No Rain

I was much more confident this morning as I grabbed the kettlebell and headed out the door to train. Yesterday was a big win in completing an entire S&S session before leaving for work. It was all the more salient because it was raining and windy, and it was the first time exercising on a schedule since I started working in San Francisco.

Well today I got down to the first floor, set my kettlebell down on my doormat which I carried too, and felt something different. I was a bit more nervous than yesterday. What was it?

The moment I started warming up, I realized that without the pattering rain and howling wind, it was too quiet. The sound of the kettlebell scraping the mat as I pulled it off the ground, my breathing, and the thud as I set the weight down made a much larger impact than they did yesterday. Of course, I must have made the same amount of noise during both sessions, but today it was just a bit unnerving. I was pretty sure that the sounds I was making carried pretty far.

I proceeded anyway. After the first set I didn’t care so much. After four sets I was breathing so hard I’m pretty sure I woke at least a few people. Funny that now I’d prefer the rain and wind to blanket all of the noise I can make while training. Just yesterday I cringed at the sight and sound of it.

After my seventh set, I heard the punctuated footsteps of a woman in heels approaching from around the corner.

Great. Without my glasses, I can’t yet make out faces. My vision is another thing I’m training. More on this another time. I can detect intention, though, as in whether this lady would go straight past, or turn and walked toward me. I didn’t want to frighten her. I know that the sight of a man standing in the middle of a corridor in the dark of dawn can be quite alarming. So I rubbed my hands together loudly, spreading some of the chalk over my palms and trying to act like I was a normal resident catching my breath in between sets of kettlebell swings. I don’t know if I was able to convey it in the moment.

Sure enough she turned toward me, very deliberately and bravely, to go through to the parking lot behind. I hastily picked up the bell which was sitting in the middle of the path, gave a disarming chuckle, and said good morning. The lady returned my greeting, excused herself and walked past quickly. Over my doormat. Welcome to the parking lot, I guess. Encounters with neighbors can be awkward.

The thing I love about this is that it’s random. Ideally I would have my own lot of space to train, be shirtless, enjoy the dawn.

I don’t. I have the common grounds and corridors and walkways. People are going to pass by, look at me, and perhaps not appreciate a person swinging a large heavy load around. It’s not something that raises property value nor attracts uppity residents. Yet I must train, and I want to do it where I live, when I want to. Whatever comes my way is just another element of the universe, and if it doesn’t harm me then I am better from it and proven resilient.

When I had access to a gym, I was able to progress rapidly through heavy weight. It was a stable environment, equipment the same, a roof overhead, and usually the same people around also training. It was easy to focus on increasing my strength in the five powerlifts. The only real challenge was to pay attention to form and movement, and to overcome fear of being crushed.

To get big, and to get strong in five lifts, the gym is great. These lifts made me stronger in many different arenas of life. However, they were complex in terms of equipment involved, logistics to get there and back home, cost for membership, and the usual gym politics bullshit.

Kettlebell training is simple. I have a kettlebell, and I use it when I want to. It’s not easy, though. The movements themselves are much less stable than powerlifts. Swings involve twisting and acceleration and virtual force. The environment is more open too, both intentionally and unintentionally. I’m exposed to people and animals moving around, different types of ground, and weather. There’s also the possibility of destroying something if I let go of the bell mid-swing.

As soon as I begin to get comfortable with one aspect of this mode of training, I find another challenge. Like rain, and then no rain, and training at dawn in close proximity to a bunch of slumbering neighbors. It never ends and it’s all part of the fun.

Rain

It started last night and gathered strength through the early morning. A little howling wind joined in and the two of them flew through the tall corridors of my apartment building. The scent of the town, the wooded mountains, and the ocean beyond lingered as the wind and rain swept past.

Oh boy, I thought as I looked out through the blinds. It was still dark at 5:30 am but the light in the parking lot showed very clearly the drops falling past to the ground. Just yesterday I made a very detailed schedule for the mornings, afternoons, and evenings, to train myself to get things done.Well, the morning part involves about five alarms on my phone, one signaling the start of my outdoor kettlebell training session. I swallowed hard, knowing I didn’t have a great light waterproof jacket on hand. What I did have was the carport roof, but my car was taking up most of the space. No matter where I trained, it looked like I was going to get wet.

