Let’s Sing the Surplus Song!

To the tune of “My Favorite Things”*

East German jackboots and green Czech suspenders,
Norwegian trousers for snowy weekenders,
Bundeswehr base layer, Steppentarn scarf,
On French army snow shoes I’ll hike til I barf!

Finnish boot grease!
Swedish rucksack!
From your grandfather’s day.
For ten lousy bucks you can buy it all up
And head for the hills to play!

*Acknowledgement to Tam at View From the Porch, who inspired me with her Gun Show Song. And additional thanks to Varusteleka and Surplus City—they are world class!–and to the Hungarian armed forces, the Austrian Bundesheer, British Army, and above all the Swedish Air Force for making awesome gear and then deciding they don’t want it!

Big Jumps: Fewer Bells Are Better

As Julien says, I recommend Pavel Tsatouline’s original primer on kettlebells, The Russian Kettlebell Challenge (2001), and the open-ended, unscripted training guidelines he gives there:

  • Train 2-7 times per week.You can vary this week to week. You benefit from a certain amount of randomness in loading.
  • Keep it to 45 minutes or less. Sometimes a lot less. Vary it at every workout.
  • Do your exercises in a “slow circuit.” For example, after a set of presses, catch your breath for a minute or two and do some swings. Then overhead squats. Then windmills. Then front squats or pistols or pullups. Whatever. Then repeat.
  • Vary your sets, reps, and exercises.Again, this is not a “program” from the pages of fitness magazine. Instead of a scripted routine, we are looking for controlled randomness.
  • Confine “grinding” exercises to just 1-5 reps. Avoid failure like the plague. For the reasons why, see Pavel’s Power to the People.

This is a pleasant and refreshing way to train, physically and mentally, and it’s very productive. 

But the way people screw up strength training is that they up the poundages too fast, before they accumulate a lot of training volume with easier weights. They race ahead, only to overtrain, and then they’re back on the couch recuperating instead of getting steadily stronger. Like a baseball season, strength training is a marathon, not a sprint.

See Pavel’s philosophy on big jumps here.

With kettlebells, you can’t do that on account of the big jumps in size. Kettlebells are the perfect thing for accumulating lots of reps with moderate poundages, without injury and in a recoverable way. Which is to say, they are the perfect thing for productive, healthy, sustainable training.

So it’s absolutely OK to stick with just a 16kg, a 24kg, and a 32kg. And if anything, it is better. Vary those other factors—frequency, duration, volume per session, exercise selection, workout pace, rep tempo—but don’t screw around with the big red button marked “intensity” (% of RM, i.e. your choice of weight). Let the kettlebells make that choice for you, with their big jumps. That really is a case of their Kalashnikov-like simplicity making them foolproof.

Let the volume do the work. Leave the intensity (i.e. the choice of weight) to the kettlebell. 

One last piece of advice on kettlebell selection: get “competition bells,” not the cast iron monstrosities with the ludicrously thick handles. Those were fine in the 19thcentury, or when kettlebells were first reintroduced to North America 20 years ago. But they’re objectively inferior and obsolete, and there are plenty of affordable competition bells nowadays. If you especially want oversized handles to challenge your grip occasionally, wrap the grip in a thin towel, or soap it, or get an inexpensive fat-grip attachment. ‘Nuff said.

In prehistoric times, we needed cast iron bells since we had nothing else. Today, we can do better. Cast iron bells are like vacuum tubes, cloth-covered biplanes, and the lungfish: they belong in museums.

Entry-Level Lean Solid Doggery: An Answer to Julien A.

Julien, a lean, solid dog in Canada, asks:

I’ve been thinking of buying a used rucksack (something like https://www.varusteleka.com/en/product/british-patrol-backpack-30-litres-black-surplus/3779). Any advice you’d have for someone starting?

Also, I saw that you seem to endorse the original RKC book for kettlebells. I got a 16 kg bell, and some extra money, was thinking of buying a 20, 24, 28, 32 kg. Is it too much? Are 8kg jumps (24 and 32kg bells only) better?

Welcome, Julien. On rucking, I’m no authority, just an enthusiast. But I’ll pass along the good advice I got when starting out:

  • Start with 30lbs./14kg or less. With more than that, you can irritate your knees. If you need more load, wear ankle weights. According to Army researchers, you expend as much energy to move a pound on your foot as you do to carry five pounds in your pack.
  • Speaking of feet and knees, take good care of yours. If something hurts and gives you knee tendonitis, stop and change insoles and shoes/boots til you find the combination that doesn’t. (Spenco green insoles have a lot of fans and they’re reasonably priced. And I’ve become a big fan of jackboots.)
  • For gear, I find the reviews on Varusteleka very reliable. If people there all say it’s a great pack, it’s a great pack.
  • Nevertheless, individual build counts for something. E.g. if you have narrower shoulders than most, a given pack will fit you differently. Happily, surplus is cheap so you can afford to experiment.
  • For rucking, my personal guru is your countryman Sgt. Šileika of the Black Watch, who says, “strap padding means nothing, strap width is everything.” (Or words to that effect.) As always, the leathery old dog of war speaks in nuggets of golden wisdom. My favorite packs have turned out to be the ones with wide leather straps.
  • My starter pack remains one of my favorites for short, heavy hauls: a Czech M60 that cost $5 that I upgraded by spending another $10 to buy leather straps (actually suspenders) on eBay from a guy in Latvia.
Varusteleka is momentarily out of the Czech M60 at the time of writing, but other people have them too.

