Category Archives: Kettlebells, Deadlifting, and Weights

Strength Matters Kettlebell Certification Level 1: NYC Oct 21-23, 2016

It’s the beginning of September, and I ping Mark “Rif” Reifkind, my kettlebell coach and Chief Instructor of Strength Matters, on Facebook. I talk about the problems of my right arm press of 24kg, one of two last problem points as I head into the Strength Matters Kettlebell Certification. Of course, it degrades into defeatist talk at which time I rally and tell him I won’t let him down.
Up to this point, it’s been a 5 year journey. Never have I felt closer to being able to complete a real kettlebell cert, and I finally committed to a cert date and location: Oct 21-23 in NYC at Exceed Physical Culture in Tribeca. With about 1.5 months left, I am attempting to hit all the requirements of the cert and own them by then, so that they do not require excessive effort or energy to just execute and survive. But not all is proceeding to plan; time is running out and I am wondering if I will pass on the cert date or after.
By now, I have been doing the 10 minute Swing Test (1 arm Swing for 10 reps in 15 seconds, rest 15 seconds; switch hands and repeat; continue until you hit 10 minutes) for months; not that it seems easier every time I do it – at least I am recovering well which tells me that I’ve adapted somewhat. This, I feel, is crucial. I want to be adapted to as many of the cert required loads and moves so that I can get through the 3 days without collapsing.
Also, I’ve been doing the Swing Test with the 28kg. Earlier this year when I signed up for the cert, I weighed upwards of 168 lbs and thought that I would have to get through the Swing Test with the 28kg (I’m in the 50-59 age group). Little did I know that I would show up at the cert weighing a measly 141 lbs and could do the Swing Test with the 24kg! This would prove advantageous as spending so much time with the 28kg at the VO2max cadence meant that the 24kg felt light, and I didn’t feel so wiped.
Other cert requirements that I already hit were the Turkish Get Up, Clean, Front Squat, and the Goblet Squat, although it was not testing requirement. While not a testing requirement, there is a Snatch VO2max workout (Snatch 7 reps in 15 seconds, rest 15 seconds; switch hands and repeat; continue until you hit 20 minutes) with the 16kg which is definitely something I would not just want to walk into the cert without preparation, thinking I would just gut through it. In the weeks before, I hit the full 20 min several times, interleaving them with shorter workouts where I stopped due to fatigue or hand problems.
There is another graduating workout which I heard would be a combination of Swings and Goblet Squats. They are done in matching numbers: 1 Swing + 1 Goblet Squat, Rest; 2 Swings + 2 Goblet Squats, Rest; and so on up to 10. Then do it again! So I added a multi-set Goblet Squat workout weekly just to get my quads up to par in case I had to do a squat dominant workout.
The two cert requirements that escaped me were the 24kg 1 Arm Press and Snatch. The easy one to talk about was the Snatch as it was just a build that I had not reached yet, and I did make it to the cert with a few workouts achieving 10/10 at least once. Still, I did not feel like I owned it but with time running out, it would have to do.
The much harder and stressful one was the 24kg 1 Arm Press. For months I had been building up slowly to 5×5/5 with the 16kg, 20kg, and then finally with the 24kg. However, my left arm was much more capable. It could put up the 24kg 5x nearly effortlessly. In stark contrast, my right arm was totally inconsistent. I would run through 5 sets, sometimes varying set by set between 1 and 4 reps. I knew something was deficient, and it wasn’t an energy problem because I often hit a 4 rep set towards the latter half of the 5, after doing a bunch of singles, doubles, and triples.
With Rif’s help, I was finally able to diagnose it as a lat problem, which then related to a tight and overactive right trapezoid that tended to drag the shoulder up when attempting the press. This turned it into a muscle lift and not a whole body lift, at which point my shoulder muscles simply could not make it to 5 reps without failing.
Finally, the week of the cert comes and on Monday of that week I figure out that if I contract both lats (versus only my right lat) before the lift, I could do 5 reps! In fact, I hit it twice! With newly armed confidence, I hop on the plane to NYC and the cert.
Arriving the day before was risky; I would have jet lag to contend with since the cert started (more or less) at 8am each day. Also, I like to get up well before that so that I can have my usual daily Hanna Somatics warm-up, as well as my coffee. However, as circumstances would have it, I got in the day before. I ate a big steak and a large potato to fuel up for the next 3 days. I prepared my backpack for tomorrow:

  1. 4 rolls of Johnson and Johnson athletic tape – this is the only brand of tape to use. Other brands cannot be ripped by your hands; you need scissors to cut which is annoying.
  2. Scissors
  3. Thin workout gloves – wasn’t sure if I would rip my hands.
  4. Kettlebell wrist guards – in case my wrists got overly bruised, or more recently, scraped to bleeding due to the bell resting there.
  5. Chalk – had to bring my own brand, didn’t trust anybody elses. Rif’s recommendation: GSC Gym Chalk
  6. 2 Bananas – refuel whenever possible!

