and relatively high-rep sets.
I think that if hardstyle Kettlebellers want to keep their joints healthy, they would be wise to take a leaf out of a bodybuilder’s book and vary both our rep ranges and exercises just a little bit more.
I’m not suggesting going full CrossFit with insane exercise variability, or going full Girevoy Sport with extreme high rep range. Those are sports, and sports are always extreme.
Here’s what I mean:
First, maximal strength isn’t everything. Most of life’s activities don’t require maximal strength feats, instead they require a repetitive and sustained moderate effort. Think hunting and gathering, DIY house renovations, gardening, hiking, chasing after toddlers, playing social sports, cleaning etc. Our bodies must have capacity to keep going over the longer haul. And pure low-rep strength training doesn’t deliver in that regard as much as you might think.
Yes, the skill transfer of maximal strength is huge, but the cost of maximal strength *training* is also huge. And you don’t need to engage in maximal strength training in order to get very strong, you just need to train consistently for a very long time. I’m a living testament to that, as well as my family.
Second, our ligaments and tendons don’t recover as fast as muscles during strength training, because they don’t have as much blood supply due to their structure and lack of capillarization. Constantly working on strength and in low rep ranges (even with varying weights) will increase muscle tensile strength, but since the ligaments aren’t catching up as quickly, they get strained by being pulled on with the ever stronger muscles.
Higher rep training with moderate weights pushes more blood and nutrients into the tissues, and pumps toxic byproducts out faster. High lactate is not the problem if you don’t go crazy on volume and allow your body to recover with proper rest. That’s why a physiotherapist will give you endurance and hypertrophy training in order to strengthen your rehabilitating tendon or ligament. They will never give you 3-5 reps of high load, unless they’re trying to keep you coming for longer.
Third, kettlebells actually lend themselves to a progression from low rep training to high rep training. Back in the day of Russian kettlebell fitness, one would start with a kettlebell that feels moderately heavy (we could only have 16kg and above back then), and uses it for whatever lifts one can do with it (sometimes all you can do its just deadlift and carry it, which is fine). As you become stronger overtime, your Kettlebell feels lighter, and you add more exercises such as cleans, squats, and eventually jerks, snatches and strict press. Then, instead of purchasing a heavier kettlebell right away, a Russian would ‘milk’ the current kettlebell for all it’s got. They would do higher and higher reps with it, building endurance, tissue resilience and capacity. ‘Owning the Kettlebell’ in other words. Then, once it’s got so light that one can lift it overhead for 5-10 minutes non-stop, one goes and buys a bigger one.
Nowadays, we don’t need to be so limited, but there’s a benefit to both exercise variability and to building high reps before you upgrade to a heavier bell.
This doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t do pure strength training. 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps definitely has its place and I recommend doing it regularly if your goal is strength gains.
However, if you aren’t in a hurry then you might choose a more moderate rep range, such as 3 sets of 8-12 reps. The risk to benefit ratio of constant heavy lifting is pretty high and isn’t the magic bullet it is sold to be over the long haul.
Having compared how my body feels and performs on heavy lifting and on moderate lifting, I would take moderate any day. And I have achieved feats of strength *without* heavy lifting, but instead but doing moderate reps with moderate weights for over 20 years. No joint injuries either.
My mom is in her 60s, and she’s doing 16kg get ups and jumping lunges like a pro, no joint issues. And she has never pushed for heavy weights. My father is in his 60s and he can perform 25 pullups unbroken, he has never pushed for heavy lifting. Both of them have exercised their entire lives.
Heavy lifting with low reps sells because, just like an extreme diet, it promises to deliver fast results. And just like an extreme diet, it does deliver, but with side effects of unpleasant long-term consequences – joint problems, lack of motor control, a fried central nervous system, a lack of capacity in higher rep ranges, and a higher risk of injury.
Also, few people know that one can get the same strength-building effects with higher reps (8-12) when applied consistently over time. The key word here is *over time* and in our instant gratification culture, many people forget the value of consistently doing something relatively easy for a long time. Instead, we fall for the bootcamp mentality of ‘strength gains in 6 weeks’. And we pay the price.
So, if you are playing the long game, I recommend going like the bodybuilders and old school Russians, and doing higher reps with moderate weights more often and focus on consistency over time.
Example of rep range variability over a month:
Week 1: 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps
Week 2: 3-4 sets of 8-10 reps
Week 3: 2-3 sets of 15 reps
Week 4: active recovery, yoga, swimming, hiking etc
Can I keep the muscles that I built through bodybuilding style training when I move to solely kettlebells and bodyweight training?
Short answer: no
Long answer: Kettlebell training and bodybuilding training have very different objectives.
Bodybuilding is first and foremost about the appearance and aesthetic proportionality of the muscles. The strength, mobility and endurance that might come with that is incidental – function follows form.
In bodybuilding, you look at your body, and, with an ideal or ‘better’ look in mind, you do exercises that increase the size of this or that muscle, so your body looks closer to that ideal.
Bodybuilding has visual trends the same way that beauty industry has trends. Smaller waist or thicker waist, bulging shoulders or pumped chest, more size in legs or arms, slim look or pumped up look – glance through bodybuilding history and you’ll see the different trends.
