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Updated: 18 hours 49 min ago

What Chocolate Chip Cookies and Guinness Beer Can Teach You About Barbell Basics

Tue, 03/12/2019 - 10:16

On the flight home from teaching a StrongFirst Lifter certification (SFL), I was thinking about the programming section and some of our discussions. One of the questions that always gets asked is: “What about assistance exercises?”

My answer is simple—until you have spent at least a year working on the movements that we taught at the SFL, you don’t need assistance exercises. Why?

Don’t Mess with Great Basics

The reason lies within the title of this article. My mother makes the most awesome chocolate chip cookies. Her recipe has been in our family for generations. Every batch comes out the same—gooey, soft, very tasty, and oh so good! If left on the kitchen counter unsupervised, they magically disappear. My cousins don’t even let the dough make the oven—they eat it right out of the bowl. Chocolate chip cookies are delicious but very basic. Any attempt to change the 70-year old recipe leads to mini-revolts in many households. The lesson: don’t mess with the basics of cooking a great cookie.

StrongFirst-Barbell-CookiesDon’t mess with the basics

The same thing applies to the barbell squat, be it the Zercher, front or back squat. People in gyms around the world see someone else do it and go to a rack and attempt to copy them. Squatting or hinging down to the ground to pick something up, such as the deadlift, requires minimal introduction and is something that we have been doing since we learned to walk. However, when under a load of the barbell or kettlebell, the story is different. Hence the reason I said spending at least one year practicing the basics of squatting or deadlifting.

StrongFirst-SFL-Zercher-SquatZercher Squat—SFL Brisbane, Australia

Most people don’t like that response. They argue that doing the same thing every week gets old and monotonous. I answer back that each time they contact the barbell/kettlebell, they get that one baby step toward getting better. Getting better allows one to not only improve their performance in the gym but also in their respective sport. It also helps decrease the potential of an injury occurring.

Guinness, the draught version, was first brewed in 1759. It is still made the same way and produced by the same Guinness factory and shipped around the world. The recipe is the same and will continue to be the same for years to come and enjoyed by beer drinkers. They haven’t messed with the basic formula and don’t plan to.

GuinnessGuinness, since 1759

The same thing with the deadlift—around for many years and practiced by tens of thousands of fans daily. It is simple, basic, and (to some) boring. But these exact qualities are necessary to teach the student to hip hinge, to activate their lats, abs, and grip properly, and to get just plain strong with minimal equipment. Basic and simple, like Guinness beer, but highly effective in creating strength in the person who avails themselves of it.

StrongFirst-Conventional-Deadlift-SFLDeadlift—SFL Brisbane, Australia When to Consider Variety

Assistance exercises, or as we call them specialized variety exercises, do have benefits. They certainly help the student change the load parameters or relative physical stress on the body. They also help to address weak areas of a particular motor pattern.

However, one doesn’t generally realize they have any weaknesses in a specific motor pattern until after they have performed an exercise, like the squat and deadlift, for a good year. At that point, if they are my student and if they so desire, they can add a specialized variety movement that is just a hair different than what they have been doing.

For example, adding in pause squats with regular squats. This utilizes the same motor pattern as regular squats, but with a pause somewhere along the pattern route. Most people use the bottom of the squat to do this, but it can be done anywhere in the squat groove.

Front Squat—SFL Brisbane, Australia

However, if their squat pattern isn’t cemented by spending a few hundred hours just squatting, adding in pause squats will throw their form off and affect their overall squat technique (same with the bench press or deadlift). If they are either butt-winking or additionally hinging from their lumbar spine during the movement, adding in pause squats while performing the aforementioned abnormal motor patterns can have disastrous results.

Similar results occur during bench press board presses, say with 2 boards. Same pattern and set-up on the bench, but stopping the bar on the board(s) laying on top of your chest instead of your chest directly. Using this variation ensures a greater carryover to the main movement of the bench press. Again, if their movement pattern isn’t correct with the basic bench press, then it won’t improve during the board press, especially with the increase in weight used.

Get Great at the Basics

Someone once said that the main difference between the average athlete and the elite athlete is that the elite athlete can perform the basics that much better. Both athletes can do the basics, but the elites make them look so easy and effortless.

When my mother announces she is baking her delectable cookies, all hands are on deck to consume them. The same goes on my back squat days. It’s another day to train one of my favorite movements. The basics—they are fundamental, necessary, and very important for all levels of students and athletes. Learn them, practice them, and practice them some more.

The post What Chocolate Chip Cookies and Guinness Beer Can Teach You About Barbell Basics appeared first on StrongFirst.

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Reload vs Plan Strong—What is the Difference?

Tue, 03/05/2019 - 05:00

By Fabio Zonin, Master SFG and Pavel Tsatsouline

Earlier this year, we launched “Reload: Your Barbell Strength Blueprint,” a concise e-book featuring individually-tailored, nearly-foolproof strength programming. Some of our readers asked the question that became the title of this article. Here is our answer.

Let us start by clearly stating which training philosophy each represents:

On to the background and details.

Powerlifting Cycling: Progressive Overload, the Smart Way

Everyone is familiar with the concept of progressive overload. Tomorrow you will lift more weight, do more reps, or get the same work done in less time than yesterday. Next week, the volume, intensity, or density will be higher than this week… and so on and so forth.

If only getting strong were as simple as adding a rep or a pound a week…

Reality, however, has its own rules and timeline: if you keep going up and up in the name of progressive overload, you will reach the inevitable point when your body just calls it quits. Why? We do not yet know exactly, but nervous and endocrine systems’ fatigue definitely plays a part. Russian specialists concluded that the latter can tolerate only two weeks of hard loading out of four. Violate the “2 out of 4 rule” at your own risk.

Unlike many gym bros brainwashed by the “high intensity” propaganda, successful lifters are a smart and analytical lot. They learned to deload. “There were guys around who worked to their limit either on reps or singles all the time in their training, but they didn’t last long,” recalls powerlifting pioneer Dr. Terry Todd. “They either burned out or got an injury of some sort. Those of us who lasted and continued to improve found that we had to start out conservatively—to use light weights for a while and then go on to the increasingly heavier poundages. Then, following a meet, we’d always take a break before coming back, to begin with light weights.” 

This is the essence of powerlifting “cycling” or “American periodization” born in the 1970s and refined in the 1980s. Philosophically, it is still progressive overload—a linear progression—but one that complies with the body’s natural rhythms.

In power cycles designed by coach extraordinaire Marty Gallagher, you will see four-week phases abiding by the “2 out of 4 rule.” The weight starts light and goes up every week, typically matching an old rep PR in week three, and setting a new one in week four. This deceptively simple tactic produced some of the strongest men in history, from Lamar Gant to Kirk Karwoski. Other than the Soviet Olympic weightlifting system of the same vintage, no other training system has ever asserted such decisive and lasting dominance on the lifting platform.

The power of cycling: Lamar Gant stood up with 693 pounds at 123 pounds of bodyweight—pound per pound, more than anyone in history.
Set in 1982, this record is still untouchable. Soviet Weightlifting Methodology: Surprising the Body, the Right Way

The Soviet system, unlike cycling—or pretty much any other method out there—does not prescribe progressive overload. There are no goals of a PR triple in week eight and such. Instead, it employs Prof. Arkady Vorobyev’s revolutionary variable overload.

Specific numbers well within the lifter’s ability are prescribed. Here is an example from Plan Strong™ plan 501G for a girevik with a 40kg kettlebell military press max (one of the high volume weeks):

Intensity, and especially volume, whiplash from day to day and week to week in a very non-linear manner. And then comes the competition or test day—and you suddenly put up a PR. 85% of the gireviks who followed plan 501 pressed 44kg or 48kg eight weeks later.

Variable overload is the proven alternative to the bro wisdom of “constantly surprising the body.” Only instead of changing the exercises or lifts, which prevents one from getting traction in any one of them, the volume and the intensity keep changing. The exact loading parameters and the patterns of their change have been refined over decades of trial and error on Soviet weightlifters of all levels.

Which is Better?

Which system should you choose, Soviet variable overload or American cycling?

Both systems are second to none, as witnessed by their track records. Refer to Forward to the Past blog for details.

The power of variable overload: Yurik Vardanyan totalled 400kg in the 82.5kg weight class at the 1980 Moscow Olympics. This record still stands after almost four decades.

And both have their own edges.

The Russian system offers an unmatched opportunity for finessing one’s lifting skills to the elite level. Every lift is trained several times a week, mostly with loads heavy enough to demand respect yet light enough not to question your ability to lift them.

In contrast, the American system usually calls for much lower volume and frequency—and many of the weights are either too light or too heavy for optimal practice.

Of course, the negative is also a positive: the American system is much more time efficient.

Cycling works best when one builds muscle along with strength. Marty Gallagher’s classic guideline calls for eating enough to add a pound of bodyweight per week in a twelve-week cycle. A perfect prescription for one—and disastrous for another.

With Plan Strong™, the number of ~90% 1RM lifts is low—but they are practiced regularly. That means you are never too far from your peak. And you are always confident with heavy weights. In contrast, when cycling, you are going heavy only towards the end of a cycle, after months of not touching anything heavy. This could make you man up or woman up—or mess with your head and make you question your ability. And no matter how tough you are, the cycle gets progressively more stressful towards the peak and you risk burning out.

On the other hand, once you have run two or three Plan Strong™ plans back to back, you might end up feeling mentally tired. After all, for up to six months you have been handling weights above 70% 1RM at almost every training session and up to 90-95% 1RM on a regular basis. Your joints might appreciate a break too.

Thus, a cycling plan, with its several initial light weeks, will turn out to be very restorative for your body and your spirit. Your mind will be hungry for new PRs and your connective tissues will be ready to support them. This is one of the reasons why even the biggest fans of the Soviet system will enjoy the benefits of a good ole’ American cycle once or twice in a year. 

Plan Strong™ is highly customized—which is an asset and a liability. It takes an experienced coach four hours to write an eight-week Plan Strong™ plan for one lift (we also offer Plan Strong™ individualized plans if you do not feel like sweating with a calculator).

Cycling plans are much easier to write—but they are also much more hit and miss.

“[Cycling] works well for some, but I commonly hear lifters say they tripled more in training than they did for a single in a meet,” observed Louie Simmons. “Missing a peak is one problem with this type of training.”

The problem is, traditional cycling imposes the same rate of progression on athletes with different strength endurance—the number of reps they can do with 80% 1RM. As a result, two lifters with the same 1RM but different ability to rep out will have totally different experiences with the same cycle. One might undertrain and the other overtrain.

Enter Reload

At StrongFirst we enjoy the challenge of polishing the chrome of classic methods. We stand by “cycling” as one of the best ways to build barbell strength. We also recognize that even timeless methods benefit from periodic updates.

While cycling works great for many, it can fail others by imposing a cookie cutter progression rhythm. To tackle this problem, StrongFirst developed a series of straightforward tests and instructions that will enable you to build a power cycle just for you. While at it, we kept the original system’s spirit and simplicity. We tested and retested Reload. It delivered over and over.

Classic cycling has a tremendous legacy and it is with the greatest respect and humility that we have attempted to improve it.

In The Pleasure of Finding Things Out, the great scientist Richard Feynman wrote: “Each generation that discovers something from its experience must pass that on, but it must pass that on with a delicate balance of respect and disrespect, so that the race does not inflict its errors too rigidly on its youth, but it does pass on the accumulated wisdom… It is necessary to teach both to accept and to reject the past with a kind of balance that takes considerable skill…”

Get your digital download of Reload HERE.

The post Reload vs Plan Strong—What is the Difference? appeared first on StrongFirst.

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3 Simple Modifications to Squat When in Pain

Tue, 02/26/2019 - 09:21

Our bodies are built to adapt. How else would we ever develop the strength (mental and physical) to meet challenges or compete in sports, let alone recover from them to be stronger, more capable, more resilient than before? That means that our training can be hard. It should be hard at times. But what can you do when you have pain when you squat—especially given the all-too-common and frequently short-sighted advice to avoid all squatting? Here, David Cho, SFG I, Doctor of Physical Therapy, and CSCS shares three simple squat modifications to work around pain.

Preface: The following advice is NOT a suitable replacement for a hands-on assessment by a clinician. If you have pain, please consult a medical professional who understands YOUR goals and (hopefully) strength.  Once cleared, an FMS-certified coach can help get you started.

It shouldn’t come as a shock to anyone that training can (and should) be hard at times. It’s important to push our boundaries intelligently especially when we train for events, i.e. an instructor certification strength tests, the snatch test, or the TSC.

