"Do you suppose they will choose to make war against lean, solid dogs rather than against fat and tender sheep?"
Author: Dog in Chief
The Dog in Chief writes about the flourishing of embodied souls. In practice, that means a lot of content about exercise, the outdoors, strength, and the comedy of errors called cultivating character and happiness.
In his innermost life, the Dog is a serious Buddhist--crappy and disobedient, but still very serious--and writes about such things professionally. In this blog they are seldom at center stage, but they are usually nearby in the background.
After prolonged talk and little follow-through, I finally camped in the Marijuana Highlands for the first time this year. Since the lockdown, I’ve seen over 10 times more people up there than ever before, but as usual everyone is exceedingly neighborly. Hikers being almost non-existent there, people in trucks and ATVs routinely slow down to offer a ride, a bottle of water, or a beer. (The really scary thing isn’t even the people driving with an open White Claw. It’s the guy at the roadside who turned to offer me a beer while operating a chainsaw.)
On this outing, I was experimenting with food (i.e. bringing some) and a new bivvy sack, but I also got a bonus lesson about how to not fall on rocks.
Cooking and Eating
I usually do this trip with minimal food, but I was inspired to try Officer Rob’s Thanksgiving Dinner: a freezer bag with instant mashed potatoes, sausage, and some chili. Great! Next time I’ll just add some butter for calories, so I don’t have to gobble down five servings of mashed potatoes.
I forgot my beloved Esbit stove but improvised successfully with just a perforated coffee can. It’s still nice to have the stove, if only to hold up the water kettle stable (which is so small that it fits inside the coffee can), but I made do with some stones.
Because I’m paranoid about wildfires, I was terribly proud of my brilliant idea to cook on a boulder in the middle of the creek. And indeed, this worked reasonably well at dinner, but at breakfast it was a different story. When I woke up in 50 degrees (10 C), I wasn’t thrilled to get naked and wet and do my cooking waist-deep in a cold stream. And though I’m a huge fan of morning polar bear swims, it’s one thing to do it near my house before work but quite another to get shivering cold in the middle of nowhere. So maybe I’ll just face the inconvenience of meticulously grooming a large patch of earth near my sleeping bag.
Speaking of my sleeping bag, I had success with the new Gore-Tex bivvy sack. When I first tried a bivvy sack, I loved how cozy it makes me feel: it insulates me and blocks breezes. But as I noticed this winter, I was waking up with condensation in the bivvy sack. It was trapping my breath and getting my sleeping bag damp. Not good! So on this jaunt I tested a surplus Dutch bivvy sack (which seems to be a copy of the famous British one) made with something like Gore-Tex that lets moisture out, and it worked as advertised.
Furthermore, I tried leaving my tent at home and just using the bivy sack. This one has a collapsible hoop that holds the top of the bag up off your face, so that you have a sort of tiny micro-tent. That went well too.
What will happen in a light rain? Will I suddenly wish I’d brought a proper tent? We’ll try some backyard science. I’ll ask Lean Solid Girl to tuck me into the bivy sack and then hose it down. We’ll update you soon.
Pride Cometh Before the Fall
Just last week I looked at my now-battered boots and mused, “I wonder when I should replace them…” Apparently that time is now, because I lost my footing and skidded on a slope that is bad but not truly noxious. So I checked my boot soles, found them pretty worn, and did some mental math. I bought them for last year’s 50-mile Star Course, and though they don’t yet have a thousand miles on them, they’re probably getting close, with a lot of miles on scree and other nasty surfaces.
So I’ve already replaced them. I won’t risk falling with my leg folded under me the wrong way and spending six months on the couch with a knee injury.
Henceforth I’ll replace boots on a schedule, like they do with critical machine parts. For my lightweight Rockies, I’ll give them five hundred miles before I retire them to “second-string” status: still OK for ordinary training hikes on roads and other tame surfaces, but no rugged terrain and no use for SAR. And if I save my “first-string” boots for just the rough stuff, I think I can milk a year or more of use from them.
