A College Strength Coach
Puts Kettlebells to the Test
Part II: “It’s a new day in San Jose…”

October 5, 2007 11:16 AM

The Move

Picture this? it is a cold day in San Luis Obispo in December of 2005. I am coming off one of the most incredible football seasons of my coaching career. My Cal Poly Mustangs made the Division I-AA playoffs for the first time in school history and we beat the mighty Montana Grizzlies at their house, in the first round, a feat that few schools can claim, and put up a valiant effort against Texas State in the semi's before being eliminated. My program was rolling, the kids were dialed in, and the whole system was so efficient that it almost ran itself? truly a strength coach's dream. Then, I received a call that would change everything.

San Jose State was preparing to hire a full-time, football only head position and I was on their short list of "potentials". Now, unless you slept through the first paragraph, I had no reason to leave Cal Poly. I was happy, my kids were working, the relationship that I had developed with the Mustang Head Football Coach, Rich Ellerson, was about as perfect as it could have been. On top of all that, we were coming off three winning seasons and seriously becoming a force at that level? what would make me even entertain a call from another school? Even more, why would I consider San Jose State? SJSU was a school where the program was struggling, there had been some major turnover in staffing in the recent years, and I would be inheriting a group of athletes that were a major contrast to what I was used to at SLO. Was I willing to let go of something that I single handedly built, from the ground up, at Cal Poly and leave my comfort zone for the chance of being part of an unlikely turnaround at another university? The answer was, "yes".

When I interviewed for the job, the first thing that resonates is the facility. My weight room is beautiful. 10,000 square feet of working space, 60 yards of field turf outside the door, three football fields worth of grass, and all the support that a coach could want from an administration. But, it was my one-on-one interview with Spartan Head Football Coach Dick Tomey that was the difference maker. Those of you who don't follow college football won't know that name, but those of you who do know that Dick is single handedly responsible for the turnarounds at the University of Arizona and the University of Hawaii. He is the mastermind behind "the Turnaround" and he was entering his second season with the Spartans on my interview day. So, like anyone who walks into an interview situation, I came prepared. I walked into the meeting room with two things in my hands. First, a copy of my Master's project- a 275 page, research saturated, breakdown of my program that illustrates why it works. Second, a VHS tape with my Mustangs doing kettlebell exercises. That's all. No barbell squatting, no Olympic lifts, just kettlebells. I dimmed the lights, put on the video, and 20 minutes later, Dick was sold. All of us kettlebellers out there should know that Dick Tomey is probably more passionate about the kettlebell and what it is capable of than most of us RKC's. What he saw in that video was a potential for the future of Spartan Football? a major piece to his "already in motion" turnaround he had planned for this university. The next morning they called and offered me? that afternoon I was giving my "two-weeks" to Cal Poly. So, I packed my motorcycle up with all that I could carry and on February 1, 2006, I went to work for San Jose State.

Now make no mistake, Coach Tomey knows what he wants and makes no bones about what he expects. One of the greatest aspects of this move is I was exclusive to football only. I had 20 sports at Cal Poly? here at San Jose, I had ONE. My focus was on one team and they were going to get the best of me, whether they liked it or not.

The first couple of weeks revolved around installing the program. And believe me, it wasn't easy. The former strength staff ran a program that was dramatically different than mine and we had to get these 105 football players sold on my system and get them to take the leap of faith that was required in trusting me that we would give them the best instruction and program, anywhere. Part of my contract was to equip me with enough kettlebells to fill my facility but, for those of you who work in the college setting know, the required 85 forms that have to be filled out and miles of red tape to purchase anything delayed it. So, like any good coach/RKC, I got a truck and drove down to San Luis Obispo, and brought my own KB's up here to use in the meantime. (I know what most of you are thinking, but remember, I rode a motorcycle up here, so give me some slack?). Doubles of 8's up to 48's and every size in-between is all we had to start.

I hand picked about a dozen Spartans to start on and we spent time after hours to get the KB's moving. It's extremely comical to watch the pain that the kettlebell delivers. No matter how fit you are, how young or how strong, the kettlebell is so unique to itself that it humbles even the most elite of athletes. Don't believe me? I had, in my crop of athletes to teach at first, a young man who ran a 4.27 40-yard dash for the NFL scouts this spring, a defensive tackle who squatted 600lbs in a bucket with ease over the summer, and my Graduate Assistant at the time, Jeremy Layport (now an RKC, National Level Olympic Lifter, and the 3rd man alive to "tame the beast" in June of 06), to name a few. These guys are not slouches by any means. All as high end athletes as you can find, and when the first hour of instruction concluded, everyone was on the floor and the fear of what was to come over the next months resonated in the eyes of each young man.