Kettlebell is a functional training tool that is first and foremost about improving basic athleticism of the body and real life movement quality (strength, endurance, mobility). The look, lean muscle, fat loss etc that come with kettlebell training are incidental – form follows function.
In kettlebell training, you move your body and based on the movement objective (say, a kettlebell snatch for 10 reps each side, every minute on the minute, for 5 minutes), your body develops attributes – muscle strength/size in glutes, hamstrings, back, shoulders, triceps – IN PROPORTION to what the task requires.
In bodybuilding, the size of your biceps can be functionally disproportional to the size of your lats, but visually appealing for the fashion of the day.
In kettlebell training, the size of your biceps will be exactly what it needs to be to allow you to perform swings, cleans, pullups and rows with an appropriate weight using good form. When you do compound training based on fundamental human movement patterns (squat, hinge, lunge, push, pull, carry), the muscles develop in the proportions they are used for functional movement. Which is often not the way they are developed for the preferred look with bodybuilding.
Both disciplines provide a measure of strength, mobility, endurance, appearance, muscularity and ‘the look’. Both, when done in moderation, improve your life.
But their focus is different, so you simply need to decide what’s more important to you and go from there.
Remember, you don’t have to choose strictly one or the other. It isn’t a cookie cutter prescription. You can – and I would say, must – create a mix that is unique to you, your life and your preferences.
There is always temptation to spend the entire winter training indoors, but such a temptation is a false friend. Being outside in winter is even more important than it is in summer.
In general, outdoor training boosts energy, allows us to reconnect with nature and escape the electronic and concrete jungle, improves creativity and induces calm. But winter outdoor training has its own advantages.
First, According to Harvard Medical School’s research, training in the colder temperatures may improve endurance and workout efficiency because the heart doesn’t have to work as hard, you don’t have to produce as much sweat and expend as much energy for cooling the body down.
Second, studies have shown that exercising in cold weather helps transform the dead-weight white fat around the belly and thigh area into more efficient calorie-burning brown fat. (see article HERE) So, training in the cold helps you shrink your waistline.
And third, winter outdoor training exposes the body to sunlight. Getting some sunlight regularly is crucial for healthy bones, a robust immune system, and mental wellbeing. Winter exposure to sunlight not only helps you avoid the SAD – Seasonal Affective Disorder, but also helps prevent many forms of cancer including colon, breast, prostate, and melanoma (see article HERE).
To kettlebell train safely and effectively in cold weather, here are some tips based both on personal outdoor training experience and on coaching outdoor kettlebell classes all year round.
Warm up thoroughly
Cold muscles, ligaments and tendons are at much greater risk of injury and strain, so warming up is crucial in all weathers. However, in the cold, the warm up needs to be more thorough.
Start with 3-5 minutes of general aerobic movement (jogging, walking up and down stairs, stepping on a park bench, doing jumping jacks or jump rope).
Then warm up each major joint, using large movements to keep the body temperature up, and do not stop moving. It takes less time to cool down in the cold, so standing around motionless for too long is not the best.
All around, your winter warm-up will take you 10-15 minutes.
Here is an example of a 15 min warm-up from our outdoors kettlebell classes:
Aerobic warm up: 3 minutes.
Stair climbing, first taking one, then two steps at a time x 3 minutes.
Alternative: bench step ups x 30 seconds per leg
Dynamic Mobility: 10 minutes:
Arm Circles, Hip circles x 30 seconds
Side-to-Side Bends x 30 seconds
Forward and Back Bends x 30 seconds
Dive Dog x 30 seconds
Glute Bridge x 30 seconds
Down Dog w Spider Lunge x 30 seconds
Single Leg RDL x 30 seconds each side
Slingshot x 30 seconds, changing directions half way
Back pass to High Five x 30 seconds
Figure 8 to High Five x 30 seconds
Halo x 30 seconds
Prying Goblet Squat x 30 seconds
Frog Blossom x 60 seconds
Dowel Dislocates, Reverse Dislocates x 30 seconds each
Turkish Get Up x 1 each side or Windmill x 5 each side
2. Cool Down.
Just as warming up is important, so it cooling down. It helps keep our heart in good shape, helps the body eliminate exercise by-products and reduce stiffness and muscle soreness. So, it is best to taper intensity down in the final 5-10 minutes of training.
In outdoor classes, cooldown is performing some bodyweight drills such as ab rollouts, static holds such as planks, parallel bar supports, and static stretches.
3. Wear DRY clothing
I love wearing cotton. It’s soft and comfortable. In perfect weather conditions. But cotton is the absolute enemy when training in hot or cold weather. Cotton holds onto sweat and stays wet and soggy, and wet fabric next to your skin will drain body heat. Instead, use synthetic fibers (polypropylene, polyester, nylon) which are designed to dry fast and wick moisture away from your skin.
3. Wear Layers
When you start training, you will be cold, so you need to wear an outer layer of clothing while warming up. After warming up, you might want to gradually take off some layers, so as to avoid sweating through your clothing and enable efficient cooling of the body.
Here’s how to layer up for kettlebell workouts in winter:
First, put on a thin base layer made of dry fabrics (see above). Second, wear a middle layer – a hoodie, a merino top or a polar fleece zip-up, and finally wear an outer shell that is windproof, water-resistant (if you’re planning to train in the rain) and breathable.