I’ve long preached that you should do workouts that you enjoy. It’s actually pretty easy to make progress, and if you’re consistent about doing those easy things, you’ll soon be achieving milestones that put you far, far, far ahead of the general population.
And how do you know if you’re continuing to make progress with your easy, enjoyable training? You just keep track of some key benchmarks over time, including some standard workouts. If you keep improving in those numbers, you’re doing something right!
For example, easy running guru Maffetone has his athletes run a standard test workout periodically. They run three miles at a pre-determined, low heart rate: if their time improves, they know their aerobic base is improving.
One of my benchmarking workouts is the hike to my favorite camping spot in the Marijuana Highlands. It’s 15 miles of bad, steep terrain. On my first romp out there in 21 months ago, I took a pack weighing 45# (wet) and needed 7 hours to arrive in camp. When I got there I was delirious and sore all over, my feet looked like raw chicken breasts, and it took a long, painful time just to strip off my clothes and boots. On future trips I cut the hike down to 5.5 hours and didn’t wreck myself getting to camp, but it was still a substantial hike.
So I was blown away by my last trip. Despite taking it very easy, I arrived in camp an hour faster than ever before and fresh as a bowl of strawberries. This being my first big romp of the year, I assumed I would be tired and slow, but on the contrary it was barely lunch time and I was sitting in camp with hours of daylight left, tons of pep, and nothing to do.
So I packed up and did the whole thing in reverse! I spent 95 minutes eating nuts, swimming in the stream, and having coffee, and then I rucked up and marched all the way back. It was a joy! I didn’t push myself on the return march (and in fact had to slow down several times to keep my heart rate under control), but without trying I ended up equaling my best-ever time of 5.5 hours.
This was a huge surprise. I figured it would be possible to hike straight back, to save someone’s life or as a stupid stunt, but I supposed you’d have to do it on pure gumption and willpower.
But now I know better because I just did it, out of boredom and with a smile on my face!
For the looted, stripped minivan on my favorite backwoods hike, sung to the tune of “The Sound of Silence”:
“Hello Honda, my old friend. I’ve stopped to gawk at you again. Some tweakers brought you up here joyriding, Jacked you from the the Skyway Burger King, With a 308 they put you down when you ground out here, Like a crippled steer, Far from the sound of sirens.
“Up here the law is hardly known. Hill folk wanna be left alone. Crimes go without much a-reporting By the felons with whom they’re consorting. Silent trees are mute to mischief that no man sees, And authorities Can bring no sound of sirens.
“You’re just a basic CR-V Lacking 4WD A soccer mom’s tender minivan Unsuited to this rocky wasteland. When you bottomed out they shoved over the steep cliffside In the trackless night, Far from the sound of sirens.”
Today’s game was to test out rain gear on a 3-mile ruck romp with Lean Solid Girl and our team weight, the Canadian Brick Bag (CBB), a sturdy canvas antique loaded with 35# of bricks.
The rule was that the bag had to be carried in one hand at all times, by either one of us, and could not touch the ground unless one of us was doing weighted pushups.
I was testing the reputed king of rain ponchos, issued (like so much of my favorite gear) by Germany’s exquisitely equipped Bundeswehr. The “BW-poncho” doesn’t have the hobbit-like appeal of my Soviet plash-palatka, because it closes at the sides rather than the front, but that produces a wonderful advantage: it gives you makeshift sleeves, instead of just an arm hole like its Soviet cousin, and keeps you sealed up and wonderfully dry.
Except for your legs. I wanted to make this a pure test of the BW-poncho, so I wore no other rain gear, just a cotton shirt and khaki pants. The rain rolled down the poncho but then directly onto my shins. That’s no knock on the poncho—not a drop of water wandered inside—it just means that you need rain pants.