Day One began a bit drizzly and muggy. But thankfully Exceed had air conditioning in the basement room where we were. I shudder to think if we had to be in their street level workout room which was rumored to never have the A/C on.
Rif led the instruction, with instructors, Ed Cashin, co-founder of Truth Training, and James Breese, CEO/Founder of Strength Matters, helping out.
We did a quick group warm up. As an Original Strength coach, it was great to see Original Strength movements worked into the warm up! Strength Matters has a partnership with Original Strength, and it’s good to see the integration.
Then, we dove right into learning how Strength Matters teaches kettlebells. Swings were taught first with progressions and corrections. After teaching the Swing, it was nearly lunch time and we had the first test of the cert: the 10 min Swing Test. We lined up 3 at a time to test. The instructors would count and make sure each rep was within specifications. As each group crossed half way and closed in on 10 minutes, there were definitely instances of flying kettlebells as peoples’ grips gave way – very dangerous!
As I hit the last 3 sets of my right hand, my grip started weakening. I could definitely see the jet lag in action here as I hadn’t had grip issues with the Swing Test in months. But I made it through with no further issues, or a flying kettlebell!
After lunch, we went through the Clean and 1 Arm Press. Throughout the technique teaching, there were cues I knew and a few that were new. With Rif as my coach, I had seen many already but there were some that I had not seen before.
Note that there were two additional workouts within the day – just enough to maintain a healthy energy drain!
Day One ended with me feeling tired but not too bad. My hands were thankfully in good shape. Some of the others developed some blistering calluses and rips; I’m very glad that my technique has advanced past the ripping stage – well, mostly! Afterwards, we all went out to a grill/bar called Mudville 9. It was good to socialize with everyone.
I began Day Two with little sleep. Street noise woke me up around 230am, and I didn’t really fall back asleep for the rest of the night. My glutes were a bit sore, and my shoulders were tight. Otherwise, I felt OK. Certainly I am super happy not to be more sore!
Ed ran us through a quick warmup, and we began the day with Turkish Get Up instruction which felt good as Rif had taught me in the same way. We then moved to the Front Squat. I am glad we went through some mobility work for creating a good deep squat. Sometimes I feel that too many people don’t have good skills to help a client achieve a good, safe deep squat. We had another short workout before we hit Snatches. Having been trained by Rif, I had already seen the low Snatch drill that he likes to teach with. After the technique teaching, we all formed a big circle and began the 20 minute Snatch VO2max workout.
I started out strong, maybe too strong, as I got caught up in the group spirit. We moved through the 20 minutes, and it always seems like forever. Towards the last 5 minutes, both my arms started weakening – jet lag plus layering on all the workouts over the two days was taking a toll. It was getting harder and harder to get a good punch to the high bell position and initiate a good, fast drop afterwards. Still, when the body starts giving up, it’s time to dig deep into the spirit, focus, and keep going. As a group, we made all triumphantly made it to 20 minutes, and we were all relieved to have made it to the end!
I also wanted to say that here it was great to see the other two instructors, Ed and James, join in with the workout. Often we hear that instructors at certs tend to sit out the workouts while watching us hapless attendees struggle and sweat. But seeing Ed and James whip through the workout alongside us impressed me; you could see that they really walked the talk.
Day Two ended with me strolling around Exceed and cooling down for many minutes after the Snatch VO2max workout. I politely declined meeting up for dinner to head home to refuel and shower, and do some movements to make sure I wasn’t holding extra tightness from the day anywhere.
The morning of Day Three, I woke up with lightly sore hamstrings, glutes were a bit sore, and my shoulders were tight. Thankfully, none of the soreness was super severe. A little bit of warmup and the soreness and tightness calmed down to barely there.
Today was the big day: technique testing. Once again Ed ran us through a group warmup, and then we all broke up into our testing groups and discussed and reviewed each technique. I was in Ed’s group, and we all asked questions and rehearsed the techniques with comments and some corrections.
We then split up to do our official test. First up was the Swing Test of 1 arm Swings 10 reps each. I end up going first every time, and knocking out the Swings was no issue. Next, we did Turkish Get-Ups, one on each side. This was a little bit harder. I was beginning to shake just the tiniest bit as I executed the moves of the TGU. I could tell that 2 days of workouts (aka “shared suffering”!) was taking a toll. But I focused to hold it together for a few more techniques.
Cleans were after TGUs, and 5 on each arm. I had no issues here; thankfully I had “cleaned up” all my issues with my Clean months ago. But after the Cleans, my right shoulder starts to ache a bit. I started to worry; would it flare up and prevent me from executing the bane of my training existence, the 1 Arm Press of the 24kg?
The time finally comes. I line up on the 24kg kettlebell and prepare for the 1 Arm Press. I quickly rehearse all the things I will do and visualize the bell going up 5 times. Taking in some preparatory breaths, I clean it with my right, squeeze both lats down and push it up with a big TSSSS. I lock it out, sniff in air, and come down with big TSSSS. Then I repeat 3 more times with no issues, and now comes the finish line – with a sniff of air, I lift the bell up and with a big TSSSS I triumphantly lock out my arm for the fifth rep! Returning it to rack, I switch to the left and press it out in the same way for 5.
I put the bell down, and many people surround me slapping my hand and clapping my back! It was later that Rif told me he stopped his crew to watch me do it, knowing this was my personal sticking point for weeks. I am really glad I was too focused to notice I had an audience – that would have been too much stress!
