The Kettlebell Manifesto

June 3, 2002 12:00 PM

Kettlebells have transformed me. After 8 months, I'm leaner & meaner-looking than some of the guys who show up on "Men's Health"-type covers, and I bet I could outstrip them all for general strength and endurance.

But now I'm sitting on my butt because of an injury that I brought on myself, and because of it I might miss a meet that I've trained for for months.

But during my layoff from the Boys (my bells), I've drawn some lessons about how I progressed to where I am, and how I could have avoided wasted effort and injury and progressed faster.

I lost fat very effectively, and I can sum it up in one word: CIRCUITS. For example: snatch, windmill, clean & jerk, one-arm overhead squat, and repeat, all with short rests. Switching movements keeps your muscles relatively fresh while you keep your heart and lungs working. This leaned me out VERY well. (During this period, Pavel even used me as his example of a revved-up metabolism in the KB book-I just couldn't eat enough!)

With circuits, experience taught me to set a moderate number of reps in each drill, and then stick to it for each set. After two or three circuits, if you're having enough trouble completing that many reps, then by all means DROP SOME. You don't want your muscles to poop out before your cardiovascular system does. When you're doing these, you should be having fun, not having a contest with yourself.

Since my injury, there have been just a couple movements I can do without interfering with my healing process, and I can't push them too hard either, so I've had to rediscover that playtime mentality. That's led me to something that has to be a great fat-burner, what some people call the Tabata method (Comrades, read about it in Clarence Bass' fine book 'Challenge Yourself' available from cbass.com -Pavel Tsatsouline). As an example, five clean and jerks, rest 30 seconds, then another five, then rest 30 seconds, and so on. For this, you should pick a pretty easy weight/rep combination. What makes it challenging is that your rest periods are so short. Even so, this scheme refreshes you. It will get you breathing and puffing, but the reps will feel good.

The important thing is to stop BEFORE your form gets sloppy. You want to train yourself to do high-quality reps, not reinforce sloppy form. If you still want more work, rest and then practice a different drill. Your muscles will still be relatively fresh for that lift, so you can continue to tax your heart and lungs while you continue to train with perfect form. That brings me to my other topic, which is?

What I did wrong-the key word here is OVERTRAIN. I started to put volume first, ahead of form. By this point I was training for a meet and keeping a log. My goal was to snatch the one-pood bell 100 times with each arm, and I figured I could do that if I raised my weekly training volume ever-higher. That's probably a good plan in the long haul, but I went too fast. I was so impatient that I let each day's training plan be determined by the numbers and ignored signals that I needed more recovery. What were the signs? The most important one was that my form deteriorated. My body got too lazy to do quality reps every time, so it started doing half-assed reps just to satisfy my demand for sheer volume. So one day last month, when I worked up to 81 snatches with the one-pood bell in competition format, somewhere in the home stretch I did one or more piss-poor snatches and pulled something in my back.

I reaped what I sowed. Hey, I'm all for pushing the limits, but this injury has taught me that the time for that is on competition day. That's the day when it's worth it to keep on snatching even after you can't feel your fingers anymore. That's the day when it's worth the risk. But from now on, when it's just me and the Boys out under the maple tree, I do nothing unless I do it in perfect form.

If I had gotten my act together sooner, not only would I have spared myself an injury, I'm convinced that I would have progressed faster. Yes, faster, because I'd have cultivated my strength-endurance, not burned it out. Also, I finally realized that training in bad form means you're training FOR bad form. That is, you're reinforcing bad, inefficient form, which will make for an inefficient performance at contest time.

So in concrete terms, what am I going to do differently now?

  1. NOTHING if I'm too tired to do it in perfect form.
  2. I won't grease the groove. I see now that GTG is powerful medicine that can backfire if you abuse it, and I don't have the intuition yet to use it well.
  3. I will take days off.
  4. I will get out of the "numbers" mentality. Probably, to avoid temptation, I won't even total up my tonnage until the end of the week, so that during my workout I won't be tempted to doggedly add sets and ladders even after I'm spent just so I can meet an arbitrary volume target.
  5. Each day's training will be a "practice session," not a "workout." I will not treat fatigue as an end in itself. My goal will be to 'practice' for success, not 'work' toward a burnout.
  6. I used to have training days that I called "volume-fests," where I just did ladder upon ladder of snatches and C&Js, and it was a contest with myself to see how much sheer tonnage I could put overhead in 45 minutes. This probably would have been okay to occasionally IF I had just backed off the volume on the following day to compensate. But instead, I'd feel so invincible that the very next day I'd go out and do yet another long, high-volume workout. And then I'd be surprised that I felt depleted for the rest of the week. After a few weeks like that, you're begging for an injury. Dumb, dumb, dumb. Now I get it: if I push extra hard one day, then I have to go extra light the next day.
  7. I will get back into the "playtime" mentality. I will pepper my practice sessions liberally with fun, wacky drills like Turkish get-ups, kettlebell juggling, walking on my hands, Sots presses, bottoms-up lifts, and runs where I drag a kettlebell by a rope on my waist. Sometimes, for the hell of it, I will do all my snatches and cleans from the hang, or from the ground. I play around with new things, like a two-handed juggle or a KB front squat or hack squat or repetition sumo deadlift. I will vary my rep speed more than I have in the past, and not care if it's an inefficient tempo that makes me do fewer total reps.
  8. On competition day I will be all blood and guts, but leading up to that, I will attempt precious few PRs, and if/when I do, I will only supercede my old record by a few reps. (In contrast, the day I pulled this muscle, I went from 67 snatches to 81 all at once.)

I hope my experience will help you have safer, more productive and fun kettlebell workouts. Get going, Comrade, it's worth it!