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The official Blog of StrongFirst. You can be anything you want. A warrior. An athlete. A hard man or woman ready to handle whatever life throws at you. But you must be strong first.
Updated: 18 hours 53 min ago

Controlling Gravity for Better Squats, Deadlifts, and Presses

Tue, 08/13/2019 - 09:30

The very definition of a lift is moving load upwards against gravity; but what goes up must come down. If you’re only paying attention to one half of every squat, deadlift, and press, you’re missing out on a heap of strength and stability, and likely setting yourself up for injury down the road. It’s time […]

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Bitter Pills and Being Sedentary

Tue, 08/06/2019 - 08:25

Even if you enjoy throwing iron around on a regular basis, or spend your days advising others on health and wellbeing, the reality of modern living means even the best of us can feel the effects of inactivity. It might be time to hold a mirror up to ourselves and see whether we are really […]

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Plans for Building Powerful Pushups

Tue, 07/30/2019 - 10:58

A couple of years ago, I wrote an article, Strength in Numbers, about my journey towards a set of 100 pushups. I used ’grease the groove’ (GTG) sets regularly throughout my day to achieve a high daily volume. With Pavel’s advice, I added cycles of explosive pushups using Strong Endurance™ principles. I became a sort […]

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“Masters of Life and Death” —An Excerpt from The Quick and the Dead

Thu, 07/25/2019 - 06:01

In the South American jungle, a jaguar hunts a prey that bites back, a caiman. In a show of absolute superiority, the cat makes his kill on the dangerous dinner’s turf. The jag jumps into the river and snatches the wriggling toothy reptile by its neck. A caiman or a gator may be fast, but […]

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Hang On! The Forgotten Anti-Gravity Exercise Everyone Should Start Doing

Tue, 07/23/2019 - 09:20

What if I told you about an extremely underutilized movement that could improve your overall mobility, strength, and posture? One thing that, once added to your training regimen (or life in general), could remedy aches and pains, accelerate your recovery, regain lost straight-arm range and strength, and provide a powerful full-body antidote to gravity. Curious […]

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The Tale of Two Leopards: An Excerpt from The Quick and the Dead

Thu, 07/18/2019 - 09:37

The antelope was grazing, oblivious of the superbly camouflaged cat stealthily closing in. The predator flowed like mercury, hugging the terrain. It was a busy day in the savannah, but only one pair of eyes was tracking the leopard. My friend George had put in his time in Africa fighting poachers and he knew how […]

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Running Without Running: Training For A Half-Marathon When You Have A Full Schedule

Mon, 07/15/2019 - 18:52

Smart runners know a little strength training goes a long way to helping improve performance and reduce risk of injury. Smart coaches know sport-specific training should be built on a foundation of good movement. Anyone who has tackled the StrongFirst snatch test knows you can improve cardio endurance with resistance training. Could a program combining […]

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How Heavy Clubs Eliminate Weakness, Build Strength, and Complement Kettlebells

Tue, 07/09/2019 - 10:36

From winning a jiu-jitsu world championship, to serving in the Italian Army, to running close protection security for diplomats and dignitaries, Alberto Gallazzi knows how to handle himself.

Over the past decade, Alberto has passed such knowledge on to others through a combat-specific curriculum developed by his security and training company, Secutor, and as TacFit Military Division Chief for RMAX.

Now he is funneling all his practical experience into TAD 0-13 certifications and courses that teach power and strength across all planes of motion.

In this interview, Alberto explains the physical and cognitive benefits of club training, how it complements kettlebell, barbell, and bodyweight work, and his relentless commitment to education.

How did you first come across heavy clubs?

Since I took my first kung fu class at age 14, I’ve been training consistently in boxing, jiu-jitsu, kickboxing, and other martial arts. When I was a teenager, most strength training in Italy was bodybuilding, and the majority of people participating in combat sports avoided weights because they were worried about becoming too big and slow. Luckily, my older brother ran a gym where I learned how to use barbells and rings, and went outside to throw heavy rocks.

Later, after I left the Army, I worked in security for the Prime Minister’s family and wanted something that would help me to move well. This led me to clubs. I’d seen Indian clubs before, but heavy clubs were different. Because it is more heavily weighted, you can develop strength and power to a greater degree.

Alberto Gallazzi coaching strength training with a heavy club

Soon enough I started working for the company that made clubs and realized that their information was quite basic. I was determined to find how to train more effectively with this tool. And as I did, I felt my strength and striking power improving. So I built a program that combined grinds and ballistics, then added a hypertrophy component.

I ended up working 15 years for the company, creating certifications, expanding their educational materials, and designing new clubs with a grip that won’t tear up your hands like a barbell-style grip would. I’ve now stepped away to focus purely on instruction and education.

Speaking of grip, that seems like a fundamental concept in heavy club training.

It is the first thing anyone new to club work must learn. As I mentioned, the previous club design wasn’t ideal because the grip was too similar to that of a barbell’s typical knurling. With the explosive pulling motion of swinging the club, this could hurt your hands after a while.

That’s why I redesigned the grip to make it better for both increasing acceleration and adding volume. If you squeeze the handle too tightly, you start to change your body’s structure and your posture. We also see that people tend to stop breathing when they over-grip, which typically comes with fatigue. There’s a big distance between the anchor point and point of acceleration, so if your grip is not optimal, it becomes difficult to create torque without changing your mechanics.

Other than the grip challenge, what else surprises people the first time they pick up a heavy club?

They’re surprised by how much heavier it feels than what’s stated on the tool. Say they pick up a 7kg club and I ask them to slowly extend it in front of them. Suddenly those 7 kilos feel like a lot more, because of the length and the way the club is weighted. If you’re not used to it, your arm might quickly drop. You need to get used to this new tool, start slowly, and become a white belt again.

Master StrongFirst Certified Instructor and Executive Consultant, Fabio Zonin, and I have found that even when someone is strong in linear movements, they’re often quite weak along the diagonal line. We can work on this with heavy clubs but it requires patience and respect.

Strength training with weighted clubs How does heavy club training allow you to access that diagonal line in a new way?

When doing a get-up, you are using the transverse plane, but you cannot easily swing a kettlebell diagonally or create acceleration at this angle. Using the club in this way is an extension of the arm, so it requires a different grip to the get-up as well. Your aim is to be precise and powerful. We find that the first time somebody tries to go across their body with a 5kg club they cannot move it. The leverage and center of mass are unique, and the length presents a new challenge.

How can someone who is already training with kettlebells and other tools get started with heavy clubs?

Mechanics are mechanics, so if you understand the principles of movement patterns, you will be fairly well prepared for heavy clubs. If someone is StrongFirst certified and has a solid knowledge of kettlebell training, then we’re talking the same language. They’ll just need to understand the different grip and leverage, and the unique pulling action. However, if someone isn’t familiar with kettlebell training or strength work in general, I’d suggest they start with bodyweight movements, then progress to a kettlebell, a barbell, and finally, the club. It’s not for novices.

One of the biggest challenges is overcoming people’s initial impressions of the tool itself. It looks like a baseball bat, so people are often wary of it as they would be of a weapon. We get them used to handling this big piece of steel, and then they are able to focus on coaching cues without being intimidated by the club.

Alberto Gallazzi strength training with a pair of heavy clubs

Once someone understands the grip, we teach other positioning basics, like how to keep the club at a 90-degree angle and finding the ideal distance between the body and the club. Activation of the posterior chain is also important. Then we work on moving the club up from the ground and back down. Beginning by sitting or kneeling is helpful because there’s less distance to the floor and they can see how gravity acts on the tool without dropping it from a full standing position. Then, slowly, we get them vertical.

From there, we’ll introduce the front and side cast, and the three main presses. The front squat comes next, as it teaches people to pull down with their lats and orient their center of mass as they come down towards the ground and then back up.

Can you share more about the unique lever points of the club?

