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From the Battlefield to Back Injury to Beast Tamer: Ollie Quinn’s Kettlebell Journey

Wed, 05/22/2019 - 02:05

Have you ever seen one of the “Army Strong” commercials? Well in the UK, there’s no stronger or more capable military unit than the Royal Marines (even though they’d be quick to point out that technically they’re part of the British Royal Navy, not the Army.) Entry into this elite commando group requires making it through a selection process every bit as grueling as the Navy SEALs’ notorious Hell Week. Only a handful of recruits making it through.

One of them is Irishman Ollie Quinn, who went on to conduct ground operations in Afghanistan and Libya, and worked as an anti-piracy boarding team member off the coast of Somalia. As he was getting out of the service, a chance encounter with StrongFirst Chairman Pavel Tsatsouline changed the trajectory of Ollie’s training, career, and life. Since then, he’s gone on to achieve his SFG Level I and II certifications, be promoted to a StrongFirst Certified Team Leader, placed first in the Elite division of StrongFirst’s global Tactical Strength Challenge, and become one of only two men in Ireland to complete the notorious StrongFirst Beast Tamer challenge. He also won a national deadlifting contest and qualified for the open division final of Ireland’s Strongest Man. We caught up with Ollie, now based in Texas, to discuss his transition from powerlifting to kettlebell training, the benefits of the StrongFirst approach for tactical athletes, and the strongman secrets of the bent press.

Ollie_Quinn_Strong_Man Why did you decide to join the Royal Marines after finishing your training as a plumber?

Growing up, I made my own fitness equipment, with a lot of help from my dad, and was into boxing. I’ve always wanted to test myself and the idea of being part of something elite appealed to me. After I finished my plumbing apprenticeship, I first tried to join the French Foreign Legion. I flew to Paris, handed over my passport, and was all ready to go. But during my medical, the doctor thought he found a heart problem. He told me to go back to Ireland and have it checked out. (It turned out to be fine after an ECG.) Around the same time, I found out that I was eligible for the Marines, so I decided to go that way instead.

How did you stay in shape while deployed?

In the Marines, when not on base/camp, you learn to create your own gym by lifting whatever heavy stuff you can get your hands on, putting a stick in a doorway as a pull-up bar, and so on. If we were on a base, we’d run on the aircraft runway. Me and a couple of others were into bodybuilding, so we’d do a lot of leg presses and back squats when the equipment was available, usually doing sets of 10 or 15 reps. It was hard not to overdo the training though because we had to be ready to go with our unit.

One time, I’d done a hard leg session on camp in Afghanistan. The next day, of course, we had to go out on the ground—the terrain was mostly muddy fields—carrying a heavy pack, a lot of water, a machine gun with 1000 rounds, a rocket launcher, etc. We came under contact. My legs were just toasted and wouldn’t do as asked. I realized that I needed to dial it (my training) back a bit. When we were on a ship though, “operation massive” was in full swing. We could train more because we didn’t have to run as much. We’d get up early, do our bodybuilding work, eat, do some more training, take a nap, and then do some bodyweight exercises and sprints as a group circuit in the afternoon.

Ollie_Quinn_Special_Forces When did you meet Pavel and what impact did he have on you?

I met him while I was transitioning out of the Marines. I was on an anti-piracy team that was training in Scotland at the time. I was getting injured a lot, and squats and deadlifts were hurting my back. That affected the running we had to do as well. I’d found a couple of kettlebell training plans designed for powerlifters, but was only scratching the surface. After I met Pavel, I signed up for his course at Paul McIlroy’s Centaur Gym in Belfast and flew back to Ireland for it. Pavel’s approach was a real eye-opener for me. I realized that I’d been doing everything wrong up until that point. I’d never thought about how to create tension, where to place my feet, or how to keep my knees aligned. Pavel had tried and tested every little detail.

What changes did you make in your training after the course?

Pavel showing me how to do the swing and get-up correctly changed everything. I stopped practicing the power lifts for a while and just focused on my technique in those two exercises. Then I added dips, single-arm presses, pull-ups, snatches, and squats, still not using a barbell. The get-up was huge for my mobility and the swing really improved my conditioning. I’d press and squat two or three times a week, do swings and get-ups in between. Suddenly my back wasn’t hurting anymore, I was much more flexible, and I could express my strength without pain.

When did you decide to share what you were learning with others and become a StrongFirst coach?

I was starting to see great results in my training and began training a few people out of my garage. When I saw the benefits they were experiencing, I decided to open my own gym—Battlebells. Most people were blown away by the StrongFirst way of doing things. They’d been used to machines or bodyweight training, and a few were powerlifters. But like me, they’d never been shown how to hinge, brace, breathe, and so on, correctly. There’s only one right way to do most things, and StrongFirst was the first to teach people how to use kettlebells and move their bodies properly. I learned that you can train hard and smart without beating your head against the wall—doing the same stuff and expecting a different result as I used to. StrongFirst can help you be stronger for longer.

What benefits does kettlebell training have for tactical athletes?

It’s huge for conditioning, explosiveness, mobility, strength, and power. Then there’s the portability factor. You can put a kettlebell in the back of your car or even take it on certain flights, and it doesn’t take up much space. When you’re in the military, you can’t have access to a gym all the time, so a minimalist approach is needed. The kettlebell is as minimal as equipment can get. You need to be ready to get somewhere quickly, climb something, and help someone at a moment’s notice, and the kettlebell gets you ready to do that. I’d rather have someone on my team who can move two 40-pound bells in a complex than a guy who has a huge bench or squat.

StrongFirst_Ollie_Quinn_Dble_Bottoms_Up You won the Elite division of the Tactical Strength Challenge and have participated in other StrongFirst tactical programs. What have you enjoyed most about them?

When it’s an in-person event, it’s good to get together with like-minded people who enjoy lifting that way and challenging themselves physically and mentally. For the Tactical Strength Challenge, doing 100 snatches with a 32kg kettlebell was one of the hardest things I’ve ever done. As you said, I won the Elite division the first year with 100 reps. Then I trained like a maniac for a whole year, expecting to increase that number. The next time I only got 101, which shows how difficult it actually is.

If you could only choose three exercises to train with from now on, what would they be and why?

First, I’d have to go with the get-up. If I could only choose one exercise, this would be it because it requires you to get into multiple different positions with strength and control. It knits everything together because you have to use your legs, upper body, and core as one. It also helps with overhead exercises like the press and snatch and opens your hips up.

Second would be the two-arm swing. It requires a lot of hip power and explosiveness and is a great strength and conditioning tool.

Third, I’d have to go with the bent press. It’s the best way to get a lot of weight overhead with one hand and forces you to be coordinated and flexible. I didn’t learn the movement until I was preparing for the SFG II cert, but once I understood it, I was hooked. People can be a bit intimidated by it, but if you can master the get-up and the windmill, you’ll be able to get it down. You’ve got to hinge, rotate, and get under the weight. I’ve actually used the bent press in strongman contests before and have won the event because the technique allows me to go heavier than with a regular press. A friend of mine told me recently that he’d seen the bent press listed as one of the events in an upcoming strongman contest and said it was probably because of me. I replied, “No—I wanted that to still be my secret weapon!”

StrongFirst_Ollie_Bent_Press Speaking of which, how does kettlebell training help you prepare for strongman contests?

Outside of the bent press, it’s all about mobility, stability, and conditioning. There are strongman kettlebell programs out there that are decent, but you must practice with the implements you’ll be using in competition. Unfortunately, kettlebells don’t come up very often. When I’m preparing for strongman, I do snatches and swings for 10 minutes on the minute and use goblet squats to warm up for heavy back squats. Then I’ll do some TGUs before log presses/dumbbell presses, and rack carries before sandbag carries.

When a new student comes to you with no kettlebell experience, what does the on-ramp look like?

We’ll start with basic concepts—how to hinge, squat, breathe, and brace. Then I’ll teach them how to do a bodyweight get-up. After that, we’ll go to kettlebell deadlifts to reinforce their hinging, and when they’re ready, we progress to two-handed swings. I’ll also have them do planks, bird dogs, and hollow holds to work on their core strength. We’ll stick to the basics three times a week for about a month. Then we’ll add in a little more volume once they’ve got the techniques down; then a bit more weight. As Pavel says, “Fatigue is rarely a good teacher,” so I don’t have people go to failure. Quality is key.

What do you like best about coaching?

I want other people to get out of kettlebell training the same things it did for me—making me feel stronger, fitter, and more mobile. After six months I’d changed everything, and I like seeing that in my students, too. When someone aces a snatch test or gets a heavy press for the first time, that’s the good stuff. It makes me happy to see others succeed. To get them to that point, I have to get them to trust the process and be more patient. Many people want to just do bench presses or deadlifts, or try some fancy exercise they’ve seen online. For me, it’s a matter of giving them a little bit of what they want so I can give them a lot of what they need.

StrongFirst_Ollie_Quinn_Stone How would you define a life well-lived?

One of the most important things is trying to find your true calling. It’s hard to do that these days because there’s so much pressure on people to succeed. They think they have to go to school and study this to get that job, but then come out with all this debt and have no clue what they are truly meant for. I think you should do something you’re passionate about because it will make you happy. And do it with a lot of love. That can create a ripple effect that spreads outwards. We all have a unique gift that we should share with others. Society defines success by financial measures, so we’re all chasing another dollar. But after you have enough to live comfortably, more money won’t make you any more content. We need to find other ways to live fulfilling lives.

The post From the Battlefield to Back Injury to Beast Tamer: Ollie Quinn’s Kettlebell Journey appeared first on StrongFirst.