Front Squats were next and a dull roar for me. I was still pumped from successfully pressing the 24kg for 5/5!
However, last but not least, was the Snatch technique test. For Strength Matters, we need to Snatch with good form the 24kg 10 times on each hand. For many men who use kettlebells, snatching the 24kg is the gold standard for many other certs. For me, it has been a long journey to get here. Prior to the cert, I could do it 2×10/10 and have done it for a few weeks now. However, I would say that around half the set the snatches are pretty good; the other half, they can be somewhat messy with poor hand insertion and/or being slightly off balance with the fast movement of the bell to overhead position. Also, the effort to snap the bell up to the top for 10/10 would leave me with nearly maxed out heart rate at the end of the set, which tells me that I have not yet adapted to this effort.
I line up for the Snatch technique test, focus on my torso stabilization, and go for it. I also pause at the top just to give a bit more rest; I have noticed that after practicing the Snatch VO2max workout for so long, I often have a tendency to skip the pause at the top because in order to keep up the 7 rep cadence in 15 seconds, you have no choice but to just touch the top and then whip the bell back down between your legs. However, there is no need to wipe myself needlessly for the Snatch technique test and so I make sure I pause at the top before letting it drop for the next rep. 10 reps on each hand go by before I know it and I’m done!
I watch the rest of my group finish, and we all congratulate each other for making it through the technique tests, and through the entire 3 day cert.
We decide to skip lunch as Rif needs to catch a plane back to California that night. So we all cool down and listen to James give a lecture on running a business for coaches. It’s a good topic to discuss as I’ve had many questions about the sustainability of any coaching businesses. I look forward to having more discussions with James on this topic over the next few months.
With his lecture over, are we done yet? NOT YET! One more graduation workout to go. We form a big circle and prepare to do the combination Swing and Goblet Squat workout. That’s the one I mentioned before: 1 Swing + 1 Goblet Squat, rest; 2 Swings + 2 Goblet Squats, rest; and so on up to 10 Swings + 10 Goblet Squats. Rif takes stock of all of us and our current physical state (after 3 days of workouts!) and decides we’ll do a ladder up to 10, and then back down to another ladder up to 5. After that, we’ll do 40 Swings as a group.
The three instructors then call their respective group members one by one to go over the results of their technique tests and whether or not they passed the cert this weekend. Ed calls me upstairs and tells me I have officially passed! I go back downstairs and pick up my official Strength Matters Certified Coach T-shirt. Success!
The 3 days are well planned out and filled with great information. I was VERY impressed that they actually followed the manual and didn’t go off script nor have too much additional material. I’ve been at other workshops where they gave out manuals and the actual teaching didn’t follow the manual at all. Trying to look up information later in the manual, therefore, becomes very difficult if not impossible.
The teaching techniques are the result of the evolution of kettlebell teaching for decades. So there are some teaching techniques you will have seen before, but then you may see some that you haven’t seen before. Having been Rif’s client for years now, I had seen a lot of these techniques already. Not that the old techniques wouldn’t work – it is just good to see refinement and efficiency taken into account when creating a teaching system. You can always fall back on other older, traditional teaching techniques to support, when something you’re using doesn’t seem to be working.
I am torn on whether all the extra workouts are important or not. It is said that people attending the cert expect or want some kind of physical challenge. Whether or not I agree or disagree, I think the workouts were just enough to challenge the state of your energy systems and put you on edge for last two days, and also see if you can still perform technique while somewhat depleted. The “shared suffering” does create a sense of belonging, where everyone who gets through a cert has a common experience that is bonding. There is one aspect which I think is important, which is to show people what it means to engage the spirit in training. When you are depleted by Day Three and you *still* need to perform, there is no choice but to focus and dig deep despite whatever fatigue you have built up. Everyone’s goal is to cert at the cert; how much do you want it despite your tiredness and the aches in your body?
Personally I like to be prepared for physical challenges. Having raced six Ironmans and numerous triathlons and marathons, I knew what it was like to be prepared and how crappy it can be if you’re not. You think you can finish the race, and maybe you do hit the finish line, but the aftermath is not satisfying and neither are the extra muscle aches! So taking the time before a cert to really prepare your skills and your energy systems is a good idea. Too many people just get to the cert and wing it, thinking they can just get through it. It may be better to just sit out the workouts and techniques and send in videos of you performing the techniques to pass later, rather than risking injury to pass at the cert.
I like James’s attitude towards the business issues faced by coaches. I am glad he has formed an aspect of Strength Matters to support building sustainable coaching businesses. Most people are great technicians but unfortunately not so good at running a business and acquiring/keeping customers. Personally, I’ve seen some people operate but have no idea how they keep going or even are profitable.
How does this cert compare to others like Russian Kettlebell Certification (RKC) or StrongFirst (SFG)? I asked myself the same question when Strength Matters came onto the scene. When I first started kettlebell work, the big popular one was the RKC. Then, SFG came into being. And now, there is Strength Matters. I have not taken the other certs as Strength Matters was my first. I know of many others who have gone through either/both RKC and SFG and then also Strength Matters. I chose Strength Matters due to:

