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Interview with Senior RKC Chris Holder, Head Strength Coach at Cal Poly, Doctor of Chinese Medical Qigong Therapy


Dragon Door: You've used kettlebells with athletes and teams for almost 10 years, what originally inspired you to start using them?

Chris Holder: One of my mentors introduced me to kettlebells. Mike Burgener is an Olympic weightlifting legend who is now in charge of the CrossFit Olympic Weightlifting certifications. Back in the day, he was my mentor and I assisted him at his USAW workshops in Southern California. At one of the workshops, he started talking about kettlebells. He was already RKC certified and told me I would find a lot of value in it. I put it off for a year before he said I was basically wasting my time by not doing it.

So, I went to St. Paul in 2004 and the rest is history. After coming back, I made a big kettlebell order and started playing with and implementing them in my programs. Even though my programs for teams were based on a pretty strict system, we saw enormous increases in strength and speed. Our conditioning was ridiculous, and the only thing we had actually added to the repertoire was kettlebells. We knew we were onto something big.

Dragon Door: How did you add the kettlebell training to your programs?

Chris Holder: Worldwide, 99% of strength coaches do variations of the same things. So, my system and ideas were deeply embedded in the Olympic lifts—squats, deadlifts, and basics of all kinds. My speed program is actually my pride and joy—where I was able to differentiate myself as a coach. Initially, I brought kettlebells in as a complementary, auxiliary practice. Of course we were swinging kettlebells, but my other approach was to always use kettlebells as a substitute for other exercises when appropriate. For example, we started using kettlebells with pressing instead of barbells and dumbbells. Eventually, kettlebells became featured in our training.
At Cal Poly during recruiting, probably one of the first things we talk about are kettlebells and how we are one of the few universities in the country using them—there are others, but not many who are diehard kettlebellers like us. It’s how we differentiate ourselves and win games—training unlike the other universities. We don’t just use kettlebells, we are actually married to the kettlebell philosophy and RKC ideas. We implement those ideas and perform them exceptionally well.

Dragon Door: What is the greatest advantage of using kettlebells with your teams?

ChrisHolderRKCChris Holder: I think there's a depth of conditioning that only a kettlebell can provide. A high level triathlete can try a set of 20 swings with a reasonable size kettlebell and it will bury them. The type of conditioning you get from kettlebell work is very self exclusive—you can’t prepare for kettlebell work except by working with kettlebells. But, when you start doing kettlebell swings, you start developing incredible conditioning, the type of conditioning that translates into almost any other athletic endeavor. When I write programs, I make sure we train for strength, power, speed, the neurological adaptations from the swing, and perform high volume deep conditioning work. I am always looking for ways we can get an advantage.

For example, our football players just can’t get tired—they have to be able to go go go. In the 4th quarter, I can't be looking at a bunch of guys with their hands on their hips sucking air—we need to continue playing at a very high level. And what we've seen over the years training with kettlebells is that the kids just don’t get tired. Adding kettlebell training along with our normal weightlifting sessions and our speed program, creates a lethal combination.

The speed program is my baby. For running-based sports like football and soccer, I hang the physical success of my teams on my speed program. Speed is especially important at smaller schools where our athletes tend to be a little undersized—we will need to win our games with speed instead of by just being the biggest team out there. The kettlebells have been the perfect compliment to the speed training. I believe in the kettlebell swing more than any other exercise including Olympic lifting. Done well, and by athletes who understand the extension of the focus behind it will find that it is such an incredible transformative tool.

And so over the long term we’ve noticed a lot of benefits. Especially considering some of the trends we are seeing as strength coaches. Many athletes coming to us were born in the late 80s and early 90s, and we’re seeing a lot of hip issues—hip labrum tears and issues which in the past we’d only see in elderly populations—from so much sitting and using technology. But the kettlebell swing has helped us combat a lot of those unusual diagnoses. When I was a kid, we went outside, played, ran all the time, and were hardly ever indoors. The new kids coming into the program now just didn’t play like we did as children, they haven’t tried many different sports, and have often specialized early.

Many times we use the kettlebell swing as almost as a rehab tool to start opening up their hip flexors, get their glutes really activated. It also helps to start combatting some of the really weird cultural-epidemic mobility issues we’re seeing. About every 10 years, our culture dictates a new issue that the strength world needs to adjust to, and right now it seems to be hip issues.

Dragon Door: And you also have an extensive background in qigong, how did begin studying and practicing it?

Chris Holder: My first exposure to qigong was from John Du Cane at the RKC. I’d never heard of it, and was introduced to it when I started going to the RKC and assisting at RKC workshops. For a very long time I thought it was just a martial arts thing and since I wasn’t a martial artist I didn’t pay much attention. Then, I had a few clients who were yoga instructors who were so mobile that they were injury prone. With kettlebell training, I was able to help them get stronger, but over the course of our 2-3 year training relationship, they mentioned that a famous teacher was coming out of retirement who was considered to be one of the world’s greatest qigong masters. He was going to have a 3.5-year medical qigong doctoral program in San Jose where I was living at the time. One of the yogi clients (an anesthesiologist and doctor) said that this program would be the perfect complement to what I was already doing. So, on his trusted recommendation, and from what I had experienced from John Du Cane, I decided to look into it.