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Getting to the Bottom of a Great Pistol Squat: 3 Tips to Improve Yours

Tue, 05/14/2019 - 12:01

The pistol squat is one of the hallowed movements among fitness lovers—especially bodyweight aficionados. While they’re not for everyone, if they’re in your repertoire you want them to be as clean as possible. A great pistol is smooth like a hot spoon through ice cream and effortless like this is how I always pick up my keys when I drop them. It is a classic demonstration of strength, balance, and mobility that is guaranteed to make you feel superhuman. Pistols require precise coordination of nearly every muscle in your body. Even advanced practitioners can feel sluggish, lopsided, or disharmonious as they move, especially at the bottom of the squat. These glitches can be corrected with some focused effort on what’s going on behind the scenes.

Hit the Bottom of the Pistol

If you’ve been training pistol squats for some time and you’re still stumped by the bottom range of motion (ROM), you’re not alone. Falling backward, tightness through the leg joints, loss of balance, and loss of confidence are all common puzzles for the would-be pistoler. In response to all four issues, there is a sketchy tactic that seems like a good solution but rarely is: the Slam ‘N’ Bounce. This is a high-speed drop which bounces your hamstrings against your calf to get past the sticking point. Moving fast might get you upright again, but training without addressing the problem is Sisyphean at best. Plus it skips the concept of skill mastery. Good news for Slam ‘N’ Bouncers who would like to get the rock to the top of the hill: you don’t have to sacrifice your knee and your strict pistol credibility to learn this lift. The way across the breach is through the elegance of physics, geometry, and biomechanics. Here are three simple corrections to help you cut the crusts off your stale pistol squat and feast on the delicious center instead.

Befriend the Low Single-leg Squat

Of all the things that can inhibit a clean pistol, simply being uncomfortable at the bottom range of motion is the most common. It’s a long way down, and many of your joints are moving quickly into compromised positions. As with any end-ROM work, your brain is the governor of the action and it will slam on the brakes if it is scared you’ll get hurt. This can not only lead to a reduction of ROM but also pain and loss of balance. Therefore, being comfortable with the low single-leg squat by itself is a requirement before trying to move into or out of it.

First try crouching down on two legs, and then shifting your weight onto one leg and see if you can steady yourself. Note: if you cannot get to a clean crouch on two feet, you probably have some work to do before attempting it on one foot. Checking your ankle and foot mobility is a good place to start. If your free-leg hip flexor gets cranky in this hyper-contracted position, you can put your heel on a furniture slider or towel and slowly slide the leg in and out. You’ll need to be able to pick it up eventually, but this is a good middle ground for practice.

Be patient while you experiment with this low hold. The bottom of a squat isn’t as biomechanically powerful as the middle of a squat so it isn’t supposed to feel that way. (Can you imagine Lebron sinking into a frog shape before taking a jump shot?) Don’t let the sensation of weakness at the bottom flummox you. Just because it’s less strong does not mean it’s not strong. The more time you spend down there the better you’ll understand where you are and aren’t yet capable.

Understand Your Tension Volume

The second mistake in pistol squatting is misunderstanding which parts of your body should be tense and which ought to be more relaxed. Logistically, it makes sense to try and squeeze your leg as hard as possible in order to generate the tension you need under load. But these social norms are better for pull-ups and deadlifts, whereas pistols prefer to be part of the counterculture. Rather than letting your lower body stiffen up, it’s your upper body which should be braced. This leaves your base leg more relaxed to fold up into live-action origami.

When you’re beginning the pistol, establish a strong front-to-back pull from your hips to your fingertips. This should happen before you ever start moving downwards because it will keep your center of mass right where you want it: centered. Most pistol disciples already understand that their hips must move backward, but many don’t realize that they need an equal and opposite reaction to the front. Reach your arms, shoulders, and even collarbones towards the wall in front of you, trying to touch it. Don’t reach for something ten feet away. Reach for twenty. You are searching for the sensation that your fingers and tailbone are in a tug of war, each pulling as hard as they can against the other. As you lower down, you’ll need to keep reaching your hands ever more forward, to continue counterbalancing your booty. If you do this properly, the end result will be a well-balanced torso, stabilized over the arch of the foot at every portion of the movement.

Synchronize Your Joint Action

The third mistake preventing you from a full ROM pistol is forgetting about joint rhythm. All of your joint movements should be synchronized, and errors usually happen when uncertainty creeps in. You might start aggressively folding at the hip, leaving your knee to catch up later. Or maybe you’re so focused on trying to sit back into your heel and glutes that you lose pressure between your toes and the floor. Don’t forget that your weight should sit in the center of the foot, not the heel—so you are using the springy arch to balance—and that it’s perfectly fine to let your knee come forward a bit over the toes. A well-executed squat should spread your foot bones and simultaneously flex (or extend) the ankle, knee, hip, spine, and shoulders. You will feel an equal pull and push in every one of these joints as you descend and ascend. The idea is that every joint’s ROM converges at the bottom and then diverges again as you return to standing. It’s this beautiful body folding which makes a pistol squat look effortless.

It is critical to move in a smooth, pain-free manner. If the bottom of your pistol squat feels tight or oblique, you’ll want to mitigate any threats on the way. If it’s simply that your leg tissues aren’t strong enough to handle a deep single-leg squat, try holding onto a fixed bar, a light kettlebell for a counterweight, or working the negative descent until you can lower yourself with control. These can all help your alignment stay on track while you develop the necessary strength.

If you’re limited by poor ankle or hip mobility, start developing those concurrently. The movement of the knee is global: the subtalar joint and the hip joint both contribute directly to knee function and dysfunction. You’ll need good ankle dorsiflexion and good hip adductor strength to complete a good pistol. As tempting as it may be, never force your joints through a restricted or painful ROM. As they (sort of) say, pride goeth before the degenerating medial meniscus.

Progress Your Pistol

As you understand your pistol squat better, you’ll start looking for ways to make it more difficult. The traditional approach is to systematically increase the weight you’re holding, and there is room for that in a program. However, after reaching a quality loaded pistol, I find the challenge of leverage changes to be smarter, safer, and more interesting than struggling to hoist a giant and gianter kettlebell to your chest. To change leverage, simply modify your arm position to mess with the front-to-back pull we discussed earlier. A small shift can make you feel like a beginner all over again. In increasing level of difficulty, try crossing your arms over your chest, clasping them behind your head, or even folding them behind your lower back. You will still need your push-pull tension through your upper body, but the moment arm will be altered (you’ll have less counterbalance), so don’t be surprised if you butt plant a few times while trying. And if you’d like to make any version of a pistol much harder, close your eyes. Make sure that you aren’t sacrificing fluid movement through the joints while scrapping to keep your balance.

Alongside technique, the preconditions for long-term pistol squat development are consistency and patience. Always give your body time to learn what you’d like it to do. Practice confidence in unfamiliar body positions, a strong and steady torso, and excellent balance. This increased self-awareness will help give you the pistol squat you’ve always dreamed of showing off.

Try these tips out and let us know how it goes in the comments below or in the StrongFirst online forum.

The post Getting to the Bottom of a Great Pistol Squat: 3 Tips to Improve Yours appeared first on StrongFirst.

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Are You Training in Your Now or in Your Then: Residual Self-Image

Tue, 05/07/2019 - 08:18

“Your appearance now is what we call residual self-image. It is the mental projection of your digital self.”

Morpheus from the Matrix

The Matrix trilogy provided not only groundbreaking special effects but also quite a few insights into “self” as Neo navigated his journey. Questioning reality in some ways, but also what it means to be “you.” The scene quoted above begins before Neo is inserted into a computer program. In it, he is bald, in different clothes, and has implants in his arms, etc… But once inserted into the computer program, his appearance is that of when he was part of the Matrix, complete with hair, no implants, and different clothes.


Why is this important? (Other than reminding you it is time to watch the trilogy again?)

Because we are all operating on some level of residual self-image.

“The past is not simply the past, but a prism through which the subject filters (their) own changing self-image.”

Doris Kearns Goodwin

And before you start to argue…read on…(I’ll even tie it into training.)

What Self-Image Are You Operating Under?

Have you ever had to restart your training practice? Maybe an injury, illness or family/job situation interrupted your training. And after a few weeks (or maybe longer), you were ready to hop back into your practice. Did you try to start back where you were before the interruption?

If you did then you were operating on residual self-image. The mental projection of your previous “self” brought into a future where you are not actually the same person.

Think about it for a bit. Or think about “Uncle Rico” from Napoleon Dynamite.


“Uncle Rico” was absolutely operating on residual self-image. He was the high school football star he always imagined or actually was back then.

We have all met people who operate from residual self-image. The specifics of that version of themselves is highly variable. Maybe it is their peak high school memory or when they felt they were at their best or had accomplished something significant in their life. What establishes the point of residual self-image is variable but the fact that we bring it with us is not.

“I didn’t realize I had gained weight.” Or “I didn’t realize how out of shape I had become.” These are both demonstrations of residual self-image. We keep a “picture” of ourselves at our best (or worst) and have a very hard time seeing the reality of the current us.

Back to Training…

I have said in other articles to “meet people where they are, and you’ll be surprised where you can take them.” And residual self-image ties into this as well. We must provide an accurate current self-analysis to create the best program for the individual. As they are, not as they were or even as they see themselves. Especially if that individual is returning to training after some time off. This “tough love” is not easy to give, and not always welcomed with open arms.

A couple of important pieces of information here:

Conditioning drops pretty quickly (as quickly as 7-12 days).

“Coyle, Martin, and Holloszy (1984) studied endurance athletes who had been training for 10 years. VO2max decreased by 7, 13, and 15 percent after 12, 56, and 84 days. Stroke volume decreased by 11% after 12 days. Exercise stroke volume and HR-max did not change any further after 12 days, with maximum cardiac output remaining 7-9% below that of the trained state. Thus, maximum cardiac output reduction occurs mostly in the first 12 days, while VO2max and mitochondrial activity continue to decline for some time after that before stabilizing.” Rundell, K. W. (1994). Strength and endurance: Use it or lose it. Olympic Coach, 4(1), 7-9. 

