Evolution

You are an evolved human being, aren’t you? Well, you’re reading a bog on the internet. That must count for something.

Your evolution into homo sapiens involves a myriad of elements that distinguish you from lower primates. One of these is the opposing thumb. Apes’ thumbs only oppose the first finger, whereas we can oppose our thumb to all of our fingers. The evolutionary advantage of such dexterity is that we are better able to hold a kettlebell.

What else sets you aside from the chimps and bonobos? Your backside. While most primates have gluteus minimus, and gluteus medius that work roughly the same as ours, when it comes to gluteus maximus, ours is very maximus and those of the primates is still a bit minimus. Basically apes have no arse. The huge size of our maximus, relative to other primates, is what allows us to function so well as bipeds, since this muscles not only propels us forward but also supports the musculature of the lower back. And this, dear reader, is why you absolutely must train with the king of gluteus maximus, the kettlebell.

Your eyes. So beautiful. And such excellent colour differentiation. Many primates are ‘dichromatic’ and do not distinguish between the rich palette of colours available to us humans. The evolutionary reason for this, obviously, is to be able to pick out the right colour-coded weight of kettlebell in the gym.

Advertisements

Feeling challenged again.

So through the month of December I set myself a version of Dan John’s 10,000 kettlebell swing challenge, rose to it and, as our Premier League footballers would say, smashed it.

When the euphoria had died down, I had a think about jumping straight back into the deep end of Challenge Pool, and 30 days ago came up with a number that I thought would be a bit tough for snatches with that same 24kg bell.

Over the years I have stayed with the 20kg bell for my snatches. I once did 220 in 10 minutes (with multiple changes of hands). But I’d probably done 220 snatches with the 24kg in 10 years. Don’t judge me. 4,500 was going to be tough, I thought, being around 150 each day.

Well, I did it. 4,735, which works out at an average of 157 per day, although after the first pathetic day of 106 laborious efforts you might have bet against me getting anywhere near 4.5k. My main rules were to do a set every day and to avoid two sets in a day if at all possible. My main source of pain was my hands – not accustomed to 24kg bells. Right now they are calloused and tough  – and so are my shoulders, now that the pains have gone.

I’ll take a few days off the daily grind and let it all sink in, then come up with another 30-dayer. And keep you posted.

The grand old Duke of Huw, he did 10,000 swings…

Well the title of this blog says it all, but I’ll carry on writing.

On Sunday, the 27th of November I decided I’d get stuck in to a challenge laid down to the world by Übercoach Dan John. I mentioned it in Volume – up or down?. 10,000 swings in 30 days.

Today, 25 days later, I got to 10,260. So I’m pleased with that.

The vast majority of those swings were with a 24kg bell, and performed two-handed. Some were done single-armed, and I did a about 400 of the 10,260 with my 28kg bell. I’ll carry on for a few days – today is 21st December,’ll stop on Christmas Eve, so I might pass 11,000.

The good: I just feel stronger, especially around my traps, lats, and as you’d expect, my glutes, which feel like two enraged anacondas trying to writhe up my back. My chest feels stronger too, which I didn’t expect. Better sleep, better aerobic conditioning, although I haven’t tested that by, say, doing a 5k, but I do cycle from time to time, and notice a difference.

The bad: Dan John appears to have a strict protocol for this, doing 5 x 10/15/25/50 swings (= 500) for two days, then taking a day off, and I absolutely didn’t follow this, partly because I wanted to make this a daily thing, involving harder and easier days, and partly because multiple sets of 50 swings are slightly beyond my hand strength. Eating like a horse with a worm, so in no way do I have a leaner physique from my exertions.

I have really enjoyed this endeavour. It’s given me a sharp kick up the backside. I will go back to ‘normal’ training for a while, then do another one, maybe with 28kg, maybe adhering to Dan John’s protocol with the 24kg, or maybe even making every swing one-handed.

Keep it clean.

With the basics of the swing now embedded in your psyches and your corporeal memories for ever, or at least until I think of another annoying detail that needs clarifying, we can move on to the clean.

The clean is important, not only because it is (obvs) part of the clean and press, and clean and jerk, but also because mastering the clean takes you a good part of the way to mastering the snatch. And the snatch is ace.

As mentioned in an earlier post, the glorious kettlebell is mainly for one-handed use, and the kettlebell clean is a prime example. A great way to learn the clean is to start at the end. You get the bell to the end position of the clean, which is known as ‘the rack’ – just at shoulder height, level with and even resting on your collar bone. Here’s a picture of a nice man to illustrate.

cleanright11

Bell resting on forearm, wrist straight or even bent ever so slightly inwards, stern expression on face – all crucial. To get it up there, lift it any old how, with two hands; as long you end up as illustrated you’re fine. Then you drop your forearm, with a loose grip on the bell’s handle, and hinge slightly at the hips as the bell plummets earthwards, and you’ll end up in the start position for a clean – bell in one hand, arm straight, hanging between your legs as if to initiate a one-armed swing.