  1. Timing – October was the perfect time given my training progress and having enough time to build having a chance of passing the requirements of the cert.
  2. Travel – NYC was a place I frequented often, so I didn’t need to stress about the place, finding food, nor a place to stay. As mentioned before, jet lag was definitely a concern but at least I had been there often enough to at least have some knowledge of a 3 hour time difference’s effect on my physical capabilities.
  3. Rif – Given that he is my coach and Chief Instructor, I thought it would be a good thing to honor his system by going there and passing his cert. Now, failure was not an option!

Ultimately, while the quality of the information and teaching is important, I think whatever system you choose to be aligned with is really about what tribe you join. I’ve taken a bunch of workshops and certs in other systems. I’ve seen some have incredible tribes, and some with dead tribes, meaning there was no support to help build community. I have also seen some systems led by arrogant, greedy people who enjoyed the attention of followers, and just kept trying to sell you stuff. Having known Rif for a couple of years now, I had at least some sense of what the Strength Matters tribe was like. Also, I had the opportunity to talk to James to see where he wanted to take Strength Matters and I like his direction of making this more than just kettlebells, and to create a lifestyle brand that encompasses all aspects of health and fitness. So far so good; post-cert I like what I see in the forums and Facebook pages.
I think we all wish we could have been more prepared. But I am probably being extra hard on myself due to this being my first cert. I think others who have been through other systems’ certs before will have an easier time of it as I had to build and solidify technique in addition to building strength-endurance. But, definitely, there are the highly metabolic Swing Test and Snatch VO2max workouts that you will have to get through.
As always, I wish I had more time to really cement the Snatch and 1 Arm Press. Certainly there comes a time when it’s time to fish or cut bait. And sometimes you just need a deadline to bring it all together, like an event such as the cert. Otherwise, the training can seem very endless.
I think that jet lag was definitely a factor. I hated racing Ironman while jet lagged. You always wonder what effect it has on your performance and whether you would have done better without it. This cert was no exception. I flew in the day before from California and had to wake up 3 hours earlier than normal. Then you add in the effect of sitting on a plane for 5-6 hours, with both travel fatigue and not having many movement options. I would have much preferred to have flew in at least 2 days before the cert. Or perhaps I should have attended a local cert or in the same timezone. But then, I would have needed to wait until next year. Fish or cut bait, right?
5 years, 50 years old.
5 years of training, that is, with the goal of a strong showing and passing the cert at 50 years old. Yes, this cert was 5 years in the making.
It was 2011, and my son was a year old. I was winding down my triathlon racing due to time constraints, and was looking for a new physical challenge. The same year I bought my first kettlebell off Amazon. It was a black CAP Barbell 35lb kettlebell, and I was cheap so I ordered from Amazon and received these with Amazon Prime free shipping. Shipping big, heavy pieces of iron is expensive!
I remember buying some books and DVDs to help get me started. But soon, I would have my first injury. Doing 1 Arm Swings, I felt a kind of sickening compression of my left ribs and managed to pop a rib out of its socket. This led me to find a real coach instead of trying to learn this via videos and text.
Two years later in 2013, I was amazed to find Mark Reifkind was coaching in my town of Palo Alto! I immediately reached out and tried to get on his busy schedule.
From the technique perspective, I improved a ton with Rif’s help. I think that too many people don’t seek live help in coaching for a sport. They may think it’s too expensive or have the mindset that they can learn on their own, especially now that we have Youtube and the secrets of kettlebells are now posted for all to see. I have found that in the long run, it’s just better to find someone to show you how to do something new, watch you, and fix your mistakes fast. Video and books are fine for reference, but there are too many details you will miss trying to coach yourself. And coaching yourself is often the most difficult thing you could ever do. Over the years I’ve built up a collection of video cameras and rigs, as well as one that shoots slow motion, and a mirror to help me self-evaluate. While that helps a lot, you still need to know what to look for and only an expert eye can do that.
If there is one great thing about kettlebells, it is extremely REVEALING. I had the hubris to think that, because I had raced Ironman and also “lifted weights” before, that I could get to a kettlebell cert in a year. Boy, was I wrong. So as I progressed, I got injured many times alongside finding out all the deficiencies and compensations my body had for physical movement and handling loads. Most of the time, it took getting injured to uncover a deficiency or compensation. There were a few times where assessment teased out a compensation. Know that when you get to 50 years old, you’ve had decades to screw up all your movement patterns. It took 5 long years to unwind a lot of that, which depressingly would reset my training every time.
The issues ranged from an existing back problem with discs, an impacted left hip, poor posture, poor hip mobility leading to inability to deep squat, protracted shoulders, poor breathing patterns and intra-abdominal pressure generation, poor glute activation, obliques were totally offline and bad shoulder mechanics, even gait and foot/toe problems. Most of these I have solved, while some are still ongoing. For me, the results are clear; I finally have reached a point where I can workout week after week, recover fully, and not have recurring injuries.
While all this seems complex, I will say that the human body is a fascinating subject and is a worthwhile endeavor to figure out not only how to fix yourself, but how to fix others. It does take a lot of time and patience, and you will end up spending a lot of money trying out a lot of things and seeing many different kinds of therapists. There are many ways to get from point A to point B and it may take many different tries to find techniques and systems that resonate with you and that can make progress. You will also find many techniques and systems that won’t resonate and won’t get you results. That is unfortunate but a fact of life that it is the unique you and your body that will respond to some things but not others. Still, there is no better experience than to apply techniques to yourself and intuitively feel their effects and see results.
Patience is key; rushing it could mean lots of injury episodes and hopefully not a serious one. Or it could even mean that the discovery process is filled with minor restarts as each deficiency and compensation finally reveals itself and you need to deal with it before advancing further. In totality, it took me 5 years of training and fixing to reach a point of being able to pass the cert.
All this at 50 years of age.
After Day One during dinner at Mudville 9, the subject of age came up. I think I surprised some folks there when I told them I was 50. While some of that surprise was due to the youthful demeanor I carry, I think some of that surprise was due to performing kettlebell movements with the vigor that I expressed.
All in all, age is just a number (definitely recommend reading Age is Just a Number by Dana Torres, Olympian and multiple medalist in swimming). We are conditioned to believe that when we get older, we start to break down, and we get weak. Many have (annoyingly) told me, “You better watch out, you might get hurt,” or “you just don’t have the genetics for (insert physical activity here),” or “old people can’t/shouldn’t do (insert physical activity here).” You know what – it’s all bullshit.
People don’t know what they don’t know. They get caught up in defeatist talk with no real evidence to support these assertions. I, for one, am out there to prove that we can fix our movement problems no matter how old we are, and that we can practice any kind of sport at any age. You first have to want it. Then you must have patience and discipline to keep at it because it can be a long frustrating road. I can definitely say the end result, however, is worth it.