Due to the challenges its shape and length present, we can use heavy clubs not only as a training tool but also a diagnostic one. If you assume a “torch position” and then try to press the club overhead, the challenge will be the range of motion and stability in the wrist. You’re going to see if you have any mobility or stability issues in your shoulder, such as a lack of internal rotation. Or, if you’re not engaging the lats, that will be exposed by a lack of overhead control. Often, I see people overusing their muscles rather than utilizing their structure. Clubs force you to engage your entire kinetic chain, balance the front and back of your body, and improve your positioning.

What are the cognitive benefits of club training?

As there’s a unique trajectory that’s somewhat unpredictable, you’re challenging yourself at the brain level. In a single movement, you can be swinging, pulling, and pressing, which requires a lot of coordination. There might be two ballistics and two grinds in just one exercise, which taxes your fine motor skills.

When you start to fatigue, it becomes a lot more difficult to maintain precision in the movement, so adding more volume can be particularly demanding. And then, if you switch from a single club to one in each hand, you’re adding a further cognitive challenge.

This is why people who try to use heavy clubs with high intensity from the start are often misguided. Someone who is more experienced and skilled can train in this way, but we know from research by Cooper and Grossman that there will be a deterioration in quality for beginners who try to do too much, too soon. That’s what I call “stupid strength.” If you want to get the most from heavy clubs or any other training tool, you must learn to use them correctly.

Which populations benefit from club training?

Clubs are beneficial for anyone who wants to improve 360-degree strength, mobility, and stability. I have heard of powerlifters incorporating heavy club training to improve stabilization. I even have a former student who’s going to show me how they use clubs in their chiropractic work.

Combat sports athletes find that heavy clubs test the integrity of their movement patterns and correct unidirectional deficits. They also increase striking power and force production.

Strength training with heavy clubs

The tactical community finds great benefits too. As clubs are highly portable, soldiers take them when deployed in war zones. Members of the armed forces often struggle with imbalances and existing injuries find that clubs can restore functional balance and dynamic range of motion. This kind of training allows them to use light tools to add strength. 7kg or 15 pounds might not sound like a lot until you start to use it.

Another benefit is improved coordination. One military team I work with does a lot of close-quarter hand-to-hand combat. They’ve found that training with clubs makes it easier to manipulate someone with one hand while holding their rifle in the other.

How do your heavy club principles and StrongFirst’s philosophy fit well together?

The kettlebell is well known, while people need more information about heavy clubs. But I share StrongFirst’s commitment to making education a priority. When I have someone who needs a school of strength, I send them to StrongFirst. From a learning perspective, I’m trying to teach people that a club isn’t just for mobility, although it can be beneficial in this area. It can also help them get strong in three dimensions, build power along different lines, and move well in every direction.

Charles Poliquin often said that you should frequently change your tools and the way you train, rather than always training what you’re comfortable with or are good at. So, I think that combining clubs with kettlebells, barbells, and other tools is beneficial. The nervous system doesn’t have eyes—it just adapts to how you stimulate it. If you can alter this stimulus by varying your training, you will find it easier to reach your goals and avoid plateaus. If you have kettlebells and clubs, you have a full gym. Studying and practicing with both will make you a more complete athlete and coach.

Further information on strength training with heavy clubs

Whether you are completely new to heavy clubs, or keen to improve your current skills, check out Alberto’s Instagram and follow his training company, TAD 0-13, on Facebook.

The post How Heavy Clubs Eliminate Weakness, Build Strength, and Complement Kettlebells appeared first on StrongFirst.

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Strength for Life’s Fights

Tue, 07/02/2019 - 16:30

Life happens. It can be unpredictable and hard, and extremely satisfying. For many of us, training is a big part of our lives. But training does not equal reality. And while we can’t always train for life’s fights, we can train skills that will help us rise up to the challenges it brings.

Very few people live an easy life walking “between the raindrops.” Even the happiest existence is riddled with unexpected challenges from unpredictable angles. To state the obvious, these challenges are good and bad. Clearly, life would be more enjoyable without them, but overcoming them allows us to reach our full potential. But unlike the movies, it’s pretty rare to do something in real life that we haven’t practiced, a lot. Someone very wise once said, “Under pressure, we will not rise to the occasion, we will sink to the level of our training.” If we want to overcome challenges, we need to practice. 

Luckily there are countless ways to do so. Some people climb up or ski down mountains, while others become students of martial arts or strength to name but a few. The physical and mental challenge combined with a real risk of failure is essential. Plus, if you yourself have already been through the wringer once or twice, you know when the physical going gets tough it’s your mental toughness that gets you through. Hence the reason these undertakings are helpful not just for the simple enjoyment of a pastime but also for the positive ripple effect on the rest of your life. 

For better or worse, no amount of practice will ever completely remove life’s hurdles, but it can at least get you more hang time!

Life’s Practice

Speaking of hurdles, my brother owns a small homestead outside of Providence, RI. It’s a charming spot. Five acres of various nut trees, berry bushes, fruit trees, chickens, and (soon) pigs and a steer. (Oh, there’s also a lot of poison ivy and stinging nettle, but let’s stay on the bright side.) When I can, I head there to help him with jobs that are just too much for one, albeit very talented, man. This most recent trip was to help him build a shelter for the soon to arrive pigs and steer. The shelter was one of a number of items on what seemed, at first glance, to be a reasonable list that also included splitting and stacking wood for the upcoming winter and putting a protective mesh over the blueberry bushes. But sometimes things take longer than expected. What should have been about a day and a half build turned into three days of digging out rocks and one day of construction.

If you’ve never been to the northeast, just know that the rocks up there can be quite something. What looks to be a picturesque pasture is really a granite quarry, barely covered by a few inches of dirt and grass with car-sized rocks waiting for the first strike of your shovel. Ok, maybe not “car size” but definitely the size of those little cars the Shriners drive. And a LOT heavier! With so many rocks in the ground, it’s amazing anything actually grows!

Shriners small carsEditorial Credit:

Many of these rocks were upwards of 500 pounds with nary a good grip to be found for removal. As much as I love kettlebells and barbells, nature doesn’t often afford us a handle placed at a perfect height to grab. Shocking insight alert: the gym is not reality. But this doesn’t mean don’t train in the gym. In fact, I would argue it means train MORE at the gym so when you do encounter this kind of obstacle it is more doable. 

Digging big rocksI nearly bent that digging bar in half on this one. Yes, that’s the same rock. And it hasn’t moved…

As a guy who hasn’t done much yard work over the last 20 years, I can tell you I was very happy to have the reservoir of strength I’ve developed over the years of kettlebell and barbell training to dip into for this week of real-life work with my brother. 

Like most martial artists who take their strength training seriously, I often see parallels between the two disciplines. Please allow me to build up to one here. 

I am overly simplifying the classification of various martial arts into “sport” or “self-defense.” Both are right for the job, depending on the job. Sport martial arts like Brazilian jiu-jitsu and muay thai focus a lot on practical application (sparring) and allow you to push yourself to limits you could not otherwise do without the safe training methods upon which sport martial arts are built. Self-defense martial arts focus on discipline and “quick kill” types of techniques as well as flowery movements like katas that are the “art” part. These self-defense practices do spar but they are not built as much around the practical application as sport-based martial arts. The reasons become obvious when you consider that an arm bar in BJJ and a boxing glove in muay thai can be controlled to avoid damaging your training partner.

Muay-Thai-FightEditorial credit: swissmacky /

But poking someone in the eye or kicking them in the groin are not techniques that can be safely practiced regularly. And since we will always sink to the level of our training, regular practice is a must.

Reality vs Training

This is a long-winded way of saying that reality and training don’t always meet. For example, what if I get in a fight with a guy who is with some friends? Do I really want to double-leg him to the deck and get in a ground fight with him while his buddies steel-toe me in the back of the head? Or do I want to land a perfect jab, cross, hook on some guy’s melon and likely break my hand because it’s not wrapped inside a boxing glove? 