You’ll notice as you drop the bell from the rack that it flips over as your arm straightens. Pay close attention to this: you’ll have to get the bell to do that flip on the way up when you start doing proper cleans.

But for the meantime do no more than these ‘reverse, gravity-sided cleans’. Get the bell up to the rack, resting on your forearm, and let it drop, paying close attention to the path that the clever bell chooses on its way down. Swop sides regularly. You’re on your way.

Volume – up or down?

It is said by those who know about these thngs that if you did nothing more than kettlebell swings for the rest of your life you’d stay stronger and in better shape than most of your peers, who will be tottering around on A-frames, or terrorising the pavements on their mobility scooters.

If this is true – and I suspect it is – the question of volume raises its sculpted head. How many swings, and how often, will keep me ahead of all my buddies? Do we go for high volume or low volume?

For most situations, a higher volume of swings is better. The kettlebell lends itself perfectly to high-rep ballistic work, and you’ll get a good combination of strength, strength-endurance and aerobic conditioning from doing high volumes of work. Variables include the weight of the bell, duration of individual sets, and whether the swings are done two-handed or one-handed.

Low volume is appropriate when your needs are specifically related to developing explosive strength, for which kettlebell swings are also a good tool. Heavy kettlebells, short sets and a strong focus on making every single swing as maximal an effort as possible will reap great results.

Back to high volume, and here’s a great example. Dan John, a truly superb coach and writer, who wears his immense erudition lightly, gives us the ‘10,000 kettlebell swings challenge.’ So that’s 10,000 swings in a month. Minimum 333 swings a day, if you carry them out every day, and up to 500 a day if you take days off. I know these things are a little arbitrary, numbers always are – you could do 11,000 swings in 29 days etc etc – but we like an element of neatness, and when you think that it equates to maybe 20 minutes of fairly hard work each day, that ticks a lot of boxes.

Dan John’s format is: five sets of 100 swings, divided into 10, 15, 25, 50 reps, with a few seconds between efforts within the set, and a couple of minutes between sets; five sessions a week, which comes to 20 sessions in the month. He also recommends doing  a very small number of reps of another exercise, like dips or pull-ups, between efforts. As it stands, that format might be quite daunting, especially with a heavier bell. However, the 30-day format gives you loads of room to build into it, both with weight of bell and how concentrated you make the efforts and sets. So the more daunted could start off with a 20kg bell, and do 100 swings in sets of 10, for example, three or four times spread out over the day. You can do that, can’t you? After a few days you might progress to 5 x 100 in the day, then put two or three of them together until you can do 5 x 100 straight off. And within that you might use a 24kg bell for some of your shorter sets. There are plenty of ways to tailor it as you fitness improves during the month. And at the end of the month, according to Dan John’s test group of around 20 athletes, you get leaner, with more visible abs, greater grip strength, greater aerobic capacity,  stronger glutes and even gains in basic lifts such as squat and bench press.

Even if you commit to ‘a lot of swings six days a week’ you will still see the above benefits and gains. You might end up buying slimmer jeans and fatter kettlebells.

The (Un)American Way.

It never ends. There’s always one more thing.Even about the humble kettlebell swing.

I was working on kettlebrell swings with a client, and the subject of the ‘American swing’ reared its ugly head.

You’ll see a lot of these on YouTube, although I wouldn’t bother looking. No need for a vid or  pic – the (two-handed) swing carries on until the bell is overhead. My client asked if these swings were better than the swings I was painstakingly working on with him.

My immediate response was ‘No WAY.’ Then I thought for a few seconds, to try to analyse my instinctive answer, and still came up with the same reply, and strongly advised him not to use these swings. Then when I got home I read a little on it, to check again, and thought I’d write a quick post on the subject.

First, if the Russians had worked out over the centuries that swinging the bell overhead with two hands brought benefits, then make no mistake we’d all know about it. Kettlebell is pragmatic. Do what works.

Second, the kettlebell is mainly a one-handed tool. This is why it is so fantastic for shoulder strength combined with mobility when the bell is overhead. So we press it and snatch it and jerk it and high pull it, all one-handed, and shoulders reap the rewards. But a two-handed overhead swing is different – with the hands close together, as they are on a kettlebell, both shoulders oppose each other and reduce mobility. It’s not good for shoulder mobility.

Third, and most salient: the swing is all about the hip hinge. Whip those hips through to full extension and feel the bell float up in front of you. By the time the bell is at around hip height, your hips have done their explosive job and the swing is effectively over – you’re just waiting for the bell to rach its natural apex and then drop down again. Going higher than head height rearranges the biomechanics to the detriment of that crucial explosive hip extension. (And to the detriment of your shoulders and back, too). Instead of being almost totally posterior, a large anterior component comes in.