4. Cover your extremities
When you are cold, your body pulls heat away from the extremities – fingers, ears, nose and toes – which can lead to those body parts feeling the chill and distracting you from training.
For kettlebell training, our hands must be warm and nimble. You cannot afford to have frozen fumbling fingers when you need to re-grip a kettlebell in the air when switching hands. Therefore, I recommend wearing gloves while warming up in really cold weather, and even during the workout if necessary. Cold weather can mean anything from +12 of Auckland, New Zealand to -25 of Russia. So, be sensible, dress to your climate. Remember, Kettlebells were invented in Russia, where 6 months out of the year there’s snow on the ground. Russians wear gloves when warming up outdoors in winter.
Training in cotton gloves is actually part of Girevoy Sport preparation. It is done specifically to improve grip strength. But if you would rather not have too much difficulty gripping the kettlebell, you can buy gloves that have leather inserts on the palms, which will help with the grip. Such gloves are available from any outdoor / hiking sports store such as Kathmandu, Bivouac, Mountain Designs, MacPac etc. If you’re planning to sweat in your gloves, it is helpful to wear glove liners made of moisture-wicking material under your thicker gloves.
When it’s very cold or windy, cold ears or wind whistling in the ear canal can be very distracting. So, either wear a warm beany, or if you don’t like your hair to be flattened by hats, then you can wear a polar fleece neck gaiter, which covers your ears but leaves the top of your head free.
Extremely cold air or wind can impair breathing, because our air passages narrow in the cold. If you struggle to breathe in the cold air, you can pull a light head tube up over your nose in the matter of a ski mask. This will trap warm air near your mouth so that you can keep breathing freely.
Finally, keeping the feet warm is important because frozen feet aren’t good for balance and stability. However, kettlebell training is best done with minimalist footwear or barefoot. What to do in winter? Choose quality winter shoes.
When selecting cold weather training footwear, pay attention to these 2 things:
Flat soles with zero drop from heel to toe. This will ensure your ankles are positioned at a natural angle. If possible, the soles should be flexible too. Nowadays, there are some excellent winter hiking or trail running shoes with flat and flexible soles.
Wide toe box. This simply means that your toes should be able to spread inside the shoe. Too many shoes have narrow toe boxes which mummify your toes, squeezing them together and preventing your foot from doing its job of balancing and sending information about the terrain to your brain. Narrow shoes are for fashion, never for training. When choosing your cold weather shoes, spread your toes like a frog inside the shoe, if you cannot do it, keep looking.
5. Stay Hydrated
You are more likely to get dehydrated in winter because cold weather kills the desire to drink water. However, being hydrated is essential for regulating body temperature. Dehydration impairs your body both from cooling itself down and warming itself up. So, it is wise to sip water before, during and after training.
Does your forearm feel painful during the TGU on the Deep Six complex?
If yes, you might find my answer to one of our subscriber’s questions useful.
“The Deep Six killed me. In the TGU my forearm was on fire. Especially after round 3”
Ouch! That is never pleasant. I and my students have experienced this too so you aren’t alone.
The forearm pain happens for several reasons, some of which are preventable and others somewhat unavoidable. Some of the most common reasons are:
1. If you’re a physically big guy using a relatively small size cast iron kettlebell, it can dig uncomfortably into the forearm/wrist. The pain is reduced with larger kettlebells or if you use Competition style Kettlebell.
2. If you’re not used to Kettlebell training, the forearms will lack condition, and ache from the pressure of the bell. This goes away with practice, the same way that martial artists become conditioned to their forearms being struck.
3. Technique. There’s a position for holding the Kettlebell that exerts the least pressure on the forearm. Finding it she making sure it’s always adhered to helps eliminate forearm discomfort.
4. Finally, probably the most common reasons during the Deep Six is banging the forearm during Snatches and Cleans, and then doing the TGU on the already bruised forearm. Here, it’s helpful to eliminate the banging during cleans and snatches. The easiest way is to keep the Kettlebell flying close to the body on the way up.
I have heard many times people as young as 40 blame old age for their painful joints.
Here’s the reality check.
Sore joints have less to do with age and more with lifestyle. As we get older, lifestyle becomes more important because the body is simply less forgiving of stupidity. Our joints, when used well, are designed to last at least 90 years (some scientists say it’s as much as 130 years, but I’ll err on the conservative side). The fine print however is, the joints will last you 90 years if, and only if, used according to the manual. And the manual to the human body very clearly states that the body is meant to move. A lot.
Not ‘can move once in awhile if you deign to get off the couch’.
Not ‘can move for 5 minutes a day, from bed to car to office chair to car to couch to bed’.
Not ‘shuffle around the supermarket’s smooth polished perfectly horizontal floor and call it a ‘walk”.
No. The body is designed to move often, vigorously, walk on uneven surfaces, uphill, downhill, run, sprint, hang, climb, jump, lift things, carry things for various distances, throw things, put things down, move things around. And rest, replenish with good fuel and then do it all again.
The body is an antifragile system.
For a full article on antifragility (originally coined by philosopher Nassim Taleb) go HERE The body is a system that benefits from random stressors. It gets better when subjected to stresses that it can recover from. However, antifragile systems NEED stress in order to survive, improve and thrive. Without regular stress, an antifragile system such as your body (and your mind, by the way) will become fragile and deteriorate rapidly.