No need to worry about it. It is what it is, I told myself. I went about the other morning routine tasks and when the time came, I took up my iron and walked out the door. Shit it was wet. I had to be careful going down the concrete stairs, which were much smoother than I remembered. Even barefoot, it was pretty slippery. I got to the bottom okay and looked around. I realized that the corridor was open and dry, but it was right against my neighbors’ walls on both sides. Their patios were also right there, and I worried that they might hear my breathing. Kettlebell swing breathing can get obnoxiously loud. But it was kind of nice there, and I couldn’t resist the opportunity to stay dry. So I found a good flat area and set the weight down.

I snuck back upstairs and grabbed my welcome mat, so that I would’t be clanging the bell against the concrete floor at the end of every set. A fifty pound ball creates a bigger thud than you’d think, even when set down as gently as possible. I can only imagine how annoying and terrifying it could be to wake up to the strange sound of sharp, punctuating puffs of air interrupted by the dull clang of iron on concrete. Sex? Strange beast? Military occupation??

Yes, these thoughts bounce between my ears, and can discourage getting out into the cold and wetness to exercise in the dark. But I found that grabbing the weight and feeling its pull and stepping out takes care of the doubts. I had my set up ready. Did the warmups, some squats, hip openers, and halos, took one very short moment to consider the consequences of a dropped kettlebell at six in the morning, and proceeded with the first set of swings.

It was great. I felt strong. Yesterday I didn’t make enough time to do all of the exercise I wanted, and it was great to fire it up today. I was able to recover pretty quickly between sets doing the usual shaking out of limbs and deep out breaths. The pebble-studded concrete provided good grip for my feet. And best of all, the mat stayed in place and completely absorbed all sound at impact with the bell.

The hardest part was trying not to breathe too loudly. Man. I do think this is good training in some sense. I wonder if special ops or any military groups need to train to be absolutely silent under intense physical stress. It makes sense, if they’re on stealth missions. Anyway, this was hard. I got a bit light headed when I wasn’t breathing out enough, so I had to adjust every few reps by pushing out more air at the top of the swing. I finished the ten sets in good time, about ten minutes. Hauled it back up and did ten getups inside. The details and instruction for this regimen can be found in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline.

So it wasn’t the heroic session I thought it would have been at first. I have trained in the pouring rain, and while it is a great lesson it is also quite exhausting. I’m glad I didn’t have to do it today. Perhaps a day will come when the neighbors fill the corridor with discarded cabinets or laundry machines, or a horde of raccoons prowl menacingly there, forcing me out into the weather. That is accepted. Today I got lucky.

Most important to me is that I set a goal and achieved it. I’m trying to develop stronger discipline to reduce my susceptibility to random things that prevent me from exercising in the morning. A few days off are fine, but too many gets annoying. I found today that setting silent alarms for key stages of the morning helped me to stay on track. It’s too tempting for me to sit a little longer with my coffee, read a little more, stay on the toilet a little longer. 

You might think this is spartan and too harsh, and if so this is not for you. I envy the person who gently maintains their high level of discipline. But if you believe that being a little strict on yourself can lead to happiness, you might actually find that going to the extreme is even better.

Kettlebell swing cues reinforced by the pressure of a timed trial

Timing myself on Monday and going through the pressure led to some good insights on swings. Swings train the hip hinge under acceleration. It’s like deadlifting with quick changes in the speed of the bar. I’m learning to get into good positions and make precise movements quickly.

Doing 100 swings in 5 minutes means doing one set of ten swings every thirty seconds. Because there’s so little time to rest, I was going into most of the sets just short of panting. It was everything I could do to clear some head space and focus on form. This squeeze on leisure caused me to realize the few things that make swings effective.

I controlled the movement of the kettlebell almost entirely with my hips. My feet had to be firmly planted, my knees pulling out, and my glutes squeezing as hard and fast as possible.

To minimize loss of power from the ground to the weight, I had to keep my abdomen and torso absolutely rigid. This allowed more force from my hip hinge to transfer from the ground to the weight in my hand.

The weight bearing shoulder had to be packed and tight to hold the arm straight and minimize the arch of the bell. If my shoulder pulled forward, I would lose precious tension and feel myself slow down. Every fraction of a second counted, because the quicker I could do the swings, the more rest time I could get.