Maybe you, but not me. If I were to get in a fight on the street that I couldn’t avoid (which is admittedly rare), you can bet I will try to stay on my feet and end it as quickly as possible—very likely with a poke to the eye. But this doesn’t mean you shouldn’t train BJJ or muay thai. Again, quite the opposite. It would be better for you to go through life with as few street fights as possible. They are dangerous and legally burdensome. Plus, with great sport martial arts studios on every street corner, you can feed that urge in a healthy environment with little to no risk of injury.

Clearly, the same principle relates to strength training in the gym and then applying that strength on the farm. As I said before, rocks in the dirt are not placed in perfect spots with handles at perfect heights from the ground. In fact, they often can’t even be moved without the additional help of hand or power tools. But this doesn’t mean you don’t lift in the gym because your “fight” is on the farm. Nor does it mean that a strength practice will not deliver huge value in other, less rock-shaped ways—it will. It means you train MORE in the gym so when you encounter these “fights” in the field you are more prepared for the challenge. 

“Under pressure, we will not rise to the occasion, we will sink to the level of our training.”

Considering how few actual fights most people will get into throughout the course of their lives, one of the biggest benefits of martial arts training is the ripple effect of improved mental fortitude developed by overcoming fears and hurdles in class spilling over into life off the mat. The same principle applies to strength training. Going through a tough deadlift or press program builds not just your physical strength, but also your mental strength. Also similar to martial arts, you need to decide on a destination. As I said earlier, sport or self-defense martial arts are both right for the job, depending on the job. Being “strong” is similarly subjective. Are you going to compete in powerlifting? Are you a BJJ competitor who wants to be stronger than everyone else in the division? Do you want more bone density so you can grow older more gracefully? Only you can answer the question of what strong enough means to you. Take an honest look at your goals and needs, and decide. So, when the going gets tough, you are more prepared. 

Stay strong, my friends.

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Pull-Up Power: From No Reps to Getting Over the Bar with 36kg

Mon, 06/24/2019 - 08:49

Ah, the trusty pull-up. Once a staple of every child’s PE class, it has fallen by the wayside as physical education in schools has declined. So even though pull-ups are still one of the best exercises you can do, for many people they’re nothing more than a distant memory of being yelled at by a drill sergeant-like PE teacher in a dusty old gymnasium. That’s how it was for Jen Meehan when she became reacquainted with pull-ups at a StrongFirst SFG Level II certification in 2013. (Pull-ups and the pistol are now part of the SFB.) Yet between then and now, she has not only gotten back on the bar for bodyweight pull-ups, but progressed to a 24kg weighted rep when she tamed the Iron Maiden Challenge in 2015, and can now pull a 36kg bell for two consecutive reps. In this interview, Jen shares how she went from zero bodyweight reps to adding weight, the accessory exercises that developed her core and grip strength, and the mental techniques that propel her pull-up feats.

What motivated you to try weighted pull-ups?

I saw some strong ladies doing weighted pull-ups at an SFG Level II certification and thought, “I want to do that.” When I first started, I couldn’t do any. But with patient work on the fundamentals, I progressed to a few shaky bodyweight reps. My confidence and skill improved with more practice, and, once I could do ten solid reps, I started adding weight. I’d decided to work towards getting 24kg as part of the Iron Maiden Challenge.

JenMeehan_Weighted_Pullup There are a lot of pull-up programs out there. What’s your go-to plan?

I experimented a lot before settling on a three-day-a-week plan: 30-20-10, for a total of 60 pull-ups per week. That might not sound like many, but when you’re doing quite a bit of volume and starting to add weight, you need a lot of recovery.

The first day I’d complete 30 bodyweight reps. That could be three sets of 10, or 13, 10, and 7—anything as long as I got 30 total. The second day, I’d do a 20-rep scheme, such as four sets of five. One of my go-to sessions was a warmup set, five reps with the 16kg bell, two sets of five at 18kg, and the final set of five at 16kg again.

Then on the third day, I’d reduce the volume, but increase the weight to do 10 reps. This involved sets of one or two in which I really focused on using tension techniques and maintaining the integrity and quality of each repetition. I might start with two reps at 20kg, another two at 24kg, two one-rep sets at 28kg, one rep at 32kg, another at 28kg, and the final two back down to 20kg. I’m still using a version of this plan today, and it has helped me to pull-up a 36kg bell for two reps.

Click to view in Instagram (new window). When you started adding weight, did you notice any technique issues and if so, how did you correct these?

When you add weight, the tendency is to start looking up, particularly at the top when you try to get over the bar. If you do this, you begin to peel away from the bar, losing the hollow position that keeps your body linked up—a must for solid pull-ups. Think about what happens if you look up while planking: your tension decreases. Same goes for a pull-up—it’s a moving plank that goes over the bar.

Placing the weight on my foot helped me nail the required hanging hollow position. I focused on pulling my toes up to the ceiling while keeping my glutes tight and my rib cage connected to my hips. Plus, it prevented me from using any leg momentum to get over the bar. By taking away any freedom to compensate, I earned my strength with a solid groove. If you have linkage, there is no leakage.

Working on my set-up has also been crucial. You need to secure the belt properly and decide what feels good as far as chain length. This is something that varies, so find your strongest set-up.

After playing around, I found that my best spot was to have the bell above my knees, in what I call the “nest” of my thighs. That creates the feeling of being in the hollow hold. As the weight got bigger and heavier, I had to adjust the chain length again because the bell would hang below my knees. Some days all I’ll do is experiment with my set-up, get used to hanging from the bar, and make sure everything is where it’s supposed to be. When you come to test yourself with a heavy bell, you don’t want any doubts about where it will go. Become one with the bar.

When you were training for the Iron Maiden Challenge, how did you work in the press and pistol?

They were part of my three-day plan. For the first day, I would do high rep sets of single-leg squats and hold a light weight in each hand to help me counterbalance. The second day, I did higher reps, such as four sets of five reps with 12 or 16kg. For my 10-rep day, I’d maybe do two reps each of 16, 20, 24kg, and 28kg. If I did heavy weighted pull-ups one day, I’d do my higher volume single-leg squats as well because I don’t respond well to doing all my heaviest stuff in a single session—unless it’s testing day!

The same thing applied to my pressing. I usually used double bells for my volume day—say four sets of five reps with 16kg. For the 10-rep scheme, I’d do heavy singles, moving up from 18 to 20 to 24kg. Sometimes I’d perform three sets of 10 single-arm presses with a 12kg bell to build endurance. As with the pistols, I didn’t do heavy presses and pull-ups both on the same day.

With all three of the Iron Maiden lifts, I got to a point where what I had planned to do on a specific day didn’t matter if I wasn’t feeling right. Say I was going for two pull-ups with a 24kg. If I did the first one and something felt off, I’d drop to 20kg for the second. You must listen to what your body is telling you. Sometimes you need to regress to progress.

When a beginner comes to you asking for help getting to weighted pull-ups, what progression do you have them follow?

My first goal is to get them to at least ten bodyweight reps before we add any weight. To do that, we start on the ground with the hollow hold, which was essential for me and is still something I practice a lot. First, I’ll have them just do the exercise itself, and once they’ve got it down, we’ll move on to them holding a dowel to mimic gripping the pull-up bar. Then we’ll progress to standing, and after that to the bar itself, where we’ll work on hand position and grip, hanging, and replicating the hollow hold. Then, they practice. 


Other training techniques I use to build strength and confidence are ring or TRX rows, flexed-arm hangs, active negatives, and assisted chin- and pull-ups. Inverted rows improve your grip and elbow drive while helping to perfect your plank from a suspended position. Flexed-arm hangs and active negatives give someone the feeling of being over the bar (rather than always under it), build isometric and eccentric strength, and increase the endurance needed for pull-ups. Chin-ups and assisted pull-ups (where I place my hands on the lats and guide the student over the bar) are also great SFB tools to put in your toolbox. 

Once they’ve got ten clean bodyweight reps, I’ll have them put a small weight on their foot. If for some reason that hurts, we might progress to using the belt right away.