As it happened, Lean Solid Girl was testing the REI Talusphere Women’s Rain Pants, which she rated as excellent. The pants got a good soak but kept LSG dry. She appreciates particularly that REI sizes these like the Austrian Bundesheer, with separate length options within each size, and the pants stretch a little so that they fit closely and do not swish much, making them “not only functional but flattering.”
Our other takeaway was that the Canadian Brick Bag is a delight. Thirty-five pounds is a serious encumbrance when you have to carry it suitcase-style, but it’s light enough that by trading it back and forth between hands and between teammates, you can carry it indefinitely. All it needs is a pair of gloves and/or some padding on the handle to keep it from grinding up your fingers.
When you’re rucking with a group and you lag behind like a boat anchor, worse than the physical burning of sucking wind in white-hot lungs is the embarrassment of being the weak sister. No one says anything, of course, and probably few people are even thinking anything, but it is dispiriting.
When the ego is hurting, the mind searches for reasons, and I was forming a theory. A couple months earlier, I had attended our team PT qualification, an 8-mile hike on rocky terrain with 20# (dry) as fast as possible. As an experiment, I added an extra 15# to see how far it would slow me, and the result was unexpected: I finished in the usual time of about 120 minutes–pride wouldn’t let me fall behind–but it escalated the effort more than I anticipated, from a literal walk in the park to a gasping, sweaty, painful struggle.
Now, as my throat tasted that hated anaerobic burn, like rancid hot butter coating my trachea, I was forming an educated guess.
“How much water do you have?” I asked The Spider, a rangy veteran climber. He pursed his lips. “Probably too much. A couple of liters.” I asked the same question to Bonanza, a SAR prodigy with energy levels that an ordinary man could only get from cocaine. His answer? “About a liter. But keep in mind, I’m kind of a camel. I really should have a liter and a half.”
Mystery solved! I’d made a classic intellectual’s mistake, seizing upon something I once heard in a lecture and clinging to it like gospel. In my case, the decontextualized nostrum was, “Hydrate in cold weather just as you would in hot weather.” And so I packed 8.5L of water. That is my standard intake for a day’s backpacking in triple-digit heat, so being a dutiful student, among my snow gear I packed a plus-sized water bladder and five canteens.
That’s almost 19 pounds of water. Instead of three.
On top of that, I’d gotten blubbery too. My best rucking weight is a maximum of 170# and 10% bodyfat, but on this day I was carrying an extra ten pounds of fat. All told, I was hauling 25 unnecessary pounds.
On the spot I dumped out the two canteens I could reach, and that helped somewhat, jettisoning close to 5 pounds on the spot. But down in the recesses of my bag, I still had six more liters (13+ lbs.) squirreled away, and there was no getting rid of those til we made camp.
By that time, I had vowed in three different languages that I would form a new relationship to pack weight. Sure, it’s fun to do things the hard way when I’m romping around on my own, but not when I have a group to keep up with and some group mission to serve.
Other Useless Weight
Food: I had zero interest in food. I was in ketosis (and drinking extra ketones in my water too), and when I exercise in ketosis I almost forget about hunger and food. There was close to a pound of nuts ready to hand, but I barely touched them. For dinner I also brought a mess tin with riced cauliflower, salmon groats, and pine nuts, and though I forced myself to heat it and eat it, it was pretty vile. For trips of just 24 hours, I think all I want is ketones and nuts, and some chaga and coffee for drinking. And by leaving the mess tin and the cauliflower and salmon, I’ll save a full kilo.
Poncho: I brought a Bundeswehr rain poncho (1000g!), but I only used it as a kneeling pad. Since we weren’t expecting rain, I should have left it. (I still had my usual kneeling pad anyway.) That would have saved another full kilo.
Hip belt: The Swedes who made the LK-70 only gave it a minimal, 1960s canvas hip belt. For looooooong hikes, I substituted an enormous padded one. It’s extremely comfortable for walking all day under heavy load because I can alternate miles supporting the load on my shoulder straps and on the plush belt. But for this relatively short hike of just a few hours, the belt was a waste. I could have saved about another kilo here by replacing it with the original, simple canvas belt.
