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.

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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.

 

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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.