Then it’s a matter of getting used to some volume while we slowly increase the weight. I have other people use the same three-day approach I’ve found to work well. Once they can get to four sets of five reps with say 8kg—which could take several months—then we can see how 10 or 12kg feels on the heavier days. If someone wants to be able to get up and over the bar with a really heavy weight, they need to realize that the key is in the volume over time. You’ve got to spend a lot of time in the trenches with the non-PR bells to achieve the heavy pull-up. 

As you started testing your pull-up with heavier weights, how did you improve your grip strength?

I did a lot of carries. I’d carry a pair of 20 or 24kg bells for distance—nothing crazy like trying to walk a mile, which would just have fried my central nervous system—but just going until maintaining my grip felt uncomfortable. I’d also do farmer and suitcase carries with lighter bells for longer distances. Doing static bottom-up holds and front squats also helped, as did deadlifts.

How has doing weighted pull-ups transferred to other exercises?

It has made me super strong all over because I’m using the full body tension principles and techniques taught at StrongFirst courses and certifications. I can deadlift 300 pounds and swing a big bell without having to train these movements daily. Weighted pull-ups also enable me to do bodyweight exercises like one-handed pushups pretty easily. Some people seem to think that focusing on pull-ups will make you weaker in other patterns. I’ve found the opposite—it actually transfers to everything if you’re consistent with your training.

Jen_Meehan_DeadliftClick to view in Instagram (new window). Which mental techniques do you use to get over the bar with a heavy bell?

I often say that getting out of my own way is the biggest obstacle. If you think you can’t do it, then you almost certainly won’t—there’s no time or place for negative self-talk. Just like the body adapts to a new exercise, the mind also needs to adapt. Be kind to the mind!

I have to trust my training and give it my best effort, and if for some reason I don’t make it, that’s OK. It is a journey. The more time I spend with the bar and bell, the less intimidating it becomes. Working on rituals, the fine details, and imagery have set me up for long–term success on this pull-up journey.

I spend a lot of time visualizing so I’m more confident during testing. Part of the mental side is going through my routine of putting on my belt, checking the chain length, nailing my hand placement, and feeling the bar. Then I use what I learned from the first day of the SFG I certification: belly breathing. I take two to three deep belly breaths to calm any nerves and prepare my body for pulling the heavy bell. If I’m already in a fight-or-flight state when I begin, I’m setting myself up to fail, whereas if I control my breathing, I’m cool, calm, and collected. Then I just get tunnel vision and attack the bar.

What’s your next big goal?

Now that I’ve got two reps with a 36kg bell, my next target is a 40kg pull-up. It may take a few months or years, but if I stay committed and consistent, it will happen. I’m putting in the work and the weight is starting to budge, so I’m confident that I’ll get it sooner or later. A “small but mighty” goal before that is to get four reps with 28 and 32kg. I’ve already got three of each, but I want to increase that number. 

How would you encourage someone who isn’t sure they can do a bodyweight pull-up, let alone a weighted one?

That was exactly me when I started! Now, I’m a 43-year-old, busy mom of three who can do a pull-up with a 36kg bell. StrongFirst has enabled me to discover what my body is capable of, and it can do the same for you. If you follow a path, commit to doing the hard work, and are patient, you can get to wherever you want to be. And you’ll learn a lot of valuable lessons along the way.

The best place to start? Well, that’d be at the beginning. I strongly suggest a one-day bodyweight course to learn the skill of tension. If you’re already a fitness professional (or an experienced bodyweight enthusiast), then the SFB is for you. You’ll learn all the skills you need for your eventual heavy pull-up.

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How to Become a Barbell Instructor With Kettlebells

Tue, 06/18/2019 - 06:21

Strength is a skill…and you’ve decided that it’s time to add SFL skills to your toolbox. But you have limited barbell experience and zero access to a coach. Plus, you don’t really want to train wrong. Can you even get ready to attend an instructor certification? This article shows that you can, with two pre-requisites: a solid StrongFirst kettlebell practice and an appreciation that you are always a student. And as a bonus, you’ll get a peek into how Plan Strong guides you along the way.

As a student of strength, the barbell was in my future. However, with a pull-up bar and an arsenal of kettlebells from 8 to 48kg, I was kitted for years of strength skills and gains without “needing” to rush to the bar.

A convenient reality for sure. But truthfully, I was intimidated. The bulk of my barbell experience had come from watching athletes train in my university’s gym, the socially-required pump classes after moving to Dubai, and a few months of practice following my CrossFit Level 1 course. Not much of a resume, I know. And so the SFL hovered at the outskirts of my to-do radar until, every so often, an inspiring social media “sister in strength” renewed my barbell itch.

A Real Quagmire

But how could I train without having learned the exacting technique standards?

What’s better: to train “wrong” (with whatever skills I’d assimilated/cobbled together) or to hold off training until I learned (so I would train the right way, grooving correct and effective patterns while minimizing the risks of injury)? This was a classic chicken vs. egg dilemma (sorry Pavel).

Deciding to do nothing is still a decision—one that wasn’t getting me anywhere and in fact, one that didn’t sit well with the “student” in me. Our code isn’t just words on paper. It is an ethos that we live by and reflects the qualities that differentiate us as StrongFirst. The SFL would complete my “quadfecta”—SFG, SFG II, SFB, and SFL—a leadership requirement and, while still just an idea at the time, would eventually become the highest Certified Instructor designation: StrongFirst Elite. How could I not commit?

StrongFirst-Elite-QuadfectaPrototype only. Stay tuned… Prepare to Take vs Prepare to Pass

With just over two months to go and not having done any specific training for the tested lifts, I had to rethink “preparation.” That’s when the lightbulb went off: preparing to take a course and preparing to pass it are not the same thing.

Preparing to explore new knowledge and learn new skills doesn’t actually require a mountain of practice prior to showing up. You can’t practice what you don’t know…and with limited exposure to barbells, I didn’t know what I didn’t know, yet. So indeed, my “practice” for the certification would center around being a good student: reviewing my StrongFirst kettlebell principles (i.e. read your manual) and gaining the best understanding of how my body moved, where and when I tended to leak tension, and my go-to compensations.

Preparing to pass the course is a completely different animal. Preparation can come before (provided you have the knowledge), after (learn what you need, practice, then test), or both. So, showing up to the SFL as a relative “newbie” was a perfectly reasonable idea: I didn’t need to pass (I would have six months for that)…I needed to learn.

But a week later, I wondered if I wasn’t missing something…a great learning opportunity for others who may be in a similar situation—kettlebell instructors and enthusiasts wanting to take the SFL but not having enough barbell background to train well. Was it possible to prepare for the SFL lifts using “only” StrongFirst kettlebell principles? And how close to the standards could I get without ever touching a barbell? This idea got me excited. So for the next eight weeks, I set out to find out.

Barbell-less SFL Preparation Plan

Fortunately, my kettlebell background and study of biomechanics were a good foundation from which to analyze each barbell skill’s positions and transitions. Admittedly, I wouldn’t be able to replicate the barbell’s exact loading parameters with kettlebells, but that’s ok. My goal was the “experiment” itself.

The following table outlines the SFL instructor certification lift requirements for a 54kg woman. Next to each is my chosen kettlebell proxy movement. The baseline (last) column represents my starting technical rep maximum (TRM) for the required reps per lift (set after self-assessment).


* I chose to do a hybrid style deadlift (for technique) to hit my body and grip in a different way than what I’d be experiencing with the suitcase deadlifts. I couldn’t full-on sumo without hip pain and unpleasant grinding, so this hybrid variation—wider than conventional but not full sumo—allowed me to train a mixed grip and hip power in a stance that would support squats, double kettlebell work, and other positions that required external hip rotation and abduction.

** I opted for a kettlebell suitcase deadlift at a deficit (standing on a box, not actually the yoga block from the video) to train back squats. While there isn’t a good kettlebell match for back squats, the deficit let me train with more hip range of motion since the kettlebells could hang below my feet. This is actually a great specialized variety move and similar to a hex bar deadlift.

Apologies for the video blur—my camera seems to have acquired a malfunction. I will reshoot once fixed.