Strength maintains for longer.

“Reductions are relatively small during the first few months following cessation of training. Some researchers have shown:

(a) no loss of strength was noted after cessation of a three-week training program, and
(b) only 45% of the original strength gained from a 12-week training program was lost after one year’s removal from the program.” Wilmore, J., & Costill, D. (1988). Physiological adaptations to physical training. In Training for sport and activity, Chapter 11. Dubuque, IA: Wm. C. Brown

Why is this important?

There is a difference between a weekend off and missing training long enough to enter into detraining. This is why I don’t worry about vacations and brief periods of time off. In fact, students typically come back from short training breaks having rested, restored, and super-compensated, and are ready to progress their training.

Getting Back to Reality

Regardless, the first sessions back to training after a longer break should be “easy.” Knocking off the dust, greasing your joints and firing patterns. Even though strength maintains for a very long time, we still want to ease back in to allow tissues to adapt to the stress. The same goes for conditioning: start with easy sessions (maybe Maffetone level work) or longer rest periods between sets of swings, etc.

If you have hit the detraining windows of time off of training, look back at your training log to a beginning program that was successful for you. It might mean rebooting training for Simple instead of hopping back into training for Sinister.

In conclusion, answering the question of whether you are operating on residual self-image is one that only you can answer. And this is where having certain “benchmarks” in place can be helpful. Knowing where you are performing on certain benchmarks (like a snatch test for example) can be a good way to keep up on the current self-image, not the past. This is also where a good coach and StrongFirst certified instructor or StrongFirst Accredited Gym can be effective.

And enjoy the Matrix trilogy.

The post Are You Training in Your Now or in Your Then: Residual Self-Image appeared first on StrongFirst.

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Consistency Trumps Intensity—The Continuity of the Training Process

Tue, 04/30/2019 - 12:09

Adapting to load is what makes us stronger. But because training loads can be manipulated in so many ways—intensity, magnitude, repetition, duration, frequency, direction, speed, acceleration, exercise, equipment, sequence, rest, etc.—some people get paralyzed by the seemingly overwhelming options; frozen by the insecurity of making a wrong choice. Too many do nothing. Others bounce around, always looking for the next best thing. Neither approach is productive, but there is an elegant and deceptively simple solution. Find what works…and do it. Consistently. For the long game. That’s how we honor the continuity of the training process.

Back when I went through my first StrongFirst Certification in 2014, I learned three principles that form the foundation for our training. They were Continuity of the Training Process, Wave the Load, and Specialized Variety. (It has evolved a bit since then—recertify to get your new manual—but the context remains unchanged for the most part.) And while I intuitively understood wave the load and specialized variety, I couldn’t quite grasp the deeper meaning of continuity. But five years later, I appreciate the reason it gets mentioned first, having recognized in my own training practice that it has made the biggest impact.

In regards to my strength training and fitness, two people have shaped me into who I am today. The first person is our Chairman and Founder, Pavel Tsatsouline. The second person is Dan John. When I first picked up a copy of their Easy Strength book, several years before my SFG, I instantly fell in love with its simple and sustainable approach to building lasting strength: persistent practice. Though I don’t really remember reading the specific word “continuity,” the message was clear and compelling, and it would become one of my important life lessons, even though it would take me another year or so to actually begin executing.

When Fate Calls: The SFG

Fast forward to the fall of 2014 and the second ever SFG kettlebell instructor certification in the Republic of Korea. I knew I wanted to become certified, but I couldn’t commit. I decided to wait another year. Then Woochae Yoon, Senior Instructor, approached me to be the event’s translator. While he couldn’t offer me a salary—he did give me a new Beast (48kg kettlebell) as a thank you—he promised an invaluable learning opportunity that I could not refuse. But then I realized: fate was testing me—either I show up here, now, and all-in, or live to regret it forever. I did not see myself passing the 5-minute snatch test but still, I signed up as a candidate a few days before the event. I was going to learn from the best.

How did it go? Well, despite failing the snatch and strength tests (back then men had to do five reps of pull-ups or chin-ups) and the increased mental and physical challenges from playing both interpreter and student roles, it was one of the best weekends of my life. And one of the hardest. Imagine practicing drills to the exacting standards then immediately shifting into translator mode for Master Instructor Jon Engum and others while everyone else rested. I barely squeaked by the technique tests. And honestly, I don’t remember much of the graduation practice workout. Hey, don’t get me wrong, I still loved and embraced the “suck”—maybe it’s the former Marine in me.

Assisting Master Instructor Jon Engum with translation at my SFG, Seoul, 2014 Post SFG 90-day Window of Opportunity: Now What?

Thankfully, having passed my technique tests, I was granted a ninety-day window to submit videos for my snatch and strength tests. But I initially had no idea how to get myself ready for the next ninety days. That’s when I reflected on the SFG programming lecture. Master Instructor Jon Engum stressed having faith in what you have learned and to continuously practice. So I picked up my SFG manual, my notes from Easy Strength and another Dan John book, Intervention, and came up with a plan. When it comes to continuity, Pavel and Dan stress practicing the fundamental movements (push/pull/hinge/squat/loaded carries) every day. So that’s what I did.  

My plan (all kettlebell exercises using snatch size or lighter KB unless otherwise stated):
  • 3 sets of 5 goblet squats
  • 1 get-up per side
  • 2 sets of fifteen two-handed swings
  • 2-3 sets of 3 reps of one-handed military press
  • 2-3 sets of 3 pull-ups
  • 1 get-up per side with 32kg (basically a bell heavier than snatch size)
  • A total 8-14 sets of ten one-handed swings with the 32kg; or the same volume of 24kg snatches.

I trained this program every day (excluding Sundays) for the next three months. I waved the overall load and volume depending on how I felt that day and continued to pound it out. Around week ten, I felt really strong and decided to test the simple standards from Kettlebell Simple & Sinister. I was shocked by finishing within the allotted time and with relative ease. That’s when it sunk in: continuously improving my program’s fundamentals had gotten me this far and would get me my SFG certification.

So, on day 85, I chose to test myself. On video of course (and just in case). I finished the snatch test with almost ten seconds to spare and grinded out five pull-ups. I’m a certified SFG! Trusting and continuing the process worked!

After a month, reality set in…since you don’t go to school for just a weekend and never come back. You keep on coming back over and over. That meant that I would either need to go on and become an SFG II or recert somehow within the next two years. Back then, my bodyweight required a Beast press for my SFG II half-bodyweight strength test (I’ve since dropped a few pounds and now only need to press the 44kg), which seemed like a totally impossible task. And the 5-minute snatch test…it gave me the shivers just thinking about doing it again. Honestly, if someone had said to me “Joey, the press and snatch test will be the least of your worries in the next 3-4 years,” I would have asked if they’d been hit on the head.

Double duty as the interpreter and assistant at Seoul SFG, February 2019 Continuity for a Long Game

Since I knew that maintaining my SFG instructor credentials was important and pursuing SFG II was in my future, I decided to have faith in the exact program that got me my certification. This became the bread and butter of my training. Over time, I added Original Strength Resets, and gradually increased the load (today I goblet squat/getup/press with the 36-44kg for my warm-up) and volume over time. I would do other pressing or barbell programs after the “warm-up,” but this 30-40 minute “warm-up” itself would be a solid session. It’s this simple plan, practiced almost daily, that has made me much stronger over the last four years.

But what about going really hard? Personally, I have no issues with doing a very intense program from time to time to address a particular lift or issue. However, it can only be sustained for so long; always pressing the pedal to the metal is a recipe for getting hurt—the opposite of a sustainable strength practice. But doing the above “warm-up program” on a nearly daily basis will get you stronger over time in a much safe and more sustainable fashion. Just feel free to go up a size when you feel that the current bell you are using feels too easy. As for barbell training, I just picked two lifts to cycle (bench press and deadlift or military press and back squat) with the Power to the People program 2-3 times a week. I also highly recommend the Daily Dose Deadlift program 3-4 times a week for the deadlift if you consider yourself an intermediate deadlifter.

Yes, I have done other relatively intense programs, from my Soju and Tuba or the Fighter Pullup Program, to lifting with Plan StrongTM and practicing Strong EnduranceTM protocols. But continuing to “warm-up” with the fundamental movements is what really set a solid foundation for my success with the higher intensity programs. And on days I didn’t feel like lifting, this “warm-up” would always be a solid session.    

The Proof is in the Results

And what happened in the five years that followed my SFG I? I recertified my SFG I a total of four times, my SFG II and SFL twice. Yes, the imaginary person I accused of being hit on the head was actually right! The last time I recertified was on February 21st, 2019, through the new unified recertification (recertifying all designations at one event). That day I pressed the 44kg without even hissing, broke the 4-minute barrier on the snatch test, and pulled a double bodyweight deadlift off the floor very explosively without even grinding. Progress indeed!

How was this possible? I continued the training process. Day in, day out, on an average of four times a week consistently for nearly five years. And the day I went through the unified recertification, the true context of the Continuity of the Training Process finally clicked. Oh, and just for the record, I pressed the Beast three times on each side, pulled 2.3 times my bodyweight on the deadlift, and benched 265 pounds (25 pounds more than SFL test weight) with ease very recently.

Joey-Yang-SFGII-Beast-Press Pressing the Beast three times on each side Deadlifting 2.3 times bodyweight So in a Nutshell, What is Continuity?
  • Continuity means to show up.
  • Continuity means to never give up.
  • Continuity means consistency will ALWAYS trump intensity.
  • Continuity means little and often over the long haul (quoting legendary track coach Ralph Maughan).
  • Continuity is training consistently for progress while increasing volume and load.