And that’s what’s happening to you when you don’t use your body according to it’s specification requirements. It first becomes fragile and then degrades fast.
Note: excessive stress can be as bad as inactivity. Some extreme forms of activity such as competitive gymnastics, CrossFit etc can wear out your joints faster than the allocated 90+ years. So again, it pays to use the body according to specifications, rather than abuse it through inactivity or excessive stress.
In addition to being antifragile, the body also adapts to its environment, or as Katy Bowman puts it in her book Move Your DNA (highly, highly recommend that book, by the way) ‘You are how you move’.
So, imagine if I sat down for hours on end day after day after day, and did little in the way of movement. My body would function and work very differently. It would become adapted, most of all, to sitting in a chair. It would, of course, suffer (because sitting in a chair is not what this antifragile system is designed for), but it would adapt. The muscles will shorten, some will atrophy, the joint range of motion will decrease, some compensation structures will form (the hump on the back of your neck, for example), and as my body becomes better and better adapted to sitting (and more and more fragile), it becomes worse and worse adapted to moving. And eventually, as I like to tell my clients, it will move from an office chair into a wheelchair, and then into a hospital bed.
Hence all the ‘hip pain’ you might feel when occasionally moving around could be the result of adaptation to excessive sitting if that’s what you make your body do.
Now, our bodies do become less forgiving with age. Unless you’re a teenager, you are no longer able to survive on chips, ice cream and coke, sit around all day, dance all night and then pop up in the morning and go to work, without paying a heavy price. Just the same, your body will not as easily forgive excessive sitting down, as it did when you were a teen.
When you’re in your childhood, teens and 20s, your body’s main priority is to survive and reproduce. It can live on rice and shoe leather if it has to, as long as it survives and breeds. It can sit for hours and not feel stiff. because the imperative to reproduce will make it put all the available resources towards making you mobile, energetic and attractive. And if you put on weight as a teenager or a young person, the body readily forgives you as soon as you start eating right and exercising again, and gets back on track with incredible speed. There’s nothing easier than getting into shape when you are a teen or in your 20s.
But once that ripe period of desperate mating potential has passed, all bets are off. Now you have to work to maintain your health. And the older you get, the less forgiving your body is of dumb choices.
So if you abused your body all your young life and got away with it only because the body was desperate enough to survive, then suddenly, at 50 the body says ‘enough!’ – it isn’t ‘old age’. It’s a wake up call.
To avoid blaming age and feeling powerless when you hit 40s, 50s and beyond, read your body’s user manual and use it as per instructions. Here’s a good place to start. If after 12 weeks of this you still feel (and look) the same, then you might consider blaming old age, genes, the government, and anything else
Walk at least 30-60 min every day, preferably on uneven and hilly surface. Preferably in minimalist flat – soled footwear. If no hills available nearby, use stairs.
Avoid sitting still for longer than 60 minutes. Get up and move for 2-5 minutes every hour.
Stretch or move your body through full ranges of motion (yoga, mobility drills, basic bodyweight exercises like squats) for at least 5 minutes daily or every other day. A perfect time to do it is between bouts of sitting. Example: 5-10 reps of frog blossom or 5-10 reps of dive dog or 3-5 reps each side of elbow to foot lunge
Lift moderately heavy things (including your own bodyweight) 2-3 times per week for 20-30 minutes. Use correct technique to avoid injury. A kettlebell complex like this one will do the trick. If your hips are too painful for that, you can use some of these exercises. And if all of these still cause you pain, you need to do some rehab which normally takes about 12 weeks for full restoration of joint function (many people underdo their rehab and reinjure their hips, don’t be those people). To make your rehab not boring and fit seamlessly into your training, get in touch for an individually tailored functional rehabilitation plan.
Sprint every 7-10 days. Perform 3-7 sets of 15-30- second sprints, resting 3-5 minutes in between. Hill sprints are safer than flat surface sprints, because you run slower and use your glutes and hamstrings more. You can also use jump rope, high knees, stationery bike, elliptical, treadmill, even Kettlebell Swing or Snatch to produce the sprinting effect.
Eat like an adult and sleep like a baby. This site is a good place to start if unsure of how to eat and sleep.
That’s it. Do the above and you’ll forget ‘old age’, and will be using your joints for a long, long time to come.
Here’s to your health and happiness deep into 130s
It is efficiently recreating identical reps (e.g. of deadlift, squat, swing, press, clean, snatch) one after another without movement quality deteriorating and without wasting excess energy.
Your ability to recycle well determines not only how long you can last in a training set, or how well you perform in any activity or sport, but how long your joints (knees, shoulders, spine) will last you in real life.
But before we tackle the best way to recycle our reps, we need to understand muscle contractions.
Concentric, Eccentric, Isometric – the three types of contractions.
When you stand UP during the Kettlebell Swing, your main mover muscles (glutes, hamstrings) contract and shorten against resistance. This phase is called a Concentric Contraction. This is the most effortful phase of the movement because you are moving in direct opposition to the force of resistance (in this case, gravity)
When you hinge BACK into the backswing, your main muscles (hamstrings, glutes) have to lengthen against resistance. This is called an Eccentric Contraction and it might feel less effortful because you are going WITH gravity. However, it is actually a more challenging maneuver for your muscles and nervous system. I’ll explain later why exactly that is.