After having mapped out the kettlebell alternatives to each barbell skill, I assessed my movements, looking for blind spots, “cheats,” energy leaks, pattern issues, and strength deficits. Now was not the time to play ostrich and ignore the compensations I’d developed around my hip. (Knowing what I know now, I may not have chased my end-ranges quite so enthusiastically in my youth…but that’s an article for another day.)

Ostrich-Head-in-SandIgnoring your weaknesses doesn’t make them go away.

Finally, I set my “technical rep” baselines—the loads I could lift for the required reps with good, “technical” form (for several sets and with minimal prep or psyching required). My numbers are in the last column of the table above.

The Need to Prioritize

Without time to spare, I had to focus on my greatest weaknesses:

  • Bench Press > KB Floor Press—strength deficit
  • Back Squat > KB Suitcase Deadlift at a Deficit for added range of motion—stability, confidence, motor control: right hip
  • Deadlift Strength > KB Suitcase Deadlift

Yes, there would be overlap and carry-over between the suitcase deadlift varieties. But because the deadlift strength would be training towards a one rep max and the back squat a set of five repetitions, I adjusted the reps and intensity on different days to shift the focus.

Plan the Work

Knowing that my selected kettlebell moves were only proxies for SFL skills, I eagerly used and sheepishly adapted (please forgive me) Plan Strong™ insights for my purpose. Those of you who are familiar with it will recognize that I didn’t plan a competitive phase. Plus, after having calculated my required number of lifts per intensity and splitting the monthly amount across four weeks (done twice), I was a bit more flexible with my daily volume (while making sure to hit my weekly numbers—not go over or under) across two or three days per week. To the relief of many (and possibly the dismay of others), I won’t got into details behind the brilliance of how Plan Strong fed my training goals. Instead, I’ll make an unashamed plug: take the workshop—your mind will be blown. (Or, if you aren’t quite ready for the science behind it but want training plans to follow, you can get a custom made strength plan designed by a team of experts.) But since I do want this to be helpful to at least one of you, I will go over some information on how I designed my training.

Select the Intensities & Plan the Volume

Using my baselines for the chosen focus lifts and considering the assortment of kettlebells I had available (double kettlebells from 8kg to 48kg, in increments of 2kg up to 28kg), I calculated the relative intensity of different kettlebell pairings. Note my indulgent use of asymmetrical loads to have more “intensities” to work with. Using so many kettlebell options is an unnecessary luxury…and may indeed be overkill.

What follows are tables to demonstrate the inputs for my suitcase deadlift training (for the DL strength test). I’ve put the same tables for my floor press and suitcase deadlift at a deficit at the end of the article for the extra curious.


“What does all this mean?” you might be asking. In a nutshell, for my suitcase deadlift, I planned to do 150 total lifts (NL) in the first four weeks. I distributed those lifts across my intensity ranges targeting a relative intensity of 81%. (Trust me, you don’t want me to get into the calculation.) I split those up into the weekly volumes using my chosen Plan Strong variant (a load waviness tool) that had the highest volume on week 3 (to work around my other two focus lifts). All that was left was to split the number of lifts per intensity across weeks to hit the required volume numbers.

When it came splitting weekly volume into daily training sessions, I’d put away my calculator and allowed myself some flexibility, guided by the rep ranges for my sets. For example, in weeks 1 to 4, 89% intensity used 64kg and each set (for that intensity) should range between 2 and 4 reps. I split my volume up as follows:

  • WK 1: NL = 6 | 2, 2, 2 (three sets of two reps each)
  • WK 2: NL = 16 | 2, 4, 3, 4, 3
  • WK 3: NL = 0 | 0
  • WK 4: NL = 6 | 4, 2

On weeks with very low volume at a given intensity, I did all of those lifts on my second training day.

You’ll notice that for the second 4-week block, I recalculated my baseline. My 64kg suitcase deadlift was feeling very strong and I knew that it no longer represented 94% of my TRM.

Combining Focus Lifts

Something I haven’t touched on yet is the counterintuitive notion of having more than one “focus” lift. Indeed, I had three. The way I handled them is to use different waviness variants so that every week, I’d have a high training volume (number of lifts) for a different lift. Also, I swapped around the order of my lifts every session. Finally, on some weeks, I separated the two suitcase deadlifts variations so I could better recover. (Thank you Plan Strong for the guidance on this common reality.)

What About the Other Lifts?

This is how I approached my other lifts:

  • Military press. Since I could “meet” the standard with my equivalent kettlebell military press, I trained twice a week, on low volume floor press days. Usually doing two ladders 1-5 reps.
  • Hybrid deadlift. I used this deadlift as my warmup for the suitcase deadlifts. Dead stop single reps with a 10 second pause (hovering just above the deck) x 5 sets, alternating a mixed grip for four sets.
  • And front squat. Leg strength is leg strength. Twice a week, I double laddered—reps and weight. Five reps x 32kg, three reps x 36kg, one rep x 40kg. 
Movement Prep

A quick word on warmups. Part of analyzing the SFL skills was identifying potential mobility restrictions that I needed to address with movement prep. It included a lot of wrist mobility (to try to wrap my brain around an unpleasant barbell rack position vs the kettlebell rack), t-spine extensions for the bench press, shoulder flexion without losing midsection bracing, and hip hinging with external rotations.

Check out our Facebook and Instagram social media this week for snippets from this video with audio explanations.


The SFL certification weekend arrived—I was “newbie” excited: that special mix of nervous anticipation with a pinch of terror.

To review all the mind-blowing knowledge that was presented goes way beyond the scope of this article. Let me just say that anyone who touts themselves as a fan, coach, trainer, or student of strength needs to attend—need, not should. Twenty plus years in the “fit biz” had not given me even 10% of the knowledge I gained that weekend. Whether you are there to learn to train, to train better and safer, and/or to learn to coach your athletes to greater performance and gains, this weekend is for you. And, like me, if you’ve not quite set yourself up with perfect preparation to pass, it’s ok. You’ll come out knowing exactly how to do it better, safer, stronger. (Commercial break over.)

By the end of my SFL experience, I was extremely pleased to have shown that preparing for the certification using only kettlebells wasn’t just a possibility, it was a legit strategy—I had met the standards.

Quadfecta achieved.


So if you have barbell aspirations but aren’t sure whether you are ready to take the SFL plunge, here’s my advice:

  • Never forget to appreciate what it’s like to be a “newbie.” Many of your students start out that way.
  • A student of strength should always seek to learn, to challenge his or her biases, and to have more skills and knowledge today than yesterday.
  • Different modalities offer valuable lessons to explore loading parameters. That’s how we adapt to withstand them.
  • Learning proper technique is the key to longevity. Being strong means so much more than any number you can lift.
  • Preparing to be a good student can mean showing up “green” without having prepared to pass. That does not diminish your experience in any way.

For anyone looking for a fantastic summer goal, how about filling your toolbox with new barbell knowledge and skills? We have four SFLs scheduled between now and the end of August just waiting for you.

Atlanta, GA July 12-14, 2019 Rijeka, Croatia July 19-21, 2019 Toronto, Canada July 26-28, 2019 Portland, OR August 9-11, 2019 Suitcase Deadlift @ Deficit Plan Plan-Strong-Suitcase-Deadlift-Deficit-Training-Plan Floor Press Plan Plan-Strong-Floor-Press-Plan

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55-Seconds to Kettlebell Snatch Test Success

Tue, 06/11/2019 - 10:19

The (dreaded) snatch test. Five minutes (of suck) that many StrongFirst instructors consider the most stressful in their certifying or recertifying process. But you can set yourself up for success with an excellent preparation program, provided you dial in your technique first and understand some common pitfalls that derail potentially successful attempts. In this article, Khalil El Mallah presents two common snatch test dangers—peaking heart rates and rushing—and shares his plan that beats both.

The StrongFirst snatch test is a well-known and often feared part of the requirements to pass the SFG I Kettlebell Instructor Certification. The premise is simple: snatch a kettlebell overhead 100 times in under five minutes while adhering to the SFG technique standard. The size of the kettlebell is determined by your gender and bodyweight.

