Saturday, January 27, 2007

Power tools.

Some have been suggesting that the "proper" way to use the kettlebell, the way the kettlebell was "designed" to be used is for repetition lifting. I agree, although I dont agree that the only way to define repetition is high repetions done in one long set . And I don't agree that the techniques used to do very high reps should be the same as when one is doing high force low repetitions.

This is like saying one should use the same mechanics and form when running 100 meters as when jogging five miles.When you are trying to maximize force and power output the form is different than when one is trying to mimimize effort and conserve energy .

Lets set aside the fact that the kettlebell was "designed" as a measure of weight( with a nice handle for ease of use) to use in shops to discern how much grain, etc. was being bought. And that locals, as men have done throughout millenium, competeted to see who could pick them up as a test of manhood and strength.

The fact that it evolved into a repetition contest is a fact but the current technical permutations that developed were purely for a competitive edge, much like the double knee bend in olympic lifting, which was outlawed at first.You used to be able to lower the bell to your shoulder before backswinging it in the snatch. Seems the contest went on too long that way so they eliminated that, along with the one arm press,another high tension movement the kb was supposedly not designed for.

Rules in sport change ALL the time, with the sole purpose of making the lifts harder or easier, depending on who is writing the rules. Long pause,short pause, no pause,start signal, no start signal, etc all have been enforceable bench press rules at one time or another.None are sacrosanct and change with the wind.

Saying that the kettlebell is only designed for continuous high repetition lifting and that the technique for such is the ONLY proper technique is like saying the barbell is designed only for powerlifting and one rep maxes. That many have done hundred of reps in the barbell squat in one set does not mean they are not using the barbell correctly and that it's only practical use is to test for one rep maxes in high tension techniques.

The tension levels, breathing patterns, and even motor patterns are quite different when one is attempting a 20 rep breathing squat than it is on a max effort lift in the power squat. Doesnt make one right or wrong.Different ways to use the same tool.BOTH are right in the proper context.

It has been pointed out that the kettlebell is just a tool and that the real "magic" to any method is in the body and how it is used. That is correct. The body can be used to make the kettle swing very intense and powerful for just a few reps or pacing and relaxation can be used to allow one to produce just enough force to lift the kb for many many reps.

Using a low force technique when you have a 72 pound kb in front of you and your max is 54lbs is wrong use of the body and the technique. Using compensatory acceleration and max rooting on every rep when you goal is hundreds of reps is also wrong use of the body and the technique.
You use the body and produce force in the manner appropriate to your goal with the kettlebell.

To say the kb is not a good choice for high tension exercises doesnt make sense. Again, if your max is 36 lb kb in the press and you have 54 pound bell in front of you high tension makes all the sense in the world.The offset weight of the kb makes all kinds of different exercises easier to do,especially overhead. Now if your goal is to total elite inpowerlifting and all you are using is a kb then you misguided. You need a barbell. But that doesnt make using the kb to learn to develop high tension in the body is a wrong application of the tool.

To say that a program designed to appeal to the greatest number of people is simply a marketing tool is disingenous.And to suggest that an old system,which itself has undergone many technique and rule changes is "perfect" is naive.It may have produced good results for the competitors but not all can or want to be competitors.

Gymnasts , climbers and other athletes whose stock in trade is relative strength use NO resisistance to learn to maximize total body tension. Again, it's not the tool, it's the body and the techniques and how they are applied to the tool that makes the difference.

Sets of ten are repetition sets. There is nothing sacred about doing one long set as a test, or only switching hands one time in a snatch test or using bizarre body contorsions to rest between reps of jerks to maximize the rep count.Again, just current rules of a sport, exposed to the whims of change at any moment.

As far as the technique one uses to produce the force on the kettlebell the discussion very much reminds me of the arguments between powerlifters and bodybuilders as to what constitues a proper squat. Bodybuilders say that powerlifters are cheating with the bar low on their back, their feet spread wide and only going as far down as necessary to break parallel.
Powerlifters think bodybuilders are crazy and weak,giving up all kinds of weight on the bar for the vanity of bigger quad size with their high bar, close stance, heels up techniques.

Does this make the power squat wrong and the olympic squat right? Hardly. Right tool AS WELL as the right technique for the goal.

When I teach real people to use the kettlebell, which I do every day, I want to use the easiest, safest and most efficient method to get them to swing. Keeping the back arched, hinging from the hips and sitting back and having the bell follow the hips is the methods I use, the RKC method.

To use a technique that minimizes muscle group involvment, that minimizes power and force production , that requires very intricate techniques and extreme levels of shoulder and back flexibility to the average fitness person doesnt make sense to me.

But, should any of those people, after they have mastered the basics, ask how they should train and what technique they should use to get to their goal of a GS classification I would recommend GS techniques and training methods. It would be appropriate. This would the anatomical breathing, corkscrew technique and energy saving techniques in the swing.

But to introduce this as the baseline for how to use the kb for the average person would be seriously putting the cart before the horse.And to suggest to them that the only real way for them to get any benefit from the kettlebell is to train to do hundred of reps in a row would turn off most immediately.