Now, what if we have pain? The typical reaction from many medical providers tends to be STOP. Why? They’re concerned about causing an actual injury. That’s good, right? The problem arises when STOP becomes “that movement you did is bad for X and you should never do that again,” and/or “you shouldn’t lift anything heavier than 10lb.” We’ve all heard it, and we know that in virtually all but the most extreme cases, it isn’t true. Avoidance of movement is simply not a long-term success strategy for most. Not moving, not training, and not doing anything are the wrong answer 99.7% of the time.

Ingrain that in your mind. Get it tattooed somewhere—I’m considering it.

But it Hurts When I Squat

Pain with squatting is a common occurrence in the performance field. Once structural damage or a required medical intervention is ruled out, we move on to rehab. Most programs will begin with manual therapy, isolated muscle strengthening, passive modalities (ice, heat, electrical stimulation, etc.), and other pain-reducing strategies. The problem comes when strength progressions are not implemented quickly enough. Rehab must be challenging to create positive change in the body. Current research has shown that our bodies require anywhere from 70-85% 1RM loads to strengthen tissues. This means our “training” weights can actually be our rehab.

Training and rehabilitation should not be considered completely separate. They are simply on different ends of the performance scale.

Rehab-Spectrum-David-ChoCredit to Greg Lehman and Jarod Hall So How Do we Safely Squat with Pain?

It’s simple.

Find a way to perform a different variation of the squat. It can be as easy as using a lighter weight (No duh, right? But how many of us do this?) or doing lower volume. Here are some of my other favorite ways to modify movements:

  1. Tempo
  2. Range of Motion
  3. Body Position

(I left out finding a proper instructor to assess technique and watch for movement compensations that you likely don’t know about because this should go without saying).


Tempo refers to the speed of your movement phases in a particular repetition. Most (I could argue every) exercise has a concentric and eccentric phase. In a squat, the eccentric phase happens when you lower yourself towards the bottom: your muscles work to decelerate your descent. The concentric phase is the reverse: you accelerate or rise up from the bottom. Select a weight that doesn’t trigger a painful response (hint: it’s heavier than you might think and remember that tissues strengthen in response to load). For most people, I’ve found that an appropriate starting weight can be anywhere from 50-70% of their training max depending on the severity of their discomfort. Now make the concentric and eccentric portions last longer than normal. I typically stick with the 5-6 sec range. To further clarify, take 6 seconds to lower into a squat and then take 6 seconds to rise back to your starting position. There is a third type of muscle contraction to consider—the isometric—that happens between the eccentric and concentric phases (or vice versa). For the squat, it’s the hold (if you include one in your tempo) at the bottom, between going down and coming back up. Isometric exercises are such a terrific rehab tool that I’ll save discussing them for their own future article.

Range of Motion

Remember when we all judged people doing half squats? Well, there’s some value to them. I use them all the time with people who have knee pain during squats. Again, don’t forget the primary purpose of these modifications: it’s to reintroduce movement patterns and load them in a safe manner where they do not feel pain all the time. If that means having someone squat 70% of their 1RM to a high box, then great! Be patient. You’re still getting stronger and, more than likely, building a better base than you ever had before.

Body Position

So what if it hurts to do anything standing? Try seated variations. That hurts too? Try lying on our back or stomach. One of my favorite movements to recreate a squat is rocking. It’s very easy. Set yourself up on hands and knees. Keep the eyes looking forward and simply sink your hips back toward your heels.  

Squat-Rock-Forward-David-Cho Squat-Rock-Back-David-Cho

What does this look like? A squat! We can progress this position by simply placing a swiss ball against the wall and rocking into it.

As you might’ve already noticed, you can use all 3 modifications in conjunction and apply them to nearly any movement.

We can spend hours discussing many of the topics I’ve brought up in this article, but hopefully, I’ve given some actionable techniques that you can keep in your toolbox whenever needed. Please reach out to me if you have any questions.

The post 3 Simple Modifications to Squat When in Pain appeared first on StrongFirst.

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Two Swing Cues to Unlock your Power, Posture, and Athleticism

Tue, 02/19/2019 - 08:00

There is a big difference between swinging a kettlebell around and executing a powerful kettlebell swing. The first is common with kettlebell beginners who often start by mimicking what they think they are supposed to do. But learning where and how to focus their efforts, and what that power feels like, well, it leads to a lot of ‘aha’ moments. And we never get bored of those. Read on to explore two cues that might help you or your students get that feeling.

If you’re here, you probably already know that kettlebells can be pretty powerful tools for change. The first part of this article talks a little about how the kettlebell (particularly the swing, Turkish get-up, and goblet squat) changed the quality of my movement (and life). Part two includes a couple of tips that I think can vastly improve the quality of your swing in a hurry.

StrongFirst-Two-Hand-Swing-2 Part 1: My Story—How Kettlebells Improved my Posture and Injury-Proofed by Body

Almost a decade ago I purchased my first set of kettlebells. I was playing a lot of football (soccer) and touch football (like rugby league, not gridiron), but I wasn’t strong and nagging hamstring issues hampered my performance. I wanted to get stronger.

I decided against joining a gym. Instead, I allocated two years’ worth of membership fees towards setting one up at home with a power rack and weights. I was satisfied. But then I got an email. It made wild claims about kettlebell training—android-like work capacity, back like iron, etc. I thought if these things are even half as good as they say, I’ll be pretty happy.

I got the bells, gave them a try, and… was rather disappointed. They were ok, but I wasn’t getting anywhere near the promised outcomes.

Then I heard that an expert instructor was coming to Brisbane to teach a kettlebell course. I thought, why not, I might as well learn to do it properly before I dismiss it.

We covered three movements, the Turkish get-up, swing, and goblet squat. It only took me a few weeks of mindful technique practice before discovering that my posture had improved, my performance improved—I was scoring ludicrous numbers in both football and touch football—and my hamstring issues had all but disappeared. From “only” three skills. Now I was excited.

My gains encouraged me to develop more skills. First from Master SFG Shaun Cairns, and then later, from Pavel himself in St. Paul, MN. I traveled there multiple times to learn as much as I could.

I believe a few key factors contributed to my transformation from weak, nerd body to relatively strong, useful human body. One of them was the kettlebell swing.


The swing is crazy powerful. But people, especially kettlebell beginners, often miss out on some of its benefits because they fail to realise its power as a full body exercise. The swing is an amazingly comprehensive exercise because it strengthens so much: grip, glutes, hamstrings, quads, lats, and abs.

I’m constantly seeking ways to help my students to feel that power so they get the most out of their swings. What follows are two cues I have found equally helpful for beginners and seasoned swingers alike. Beginners because they don’t know what a good swing feels like yet. Seasoned swingers because once you get good at something, you don’t have to think so much and therefore, can zone out. Have a read, have a play, and leave questions or comments below or on our StrongFirst online forum.

Part 2: Two Cues to Get a Lot More out of Your Swing

You may not know this, but there are multiple muscles in our posterior assets—our glutes (visual inspection of your nearest human will confirm this, but there are actually more than two). When we swing, we want to stay as tall as possible and fire off as much of this musculature (as well as the rest of your posterior chain) as we can, ensuring a good, tight pelvic lock. This helps to generate power in a way that benefits our lower backs (especially relevant for those who sit a lot, don’t walk much, and generally behave like 21st-century humans).

Through the years teaching our system, I’ve used a variety of cues—“squeeze your butt,” “crack a walnut,” “mint a coin,” “try and touch your pelvis to your belly button,” and so on. Because not every cue works for every student, finding the perfect one to help them connect with this incredibly powerful position could be a long process. Since I want people to grasp things quickly, particularly when it’s going to be as beneficial as the swing, I knew something in my toolbox was missing. So when I heard this next cue, I was pretty stoked to add the new language to my coaching kit. Not just because it worked with almost everyone, but also because it boosted my own swing power.

Pelvic Floor

Currently, your pelvis is likely resting on a chair (if not, imagine it is). If you are sitting up straight, the patch of skin between your ‘sit bones’ resting on the seat is called your perineum. At the top of your swing, if you can maximise your muscular contraction around this area, you’ll notice a significant boost to the force of your glute contraction.

Essentially, I cue my clients to get their glutei to ‘hug’ or compress down around their pelvic floor. Once you’ve contracted the musculature around there, you’ll be pleasantly surprised to discover that your pelvis has situated itself in a full, powerful lock position.

StrongFirst-Two-Hand-Swing-3 Rhomboids

Something else that can de-power the swing is when students don’t fully understand the shoulder packing cue, so they keep their shoulders cemented back and down all the time. Shoulder “packing” is often the victim of “good cue gone wrong.” There is a huge difference between connected and cemented. Keeping your shoulders packed to avoid shrugging or arms hanging off of soft tissues is a good thing. Packing that restricts the natural movement of your scapulae is not. A misplaced emphasis on keeping an incredibly closed position can lead to cranky shoulders.

Ultimately, there is so much going on in a person’s swing that to get their lats active (critical in so many movements) without restricting the rest of their back’s ability to perform beautiful movement is a challenge. So what cue do I use here? 

It turns out that the beauty of irradiation means that I can have active lats without compromising the surrounding musculature’s movements. My cue is to focus instead on actively holding their rhomboids (not crushing them, just actively engaging them).

Where are your rhomboids? The point that I identify for my clients to ‘squeeze’ (done correctly, very little on your back will move, you’ll just feel this area become tight) is directly between the bottom of their scapulae. Follow the line of the shoulder blade until its lowest point, and then run a straight line until you’re almost at the spine—like where you’d attach a heart rate monitor strap. This is the spot that you want to get active. It’s great because it should remain fairly constantly active throughout the movement, and doesn’t have any of the moving parts directly attached to it.

By cueing this spot instead of anywhere else, I’ve noticed that people find it easier to retain their posture at the bottom of the swing, and that they don’t tend to have as much ‘chicken necking’ at the top—both things that seem to greatly impair power production. If I can kill two power-stealing habits with one cue, that’s a big win.

Cues in Action: Your Turn

Hopefully, these cues are simple and clear enough that you can give them a try. Try them out and let me know how they go for you. Also, have a think about the first one and see if you have a more delicate way to describe it, so that my daughter doesn’t die a little inside as she gets older and hears me yelling about people’s ‘perineum’ across the room. While I believe these are great starting points, they are just that—the start. If you want to get the most out of your kettlebell, you would benefit from taking a StrongFirst kettlebell course or by learning from a StrongFirst certified instructor near you—expert eyes and personalized coaching to get you moving well quickly. These cues are a good place to start before you get there.

The post Two Swing Cues to Unlock your Power, Posture, and Athleticism appeared first on StrongFirst.

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7 Tips to Improve your Heavy Press (Learned from my Failure)

Tue, 02/12/2019 - 05:00

A press is like an iceberg—there’s a lot going on underneath the surface.

What can you learn from failure? A lot. Especially when it comes to dialing in a heavy press. Used wisely, failure helps you focus on improving your skill by looking at all the parts that feed success. One man shares seven pressing “problems” that kept him from pressing half-bodyweight and the programming tips, tools, and drills that earned him his SFG II.

“Don’t fear failure. Not failure, but low aim, is the crime. In great attempts, it is glorious even to fail.”

Bruce Lee

In February 2017, I was in final preparation for the Pacific Northwest SFG II certification. I was already hooked on the StrongFirst system, having passed both my SFG and SFL in 2015, and had been training the SFG II skills almost daily for about six months. All skills, both Level I and Level II, felt dialed in and ready to go.


The SFG II strength requirement was another story. Men must single-arm press the kettlebell closest to 1/2 bodyweight, and women, the kettlebell closest to 1/3 bodyweight. Given my 166lb weight at the time, the 36kg kettlebell was to become my new best friend.

I started my pressing program with a simple linear progression, working up from the 24kg with an increase in overall training volume (pressing 3x/week for 20-30 reps each side with progressively heavier weight). I used various Platemates (magnetic mini-weights that would “hang” onto the side of the kettlebell) to gradually increase the load so I could train heavier than the 32kg bell once I felt ready to do so.

Two months out, I could press 35.14kg (a 32kg kettlebell with a couple Platemates attached). I figured I was in the zone for the 36kg if I just kept at it a little longer.

If this were a Rocky movie, this would be the “overconfident” phase where the protagonist assumes it will all just work out somehow. The end of Act One.

Enter the Certification

Arriving in Portland the day before the certification, I hadn’t actually pressed the 36kg yet. My attempts in the weeks leading up to that day were unsuccessful. Somehow I was still confident it would “just happen” on the day. I was relying on adrenaline to get the remaining 0.86kg I needed.