At my previous 97kg, snatch testing with a 24kg kettlebell was challenging but achievable. Now, at over 100kg, the standard requires a 28kg kettlebell. This definitely challenges my weak points: as an asthmatic, I have to rely more on my strength than my lung capacity.


After several failed attempts while training in my gym, and seeing many others also come up short, I stepped back into my coaching shoes to analyze: What were the most challenging points? And, what focused adjustments could help us ace the snatch test?

Weak Point 1: Peaking Heart Rate

Experience shows that most of us—especially when using a challenging bell size—start to struggle around three minutes into the test. This is normal because it takes three minutes for the heart rate (HR) to peak and then the body’s systems (cardiovascular, hip power, overall strength and endurance) diminish, as explained in the Strong Endurance™ Manual:

“As the HR increases in exercises, the stroke volume grows with it, up to a point. But once the HR exceeds 170-180, the duration of the diastole becomes too short for ATP to fully resynthesize between beats and the cardiac contractions’ strength diminishes. This leads to a reduction in the stroke volume.”

(Holmgren, 1956: Holmgren & Ovenfors, 1960)

In practical terms, this means that less blood—and less oxygen—gets pumped to your working muscles regardless of how much you are sucking wind.

“It explains why your performance starts dropping if you train at a heart rate above 180 beats per minute. So the objective is to be able to perform more work at a lower HR cost,” clarifies Master StrongFirst Certified Instructor, Shaun Cairns.

Weak Point 2: Rushing Through

Although the test must be completed within five minutes, adrenaline, fear, and a competitive spirit combine into a powerful drive towards finishing the test (or, depending on your mindset, just getting it over with) as soon as possible. Unfortunately, this often backfires when you get tantalizingly close to the 100th rep.

On four separate certifications in my gym, attendees lost their bell at repetitions 95 and above, despite having 20 to 40 seconds left on the clock. They would all have benefitted from pacing themselves, taking advantage of the full five minutes available.

No one gets a gold star for finishing early. It’s pass or fail. Period.

Personalizing Your Snatch Test Strategy: Start with Simple

Now, there are many ways to approach a snatch test—from snatching at a set pace, taking set breaks or not, asymmetrically loading a stronger arm, to any number of creative variations. What works for a “strength” person may not work for an “endurance” one and vice versa.

My suggestion is to start out simple, without over-complicating the math or overthinking the task. Five sets of 10/10 (usually on the minute), so that you change hands before exhausting the power of the working arm. While the other arm works, the first one rests and recovers. Repeat until done.

However, given the two common weak points that I outlined above, I suggest a subtle yet profound tweak to the usual “on the minute” count. Not only does it control your pace so you don’t rush, but it also keeps your heart rate from peaking for as long as possible. I’ve had great success personally and with my students with the following protocol.

The 55-Second Interval Plan

There are two ideas behind the 55-second interval. The first is to set the kettlebell down to recover after each 10/10 set. Mind you, this is not the time to take a walk, drink your coconut water or whatever. It’s a time to quickly de-ramp your stress sufficiently so that your next set will be as good as the previous one. The second idea is to “steal” five seconds from each of the first four working minutes to give yourself an extra 20 seconds of rest at the end of your fourth set. This means that after completing your fourth set of 10/10, and with 80 reps done, instead of resting for 20 seconds—which is what you would have had by starting each set on the minute—you get a welcomed 40 seconds of rest just when your heart rate is peaking and when you need it most.

Note that this assumes an approximate snatch test cadence of 20 reps per 35 seconds (including one hand switch). At no time should you sacrifice your motionless lockout for speed; just don’t luxuriate in it.

The Training Plan
  • Use a bell one size heavier than your test size, or two sizes heavier if not challenging enough.
  • Train both heavy snatches and one-arm swings once a week (each) using the same protocol.
StrongFirst-Khalil-Heavy-SwingHeavy one-hand swings

Here is a training plan to build your endurance towards snatching 10/10 every 55-seconds for four rounds, then finishing the last 10/10 at 4:20.

In this example, we start with 6 reps per arm and move up by 2 reps per session.  


The working time for 6 reps each side will be around 27 seconds, leaving approximately 28 seconds of rest. The total number of reps is 60.


The working time for 7 reps each side will be around 31 seconds, leaving approximately 24 seconds of rest. The total number of reps is 62.


The total number of reps is 64.

And so it continues; in every session, we add 2 reps until we reach 8,8,8,8,8. Following the same progression as presented, we would get there on session 11.

Note: This plan isn’t necessarily linear. We repeat the same session until we can complete it comfortably.

When we reach that last training session—8 reps on each arm using a ‘heavier than snatch test’ kettlebell—we start our fifth set at 4:20 to ensure we finish in just under five minutes. We get forty seconds for the last 20 repetitions.

At this point, you are ready to “test” using your snatch-sized bell—four rounds of 10/10 every 55 seconds, then your last set starting at 4:20. Sure you could have pushed for a few extra training sessions chasing 9/9, maybe even hitting 10/10 with the heavier weight. But this plan is about setting yourself up for success in a sustainable way. Being able to smash your snatch test with a weight one or two sizes heavier than required isn’t the objective.

StrongFirst-Khalil-Snatch-Set-Up Program Options

Keep in mind that the starting number of reps and the number of reps added on each session can vary based on the individual’s abilities. For example:

  • To make it easier, we can start session 1 with 5 reps on each side;
  • To make it harder, we could move up by 4 reps each session, which would mean: 5,5,5,5,5 then 6,6,5,5,5 then 6,6,6,6,5 then 7,6,6,6,6 etc. If it starts to feel heavy, then we can revert to adding only 2 reps each time.

Your heavy one-arm swing practice using the same scheme—both once a week—will be extremely helpful in developing hip power and grip.

Snatch Test

By the time we have finished the final session and are able to perform 80 reps in five minutes with a heavier bell (8/8 x 5), 100 reps with the test size bell should feel relatively easy. Our body will be used to taking the full five minutes and the test bell size will feel light. We will have more hip hinge strength, explosiveness, and power, so we depend less on our cardiovascular system. We will have successfully eliminated those common weak points and overcome the challenges of the snatch test with ease. Your competitive drive will remain. So will some adrenaline. But the fear will be greatly diminished.

Therefore, if you are preparing for your first snatch test or getting ready to recertify—yes, you still need to pass the snatch test to achieve the StrongFirst Certified Elite Instructor designation (all four SFG, SFGII, SFB, SFL)—give this 55-second interval plan a try. Let us know from where you started and how it went by commenting below or in our online community forum.

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Strengthening Your Olympic Lifts with StrongFirst Skills

Tue, 06/04/2019 - 15:57

Kettlebells. Barbells. Bodyweight. Three different modalities that share a common theme: they are designed to help us get stronger. We have seen across various StrongFirst Certifications—SFG, SFGII, SFL, and SFB—principles, techniques, and skills that build on one another. Getting strong in one modality supports getting stronger in every other. StrongFirst calls this the skill of strength.

What I have also found is that the foundation of many StrongFirst skills can offer valuable insights that assist in building up Olympic lifts: the barbell snatch, and the clean and jerk. Vasily Alekseyev, the multi-gold medalist Soviet weightlifter, even got his start using kettlebells (KBs) before moving on to Olympic lifting. I have been very lucky to work at a place that utilizes all of these methods and modalities to help our students achieve their goals and have seen these principles carry over time and time again.

Body Control and Coordination

Let’s start with how we learn body control and coordination for kettlebell skills, and how these are similar to that of Olympic lifts. KB skills in general— such as swings, cleans, and snatches—all require a good amount of body awareness and coordination. To build them, we begin by practicing positioning. For example, in the swing, there is the setup position, the hike position, and the top of a swing position.