There are many ways to get to the same goal.Which is harder, doing 400 meter repeats at 80% of your best 400 with a rest period, for a total of five miles or jogging five miles? Having done both I can tell you unhesitatingly that jogging is easier and anyone who dissagrees hasnt done it.Saying the only right way to use the tool is the low intensity method just doesnt make sense.

And to suggest that these techniques are injurious and dont hold up for the long haul is patently ridiculous. My experience has been just the opposite, for myself, my wife and my clients. These techniques have literally brought, my back, knees and shoulders back from the dead. ANd the experience has been the same for so many, across the board. Simple techniques yes, accesible to almost everybody. Simple, but not easy.

And the test of that system is not how well the advanced practitioners do. Gifted elite athletes do well with anything. They can do things well the first time they try them or on first site. I have seen this many, many times over the last 35 years and in numerous sports. The real test of a fitness system, imo, is how applicable it is to the average person. How quickly they can pick it up and put it to good use. And it is certainly easy enough to make it harder.Just make the bell heavier.It's all easy til it's heavy. Don't run into too many clients the Bulldog and the Beast are not heavy enough for.

Growing the top end of a sport is great for the advanced practitioners. Growing the base and exposing more and more everyday people of all ages to the strength and health benefits of the kettlebell and its ease of use is more my interest.We have an obesity and lack-of-fitness epidemic on our hands these days and the more people get exposed to the kb the better.

The RKC hardstyle techniques turn the kb swing and snatch into a total body sprint, not a jog and thats a big difference.As the fitness world moves away from aerobic exercise as a training paradigm and embraces high intensity interval training as superior for everything from cardiac protection to muscle mass increases and fat loss the kb and the RKC methods of using it are the perfect tools for that job.


Pete Diaz, RKC said...

And this is why you were the perfect choice to become a Senior RKC. Well thought out, logical, and analytical post, Rif.

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks Pete, it is appreciated.

Chris said...

Well written and well argued - especialy the point regarding he superiority of high intensity intervals as opposed to duration cardio and its application to the GS/RKC debate.

I though Steve Cotter's post that this is (presumably) answering was well written too.

The creation of two schools of Kb lifting is sad in some ways, but for an outsider is interesting to observe and learn from

Tom Shook, RKC said...


I agree. I think that your argument is valid for a couple of reasons. First, you are speaking about a broad range of physical attributes that can be developed by using KB's, especially for the "average Joe". Very true. Secondly, noting that elite athletes can do just about anything well is true, but many elite's have mobility and stability issues that don't come to light sometimes for many years and then show up as a major injury "out of the blue"-for them RKC methods can and will greatly reduce the potential of that occuring, as well as rehabilitating what was once chronically dysfunctional.
Your last point, about repitition lifting having variable approaches is certainly worth exploring in more depth. I personally can do many, many reps with a 24 kg. in the snatch, and it hurts but also beats up my hands, etc. Using the 32 and doing multiple sets of 5/5 or 10/10 and compressing the rest periods really whips me, especially neurologically, yet doesn't create the problems that GS style training does AND I believe that snatching the heavier weight forces me to use tension and relaxation better as well as producing "POWAH" (as Arnold would say) which is better for me and what I do in martial arts and my job. Naturally individual results will vary depending on one's goals but I have never heard of anyone who had too much power??
Great post and a good rebuttal to some recent criticsm of the RKC system, I think.

Royce said...

Awesome Rif, that was very well written. Especially about the rehab/prehab benifits wich no one could argue with you about.

P.S. tell Sig Klien, or Eugene Sandow that kbs are not a high tension tool!!

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks guys. Chris,I think it's pretty clear that interval trainer is the way of the future for most trainees and i'm sure lots of gs athletes use it too BUT the RKC system, which focuses on this gets right to the point. Also the emphasis on maximal power and force productionis really what lets the kb produce so much strength and power as well as cardio ability.
many are confusing inefficiency of effort( max force per rep) with biomechanical inefficiency, which are not the same.
there is nothing biomechanically incorrect or inefficient in the rkc hardstyle swing or snatch. IN fact I would love to see who can snatch a kb FASTER, a hardstyle stroke or a gs stroke?
the ahrder you do each rep the less reps you can do,it's that simple.

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks man I do think I am on point here.I'm not sure where this idea that a tool has only one legitimate style of use came up.

Mark Reifkind said...

thanks man I do think I am on point here.I'm not sure where this idea that a tool has only one legitimate style of use came up.

hawkeye said...

Rif, this is one of the most thoughtful, well-articulated arguments for the utility of RKC that I've yet read.

And thanks again for your entire blog. It's on my daily "must read" list.

Mark Reifkind said...


thanks much for the kind words, they are appreciated and so glad you liked the're not from iowa city are you? I went to school there and am a hawkeye myself.
glad you like the blog too.

hawkeye said...

Yes, I'm a hawkeye. I used to post comments to your blog as "john in iowa city."

Then I simplified things and began posting as "hawkeye."

(Kind of like when I pared down my fitness life by getting some kb's and focusing on the real work ;-)

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Referring to that kettle ball, I saw some versions of it where you can adjust its mass from less to more, and other kinds are made of solid plastic or other kind of dense material.
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