Finally, when you momentarily pause at the bottom and at the top of the swing, your hamstrings and glutes don’t lengthen nor do they shorten. Instead they stay contracted while maintaining the same length (fully lengthened at the bottom, and fully shortened at the top). This is called Isometric Contraction and it is physiologically the easiest of the three to execute against resistance. However, of course it is not that easy.
So, why is it not easy to perform Eccentric Contraction (lengthen against resistance)?
Think about it, on the backswing (when you’re hinging down), your hamstrings are still contracting WHILE lengthening with gravity. You might be thinking, why do my muscles need to contract while lengthening with gravity? Wouldn’t it be easier for them to just relax and let the gravity pull me down?
No. That would be a disaster actually.
To better understand this, picture the act of bungee jumping. The bungee cord lengthens while resisting gravity as it allows you to gradually slow down your descent before you rebound back up. If the bungee wasn’t there, you would die. If the bungee was just relaxed, you would still hit the ground with full force. If the bungee was a normal rope that couldn’t stretch, you would experience a whiplash when the rope reaches full length, or the rope would tear under the sudden strain and you would fall. The bungee absorbs the pressure of gravity by gradually lengthening and slowing your descent down before you stop and reverse course.
Your hamstrings and glutes do the same job as a bungee cord when you hinge your hips into the backswing. They slow down and control your descent, which means they prevent themselves from reaching full length at top speed, which would tear them and lead you to crash head-first into the ground. By doing that, they also greatly improve their tensile strength and elastic capacity, because unlike a bungee cord your muscles and tissues are living material that gets stronger as it gets used. That’s why exercise is so important to a human body. Your body is an antifragile entity, which means it gets stronger by overcoming manageable stress. (for a better understanding of the term ‘Antifragile’ applied to more than bodies, read Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s book ‘Antifragile’)
When applying the three types of muscle contraction to training, you can emphasise one of them more than others.
Emphasising Concentric contraction (the UP phase of the swing) is great for training speed and power. This is the sport of Powerlifting, Olympic Lifting and kettlebell ballistics (however, kettlebell ballistics – Swing, Clean, Snatch – use more eccentric contraction that Olympic Lifting, which is very good news for your body, because… see below).
Emphasising Eccentric contraction (the bungee jumping phase) is great for:
– increasing strength,
– building muscle,
– improving the health of ligaments,
– injury prevention and rehabilitation
– improving active flexibility.
Most of strength and functional training, bodybuilding, rehab.
Emphasising the Isometric Contraction is great for:
Teaching muscular control
Achieving full body tension
Activating dormant muscles
Safest form of training
This is done in the first stages of rehabilitation, gymnastics poses (e.g. the iron cross, the planche), yoga, pilates and kettlebell mobility.
Kettlebell Recycling is an Eccentric contraction performed at high speeds, akin to bungee jumping.
The multiple recycling of a ballistic movement (Swing, Snatch, Clean, Jerk), aka the essentric phase, is what makes kettlebell training so uniquely potent.
Then why is it often neglected in technique practice? For the same reason it is avoided altogether in Olympic Lifting – because the lifting up is the ‘sexy’ part. It’s the ‘look how strong I am’ bit. The lowering phase is when nobody is looking, right?
The recycle is where the magic happens. Just as your biggest, strongest and most functionally useful muscles (butt, back and hamstrings) are NOT the ones you see in the mirror, so the phase of the lift that best builds those powerful muscles is the one you are most tempted to ignore – the lowering phase aka the eccentric contraction, aka the Recycle.
The recycle makes us stronger, healthier, more flexible and less injury-prone.
The Art of Kettlebell Recycling.
The principles of recycling the kettlebell are as follows:
1) Maximize the use of big strong muscle groups and minimize the use of small, easily exhausted muscle groups.
2) Plug up energy leaks.
3) Move around the kettlebell, don’t make it move around you.
4) Commit to good technique.
Let’s break it down:
1) Maximize the use of big strong muscle groups and minimize the use of small, easily exhausted muscle groups.
You are only as strong as your weakest link, so preventing the unnecessary exhaustion of smallest muscles is the name of the game with kettlebell recycling, and in any physical activity in general.
While the kettlebell at the top of the swing is ‘floating weightless’, the falling kettlebell at the bottom of the backswing is 2-6 times the weight of a stationary one. This means if you have just snatched a 16kg kettlebell, it’ll be at least a 32 kg kettlebell that you are catching in the backswing. That’s a lot of loading on the body. That’s where the gold is, but that’s also where the dragon lies. As Professor of Clinical Psychology Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto says: ‘to get the gold, you must slay the dragon’.
Remember that Concentric – moving against gravity – is where you are weakest, Essentric – moving with gravity – is where you are moderately strong, and Isometric – not moving at all – is where you are strongest, you would want to use the largest muscles in the concentric and eccentric fashion (shortening and lenthening) and smallest muscles in Isometric fashion (staying put).
Your largest muscle groups are glutes, hamstings and lats.