While the positions of the kettlebell swing are not identical to those for Olympic lifts, Oly lifts do require a solid understanding of each position that comes together to create the barbell snatch and the barbell clean and jerk. Ballistic kettlebell skills, in particular, have a degree of complexity that requires good body proprioception and motor control to successfully transition between positions which creates powerful and technically sound movements. Olympic lifting requires this same body awareness and coordination—with extra consideration for the even higher degree of complexity and load potential!

You may even want to use kettlebell skills as a prerequisite for building this level of body and positional awareness.

Leg and Hip Power

Another similarity between KB ballistic movements—like swings, cleans, and snatches—and barbell snatches and cleans, is that each is initiated by the power from the legs and the hips. In all of these movements, inexperienced lifters may think that a lot of the strength and power comes from the arms or upper body; but these lifts require a great deal of leg power with the right grip strength and stability. When coaching a barbell snatch or clean, it is sometimes useful to relate back to a kettlebell swing in the way that we drive through the floor to create power and lower body extension. This can help people understand how that bar gets over their head or into a front rack position.

Push Presses: Kettlebell to Barbell

Several kettlebell exercises translate exceptionally well to Olympic lifting. The kettlebell push press and push jerk are excellent tools for teaching the barbell push press and jerk, which help lead into the split jerk. Specifically, the kettlebell push press and push jerk help teach the same positioning, leg drive, trunk integrity, overhead stability and upper back, shoulder and ankle mobility needed for a barbell push press and jerk.

The first initial dip of a kettlebell push press and push jerk requires the lifter to bend from the knees while keeping the upper body completely vertical as if sliding up and down a wall. This requires solid 360-degree spinal stabilization and good ankle mobility so that energy gets maximally directed upwards. This is the same position required of a barbell push press or jerk. If the individual hinges, rather than bends from the knee, the barbell will want to fall forward, making it extremely challenging to finish the lift, if not causing a complete miss.

Next, and from this initial dip, the legs initiate the powerful extension drive which transfers through the trunk and into the arms to hoist the bells overhead. This again is the same process for a barbell. It is helpful to learn this with bells first (or even a single bell) as you can start with lighter weight to get used to the transfer of power overhead. As you get bigger and bigger bells, you quickly appreciate that you have to use more leg drive in order to get them overhead. This is helpful to learn before getting to a heavy barbell as it builds up strength and shoulder stability to press and control even more weight overhead with the barbell.

With a kettlebell jerk, after the first dip and drive, there is a second dip. This requires the individual to coordinate dropping under the bells as they lock out their arms (in the dip position) to get the weight overhead. This double-dip jerk coordination can be tricky for some to understand and feel the right rhythm. Practicing with kettlebell first can make the barbell jerk feel much more comfortable with optimal timing. When you get to a barbell, you will be able to push more weight that requires precise technique and coordination.

Barbell Military Press

A barbell military press is also a great learning tool for helping out with push presses jerks, and even snatches. Military presses help build overhead strength as well as screen for any issues of overhead mobility and core strength limitations. If any of these are issues, better to address it here first before the movement becomes more technical and ballistic.

Military presses create a great deal of stability in the shoulders, which help with snatches and jerks.

Barbell Squats

Front and back squats are essential for all Olympics lifters! Front squats are an essential part of a barbell clean. The ending position for a barbell clean is the bottom position of the front squat. Building the mobility to maintain this position with high elbows and an upright stabilized torso is paramount in building strength in this position. The better a person can front squat, the more comfortable an individual will feel with barbell cleans. Along with front squats, back squats are also a huge part of Olympic lifting training. With so much leg power and strength needed for Olympic lifting, back squats are the pinnacle of lower body strength and the best way to build them up!

Pull-ups for Upper Body Strength and Stability

Bodyweight movements can also be super beneficial for Olympic lifting growth. Pull-ups have an excellent transfer in terms of building upper back strength and grip. While a barbell snatch initiates with the power from an athlete’s lower body, the strength to keep that bar overhead in the landing position comes from a great deal of upper- and mid-back strength, amongst other muscle groups. I personally found that my ability to snatch and snatch at higher weight increased after I spent months with weighted pull-ups. Even after stepping away from Olympic lifting for a few months, when I returned after this specific training, my snatches felt stronger and more stable in the landing position. This may not be true for all athletes, but I do think it is one way an athlete can build up their strength for the snatch’s catch position, as well as improve barbell control throughout the movement.

Wrapping up: Strength Training Can Transfer

As stated before, we do not have to be married to only one modality. We can use principles and the training from one methodology to enhance the training of another. Just as we have found that children who diversify their sports become better athletes than ones who specialize too early, I believe we should treat training similarly. By expanding how we train, we gain a better understanding of our bodies and find strength leakages we may not have previously seen. And finally, one of the best gains from training different modalities is pure fun and enjoyment. I love diving deep into a modality or combining different modalities to come out stronger overall on the other end. Whether you are looking for ways to change up your own training or looking for ways to enhance the training of your students, kettlebell, bodyweight, and barbell skills can all build upon one another to create a better base of strength for everyone. Enjoy!

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Get Started: Foundational Principles of Results-driven Kettlebell Training

Wed, 05/29/2019 - 01:43

There’s a lot more to getting stronger than the actions of simply, and progressively, lifting more. Much of it has to do with caring about setting a proper foundation of solid skills and a successful approach that guides training decisions. For kettlebell beginners particularly, that means starting out by knowing and addressing limitations that could point you in an ineffective direction and considering the mindset factors that contribute to strength: quality, lifestyle, your why, and pursuing mastery.

In a recent post, we explored how to set up a kettlebell training area in your home—your personal courage corner. With your strength space staked-out and kitted, let’s revisit the basics in another way: considering the foundational principles of the training that you will practice in your corner.

Let me start with a common sense disclaimer. Any internet-based advice I can give you is blind. I don’t know your medical history, your athletic experience level, or whether you’ve picked up a kettlebell before. So, what I tell you in this article, and any other like it, needs to be taken with a large grain of salt. Be sure to consult with your doctor before starting a kettlebell program, or any other kind of physical training, to make sure you don’t have an underlying condition that would preclude your participation.

Phew, aren’t you glad that’s over? Me too. Now we can move on to the matter at hand: starting your kettlebell journey.

PART 1: Align Your Ducks Before You Begin Align-Your-Training-Ducks FMS: You Can’t Build Fitness on Top of Dysfunction

The first order of business is to get a Functional Movement Screen (FMS), performed by a movement professional. They will be able to see what you’re capable of and identify any fundamental patterns that you either can’t access at all or cannot do so without compensating or more importantly, without pain. They can dive deeper to find the root cause of the issue and provide corrective exercises to remedy them. For example, locked-down ankles will compromise your squat. Shoulder problems? You will likely struggle to perform get-ups, snatches, presses, and other overhead exercises. And if your core stabilization doesn’t kick in at the right time, everything from planks and pushups to swings will suffer. The goal of the FMS is not to find flaws for the sake of them, but rather to get you moving well enough to make sure you’ll positively adapt to the stressors that kettlebell training will subject you to. As Gray Cook rightly says, “Move well, then move often.”

Find a Guide

Next, I urge you to find a StrongFirst certified instructor in your area. I say this with the caveat that when I got started with my kettlebell practice, all I had was a copy of Pavel’s The Russian Kettlebell Challenge book and a 24kg bell. That said, I was already an athletic trainer with years of barbell and bodyweight training under my belt. So even though there weren’t many experienced instructors around 2001—I certainly didn’t know any—I coped with the on-ramp well.

For someone without a similar background, it will be much easier to enter the world of kettlebell training with the help of an expert guide. Unlike certain other credentials, each StrongFirst certification level is rigorous, physically and mentally challenging, and demands a strong spirit. It requires would-be instructors to demonstrate a high degree of technical competence developed from months of practice and excellent coaching skills. Not everyone earns a designation. Working consistently with a well-qualified coach can shorten your learning curve considerably and help you achieve the progress that you seek faster, and likely more safely than if you were flying solo. It will also enable you to transcend the line of best-fit recommendations in this article and develop a more personalized plan.


In the unlikely scenario that there isn’t a StrongFirst coach in your area—or if you cannot presently afford to invest in coaching or attend a one-day course—you still have options. Choose one or all of them.