I also found that the harder and quicker I snapped with my hips, the more the bell would float. I always knew this when practicing, but it mattered so much when I could barely get enough air out of my lungs at the top. So I put more in to get more out.

Lastly, I saw how important it was to minimize. I tried to keep my free arm close and stiff. I keep my head firmly aligned with my back. I resisted excessive bending of the knees. Even my hip hinge was a bit smaller. Any looseness, any unnecessary flinging or flopping, would slow me down both in speed and in energy. Everything had to go toward the movement of the kettlebell.

Focusing on throwing the kettlebell forward but keeping a hold of it, as a mental cue, served me greatly. It was simple and it worked.

How awesome, that these tiny little details, every single one of them, were in the book I read to learn how to swing. And even though I practiced them, every day, sometimes these more than those, and other times those more than these, every single one of them just rose to the surface when it really really counted.

Hope this helps emphasize the importance of form and technique as you train in your daily practice.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Avoiding muscle fatigue and knots

There is a training method to avoid getting muscle knots.

Pavel Tsatsouline talks about the phenomena of avoiding knots by limiting strength training to maximal outputs. You’ve probably heard about slow twitch fibers and fast twitch fibers. Slow twitch muscle fibers are small, weak, and activate slowly, but can work for very long periods. Fast twitch IIX are large and activate fast, generating high power for flashes of time. Fast twitch IIA is in between these two.

Basically, we all have muscles that shoulder handle a variety of tasks at a range of loads. You can push a two thousand pound car down the road for a short distance, and you can also text with your thumbs unendingly.

Strength training with kettlebell swings involves a small load with maximal force. It does not require a person to lift the largest possible weight they can lift. It also isn’t so light that the exercise can be done without end. There’s a balance. The muscle fiber most active during this sort of exercise is the fast twitch IIA.

“When your reps slow down, it is the best indicator your IIA fast fibers have had it, and slow type I fibers are doing most of the work” (Kettlebell Simple and Sinister).

The problem is that slow twitch fibers, when strained with too much load, can spasm. These fibers are located closer to the bone and deeper inside muscle fiber groups. The conclusion in S&S is that exercising beyond the point of maximal output puts these slow twitch muscles into exhausted spasms. Thus, deep knots.

I am currently putting this statement to the test over the past week with kettlebell swings. I have had a knot in my shoulder blade for a while. It comes and goes, particularly when I eat wheat. However, I found that some days it would come back even though my diet was clean. I thought it had something to do with my shoulder mechanics, but I couldn’t figure out how to address it.

Revisiting this concept of muscle fibers, I tried to modify my behavior during swing sets. It was a little tricky, because at first glance it seemed that I needed to give full effort all the way through to the last repetition. However, this meant that I was still doing ten repetitions per set. And on some sets, I would get tired on the last swings.

Then I tried to limit my swing sets to only the best swings. This was difficult at first, because I had to really tune in to the difference between maximal output and maximal effort. It was easy to fool myself into thinking I was generating full force just because I was giving full effort. But over time, I started to see the difference. If I noticed any slow down or reduction in force, I stopped.

Guess what? It’s working. My shoulder is feeling much more relaxed in the past few days, despite the fact that I’ve been doing swings, getups, and other exercises on a daily basis. The difference is that I’m stopping my sets short when my output decreases. This means that I’m doing fewer reps on many of the swing sets.

So I guess I was pushing a little too hard before. It’s going to take some time to get back to 100 swings, but I think it will lead to much better results.

Live powerfully,

Steve

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Copyright © 2017 Steve Ko, All rights reserved.

Doing better instead of doing more

Atul Gawande, the famous physician author, writes in his book Better: A Surgeon’s Notes on Performance about the consistent miniscule actions that make elite doctors successful. He talks about the mindset of absolute commitment to excellence. Very few physicians uphold the highest standards in their work, and the few who do live by that level of commitment.

This came to mind as I thought about doing swings and getups every day. It can get a bit mind numbing after months of doing the same exercise, over and over. The principles of technique, form, and strength before volume start to slip here and there. I start to get accustomed to doing all the reps, all the sets. Every so othen the most important aspect of strength training escapes me: to do each swing with maximal force and each getup with maximal attention to form, and to stop when that can no longer be fulfilled.