On kettlebells, I have more of a right to an opinion, and I have a firm opinion on that question you asked. I’ll return to that tomorrow.

Power to you!

From Sgt. Sileika, a lean, solid dog in Vilnius who serves as our resident subject-matter expert in ruck marching and sentence diagramming.

Living in the Baltics, he is located at the intersection (to use a fashionable word) of three of our favorite things: kvass, kettlebells, and Varusteleka.

Power to you, sir!

Time Trial

Finally, someone who understands why they’re called “shorts.”

At the GORUCK Heavy Challenge, after some refreshing PT, you start the 24 hours with a twelve-mile timed ruck. You need to walk it in 3½ hours or you can be disqualified.

Lauren Four Boots and I were discussing this menacing prospect in the middle of a hike in the foothills. Already tired and a little footsore, I supposed we must have already traveled a long way. So I was crestfallen when Ms. Multiboots checked her GPS and found that, in two hours, we’d only moved three miles as the crow flies. 

I wondered aloud whether this meant I was destined to flunk the Heavy Challenge before the sky was even dark. 

So I did a full-dress rehearsal that night, a 12-mile out-and-back with the regulation 35# plus water. 

Fortune smiled on me and I made it with 8 minutes to spare without any sense of hurry. The night’s takeaways were:

  • I’ve been helped by doing “LSD” (long, slow distance). I managed to stay well under 65% of my theoretical max heart rate.
  • Since I do my training hikes in extra-heavy boots and/or ankle weights, in my light boots I felt like my feet had wings.
  • Ditto for logs, sleds, and kettlebells. I’d almost forgotten what it’s like to carry just a pack, without also holding a stone or a sandbag. This was like a vacation, at least for a few miles…
  • However, my feet were the limiting factor. After just 7 miles, my toes were feeling squished and uncomfortable.
  • After that, my second biggest limiting factor was my legs. They felt a little rubbery by Mile 9.
  • I used a minimalist hip belt (just a 1” canvas strip) and an ill-fitting sternum strap, but I wouldn’t try to forego those features. When one part of my back tires out, I appreciate being able to tweak the straps and belt and shift the load to fresh muscles.

I didn’t use The German Caffeine Chocolate on this outing—I’m saving it for game day, when my teammates and I need a special boost—but I did eat dates and they were almost as good.

Save this stuff for really extraordinary circumstances, like invading Russia without any winter clothes.

HR Stands for “Hilarious Replies”

https://www.varusteleka.com/en

I was ordering camping gear from Varusteleka, a Finnish company with a winning sense of humor. Typical product descriptions are “This is hands down the ugliest motherfucking hat ever made” and “smells starkly of old mould, might be incomplete/damaged and is overall very nasty. You don’t want to touch this without a full [hazmat] suit. Get yours now.”

On their order form they asked customers to consider applying for a job opening as a product manager. Me, I’ve never been headhunted before while buying East German surplus boot socks, so I was really chuffed and sent them a cover letter:

“Dear sir– I lack military/LE experience, talent for negotiation, or any gifts for business administration, and the only time I worked for a commercial enterprise, I was a failure. I am also unavailable to work in Finland and in any case would probably be considered undesirable by your government. However, I love smoked and pickled fish, deadlift a lot, and know Chinese and Sanskrit, so I believe I have what it takes to form exciting relationships with the People’s Liberation Army and ancient Indic chariot armies. I am available for interviews at your convenience.”

A month later, I have received this surprisingly earnest reply from their HR department:

“We have received your application [and] appreciate your interest … Unfortunately, you are not the person we are looking for. Thank you … we do appreciate the time that you invested in this application.”

Guileless and naive or masterfully dry?

Eight Square Feet of Endorphins

hard-style-training-conditioning
http://www.strongfirst.com

A complete gym in one tidy corner:

  • Kettlebells. One is enough, but in a happy home they multiply.
  • Somebody to swing them. Note the bare feet–that’s how you should do it too.
  • Rucksack and boots. Insert kettlebells and start walking.
  • Pavel Tsatouline’s classic Russian Kettlebell Challenge (1999), still the best book there is on this stuff.
  •  Sledgehammer (optional). Style points for the awesome camo pattern on his pants, too. (Anyone recognize it? British MTP?)
  • An AK (optional), to protect the kettlebells.

If you just add companionship, kombucha, and a dog, you have most of the elements of earthly happiness right here.