To my brothers and sisters in strength as well as those who have yet to officially join our community, I hope this article on Continuity helps to add more context to the first ethos of our Code, “I am a Student of Strength.” Trust in what you have learned, continue to practice it on a regular basis, and good things will happen eventually. I would like to take this opportunity to give a shout out to StrongFirst Certified Senior Instructor Woochae Yoon for finally giving me a cause to show up, and to my mentors, Master Instructor Jon Engum and Senior Instructor Dr. Mark Cheng, for their guidance.

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How I Became a World Record Holder

Tue, 04/23/2019 - 07:51

Training for a world record requires grit. Many may approach the challenge preparation by continually pushing for more “burn.” But there is another effective, sustainable, and arguably superior way. Training to avoid (or at least delay) the unfavourable internal conditions that lead to failure or reduced performance. And it doesn’t just work to break records.

In April 2017 I had a crazy idea. I was going to attempt to beat the Guinness World Record for ‘Heaviest Weight Lifted by Kettlebell Swing in One Hour’ by a woman.

I was organising a charity event to raise money for the MS Society, as my dad suffers severely from the illness, and thought a world record attempt would help with fundraising. After all, “strength has a greater purpose.”

The rules specified by Guinness were simple: only two-arm swings were acceptable, with hips and knees fully extended at lockout and arms at least parallel to the floor. On the downswing, the kettlebell “must go beyond the participant’s knees when they reach the squat position.” Clearly, their rules are different than at StrongFirst, but our standard-meeting swing would meet their requirements. The current female record stood at 20,816kg.

Since I used swings in many of my training sessions, I considered myself to be well-conditioned. While I knew it would be challenging, I felt confident that I could beat the current record. My belief was quickly tested when I began training.

Setting Goals and Making Decisions

My attempt would take place in July 2017; I had three months and many decisions to make. I decided to use the same size bell for the duration of the attempt. Swinging a 32kg bell was normal for me, but I figured my grip would fatigue after multiple sets. Instead, I opted for 24kg as this was my ‘comfortable’ bell.

I would aim for 1,000 hardstyle swings in the hour (24,000kg in total). I knew this would be a challenge but seemed achievable with consistent training. Swinging 20 reps each minute on the minute (EMOTM) for 50 of the minutes would get me 1,000 swings. Nearer the time I would decide how I was going to use the remaining 10 minutes’ rest.

I started by testing where I was at: I managed 15 swings with 24kg on the minute for 25 minutes (375 swings; 9,000kg). It was tough—much harder than I thought it would be, especially on my grip. By the end, I struggled to hold on to the kettlebell. It suddenly became apparent just how much practice I would have to do and how smartly I would need to train.


To succeed, I needed to focus on improving three areas: my endurance, my power, and my grip. After my baseline session, I also realised how much of a mental challenge this was going to be. So I decided to keep training simple and focussed on the goal.

Plan and Perform: Endurance and Power

I programmed three sessions per week, focussing on either endurance or power using Strong Endurance™ anti-glycolytic principles: “to train to avoid (or at least delay) the unfavourable internal conditions that lead to failure or reduced performance.”

The key point when following this type of training is it shouldn’t be strenuous. While that might sound counterintuitive, it is common throughout Russian programs (that have produced countless champions). Each rep should be a repeat of the first strong, powerful rep. If you are training and start to lose power or form, lose the ability to breathe normally and recover in rest periods, or start to feel “the burn,” you must stop. This is not negotiable.

Those signs indicate you are building up metabolic waste faster than you can deal with it. Anti-glycolytic principles suggest avoiding this as much as possible in order to target the oxidative system, which has far greater endurance than our short-term energy sources. My goal was to spend as much of the record attempt avoiding energy debt, so my power output didn’t drop.

I based my higher volume endurance sessions around using a lighter bell, either 18kg or 20kg, aiming for 15–20 reps EMOTM, starting with 25 minutes.

I also included some one-arm swings as part of my endurance training. Although I couldn’t use them during my record attempt, I knew they would strengthen my grip. I had originally included farmer’s walks in the program but soon found the one-arm swings were actually more useful.

For my power sessions, I used a heavier bell, either 28kg or 32kg. I aimed for 10–15 minutes to start with, capped at a maximum of 10 reps EMOTM.


To get the training adaptation I needed, I was sure to follow Strong Endurance™ principles during both endurance and power sessions. If I couldn’t perform reps following those guidelines, I stopped.

Assess and Adjust

By June, training had gone well: my baseline endurance improved and I started to use the 24kg for my endurance sessions. My fitness felt good and I wasn’t losing power despite the weight increase. However, I quickly became aware that I wasn’t going to be able to do 20 swings on the minute for a prolonged period with the 24kg. My grip still wasn’t strong enough to hold the kettlebell for that many reps over a longer period of time and I was beginning to struggle after around 20 minutes. My forearms began to burn—a big no-no.

So I went back to the drawing board to test different rep ranges. 10 swings every 30 seconds worked best. This way I was still hitting 20 reps per minute, but the 15 seconds or so between sets was allowing my grip to recover. Mid-June, I performed 700 swings (16,800kg) in 35 minutes fairly easily following this structure.

My final training session before the record attempt lasted 50 minutes. I wanted to replicate the time I’d be swinging for but with reduced rep volume. I did a very easy 15 swings EMOTM using the 24kg bell and without ripping my hands (something I’d been very careful to avoid throughout training).

Mind Games

In terms of overcoming the mental challenge, every night before I went to sleep I spent 10 minutes visualising the last 10 minutes of the record attempt. How would I be feeling physically in those last 10 minutes? What would I be thinking? How painful could my hands be?

One big thing to take from this is: if you believe you can, then you can. In the times I felt like giving up, what kept me going most was the knowledge that I was able to even attempt something like this when many other people—like my dad—would give anything just to be able to walk. I was lucky enough to have a strong, healthy body. I was going to use it.

The Big Day

I was extremely nervous, but as we had already raised over £4,000 (approximately US$5,000) for the MS Society, I was determined to beat the record. I felt physically and mentally prepared and, in my mind, there was no way I was going to fail.


The first 45 minutes weren’t so bad and everything was going to plan. Then, with 15 minutes to go, my right hand tore badly—I still have the scar. That didn’t stop me and I kept going to the end. I now know the true definition of blood, sweat, and tears.

In total, I performed 1,012 swings in the hour, of which 989 were adjudged to meet Guinness standards. The bell I used was officially weighed at 24.1kg, giving me a total of 23,834.9kg. I had beaten the existing record by over 3,000kg!


There was nothing complicated about my program and I’m not special. The keys to my success were intelligent and sustainable programming, hard work, consistency, and the determination that comes from knowing “strength has a greater purpose.”

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Five Energy Leaks to Plug so Your Strength Gains Flow

Tue, 04/16/2019 - 09:25

As we continue our pursuit of strength, we are regularly threatened by a stealthy nemesis that rears its head between us and our goals. Lying dormant from the very beginning of our journey, this common enemy waits patiently for the perfect moment to strike—just as we think we are going to progress and often, costing us what seemed like doubtless personal records. This sneaky saboteur is what we call energy leaks. Energy leaks are often physical, but they can also be mental.

We all know that well-applied tension is our ally. The ability to create more makes us stronger. Our inability to develop or to channel it appropriately makes us less strong. Often, when using lighter weights, many of us cheat our tension. We don’t generate the max contractions, needed for heavier lifts, which can lead to “bad” habits—causing us not to notice the places where we may be losing energy.

At StrongFirst, we approach our training as a practice rather than a workout. We want to be intensely mindful of how we are feeling, what we are feeling, and making sure we know what to do with these valuable inputs. Arnold Schwarzenegger has attributed much of his success to an ability to maximize his concentration on every single rep. I have heard Pavel, Fabio, Phil Scarito, Dr. Michael Hartle, and many others talk about this same idea over and over again. Starting with the set-up, you want to focus intently on what you are doing—not just go through mindless motions until your ‘workout’ is done. This the difference between training with a purpose and training to maximize sweat.

Energy Often Leaks Through the Same Holes

Through the years, I have watched many people perform a great variety of lifts: from one rep maximum attempts to students becoming SFG, SFG II, SFL, SFB instructors, to individuals attempting Beast Tamer/ Iron Maiden challenges. And in most failed attempts, energy leaks from the same holes. The good news is that with intentional practice, we can all improve over time. First, we start with awareness: identifying those leaks. Then we can focus on honing ways to do whatever we are doing better—by plugging those holes with tension.

Before I get into the ‘plumbing,’ keep in mind that the purpose of a drill is to improve a skill. “Do the drill, work the skill,” as Phil Scarito says. Before using a drill, get a baseline of the skill you want to improve. Then practice the drill with a focus on what part of the skill you need to improve. Finally, recheck your skill to assess if the drill worked. If you see improvement, work the drill/skill again. If not, choose another drill. Remember: any progress is progress.

Next, I’m going to address five common leaks and present a few suggestions for how to plug them.

  • Joints
  • Losing the Shoulder-Hip Lateral Connection
  • Glute-less Pushups
  • Flexing in the Deadlift or Extending in the Press
  • Mindlessness
Leak: Joints

We all know that our joints are a common site of tension leakage.

Plug the Leak with a Solid Lock Out

Lock your joints out—problem solved. At StrongFirst, we learn and practice harnessing the power of irradiation. We know how it can be hampered by not locking a joint out—an instant kink in the chain. Let’s be clear that we are talking about fully extending your joints—something that they are designed to do despite what pop-fitness magazines want you to believe—not hyperextending them.

Plug the Leak by Building Strength at Your Desired End Range

Joints that hyperextend typically distribute forces in a less optimal way which can limit the expression of strength. Those leaks benefit first from awareness, and next from building strength at the desired end range.