1. Essential Kettlebell Exercises Online Training

Our StrongFirst Essential Kettlebell Exercises online course can also provide you a great way to learn the essentials. You’ll get ten video modules each with a printable workbook covering everything from safety to foundational exercises to programming. You’ll see movement breakdowns, demonstrations, and drills to improve your form and have access to the online course forum to ask questions.

2. Learn on Your Own with Simple and Sinister

With a copy of Pavel’s book Simple and Sinister, you can follow a similar approach to mine. Start with the movement prep exercises and then concentrate on learning the deadlift. Then you can progress to the swing and get-up. In the courage corner article, I described such a training area as being conducive to a minimal approach to kettlebell training. In which case, Simple and Sinister is the minimalist’s handbook.

3. StrongFirst Articles and Community Forum

In addition to buying the book (which everyone interested in kettlebells should own), spend time on the StrongFirst website, reading articles like this one, watching instructional videos, and interacting on our community forum, where you can find helpful advice on just about any kettlebell-related topic. You can also sign up for our newsletter, which will keep you up to date about the latest resources and nearby events.

From Theory to Practice

It’s obviously not enough to learn the theory—you have to also start cultivating a practice. This involves consulting the resources I just mentioned and setting up your courage corner. You’ll also need the tools of the trade—kettlebells themselves. I had a single 24kg bell when I began, but again, I had a decent base of strength and was fairly fit. There also wasn’t the same range of options that’s available today. While I lack the context needed to know your current capabilities, you can refer to the chart below that I’ve borrowed from Simple and Sinister to guide your selection.

Starting-Kettlebell-Weights PART 2: Where the Rubber Hits the Road Considering Organism and Environment

Once you’ve purchased your kettlebells, set up your courage corner, and, hopefully, consulted a movement professional and SFG coach, you’re ready to begin.

We’ve covered the practicalities. Now it’s time to get a bit more philosophical. I implore you to harness your enthusiasm and make haste, slowly. Instead of thinking about kettlebell training as merely “working out,” think of it as a daily opportunity to learn and refine new skills. There is no such thing as spending too much time on your deadlift, as it will form the foundation for your swing and all other ballistic movements. Similarly, spending hour after hour refining your get-up technique will stand you in good stead to perform presses and other overhead exercises.

Being great at the basics is what separates a professional from an amateur.

Providing you scale appropriately (i.e., deadlift to swing to snatch), you will develop strength and skills to advance to more complex exercises at a later date. But this is never to be rushed and isn’t necessarily the goal for everyone. If you stuck with the swing and get-up as in Simple and Sinister, you will get stronger, get fitter, improve your conditioning, and be better prepared to perform in sports and life.

What He “SAID”

Another important concept to understand is the SAID principle—specific adaptation to imposed demands—or getting good at what you repeatedly do. Gray Cook brilliantly expanded on this. “The Organism’s specific adaptation to the Environment’s imposed demands. It’s easy for our lifestyles to contain one or more organism-related problems, such as eating poorly, dealing with chronic emotional stress, or getting insufficient sleep. In which case, it would be folly to try and feel or perform better by tweaking your kettlebell programming.” This would be what Gray calls “Trying to bring an environmental solution to an organism problem.”

If you (i.e., the organism) aren’t in a position to adapt, then no matter how much you refine the tools, program, location of your courage corner, and so on, you’re only ever going to achieve sub-optimal results. A StrongFirst instructor or our online course can help you nail your programming, but you have to also address lifestyle factors that might be hindering or undermining you.

Prioritize Recovery to Positively Adapt

We cannot look at the training stimuli you’re subjecting yourself to in isolation—we must also consider recovery. It’s essential that you sleep, eat, and hydrate well if you want to get fitter, be healthy, and progress in your kettlebell training. If you feel like you can never recover between sessions, it’s an indicator that you are doing too much and need to back off a bit.

Your training should leave you feeling great, not destroyed; build you up, not tear you down.

While you should challenge yourself in your kettlebell practice, never do so much that you cannot train with purpose the following day. Extreme soreness should not be used as the yardstick to the quality of your training. In fact, it will negatively impact your ability to train the next day and to perform in your life, sport, or work duties. Someone who has been training for many years might well increase their volume when preparing for a certification, following a more advanced program, or pursuing a specific goal. But for a beginner, it’s advisable to keep the daily and overall volume low. Your training should leave you feeling great, not destroyed; build you up, not tear you down. This is a fundamental programming principle we follow at StrongFirst.

How Often

In Simple and Sinister, Pavel addresses the inevitable question about how often you should perform swings and get-ups with a simple response: “Repeat until strong.” He is not saying to replicate one training session over and over again. Not only would you get bored, but your body would become used to the stimulus and stop adapting. That’s why at StrongFirst, we believe in the concept of “waviness.” This has nothing to do with surfing (as the name might suggest) but rather refers to the need to vary the volume, intensity, and density each day. Per Pavel’s book, you could do swings and get-ups every day and keep progressing, but only if you change up the sets, reps, and weight. So if you do 100 swings one day, try 50 the next, and 70 the next. In doing so, you will challenge your body to adapt continuously.

In other words, you can do the same thing every day, as long as you don’t do the same thing every day.

Ask Better Questions = Get Better Answers

“Ask not what your kettlebell can do for you, but what you want to do with your kettlebell.” OK, that’s not exactly how the famous line from John F. Kennedy’s Inaugural Address went, but it is pertinent nonetheless. Before you plunge into your kettlebell practice, it’s worth asking yourself, “What am I hoping to achieve?” and figuring out your “why” as Simon Sinek puts it.

If you’re looking for a time-, space-, and equipment-efficient physical practice, then you’ve found the right thing. Or maybe you want to be better able to keep up with your kids or grandkids. Kettlebell training can help with that, too. Perhaps you want to be stronger and more powerful so you can improve your sporting performance. Again, I can’t think of a better tool. When you know where you’re trying to get to, you will find a more appropriate route that gets you there without unnecessary detours and roadblocks. Smart kettlebell training delivers.

Let’s return to the organism/environment topic for a moment. If you reach a plateau or even find yourself regressing somewhat, you need to make sure you’re asking an organism-related question for that kind of problem, and an environment-related one if it’s more to do with your program. If you challenge yourself to ask better questions, you will inevitably come up with better answers as well.

The Pursuit of Mastery

StrongFirst certified instructor Joe DeLeo once told me about the Portuguese rowing team’s training, and how they’d sometimes rest for eight minutes after going hard for 500 meters, 12-15 minutes after 1,000 meters, when peaking a week out from the World Championship regatta. It’s the same with elite sprinters and Olympic weightlifters—they take longer rest periods to ensure that every single repetition is performed with the highest quality possible. It’s only in consumer-level fitness settings that we see shorter breaks and low rest-to-work ratios like 2:1 and 1:1.

Do away with the foolish pursuit of more and instead do less, better.

How much rest do you need between sets? Longer than you think you should need; just as you’d be well advised to do less work than you think you’re capable of. And, for that matter, use a weight that’s lighter than you believe you can handle. Doing so will help ensure that you do away with the foolish pursuit of more and instead do less, better. That’s a core tenet of any sustainable practice.

Kettlebell training can be intense, but should never become the helter-skelter pursuit of getting sweaty or exhausted. There are lots of ways to do that, and this isn’t one of them. Instead, look at it as a never-ending quest for mastery—not just of a certain tool, but more importantly, of your body. After 18 years of kettlebell work, I feel like I’m just starting to get somewhere.

In writing this, I’m reminded of an interview of the legendary cellist Pablo Casals I once read. When asked why, at age 90, he continued to practice, he replied, “Because I think I’m making progress.” It’s the same with the bell as with his cello and bow. Nobody ever achieves total mastery. But it’s the relentless pursuit of it that gives our quest meaning.

Pablo-Casals-Statue-SpainStatue of Pablo Casals in Spain
Editorial credit: Oleinik Luliia

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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.

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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.

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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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