First attempt on the right… barely moved. First attempt on the left… moved a little.

I’ve always needed a long warm up before pressing heavy, so I still thought I had a shot. Unfortunately, I didn’t. My second and third attempts on both arms came a little closer, but not close enough to bust through the sticking point.

I still had an entire weekend of practice and testing to come (not to mention a snatch test starting in about 10 minutes) so I decided at that point to conserve my energy. I was already obsessively running through what had gone wrong in my preparation.

This is the moment of reckoning that results in humility and self-reflection. The end of Act Two.

Seeking Expert Help

The week after the cert, I deloaded and decompressed—sort of. The only thing I could think about was this confounded press. I spent the entire week stewing, researching, and formulating a plan of attack for the next couple of months to get this thing done. After, I met with my coach, Master StrongFirst Instructor Andrea U-Shi Chang—owner of Kettlebility, a StrongFirst Accredited Gym in Seattle, Washington—to troubleshoot and formulate a better plan.


She had me press the 24kg, 28kg, and 32kg kettlebells, and then attempt the 36kg while she closely watched. Andrea zeroed in on three things.

I was rushing out of the clean and trying to blast the bell up too quickly. Why? Because I wasn’t comfortable holding such a heavy bell in the rack for any period of time. So I panicked to get that heavy thing up and off of my body—fast.

I also wasn’t cleaning to a great starting rack position—I was trying to counter-balance the heavy bell by flaring my elbow out to the side. I was wasting precious time getting into a good vertical elbow position before pressing.

And I was losing tension throughout the grind—especially becoming a “wet noodle” at my sticking point. I thought I was maintaining my cylinder from the clean to the rack to the press. But I wasn’t. Andrea saw it and called me on it.

Rather than simply identify faults, we designed a new plan for the next couple of months to address my heavy pressing issues.

1. Cleaning and Racking

As we say at StrongFirst, your press is only as good as your clean. In the SFG Level I manual, there’s an important line (they’re all important) that states that you need to tighten your whole body on impact from your feet to your quads, glutes, abs, and lats before “pushing yourself away” from the kettlebell.

To train this, we used heavy cleans and squats 2x/week with 40kg and 44kg (one to two bell sizes higher than my press bell target). One swing, then two cleans, and then three squats; repeated three times on each side. This is one of Andrea’s tried and true, go-to protocols along the path to a max press. Once I was comfortable holding the 44kg in the rack for 30 seconds, the 36kg felt like a paperweight (sort of).

StrongFirst-Press-Training-with-Squat 2. Foot Position

Wasting too much time adjusting my feet after the clean, I was unnecessarily increasing my time under tension with a heavy bell. I also wasn’t stacking my hip under the bell.

Instead of cleaning with my normal swing stance, we adjusted my foot position so I started in my press stance (much narrower)—I didn’t have to adjust my feet at all. Yes, it felt awkward at first. But I got used to it. We also drilled stacking my hip (a subtle but important weight shift) under the bell prior to pressing it.

3. Maintaining Tension

“You cannot shoot a cannon from a canoe.” I needed practice staying tight through my sticking point for as long as it would take. We added hard style planks prior to training sessions to dial-in the tension I’d need for pressing.

I also performed heavy one-arm swings, to help with anti-rotation and my vertical plank. I used swings for strength and power production, not for conditioning—five reps at the top of the minute for 30 minutes with 44kg 1-2x/week.

4. Pressing Groove

I wasn’t maintaining a vertical forearm and “rocket boosting” up from the elbow. So we added bottoms-up training with lighter bells (12kg-16kg) prior to each training session to reinforce the pressing groove with a vertical forearm. A “spice” rather than the “main dish,” it was a great way to start each session.

5. Sticking Point

To address getting through the sticking point, we added two things:

A) Push down partner drill with 12kg. This remains one of the most heinous things Andrea has ever had me do—another one of her battle-tested favorites. A partner stood over me on a stool while I pressed a light bell, keeping it from moving just prior to, at, and just after my sticking point—before letting the bell continue up to lockout. I did this 1x/week for three sets of two to three reps.

B) Stair-step drill with 24kg. No partner required, thankfully. Using a 24kg bell, I would press to various positions and hold for five seconds before stepping back down to the previous position, and then pressing up to the next step. I did this 1x/week, performing three sets of single reps on each side.

6. Bell Sizes

Jumps between bell sizes can be used to your advantage. Andrea had me put the Platemates back in the closet and instead do heavy negatives 1x/week (two to three reps/each) with a 40kg bell. Since I couldn’t yet cleanly push press the 40kg kettlebell, she actually had me push press it up with two hands.

For more information on why the jumps between bell sizes can work in your favor, read Pavel’s post. From a barbell perspective, you can read all about the pitfalls of “baby step” load progressions in Fabio & Pavel’s new ebook Reload.

7. Volume

“To press a lot, you must press a lot.” In addition to the accessory work listed above, we knew I needed to get under some heavy bells. We started with heavy, pause 1/2 getups—10 second pauses at the elbow, the hand, and the elbow again before switching hands—aiming to do as many as possible in 10 minutes with good form. I eventually built this up to 2x/week using a 44kg bell for six rounds on each side.

And in the six weeks leading up to my retest day, I did Soju and Tuba with a 32kg bell (a step/wave hybrid cycle), eventually building up to six sets of three reps prior to tapering and testing.

Andrea was my Apollo Creed (Rocky III). She was bringing me back to life from a stunning defeat. By this point I was eating and breathing the process.

Retest Day

It’s now June 2017 and I had been working the plan for a little over 12 weeks. I trusted the process and all the work I had put in. After a short taper of a couple of days, I felt ready to attempt the press again for the first time since February. 

When I setup to clean the bell this time, I didn’t fear the weight on my forearm or the sticking point. I knew I could do it. After my solid clean, zero footwork, and plugged tension, the bell shot up with very little slow down—and I screamed at the top of my lungs like a little kid (seriously).

Arms up in the center of the ring, crowd cheering, credits roll. Act Three over. Movie over. Rocky overcomes the odds.

StrongFirst-Mike-Torres-SFGII Fast Forward: A Pleasant Surprise

About six months later, in January 2018, I was coming off of eight weeks of Strong Endurance™ 044 (heavy snatches). I hadn’t pressed heavy since my retest preparation—I needed a mental break. I started SE-044 with a 28kg bell. On Pavel’s advice, I bumped it up to 32kg, doing five reps every 60 seconds instead of every 30 (I would eventually bump up to the 36kg).

One morning, after 120 snatches with 32kg, I stood over the 36kg kettlebell knowing I could press it easily, despite the total absence of pressing in my program. It had been a full six months since I had pressed heavy, but that bell went up easily on both sides. When I let Pavel know about this, he confirmed that there had been a number of military press PRs reported with this plan.

Looking back with what I know now, not making that original press was a gift, not a failure. If I’d made it, I could have stayed oblivious to all those leakages that kept me from getting truly stronger, rather than just lifting more. Strength really IS a skill. And since you can’t always see/feel what needs improving, even coaches need coaches.

Post-credits scene hinting at lots more to come. A sequel perhaps.

The post 7 Tips to Improve your Heavy Press (Learned from my Failure) appeared first on StrongFirst.

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The Bottoms-Up Experiment

Tue, 02/05/2019 - 05:00

Want to forge an iron grip that lasts (which can be one of the quickest ways to improve your deadlift, pull-ups, and snatches)? Improve your press and squat groove? Challenge your midsection? Train pesky and often cranky shoulder stabilizers? Then bottoms-up work could be the movement prescription that your training program needs.

The kettlebell is the most versatile fitness tool ever created. The elegant simplicity of this functional training tool should not be understated. Whether lifting, carrying, swinging, pressing, holding or throwing, the humble kettlebell can do it all. Even using it upside down with the bell between your hand and the sky is an option. Today we will focus on this “bottoms-up” (BU) position.

Whether you don’t have a heavy enough bell to challenge your press, or you wish to work on grip strength endurance, or maybe you are rehabbing a shoulder injury and need to train those small pesky stabilizers, using the kettlebell in the bottoms-up position can address many of these issues.

In this article, I will share a bottoms-up program as well as a few hints, tips, and tricks that I picked up along the way in my own BU self-experimentation.

Before Going Bottoms-Up Prerequisites:
  1. You must be comfortable cleaning, pressing, and squatting with one and two kettlebells. If you are new to training with kettlebells, are still finding your pressing groove, or are working on comfort with the single-sided front squat, continue practicing until you reach the SFG I instructor standards.
  2. Next, you should be able to confidently clean a single kettlebell BU and hold it in the rack for several breaths without acrobatics.
  3. From your solid BU rack position, you must be able to press the kettlebell for repetitions.

If you are shy on any of these prerequisites, be patient and groove the skills. You, your wrists and shoulders will be happy you did.

It is going to be very important that you find the right size bell for your abilities. There is a fine line between too light and too heavy when it comes to using the kettlebell in the BU position. Take your time and find the “right” bell. Starting with something you can strictly BU press 6-8 times is a good gauge. However, be open to adjusting the bell size—down or up—as you get into the program. There is a little room for “speed wobble” with this program, as long as this doesn’t affect the bell path or your body position. If it does, consider dropping the weight to maintain the integrity of your groove.

Three Tips for a Solid Bottoms-Up Position

As you start to play with the bottoms-up position, there are a few things that will make your life a little easier.

First, ensure that your forearm, wrist, bell handle, and bell all make a straight line. If they don’t, you won’t stand a chance of pressing your bell in a stable and safe position. A good test—either by visualization or trial—is to be sure that you can do a push up on the handle. This will put you in a good starting position.

The tall image on the left represents straight alignment.

Another trick I’ve found helpful is to move your hand to favor the curve of the handle that is farthest away from you. I’m not saying wrap your hand around the curve, but rather set your hand up so that your thumb is close to the opposite side of the handle to give you a little more control over the bell. As you become more comfortable or desire a greater challenge, you can begin to move your hand closer to the middle of the handle.

Find the grip placement that gives you the best stability.

The last game changing tip I stumbled across through trial and error was to involve all my fingers as I gripped the handle. The index and middle fingers will grip reflexively, yet you may need to think about engaging your ring and pinky fingers, too. Grip the handle hard with all fingers and you will lock the bell in place.

Bottoms-Up Training Experiment

Now that we know what we need to know, and have practiced, we can move on to the training experiment.

Below is a ladder-style program inspired by the Total Tension Complex, where the volume and density stay consistent with waving intensity. All reps are performed in the bottoms-up position:

All reps are performed in the bottoms-up position. Set A: Ladder up Presses
  • Set A1: Clean a single kettlebell into the bottoms-up rack position on the right side. Perform one press followed by a squat, swing switch and repeat on the left side.
  • Set A2: Swing switch back to the right, do two presses follow by one squat. Swing switch to the left side and repeat.
  • Set A3: Swing switch back to the right to finish the set with three presses and one squat. Swing switch and repeat on the left.
  • Rest. Once you’ve completed all three sets on both sides, park the bell and shake out the tension in your hands, arms, and body with fast & loose drills. Rest as needed.
  • If you cannot complete all reps on both sides without putting the bell down or without maintaining the BU position, consider dropping down a bell size, or trying one of the other “intensity” options below.
Set B: Ladder up Squats
  • Set B1-B3: BU clean the bell on the right and complete the same format laddering up the squats instead of the presses.
  • Again, if you are unable to maintain a stable BU position for the duration of the set, consider adjusting the intensity.
  • Rest.
  • With a pair of bells equal to or one size larger than what you just used, perform 5 double BU cleans, holding the top position for 5 seconds.
  • Rest as much as needed to ensure quality and reasonable control for two more rounds.

Your weekly training volume will depend on your training schedule. If you are only following this program, three days per week should do the trick to see impressive grip and pattern improvements. I would also suggest mixing in some swings or snatches and get-ups on “off” days. If you are following any other plan, such as a Strong Endurance™conditioning program, you could alternate one week of three days BU and two days conditioning, and the next week switch to two days of BU and three days of conditioning.

Waving the Load

There are a number of ways to build waviness into this program. The easiest is to train with one Medium/Light/Heavy day per week, in that order, using the intensity options found below.

There are some very surprising things that happen when training exclusively in the BU position. Foremost, the amount of feed-forward tension created is shocking. Remember that the medicine or poison of any prescription is in the dose. The overall volume is quite low, allowing you to complete multiple sessions per week. However, the time under tension is quite high, making waving the intensity very important. Keep the bell size manageable and own every rep. 