Suppose I had left those items behind, and carried a reasonable 2L of water instead of my actual truckload of bladders and canteens: I would have saved 20 pounds.
What Worked Great
Ketones! I should keep these in my regular SAR pack too for long night searches when I get “hangry.” Better just to plunge into ketosis, live off body fat, and forget about hunger.
Esbit stove: This little thing was a champ. I carry mine with half of a coffee can that I sawed apart and perforated, so it shields the stove from wind, contains the heat, and improves fuel efficiency. At sea level I need six Coghlin fuel tablets to boil a pot (750mL) of water, and up at our campsite I needed almost double that.
As it happened, I guessed my fuel consumption just right: at 9000 feet I used twelve tablets (half a box) each at dinner and in the morning, and had another box in reserve. At 125g, that’s cheap insurance.
Chaga: I don’t exactly love the taste of chaga, but it’s nourishing and it’s something warm to drink in the evening that won’t spoil my ketosis. This was a winner.
Wool pants: I prefer wool pants to synthetic. Though a low-tech traditionalist by temperament, I’m also following the advice of two influences who have massive “snow cred.” My friend and mentor Sgt. Šileika knows cold–in Canada, Kandahar, and Lithuania–and he insists on wool and won’t touch synthetics. Then there’s Lars Grebnev, a Dane who became a homesteader in Siberia (!!), whose rule of thumb is to default to Scandinavian wool army surplus from during/before the Sixties. Those armies lived in the field for months at a time as a matter of routine, in sub-Arctic conditions, and the clothing they used was optimized for warmth and durability..
On their advice, I combed the best brick and mortar surplus store I’ve ever seen for a surplus pair of THICK wool Swedish army trousers from some time in the ancient past: as best I can tell, these were made in the 1940s or 50s. They were divine for wearing in camp. Other parts of my body got cold at times—my upper half, my feet, my hands—but never for a second were my legs or butt chilly, even when kneeling in snow.
And for that matter, they kept my midsection pretty warm too, since they come up almost to my ribs. Sgt. Šileika has pointed out that these old-time trousers take suspenders, which is wonderful when carrying a pack so it doesn’t pinch skin at your belt line. The only downsides are that they can get too warm if I’m hiking in full sun—I actually had to strip them off for the climb up.
Running tights: Speaking of stripping off my pants, I sure was glad I had running tights underneath! They keep the wool pants from itching too.
Base layer: I wore an Underarmor type of shirt (the British ones are good) and over that I had the Danish mesh shirt that is becoming a huge favorite of mine because it keeps me dry and insulates me too. Singly or together, I like these as base layers. They’re keepers.
Gloves: In my pockets I kept one pair of Bundeswehr gloves and one pair of cheap OD wool glove liners (which are incredibly warm). And in my pack I had a backup pair of the glove liners. This setup was perfect.
Portyanki and socks: Despite wearing thin boots (see below), I got by great with just a pair of flannel foot wraps (portyanki) and underneath them a pair of the awesome Finnish M05 sock liners (the all-purpose, all-weather supersock—I wear them with a suit and wingtips, I wear them on hundred-degree romps, and I wear them in the snow).
Two spare pair of socks was enough. At night I wore all the socks and footwraps over them, and my feet stayed toasty warm.
What Was a Disaster
I should have brought mini-spikes.I own a pair and they would have provided cheap insurance.
My matches weren’t working well at altitude. I finally succeeded by placing one match among a pile of fuel tablets, shielded from the wind, and then lighting it with a little electric cigarette lighter. But Charlie Rock has got the right idea: Zippo typhoon matches.
Inflatable mattress: I needed much, much better insulation. Next time I’ll need a proper four-season sleeping pad.