Eating for Recovery

A while back when I was still racing Ironman, I figured out that taking protein powder mixed in sports drink for the days after my long training day could bring in recovery by one whole day. Still, my recovery was up to 3 days after, meaning it was really tough to do a decent workout until 2-3 days after that long day of swimming 4000m, biking 6 hours, and then running 30 min. I was elated to discover that protein powder could accelerate recovery by a whole day, but I just chalked the slowness of recovery to my age.
Little did I know….
Fast forward to today. Over the last seven months, I’ve been doing dual kettlebell and EVO/POV workouts (EVOultrafit training with an ARPWave POV electrostim machine). Since both were completely new training stimuli to my body, I knew there would have to be some fine tuning on how much I could do. For many months, I tried to figure out how to be ready and train for as many workouts as possible in a week. For kettlebells, I was building muscle and strength to handle heavy weights in a ballistic manner; for EVO/POV training, I was using a ton of resources through neurological training.
I tried varying the number of workouts per week and also what workouts I was doing each day. I tried EVO first and then KBs, but that made me too tired for a good (and safe) KB workout. So I ended up with KBs first and the EVO/POV next. But still, I would wake up the next day sore from yesterday’s workout. This wasn’t good – I felt like I couldn’t put enough time into training technique for KBs each week. I tried doing 2 days of KB/EVO workouts one after another but sometimes that would wipe me out for 2 days straight! At this point I ended up doing 1 day of KBs/EVO-POV and 1 day off.
The EVO guys told me that I should be eating 1g of protein per pound of body weight to enable good recovery. I started doing some calculations on how much I was eating and I was coming up short! So I upped my protein intake to about 150g (I weigh about 150 lbs), and started taking protein powder before and after my workout to help with recovery. Still, while eating this much, I was not recovering overnight but needing an extra day or two.
About a week ago, I decided on a whim to eat more. Every day I started eating one meal where I would eat a pound of beef. I also added more protein powder across the day. What a difference that made! One the first day I did this, and did a KB/EVO-POV workout that day, the next morning I was completely not sore but only tight in a few places, which I addressed during warmup! Amazing! I went back to my notes and did a calculation on protein intake and I was up well over 200g of protein! Apparently the rule of 1g per 1 lb body weight wasn’t right for me!
I asked Garrett Salpeter of ARPWave Austin what his experience with eating was and he said that in many instances, the ratio was more like 1.5g to 2.0g per lb of body weight, sometimes even more, depending on the circumstances and how heavy they were training.
It seems to me that the 1g protein per pound body weight is a good starting guideline and that you have to experiment to get the correct ratio, sometimes upwards of 1.5 to 2g or more protein per pound body weight! You try 1g/lb first and see if you recover by the next morning; if not, eat more!
Looking back to my Ironman training days, I was clearly not eating enough to fuel recovery. Potentially it was also a reason why I was healing so slowly too. Yes, age is a factor but when I am burning through resources through heavy training, there may be not enough left for other things. But age clearly isn’t as much a factor as I thought as after eating a ton more, I could recover from a tough workout overnight!
Other related items to note – having regular stool is a sign that my body is processing food and expelling waste well. Not having regular stool is a sign that something isn’t working right. This was another sign that something was amiss but I did not know how to read it, as I was not having regular stools for years! However, to fix this, it took Dr. Justin Marchegiani of JustInHealth. I did a series of blood tests: adrenals, thyroid, iron, cholesterol – to see what was wrong with me that I could not see through non-chemical means. The test result that was problematic was my ferritin; it was off the charts! As Dr. Justin put it, I was rusting from the inside out!
I took some supplements to help absorb iron and also stopped taking an iron supplement plus the multivitamin with iron in it. Then I gave blood which was the fastest way to remove iron from your system. After my first blood donation, magically my stool became regular! A month later, I gave blood again and my stool became not only more regular, but more than once a day. This showed that my digestive system had come back to better and proper function and somehow the excess iron was causing this problem. Doing some detective work like this on my blood composition was definitely helpful in putting me back on track.
One more comment – eating more is a training effort in itself. I had to adapt to stuffing myself with more food every day. I am not sure about reports about the stomach needing to stretch but it did take a day or two to get used to eating this much food. But now that my digestion was back on track, and the fact that my training uses up so many resources, I find that eating so much isn’t so bad and that my processing of the food is fast and good.