Intensity Options

One of the most interesting aspects of training in the bottoms-up position is the ability to make one bell size more challenging by manipulating the difficulty of gripping the handle. Variables you can manipulate are dryness of hands, style of bell (sport style vs hard style), style of bell handle, eye position relative to the bell, and amount of rest. All of these can create a different experience.

If you train somewhere hot or have hands that sweat, this can seriously challenge your grip, so consider occasionally using chalk for light days. You can spend some extra time drying your hands between sets and even blowing on your hands to help keep them dry.

If you’ve never seen a girvoy sport or competition style kettlebell you might be a little surprised by the uniformity of their size across weights. Both the handle thickness and bell diameter are standardized—they don’t increase as the weights do. In contrast, the physical size of hard style kettlebells increases with the weight (the handles may increase but only up to a point). You may, therefore, find it more challenging to hold the bottoms-up position with a 16kg  sport style bell than a 16kg hard style bell. If you have access to various styles of kettlebells you can use this to adjust the challenge between your light, medium and heavy days.

Cast iron hard style kettlebell vs girvoy or sport style kettlebell—
both 16kg.

Just as there are different styles of bells, there are also varying styles of kettlebell handles. Sweaty hands may prove to be more challenging with a chrome or glossy handle than with a powder coated one. Manipulating your grip challenge can be a great way to change the “intensity” from one session to the next.

One of the biggest and easiest ways to alter the difficulty of a session—other than altering the load or varying your grip—is to change where you are looking while you have the bell in the BU position. You will undoubtably find it more challenging to take your eyes off the bell than if you keep your gaze fixed on it  while pressing, squatting, or cleaning.

Your brain relies on your visual system’s feedback to understand what is going on with your body in relation to the environment. This is called proprioception. To challenge yourself, try this in your next session: clean a bell into the bottoms-up position and look directly at the bell. Next,  look at a spot on a wall behind the bell, and then look away. If you want to take it one step farther, close your eyes. You’ll get the idea real quick. Oh and remember, as Pavel says, “Quick feet are happy feet.” 

Attention to Detail

The reason it’s important to be fully comfortable with the traditional clean, press, and squat before going BU is that while performing each of these in the bottoms-up position, some funny things can happen to your form and technique. You need to know what ‘good’ feels like before you test it.

It’s not uncommon to notice a normally adequate squatter all of a sudden laterally weight shift or get some pretty pronounced valgus collapse of the knees (i.e. the knee coming inward) during the BU squat. Feedback from a mirror, camera, or partner can be immensely helpful. Make sure not to rush the reps. Make each one crisp and clean. Stay tight the whole time.

The same can be true with the press. Quite often, you’ll see the bell path change considerably in a BU press as your brain tries to figure out exactly what is happening. In this case, keeping your eyes on the bell as it travels overhead may be helpful (as you would in the get-up). However, please keep in mind that looking up with your head can send your body further into an extension pattern, which is problematic for some. The goal should be to keep the bell path and body position as close to your “normal” press as possible, including your head position. The goal is to press well, not to press at all costs.

The Experiment Results

I followed this program for 6 weeks, tracking a few specific physical aspects while paying attention to other changes. I measured my relative grip strength using a dynamometer. I also tested my press rep max with a 32kg bell. I had been training my snatch quite regularly leading up to the program, so I kept following my Strong Endurance™ protocol during the program.


After the 6 weeks I retested my hand grip. To my surprise, the dynamometer readings actually went down by 1-2kg on both hands. I had fully expected to see an increase and the fact that I didn’t leads me to believe that I was testing a different “kind” of grip strength than I was training using the bottoms-up position.

I had anticipated an improvement in my relative grip strength because I started the program using a hardstyle 16kg KB with some speed wobble before moving to a sport style 16kg bell (more challenging). I completed the last two weeks of the program using the 20kg hardstyle kettlebell. There was an obvious increase in my dynamic hand grip strength endurance, however it didn’t translate to an increase in maximum relative grip strength as measured by the dynamometer. Oh well.


Before the program, I could press the 32kg bell for three reps with my left arm and could grind out two on my right. After 6 weeks of bottoms-up pressing nothing heavier than a 20kg bell and not snatching anything heavier than a 24kg bell, my 32kg press increased to four reps on the left and a solid three on the right.

I attribute this improvement to the amount of reflexive tension that I had been forced to create during the BU experiment, as well as finding the sweet spot in my pressing groove.


I also saw a positive change in both the drive and lockout in my snatch practice. I felt more able to generate power with my hips and adopt a stronger lockout than before the program. I believe that this resulted from the tension that I learned to generate in my standing plank while focusing on the BU position. 

Overall I was quite impressed with the results from just 6 weeks of bottoms-up pressing and squatting, even though they were a little different than what I had expected.

Give it a Try

I would encourage anyone who’s become comfortable with the clean, press, and squat to give this BU program a try and to let me know how it goes in the comments below. Just remember to check your ego at the door and use the correct size bell for your ability, rather than struggling with the heaviest weight you think you can handle.

Good luck and happy BU-ing!

The post The Bottoms-Up Experiment appeared first on StrongFirst.

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The Key to Efficient Strength—Give and Take

Tue, 01/29/2019 - 10:00

Regardless of their sport, high-level athletes have an astonishing ‘gift’ of making the most complex moves look easy. How? With years of practice. Learning how to balance and coordinate internal forces to deliver, or access, the power, strength, agility, and quickness they need at the exact right moment for ultimate performance. And that comes from managing ‘space.’ Here’s how you can boost your strength efficiency too.

Give and take are two sides of the coin called life. – Lihaaz

Kalos Sthenos—Beautiful Strength is how Gray titled our get-up DVD and manual, and that is how I think of strength. That it is beautiful or can be so.

Think of a high-level athlete. The sport doesn’t matter—gymnastics, Olympic lifting, tennis, etc. One thing is commonly said about how they perform—“they make it look easy.” And I would add that it looks good/beautiful.

How do they make it look easy?

High-level athletes do two things very well when they move. “Alignment with integrity under load” is how Gray Cook described postural control. It incorporates both mobility and motor control of efficient movement. The get-up is one of the best examples of this and one of the best ways to build it.

“Steering strength” is how Dr. Stu McGill describes “moving” force through the body to accomplish a task. The squat is a perfect example of this and a great way to build the skill. Even standing up out of a chair requires you to “steer” your strength into the ground.

I believe the foundation to “alignment with integrity under load” and “steering strength” is knowing how and when to create space and when to take it away. And this is the secret to making “it” look easy.

StrongFirst-Brett-Jones-Make-Space-Squat What does it mean to “create space?”

Creating space is the act of self “distraction” and using your strength to spread the load. Just as high-tension cables are critical for stability and strength in different structures, creating space is “tensioning” the frame of the body. A key to this is efficiently coordinating the agonists (prime movers) and antagonists.

What does it mean to “take space away?”

Taking space away is the act of self “compression.” A constraining of the variables within the joint(s) and movement to steer strength efficiently through the body. Again, efficient coordination of agonists (prime movers) and antagonists is vital.

StrongFirst-Brett-Jones-Take-Space-Away-TGU How do we efficiently coordinate?

Not by consciously contracting this and relaxing that. I am not going to name a muscle. Your brain and body do not think in “muscles”—they think and act using feel. So we cue feeling using rich visual, and auditory language. For example, to teach the active-negative in the military press, we don’t say “activate your latissimus dorsi to pull the kettlebell to the rack position.” Rather, we create an experience: “there is an elastic band holding your arm and kettlebell overhead. Pull your arm down against the band’s resistance.” You could let them practice the action by using a band over a power rack. Or “perform a one-arm chin-up to bring the kettlebell down.” Or “perform an elbow strike shattering a pane of glass” (and make the sound of shattering glass as you demonstrate the movement). Creating rich, vibrant images and sounds brings your cues to life whether training yourself or a student. (Thank you, Nick Winkleman)

Next, we make sure the feeling is there. I tell students all the time: if they can feel it, we can fix it when building skill. So the proprioceptive sense of the goal action is key to successful pattering. Feel it so you can do it.

Putting it into practice: create space in the squat

Have you ever had the feeling that you were getting in your own way? Not in life (although that may be true) but rather in your squat? The reason is likely that you are not creating space—you actually “run into yourself.” We could go down the line of anatomical reasons and actions that result from running into yourself (for example the hip “impinging” by not having the hip flexors pull the hip synovium out of the way but I digress). But this is not necessary to successfully actioning space.

Begin at the top of your squat (goblet, kb, barbell, etc…) in your established stance.  As you initiate your squat, visualize an elastic band looped under your shoulders from above and straps holding your feet to the ground. To squat, you will need to pull yourself down. (“Beat the band” or “don’t let the band win and pull yourself down into the hole…”) If you quit pulling, the band will snap you up to the ceiling—not good. While doing that, visualize and feel your legs getting “pulled out longer” or that your legs are “growing” and that although descending into a squat, you are getting taller. Create space through the hips and the spine. You could add any number of auditory cues (the sound of a spring being “stretched”) or visual cues (drawing a bow).

Putting it into practice: take space away during the get-up

“A house divided cannot stand.” And an arm disconnected from the body will be punished so taking space away allows for force to move through efficiently. In the arm holding the kettlebell specifically, taking space away means connecting the shoulder to the body. At any step of the get-up, actively reach away with the arm like reaching for the remote when you don’t want to move from your favorite chair. Or like a telescope extending and then pull the arm back to solidly connect the shoulder to the body. You could use an elastic band here as well—“load” the reach away and pull to connect. Constrain the variables and steer the force where you want it to go through that connected shoulder. Again, auditory cues can be used like the sound of a suction cup as the arm is pulled in to connect to the body.

It doesn’t end here

The concepts of creating space and taking space away don’t end here. They can be applied to almost every movement and exercise, and, at their highest levels, performed at the same time. In the finish of a swing, for example, you are compressed (taking space away through the midsection) yet tall (creating space to allow a full expression of the energy of the hips to reach the kettlebell). A true duality. An offset of knowing when and how to perform these two actions either independently or together is kalos sthenos.

The post The Key to Efficient Strength—Give and Take appeared first on StrongFirst.

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My Journey to the Beast: Pressing a 48kg Kettlebell

Tue, 01/22/2019 - 06:00

How do you go from pressing 28kg to 48kg? At under 80kg bodyweight? With a technique-solidifying, base-building, high-volume press plan followed by a strategic peaking effort. But to develop a successful strength program, you need to understand programming fundamentals and your individual training parameters. Here’s how StrongFirst Team Leader Myren Fu got there.

“A press is not just a press,” said Senior SFG Tim Almond during my first SFG instructor certification almost four years ago. I was single-arm pressing 28kg and was fascinated by the heavier weights he and Master Shaun Cairns casually put overhead. But I did not immediately get what he was trying to say. I took years to truly understand and appreciate what he meant.

StrongFirst-MyrenFu-ProgrammingSince then, I’ve become obsessed with the science and art of programming for strength. I research, write countless programs, and conduct experiments on myself and willing students—that’s not as sinister as it sounds. Each time, I take the lessons learned and work them into the next plan, progressively learning along the way. But despite all this testing, one goal continued to vex me: figuring out how to emulate those crazy-strong SFG instructors who press “the beast”—a single 48kg kettlebell.

Understanding Individual Training Volumes

If there is one thing for you take away from this article, it is the importance of knowing your individual training parameters for both accumulation and intensification phases. Accumulation is all about getting the reps in—it’s a high volume phase where you accumulate many reps of lower intensity work. It’s important to build connective tissues, increase strength potential, and allows for more practice to happen sub-maximally. Intensification is about high intensity. In this article’s context, it’s a peaking strategy.

I thank many people for helping me advance my thinking here, most notably Dr. Mike Isratael and his crew, Dr. Chris Beardsley and his team, the late Charles Poliquin, and the many intelligent and selfless people at StrongFirst.

Before going boldly forth into the intensification process, doing a few accumulations phases helps to solidify technique and hypertrophy muscle groups, so you have greater strength potential for the task at hand: defeating the beast!

“To press a lot, you must press a lot.”

If you are new to kettlebell training, I suggest you pick up the book Enter the Kettlebell by StrongFirst Chairman, Pavel Tsatsouline. The programming is rock solid—you can’t help but get stronger by incorporating his suggestions. One of his most valuable lessons is on how to wave the load to ramp-up volume without causing excessive peripheral fatigue—a common occurrence with traditional periodization.