Once my shipment arrived, we quickly went into kettlebell mode. Serious, serious teaching that lasted several weeks. After about a month, my program, the traditional weights, speed program and KB work were all finally installed and we never looked back. For those of you keeping score, by this time, it was April and we went into spring ball immediately? costing me another month. So, in May, we put our head down and really began to train. I know it seems bizarre that it would take 3 months to get my program up and running but remember, these kids were asked to "unlearn" everything that they had been taught and now "re-learn" it all in my philosophy, AND, become gireviks. Not an easy task.

The Summer

When June hit, we came out swinging. The program I wrote was going to do one of two things: First, kill everyone who was FOOLISH enough to give it a try, or; Damn near kill everyone who was SMART enough to give it a try and enter training camp in the best shape of their life. To be perfectly honest, once Jeremy Layport and I finished writing the program, I was seriously worried that what I was asking these young men to do was going to be too much. Understand, though, I was out of time. I had roughly 8 weeks to get this group in the kind of shape that would help our coaches lead this team to a winning season. We had the talent, we certainly had the right instruction from one of the best coaching staffs I've ever been a part of, and we had the hunger that most teams lack.

We attacked these kids from every angle. The traditional weight training aspects of the program included the BEST of all the disciplines: squatting, the Olympics, unilateral work, multi-directional work? you name it, we covered it. Take that and now inject a full helping of kettlebells. Swings, pistols, the grinds, modified lifts, get ups? we hammered these guys. Now, after brutalizing them in the weight room for 90 minutes, we would follow it up with 60 minutes of speed/conditioning work. We did this to them Monday, Tuesday, Thursday and Friday all summer. There were days when we probably should have had an ambulance standing by.

As a testament to these young men, the dedication and toughness that they displayed should make everyone involved proud. I swung the crap out of them. Mondays and Thursdays they had a minimum of 100 heavy swings or swing variation. Typically, we did 10x10 of a given exercise (heavy two hand swings, double swings, double snatches etc.) Later in the summer, we worked up to 10x15. Now I know that Pavel might not totally agree with some of the stuff that we did (in terms of weight), but I have footage of Layport doing double swings with two 48's. 10 sets of 10 reps and all swings are above ground parallel or what I like to call "above your eyes", to give you an idea of how heavy this stuff got. Tuesdays and Fridays were just wrong.

Tuesdays: We would end our lifting session with a Man-Maker. My staff and I would sit around and think of the most cruel and unusual swing circuits that we could devise. I would have a volume total that I set as a goal everyday, and then we would plug in the nastiest swing variations we could think of to hit that number. At the beginning of the summer, my target was 160 and the end of the summer, we were at 300. We did Man-Makers that now live in Spartan legend that will be repeated this summer. Named "Helter Skelter" and "The Shitter" (a routine that my good friend John Francis- Director of S & C at San Diego State, came up with? I'll give you 3 guesses WHERE he came up with it and WHAT he was doing when he thought of it, but you probably will only need one), we put together the most evil things we could think of to not only foster true toughness in these guys, but pump massive amounts of conditioning into them.

Fridays: As with Tuesdays, we would end the day with a circuit, but this was a culmination of all that is great about the kettlebell. I named it the "Chain of Pain". Everything is done with two KB's. We put together a chain of exercises to be performed one after another, swings and grinds. Each chain had a certain amount of links, and only one entire trip though each link in the chain would count as one rep. They always had 4 sets of 10 reps. The beauty of this was each week, we would add a link to the chain. For example: Week 1- Doubling 20's, swing, snatch, clean, double press. (Easy enough) The last week: swing, snatch, swing, clean, press with left, swing, clean, press with right, clean, and double press. Not easy at all. In fact, if you do the math, we had 100 reps of various exercises, doubled, for each set. 4 sets equaling 400 reps. All of my guys were required to use 20kg kettlebells. The only exceptions were my very small guys (kickers and such) and they used 16kg bells. One side note, my staff, minus our Director, was required to endure the pain with the guys. The last week, in the middle of my Chain, I screamed at one of our running backs, Patrick Perry, who was counting for me and I thought he wasn't paying attention (understand, the fatigue prevents you from being able to keep count on your own, and your hands hurt in a way that will make you lash out at those you love the most). That last week, James Jones, our stud wide receiver (eventual 3rd round draft selection of the Green Bay Packers), and Jeremy Layport did their last set with 28's. One word: stupid.

