Monday, July 20, 2009

How To Have A Crappy ETK Practice

I know this blog has kinda become All Kettlebells All The Time, and therefore of limited interest to those who are not RKC hopefuls or otherwise obsessed with flinging around chunks of metal in a controlled and purposeful manner. And I promise that will change soon. I've got some other topics I want to address that hopefully will be of more general interest. So watch this space for my thoughts on the July Turbulence Training Reconstruction Workout program, Bethanny Frankel's Naturally Thin, Jon LeTocq's Fat Loss Action Blueprint, cake and zombies. Actually, I won't be talking about zombies, but only because my friend Josh Hanagarne aka The World's Strongest Librarian has already ably addressed the topic: (Actually, I would really love to know which classic books you'd like to see get the Pride and Prejudice and Zombies treatment. I don't necessarily disagree with Josh's selection of The Great Gatsby, except that if you've suffered through the 1974 film version you'd realize it has already been done. I mean, hello, Lois Chiles as Jordan Baker???)

For now, though, I'm sticking with the kettlebell theme because I have a point to make, which is that if you are on a program that was created by an expert, that has worked for hundreds of people, that is working for you, you should stick with it. Enter the Kettlebell! is such a program. Hundreds, maybe thousands, of men and women have gotten unbelievably strong unbelievably fast using ETK. I am one of them. A week ago I could not press 16 kg. Now I can.

One week, people. It's like being on steroids without the acne and hair loss and liver tumors and homicidal tendencies. (Not that I'm not homicidal about one week out of every month, but what woman in her late 40s isn't, if you get my drift? It's not Pavel Tsatsouline's fault except in the sense that he is male. If you are reading this and you yourself are male, ask your wife to explain. If you are female no explanation is required.)

At this point, you're probably wondering: if ETK is really so effective for building strength, why aren't there more people doing it? It's not particularly time-consuming, after all, and Lord knows it's not equipment-intensive. The workouts can all be done in about half an hour, usually much less, and the only tools you need are a kettlebell and a pull-up bar. And even the pull-up bar isn't an absolute requirement. So what's the catch?

IT'S HARD!!! Not necessarily hard in the "say hello to Pukey the Clown" sense--not most of the time, anyway--but hard in that it requires humility, patience, focus, concentration, and a very, very high tolerance for repetitive tasks.

There are only five exercises in the entire program: the swing, the Turkish get-up, the clean, the press, and the snatch. Five exercises. Twelve weeks. Not only that, but for the first four weeks of the program you only do two of them, the swing and the get-up. If you're a yogi who begins every day with the same sequence of sun salutations or a dancer who does the same set of warm-up exercises at the barre every class, that may not give you pause. But if you're like most of the exercisers I know, you'd rather stick a fork in your eye than do the same five movements over and over for weeks on end.

Of course, that's assuming you're even capable of performing those five movements safely and correctly. This is where humility comes into it. Even if you are a seasoned gym rat--in fact, especially if you are a seasoned gym rat--you very likely do not have the hip and shoulder mobility required for proper execution of the swing, get-up, clean, press and snatch.

Try this if you don't believe me: stand facing a wall, with your toes against the wall, and perform a full range of motion squat. How'd you do? Be honest. Did you manage to get your butt pretty much to the floor? If so, did your knees collapse inward? How about your feet? Were you able to keep your shoulders back and maintain a nice arch in your back? Unless you are a dancer, gymnast, yogi or martial artist, I'm guessing the answer is no. I mean, why would you? Most conventional weight training does not involve taking the joints through their full range of motion.

Does this mean you're not a good candidate for ETK? Absolutely not! All it means is, you've got some prep work to do before you're ready to pick up your first kettlebell. If you are highly motivated to learn how to use kettlebells, you will not be put off. But if you're like most of the people I train, you're probably thinking that kettlebells are for contortionists and you'd rather just stick with free weights.

But maybe you've got the necessary joint mobility already, or are willing to acquire it. Great! How do you feel about bruised forearms and ripped-up hands? Let me clarify: performed correctly, kettlebell exercises will not leave you bruised and bleeding. But when you are first learning cleans and snatches in particular, you will not perform them correctly. The kettlebell will swing wild and smack you on the wrist until you learn to control it. You will develop the necessary control with practice, and the bruises will help you do it. Think of it as aversion therapy. You could wear wrist guards, of course, but I personally believe you'll progress faster if you don't. The bruises are powerful negative feedback, and when they finally go away that's when you know you're starting to get the hang of it.

Or not. Which brings me to the subject of today's post. Right now I've got a lovely reddish purple mark on my left forearm that absolutely should not be there. What's good, I guess, is that I know exactly how, when, and why it happened, which means that as long as I am able to keep myself from repeating the same act of stupidity it should not happen again.

Here's what I did: yesterday was my ETK "light" day, meaning that I was to perform 5 clean & press/pull-up ladders, 3 rungs to the ladder, followed by 12 minutes of snatches at an "easy" pace. The ladders went well enough, except that on my final ladder I decided to test the waters by attempting to perform the 3 rungs with my 16 kg kettlebell. I failed on the second rung, but that's okay. I may not be strong enough yet, but I will be.

As if that wasn't enough, I then got it into my head that I wanted to complete 200 snatches in the 12 minutes, 100 in the first 5 minutes and 100 in the remaining 7. I didn't think it would be too bad. I mean, I've gotten to 170 in 10 minutes, so surely with another 2 minutes to work I could manage another 30, right?


The first five minutes or so actually went okay. I got to 100 snatches in actually a little less time than I needed on my previous attempt, which I think is because I've been working on controlling the backswing. But after that I was pretty gassed, and I could tell my control was starting to go. But because I wanted to get another 100 reps I didn't take the rest I knew I needed, with dire consequences for my technique. Because I practice in front of a mirror I could see I was screwing up, but I was too tired to keep it from happening. When I see that sort of thing happening with a client I call a halt to the session, and that's what I should have done yesterday, and what's more I knew it at the time. But did I do it? No, although I did at least have the sense to give up on my goal of 200 reps. There's no glory in getting to a particular number if the technique sucks. That's always the case, but it's especially true on a practice day as opposed to a test day. Test too much and practice too little, and your performance on test day will never improve.

So, that's where I went wrong. If you're doing ETK, or are interested in doing it, take my advice and do it properly instead of doing what I did. Your chances of success will be greater and your risk of injury will be less. Trust me on this.

I'm hoping I have learned my lesson and can go back to being a good example instead of a horrible warning.