Traditional loading looks like this:

  • 5 sets of 6 reps
  • 5 sets of 10 reps
  • 5 sets of 15 reps

Wave loading looks like this:

  • 5 sets of 1,2,3 reps
  • 5 sets of 1,2,3,4 reps
  • 5 sets of 1,2,3,4,5 reps

Although the total volume is the same, you can use a heavier kettlebell with the repetition ladder. Waving the training load ensures that high threshold muscle fibers are always activated without the build-up of metabolites. Hypertrophy without soreness lets you train more often with a high force output per session. Win, win.

Caution for Seasoned Lifters: Watch your Volume

If you have been training with kettlebells for years and are at an advanced level of strength and/or are near achieving your half-bodyweight press, you must factor in that with a higher training “age,” your maximum recoverable volume is typically lower than for beginner or intermediate lifters. Doing the above wave increases your injury risk and could bring on a plateau—both counterproductive. We have students who have plateaued from too much volume from which they cannot recover. SFG Joey Yang (who also has a great article on how he tamed the Beast), shared with me that many seasoned SFGs run into trouble with higher training loads—doing many high-rung ladders with 36kg bells—and end up injuring themselves. The key is knowing how much is just enough—for you.

StrongFirst-MyrenFu-Coaching-GroupWhy is it so difficult for an advanced lifter to complete a full five-rung ladder compared to an intermediate lifter? The difference is in the kettlebell weight each can handle and the ladder’s cumulative load.

  • Intermediate: 5 x (1,2,3,4,5) @ 24kg  = 1,800kg per hand
  • Advanced: 5 x (1,2,3,4,5) @ 40kg = 3,000kg per hand

This advanced volume is huge.

Being obsessed with the finer points of programming, I’ve had the privilege and honor to study a multitude of programs from beast conquerors who selflessly shared their programs. I also purchased a Plan Strong™ program to study the theories, and reasoning behind it. (My next goal is to attend a Plan Strong™ workshop which will further my understanding of what separates great plans from the merely good.)

Looking at all the plans, I noticed that for someone nearly at or slightly above their half-bodyweight press—assuming he or she is below 180lbs (~82kg) bodyweight and can successfully press a 40 or 44kg—their average load for the highest volume session ranged between 1,100 and 1,500kg per hand.

One way to counter the demands of such high-volume programming is to reduce the rungs—rather than do ladders of 1,2,3,4,5 reps, switch to ladders of 1,3 reps for example. The volume per ladder goes from 15 reps per hand to 4.  Why reduce the number of rungs and total volume? Because advanced lifters have a higher minimal effective volume that ensures continued progress compared to a person with a lower training age (intermediate).

Let’s compare the initial week of a first accumulation phase:

  • Intermediate: 5 x (1,2,3) @ 24kg  = 720kg per hand
  • Advanced: 5 x (1,3) @ 40kg = 800kg per hand

The advanced lifter’s total volume is already higher than that of the intermediate athlete. Although it required ten fewer repetitions, the minimal effective dose was higher and achieved by the sheer load.


From the above example, even on the week of the highest accumulated volume, the advanced student’s total volume is less than that of an intermediate trainee.

Accumulation: Pressing A Lot

Now, here is my accumulation training protocol:

  • Exercise: 1-arm Press
  • Intensity: 4RM-5RM = 36kg


Once completed, I set a new 4-5RM of 38kg. I gained 4.4lbs of lean mass in the process, taking me to 169lbs (~76.7kg).

I rinsed and repeated this program for one more cycle. After the 10-week process, I could press the 44kg cold.

Intensification: Getting Ready to Peak

After 10 weeks of volume accumulation, I was ready to intensify. To kill two birds with one stone—continue my strength gains without compromising the muscle mass gained—I adapted my routine from one of the greatest pressers of all time, Doug Hepburn. The six-week cycle brought my press up from a 44kg to 48kg. I put on another 4.4lbs and was now at 174lbs (~79kg).

My primary exercise remained the one-arm military press to practice the groove at high intensity. My secondary exercise was anything with an axial force vector. Since the military press is already an axial force vector exercise, I had to choose a similar pathway: the incline bench press for two days per week and the barbell press once a week.

This was my intensification routine:

  • Primary (1-arm Press): 3RM
  • Secondary (Incline Bench Press x2; Barbell Military Press x1): 5RM


Rinse and repeat for one more cycle—adding 2kg to my primary press and 5kg to my secondary exercise.

You may have noticed my program featured important StrongFirst principles: continuity of the training process, load waviness, and specialized variety.

I tested on week 7. Voila! 48kg unlocked.


My total weekly volume on the highest week amounted to 2,950kg. Many of the beast tamers programs I studied pressed between 3,000kg and 3,600kg. Although my volume was much lower, it worked for me. Higher volume programs made me constantly ill—quite possibly due to me exceeding my maximum recoverable volume.

It’s critical for you to understand what works for you—and what doesn’t. Do not blindly follow any plan. Pay close attention to your recovery. If you see a performance decrease after three sessions of trying, back off. You most probably exceeded your maximum recoverable volume.

Seven Lessons Learned from my Beast Pressing Journey
  • Intermediate athletes have a higher recovery rate and can take in more volume than advanced trainees.
  • Accumulation is important to build connective tissues, increase strength potential, and allows for more practice to happen sub-maximally.
  • For accumulation phases, one sign to stop is when you cannot continue with your benchmark weights.
  • For intensification phases, one sign to discontinue is when your lifts’ intensity stops inching up.
  • It is fine to train for maximal strength and hypertrophy, or at least the maintenance of it, as long as the variance does not exceed 12%.
  • To lift heavy, spend most your training time in 75-85% of your 1RM region. But it is imperative to peak—what you train in the 90% and above is different from anything below.
  • Do not let your past define who you are. If you are bad at something, let it haunt you every day so you can attack it relentlessly.

To find out more about programming and how to maximize your press, I highly suggest you attend a StrongFirst SFG Level 1 certification if you have not already. For those who have, Plan Strong takes a deep programming dive that gives you the ability to design your own Russian-like strength plans for whatever your goals. We have four Plan Strong events scheduled so far for 2019:

  • Vicenza, Italy—January 26-27, 2019
  • Seoul, Republic of Korea—March 2-3, 2019
  • San Diego, CA—March 16-17, 2019
  • Boston MA—June 29-30, 2019

The post My Journey to the Beast: Pressing a 48kg Kettlebell appeared first on StrongFirst.

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Research Breakdown: Why Does Exercise Make us Healthier?

Tue, 01/15/2019 - 05:53

Why does exercise make us healthier? One of the most important linkages may be due to improving our mitochondrial functioning. Healthier mitochondria may be the route to living better, healthier lives, while also being better in our sport or work.

This article is the first in a series breaking down current research and how you can apply it to your goals. Here, we cover mitochondrial biogenesis (building more mitochondria) using different types of sprints and rest intervals, as well as long slow endurance types of exercise protocols.



Fiorenza and colleagues (2018) published a study of how athletes can improve their mitochondrial functioning. Mitochondria are important as they convert carbohydrates, fat, and protein into ATP and other energy currencies. Mitochondrial functioning is related to many processes in aging and disease, as well as our ability to perform speed, power, and endurance types of exercise. Thus, by learning the mechanisms and optimizing this process, we can live better, healthier lives, while also being better in our sport or work.

Before we get into the details of the study, let me define some terms.

PGC-1α—Key regulator in making more mitochondria (mitochondrial biogenesis).

AMPK, CaMKII, and p38 MAPK—These are all thought to be factors that bring about more PGC-1α.

Adenosine Triphosphate (ATP)—ATP is our primary source of energy. Muscles use ATP to contract by decoupling one phosphate molecule, which creates adenosine diphosphate (ADP; or with two phosphates). When the system breaks down ADP we get one phosphate or adenosine monophosphate (AMP). The ratio of AMP:ATP is thought to activate the signaling for AMPK.

Summary of terms—The faster we burn through energy, the more our AMP:ATP ratio changes, which signals AMPK and then PGC-1α. Sprints drain ATP quickly, while long-slow distance also drains ATP to increase mitochondria through this pathway.


Details of the Study

Participants were experienced cyclists with over 6 years of experience and higher than average VO2 max values (average was 61.9). The researchers wanted to use experienced athletes as unexperienced athletes can undergo many adaptive changes from any training program. The participants were split into three groups: repeated-sprint (RS), speed endurance (SE), or continuous exercise at moderate intensity (CM).

  • Repeated Sprints (RS)—These participants sprinted for 5 seconds with an all-out effort. They were then allowed 30 seconds of recovery before the next sprint. They did 18 sprints in total. Thus, they did 90 seconds of total work at maximal effort.

  • Speed Endurance (SE)—These participants did 20 second all-out sprints followed by 2 minutes of rest. They did 6 sprints in total. This group did 120 seconds of total work.

  • Continuous Moderate Exercise (CM)—This group did 50 min of continuous exercise at a relative intensity corresponding to 70% of their VO2 max. This group did the more traditional long slow distance style of work.

The researchers took blood samples and muscle biopsies before and after the exercise protocols. The RS and SE protocols are not high-intensity interval training as they had adequate rest in between sets for recovery. Traditional interval training shows a decline in performance over time. This research used repeat training where there is little to no decline over time as the rest allows for recovery.


The study focused on muscular and changes in the blood. Gibala and colleagues (2006) have already shown the 20-second interval leads to V02 max changes. All groups had significant increases in signaling molecules of AMPK and p38 MAPK. The repeated sprint group and strength endurance groups saw improvement on CaMKII. CaMKII affects PGC-1α but also affects the growth of type IIa muscle fibers (Rose et al. 2007). Thus, it makes sense that the 20-second intervals led to the highest amount of CaMKII.

The main outcome we are interested in is the PGC-1α as it triggers mitochondrial biogenesis. The 50-minute moderate exercise group showed the greatest improvement in PGC-1α. While the 20-second interval group had a greater increase over the 5-second sprint group. All groups significantly changed above where they started. Thus, they all had improvements in the signaling of mitochondrial biogenesis.


Short sprints of 5-seconds, longer sprints of 20-seconds, and continuous long slow distance of 50 minutes all improved one of the major signaling molecules of mitochondrial biogenesis (PGC-1α). Athletes who cycled for 50 minutes had the greatest improvement. However, the amount of work completed indicates that shorter sprints might be more efficient (90 seconds of total work for the 5-second sprint group and 120 seconds total work for the 20-second sprint group).

One missing component is work intervals between 5-seconds and 20-seconds. We know that ATP is depleted around 50% at around 8 seconds of maximal effort. At about 20 seconds, ATP is depleted to about 10% of its initial level. Between 5 seconds and 20 seconds might be a sweet spot for depleting ATP, increasing AMP, and henceforth increasing AMPK signaling and mitochondrial biogenesis.

Luckily, StrongFirst has a new book coming soon that will fill the gap.


Fiorenza, M., Gunnarsson, T. P., Hostrup, M., Iaia, F. M., Schena, F., Pilegaard, H., & Bangsbo, J. (2018). Metabolic stress-dependent regulation of the mitochondrial biogenic molecular response to high-intensity exercise in human skeletal muscle. The Journal of Physiology, 596(14), 2823–2840.

Gibala MJ, Little JP, van Essen M, Wilkin GP, Burgomaster KA, Safdar A, Raha S & Tarnopolsky MA (2006). Short-term sprint interval versus traditional endurance training: similar initial adaptations in human skeletal muscle and exercise performance. J Physiol 575, 901–911.

Rose, A. J., Frøsig, C., Kiens, B., Wojtaszewski, J. F. P., & Richter, E. A. (2007). Effect of endurance exercise training on Ca2+ calmodulin-dependent protein kinase II expression and signaling in skeletal muscle of humans. The Journal of Physiology, 583(Pt 2), 785–795.

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How to Boost Your Athletic Power with Kettlebells…and a PUSH Band

Sun, 01/06/2019 - 09:04

Knowing StrongFirst hardstyle principles and intentionally accelerating a kettlebell will undoubtedly produce more power during any lift. But having a tool that gives you real-time feedback could be the missing link between ‘just’ feeling your power and actually measuring it. Enter the PUSH Band 2.0. Athletes and coaches can use it to determine the most appropriate training weights, measure progress, and fine-tune efforts to produce maximal long-term results. Want to jump higher? Strike harder? Throw farther? Pairing the best kettlebell exercises for power and the PUSH Band may be the most effective way to do it.


I purchased my first set of kettlebells in 2004, after my first ever Scottish Highland Games competition, as a way to practice throwing without access to traditional implements. Instead of learning the kettlebell lifts first, I actually tried throwing bells to simulate the Weight for Distance and Weight Over Bar events. It was a crazy idea, but it kind of worked.