What to Replace
I used the Belgian surplus fleece plenty as a mid-layer, but it wasn’t warm enough to justify its weight (600g). Not when you can get the surplus Italian merino quarter-zips (275g) for cheap and those warm wool British service shirts (500g) even cheaper. Hell, I have this surplus wool Ike jacket from Finland that looks like it belongs on a gay merchant seaman or Kim Jong Il, but it’s warm AF and only weighs 1000g.
The $20 jackboots from East Germany were fine. I greased the bejeezus out of them and they kept my feet dry and remain my best all-round boot. However, for snow antics, I’ll upgrade to modern, insulated boots.
I love my Miltec bivvy sack, which is a cheap clone of the US Army one, but it’s not Goretex and doesn’t vent moisture from your breath, so it collected some condensation inside. That’s not OK for these conditions. I love it for warmer temperatures, but for winter camping I need a better sleep system.
Xenophon of Athens was a philosopher but no soft-handed coffeehouse bloviator. A student of Socrates, in 401 BC Xenophon enlisted in a mercenary army setting out to topple the sovereign of the Persian Empire. After their commander was killed, the fighting philosopher held the routed army together and led them into the Caucusus Mountains on a bitter campaign to fight their way back to their homes in Greece. Xenophon survived to record the story read by schoolboys ever since, the Anabasis. Roughly, it means “The Ascent” or “The March Up.”
I have a man-crush on Xenophon. When I was a student on winter break, I loved to cozy up by the fire and struggle through the Anabasis. I guess Xenophon is my fantasy alter-ego: the philosopher-survivalist. True, I am more Walter Mitty than Xenophon—I will not be remembered as either a great philosopher or a great adventurer and my tombstone will not say anything as cool as “Scholar and Mercenary”—but a man can have heroes to emulate, can’t he? I have at least earned a parchment declaring me Philosophiae Doctor and a lot of callouses and GORUCK patches, and with luck my tombstone won’t say “Ill-read and credulous, he was addicted to video games and porn.”
On that reduced scale, this weekend was my Anabasis. I did not swing a sword or run from angry Kurds, but I went up into some mountains, and holy crap was I tested.
For most of us, this trip was essentially a way to audition for the team’s Mountain Search & Rescue (MSR) unit. For me, it offered a hope of maybe finding a niche. In Search & Rescue (SAR) as a whole, I am still a back-of-the-pack performer and something of a late bloomer, lacking aptitude with technology and comms, vehicles and motor sports, or climbing or diving.
“But at least I can carry things!” I have consoled myself. “In austere environments, when there’s no truck or Sno Cat or helicopter to haul in the gear, I can prove my worth as the guy who can carry the medical bag, the extra ropes, the Pelican light—as much as they can pile on top of me, all night and all day!”
The plan for the weekend was simple. Charlie Rock, a granite-jawed old-timer whose demeanor marks him as surely as a facial tattoo reading “retired NCO,” would lead our merry band up to 9000 feet in two groups, day hikers and overnight campers. We would run rescue scenarios and gain some experience operating with improvised equipment at a height that you can begin to legitimately call “high altitude.”
The day hikers only planned to be out for a few hours and needed only light packs. They pranced up the mountain like fauns and snow nymphs. But I was there to camp overnight at altitude with Sgt. Rock, so I carried a tiny household on my back: snow shovel, tarp, tent, bivvy sack, sleeping bag, inflatable pads, field stove, mess kit, food, water, knife, and enough layers (I hoped) to keep me warm at night when the winds rose. My beloved Swedish rucksack, the tough old LK-70, could barely fit all my gear, so I MOLLE’ed on four extra canteen pouches. Last of all, on the shoulder straps I slotted two surplus grenade pouches (which are exactly the size of a GPS unit or a C-A-T tourniquet and a sunglasses case). I was ready to ruck!