StrongFirst-Press-Lockout Leak: Losing the Shoulder-Hip Lateral Connection

Another common energy leak happens during the single-arm press. I have seen people miss their ½ or ⅓ bodyweight press during their SFG II and miss their Beast Tamer/Iron Maiden press. (I was one of those people.) I have also seen people just squeak out a press while ‘leaking.’ The leak is losing our lateral tie between shoulder and hip. You sometimes spot the leak in a poor crossbody connection. But I want to address the lack of strength in the same side connection. The way this particular leak presents itself is by opening up the same side oblique, or leaning the torso away from the weight as it moves upwards. Many factors can contribute to this leak: lack of focus, practicing bad habits, or lack of strength in our lateral muscles. I like to think most problems can be fixed by simply becoming stronger.

Plug the Leak with Single-Arm Farmer Carries

My go-to drill to help someone stop side-flexing as they press is to work on single-arm farmer carries. Now you want to go heavy with this drill, however, not so heavy that you can’t feel anything tied into place. You want to feel a strong connection between the working arm shoulder and the opposing hip. The obliques on the unloaded side should be firing as well. I see people practice single-arm carries with too heavy of a load which further patterns bad habits. You don’t develop skill-transfer when you butcher the drill. Focus on feeling the movements in all of the right places.

Single-Arm-Farmer-Carry Plug the Leak with Hanging Single-Sided Shoulder Packing

Another drill that does a tremendous job of tying together your same-side shoulder and hip is the hanging single-sided shoulder pack drill. This drill is used to help solidify your position during hanging leg raises and pull-ups. It also enables you to create and feel more tension in places where leaks commonly occur.

Leak: Glute-less Pushups

Another common way that energy leaks present themselves is during a one-arm pushup. What you may see or feel is a loss of tension in just one of your glute cheeks. While a bit of self-inflicted palpation can help remedy the leak by drawing attention to the region, it’s usually only a temporary solution. Luckily, we have a few effective leak-plugging drills that almost instantly make you stronger.

Plug the Leak with Single-Leg Deadlifts

At a Bodyweight course a few years back, Master Instructor Phil Scarito used a single-leg deadlift to improve a one-arm pushup. The key is to pattern the movement and build strength using a heavy, contralaterally loaded weight (hold the kettlebell in the opposite hand of the leg that is doing the deadlift). Start with the skill (one-arm pushup). Then do the drill (single-leg deadlift). Remember to focus on the aspect of the skill that you are working to improve. In this case, it’s making sure both glutes are working in conjunction with your shoulders or successfully tying the “X” together as I like to say. Then work the skill again (one-arm pushup) to see if you’ve improved.

Plug the Leak with Single-Arm Swings

Another drill that helps to tie the “X” together or to make sure your glutes are firing is heavy single-arm swings. I like to perform anywhere from 5-10 reps focusing on cramping my glutes at the lockout. Once they feel locked in and like I am getting an even squeeze from both sides, I go back to the one-arm pushup. Play with your foot width during the swings and find what placement gives you the best feeling of glute activation. Apply that to your one-arm pushup position and see if that helps. Remember, it’s about trial and error, searching for what works for you.

Denzel-Allen-Single-Arm-Swing Leak: Flexing in the Deadlift or Extending in the Press

Another common energy leak is an inability to maintain a neutral spine in the sagittal plane (front to back movements). It presents itself as either going into flexion during a deadlift or extension during the barbell military press. While a lot of things can contribute to this, core weakness is a common culprit.

Plug the Leak with Double-Racked Farmer Carries

An often overlooked and underutilized movement is the double-racked farmer carry. Clean two heavy bells to their appropriate front racked position, and, while keeping a tall spine, walk around making sure to keep the work in your lats, shoulders, and abs, and nothing in your low back. Maintaining this vertical plank helps to create trunk rigidity which transfers nicely to many other skills. A word of wisdom: don’t pair these with a deadlift or overhead press day.

StrongFirst-Double-Rack-Carries Plug the Leak with Double Kettlebell Swings

Another impressive skill that helps enhance your posture during deadlifts and barbell military presses is a heavy double kettlebell swing. The feedback is quick and ruthless: if you lose your vertical plank, the kettlebells pull you off of your feet. We do not want this. We want to root our feet into the ground and cement the vertical plank on every swing. Keeping a neutral spine throughout and finding the tension to keep us planted at the top of the swing transfer precisely to keeping our neutral posture throughout our deadlift and military press.

SFGII-Double-Swing-DV8 Leak: Mindlessness

The final common energy leaks are different as they result in the body but start in the mind. They are a lack of focus and lack of belief. Both result in loss of tension which robs us of strength and performance for the time being.

Plug the Leak with Focus and Belief

I remember during my Beast Tamer training, I was guilty of both of these energy leaks. I allowed energy to slip away due to a lack of focus. I tried doing it all. But that resulted in my losing focus on the goal. Also, I didn’t believe that I could press the Beast so I approached the bell timidly. I was afraid to clean the bell and get into the racked position, which stole my strength as I shied away from the tension needed. Do not let these two energy leaks knock you off the rails. Believe in yourself and trust in the process. If you focus on the task at hand, day in and day out, then the belief should appropriately follow suit.

StrongFirst-Mindful-Training Conclusion

Something you may have noticed by now is how seamlessly barbell, kettlebell, and bodyweight skills work together. Each system feeds into the other. Learning how to do something better with the barbell, kettlebell or bodyweight transfers to the next tool. While it is never about the modality, certain tools can help you learn a skill better than others. And each person is going to be different so the deeper the bag you have, the better.

“An inch wide and a mile deep” is the way StrongFirst operates. Each course or certification you attend allows you to go deeper and deeper. Every new skill or drill increases your ability to spot and get rid of any energy leak you may come across. When you plug your leaks with strength and tension, you get instantly stronger. We all want that in the end because the opposite is not a desirable option.

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The Specificity-Transfer Trade-off

Tue, 04/09/2019 - 07:56

Specificity and transfer are two of the most important considerations for any strength and conditioning program. If you don’t consider both of these variables carefully, you are not really programming at all. Specificity refers to the principle that you get specific adaptations to imposed demands (often referred to as the SAID principle). You get better at what you train. Transfer refers to the degree to which a strength and conditioning program transfers benefits to the field of play or real-world activities. It would be great to think that you could simply design a program to maximize both of these important variables, but to some extent, training for one compromises the other. You have to make a trade-off decision between specificity and transfer. All training programs involve trade-off decisions.

Let’s illustrate this trade-off with a quick example. Then we’ll explore specificity and transfer in a bit more detail, and finally, I’ll make some recommendations regarding the appropriate amount of trade-off and what that means in terms of writing strength and conditioning programs.

Specialization works, but it comes at a cost. The primary cost is transfer. When you think about sports activities or everyday life activities, they are not isolated to a few angles, ranges of motion or movement speeds. There is no way that 3-4 lifts can train for all of the possibilities. The way to get transfer is variety. However, there is a trade-off. Too much variety can compromise progress towards developing strength and power. If you have too much variety, you never perform a lift often enough to really progress. You can’t really increase your bench press optimally if you are only bench pressing once per month.


The figure above illustrates the relationship. When you have a lot of specificity, you generally have less transfer and vice versa. Strength sports athletes, who compete in one or a handful of lifts, like powerlifters or Olympic lifters, are not concerned with transfer to activities outside of the weight room. Their end goal is to improve their weight room lifts, specifically the competitive lifts. On the other end of the spectrum, you have programs like Crossfit, which contain a large amount of variability. A specific lift may not be performed twice in a 3-4 month period. In the middle is where most “ball sport” athletes train, where there is generally a strength bias, but plenty of variability that includes sport-specific drills and conditioning. To train a powerlifter with Crossfit would be a disaster but training a football player solely with a powerlifting program is also a mistake. Let’s discuss specificity and transfer in a bit more detail so that we understand why.

Specificity and Transfer

To illustrate, we’ll discuss two aspects of specificity that apply to strength training. The graph on the left shows the results of strength testing of two different groups. Both groups trained on an isokinetic dynamometer (ID). The ID allows constant velocity contractions to be performed by keeping the speed of movement constant while allowing force to vary. In other words, once you set a movement speed, you can push as hard as you want, but the speed will remain constant. One group trained at 96 degrees per second (slow speed), the other at 239 degrees per second (fast speed). You can see from the graph that when strength was tested at various speeds, the fast speed group improved primarily at the speed at which they trained. The slow speed training group improved more at slower speeds of contraction. This is called velocity specificity.

The next study (see graph below) demonstrates joint angle specificity. In this case, each group trained their elbow flexors (biceps) with isometric contractions at a specific joint angle. Again, after testing strength at different joint angles, you can see from the data that each group improved more at the joint angle that they used in training. This is called joint angle specificity.

What are the implications of this kind of specificity?  It is likely that the ranges of motion, planes of motion, and speed of movement used in training will experience the greatest adaptation (performance improvements), with adaptation decreasing the farther we get from those trained ranges and speeds.  Not all fitness elements show the same degree of specificity. Some fitness elements are more specific and some less specific. The table below provides a generalized summary of what I have seen, studied, and experienced.

By Mike Prevost

Specificity can be a limitation. If we don’t train an ability, it is not likely to improve significantly. (Though all training modes have some degree of cross transfer. For example, kettlebell swings improving your deadlift).

If we want to increase transfer to real-world (or field of play) activities, we generally do so with more variety. Real-world activities and the field of play for athletes are multi-dimensional, unbalanced, unpredictable, multi-planar, and done at a wide variety of speeds and loads. When we increase the variety of movements in a program, we increase the chance that a movement we encounter in real life was trained in our program. When we train a large number of joint angles, movement planes, and speeds, we “cover” a broader range of real-world movements. This is the very definition of training transfer.