The Deadlift Update: Focus and Nervous System Activation

It’s been a while since I’ve been on this deadlifting kick. My goal is still to reach 2x my bodyweight and I am currently at 255 lbs. at a weight of 145. Only a measly 35 lbs to go!
My strength workouts look something like this. I am also beginning my RKC training so adding the overhead carry and suitcase carry to help me get through the test, which will probably take around 3-4 years to prepare for:
2x 135 lbs
4x clap push-up
RI 5:00 (RI= Rest Interval)
@ 2:00 into the RI, hold 245 off the rack for 10 count
2x 155 lbs
4x clap push-up
RI 5:00 (RI= Rest Interval)
@ 2:00 into the RI, hold 245 off the rack for 10 count
1-2x 180 lbs
4x clap push-up
2x 135 lbs
4x hop up 22″
RI 5:00
@ 2:00 into the RI, standing hold 315 off the rack for 10 count
2x 175 lbs
4x hop up 22″
RI 5:00
@ 2:00 into the RI, standing hold 315 off the rack for 10 count
2×225 lbs
4x hop up 22″
RI 5:00
@ 2:00 into the RI, standing hold 315 off the rack for 10 count
2×255 lbs
4x hop up 22″
Overhead carry 40 lbs dumbbell for 1:00, each arm
Suitcase carry 55 lbs dumbbell for 1:00, each arm
2x 10 reps of Assisted Glute Ham Raises
3x 4x 5 sec of Torture Twist
Along the way, I discovered a few things:
1. In my infinite inability to add up the weight of plates on the bar, I DL-ed 270 lbs by accident. This was a dumb move and glad I didn’t hurt anything. On the other hand, I am heartened that I could DL 270 lbs.
2. I mistakenly trusted the ability of my nervous system to imprint the proper activation on a lift. About 3 weeks ago, I put up 255 lbs only to realize I did something bad to my back. As my muscles recovered, the discomfort and a twinge of pain that remained in my back led me to believe that something happened to my spine itself. I used Rocktape to either side of my spine which eased some of the muscle tension, and also support the muscles as I recovered. I then iced my lower back which brought the swelling of discs under control. It took a full 2 weeks to get back into the gym, and I restarted my lifting at 245 and just got back up to 255 lbs.
3. As I built to 255 lbs, my body weight has not changed at all. It is floating around 144 give or take a pound. To me, this is real evidence that strength is not about muscle size; it is much more about nervous system activation of muscle fibers and the ability to generate tension with as many fibers as possible. Thus, as I increase weight (about 5 lbs on the bar, every 5th workout), I am causing adaptation to happen in my nervous system to adapt to generating tension/nerves firing into muscle fibers enough to DL that weight. Right now, I need about 4 workouts to adapt to a new weight. After that, I can advance, but only 5 lbs at a time, 2.5 lbs on each side.
4. I cannot lose focus. DL-ing is truly about training the brain to hold the focus on activating the nervous system, firing nerves into the muscles to hold that tension against heavy weights.
5. Crushing the bar really helps activation of muscles. I feel tension from my hands up my arms into my entire body. It hurts to try to squeeze and crush the bar and my palms are getting pretty messed up. Oh well.
6. Holding heavy weights in between the lifts helps shut off my nervous system’s natural response to loads that feel too heavy but are actually not. This is called the Golgi tendon reflex. All I need is about 10 seconds to hold, at about 2 minutes into the rest interval.
Marching onwards to 290 lbs…!