Soon after I began learning the basic kettlebell lifts, I found that the offset handle just made sense to me as a thrower.


After years of plyometric jump training, sprints, Olympic lifting, and some specific velocity device training with traditional barbell lifts, I began practicing the kettlebell lifts with the intention of producing maximal power. As fellow Highland Games athlete and strength coach Dan John had suggested, I would pretend like I was throwing the bell without letting go, or imagine jumping with my heels on the ground, all while projecting effort and force into the bell. While this part of my journey had value, I knew I was missing something.

It wasn’t until 2011 that I realized the value of having a good kettlebell coach and technique cues to follow. The light bulb turned on, and I began to understand the true potential of kettlebells. After purchasing a few bells and following a solid program, I was throwing pain-free with more “pop” in my throws which resulted in more consistency and personal bests in many events. This difference in my throws on the Highland Games field resulted in my best season as a heavyweight professional athlete. Another dimension of training came alive as I had discovered a bridge between the dynamic technical aspects of the Highland Games and the gym.

In April 2018, hot off the heels of a 2017 National Championship win and 3 World Records, I found a new technology to propel my training: the PUSH Band 2.0. This small, wearable Bluetooth device allowed me to measure velocity in multiple planes of motion, not just on a particular repetition, but in changes across repetitions, sets, and training sessions. The kettlebell became my power training tool of choice.

Learning to accelerate or throw an object is an under-appreciated and often poorly trained athletic characteristic. Plus, having a newfound purpose in your training creates the fun and excitement that is sometimes needed to reach the next level. Measuring velocity and power production, if used correctly, is a true game-changer with accurate and easy-to-use technology.

Creating a Powerful Athlete

The term “power” gets thrown around quite a bit in the strength training world. So, let’s start with the literal definitions of this term:

  • Power (Watts) = Force (Weight) x Velocity (Speed).
  • Power = Work / Time

In essence, power is what you get when you multiply a certain amount of weight by a certain amount of speed. It’s also how much work you can do in a given amount of time. In weight training, you are either trying to move a constant weight faster or get the same work done in less time. Both result in greater power production—and hardstyle kettlebell training is an excellent way to get you there. Next, I’ll explain why, suggest the best kettlebell exercises for power, and tell you how to get started.

Why Hardstyle Kettlebell Techniques for Power Training?
  • Hardstyle ballistics are all about power and technique in every rep, with clean, crisp, biomechanically sound movement patterns.
  • Unilateral loading options—an uneven load elicits a new neurological/physiological pattern with emphasis on the core stabilizers. It is especially valuable for throwers but essential for everyone.
  • Dissuades “pattern overload” of traditional exercises and provides a more forgiving implement compared to the barbell.
  • Allows for a true ballistic training response that mimics a jump much better than a barbell.
  • Lighter weight allows you to find the sweet spot of power training by taking the brakes off your movement, unlike the barbell snatch for example.
  • Convenient to use almost anywhere. They can even be thrown/dropped with minimal risk of damage outside (use the neighbor’s yard, though).
  • Refreshing both mentally and physically for beginners and advanced athletes.
The Best Kettlebell Exercises for Power

I based the following list on personal experience and what I feel allows people to fully “take the brakes off” and express their power without fear, over-thinking things, or having too many technical difficulties with the process.


Swings are a horizontal hip hinge translation which has been shown to have a higher correlation with maximal and explosive power (Lake and Lauder 2012), particularly when the quick application of force is the aim. (Lake and Laudner 2012; Marker 2016) The kettlebell swing (and snatch) provides unique training opportunities that require rapidly cycling between muscle contraction and relaxation and emphasize posterior chain strength and power development. (McGill and Marshall 2012; Zebis et al. 2013)

Start with basic hardstyle dead-start swings, focusing on power. Then move onto sets of continuous swings.


The snatch couples the horizontal translation of force from the hips with a vertical redirection of force which lends itself better for vertical jumping and quick drive upward in any sport or activity. Single arm is great for these. Use lighter weights and start moving well before adding speed and “overspeed” reps. (Advanced note: the bell does not have to lock out completely overhead to get optimal power production. “Throw the bell into your crotch” is a great cue that works wonders. Move the bell with those hips!)

Push Presses

This is a classic barbell lift. Kettlebells impose unique challenges and benefits. Be sure to start light, maintain good tension and bell position in the dip, and drive hard with the legs before punching the bells up for an explosive finish. Single arm push presses first, then work into doubles if you have very good overhead shoulder mobility.

Viking Push Press

Start with the top-down approach: let the bells drop, dip quickly, and then drive them up as fast as possible. Focus on keeping an upright posture and drive up with the legs first before punching through the finish with the triceps.

Spiked Swing/Banded Swing

Here we add a light to moderate band or a trusted friend to add resistance to the top of the lift while speeding up the lowering portion eccentric of the movement for some added neurological drive, resulting in more “pop” in the next rep.

Speed Snatches

These are quite challenging and take practice. Think of this as a top-down lift where you accelerate the bell down fast, then drive up as fast as possible before resting briefly at the top again. Double bells are not recommended for this lift since the amount of force coming down, and overall risk outweighs the reward at this point.

Optimal Velocity-Based Training (The Goldilocks Zone)

True velocity and power training live on the “Speed/Strength” end of the velocity zones continuum, which is right around 30-40% of your bodyweight for kettlebell training. We don’t want, or need, to ever attempt a 1RM on kettlebell ballistics, so we should use this scale as a guide to finding the “Goldilocks” zone, or sweet spot, for optimal power development:

Training-Velocity-ZonesImage from

Over complicating this is unnecessary.

Knowing the characteristics of this spectrum is valuable to match speed with goals. To maximize power production, it is useful instantaneously measure power output. The PUSH Band delivers real-time data to help keep us in the Goldilocks zone. Not too fast, not too slow, not too heavy… just right for the power equation.

Start Power Training: Finding your Goldilocks Weight Beginners
  1. Begin with the swing. An average guy can start with a very lightweight swing (say 16-20kg for most men, women 12-14kg). Most people will find the Goldilocks zone right around 30% of their body weight. Do up to 10 swings, then rest 2-5 minutes. Go up a bell size (2-4kg) until a drop-off occurs in power production (over 5% drop-off over 2-3 repetitions). You will then have a nice peak curve. The Goldilocks zone for most men will be right around 24kg for two-hand swings. Women, usually 14-16kg.
Advanced Athletes/SFGs
  1. Snatch. Test the same protocol but use a lighter weight—somewhere around 12kg for men and 8kg for women to start.
  2. Push press. Using a near snatch weight. Note that the Viking push press requires a snatch before the first press. This snatch acts as a limiter to keep you from going too heavy. Can’t snatch it? Then you aren’t ready to press it ballistically. This will take trial and error, so use the PUSH Band to guide your assessment.

So, experiment and ease into the following training.

How Many Reps?

Once you have your Goldilocks weight, you can start your velocity-based training (VBT) training in sets of 8-10 reps.

Too few reps and many will not find their rhythm with the movements. We want to work some volume into the routine, but with too many reps you will fatigue, and speed/power will drop off.

So, with the PUSH Band, a good rule of thumb would be to stop the set once the velocity numbers drop off by about 10%. Be patient—it can take up to 10 reps to get the hang of this.

How Many Sets and Exercises?

A good starting point for those new to VBT would be 2-3 sets to establish competency and then build into more volume from there on out.

This could be done 2x week in addition to strength-based programming. This is taxing on the central nervous system, so make sure to use it as a supplement to your main training… the spice to your main course.

Beginners—start with 2-4 weeks of dead-start swings or standard hardstyle swings to learn and hone your technique, and to get familiar with the PUSH device.

2-4 Weeks Intermediate Guidelines (add another set after 3rd set, after week 2):



4-6 Weeks Advanced Guidelines (add a 4th set after week 2, 5th set after week 3, then take a week off before repeating):


Here is an example of swinging a kettlebell with different styles and intentions while using the PUSH Band 2.0 to illustrate how the speed of a swing can vary:

A Real-World Application of Power

The High Striker: An Old School, All-American Test of Power

Imagine going to the county fair and playing the old-fashioned “High Striker” game where you hit a sensor with a hammer to hopefully ring the bell at the top of a board if you have the power to do so.


People love to play this game because they instantaneously get to see the result of their efforts. I mean that’s what people want to see, right? But, this is also a test of power as you are combining a considerable amount of weight with, what one hopes is, at least an equal amount of velocity. In this situation, the hammer is not so heavy as to reduce velocity, but not so light that force production is compromised. In a sense the PUSH Band allows us to return to the carnival games of our youth and play the High Striker game again. Only now the kettlebell is the hammer, we apply the force through effort, the PUSH Band is the game, and the data provided by the technology allows us to keep our eyes on the prize.

I have found that the PUSH Band also has some unique self-limiting properties which help keep people swinging well in order to produce the greatest velocity and power readings. Poor form only leads to poor numbers, much like in jumping, sprinting, or throwing techniques. You have to be smooth and rhythmic. Anyone who uses kettlebells soon figures this out, even with very little coaching. Remember this saying: “Slow is smooth, smooth is fast.”


Hopefully, you now have a better idea on how to implement VBT into your programming, and a clearer understanding of the value of power training with kettlebells.

Ultimately, it’s not how hard we can push ourselves, the number of exercises, or how complex we make our training—it’s the simplicity, planning, and application that will keep us safe and get the greatest long-term results.

Once you apply the principles, you can branch out and try other patterns, get more aggressive with the movements, and add volume if you choose. The purpose and principles never change.

This tool can be applied to a barbell or other implements with relative ease, so the potential is nearly endless. Regular real-time, high-quality coaching, video analysis, and a velocity-based training device like the PUSH Band are the future for measurable and consistent data to plan your training and get game-changing results.

If you aren’t assessing, you’re guessing. It’s as simple as that. This technology allows us to gain more insight into optimal training programs for all populations.

VBT is the real deal and the PUSH Band is a great product that allows you to train like an adult, but play like a kid on the High Striker game, all in the same session.

Why the PUSH Band is a Game-Changer
  • Accuracy and reliability in measuring speed & power. Train with PUSH
  • Instantaneous feedback for both the athlete and coach that is accurate and easy to follow.
  • Another variable to support training auto-regulation. How is the athlete responding in real time? Is the athlete over-trained? Unfocused? Having an off day? When an athlete is not able to produce the same or increased power reading week to week, or set to set, the coach or athlete can change the training programs, adjust a variable, or discontinue a set in real-time based on PUSH data. (Fisher, 2016)
  • Long-term tracking—numbers don’t lie.
  • Provides another dimension for training focus. Is the athlete really giving their best? Can the coach cue them to produce more power?
  • Safe and reliable for predicting 1 RM. (Ruf, Chery, & Taylor, 2018; Jidovtseff et al., 2011)

*Special thanks to Ross Dexter, MS, ATC, CSCS, SFG as a contributor/chief editor for this article and to Aaron Tandem, SFG, FMS, OTC, Pn for his editing expertise.


I purchased the PUSH Band 2.0 (PUSH) in April 2018 and tested it on several barbell, kettlebell, and bodyweight movements with the various attachments provided. The technology and design of the PUSH provide consistent readings and ease of use that allow for effective implementation in one’s own training or with clients and athletes. Personally, the PUSH contributed to my World Record in the Highland Games’ Weight Over Bar event, along with several other personal records on the field and during training over the last six months, including a 36+ inch vertical jump and 407lb front squat at 215lbs. Much of this success I attribute to using the PUSH in my own training to provide instant feedback and precision tracking.

Specifically, I focused on using the device to monitor bar speed on my front squats and power cleans (usually 60%-80% of 1 RM), in addition to using a version of the program listed above along with various plyometric jumps and hill sprints for specific power training days. I adjusted my daily training in real-time using the device to “auto-regulate” the sessions based on the speed of the bar or implement. The technology also gave me new motivation to move the bar faster instead of just getting the reps in for the day as prescribed.

Velocity-based training (VBT) devices are commonly used to measure barbell speed during training. This technology has been widely utilized in strength and conditioning for over a decade. However, the technology has evolved to allow for more dynamic ranges of motion and has been adapted for use with less conventional training implements including kettlebells. Using this data we can measure an athlete’s readiness to train, find optimal training zones to elicit various performance outcomes, and provide accurate long-term data, potentially adding another game-changing metric to training programs for all populations. Traditionally, VBT devices attach directly to a barbell with a stringed tether measuring the vertical speed of the bar. The PUSH Band 2.0 allows the user to track velocity in all planes of motion using accelerometer and gyroscope technologies similar to those found in smartphones.

