Clarifying Hardstyle

April 29, 2010 07:43 AM


RKC is a "hard style" of kettlebell training born in the spec ops of the Soviet Union. In the 1970s select units adopted a karate-based style of hand-to-hand combat. The hard style of kettlebell training evolved in the 1980s to support the hard style of fighting. As in martial arts, the kettlebell hard style chooses "power production over power conservation." (Randy Hauer, RKC TL)

The statement above is from the RKC manual and provides a starting point for understanding what has become known as Hardstyle Kettlebell training. The simplified goal of this style of kettlebell training is to reverse engineer what the best in the world do naturally or through years of practice.

Within this School of Strength there are many pieces that create a whole greater than itself. Some of those pieces are: Kettlebells (our preferred tool), High Tension Techniques, Relaxation Techniques, Flexibility Drills, Joint Mobility drills and a drive to continually evolve and progress. Unfortunately, the whole has been reduced in the public arena and by some RKCs, to being ONLY about the High Tension Techniques. This is simply not true.

Yes, as a School of Strength the high tension techniques have a special place in the RKC system. There is no safer, or more effective technique I am aware of, for teaching people to not only be stronger right now, but to allow them to build strength for a lifetime. But it is only ONE part of the system.

For myself, I have been involved in the RKC from almost the very beginning. Attending the second ever RKC and becoming a Senior Instructor a year later, I have been teaching at the RKC for over 7 years. The evolution of the RKC, including the standardization of the RKC curriculum, is something I have been proud to be involved with, and I would like to take this opportunity to clarify and refine what is Hardstyle, and how that applies to both the ballistic lifts (swings, snatches, etc…) and grinding lifts (presses, squats, etc…)

Pavel laid out the High Tension Techniques in Naked Warrior if you are not an RKC and would like to learn more about them.

Within Martial Arts there are styles categorized as Soft Styles and Hard Styles. Soft Styles emphasize relaxation and looseness while the Hard Styles emphasize high tension. If the description stopped there you might walk away with the idea that tension tells the story. So hard style = tension.

But follow me a bit further…

In the Hard Style karate schools they begin with tensing all the muscles and then as skill improves the tension is "peeled" away to achieve perfect control of the muscles.

There are those that have stopped the story of Hardstyle Kettlebells at the "tense all the muscles" part have attempted to misrepresent the RKC system as a tension only system. But just as the Hard Style karate schools seek perfect muscle control and development of skill, the RKC continues from high tension to HIGH SKILL.

I wrote an article some time ago called "Can You Adjust Your Volume" that was all about finding not only the correct "volume" level for your tension but also the optimal "volume" level for your power production. And learning how to adjust your tension means you can chose the "volume" level at will thereby assisting you in achieving control of your muscles.

At the RKC we use a percentage drill asking the candidates to clean or swing a kettlebell applying a "percentage" of effort from 20% to 100%. This is also a drill used in boxing and martial arts to find the percentage of effort in a kick or punch that hits "hardest". In both the martial arts and kettlebell percentage drill people will find their best cleans or punches between the 65 – 80% effort range. Ball park it around 70% or so and you have a level of effort that results in powerful swings or punches that can be performed again and again. Note please that I said the percentage drill applied to effort or % of power production. You do not change the speed of the movement. So the punch or speed form and speed to not change just the % of effort applied to that punch or swing.

This means for ballistic drills you should be able to find 100% or maximum power production or find 20% and the swing will "look" the same. Then when you find your optimal % or volume level it will be powerful, athletic and repeatable.

But if you just stop there, you don't have the whole story because we have to talk about the Grinding lifts, the military press for example. The current standards for the Level 2 RKC include a half-bodyweight KB press, a standard worth achieving in my opinion. And to be able to hit that standard - of a near maximum overhead press - the high tension techniques need to be applied. Breathing, irradiation and other techniques are used to optimize strength and assist in the press. This is another area where certain groups have taken pains to stop the story at the high tension aspect.

Pavel recently posted the single best description of the use of tension I have read and I will use it here:

"our nervous system is guided by the 'dominanta', the single focus, in our case lifting a weight. Additional excitation (tension) feeds this dominanta and allows one to be stronger. Focusing on the tension and forgetting about lifting changes the dominanta, as it happens with a heavy gripper. So use as much tension as possible—without shifting your focus from lifting. This will take practice. In the beginning you will see a lot of 'coordination tension', beginner's stiffness during skill practice. It makes you weaker. As you get better you will learn to channel the tension into strength as a gymnast or a lifter."

This means you apply as much tension as possible without shifting focus from the lift. Then as skill improves you will learn to "dial in" the right tension to maximize the lift. Just as Hard Style martial arts begin with high tension and peel away tension to more optimal levels, the RKC teaches high tension to begin then refining the skill of the lift to try to achieve optimal.

But let's delve deeper and examine how this goes awry and ends up what I have termed "Uglystyle".

One of the high tension techniques is Power Breathing, which involves controlled pressurization and use of the breath to amplify strength (see Naked Warrior or Power to the People for details). The pressure and effort should be centered in the abdomen or center. Most people however allow the pressure to rise up into the head and face resulting in red faces and lots of facial tension. This is not the idea or goal of this high tension technique and can be detrimental. Plus the facial contortions certainly help project the "Uglystyle" look.

Another high tension technique for the press is squeezing the free hand to activate the inter-limb response and get a "bump" through the sticking point or extra help on a max effort press. Here the mentality of "if a little is good a whole lot is better" kicks in and people use the off hand on every press no matter the weight. While you should and can press a light weight using all the tension techniques it is only one style of press you should be practicing. So keep the squeeze of the free hand for sticking points and max effort presses.

Once you are pressing for volume, such as your ETK ladders, you focus on the press not on maximal effort. If you did try for maximal effort on every press: 1) the weight would always feel heavy, 2) you would never accumulate any volume before you fatigue. Now as you fatigue in volume press training you can begin to use PIECES of the high tension techniques to get in more presses but that is not how you approach every rep.

Overall in regards to pressing you could say that you only use as much tension as needed for the style press you are working on. It could be using high tension on a light weight. It might be a true max effort press but regardless you must keep the goal of pressing the weight as the primary consideration. When you do this your presses will look athletic not "uglystyle".

Another area that can create a lot of "Uglystyle" moves is the inappropriate use of the Viking Warrior Conditioning protocol. While it is a protocol meant to elicit a high VO2 max response it is not meant to change your snatch and swing form. When people get overly concerned with the RPMs (reps per minute) and sacrifice proper form or never practice a variety of snatches to balance out the effect on the body.

VWC is a speed based protocol so the lockout can become short and the tension of trying to go fast can alter normal smooth KB form. To counteract this you should:
  1. try to be quick out of the bottom not out of the top and remember the pull down comes from the hips and lats not so much the arm
  2. practice snatches with a long pause at top.
VWC snatches should still be athletic and fluid.

Hardstyle Kettlebell is fluid, powerful and athletic. It is not stiff, tense and "ugly". Hardstyle RKC includes flexibility, relaxation, strength, skill and athleticism and while tension is used as one of the techniques it is not the whole story. So in refining Hardstyle, I would emphasize the skill development from high tension to optimal tension, and the skill of maintaining the speed of a movement while dialing in the level of effort to create an athletic powerful result. Hopefully this has assisted you in developing a better picture of Hardstyle RKC Kettlebell training.

Brett Jones is a Pittsburgh, PA based Strength and Conditioning professional and Master Instructor with the RKC program. He holds the CSCS certification from the NSCA and is co-creator of the CK-FMS program combining the Functional Movement Screen and RKC. You can keep up with his blog at www.appliedstrength.com