Your smaller muscle groups are traps, rotator cuff, shoulders, biceps, triceps, spinal erectors, neck erectors, forearms.
So, to recycle efficiently, you want only your glutes, hamastings and lats to shorten and lengthen under load. All the other working muscles should maintain as much an isometric contraction as possible, which is the least energy/demanding contraction.
This means that:
a) Keep your back straight and neutral at all times.
Keep all back and core muscles statically contracted. Not only will this decrease the risk of back injury, but it will also increase your continuous power output. Spinal erectors are small postural muscles and must stay in an isometric contraction throughout all heavy lifting and everyday living.
b) Keep your shoulder packed into the socket at all times. Not only will this decrease the risk of shoulder injury, but also increase your continuous power output. The rotator cuff are a group of small postural muscles which must stay in an isometric contraction throughout all heavy lifting, and pretty much throughout life too.
c) Keep your midsection braced continuously.
There is a lot of attention on ‘visibly bracing the midsection’ at the top of the swing, snatch, clean etc. And it’s correct. The bracing of the midsection at the top of the movement prevents you from bending over backwards under the load and injuring your lumbar spine. However, it is during the backswing that the lower back is in most danger, especially at the very bottom of the swing. The kettlebell exerts tremendous forces on your spine at that moment, and there is no butt to save you – your glutes are not doing much in the hinged position (don’t believe me? Try hinging your hips back and squeezing your butt at the same time. Can’t do it? There is a good reason why ‘bending over’ means ‘assuming a vulnerable position’). So, in the absence of the stabilizing power of the glutes, it is the bracing of your midsection that prevents the lower back from being overloaded during the backswing. Brace your midsection at all times, and especially on the backswing.
d) ‘Butt Commitment’.
At the top of the swing, once you have squeezed your glutes, keep them squeezed, and don’t begin hinging back until your upper arm is in touch with your torso. Hinging means that your butt is no longer active, and you want to delay that moment as long as possible. Otherwise you will be putting an unnecessary strain on your midsection and lower back. In my YouTube video about the Seven Deadly Swinging Sins I call this error Butt Commitment Phobia. Don’t commit this error if you want to be a kettlebell ninja.
Remember, small muscles groups like the lower back fatigue first, and if you want to have the most efficient and lasting power output, it is best to save those muscles any unnecessary work.
e) Keep your elbow straight on the backswing.
The elbow doesn’t exist in deadlifts and it doesn’t exist in the backswing either. The arm is just a rope attaching a kettlebell to the body. The biceps is a tiny group of muscles. If you engage the biceps by bending the elbow on the backswing, when the kettlebell is at its heaviest, you will either injure your biceps muscles and ligaments, or your body will severely curtail its power output so as not to injure its biceps. Don’t do it.
e) keep your kettlebell arm connected to your torso all through the backswing.
When you go hiking in the mountains, do you carry a) a suitcase or b) a backpack?
When you carry a heavy object like a small child, do you a) hold it close to your body or b) hold it out in front of you in outstretched arms?
In both cases, the correct answer is b).
Wearing the backpack keeps the weight close to your centre of mass (the torso) which makes it much easier to control and move with. Conversely, holding the weight out makes it difficult to manage.
During the backswing in the Swing, Clean and Snatch, the arm must be made ‘one’ with the torso. You do that by ‘squeezing your armpits’ and pulling the arm into the torso using your lats (biggest muscle in the upper body). Without the lats, you will have to rely only on your small rotator cuff muscles (back of the shoulder) and once they cook, on upper traps (neck) to support the kettlebell. This leads to weaker consecutive reps plus, if habitually practiced, gives you headaches and shoulder problems due to overuse of upper traps, which destabilize your shoulders and pinch the flow of blood to your brain.
Moral of the story? Make the kettlebell part of your torso on the downswing by connecting the upper arm to the torso before beginning to hinge back. Make the strongest muscles do all the heavy lifting and leave the little guys to do their supporting jobs.
2) Plug up energy leaks
The more joints the action requires to participate, the less powerful the action will be.
That’s because you have a finite amount of power and that power needs to travel from the source (the hips) to the objective (the kettlebell) with minimal dilution. Every unstable or misaligned joint that the stream of power encounters on the way – spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists – is a potential power leak.
All sport performance and human functionality can be reduced to a powerful hip hinge and stable surrounding structures. Therefore, in a movement that trains the hip hinge (kettlebell swing) the hip is the primary joint that is moving. All other joints are secondary.
Limit moving joints to the essentials. Do not move any joints unnecessarily.
This means that you want to:
– Keep your pelvis neutral at all times. Avoid tilting your pelvis in either direction. Don’t be the Elvis Pelvis. Move from the hips, not the pelvis.
– Pack your shoulders. Unpacking your shoulders – aka poor posture – is the biggest energy leak after Elvis Pelvis.
– Keep your neck neutral. Craning the neck might be okay in the slow sports like Powerlifting (even though I would argue it is not the best practice for life-long health) but in the high-repetition world of kettlebell swings and snatches, performing 100s of rapid whiplash ‘nods’ with your head in the space of 10 minutes is not conducive to a healthy spine.
3) Move around the kettlebell, don’t make it move around you.
What is the shortest distance between two points?
A straight line.