At the staging point, it appeared that maybe I was packing more than the other campers, and this worried me a little. I inventoried my stuff against Charlie Rock’s packing list and, no, I’d brought almost nothing extra. In fact, I should have had less bulk than the others, because they all carried big sleeping pads lashed to the outside of their packs. I was the only one who had gone with inflatables.
I dismissed the apparently bigger size of my pack as probably just a visual trick of geometry. The others all had stretchy nylon packs that swell up into rounded lozenge shapes, I reasoned, but my LK-70 is a boxy, old-fashioned pack, a big canvas oblong on a rectangular metal frame, with a huge padded hip belt I’ve added for ultra distances. And then I’d added all the extra canteen pouches and covered the whole thing in a huge, oversized nylon ruck cover, light as a feather but almost big enough for a fitted sheet on a twin bed. That must be the difference, I supposed. My pack was angular and irregularly shaped. It just looked bigger. Right?
As soon as we stepped off, equipment started breaking and falling off me like jetsam from the space shuttle Challenger. I snapped the binding right off one snow shoe within the first 100 feet. See, my feet turn way out like a duck’s, straining any binding’s ability to hold onto my heels, and it seems that the more “teeth” a snowshoe has on bottom, the harder my duck feet torque them. Luckily, a good-natured fellow in the day hiking group lent me his, and I at least managed not to savage those.
However, I shortly broke my telescoping poles in two, and I missed them badly on steep, icy sections. We were ascending slopes with an average 10% grade, which slows you by a third to a half. Worse still was the ground surface, which army researchers studying march speed found to be the biggest factor. Sand slows you down appreciably, but snow is the worst. In 10 inches (25cm) of soft snow, they found that march time almost doubles. In our case, soft snow would have been a luxury. Since it’s been a dry winter, we were walking up icy, frozen slopes instead of soft powder. Only a couple guys had the foresight to bring mini-spikes, and under these conditions, snow shoes were almost worse than nothing.
As our footing got steeper and clumsier, I was amazed to find that I was gassing out. I’ve done romps up the Rock of Faeries in circumstances like these: no ninnyish trekking poles, just two feet on a narrow, washed out track on a hillside, with a backpack and a bonus item like a log or a 5-gallon water can. My trick is simply to go slowly, if necessary just one step at a time, and only breathe through my nose. If I have to breathe through my mouth, that’s the sign to throttle back, because mouth-breathing means you’re using emergency power. But I’d started mouth-breathing the moment the ground began rising, and the entire group was waiting for me.
This was not supposed to happen! In my self-conception, I am a mountain goat. I have little grace, athletic talent, or specialized SAR skill. “But at least,” I always consoled myself, “I can be Old Reliable, the never-quit guy who can schlep heavy gear cheerfully all day.” So it was a bitter pill that I now sucked, in public, at even the one small thing that I clung to as “my thing.”
Altitude was an issue, of course. I’d never experienced it and wasn’t expecting it to make a difference in a tame little national park so close to home. I figured altitude was only a factor if you were climbing Mt. McKinley or trekking in the Himalayas. So now I learned I’d been wrong.
But everyone else was breathing the same air as me. And now I was even lagging behind people in their sixties. WTAF?! Ok, they had poles and I didn’t, and possibly they got better use from their snow shoes. But those mishaps should only be enough to dial up the challenge level from “no biggie” to “interesting,” not enough to make me a wheezing wreck. And though I knew I was off my peak and hadn’t spent many miles under a rucksack lately, I was pretty sure I had more leeway than this between merely “off-peak” and “the fat kid from Goonies.” It’s not like I’d been huffing paint fumes and eating Oreo Burgers. So why me?!
I was beginning to form a guess. Nearby one of our group’s certifiable mountain badasses, The Spider, was flitting lightly around on cross-country skis like he was filled with f***ing helium. I turned and asked, “Dude, how much water do you have?”