But transfer also comes with a price. That price is improved strength/power in specific exercises. If you want to improve a particular lift, like the bench press, you need to spend a lot of time bench pressing, which necessitates less variety because you have a limited amount of energy, time and recovery resources to work with, so you have to make a choice. Let’s put all of this information together with some specific training scenarios.

Strength Sports Athletes

This is a no brainer. Strength sport athletes compete in a few specific lifts, so program variety is generally low, and specificity high. When I was in graduate school, I worked at a powerlifting gym for a few years, called Silverback’s Gym. It was one of two powerlifting gyms in town and was known as the drug-free gym. We had a significant number of powerlifters who competed regularly, some of whom were very successful. We had an 18-year old who bench pressed 485 pounds and a quadruple bodyweight deadlifter (660lb deadlift at 165 pounds!). I learned a lot about powerlifting from training with and observing these athletes. Mostly they bench pressed, squatted and deadlifted. In the offseason, they occasionally incorporated a few assistance lifts like pull-ups, dips, presses, and cleans.  But they treated the assistance lifts like accessories, putting much more planning, effort, volume and intensity into the primary power lifts. You would never catch them on the leg curl machine or doing tricep kick-backs.

Granville-Mayers-700lb-DLStrongFirst Team Leader, Granville Mayers with a 700lb deadlift Young or Novice Athletes

When it comes to training athletes, across a wide variety of sports, or training tactical athletes for the “unknown and unknowable,” it makes sense to bias the program towards strength. Master StrongFirst Instructor Doctor Michael Hartle has said, “During my life, I have not found one disadvantage from being strong. However, there are many disadvantages to being weak or not so strong.” Variety can be seen as something that has to be earned. Young or novice athletes are not strong enough yet to earn lots of variety. The fastest path to improvement in these athletes is to focus on getting strong at the basics.

You could do worse than a basic powerlifting program to start. Bench press, squats, and deadlifts are a fine strength foundation. For athletes, I particularly like the Pendlay Total (push press, squat, clean) for athletes because the press uses more muscles than a bench press and the clean is an explosive lift that can improve power. Programming can include more than three lifts (and probably should). A reasonable approach would be to include 2-3 different lifts for each fundamental human movement (push, pull, hip hinge, squat, core-anti rotation). Though this group can benefit from a bit more variety than strength sport athletes, they should still be nearer the specificity end of the continuum than the variety end. Note, I don’t mean to say that kids should not be exposed to a variety of movements; they should. But when they start to specialize in a sport, say in high school, strength-biased training is vital.

Old and Elderly

Kids have a naturally high degree of movement competency. They can jump, climb, crawl, tumble, do cartwheels, and climb trees with ease. Most can do a perfect squat without even thinking about it. By the time we reach our 20s, we begin to lose movement competency. At 40, many can no longer do cartwheels. By the time we reach old age, getting up out of the chair, balancing on one foot, and stepping up a curb can be a challenge. Without having consistently trained to maintain baseline strength, basic movement competency has greatly diminished. So has strength.

For an older population, the fastest path to improvement is increasing movement competency. This is the opposite of what is often recommended. Most organizations would recommend using machine training for older adults due to their reduced movement competency. However, you can’t build much movement competency on a machine that, by design, limits your movement. For this group, rather than a strength bias using machines, a movement bias with lots of variety is more appropriate. In other words, we improve their movement repertoire first, then we load. We use crawling, walking while carrying a load, lots of work on the floor, and getting up from the floor, first unloaded, then loaded. Balance work is appropriate. Once we establish a wide range of quality movement, then we work on loading the movement. This is the opposite of the approach we used with novice athletes, where we worked on basic strength first, then added movement variety later.

You can’t build much movement competency on a machine that, by design, limits your movement.

Every Day Joe or Jane

This describes most of us. There is a tremendous amount of variety in this group, and this complicates the programming picture. Some people in this group should have a significant strength bias and others a significant variety bias. Fortunately, most of this can be sorted out by asking a simple question. Are you strong enough? Obviously, this is highly individual. An accountant whose hobbies include reading and painting does not need much strength. But an auto mechanic who likes to play rugby on the weekends does. This is a case by case issue. One rule of thumb is that if you have to pick up odd objects (in life or on your job), you should be able to pick up three times that amount of weight in the weight room. In other words, if you can’t deadlift at least 150 pounds, you shouldn’t be picking up a 50lb bag of concrete. If you have hobbies that require significant strength (i.e., collision sports like rugby, or soccer that puts high demands on your knees, or Jiujitsu), you should have a strength bias until you are strong enough, and work to maintain that.

How Strong is Strong Enough? 

There are no clear answers. This is a judgment call. For athletes, Brett Jones (StrongFirst Director of Education) and Rob Shaul (President/Founder at Mountain Tactical Institute) provide some guidance below. These are recommendations for athletes and experienced strength enthusiasts (Brett Jones) and tactical athletes (Rob Shaul), so they are the upper limit for recreational athletes.

For the everyday Joe or Jane, programming should have a strength bias until “strong enough” is achieved, then variety can be emphasized. A strength bias program could be similar to what was recommended for novice athletes, but there are other options. It is hard to beat Simple and Sinister for a strength bias base for the everyday Joe or Jane. The rich movement complexity of the one arm swing and get-up are hard to beat. The swing provides a strong core component, anti-rotation, a strong hip hinge, grip strength, and power production. The get-up involves a multitude of joint angles and movement planes. The complexity of these movements leads to lots of transfer, even with only two lifts. Other strength biased options include basic StrongFirst barbell or bodyweight strength programs.

What about the accountant we mentioned, or someone like me who has very modest strength needs? My most significant day to day strength challenge is loading my mountain bike and camping gear into my van to go camping (which I do often) or carrying groceries. Besides the weight room, I can’t remember the last time I lifted anything heavier than 40lbs. It takes very little strength focus for me to have adequate strength for these tasks. That leaves open the possibility of lots of variety. I can maintain adequate strength (adequate for my lifestyle) with a highly variable program. The advantage is that I get lots of transfer and my training can be fun. A person in my situation can explore kettlebells, TRX, bodyweight training or barbells in blocks or in mix-and-match training throughout the week. Not only does it keep my workouts interesting, but it also helps me to maintain movement competency. Because my job or sport does not require me to optimize for strength, I can employ lots of variety. Once you are “strong enough” it makes sense to bias your program towards more variety (and as a result, movement competency). With kettlebell, bodyweight, and barbell systems, StrongFirst provides plenty of options to design a strength biased or movement biased program.

Designing a strength and conditioning program is primarily about managing compromises. Despite what is claimed by some systems, you truly cannot have it all, at least not at optimal levels. Something has to be compromised. Thinking about and deliberately planning for specificity and transfer is the key to designing productive training programs.

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Where to Go to Get Strong: Creating Your Courage Corner

Tue, 04/02/2019 - 08:22

I first came across the term courage corner when reading StrongFirst Chairman Pavel Tsatsouline’s book The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. During his military service, Pavel saw a lot of starkly different places, from the frozen expanse of Siberia to sleek submarines under the Baltic Sea to the peaks of the Caucasus Mountains. But one thing remained constant everywhere he went: each of the bases in these places had a small training area with a few kettlebells—a courage corner. Yep, even on those submarines.

These corners were where soldiers went for 20, 30, or 40 minutes a day to perform their physical practice. Regardless of what they had been doing beforehand, once they stepped into that designated area, it was all business. The goal was to hone their skills and do some hard physical work that would keep them ready for anything. And there were no complex machines, rows of weights, or even squat racks in sight—just a few bells and a humble mat. The courage corners were not designed for show but for practicality. That’s where you went to get strong.

Being something of a minimalist myself, the concept of the courage corner appealed to me. If you could really accomplish everything you needed by moving in this small area with two or three kettlebells, I was all in. Perhaps somewhat foolishly, I bought myself just one to begin with—the trusty ol’ 24kg. In retrospect, it was a bit too heavy for a beginner, but being fairly fit I was able to use it sufficiently well within my first courage corner to prepare for and pass my SFG certification.

Brett-Jones-Courage-Corner-OfficeBrett Jones’ courage corner (office).

Back then—that makes it sound like 1901, doesn’t it? It was actually 2001—you couldn’t get all the small increments that are available today. So to expand my corner and my own capabilities I bought a “starter set” which consisted of 16, 24, and 32kg bells. Now that I had three individual weights and, adding to my initial purchase, two 24s, I had greatly expanded the variety of training sessions I could perform. And all of them could be done in this little corner of my house. Having your training area so close at hand removes all the excuses we tend to make for not sticking to a training plan like “I don’t have time to drive to the gym today.” When you have a courage corner in your home, you can train in the morning, at night, and even swing a bell for a few minutes between meetings, as I often do.

A “starter set.” 3 Steps for Setting Up Your Own Courage Corner

While the concept couldn’t be more elemental, before you go ahead and set up your in-home training nook, there are three main considerations to ponder: safety, space, and cleanliness.

1. Safety

Whenever you’re using kettlebells (or any other kind of equipment, for that matter), safety has to come first. Your courage may indeed be forged in a corner, but while the requirements are minimal, you need to make sure you position yourself and your gear in the right spot. This means somewhere that your significant other, kids, pets, or roommates won’t cut across the path of your body or bells. This would put you, them, and your floor in jeopardy. Speaking of which, doing get-ups on a hardwood or cement floor is less than pleasant, so if these types of flooring are all you have to work with, you’ll need some manner of mat. Remember that while you want to reduce the discomfort of a hard floor, the mat is mainly for safety’s sake. So you should get something firm, not squishy. I’m a big fan of interlocking judo mats (more on this in a moment). Also recognize the possibility that at some point you might drop a bell. If you heed the warning signs and don’t push past what should be a stopping point, this hopefully won’t be the case. But I don’t want you putting a dent in your nice reclaimed barn wood planks or, as a friend of mine did while maxing out on his deadlift recently, cracking your basement floor. If you share your residence with others, let them know that when the mats are down and the bells are out, you’re either training or about to be, so they need to steer clear.