The arguments in favour of the overhead swing are taken apart here. There isn’t time or space, and nor am I clever enough,  to do that in this post, but it has to do with Crossfit and flawed assumptions.

So if you’ve come across ‘American’ kettlebell swings, I recommend avoiding them. If you haven’t come across them yet, make that ‘yet’ last for ever.

Practise your practice.

One of the great attractions of training with kettlebells, for me at least, is that not only are they heavy weights that require a lot of effort to move around ballistically, but also that the effort itself requires a fair amount of skill. Not just technique (things like how your wrist shoul be at the end of the clean, the hinge at the hips…), but less tangible things like co-ordination and timing, and an awareness of the quality of movement at a given moment.

Both technique and skill require practice. It is indeed like learning a musical instrument. techniques might include how to hold the instrument, how to get a clean single note, how to get chords, what notes constitute a given scale, and so on. Skills include phrasing, feel, dynamics. Both aspects require a lot of practice.

When you pick up your bell, even if to give it a few desultory swings, think of it as PRACTICE. If you’re still perfecting things like cleans, Turkish get-ups and snatches, then it’s far more effective to do, say, five minutes of PRACTICE than to do five minutes of EFFORT. It’s an important perceptual shift. You’ll still get stronger either way, but by viewing it as practice, by taking your time, by being prepared to stop and think about a sticky point, by focusing on quality above quantity, you will improve more quickly.

Knees bend, arms stretch, ra, ra, ra.

So we’ve got a well-rounded view of the kettlebell swing. It’s mainly about the hip hinge, and the energy created by coming out of that hinge nice and briskly is what gets that bell swinging.

I think the optimal swing is one with a minimum of knee flex and a maximum of hip hinge. This means that with a heavier bell, your back might be nearly parallel to the ground at the bell’s lowest point back between your legs. This shape puts the most emphasis on your posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, low back. This is a good thing.

Now then, it’s also possible to execute a good swing with MORE flex at the knee, and therefore less flex at the hip. This will bring the quads into play. This is also a good thing if you want to work your quads more. Maybe you find squatting uncomfortable or difficult, for example, but still need to develop quad strength for, say, cycling or hill running. And you’re not keen on dong a lot of cycling or hill running. Maybe you find the maximal hip hinge a little uncomfortable, and a little extra flex at the knee makes the effort less concentrated on the posterior chain.

So if you’d rather bend your knees a bit more, be my guest. Just be aware of the pluses and minuses of both styles.

Knee rehab

Quick post about an ongoing issue for me, and for the whole world of nigglily-injured (yes, nigglily) chaps and chapesses out there. Medial collateral ligament strain. That’s the ligament on the inside (medial side) of the knee. It needs to be rehabbed, and I’m using a combination of traditional rehab tools that seems to be helping.

 

img_0874

On the left, a lovely purple stability hedgehog. Stand on one leg on this spiky bundle of fun and feel your ankle and knee ligaments working to hold you stable. See how long you can keep your balance on it, and repeat, repeat, repeat.

On the right, a fairly new, unscratched, rust-free 20kg kettlebell. Lighter, say 16kg, is worth it too, but any heavier, I feel , is counterproductive.

I’m simply adding the kettlebell – held on the same side as the leg I’m standing on – to the one-legged stand on the hedgehog, and trying to stay upright for as long as possible. This might be just a few seconds if I get a wobble on, or I might manage around 20-30 seconds. Repeat, repeat, repeat. It seems to be working.

Three topics in today’s post: breathing, parking, and another topic.

Breathing while swinging. If you are doing a short sets with a bell that feels comfortable, then how you breathe doesn’t matter too much, any more than it matters how you breathe when you climb a couple of flights of stairs. Your breathing just happens.

If you’re doing a long set of swings, and/or with a bell that is at the heavier end of what is comfortable for you, then breathing becomes more important. You should be exhaling at the top of the swing, and inhaling as the bell passes between your legs. It helps to count out loud, so that you are breathing out in order to say the number at the top of each swing. Breathe in, swing, ’86’, breathe in, swing, ’87’. Ideally you should breathe out sharply and incompletely, as if coping with a piece of very bad news, like discovering that your kettlebells have been stolen.

Parking the bell is how you place it on the ground after your last swing (number 175!) You just let it go back between your legs, as if preparing for another swing, decelerate it and bring it forward gently in front of you, placing it softly on the ground. Easy to describe in words, a little harder to do, but a crucial part of your kettlebell education. I believe that on some kettlebell courses, not parking the bell safely after a set of swings causes you to be chucked off the course, removed from the building and never allowed to touch a kettlebell again.

The third thing is a little celebration of autumn – cooler weather is perfect for being outdoors with your lovely kettlebell. Palms less sweaty; you don’t overheat as the reps go up; there’s that crisp October feel to the air. Get out of the kitchen and into your back garden. And swing.