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167 Reasons to Train Athletes with Kettlebells

Cal Poly Dzubnar #41 On  the football field
Durability. There are few things more coveted by coaches and athletes than the ability to perform every time the team takes the field. There is nothing more disastrous than an injury for a high level athlete. Ask anyone on a team, their number one fear is a catastrophic injury.

Programming for durability can get tricky. Programming is an art—don’t kid yourself. Every major strength group has a standardized way of programming for individuals, but the problem with following these professional shakers and movers is that these programs have been written with a certain individual in mind. We run into trouble when applying these programs to individuals that the programs were NOT intended for.

For example, one of the toughest kids I have ever coached is a guy named Chris Lawrence. Chris is a graduating senior this year. He looks like a WWE wrestler and has the work capacity of a high level CrossFitter. The guy has a bottomless tank—he’s as strong as a bull and is comfortable with pain and fatigue. He’s pretty much a coach’s dream. I can bludgeon him every day and he won’t blink. Now imagine I set the bar at Chris’s level. All of my athletes, from this moment forward, would be expected to operate from his perspective and you better pack a lunch! The outcome will probably result in 50 out of 100 kids on the team would quit, and 45 would end up with significant injuries with a death or two. The only man left standing would be Chris. Inversely, if I program to the middle of the pack, CLAW (as we affectionately call him) would be standing at my desk at the end of the session with his hands on his hips asking, "Seriously?"

In-season programming can be even more dicey. I want to give the athletes enough stimulus to keep them strong without adding any unnecessary fatigue to their week while preparing for the game on Saturday. Remember, they have been grinding for around 9 months, are very strong and don’t want to lose ground. It becomes a tight rope walk of giving them just enough without blowing them up.

My training philosophy applies to our speed/conditioning program as much as our resistance program. A football game should not be the biggest stimulus your body has encountered when the season rolls in. We train at a level which places a game a middle of the road effort/stress by comparison. It’s that simple. At the very beginning of the next football season, watch your favorite team play and keep an eye out for the number of cramping episodes you see. The vast majority of these incidences will involve an athlete who is over stimulating their CNS. The game has them working at a new level or at a level they haven’t been working at for a while, and the CNS goes into protest. These players are writing "effort checks" that their nervous system is having trouble covering.

The rest of this article will focus on our middle linebacker, Nick Dzubnar. He’s a throwback from the 70s. Big, strong, super nasty and tough as they get. Whatever he might lack in terms of God-given athleticism he makes up for with grit. During my first season here at Cal Poly (2013 campaign), it took me about two games to realize that Nick was a force of nature. Every single tackle, #41 seemed to emerge from the pile. He’s a nightmare for the other team and one of the most productive Mustangs to ever play here.
Cal Poly Football Game Dzubnar #41

Fast forward to the end of this season. Nick broke school records left and right and was named 1st Team All American on 5 different AA teams. But, his tackle totals were the most mind boggling records he set. Nick shattered the school record for tackles in a season with 167 and fell just 35 tackles shy of the school's career mark for tackles with 414. In 12 games, this guy was able to average 13.9 tackles a game. If you know anything about football, especially defensive football, a man who averages 13.9 tackles a game is once-in-a-decade player.

Going into the 2014 season, I knew our defensive identity would revolve around Nick making plays. In preparation, I told Nick that I was going to ask some unorthodox things of him, and that I needed him to be open to some unconventional methods. For those of you unfamiliar with the ins and outs of college athletics, coaches are restricted in the amount of time we are allowed to work with the athletes. Depending on the calendar year, our exposure to them is monitored and capped. If we violate that time ceiling, we are subject to NCAA violations. It’s a big mess. We have an in-house sheriff and are subject to scrutiny at all moments. With all this being said, I get a maximum of two hours a week in-season with my footballers, so I have to get creative.

Normally, we would have two one-hour sessions during the week. Each hour would be filled with cleans and deadlifts, bench presses and pull ups. That’s the norm. I told Nick that I needed to see him five times a week and that he would lift every day. But I still had to work within that damn two-hour ceiling. So I cut the fat and got right to the point.

Here’s what we did:

Monday was his traditional day. He do barbell front squats, barbell RDL, bench presses and some version of pull ups. He would then do kettlebell swings—10x10 heavy, 3x5ea of a get-ups and then finish with 3x5ea heavy windmills.

Tuesday-Friday would simply be the 10x10 or 5x20 swings, and 3x5ea, 3x3ea, or 3x1ea of get-ups and then the 3x5ea heavy windmills. That’s it.

The Logic:

My program revolves around the Olympic lifts and HardStyle kettlebell training. At Cal Poly, we are obsessed with speed and have to train that way. The swings are foundational and one of the first things we teach to newcomers. We are technicians and swings act as an explosion developer—and more importantly in my system, a conditioning tool. We swing. A lot. Way more than what my kids think is necessary. BUT, we are fast, and we can go go go all game long.

In my mind, the Turkish get-up is the truest test of strength. It’s the quintessential gap filler, weakness exposer and injury preventer in my arsenal. We get-up heavy and we get-up daily. Period. I am more impressed by a person who can display control and complete ownership of a 48kg kettlebell get-up than I am of a 500lb bench or 600lbs squat. If you can get up with a 48kg smoothly and show no signs of weakness throughout your motion, you are strong. Nick can, and he is.

Lastly, the windmill is a nice compliment to the get-up. The lateral component is worth its weight in gold and the flexibility benefits (while under load) cannot be overstated. Again, these are heavy. Nick would regularly handle a 32kg windmill—daily.
Cal Poly Football Dzubnar #41

What was the end result of this training method? 12 games and 167 tackles, 9.5 tackles for a loss, 3 sacks, 2 interceptions, 4 pass break ups and a partridge in a pear tree. And of all the statistics, the one that sticks out in my mind the most is the total injuries: 0, Nadda, Zilch. This man played in 12 Div I college football games. It is said that a football game is equal to a car accident for the participants. So in that line of thinking, Nick was in 12 car accidents in 12 weeks. Furthermore, his productivity was such that he shattered the single season tackle record, while playing one of the most physical positions in all of football. And he walked away at the end of the season without a scratch. If that’s not an endorsement for RKC HardStyle kettlebell training, I’m not sure what is.

Nick will be entering the 2015 NFL Draft and will be a productive addition to whichever team is smart enough to choose him.

Dr. Chris Holder Qigong Senior RKCDr. Christopher R. Holder DP, DMQ (China), Senior RKC, CrossFit Level 1, CSCS can be contacted by email at (mention RKC in the email subject so your email isn't accidentally deleted).