2. Space

When scouting possible spots for your courage corner to reside in, nix anywhere that doesn’t give you sufficient radius to perform staple kettlebell exercises (swings, get-ups, deadlifts, presses, squats, snatches, jerks, and so on) with a full range of motion. You must have a clear working environment that’s sufficiently sized so that you don’t have to modify the drills to fit the space. This doesn’t just include the width and length of your courage corner, but also the height. While I have some athletes and fellow coaches who have to make variations to their get-ups or do their presses between beams in their basements, this is far from ideal as it adds something else for your brain to have to think about that could distract you—not what you’re looking for with a big ball of cast iron balancing above your head. So if possible, make sure you can do a full get-up, press, and snatch without the finish position putting your ceiling, lights, fans or your hand in a painful bind.

3. Cleanliness

Going back to mats for a moment, the reason I favor the interlocking judo variety is that they’re not only just the right thickness and firmness for get-ups, kneeling presses, and just about everything else you can do with a kettlebell, they also come apart easily. This allows me break down my training surface in seconds and stash them in a cupboard when necessary. One surefire way to get your courage corner (and possibly yourself) kicked out of the house is letting it get sweaty and stinky. So be sure you’re sanitizing your mats appropriately and often, and cleaning any surrounding surfaces that might become icky when you’re getting intense or even sinister in your training. If you’re positioning your courage corner in a multi-use space (I’m talking to you, New York City micro-apartment dweller), be considerate and put away your bells and mat as soon as you’ve finished using and wiping them down.

Nail Your Bell Selection

Ah, this old chestnut again. I would like to simply write, “it depends” and leave it at that. “Well, that’s a cop-out,” I hear you mutter. OK, it is. Kinda. But there are so many variables specific to you personally that it’s hard to make blanket recommendations. These include your previous experience with kettlebell work, training age, current fitness and strength levels, and so many more factors. If you really want an answer to the age-old “Which kettlebells do I need at first?” question, we can refer to Pavel’s recommendations in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister:

Starting-Kettlebell-WeightsGood starting points for most

As I mentioned earlier, some sellers provide kettlebell “starter packs” that include several of the weights listed above or variations with slightly smaller increments for a lower price than buying bells individually. As ever, do not let your ego dictate your bell selection. While you should challenge yourself, it would be better to get proficient with a lighter bell than you think you can handle initially and then move up, rather than trying to muscle a weight that’s too heavy and ingrain faulty technique. A certified StrongFirst coach can assess where you’re at and provide personalized recommendations that go beyond what I can suggest without knowing your capabilities.

Women-Starting-BellsA good selection for average strength women…soon to be strong.

Once you are ready to add heavier bells, don’t discard the ones you already have, as they can be useful for warming up, higher volume sessions, programs like Strong Endurance, and for specialized variety training like bottoms-up, athletic drills, etc. Plus, they’re great to have when you invite a curious guest into your corner. While you can accomplish most everything you would want to do with two or three bells, a few more will provide an even greater range of possibilities (I confess that I currently have nine in my home office/courage corner, while hoping my wife isn’t seeing me type this).

Training Alone

Isolation can be one of the hardest things on the human psyche. It can also be where profound skill, focus, and progress can be found.

“I think it’s very healthy to spend time alone. You need to know how to be alone and not defined by another person.”

Oscar Wilde

This can be very valuable from a training perspective. Whether we like to admit it or not we can modify our actions (and plans) under public scrutiny. When others are watching and we want to “impress,” we may choose to continue a set beyond where we should, or add a bit of weight to a previously planned session. Alone and out of the public eye we have a better chance of sticking to the plan.

Our ability to be mindful during training is also enhanced in my opinion. Over the last 20 years or so I have predominately trained alone. (Don’t cry for me—it was a combination of choice and circumstance) And I feel it has been key to my learning and progress. But we don’t always have to train alone. Having a strength community (like a StrongFirst Accredited Gym, SF Instructor, and our online Forum and Facebook Group communities) can drive us to accomplish things we may not on our own. There is an African proverb: “If you want to go fast, go alone. If you want to go far, go together.” A solid perspective for training perhaps.

“The hardest walk you can make is the walk you make alone, but that is the walk that makes you the strongest.”

Attributed to multiple sources Conclusion: Screw Your Courage to the Sticking Place

Hopefully this article has proved helpful in selecting the right location and equipment for your courage corner. Once you’ve chosen your space, bells, and mats, it’s go time. Make sure that when you enter your courage corner, you’re ready to learn and put in the effort required to progress. Something that can help is tailoring the environment so it’s more conducive to focused effort. This includes making sure you’re training in a part of your home that is inviting and that you enjoy being in—so not that dank, dingy corner of your basement with all the spiders.

Courage-Corner-Kult-FitnessStrongFirst Team Leader, Martine Kerr’s courage corner.

Other things that can encourage you to train more consistently include getting the lighting right and recognizing whether you’re a little bit country or a little bit rock and roll (it’s a reference to The Osmonds, kids) with your music preferences. For example, Pavel prefers blasting heavy metal while he’s busting out swings and get-ups, whereas I’ve recently been revisiting Queen’s back catalog after watching Rami Malek’s Oscar-winning performance in Bohemian Rhapsody. Find some music—or if training is a more meditative experience for you, perhaps silence—that gets you in the mood to concentrate and go hard. Then enter your courage corner and get to work.

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What is Your Strength’s Purpose?

Tue, 03/26/2019 - 11:15

We believe that strength has a greater purpose—and that purpose goes far beyond the ability to lift weight or move loads. Being physically strong is great. Especially when you consider the alternative. Being weak is less appealing. But the importance of strength shows itself when it transcends what you do in the gym. The strength you earn through your training is something that should enrich all other areas of your life and the lives of the people who are important to you.

The Difference Between Purpose and Passion

Many people claim that they are passionate about strength, that their passion for strength lives inside them. And if that’s what keeps them going, great. But there is a profound difference between passion and purpose. Zach Henderson, StrongFirst Elite, was onto something when he said: “If a passion for strength burns inside you, ignite it in others! And if someone is willing to learn…teach them.”

Professor Morten Hansen (University of California, Berkely) defines purpose as “the sense that you are contributing to others, that your work has broader meaning. Passion is the feeling of excitement or enthusiasm you have about your work.”

So, in a broader sense, your passion is about what you do for yourself, but having a purpose is about what you do for others. Having a purpose is what unites people, and together we are stronger.

StrongFirst-Sven-Rieger-1H-Swing Cultivating Purpose: I Am Because We Are

According to Yale University Professor Amy Wrzesniewski, purpose isn’t something that you randomly discover. It’s something that you can cultivate.

In The Power Of Moments, authors Chip and Dan Heath say that “Passion is individualistic. It can energize us but also isolate us because my passion isn’t yours. By contrast, purpose is something people can share. It can knit groups together.” That’s why it is so important that you “… learn [how] to cultivate purpose—to unite people who might otherwise drift in different directions, chasing different passions.”

Remember: the whole is greater than the sum of its parts.

Just look at our certifications. Everyone at these events shares the same goal, whether they attend or assist—to improve, to learn, and to help others to do so as well. Every past SFG attendee appreciates—down to their bone—how challenging these three days are. Not just physically, but mentally. It’s the goal you share with all the people around you, the shared feeling of being part of something greater, that connects everyone and gives you strength. This is a big part of what makes the experience exhilarating.

Another great example is the Tactical Strength Challenge (TSC)—the next one is happening on May 4, 2019. Instead of lone warriors looking after themselves, people cheer for and support each other. These are your people, encouraging, celebrating, sharing a powerful experience whether they compete for the top spots globally or simply against their own past achievements.

Purpose Trumps Passion

Professor Hansen also found that “People who were passionate about their jobs—who expressed high levels of excitement about their work—were still poor performers if they lacked a sense of purpose.” The authors of The Power Of Moments think this way as well: “A sense of purpose seems to spark ‘above and beyond’ behaviors.”

So purpose leads to more and better performance than passion. But why? The answer is surprisingly simple. It’s because it gives meaning to what we do.

“When you understand the ultimate contribution you’re making, it allows you to transcend the task list.”

Chip and Dan Heath

Never underestimate what you do for others. Things that seem small, even meaningless or pointless to you, might mean everything to the person you interact with.

StrongFirst-Sven-Rieger-Beast What Is The Greater Purpose Of Strength?

From a physical standpoint, strength is the master quality, “the foundation for developing the rest of the physical qualities.” (Prof. Leonid Maveev). But I fear that those who only see strength for the ability to displace load are missing the heart of the matter: the purpose.

Perhaps answering the question is so difficult because it’s missing an implicit qualifier “for you.” Strength is contextual for every individual—that’s why we can’t presume to tell you what the purpose is for you. What we do know, however, is that the pursuit of strength is where lives are improved.

“If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.”

Isaac Newton, 1675

And so I am fortunate to be able to draw from people out there far better than me to provide context for what purpose strength can serve. That’s why I leave it to them to express.

In the second episode of the StrongFirst Podcast, Brett Jones said, “Building physical strength can be a gateway to building other forms of strength.” Like mental strength or emotional strength, not just other physical qualities.

On Culture Chat, he shared that “The physical can and should be an expression of that internal strength. Grit, persistence, and the ability to sacrifice—that’s strength.”

“The person that’s not putting food on their plate so that their kids can eat, the person that’s working two jobs so that their family has an opportunity, that’s strong, that’s tough.”


So the strength you build through your training should be a means to an end, not necessarily the goal itself. We all know that baseline strength is important and beneficial. But as with many things, ‘even’ more is not necessarily better. Too much of something good can (depending on the situation) be harmful. Dan John eloquently put it: “I believe it’s the role of the strong to be strong and protect the weak, not to become stronger.” When you achieved greatness in something, help others do it as well.