We plowed through the summer and when the smoke cleared, we had 0 injuries and, of the 60 or so guys who participated over the summer, we had a team that was at an all-time high in regards to strength and fitness.

The 2007 Spartan Football Season

Let me set this up for you. San Jose State Football is a Division I program. We are a member of the Western Athletic Conference (WAC). We were entering a season where the teams of 2003-2005 Spartans won a combined total of 8 games. Three years, eight games? this will be important as this article comes together.

When the ball was kicked off to open the 2007 season, we found ourselves in Seattle, Washington, versus the U. of Washington Huskies. What a place to play. First thing that comes to mind (after you get over the beauty of Seattle and the fact that Dave Matthews, lead singer to best band ever, Dave Matthews Band, is a resident) is the noise of the stadium. Wow. Fortunately for us, the stadium was not filled and we found out something about our character that day. Even though we finished the afternoon with a loss, 29-35, we saw signs of something great that was going to take hold over the duration of the season.

Week 2, we hosted our cross town foe, U. of Stanford. (Another PAC-10 school) This day turned out to be a defining moment for this team. It was truly a dogfight of epic proportions. What I witnessed was a team who was expected to lose come back from a 20 point deficit in the second quarter to win one of the most exciting football games I have ever seen. The sight our student section, in their bright yellow Spartan Squad t-shirts, pouring onto the field by the thousands at the end of the game will live in my mind forever. Final score - Spartans 35 - Cardinal 34.

The third week had all the makings of a Pepto-Bismol day for your boy here. My former team, the Cal Poly Mustangs made the trip up the coast to play my Spartans. Talk about pulling the heart strings. I am coaching a team of young men that I have grown to love, and coaching against a team of young men that I STILL loved. John Kaupp, RKC, is the new strength coach at Poly and so I knew that the Mustangs were going to be prepared physically, and I knew that nothing would have made those Mustangs happier than handing me a loss. All love, but totally true. Fortunately for me, my Spartans did what I needed them to do and we finished the football game with a close win? too close. Final score - Spartans 17- Mustangs 7.

Week 4 brought the Aztecs of San Diego State University to my door. Once again, I was facing a school who train with kettlebells and coaching against one of my good friends, Strength Coach John Francis. I understand the edge that the kettlebells give so the previous week and this week were nail biters for me. As the game progressed, my nervousness calmed because my guys were playing brilliantly. Hustle, hitting and execution brought a 31-10 victory for San Jose State.

Week 5? we are in our fifth game and only now are we starting conference play. The Utah State Aggies made the trip to my place to open conference play and they didn't disappoint. It was a great game with a final score of Spartans 21 - Aggies 14. In five games, my Spartans had won more games than any of the Spartan teams had won in their respective seasons dating back to 2003.

Week 6 was the shot in the arm that every team needs from time to time. We loaded a bus to Reno to play the U. of Nevada Wolfpack. I don't know if we were overconfident, if it was a nationally televised contest, but one thing that I am sure of, that Wolfpack team could play some ball. They came right out and punched us in the face and continued to do so until the last second ticked of the clock. We licked our wounds all the way back home losing 7-23.

Week 7 was a scary game because after the Nevada game, you begin to question yourself some and wonder if you are really as good as you thought you were. Thankfully my Spartans regrouped and played a smash mouth game against one of our conference foes, Louisiana Tech. Final score - Spartans 44 - LA-Tech 10.

Week 8 was an important week. We were on the road and playing against a New Mexico State team that had one of the most high-powered offenses in country. These guys moved the ball. Throw, throw, throw?did I mention that they throw a lot in Las Cruses? You non-football fans need to know that when you play against a team that throws a bunch, a big lead in your favor doesn't mean much. A team that throws as prolifically as NMSU does, they are never out of a game. When the smoke cleared, we won 31-21. What made this victory so sweet was this was the first road game the Spartans had won in over three years.

Week 9? this one was a tough one. Did anyone happen to catch the Boise State miracle win against the Sooners of Oklahoma during Bowl Week? Probably the best football game most of us have ever seen, right? Well, with three seconds left on the clock, in the 4th quarter, San Jose State was tied with the Broncos, 20-20. A 37-yard field goal sealed the deal for the Broncos to remain unbeaten and to eventually go on a thrill us all with that crazy victory against OU. Congrats to them, they are an awesome team. Final score - Spartans 20 - Broncos 23.