It’s a matter of integrity, too, I know. You have to be honest with yourself and admit when you don’t have the strength to finish a set. But I think before any of that, it’s this absolute commitment to excellence. Just like with diets, I think that strength programs are easy to start, hard to keep going. To keep going the right way, that is.

Pavel Tsatsouline insists in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister that each swing must be done with full force. At first this seems like a no brainer. Sure, I’ll do my best every time, why not? Then as the weeks and months pass by, I find myself trying to finish sets with some not-so-hot swings toward the end. What gives?

Pavel talks about this natural preference within us to sacrifice strength for volume. When we get tired, it’s our instinct to try to get it all done, even if it means suboptimal output to reach that end. I’d rather hit the ten reps with a few weaker swings at the end, then stop at six when I feel my strength going down. It’s a strong urge to accomplish or finish a task, that’s socialized or built into me.

The thing to train for is maximal strength. It doesn’t matter exactly how many repetitions and sets get done. Yes, there are basic numbers to follow, and this helps us understand the general volume that is needed to increase strength. But the real cores of training strength are learning to do the movements and then doing the movements with maximal force.

Most school systems teach us to finish all the problems, write a prescribed number of pages, read a set number of books, achieve a certain GPA. This is ingrained in most of us from around age five to around age 21. How do you get away from that in a world that actually rewards the quality of the output?

Maybe I’m getting too deep here, talking about the education system and sociology. But that’s my mode of thinking, that’s where I come from in terms of schooling. So to me it’s about thinking but also doing outside the box.

Physical training is one of the most basic places to start with conditioning yourself in any aspect of life. It’s physical, so it’s right there. To do it, you are involved not just with your body but with your mind. You structure your learning, you commit to repetitions in order to improve, and it’s all inclusive. I even think the soul gets something out of it.

So in summary, I’m trying to say that we can think about physical training as the practice of giving the best in order to make that best even better. Rather than sticking to our grade school habit of making the teacher happy and hitting all the numbers, we can play to nature’s true system of improvement through excellence.

We can take care to only give maximal effort, and to withhold from doing anything that is not so. This is hard. Very hard.

Live powerfully,

Steve


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A dip in strength

I felt a noticeable dip in strength yesterday as I trained with my kettlebell. A fluctuating sleep schedule, the sudden rise in temperature, and food were factors.

Personal trainers find it difficult to maintain their own wellness. While I don’t like to call myself one, I am training someone in strength and it is private training. The difficulty with this industry is that most people want training either before or after work. That means very early hours or later hours. For me it’s early, which I actually love doing, but I’m not getting up as early on my days off. So my sleep cycle breaks.

I started my training much later in the day today too, when my energy dipped a bit. I had a lot of sugar the day before in St. Louis style barbeque made by a friend, which was delicious, so I don’t regret it. But this did affect my energy level even more yesterday.

As I started my warm up exercises, I felt light headed. On the first set of swings I knew it wasn’t going to be a great session. I did my best to maintain technique and made it through most of the sets without issue, minus one. On the last rep of one of my sets, I lost focus and just felt the weight yank down on my arm. I didn’t get injured, but 24kg dropping is not a pleasant feeling.

Getups were fine. It seemed that my energy had a much shorter time limit. I could give full output on the first few swings, but then later in the set I felt my strength diminish. Right after each getup, my strength just left me.

Such is the downside to inconsistent behavior and environment. Although I’m not happy with my training session, I’m not disappointed either. Life brings days like this and I’m just glad that the worst to happen was a dip in training performance.

Some grass fed steak, lots of water, plenty of magnesium and vitamin C, and a good night’s sleep should do the trick.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Getups in the sun, and when to drink water

Training yesterday was great. There’s no better place to exercise with a kettlebell than on an open field under the big blue sky. If you haven’t tried it, I recommend it.

I love the sun, and I make sure to get some soak time every day. However, training under the direct sunlight is a different beast. It is draining, especially when you’re doing weight training. There’s just so much more going on, with the sweating, the heat, and the radiation all working on you. Not a bad thing, but definitely a situation to navigate carefully.

