Russians have been lifting kettlebells for health for a long time. They originally used them as “counterweights … to weigh out dry goods on market scales. People started throwing them around for entertainment and they were later put to use for weight lifting.”
When Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina in 1873, at the novel’s moral center he put Konstantin Lyovin, a plain-living country gentleman who lifts kettlebells. Kettlebells also show up in plenty of photos of old-time strongmen from the “tiger skin and waxed mustache” era, such as George Hackenschmidt (a Russian German) and Eugen Sandow (an East Prussian with a Russian mother), and later in photos of early American health clubs.
Though Americans dropped kettlebells in the 1930s and 1940s for modern plate-loading barbells and forgot they existed, Soviet sportsmen kept snatching kettlebells for fun, health, and sometimes in informal competition.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union organized girevoy sport (“kettlebell sport”) as an officially sanctioned sport, originally consisting of three events: the two-arm jerk, the one-arm snatch, and the one-arm press (later dropped from competition). After a few rule changes, girevoy sport (or “GS”) settled into its present form: you jerk (with two bells) and snatch (with one bell) for as many reps as possible in ten minutes without setting the bells down, and in the snatch you may change hands only one time.
That means kettlebell lifters dwell in the no-man’s land between strength sports and endurance sports, inhabited chiefly by rowers and middle-distance runners. You’re under load for 10 minutes at a time, with bells that might weigh one-half your bodyweight, so you develop some very serious cardio. In fact, girevoy sport is essentially weightlifting turned into an endurance sport. The metabolic demands are incredible, and kettlebell lifters tend to develop a wrestler’s physique: muscled but tending toward the lean, rangy side rather than the puffy, hypertrophied side. Maybe it’s the wrist wraps, but gireviks make me think of the famous “boxer at rest” statue: wiry arms, somewhat meaty shoulders and thighs, and big, pronounced back muscles.
Kettlebells have a way of “right sizing” people, writes Andrew Read: If you’re chubby, they’ll lean you out. “Likewise, if you’re scrawny and need some muscle they’ll do that, too, without that exaggerated puffed up bodybuilder look.”
This is an experimental post, summarizing my training for the past week. If I continue to publish these log entries, I won’t allow them to “crowd out” my usual material. I’d welcome your feedback in the Comments section.
July 6: I maxed out on 24kg kettlebell snatches: 32L + 32R. Showing poor judgment, I did this before my longest training ruck of the year. What was I thinking?! (Total snatch volume: 96 poods)
July 10: Snatches on the minute: 20kg for 14 sets of 14; and 24kg for 8 sets of 6. (Total snatch volume: 327 poods)
1) Snatches on the minute: 20kg for 6 sets of 14; 24kg for 8 sets of 7.
2) Competition snatches: 24kg for 10L (hand kept getting soaked with sweat) + 34R.
3) Circuit: 2 sets of Eccentric Isometric (EI) pushups; 2 sets of EI pullups +20lbs.; 3 sets of 36 Hindu squats
I’m aiming to do a snatch contest in mid-September where, to win a Class 1 ranking, I’ll need 124 reps. I think I can do this! (Total volume today: 255 poods)
July 12, 2019:
1) “Russian EDT”* snatches: 24kg for 10 one-minute sets at 16 reps/minute.
2) Timed snatch set: 16kg for 10 minutes at 15 reps/minute. (Total: 410 poods)
3) Circuit: 2 sets of Eccentric isometric (EI) pushups; 2 sets of EI pullups +20 lbs.; 3 sets of 40 Hindu squats
* “EDT,” or “escalating density training,” is a subject for another post. In this case, what’s happening is that I snatch for one minute, rest minute, and repeat ten times. You can find details at Eugene’s excellent blog, Girevoy Sport After 40.
July 13, 2019
Rucked 12 miles (20km) with 30lbs. in 3 hours, 11 minutes. It was a hot morning at 90° F (32° C). I didn’t march fasted, but I only drank a light smoothie before and no food during.
My foot muscles have been tired all week. Also, I found that heavy, sweaty socks add serious weight to my feet! As an experiment, I departed from my usual combination (FoxRiver sock liners and Finnish M05 “sock liners,” which are really light wool socks in their own right). Instead, under the Finnish socks I wore a midweight pair of Injinji toe socks. Perfectly comfortable, but when I peeled all that sweaty wool off my feet, the pile weighed half a pound! (And as we know, an extra pound on the foot is as taxing as five pounds in your pack.)
July 14, 2019
This marked the last day before I start to taper for the 50-mile Star Course three weeks away. Feet and calves tired from all the work.
1) “Russian EDT” snatches: 24kg for 10 sets of one minute at just 12 reps/minute. I slowed down so I could keep my heart rate under my MAF number.
2) Timed set of snatches: 16kg for 10 minutes at 12 reps/minute. (Total snatch volume: 300 poods)
3) Circuit: 2 circuits of (1) EI pushups +35lbs., (2) EI pullups +20lbs., and (3) Hindu squats x50.
Something very strange has happened with my bodyweight: I’m way more muscular than I “should” be. I’ve ballooned to a lean 182 lbs. (83kg). (In fact, I have more lean body mass now than I had total body mass last summer!) And yet I did just three months of barbell lifting over the course of the year, and since the spring I’ve done very little except for very-high-mileage rucking. All I can suppose is that maybe I’ve added so many mitochondria (the “powerhouses” of the muscle cells) that I gained 20lbs.?!