Week 10 was like getting a kiss from the prettiest girl in the school, followed by being punched in the back of the head by the biggest, strongest, nastiest bully in town. We boarded a plane and flew to beautiful Hawai'i. I don't need to go into how nice it is there, but I will comment on how hospitable the people of the Hawai'i are. If you haven't gone, go? they are wonderful and they go out of their way to make you feel welcome. We were all smiles with our colorful shirts and pretty leis, and then the Warriors put on a whoopin' that we won't soon forget. Another team that can score at will and on that day, they did. All business. So good that I don't have any clue as to how an opposing team can travel over there and win. Ugly, ugly, ugly? Spartans 17, Warriors 54.

Week 11 found us in Moscow, Idaho. It was a cold and snowy day (but thankfully, indoors). And we faced a tough game against a tough team and a tough coach. My guys rallied and in the end, we finished on top after that nightmare game the week before. Spartans 28, Vandals 13.

Week 12 was the week we all had been waiting for, whether we would admit it or not. Fresno State, our bitter rival. It's tough to call a 12 game, 16 year losing streak a rivalry, but the Bulldogs of Fresno State was that must win to put the icing on the cake on a dream season. We had a lot to prove and even though we had already surpassed the expectations of everyone involved, the community as a whole wanted this win as bad as you could possibly imagine. The Spartans played brilliantly. Final score - Spartans 24 - Bulldogs 14.

At the end of the regular season we were 8-4, an accomplishment that exceeded everyone's expectations. But the best was yet to come. After our final game we accepted a bid to the Inaugural New Mexico Bowl in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Bowl game for San Jose State? when was the last time SJSU was in a bowl game you ask? Try 17 years ago.

Week 13? We arrive at Christmas time in New Mexico. The hosts of the New Mexico Bowl pulled out all the stops. The Bowl people do a wonderful job making sure that these young men get a once in a lifetime experience, and the New Mexico Bowl was no exception. They spoiled these kids.

Our opponent just so happened to be the New Mexico Lobos. A home field advantage for our opposition is one of the many things that can make a team uneasy going into a contest like this one. Similar to the Hawai'i trip, the people of Albuquerque made us feel like family and treated us wonderfully. Fortunately for us, unlike the Hawai'i game, we came to play. And, ladies and gentlemen, your San Jose State Spartans finished the day hoisting the trophy for the Bowl high in the air. Final score - Spartans 20 - Lobos 12.

So, the math on that one leaves my SJSU Spartans with a 9-4 season. As most of you were reading, you were probably thinking to yourself that this was supposed to be a kettlebell article and not some forum for some ego maniac strength coach to brag to the kettlebell world about various scores from a season he was part of. Right? So let me tie this all together. Rewind please?

We all know the outcome of the season. Now, did you know that the 2007 Spartans shut out 5 opponents in the second half of their respective games? Did you know that the Spartans mounted comebacks against Stanford, Utah State, New Mexico State and Idaho? And of those 4 games, 3 of them were by 13, 14 and 20 points, respectively. I bet you didn't know that.

Did you know that the 2007 Spartans, winning 31-10, snapped a 31 year losing streak to the San Diego State University Aztecs? Did you know that in beating the Stanford Cardinal on September 9, 2006, the Spartans, for the first time in 23 years, beat a PAC-10 team at home? I bet you didn't know that. Did you know that the last time SJSU won a Bowl Game was in 1990? I think I mentioned that.

Now, did you know that the SJSU Spartans do zero running/conditioning during practice in the fall? Did you know that the only formal conditioning that the Spartans do are the kettlebell swing sessions during the two mandatory lifting sessions over the course of the week? I bet you didn't know that. Have you ever heard of a football team that doesn't run/condition during the season? Now you have.

How and Why

I am not arrogant enough to imply that the kettlebells and my program are the reason for the huge success of this past season. On the contrary, I have already mentioned how hard these kids worked for me and what an amazing football staff we have here at SJSU. I know the role of tough kids and kick ass coaching, and we are loaded in both departments. But, take the Stanford game for example. We were down 20 points near the end of the 2nd quarter. Am I to believe that the Cardinal packed their tents at halftime and decided to come out and play tiddly winks with us? No shot. Our coaches made the necessary adjustments and the kids went out and executed. Oh, and their conditioning was such that they were able to go out and dominate the second half of the game. And this was not some freak occurrence. Five times the Spartans came out during the season after halftime and shut the opponent out.