Lean, solid dogs, it’s been entirely too long. I’ve missed you! Since I last posted, I went “operational” on the county Search & Rescue team and started climbing a steep learning curve in any number of training courses–K9 search operations, swift water rescue, rope rescue, emergency medical response–and a handful of real searches.
Not easy! Not since the high school cafeteria have I felt so out of my depth. But as Joe Rogan points out, it’s good to go well outside your comfort zone, do things that you suck at, get humbled, and get better. On that score, this has been a valuable period.
But I’ve been sitting on my butt a lot, nursing some accumulated injuries, getting stiff and lethargic and fat.
At times like this, I go back to the work of Dan John, who’s a giant on a par with Clarence Bass. Both men have changed the way health & fitness nuts train and made themselves living libraries of decades of theoretical and practical research. Dan always takes me back to fundamental movements and attributes, which is exactly what I need right now. Specifically, it’s time to take care of mobility and de-blubbering.
To let my injuries heal, I’ve needed to reacquaint myself with beginner-level “patterning” movements, movement quality, light weights (16kg, 20kg), and low speeds.
And I’ve revived my custom of fasted jogging at first light down to the creek for a polar bear swim, with some bonuses along the way like bear walks and crab walks (all directions), pushups, and sideways and backwards running. In the orchards nearby there are some old stumps and branches that lend themselves to carrying and waiter-walking too. (Today’s trick: walking bottoms-up presses with part of a dead tree limb.) I’m not trying hard on these jogs, just having some fun. These are not even workouts, just jolly romps to play around in fresh, cold air and water.
Later in the morning or afternoon, I’ve taken a page from Dan’s book Intervention and done a series of simple stability and mobility exercises with sets of light kettlebell swings sandwiched in between to get the heart rate up.
So today’s session looked like this, doing 10 or 15 swings before each item and each switch from left to right side:
waiter walk (L & R)
walking bottoms-up press (L&R)
hip flexor stretch (L & R)
windmill stretch (L & R)
goblet squat again
hip flexor stretch again (L & R)
windmill stretch again (L & R)
pigeon pose (L&R)
pushups with a lot of scapular movement and serratus activation
That got me 300 swings, and that was quite enough, thank you!
When we return, some reflections on snow camping in the mountains.
Whereas the snatch is a pulling exercise—you feel it most in your back and grip—the jerk uses the pushing muscles: the triceps, shoulders, chest, and most of all the quads.
The jerk also demands a more exotic technique. Sure, the snatch also improves enormously when you cultivate better technique, but you’ll probably find the process pretty intuitive. You’re just doing two simple things, absorbing the momentum of the falling bell and lofting it back upward gracefully, and your body gets the feel quickly. But the jerk demands things that feel terribly unnatural.
First, you have kettlebells constricting your rib-box almost non-stop. You can’t breathe normally, and instinctively that is uncomfortable and frightening. (This is a big reason why people dislike long sets of barbell squats. And surf torture, too. In my experience, we don’t hate the cold as much as we think. What we hate more is actually how we instinctively tense up in cold water and breath in choppy, panicky gasps.)
Second, you bend backwards at the hips. Note that I say the hips, not the back. Only bend back at the hip flexors. That’s hard. And it doesn’t make breathing any easier. You’ve stretched your abdomen taught, loaded kettlebells onto your chest, and jammed your elbows into your belly. So what’s left to breathe with? Your upper back! To quote my old taiji teacher, “Suck in your chest and spread out your [upper] back” (含胸拨背). That way you can breathe into your back, so to speak, with your upper back rising and falling instead of your chest or belly.
You’ll need to relax your trapezius muscles. The more you relax them, the easier it all gets. You relieve some of the prolonged muscular tension, and better still, you can slide your elbows down your trunk to your hip bones and rest them there while you catch your breath. People who are really flexible and have good proportions—which is not me—report that they can relax fully in this position. Damn them!
The more you master this technique, the more the jerk becomes a leg exercise. In effect, you jump in place, bucking the bell straight up, and you only use your arms to catch them. Then you jump a second time to meet the falling bells in mid-air. Relax (if you can), breath, and repeat.