DISCLAIMER: I have no financial ties with PUSH Band nor am I supported by them in any way. This is an unsolicited summary of my experience with the PUSH Band 2.0. These protocols are for advanced kettlebell users whose technique is proficient, and ideally, have watchful coaching eyes from an SFG or skilled strength coach.

  1. Lake, J. P., & Lauder, M. A. (2012). Kettlebell swing training improves maximal and explosive strength. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(8), 2228-2233.
  2. Lake, J. P., & Lauder, M. A. (2012). Mechanical demands of kettlebell swing exercise. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(12), 3209-3216.
  3. Marker, C. (2016) How to Get the Benefit of Depth Jumps Without Jumping. Accessed December 9, 2012.
  4. McGill, S. M., & Marshall, L. W. (2012). Kettlebell swing, snatch, and bottoms-up carry: back and hip muscle activation, motion, and low back loads. The Journal of Strength & Conditioning Research, 26(1), 16-27.
  5. Zebis, M. K., Skotte, J., Andersen, C. H., Mortensen, P., Petersen, H. H., Viskær, T. C., … & Andersen, L. L. (2013). Kettlebell swing targets semitendinosus and supine leg curl targets biceps femoris: an EMG study with rehabilitation implications. Br J Sports Med, 47(18), 1192-1198.
  6. Run, L., Chery, C., & Taylor, K.L. (2018). Validity and reliability of the load-velocity relationship to predict the one-repetition maximum in deadlift. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 32(3):681-689.
  7. Jidovtseff, B., Harris, N. K., Crielaard, J.M., & Cronin, J. B. (2011). Using the load-velocity relationship for 1RM prediction. Journal of Strength and Conditioning Research, 25(1): 267-270.
  8. Fisher, D. L. (2016). Velocity-based training as a method of auto-regulation in collegiate athletes. (Unpublished Masters Thesis). Western Washington University, Bellingham, Washington, USA.


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Building on Strength: Year-end Review and 2019 Preview

Mon, 12/31/2018 - 12:00

“Year’s end is neither an end nor a beginning but a going on, with all the wisdom that experience can instill in us.” Hal Borland

As we reflect on the past year and look towards 2019, the truth of this quote hits home. Even as companies (and individuals) “close out” a year’s worth of business and prepare for new projects and campaigns, there is no end—missions and goals go on. How we embrace wisdom gained in moving forward depends on all of us.

StrongFirst had a great 2018 of experiences and growth as we pursue, promote, and practice strength in new markets and in wider audiences. Global growth and “the tentacles spreading” has continued worldwide along with the progression of the curriculum and certifications.


Unified Recertification and StrongFirst Elite

This year we launched two initiatives to recognize and reward achieving multiple designations: the unified recertification process and a StrongFirst Elite designation.

Unified recertification gives our instructors the opportunity to recertify multiple certifications at one time, for one price, at a wider number of events. SFG, SFG II, SFL, and SFB—in any combination—can be maintained more easily and at a lower cost. And, depending on logistics and equipment availability, unified recertification may be available at events like Plan Strong™, Strong Endurance™, Second Wind, and All-terrain Conditioning. See details here: Unified Recertification

Why unified recertification? Most importantly, it rewards instructors who broaden and deepen their understanding of strength principles and teaching skills by achieving multiple StrongFirst certifications. Our School of Strength’s branches are based on and around unified principles; our instructors are unified by our Code. Encouraging instructors to achieve all certifications is a logical step. Next, it facilitates keeping their status current. “Student of strength” means honing our skills. Being regularly tested against StrongFirst standards shows a commitment to practice and professionalism. Our students trust that what we teach is current and that our own technique passes muster. Staying current proves that we walk the talk.

What does this mean from a practical standpoint?

Unified recertification means that an SFG, working towards the SFL, can recertify SFG at the SFL (or SFB, etc.…) and it is all wrapped into the cost of the new certification. Or if you are at your two-year recertification time-frame for SFG II and SFL, you can now recertify them both at the same time for one cost.

This brings us to StrongFirst Elite. After achieving all four certifications, instructors earn the SF Elite designation, the highest achievable rank within our instructor community outside of leadership. As such, it is a qualifier for advancement to leadership. In addition, SF Elite extends your certification validity by 50%, requiring you to recertify every three years instead of only two. Unified recertification makes that easier.


Accredited Gyms

We have long fielded questions by potential students on “where can I find a gym” or “where can I learn?” And while we facilitate connecting students to instructors on our website, still others were looking not just for a person but to immerse themselves in a StrongFirst community, environment, and culture. Our Accredited Gym program helps students easily find “brick and mortar” locations and confidently trust they will learn undiluted StrongFirst principles. To be accredited, gyms must meet standards and requirements including:

  • Hold at least two different, and current, StrongFirst instructor credentials.
  • Ensure that more than 50% of the facility’s trainers be StrongFirst certified instructors in good standing.
  • Support the StrongFirst mission, embody the StrongFirst core values, and live by the StrongFirst Code.
  • Warrant that training sessions and classes advertised by the gym as taught according to StrongFirst’s methods (or reasonably interpreted to be so taught) must be led by instructors holding current and relevant StrongFirst certifications. This applies to group and individual programming according to Plan Strong™ and Strong Endurance™. For example, an instructor must hold a current SFG instructor credential to teach a kettlebell class featuring the anti-glycolytic method; or there must be an SFB instructor if the trainer is teaching a TSC pull-up class, etc.

Click here for more information: StrongFirst Accredited Gyms

Curriculum Updates

Our Curriculum Advisory Board has been working on curriculum refinements for all certifications. You will see newly updated manuals released in early 2019 reflecting the changes. For the SFB specifically, we have added two skill tests: pull-up and pistol. And we have added Master’s Standards for both SFB and SFL.

New SFB Skill Tests
  • Pull-ups (x 5 for men) and Flexed-arm hang (x 45 seconds or 1 pull-up/chin-up for women), completed on the first day during registration.
  • Pistol on one leg (counterbalance optional), completed on day two, with the current OAPU/OAOLPU test.
Master’s Standards for the SFB
  • Men 50+: OAPU
  • Women 50+: 6-8” elevated OAPU
  • Men and Women 50+: Box pistol to below parallel
  • Men 50+: Pull-up x 1
  • Women 50+: Flexed-arm hang x 30 seconds (chin-up grip)
Master’s Standards for the SFL


StrongFirst Essential Kettlebell Exercises Online Course

We released our first online course, Essential Kettlebell Exercises, during the summer to make learning safe and effective technique more accessible to those unable to get to an SFG instructor or to an Accredited Gym. It offers detailed teaching, demonstrations, and talks by Lance Coffel, Brett Jones, Pavel Tsatsouline, and Fabio Zonin. In addition, each module comes with a downloadable manual including a program design section with suggested training plans. Be sure to revisit the course to see the new content.

Click here for more details: SF Essential Kettlebell Exercises

StrongFirst-Brett-Jones-Instructor Strength has a Greater Purpose

“It is not the honor that you take with you, but the heritage you leave behind.” Branch Rickey

Be a good ancestor was one of the lessons from the book Legacy and something I covered at this year’s Leadership meeting. I am honored to be a part of StrongFirst’s leadership—the heritage we are building drives me forward.

Over 16 years of teaching with Pavel, this community has played an integral part of my career and life as we pursue, promote, and practice strength. We see how our shared belief that strength has a greater purpose positively impacts our students’ lives every day, in ways that far surpass the gym floor. We do so with quiet professionalism, always remembering that we ourselves are students of strength. Pavel is intent on leaving a lasting mark on the world with our mission. It is an honor to be part of it.

Helping others is the epitome of strength’s greater purpose. Over the Black Friday weekend, the StrongFirst community participated in a fundraising effort for Dustin Rippetoe. One of our Team Leaders, Dustin is currently on dialysis and pursuing a kidney transplant. To help his family offset the medical costs, we will be working to organize two more fundraising opportunities in 2019. Join us in helping Dustin and his family.


Looking ahead at 2019, we are primed to capitalize on lessons learned and “tentacles spreading” to expose more people to our strength principles across all modalities so they too can live the benefits. Building more awareness of who we are, what we do, and why it matters will provide increasing opportunities for our instructors, gyms, and events worldwide. With several new books near completion, an expanded online offering, a continually improving website interface, updated curriculums, and new merchandise in the works, 2019 promises to be an exciting year.

We at StrongFirst wish you a strong 2019!
Where will your strength take you?

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Knowing When Not to Grind

Thu, 12/27/2018 - 08:39

Goals are some of the most powerful fuels for progress in life, business, and training. But recognizing when a temporary pull-back may improve longevity or deliver better long-term results while minimizing potential negative side-effects is a skill that comes through practice and experience. Being a student of strength is a long game. 

“Warts and All” —My 2018 in Review

When commissioning a painting, Oliver Cromwell told the artist (Sir Peter Lely) to paint him “warts and all,” instead of in the more flattering style common in that day. You could call what Lely was offering the original “photoshop.” In today’s social media driven world—rife with filters and photoshop, and the tendency toward putting on a “flattering” face to our lives—we rarely see “warts and all.”

What “warts,” you ask? I failed to achieve one of my 2018 goals.

I started the year by telling you what I was going to be training for and how I planned on accomplishing my four major goals:

  1. Teaching at StrongFirst and FMS events,
  2. Successful completion of the SFL,
  3. Successful completion of the SFB, and
  4. Sinister.

StrongFirst-SFL-DeadliftSo how did it go? In my Quarterly Update article, I discussed my training leading into the SFL. But what happened since then? Out of the four goals, I succeeded at three of them. I was moving well and able to demonstrate and teach effectively. I achieved SFL and SFB. However, Sinister will not be happening this year.

Why not? I’ll let Kenny Rogers explain:

You’ve got to know when to hold ’em
Know when to fold ’em
Know when to walk away
And know when to run
You never count your money
When you’re sittin’ at the table
There’ll be time enough for countin’
When the dealin’s done

Every gambler knows
That the secret to survivin’
Is knowin’ what to throw away
And knowin’ what to keep
‘Cause every hand’s a winner
And every hand’s a loser”

Lyrics from The Gambler

Kenny had some wise advice there.

Knowing When Not to Grind

Now I know that one of the popular messages in life, work, and training is to “grind.” Embrace the grind. With pictures of one person digging a tunnel and walking away one strike from hitting gold and another person continuing the dig although they are several strikes from gold. The message—do not quit.

But there is a difference between quitting and knowing when to fold’em. And this comes from experience.

This is not to give people a pass on quitting everything they start, or at the first sign of difficulty. Far from it since I embrace persistence as a key attribute to success in life. As I have been saying: if I had a superpower it would be stubbornness—and stubbornness in its most elevated form is persistence. As Calvin Coolidge noted: “Nothing in this world can take the place of persistence. Talent will not; nothing is more common than unsuccessful men with talent. Genius will not; unrewarded genius is almost a proverb. Education will not: the world is full of educated derelicts. Persistence and determination alone are omnipotent.” 

Knowing when to hold’em and when to fold’em is a skill earned and learned through the practice of persistence. The key is to fold’em before “driving off the cliff” into personal ruin (in financial cases) or injury (in the case of training).

And that is why I bumped my Sinister goal to 2019. I recognized the need to fold’em and adjust my training instead of “grinding.”

What did I recognize? My training was too heavy, too often and my body was not happy. I have accumulated some mileage on my 47 trips around the sun. Some of that mileage was earned by not stopping when I should have stopped. Other parts were simply by “life happening” rather than by choice. But in the end, this mileage and my ability to listen to it now is a powerful tool.

Also realize that personal goals, while very important, are not mandates writ in stone. I joke at workshops all the time that unless you are getting paid to hit that next rep or set, you can stop. Know when to fold’em.

So moving into 2019, I do so with more earned knowledge and the persistence to adjust my training and achieve Sinister. I hope that 2018 was successful for you and wish you every success in 2019.

Here’s to a Strong 2019.

Achieve Sinister

Brainy Quotes: Calvin Coolidge

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How Video can Improve your TGU: Videoception

Tue, 12/18/2018 - 07:00

In simple terms, proprioception is the sense of knowing where you are and what you are doing. And the get-up is the perfect pattern to help train and challenge it. But with so many moving parts and our eyes on the load overhead, it’s hard to know—to really know—if we’ve stacked the load optimally. Good enough can be the enemy of great. So how can we work on those fine details without a coach guiding us? A virtual eye can help.

