Technique, Repetition and Insight in Kettlebell Training

June 4, 2002 10:14 AM

The difference between strength training and the lifting done in most commercial gyms today does not come down to questions of how many sets, how many reps, and so on. The basic question "How much?" must be asked, but what is far more important than any set/rep scheme is technique. Technique is what differentiates a skilled lift from the mindless pushing of a weight in an artificially stabilized plane of motion. The former is an athletic performance worthy of admiration; the latter is like the activity of a lab rat running on an exercise wheel.

Yet how often do you see typical gym-goers concentrating on technique? Rarely if ever. Instead, they puzzle over elaborate rep schemes, the latest ab routine in Men's Health, and the dangers of doing chest work on a rainy Tuesday. These trainees are like 20-handicap golfers who worry about subtleties of club selection, wind direction, and the dimple pattern on their ball, when their principal concern should be swinging correctly and making contact.

In strength training, as in the martial arts, the most basic movements are subject to infinite refinement. Refinement comes not only from repetition, but from the active application of the mind to the task at hand. Each time we practice a lift, we have a new opportunity to reexamine the movement in its most basic detail and attain new insights. Often these insights depend on each other, such that we cannot have insight B until we have experienced insight A. For example, I was never able to understand the purpose of proper shoulder position in the side press (even though I theoretically "knew" what it was) until I successfully executed a bent press. The muscles activated by the bent press "told" me something about the side press that I did not previously understand, and my performance in the latter lift began to improve dramatically.

Some insights from kettlebell training

If you choose to follow only one principle in your training, make it this: pay attention! Below are some insights -- some quite counterintuitive -- that I've gained by paying close attention to my kettlebell training. Let me make clear from the start that I don't offer these as "tips" that you should "follow." Rather, I offer them as examples of the type of observation and thinking you need to do to improve on your own.

  1. To improve technique in your snatches and cleans, work on your weaker arm. With your stronger arm, you are too likely to treat these high-rep movements as "feats of strength" and yank strongly on the bell to execute them. Your strong arm could probably learn a lot from your weak arm, which fully aware of its weakness, takes a secondary role and lets the legs do the work. Practice your technique with your weak arm and transfer any improvements you manage to the strong arm. (Note, though, that when performing snatches and cleans you shouldn't let your arm turn to jelly -- it still needs to tighten up at the end of the movement to protect your elbow and wrist. See insight 3, below.)

  2. Technique in the one-arm snatch often improves as you become fatigued. This insight is much like the first. Properly executed, the one-arm snatch is really a movement of your hips and legs. These prime movers throw the weight upward; your arm's role is really only to transfer the forces they generate and guide the weight to its destination above your head. However, most trainees strain to "pull" the weight upward with the arm, especially in the initial reps, and keep too much tension in the arm and shoulder. Ironically, though, as the trainee gets more tired this becomes more difficult to do, and the technique actually improves! Hip and leg action is increased and the arm takes on its proper secondary role. The next time you practice the one-arm snatch for high reps, take careful note of your form as you become fatigued, and consider whether it is actually better than in your initial pulls. If it is, learn how to relax and use this technique from the very first rep.

  3. The rhythm of high-rep ballistic movements is "tight-loose-tight." In both the snatch and the clean, you need to be tight as you launch the weight, loose as you guide it upward, and tight again as you catch it above the head or at the shoulder. Tightness or tension is strength, but it is also the single greatest source of fatigue when doing high reps. To do more reps in these lifts, you need to learn how to to loosen as early as possible as you guide the weight and tighten as late as possible as you catch it.

  4. The bent press is essentially a reflex. There is no way you can "push" a heavy kettlebell up with your arm from the bottom bent press position. The triceps is simply not strong enough. The bent press is really a reflex of the lat muscle; if the lat is flexed properly, it will push the bell up as if by magic as you lean forward. As Comrade Trend (his family knows him as Richard-Anthony Morris) has demonstrated to me, the best way to get the lat to flex is to position the arm and shoulder as low and as far back as possible. It so happens that kettlebells are ideal for this purpose, because when you put one behind your back it hangs away from you and pulls your arm and shoulder down. This last point leads to the next highly counterintuitive insight ...

  5. If you are having a hard time learning the bent press reflex, use a heavier kettlebell (sic). This may sound crazy, but it works. If you can't consciously get the lat to flex, a heavier kettlebell will pull that much harder and make the lat flex. I'm not saying that you will immediately succeed in pressing the heavy bell overhead, but you will immediately understand what should happen during the initial movement. Once you've felt the reflex sensation, go back to your lighter bell and try to recreate the same feeling as you start the lift.

Cultivating your own insights

The five insights above may or may not help you in your own training, but even if they do not, that reinforces the point I am trying to make: that insight by its very nature is individual, cumulative, and experiential.

The insights we have or lack in strength training depend on our sports experience, our peers, our ability to pay attention, our reading, and any other number of factors. It is precisely this experiential aspect of training that most "experts" (though experts they may be) ignore when they dispense advice. Instead of teaching you how to learn, they arm you with a set of decontextualized and hence meaningless facts. The philosopher Hegel might have called this missing the whole for the parts -- taking isolated moments from a process of understanding and mistaking them for knowledge itself.

In practical terms, this means that no collection of handy "tips" from a more experienced lifter is going to take you where you need to go. To improve you need to understand the nature of improvement: i.e. that improvement involves working on a lift repeatedly, paying close attention to technique, and applying the insights you gain each time to that lift and all your other lifts. As a trainee you never know where enlightenment may be lurking.