We Are Weak

Yesterday I was going through the first of Gray Cook’s DVD series on the Certified Kettlebell-Functional Movement Screen or CK-FMS. The FMS was developed by Gray Cook as a way to consistently and accurately assess an athlete via only 7 tests. It could tell you where your muscle inbalances were and your weaknesses that need to be corrected. In fact, if Gray trains you, he will put you through the FMS and you must correct your inbalances before he gets into the meat of your training! This totally makes sense – too many coaches just throw you into intense training for competition without figuring out whether or not your body is ready for the training.
In the first DVD, he goes through the origin of FMS. I am amazed at some of the videos he showed during the development process of FMS. There was this one video of a girl who played basketball. As a test, she jumped down from a plyo bench, and then leaped up to grab a basketball suspended pretty high up there. She made it fairly easily – great for a basketball player! HOWEVER, when she leaped down and landed, her knees bent inward to absorb the shock of landing and provide spring for the leap upward! Definitely not an ideal movement pattern.
In fact, during the FMS development process, Gray found that they could predict accurately where an athlete would eventually develop problems or get injured, based on the inbalances and weaknesses they found with the screen! That’s frickin’ amazing!
But then I got depressed. I thought back to when I first began triathlon. We had no FMS back then and I got injured a lot. There were points where people told me I was genetically disinclined for this activity and almost believed them – thankfully, part of me told me that this could not be, and I spent the next several years figuring out what really was right and fumbled my way to a mostly pain free athletic career.
Still I rewound further in my head. I thought about my life. In grade school I never played sports. I was always the small guy and other kids were always faster and stronger. It didn’t help that I was born in November so I was actually physically younger than everyone else in my grade. So I got discouraged from doing physical fitness and my parents weren’t into fitness so they would rather see their kid study than run around outside.
After I got into college, it was only then I began some martial arts and some weight lifting. But that was 18 years of pretty much little or no activity and then leaping into martial arts and pumping iron! And I got injured here and there. My muscles and nervous system were not keyed for movement at all. Still I made it through Tae Kwon Do, a bit of Aikido and Shotokan Karate, and trying to get huge via the Arnold method of lifting to failure.
After college, I became the typical worker man. I sat in front of a computer for the bulk of a day. And in doing so, sitting destroyed a whole bunch of movement patterns mostly by giving me gluteal amnesia. I did weight lift here and there, but it was to get huge and not to train for strength or movement.
No wonder when I got to 2002, I started triathlon and got injured a lot! So many years of basically making my body weaker and weaker, never training movement patterns and strengthening them. Just sitting around on my ass typing on a computer. And working out but not in a way that strengthened my system, muscular and neural.
But in the middle of it all is the fact that I got weak. I got really weak. I didn’t have even the basic strength profile of a triathlete and I started training. Looking back, no wonder I got hurt.
Fast forward to today – after watching Gray Cook talk about his ability to PREDICT injury in athletes by their inbalances and weaknesses, I now thought back to how wrong we are in general about training and injury. If I had taken the FMS back in 2002, I bet it would have told me exactly where and when I would have gotten injured. But also I needed a change in philosophy and an update in my training knowledge. There is so much crap out there about training now and it sickens me every time I read yet another expert’s training advice.
Still the way our society is, our lazy, sedentary culture – who hauls wood and bricks any more, or does manual labor? – has become weak. We need to change this. This is why I’m building my REAL strength now and learning how to teach others how to reclaim their strength – and I’m not talking about the bulked up size of bodybuilders – I’m talking basic strength, strength that comes not from size, but proper and maximal activation of the body’s resources towards a common physical goal.