In fact, anyone who followed us this season will tell you, as the season wore on, we got better. The kids got into the zone and we really flew around out there. Our team speed seemed to improve and we never looked tired. As a season reaches its final weeks, typically, teams tend to slow down because of the pounding they take. Injuries, fatigue, and the drain of school (because remember, these guys are "student-athletes" and are taking a full load of classes too) add up to a team that can't go like they did in September. I once heard that a football game is like getting into a car accident, in terms of the total impact of the repeated collisions. In that line of thinking, my guys were in 13 car accidents in four months, and we were in tip top shape and arguably stronger at the conclusion of the season than we were before we started.

So what do I attribute this to? Like I mentioned above, we don't do a formal team conditioning session at the end of practices. No formal runs of any kind. Yes we have full speed practices and there are periods during practice that are intense, but these are few because we are trying to save their legs for Saturday. Anyone who understands basic human physiology knows that we live in a world of adaptation. Whatever stimulus you introduce to your body, your body will make necessary adaptations for "the next time". This isn't just for a heavy squat or high volume pull ups? this goes for sitting on the couch and watching CSI. Your body will adapt to the inactivity? read the obituaries in your local newspapers? you will find the end result of that adaptation in every issue. So, ummm, we ran the pants off of these kids during the summer, and once training camp started, our running came to a screeching halt. So under the laws of human physiology, we should have started to de-condition and slow down. But wait? we sped up. We got faster and my guys had energy to burn in the 4th quarter.

Ladies and gentlemen, I will be the first one to admit, STANDING HIGH ON THE ROOFTOPS AND SHOUTING, that I don't understand the total intricacies of the kettlebell. I have two degrees and I'm certified out the wazoo and I can't make heads or tails of it. It defies all that is logical and goes against every grain of science that the traditional weightlifting research deems as law. Part of the sexiness of the kettlebell and the Hard Style of kettlebell training is that it giggles at the traditional. And more importantly, for me, my peers tend to smurk at the notion of us using them. We are silly and I have bought into some gimmick and I am wasting time doing some foolish exercises. Then they go back to their chains, stability balls and jump ropes and get some "real work done".

The swing is the perfect exercise. The next time you watch someone swing, take a mental picture of what it looks like, pay particular attention to the bottom or "loaded" portion of the swing. Better yet, shut your eyes right now and get that mental photo in your mind. Now, think of the starting position, pre-snap, of virtually every position on the football field. Weight evenly distributed, hips loaded and back, knees slightly/moderately bent, low back arched, upper back tight, and eyes up. Sounds eerily similar to the swing, doesn't it.

Finally, think about how the swings we do here at SJSU translate into victories on Saturdays. Take my summer, for example. 10 weeks or so long and we do a minimum of 600-700 swings a week. That means, over the course of the summer, my Spartans are in that loaded, football position a minimum of 6000-7000 times. And better yet, they have to bring the wood, out of that position, to get the bell to move. The reason the Spartans don't get tired is because we have trained them in a manner where, from a neurological standpoint, the movements, positions and actions of the kettlebell swing are identical to that of their sport. The CNS is so conditioned that when my kids step on the field, that "ready" position pre-snap costs us absolutely nothing because we have been there thousands upon thousands of times over the summer (and now we are in that position without the load of the kettlebell. Then, when the ball is snapped, we make contact with the opponent and extend our hips in blocking and tackling. Once again, this is a motion that we have done thousands upon thousands of times, in the summer, with a kettlebell in our hand. Again, from an "energy economics" standpoint, we don't have a high price to pay because we have done the work in June and July. Add a couple hundred swings a week during the season and you have a team who won more games in one season than the previous THREE Spartan teams won combined.

So, in conclusion, if you are training football players? swing. If you are training female volleyball players? swing. If you are training male swimmers? swing. If you are training MMA fighters? swing. If you are training baseball players? swing. If you are one of my opponents, get back to your Bosu ball training and "get some real work done".

Christopher R. Holder, MS, RKC Team Leader, CSCS is Director of Strength and Conditioning- at San Jose State University and has been a Strength and Conditioning Coach for 8 years now holding similar positions at Eastern Kentucky University, Appalachain State University and Cal Poly. Chris has been an RKC for over 4 years.

He oversees the strength and conditioning programs for SJSU's 16 Division I sports- all of who use KB's in their training to some degree or another. Three of the four person staff Chris is in charge of hold the RKC certification. SJSU will host the first ever non-Minnesota cert in the US in February 08. You can contact Chris at Chris.Holder@sjsu.edu