It was in the low 80’s by the time my wife and I got our gear to the park. Kettlebell getups require the practitioner to look directly at the weight during the first phase. Since the kettlebell is held straight up in the air, it may be very close to the sun around noon. I had to make sure to stay relaxed, breathe, and face as much away from the sun as possible.

Still, both us were getting a little wobbly here and there. It’s easy to get distracted at a park, when there’s people walking past, the sun in your face, and lots of trees and nice nature stuff to look at. With the kettlebell held up overhead, it’s critical to stay focused with the eyes and with the mind. Keeping your eyes focused on the weight, and on the horizon as you lunge to stand, makes all the difference in balance, form, and strength.

It helps to pick a spot near some shade. That way you can hop out of the sunlight during rest periods to stay cool. My wife does most of her swings in the shade, and getups in the sun where it’s drier.

Another thing to consider is when to drink water. I don’t drink any water during my training, because it distracts me. So I drink a good amount beforehand, and as much as I want afterwards. If you’re training outdoors, bring a full bottle of water in case of emergency. As long as you are relatively healthy, and drink plenty of water before and after, training without water breaks shouldn’t be a problem. There is evidence that early humans tracked prey all day, through the middle of the day, drinking water before and after the hunt (Lieberman, Daniel. The Story of the Human Body: evolution, health, and disease. 2013).

This session was a timed trial with the 24kg kettlebell. Here are my results:

  • 100 Swings: 9:19
  • Rest: 1:00
  • 10 Getups: 8:26

Goals:

  • 100 Swings: 5:00
  • Rest: 1:00
  • 10 Getups: 10:00

So I’ve got some work to do on swings. My main issue today was the sun. Going back and forth to the shade to rest took too long, but I needed a hat nearby to rest in the sunlight. Maybe I’ll do timed swings in the shade.

Live powerfully.

Steve

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Copyright © 2017 Steve Ko, All rights reserved.

Russian Style General Strength Training

If you are looking for serious long term strength training that you can do every day, with minimal equipment, in less than thirty minutes, take a look at Kettlebell Simple & Sinister.

Simple & Sinister is a strength endurance program of 100 kettlebell swings and 10 getups every day. It is meant to condition a person to always be ready for life, and to “store energy in the body rather than exhaust it” (Kettlebell Simple & Sinister). By training day after day, you adapt to a higher level of strength and endurance. You start with a small weight, develop solid form, and progress to the next weight. Rest days are fewer because the weight is relatively small.

Unlike powerlifting, kettlebell training does not aim for the highest possible weight lifted. Rather, it focuses on total body acceleration, and stable coordination of all parts of your body. It won’t directly add tons of weight to your barbell max. There is, however, ample evidence that there is unexpected improvement in bigger lifts.

The grass is always greener on the other side. If you don’t believe it, go to a park and find the greenest patch of grass and sit. Then look around and see if there’s greener. I assure you there is.

My powerlifting background taught me that training every day was not healthy. When I was squatting twice my body weight for sets of five, I needed at least a day of rest, if not three, for any benefit. So naturally I doubted the S&S protocol of daily training.

However, swings and getups were filling gaps in powerlifting training. For example, I’m building all-around shoulder stability in connection with the rest of my body. I’m also balancing the strength between the two sides of my body. These can easily be overlooked in basic powerlifting exercises. Back to the issue of daily training.

At first I was constantly sore, and it was certainly difficult to train every day. I would wake up to find my whole body tight and achy. Rather than decide not to train at that moment, I would put off the judgment call. Instead, I went through my morning routine. I drank butter coffee and journaled, basically enjoying life as I woke up. When training time came, I felt better and went for it.

It’s been about two and half months as of this writing, and my recovery time is shortening. I’ve managed to take just one day off in the last eight weeks. I’m doing all sets now with the 24kg, and my swings and getups are getting stronger. My callouses are smooth and my mind feels sharp. I look forward to training most days. Just like Tsatsouline says in Kettlebell Simple & Sinister, the exercise has become a “recharge” instead of a “workout”.

After the initial struggle, I started to look forward to the training. S&S is remarkably effortless compared to other strength programs.

First, the only equipment needed is the kettlebell. No gym, no shoes, no machines, no bars nor weights. S&S prescribes 8kg for average strength women and 16kg for average strength men.

Second, the exercise leaves me with plenty of energy for the rest of my day. I gradually adapted to the training, and became more efficient in the movements.