When lifting and lowering a heavy weight, and especially doing so at speed, you want to have that weight travel in as straight a line aka the shortest possible distance between point A and point B.
When recycling the kettlebell, you want to keep it as close to the centerline of your body (the vertical ‘stack’ of ankles-knees-hips-shoulders-elbows) as possible.
What does this mean for recycling the clean?
To initiate the drop, lean slightly back as you let the kettlebell fall – close to your body – and pull it into the backswing, where your arm is connected with your torso. What you DON’T want to do is stand ramrod straight and throw the kettlebell forward as if you are casting a fishing line. That doubles the path of the kettlebell, not to mention throws off your balance taking your weight from heels to toes and disengaging your posterior chain.
What does this mean for recycling the Jerk?
Drop the kettlebell into the rack in as straight a line as possible, neatly folding your elbows through the front of your body and into your torso. What you don’t want to do is flare your elbows out to the sides. You’d think this is simple, but try and perform a few jerks in front of a mirror, or better yet film yourself in slow motion. Most people find out that they are flaring their elbows and having their kettlebells travel in an arc rather than a straight line. You want the bells to drop straight down into the rack, rather than sending them on a scenic route and wasting valuable energy that you could be using for your next rep.*
NOTE: in non-ballistic movements aka grinds, like the Overhead Press, even though you will not be dropping the kettlebells into the rack, you still want to practice an efficient return. The kettlebell travels the same path but it does that slowly. This will build strength in your triceps – a vitally important muscle that ensures shoulder health and upper body strength but is vastly underused in the modern public, not least because of questionable technique allowed to proliferate in gyms and fitness classes (e.g. flared elbows during push ups).
Finally, what does this mean for recycling the Snatch?
Same as in the Clean, having snatched the weight up, you will initiate the recycle by leaning slightly back as you flip the bell over (note, this doesn’t mean arching your back and stickig your ribs out. Instead it means leaning your entire body back a fraction, literally shifting your weight to accommodate the shift in the kettlebell position), and allowing the kettlebell to descend as close to your body as practically possible, pulling it into the backswing.*
*NOTE you must actively pull the kettlebell into the backswing using your lats. Just having it drop down will yank on your arm, wasting energy, overusing your rotator cuff and neck, and potentially rip the skin of your palms. Use your lats to pull the kettlebell into backswing. You’re the boss of it, keep it tamed.
4) Commit to good technique.
It takes 500 hours to acquire a new movement habit aka make the motor pattern unconscious. It takes 20, 000-30,000 reps to break a bad movement habit.
But here’s the catch: during those 500 hours, you don’t want to have too many bad reps. Every time you have a bad rep, your body learns a different movement pattern.
It takes 20,000 – 30,000 reps to unlearn a bad habit. Habits are hard to break.This is why it is so much easier to train a brand new novice to kettlebell excellence rather than somebody who has learned wrong and has ingrained those bad habits over the years.
Learning right from the beginning is the best, but do not despair if you have acquired some bad habits, we all have some of those. Simply commit to not doing that again and only using the right technique from now on. Don’t count the reps done with bad technique. Make every rep look the same as your first one. If your technique even hints at deteriorating – correct course or stop and recover.
What would serve you well is prioritizing good form over any of the following – intensity, heavier kettlebell size, faster speed, working off frustration or showing off. The body understands only reps. It will automate whatever you do repeatedly. It doesn’t know whether it is automating bad technique or good technique, that’s not its job. It’s your brain’s job.
This is also the best use of a coach, to teach you the difference between good reps and bad reps. Have your coach not count bad reps and only count good ones and watch yourself learn at an accelerated rate. The body and brain hate wasted effort and using this technique in our school produces stellar results.
What part of kettlebell recycling do you find most challenging?
As always, please place your questions and comments below.
This is the face of intense struggle and realization from the Girevoy competition this past weekend. It was fantastic and there’s a huge lesson here!
I didn’t train for this event. I had a VERY nice relaxing winter 🙂 and I don’t regret it for a second. But I suspected that I would struggle and maybe even not last the 10 minutes. However, I wanted to do the event anyway.
Because I wanted to KNOW (not guess) the REALITY of my physical and mental fitness. Facts are more important than feelings. And truth always sets us free, even if it’s uncomfortable at first.
The positive: I gave it my best effort but had the presence of mind to stop as soon as my technique began to fail. I belive that a huge part of mental strength is sticking to your principles even under competitive pressure. My principles include a healthy functional injury-free body for life, aka using good form no matter what. For that reason I deeply admire those athletes who either a) finish strong or b) stop when their technique begins to deteriorate aka live to fight another day. To me it says that the athlete is playing the long game.
The negative: my strength endurance was far lower than I thought. I didn’t even come close to beating my April record. I knew that I was less fit than before, but what made a real difference was actually EXPERIENCING the struggle on the platform. That was what gave me the necessary kick in the pants and those who know me know that I value the occasional harsh reality check.
I wouldn’t have gotten my motivation back if I had decided to sit out this competition. I would have stayed in my comfort zone, vaguely aware of some possible decline but without any impetus for action.
And this is the reason why, to stay fit for life, we must DEFINE our fitness to ourselves (really important), and then TEST it regularly, entusiastically, unflinchingly. And if it helps, publically too 浪. We are social creatures (some more social then others) and for many of us, public testing is supremely potent for motivation.