More than the snatch, the jerk builds muscle. The reason might be “time under tension” (TUT). Many coaches and researchers treat muscle growth as a function of “time under tension”—how long you’re under a heavy load without setting it down. Certainly people grow lots of muscle from heavy high-rep barbell squats and Javorek complexes, which are two very different things, but in both cases you stay under great tension for a vomitously long time. Jerks do the same. You spend 10 minutes under an awkward pair of cannonballs totaling 32kg to 64kg (70-140 lbs). (Imagine front squatting or back squatting one of those poundages to a high box for 10 minutes. Now, don’t actually do that (!!)—you’d lose form, making it unsafe AF. But you can imagine what a metabolic supercharger that would be.)
In the snatch, if you’re going to last the full 10 minutes, you must spare your grip. How? Use your legs. After you “pull” the bell up, bend at the knees and dip down. That way you won’t have to pull as high. Even more importantly, when you drop the bell back down, rise up on your toes and use your legs as shock absorbers. Tip your body back from the knees so that your arm falls across your chest and belly early in the drop—that will absorb more shock and slow down the bell’s fall.
As the bell falls to the bottom of its arc, “give” at the knees a little to spare your grip muscles from sudden, abrupt wrenching. Then straighten your legs. When the bell pendulums forward again, bend your legs a second time so they can help “alley-oop” the bell upward. You’ll accelerate the bell more smoothly, and that way you’ll spare your grip even more.
You can spare your grip further by how you hold the bell’s handle. When holding it overhead, let the handle rest diagonally down your palm. Go ahead and insert your hand as deep as you can. That way you can relax your grip. (Expect some growing pains as you get accustomed to steel pressing against unyielding, bony places. That only lasts a few weeks.)
When dropping the bell, do your best to hold it with just the first two fingers and thumb. Try not to grip the handle tightly. Just make a firm ring with those three fingers and let the handle rotate somewhat loosely within it. We don’t want a lot of muscle tension from over-gripping the bell, nor do we want torn callouses. This is one of the reasons that you will progress faster if you err on the side of lighter weights for higher (50+) reps. Master that, and you will progress to heavier bells naturally and swiftly.
Over-gripping is also a reason that you should use competition-style bells if possible, rather than the cast-iron ones. With their more slender handles, you can snatch them for much higher reps without a death-grip that will tear up your palms and cost you training time. Nor are they so very expensive, and since you will have these for the rest of your life (hell, your grandchildren’s lives!), you might as well get the good ones.
With some experimenting, you’ll feel most comfortable and efficient when dropping the bell if you hold the handle at the corner, not the middle. (See picture above.) And on the backswing, when you relax your arm, the bell will rotate on its own so that your thumb is pointing back (or at your bottom). Let it do that.
And if you’ll permit me a moment’s snobbery, for heaven’s sake, don’t pay more for “chip-resistant enamel coating.” Kettlebells are not fine china or ladies’ silk undergarments. They are like blue jeans—when new they look weird and a little embarrassing; when battered and worn, they look legit.
Want to learn more? Start ransacking the archives at Dr. Smet’s site, Girevoy Sport After 40. He’s been experimenting for years and translating materials from his native Russian about the evolving state of the sport. Girevoy sport is still fairly young and people are still making advances in technique and training methods. (If you follow martial arts, just compare the karate of the 80s with the early UFC of the 90s and then the far more advanced state of MMA today. It’s like three different geological ages.)
In particular, check out of two of Smet’s recent translations with commentary of snatch tutorials by Sergey Rudnev, five-time champion of the world. A small-framed man, Rudnev was competing with bells that weighed half his own bodyweight (!), and he developed a snatch technique that is exquisitely efficient. As Rudnev and other champs advise, whatever care and attention you invest in efficient technique, you will be repaid for amply.