“There are three classes of people: those who see. Those who see when they are shown. Those who do not see.”—Leonardo da Vinci

Everyone knows Leonardo was both artist and inventor. But the Florentine genius was also an accomplished architect for the Medici and the Borgia. In his work for the military of the time, he knew the key to building strong structures lay in the proper distribution of forces. In particular, he knew that straight lines are almost always stronger than broken lines and angles.

The get-up is one of those exercises where structure is key. With the weight supported overhead throughout the movement, it is the careful distribution of forces that provides the opportunity to perform this skill safely and efficiently while progressively increasing the challenge.

Structure and Stability

Bones provide the structure. Muscles stabilize. Don’t confuse one for the other.

As trainers, our eyes are key in helping a student structurally align those bones throughout the get-up stages to minimize the muscular effort needed to stabilize the kettlebell. But how to improve our get-up when no other trainer is available to give us feedback? How to get ready for an SFG certification or re-certification? How do we ensure great technique when demonstrating? How can we own every bit of the movement pattern when our goal is to work on a heavier bell for a Simple & Sinister protocol?

Unless we are practicing unloaded, or “naked” get-ups, mirrors are not a good option. For safety reasons and as one of our StrongFirst standards, our eyes should be on the kettlebell for most of the exercise, especially when we are closer to the floor—precisely when the structural alignment is the most challenging to achieve. A mirror encourages looking elsewhere.

Enter the Videoception

From Leonardo’s quote above, we want to be “those who see.” Interestingly, video means “I see” in Latin. So, video-assisted proprioception, or videoception, is a tool that every trainer and practitioner should master. I’m not talking about the typical practice videos seen on Instagram or Facebook. I‘m talking about using a software application to study snapshots of the get-up to fine-tune alignments and distribution of forces. Sounds geeky? It’s not (well, maybe a little). But it’s a simple 4-step process:

  1. Film yourself doing your get-up. Carefully plan your shooting angles as they are critical—more on that later.
  2. Superimpose lines on your video to check how gravity affects the weight you are carrying overhead. Appreciate that even subtle improvements can yield great results.
  3. Repeat the skill and adjust your position according to your observations. Focus on how it feels to improve your proprioception of what the optimal movement or placement should be.
  4. Repeat these three steps until you have optimized your movement.

Choose a good video analysis app or software* that allows you to draw the appropriate lines of force and keep them superimposed with your body throughout the get-up, or at least the different steps of the movement. See the footnotes for a few suggestions.

If you’re using photos instead, a simple photo-editing program will allow you to draw any kind of line connecting main joints (shoulders, hips, wrists, etc.).


Smile, you’re on Camera

The key is finding the best angle(s) to shoot those videos. Think about the feedback you seek. Some alignments are more critical than others. Do you think you lose structural alignment when going from standing to lunging? Position the camera or smartphone at your side. If you are more concerned about the elbow-to-hand transition, consider shooting from behind, with the camera closer to the ground. Look for the desirable straight line between the kettlebell, your wrist, your shoulder and your opposite sit bone that is supporting the load.

In the beginning, bell down. Execute the get-up slowly, pausing at every step to clearly analyze the movement on screen. The goal is not to capture what you do when you know you are being watched but the patterns you gravitate towards more naturally. Candid rather than rehearsed camera. You’ll probably need a few takes to find the right camera height and angle for each step, and to relax. Resist asking someone else to move around you with the camera as it will introduce camera shake that makes the feedback less reliable. Instead, leave it in a fixed and stable position, ideally on a tripod. It will allow you to experiment with fewer variables and speed up your learning.



Also, and from a quiet professional perspective, resist posting your personal coaching video on social media, mixed in with cats and bloopers. It’s a tool for your own improvement. Use it that way. It is also an excellent tool to help your students improve their technique, access their strength or increase their feeling of safety. Many of them cannot feel when they are out of alignment. Use the visual feedback to supplement the drills and cues you already provide.

Stay tuned for a follow-up article, where I explore how outlining and framing improves your get-up.

Give videoception a try and let us know what you learned from it. Share your thoughts, experiences, and comments on our StrongFirst online forum.

*Video software and apps you can try: Coach’s Eye (for iPhone), ObjectusVideo (for Mac) or their equivalent for PC (MotionPro) and Android (PowerChalk).


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Simplify your Strength Programming Using Die-Rolled Variability

Tue, 12/11/2018 - 06:00

What is the best plan for any strength or fitness goal? It’s the one that you will consistently follow. A reasonable program done consistently will deliver better results than a masterminded one that you can’t stick to. Simplifying your programming gives you more time to focus on the doing. 

Author Arryn Grogan shares his simple and effective method to determine your workload for a session and/or a week—using a 6-sided die—whether you’re planning grinds or ballistics. He finds it useful in long-term goal planning, and also when he doesn’t want to spend too much mental energy trying to mastermind the “perfect” program. This method allows you to set your parameters and get to work.


There are many great programs out there: Simple & Sinister, Soju and Tuba, Rite of Passage, Strong Endurance, Plan Strong, Program Minimum [Squared]. I could keep going. Some are very structured and regimented, while others have a little more give. The common theme between these and many more is that they’ve all been tested and thoughtfully prepared.

I’ve been training with kettlebells, and in general, since mid-2012 when I first read Enter the Kettlebell. I ordered a 16kg kettlebell along with the book and haven’t looked back since. Many out there are much stronger than me, but I take pride in the strength I’ve earned these past years.

Like others, I’ve experienced ups and downs in my life. However, strength training has been constant ever since I first picked up that one-pood bell. I credit several reasons why I’ve been able to consistently train over the years and not get burnt out or injured: discovering a purpose to be strong, striving for skill proficiency before increasing the weights lifted, absorbing information, testing (and sticking to) a program and reflecting on it, etc. But mostly, it’s because I understand and implement two of StrongFirst’s key programming components: 1) continuity of the training process and 2) waving the loads. To sum it up: continue doing the same thing, but do it a little differently over time.

The Road to my 2017 Goals—60kg Bent Press and Turkish Get-up

I formulated my plan—basing a day’s intensity on a die roll. I assigned an intensity to each die face, starting with my heaviest weight, and worked backward. Since my 1RM was around 50kg for both lifts, I chose 48kg as my top intensity and assigned it to the highest possible die roll, a six—then five = 40kg, four or three = 32kg, two = 24kg, and one = 16kg. Note the double odds to train with my middle intensity.

Each day I would roll the die, take the assigned weight, and do the planned reps. I rolled again if the die roll was the same as the previous one, to avoid repeating the same work two days in a row. I progressed intuitively, and when I felt ready, added a set or another rep. I worked at each set or rep progression for about a month, not rushing to add volume or intensity to my 4-5 weekly practice sessions. I tried to make the daily workload as easy as possible (though, not all days were, based on stress or time). I eventually reached the point (48kg x 3) where I knew I could make the 60kg lift. I did it on my first try for both lifts.


This was my first, loosely structured iteration using this method. While achieving my goals, I gained valuable insight on how to outline it for someone else to follow. Here, resulting from my learning experience, is a simple format for a structured-but-yielding program you can use to improve either your grinds or ballistics performance.

Simple Programming for Grinds and Ballistics Rules for Grinds
  • Start with a baseline: 1RM, 5RM, etc.
  • Choose your heaviest weight (die roll 6), ideally a 2 or 3RM, and work backward assigning weights for each die face.
  • Practice sessions: 3-6 times per week.
  • Roll the die every session. Do not repeat the same die roll from session to session.
  • Double your chances of rolling the middle intensity.
  • Your daily number of lifts (NL) or total reps will be Σ10-20 (per side for single-sided grinds), including your warm-up. Note that Σ is the Greek symbol for sum, meaning the total repetitions will equal this number.
  • Your heaviest weight (die roll 6) should be between 3-5 TOTAL reps. For each lighter weight, add 3-5 reps to the previous weight’s number of lifts. Leave a rep or two “in the tank” (don’t do five reps with your 5RM).
  • Vary the reps to get to your total NL (Pistol Squat w/24kg x Σ14—so do: 4, 3, 4, 3 for example).
  • Remember, “lift heavy, not hard.”
  • If you’re starting to feel very strong, take a couple of easy days (maybe even off). Then, after your preferred warm-up, test for either a 1RM or a repetition maximum with your previous 3 or 5RM weight.
Sample Pull-up (Grind) Program (excludes warm-up sets)


Rules for Ballistics
  • Choose a baseline: Rep count for TSC snatch test, a weight you cannot yet swing 100 times in 5 minutes for Simple & Sinister, etc.
  • Keep the weight the same for the length of the training block.
  • Roll the die once per week. Do not repeat the same die roll from week to week.
  • Your number of lifts (NL) for a four-week block will be between 720 and 1,800.
  • Plan your higher-volume days when you feel strongest during your week.
  • You’ll need a clock or an interval timer—you’ll perform a set at the top of each minute on most days.
  • One set is 10 repetitions on one side.
  • Train for four weeks and test on week 5, or for eight weeks and test on week 9.
  • If your NL on a day is 100 or more, do one set per minute. Otherwise, use the “talk test” to determine when to start the next set.
  • Do no other ballistics training.
  • Plan your weeks around events in your life: choose, don’t roll, a low NL if you know you’re traveling for a holiday weekend, for example.
Sample 1-Arm Swing (Ballistic) Program


This example ballistics program was an integral part of Iron Maiden Holly Myers’ training to achieve the Sinister challenge. She incorporated the die-rolled variability for swings alongside Easy Strength programming for bench press and front squats.


I think, for most people (myself included), finding the program that allows us to consistently train, free of injury, is superior to any one “workout” or an exhausting “Six Weeks to ‘This’ or ‘That’.”

So get yourself a die and give it a try. Let us know what you think in the comments or in our StrongFirst online forum.

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Something Old is New Again: Refining Your Get-up

Tue, 11/27/2018 - 06:00

Being a student of strength means having the courage to challenge habits and biases. Because of its complexity, the get-up offers many opportunities to explore, practice, and improve how we move and express our strength. Director of Education, Brett Jones, offers two get-up refinements: one that improves your body connection and another to avoid a common bridge pitfall. 

“When you talk, you are only repeating what you already know. But if you listen, you may learn something new.” Dalai Lama

As a teacher and presenter, I can fall victim to “only repeating” what I already know—it is after all what I get paid to do. But now and then, a conversation leads to making something old, new again.

A Long History: the Old

Over a decade ago, Gray Cook and I published Kettlebells From the Ground Up—Kalos Sthenos, a 36-page manual and two-DVD set covering one exercise—the get-up. Going back even further, I have been teaching the get-up since 2003 with Pavel. As one of our six core kettlebell skills in the StrongFirst curriculum, the get-up is an exercise that I have used with students at courses, certifications, and individual sessions, as well as performed in my own training countless times. As you can imagine, I’ve also practiced its many variations over the years.

Ok, ok we get it. You’ve done and taught a bunch of get-ups. So what?

Well, I recently embraced two progressions or changes to the get-up.

Heresy you say? Not at all.

New Twists on the Old

My two get-up refinements are:

  1. Changing the down arm’s position when performing the roll to the elbow.
  2. Changing the placement of the bridge, if this get-up variation is on your training menu. Remember that not every variation is right for every person (read about that here).

For the down arm’s position, I would now recommend “rolling” the arm, so the palm is up instead of having the palm down. This external rotation of the shoulder connects the arm to the body better, allows for better lat engagement, and positions the humeral head in a more open position. It also creates more of a rolling action so that instead of having to “leverage” up to the elbow there is a natural roll up. This improvement came from a conversation with Master Instructor Pavel Macek, based on how he performs and teaches the get-up. Thank you.

For the bridge, I would now recommend performing it at the elbow instead of at the hand. By bridging at the elbow, you get a “pure” hip extension and avoid the tendency to “roll” into an over-extended position at the back. A good cue here is “instead of focusing on lifting the hips high, make the distance between the bent knee and corresponding shoulder longer, pulling two ends of the rope in opposite directions—resulting in a straight rope.” Credit: Tommy Blom and Pavel Macek.

Also, remember to push your elbow down into the ground to better position the down arm and shoulder for the bridge.

What Does it Mean for Your “Regular” Get-up?

Does this mean that you “have to” change the position of the down arm for the roll to the elbow? Or that you cannot perform a bridge at the hand (high bridge)? Or that we’ve changed the get-up testing standards? No. But I do recommend that you experiment with these options—be curious about what you might learn in these new positions.

Give these a try and let us know what you think on the StrongFirst Forum. If you are unsure about the move or these progressions, find an Accredited Gym in your area to get in-person get-up instruction.

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