PS thank you Jen from Crossfit Power Station for capturing the moment!
It is supremely satisfying to hoist a heavy weight over your head. Plus, it builds power, strength, mobility, coordination, lean muscle, core strength, ability to use the body as one solid unit, and mental focus.
However, I’ve always found five downsides to traditional Olympic Lifting (using a barbell) when it comes to building everyday functional ability for a fitness minimalist like myself and my clients:
1) Olympic Lifts are inconvenient to practice.
First, most people don’t have the necessary space, platform or equipment for Olympic Lifting at home, which makes it a predominantly gym-based activity. This shortcoming could be felt especially during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns. Secondly, the workouts are TOO LONG. Olympic Lifting demands a significant time investment per workout. First, you have to make it into the gym, then you need to load the bar (multiple times), then you need to warm up sufficiently which takes upwards of 15 minutes, then your rest periods between each set are 5+ minutes – all in all, Oly Lifting training sessions generally last in excess of 90 minutes. Suitable for the fans of the sport, not for a busy strength minimalist.
2) While I personally don’t consider this next factor a negative, it is for many people. Olympic Lifting is very difficult to master, demands tremendous mobility (anyone who has tried the front rack position and experienced the often associated wrist pain knows what I mean) and has a high risk-to-benefit ratio (for example, barbell snatch is unnecessarily tough on the wrists and shoulders).
While I personally think that it is supremely rewarding to practice a difficult discipline that drives you to improve your mobility and movement skills, it might be frustrating for people to work for months, and sometimes, years before they are able to snatch more than an empty bar. Again, fans of the sport notwithstanding, there are easier and more efficient ways to improve mobility, coordination and power.
3) Olympic Lifting has a limited skill transfer to real life.
There’s a risk of structural imbalance (strength discrepancy between sides of the body) due to the barbell being used bilaterally (aka with two arms at the same time). Training with a barbell, while creating superior strength gains, is more likely to produce imbalances between the right and left sides of the body. Being a sport implement, the barbell does not resemble real-world objects in the way our body interacts with it.
Moreover, Olympic Lifting is a sport – and thus its objectives lie more in the direction of winning than in creating a structurally balanced body. For example in the Olympic Clean & Jerk, you are encouraged to find a dominant side for Split Jerk (aka one leg is always in front, the other is always behind) and stick with that arrangement for the bulk of your practice, regardless of inevitable unilateral lengthening of the hip flexors and strengthening of the glutes on one side in comparison to the other.
4) There’s little in terms of endurance, of any sort.
Training different energy systems is important for overall health and metabolic flexibility. Olympic Lifters utilize the anaerobic energy system, but not the aerobic one.
5) And finally, while there is little in the way of eccentric loading of the posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, upper back and the rotator cuff.
This is because the barbell is dropped once the lift is made. This problem can be solved by recycling the lifts (aka by using a lighter weight, lowering the barbell under control and performing multiple reps of the lift. Crossfit uses this format a lot, with mixed results due to often inadequate technique instruction, but it is still a valid method that I enjoyed greatly in my years as a Crossfit athlete and coach). The shape of the Barbell doesn’t lend itself to recycling too many reps, as anybody who tried and developed bruises on their hips and thighs knows.
Kettlebell training solves the above shortcomings of Olympic Lifting when it comes to training for lifelong fitness. In fact, Kettlebell training can be viewed as Olympic Lifting 2.0.
Kettlebell training contains Olympic lifts – Clean, Jerk, Snatch. However, in addition to all the power, strength, mobility and coordination benefits of those lifts done with a Barbell, kettlebell lifting carries a number of additional advantages.
1) Unlike Olympic Lifting, Kettlebell lifting can be done virtually ANYWHERE, all you need is a couple of bells and 2×2 square meters of space. This is very relevant to those who don’t have a quick and easy access to a lifting platform. Kettlebell practices can be effective at as short a duration as 5 minutes. Most of my workouts are 10-20 minutes long and rarely exceed 30 minutes, including warm-up and stretch.
2) Kettlebell lifting, while far from effortless to master, is nevertheless more accessible, faster to produce results and has a small risk-to-benefit ratio (provided you use a coach and commit to good form). This is because kettlebell training is done with a lighter weight, the shape of the kettlebell feels more natural to handle, it is less risky to throw overhead, while at the same time it challenges the rotator cuff and stabilizer muscles more than the barbell.
3) The superior structural balance and real life skill transfer bestowed upon your body by kettlebell training is beyond comparison. The kettlebell ‘speaks the language of the shoulder’ in a way that the barbell simply doesn’t.
4) Both the aerobic and anaerobic conditioning effects of kettlebell training are legendary. It improves strength and conditioning, all while delivering the benefits of the Olympic lifts.
5) Kettlebell training is all about the recycle.
There is a large eccentric element for the posterior chain during the recycle, which is what earned the kettlebell such a glowing reputation as a strengthener for buttocks, hamstrings and back. Mastering the recycle is fundamental for getting superior results from your kettlebell workouts, and it will be the topic of my next post.
So, if you want to get the benefits of Olympic Lifting without the associated hassles and with a ton of superb health bonuses, kettlebell is your friend.