Finally, it’s convenient and accessible. Because it’s a small weight, I can keep it at home. This saves time and eliminates the ill effects of sitting in a car on the way to a gym. It also leaves little excuse for not training.

NL161 two kettlebells the brilliant beast blog

As I transitioned from 16kg to the 24kg kettlebell, I felt much more tired at night and needed more food. But I stuck with it, ate a little more, and managed to train every day. The jumps in weight by proportion are much greater than with progression barbell training. I imagine the next transition to 32kg will be even harder. I look forward to that too.

Do some digging in the StrongFirst website to see if this is for you. If you decide to take on the kettlebell, I strongly recommend that you read the book first. Mind before matter.

Live powerfully.

Steve

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Swingin’ Iron

NL 149 Kettlebell Grass The Brilliant Beast Blog.JPG
Best gym floor, ever.

I’ve been forcefully hauling this iron ball, to and fro, between my legs. It’s fun. Here are my first thoughts on kettlebell training.

Two months ago I “picked up” the book, Kettlebell – Simple and Sinister. It is written by Pavel Tsatsouline, Russian trainer and founder of StrongFirst. He is the father of kettlebell training in the U.S. I am grateful to him for his straightforward instruction and commentary on starting kettlebell training. Get the audio version. It rocks.

The long drive to the only suitable powerlifting gym in town rendered it useless to me. After taking up the 16kg kettlebell, which is the basic Russian unit 1 pood, I never once stepped foot in a “gym” in the last two months. Home and the local park are now my gym. Swinging and getting up with this little cannonball, by its handle, has taught me so much about my nervous system, my shoulders, and the little cracks in my strength that powerlifting does not directly address.

Most of my strength training techniques for powerlifting translate directly to kettlebell training. Absolute emphasis on form and technique; mental cues to wire them into my system; rest and recovery; breathing and abdominal pressure; and progression.

I had to get used to the type of progression that kettlebell training presented. Unlike powerlifting progression, where weight can progress with every new session, kettlebell training weight remains the same for long periods of time. As a matter of fact, I’ve been using the same weight since I began two months ago!

It doesn’t trouble me, though. The weight is heavy to begin with, and there’s much to learn in properly handling it. This is where the development happens. Swinging a 35 lb. hunk of iron, as smoothly cast as it may be, is no walk in the park. Learning to do so while keeping the spine intact, holding the shoulders in place, and creating torque through the feet and body gets complicated from moment zero.

The progression unfolds in mastering the movements, and in increasing the force, power, and focus on the kettlebell as strength gets better. By learning to handle the weight, I am building the physical parts and the neurological programs of my body that are involved. It’s similar to powerlifting, but with more emphasis on the learning. Powerlifting requires learning, of course. But once you learn the technique and form, the emphasis is on the weight progression.

There is definitely a big difference between squatting 135 pounds and squatting 315 pounds. However, with kettlebell training the weight jumps to 16kg at the start, then to 24 kg, and then to 32 kg, and so forth. The “catch up” with each weight progression is much greater than in powerlifting. I would never have a trainee jump from a 135 lb. squat to 1.5x that, 205 lb., even if his technique and form were perfect. The weight jump is way too much to make any physiological sense in the frame of training.

With the kettlebell, though, the weight is smaller. So jumping from 16 kg to 24 kg is probably going to be difficult, but not ridiculously so. I am confident that I will be able to safely train to the next weight when the time comes. Which is soon!

Right now, the hardest part is resting. This always seems to be the sticking point for me. Simply getting good sleep is a task that tends to evade me when I need it most. I’ve been training nearly every day, with a rest day approximately once a week. When I don’t get that rest, I can feel it in the lack of power on my swing. It just seems so much harder to hip hinge forward and get that maximal explosion. Like I’m moving through molasses.

I’m sticking through it and am now able to get in 100 swings, alternating one armed, and ten getups within half an hour. It will soon be time to up the weight. Soon, but not until I can do the sets strong, as Pavel says. Not until I can own each and every swing and getup at one pood.

Read the book before you start training. Let me know if you do train with the kettlebell. What was it like toward the transition period to the next weight?

Live powerfully,

Steve

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Copyright © 2016 Steve Ko, All rights reserved.