If pressed for my answer, I’d say the purpose of being strong to me is to improve the quality of life, to enrich life, not only your own but more importantly the lives of others. To be able to endure, to be there for others that, for whatever reason, are not strong enough to endure on their own. That is my strength’s greater purpose. Cultivate your strength in the gym, but let it go far beyond that.

“Don’t pray for an easy life. Pray for the strength to endure a hard one.”

Bruce Lee What Is YOUR Purpose?

That is the ultimate question. A question that cannot be answered for you; a question that probably has no right or wrong answer. You might not be fully aware of your purpose yet, but it sleeps deep within you. So use your strength training to help cultivate it. Take the lessons, the characteristics it breeds, the self-awareness, and the can-do attitude that a solid strength practice brings and channel it towards discovering and then living your purpose. Because strength goes far beyond what you can lift.

A huge thank you to Analisa Naldi who recommended “The Power Of Moments” on Sarah Polacco’s amazing podcast Purposeful Strength and to Alexey Senart who gave a fantastic interview on “Fitness Blitz Radio” about the greater purpose of strength.


Episode #02 StrongFirst Podcast

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What Mastering Your Bodyweight Can Teach You About Lifting Iron

Tue, 03/19/2019 - 07:00

A common path for our students pursuing the StrongFirst Elite designation is to start with the kettlebell instructor certifications before earning the bodyweight and barbell credentials. All four—SFG, SFG II, SFB, and SFL—earn you Elite status. But the path isn’t written in stone. Our principles transcend modalities so you can get stronger whichever way you choose first. The lessons learned in one will help with others. Here is how bodyweight can lead to the barbell and kettlebell.

I am something of an anomaly in the StrongFirst system in that I have taken the SFB and then the SFL without having gone through the SFG certification. Today, I want to show you how taking the SFB set me up for a successful SFL and taught me valuable skills that I’ll use in a future SFG.

Many exercise beginners start their regimen with an undeveloped sense of body awareness. For these people, adding external load to poor technique is not the best recipe for a positive outcome. Rather, learning good movement patterns and practicing proper lifting principles with their bodyweight “load” is a better way for them or for anyone to get started with strength training. Not only does it prepare joints, soft tissues, muscles, and motor control for future externally loaded training, the confidence it builds helps quash common fears associated with barbells, kettlebells, and any other weight equipment.

StrongFirst-Karen-Smith-SFB-OA-PlankMaster Instructor Karen Smith—One-arm Plank Three Bodyweight Drills that Make You Stronger—Whatever You Want to Lift

At the SFB, we learned two important principles for bodyweight that also translate to weighted implements: feed-forward tension and irradiation. Most lifters are familiar with feed-back tension: the heavier the weight, the tighter you need to be in order to make the lift. But most don’t practice feed-forward, which involves tensing BEFORE even lifting. Pavel discussed this brilliantly in Power to the People.

Plank: Going from 0 to 100 in Full-body Tension

The StrongFirst plank is the foundation of many bodyweight movements. It’s the basis for learning to create tension in the abs, glutes, and lats. Because being prone is low-risk, the plank is the perfect introduction to the skill of feed-forward tension and complete body linkage. As such, it is highlighted in both the SFB and SFL manuals (and the SFG manual, so I’m told) as a drill to enhance bigger lifts. Make no mistake, this is not the typical, garden-variety plank you see in gyms. This is a strength-building plank with a greater purpose than a “how long can you hang out?” contest. All your power muscles are recruited in this plank.

StrongFirst-PlankStrongFirst Plank Hollow Position: Challenging Your Anterior Core with Leverage

The hollow position is the key starting point for bodyweight exercises such as the tactical pull-up, the one-arm pushup, and the hanging leg raise. While it lacks a direct barbell equivalent, it is an extremely effective drill to teach anti-extension, a foundational skill used in many lifts with strength tools. My SFB instructors, Master Jon Engum and fellow Winnipeg-er Cole Summers, quickly noticed that I had trouble preventing hyperextension in the hollow position. This tension leak meant that my plank wasn’t as strong as it could be and that I couldn’t maximize the benefits from the tension that I did create. With consistent practice over the weekend, I felt more confident and increasingly stronger in my one-arm, one-leg pushup (OAOLPU) test attempt than I had felt coming in; indisputable proof that strength really is a skill. The slow gains I made in the three months preparing for the certification (and failing my first attempt) were eclipsed in a mere five weeks post-cert thanks to the great coaching I received.

StrongFirst-Pavel-Macek-HollowMaster Instructor Pavel Macek—Hollow Hold (with Tucked Arms)

Full hollow position holds may be very challenging for beginners because their untrained midsections are unable to manage the difficult leverage that comes from extended limbs. That’s where the importance of building skill comes in. I have successfully regressed the hollow position by shortening the levers (tucking the arms as the picture above) and with variations of the common “dead bug” exercise with older clients, keeping the principle of anti-extension intact while they learn in an appropriately challenging environment. These drills can improve their skill in preventing hyperextension as a precursor to more demanding movements with external loads.

Bridge: Core and Glute Coordination

Pavel has stated on many occasions: the abs, glutes, and grip are your biggest neural generators. The StrongFirst bridge is both a core and glute builder. The pattern teaches you to maintain a strong core brace while fully extending your hips with a maximal glute contraction. Practicing to bridge this way deals with the tendency for many to cheat the movement by hyperextending their lumbar spine which fakes hip extension and eases the core bracing demand. An often overlooked aspect of this drill is that it requires a stable upper body, forcing one to maintain tension while dynamically moving the lower half in a fashion highly important to many athletic endeavors.

StrongFirst-SFB-BridgeStrongFirst Bridge: Keep the Midsection Braced While Fully Extending Hips One-arm, One-leg Pushup: Full Body Linkage

The SFB uses these drills to work up to the ultimate test of full-body linkage—the one-arm, one-leg pushup for men and one-arm pushup for women. Pull the kneecaps to your groin. Cramp your glutes. Tilt your pelvis and “squeeze your abbies.” Tense and flare your lats. (Those of you familiar with Pavel’s writings will recognize these cues). Without tension, one collapses. Too much tension and you can’t move. This dichotomy adds an extra dimension to the skill: the ability to dial into just the right amount of tension at just the right time. Although the OAOLPU is not a pre-requisite to kettlebell or barbell training, the tension principles apply. Make sure to understand them well and practice before lifting a challenging weight.

One-arm, One-Leg Pushup
Master Instructors Jon Engum & Fabio Zonin Evaluate a One-arm, One-Leg Pushup Bodyweight Training for Real-life Strength—and the Gateway Towards External Load

Since I began my training career just over seven years ago, I have spent most of my time working with deconditioned older adults and injured workers looking to return to their occupation. Many of them are afraid of getting hurt, of re-injuring themselves, or are just looking to start to move better. I’ve found many times that introducing the bridge and plank as modeled by StrongFirst have given them the freedom to begin their practice in a low-fear environment while improving their strength and skill. That is a recipe for a positive outcome.

I have had numerous clients simultaneously practice the SF bridge in conjunction with hip mobility and hinge patterning drills derived from the FMS curriculum. Many eye me suspiciously when I place a kettlebell at their feet to deadlift for the first time, thinking it will be too heavy to lift. They are surprised, if not a little shocked, when they shoot right up with the weight. Bodyweight training skills gave them strength they did not know they possessed. This practice of building confidence and trust in their abilities took the fear right out of learning to add barbell or kettlebell lifts to their training.

One of the most successful things I do with students is relating their bodyweight drills to barbell lifts I’m wanting to introduce. They recognize the “standing plank” as the start position of many lifts—front squat, Zercher squat, and the military press. Creating tension in the setup before even lifting the weight out of the rack helps ensure spinal safety through the lift. In fact, we spent a great deal of time at the SFL learning to setup properly for optimal tension. On a personal note, I was very good at getting tight and becoming “one with the bar” to start these lifts. I credit that to my long practice on planks and training for the OAOLPU thanks to the help of my instructors.  Keeping the tension throughout the lift is the lifelong practice of strength as a skill and still took some practice (and always will), but the hours of practice from bodyweight drills had familiarized me with the skills. Even so, my SFL lead instructor, Dr. Michael Hartle, was able to spot “leakages” in my setup that I continue to address. That’s the value of a great coach.

Additionally, the standing plank shows up again at the finish of sumo and conventional deadlifts. And if you look closely, you’ll notice that the strong hip extension movement that finishes them is akin to the strong contraction practiced in the bridge. The body linkage learned in the OAOLPU practice creates a sound foundation of feed-forward tension and irradiation that only gets magnified with the feed-back tension the barbell or kettlebell will give. The result: a tight unit ready to safely lift heavy weight and reach strength goals.

Confidence with Bodyweight Leads to Courage to Add Load

By first learning these skills and patterns with bodyweight movements, solid safety and performance skills are in place when the student is ready to progress to using external load.  Success with maintaining tension while practicing the movement patterns in a low-risk setting will provide students with the confidence to test their mettle with iron when the time calls.

Though no stranger to kettlebells, my instructor route through StrongFirst certifications will have me work to achieve my “entry into the StrongFirst system” last. As I begin my preparation to take the SFG certification, I’m using my SFB and SFL skills as a foundation on which I will improve my kettlebell skills. I have a clearer view of the lockout position of the swing after spending so much time on the deadlift. The snatch will challenge me to maintain the same position with a greater degree of upper torso mobility. The double kettlebell front squat and the one-arm press will magnify the tension I’ve learned to create in the set- up for the barbell squat variations and the military press variations, respectively. While the SFG will add new skills to my toolbox, the principles that underpin our strength system remain constant. Different modalities simply challenge us to apply them in different loading conditions.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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.

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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!

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