On the first day of class, it was obvious that I was supposed to be there—the universe was telling me that I was always supposed to learn this. I trained with Dr. Jerry Alan Johnson, he's my sifu and the director of the qigong program. I studied with him for a total of almost 5 years. I learned all kinds of things, not just qigong, I learned more about martial arts and a lot of spiritual/religious studies too. In 2012 I graduated with my doctorate in the program, and have a practice on the side. My specialty is oncology. The program was directed at cancers and we have seen some incredible recoveries with this little known method.

My thesis was directed at college athletes. Since Dr. Johnson was going to go back into retirement, we were given the option to conduct our studies on the subjects we were most passionate about, not just cancer. My study took 18 months, four in-season teams and over 600 hundred hours of treatments to investigate how regular (2x a week) qigong treatments impact performance during the competitive season. We worked on their sleep quality, focus, and stress about upcoming competitions—those kinds of things. Our results were just staggering. I am really excited about the possible opportunities with the RKC, because I feel like I’ve really married the two sides of Dragon Door—I am a hardcore kettlebell guy, a hardcore qigong guy, and I "get it". Many of our RKC brothers and sisters haven't invested any time in qigong, and haven’t yet realized that it is absolutely the missing link, and can completely seal up any holes in their training.

Dragon Door: Are you bringing qigong into your training with your collegiate athletes?

Chris Holder: Not yet at Cal Poly, since I have only been here just over a year. I am actually returning from a 7-year stint at San Jose State. Previously, I was at Cal Poly for 6 years before leaving for San Jose State. Now that I have been back at Cal Poly for about a year I am still in the process of establishing the weightlifting, strength, and speed programs, as well as our culture. I haven’t brought qigong into our programs at Cal Poly yet. But I did at San Jose State, where we actually did an extensive amount of it. I led entire teams through qigong practice as an add-on to our weightlifting program and we saw a lot of really great results. I kept it a little on the side because it is a somewhat obscure. Qigong self-practice can look a little goofy or dance-y and some athletes’ maturity level doesn’t really accommodate some of the flitty-floaty movements. But the athletes who were prepared for it and who had some level of understanding really saw the benefits.

Dragon Door:
What will you bring to your leadership role as a Senior RKC?

ChrisHolder at RKC2Chris Holder: I am a teacher by nature—I want to get out there, spread the word, and be involved in as many certifications as Dragon Door will let me do! I want to be very involved in getting the word out about kettlebells. One of my strengths as a coach is the ability to communicate information to large groups. I am really excited to have the opportunity to teach and assist the Master RKCs at future workshops and hope to be a good complement to what they’re doing.

I've also started to do a lot of writing and have sent John an article about mixing the qigong and kettlebell worlds a little bit more seriously. I want to help the masses understand how powerful qigong can be if they give it a try and let it happen. John Du Cane has put DVDs out for years, and I hope some of us have been smart enough to actually watch and try the techniques. If not, then they need to pause and really think about improving major aspects of their health, strength, fitness, and any other conceivable performance metric—because qigong can be a massive ally in improving them all.

Dragon Door: How can people specifically benefit from adding qigong to their physical practice?

Chris Holder: This is a little bit of a metaphysical answer. Most people are locked into their physical existence. While kettlebells are obviously great for the physical side—especially when we have our nutrition/diet dialed in—many people don’t understand that the physical is only 1 out of 3 aspects of a person. This is a very Eastern, somewhat esoteric viewpoint.

The three aspects are physical, spiritual, and energetic. The spiritual side is whatever sort of spiritual practice a person may have. While it is awesome that everyone spends so much time doing physical work and has such dedication to their bodies, it’s only 1/3 of the puzzle. All three aspects must be addressed to have complete, unified health. Qigong—depending on how you practice it, and who is instructing you—can actually take care of the other two pieces. It can balance and harmonize the energetic aspect, and depending how far down the rabbit hole you want to go, there can be major spiritual overtones to it. But, qigong is a complete system of self-care and there's a reason the Chinese have such great longevity, they have been doing the right thing for a very long time. For athletes, especially those in the RKC, it’s a shame that they haven’t been exposed to it in a bigger way, because there’s so much magic in all of it.

Most people don't understand that you don’t need to spend hours and hours meditating. The qigong self-care and maintenance can often be done in only 10 minutes a day, but makes an incredible difference. In medical qigong, we tend to be very effective with some of those diseases that Western medicine considers ambiguous and difficult to treat. Many of the qigong and Chinese therapies can be effective in those cases because we are coming from such a different angle that the problems become less complicated.

Dragon Door: Are you working towards any particular goals or projects right now?

Chris Holder: I am really excited about my promotion to Senior. I can remember getting my RKC in April of 2004, sitting in the airport next to Pavel, and asking him what it would take to become a Senior RKC. This has been something that I have wanted for a very long time—it’s a milestone in my life. Right now I am working on a lot of writing projects to share some of my unconventional ideas, and to start expanding on many of the ideas that I have discussed with John Du Cane about qigong and training.

ChrisHolderQigong thumbnailChris Holder can be contacted by email at (mention RKC in the email subject so your email isn't accidentally deleted).