Hardstyle Kettlebell Certification in NYC 6-30-12

On Saturday June 30, I was in NYC the week prior on business and decided to stay an extra day to attend Hardstyle Kettlebell Certification (HKC) workshop and get certified.
I had first discovered kettlebells shortly after reading Four Hour Body by Tim Ferriss and began using them regularly, although I had no formal training and only went by what I read in books and saw in DVDs. But now I was in a place where I really should get some formal training on how to use them, because as evidenced by my first attempts at deadlifting, I was totally doing it wrong until someone set me straight.
In addition to my Total Immersion swim coach certification, I thought that I had better start broadening my credibility in personal training, which is basically to go out and get as many certifications as you can. Interesting industry, this personal training stuff. I don’t have an Olympic medal or professional sports career to fall back on; I gotta go get all these “degrees” in many areas of personal training to be credible and expert in the eyes of potential clients.
Also, given that I’ve stopped doing Ironmans for the time being, and pretty much all long distance racing also, I felt the need for another challenge. And there was one related to kettlebells, which is the Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) which is part strength/endurance challenge and part certification for becoming a kettlebell instructor of the first degree. What makes this ridiculous in some ways is the strength test at the end: I have to snatch, single armed, a 24kg (53lb) kettlebell 100 times in 5 minutes! At the moment, I can barely snatch a 16kg (35lb) kettlebell 3 times before taking a break, and then only my right arm and not my left! So having done the Ironman thing, it’s now time to set my sights on yet another physical challenge!
One note: while the 100 snatches in 5 minutes is daunting, the whole RKC workshop is a challenge in itself. It covers 3 full days of workshops, tossing around heavy kettlebells each day, and then you have the strength test at the end. This is something I definitely experienced in the single day of the HKC workshop!
The HKC workshop was held at the Five Points Academy, a MMA training studio on the top floor of a building I must have walked past dozens of times, at the corner of Broadway and Canal. The day was a typical extra hot NYC day; it probably rose to 95+ outside with steamy humid air, and the air conditioning in the MMA studio was only half working. Not good!
As you walk in you see a showcase of MMA belts won by winners who work out there:

I got there early and sat down near the racks of kettlebells along the wall:

It’s nice to see a gym that isn’t scared of putting kettlebells out for general use. I’ve been to other gyms where they are always either very light or locked up in some special room. Yes kettlebells are pretty dangerous; you swing them around and if you let go, you better hope that nobody is around you – and woe to the floor when it hits!
The HKC workshop started with a strength test: 5 chin-ups, full lock out of arms at the bottom, chin must clear the top of the bar at the top of the chin. You can also do pull-ups as well; either one is OK. Women can choose to do the chin/pull-up test or do the 15 seconds hold at the top of the bar, either pull or chin-up style. We got this over with thankfully at the beginning of the day as I was worried about doing this after being wiped out all day from workshop activities. But little did I know what was in store endurance-wise later.
We then went through a lot of great stuff. These were:
1. Proper deadlift form with kettlebell. This formed the basis for starting many kettlebell moves. Engaging the spring potential of the glutes and hamstrings. Use of a Functional Movement System technique with pole to teach proper back alignment.
2. Belly breathing, and the use of breathing to generate energy.
3. The Goblet Squat. How to load the weight, breathing while performing this squat. Back positioning and tips and tricks to get the back aligned correctly. Prying the knees apart by using the tips of the elbows against the inner thighs. Proper alignment of the knees and feet.
4. The Turkish Get-Up – We went through each of the parts of the Turkish Get-Up one by one. Very complex, a great move and great to get instruction on it live. Proper positioning of the limbs, and also where to look during each part of the Get-Up.
5. The Two Arm and One Arm Swing – Proper foot positioning on start, using the deadlift to load the weight, alignment and bracing of the body for swinging. Use of glutes and hamstrings to launch the kettlebell, timing of the arms and when to bend over. Proper height of the swing.
In each one, we were asked to take the information we got and teach it to our partners. This helped us practice coaching the concepts and what to look for, and how to correct it. Tips and tricks abound, and the coaching experience of the RKC instructors showed.
All day we grabbed kettlebells of varying sizes, given the exercise we were practicing. We would do them over and over and over again and coaches helped correct bad movements. By the end of the day, we were all wiped! And the half working A/C didn’t help either.
The real kicker came at the end. Not only did we have to do the strength test in the beginning, we then had to do a mini-strength test of the Goblet Squat, the Turkish Get-Up, AND the one armed Swing! Good thing I brought two bottles of energy drink and tons of fruit and trail mix. But at the end of the day, all of that was nearly gone.
We got up one by one to test. I did OK with the Goblet Squat and one armed Swing, but totally messed up the Turkish Get-Up. I thought I was sunk! But then, one of the RKC coaches called me back up to demonstrate the Turkish Get-Up and he passed me thankfully, attributing the first fail to nerves. Whew! Those that do not pass need to submit a video to the coaches within a month or so for retest. Thankfully I got all of it done that day.
They gave us our coveted HKC manuals and I bought a Five Points Academy T-shirt for a souvenir:

Afterwards, I stunk and felt like I had raced an Ironman! For days after, my hamstrings and glutes were tight. At least this was as it should be; if my arms were tight, then I wasn’t executing kettlebell moves correctly! But certainly I was not trained enough for that kind of day…
After completing the HKC, I’ve now got my sights on the RKC. This is now three similar grueling days of instruction on coaching methods (and the participants are practicing the moves with the kettlebells all day, each day) and then, the nice big strength test at the end consisting of snatching a 24kg/53 lb a minimum of 100 times in 5 minutes. More on this later as I begin the journey to see if I can even hoist that much weight over my head without doing some serious damage to myself.