Feeling fat, looking fat, and being fat are three separate things. You can “feel fat” without looking or being fat. I’ll hazard a guess that it’s mostly emotional, but even when you’re not being particularly neurotic, you can feel fatter or leaner depending on the fit of your clothes and your posture.
You can also look leaner or chubbier from day to day, just based on factors other than bodyfat. Posture is a big one. So is lighting. And biggest of all are the ebbs and flows of hydration and muscle glycogen. Do you ever glimpse yourself in the bathroom mirror and look surprisingly lean? Well unless little elves came during the night and gave you liposuction, you just happened to eat a combination of things that inadvertently flushed out subcutaneous water without depleting muscle glycogen. On that particular day, your skin happens to be at its thinnest and your muscles right at their fullest. Result: you look a little ripped, at least for a couple of hours.
If you track your bodyfat every day, you find that there’s less correlation than you thought among your weight, your bodyfat level, and your appearance. Right now I weigh a lot, a level that was only normal when I was a powerlifter eating like an ox. And I don’t look very lean either: I’m waterlogged, with thick skin and blurry abs. And subjectively I feel a little chubby: I’m wearing the big-waisted jeans that I keep in storage for the occasional squatting cycle, when I bloat into a stout, gluteal Michelin Man, and if I strip off my shirt at yoga these days I look like a tanned marshmallow with a rubber band around its middle. And yet to my amazement, when I run the numbers, I find I’ve got way more lean body mass with just the same amount of fat as last summer, when I had a nice, wasp waist. Strange as it seems, even though I feel bloated and look pretty “blah” in my shaving mirror, I’ve got maybe the best body composition of my life right now.
So why the difference? It’s that I’m holding way more water too. Yes, I’ll have to change some things if I’m suddenly offered a photo shoot as a middle-aged underwear model. But for now, since no one has recognized my potential—give me a chance, Madison Avenue! I could be great!—I shouldn’t change a thing.
I’m glad I know that, because now I won’t mess with success. But I want to underscore that the only reason I know it, despite cockeyed subjective impressions, is that I’ve got an objective measure in the Tanita scale.
So here’s today’s takeaway for everyday lean, solid dogs:
Your regular bathroom scale only gives you junk data, your mirror is unreliable, and how lean or fat you feel is fake news.
If you’re going to track something, make it something objective and reliable. Spend $40 for a Tanita scale. Track your actual bodyfat percentage. Everything else is evanescent, subjective, or both.
Try out the many successful, easy approaches for leaning out, and (here’s my $.02 for the menfolk), once you get to 12%, just hold steady there. I’m not alone in thinking that that’s a sweet spot: easy to reach, easy to maintain, and makes you fit and healthy and mobile and trim without being onerous.
To prep for the (in)famous Star Course, I tried a 42-mile ruck march.
I’d read one man’s AAR suggesting that in training you aim for 40 miles (64km) in something close to 10 hours, and on paper that sounded almost reasonable. It’s only 15 minutes per mile, right? Heck, I’ve motored along at that speed in perfect contentment for plenty of 12-mile marches with a 30# pack. So with just 20# dry (not even 10kg), wouldn’t I cover at least the first half of my journey at that pace? And if I allowed myself a full 12 hours, plus an extra hour for lunch, that would be almost leisurely! Right?
That was HUBRIS, and I got punished! Instead of treading a merry 13 hours, I slogged out a tough 15½ hours, and rather than a carefree and gay picnic walk, at times it felt like a death march.
This was a major lesson in all the factors that can slow a march down. Let me count the ways!
What I Did Badly
First was my own poor condition. I’d been training hard, demanding a lot of my foot muscles (which work overtime in yoga and kettlebell lifting too), and the day before my ruck romp, I’d had a small migraine that I tried to cure by testing my rep max in the kettlebell snatch. (That worked pretty well, by the way.) Coupled with a 4am wakeup, it’s little surprise that I felt like hell when I started my walk, and it slowed me down. By mid-morning I was already an hour behind schedule. And that was before other adverse conditions started piling up.
What other adverse conditions? Next was the heat, which is my personal kryptonite. I’m stocky and descended entirely from Northern European bog dwellers. Even in modest heat, a full sun clobbers me like an axe.
I made some poor nutrition choices too. Normally in these long events, I thrive on a scant 25g of carbs per hour and, being keto-adapted, I draw the rest of my calories from body fat. It’s a trick I got from ultra champ Zach Bitter and it makes me immune to the usual nausea and GI trouble of endurance events. But on this morning I treated myself to a big, sugary frozen mocha, and it was way too much carbs and gook. I’ll spare you, gentle reader, an account of the results and just summarize them as “sub-optimal.” Lesson: Just 25g of carbs per hour.
By my choice of routes, I also gave myself a (poorly timed) lesson in how much you can be slowed by terrain. The Army has researched rucking speed and found that, even more than pack weight, you’re slowed by factors as mundane as the ground’s surface. And elevation gain is another biggie. When climbing a 10% grade, you cut your speed in half. (EDIT: Researcher Adam Scott finds that it’s only a one-third reduction.)So on one steep 4-mile stretch, I climbed for almost two hours.
Nor did I factor in stream crossings. Foot care guru John Vonhof insists that you remove shoes and socks at streams, carry them across, and dry your feet before putting them on again. I did this each time, dutifully but grudgingly, but I ate up nearly an hour and disliked feeling my way painfully across the stream bottom in sore, bare feet. Lesson: Bring water shoes and a microfiber hand towel. On trips where I’ll recross the stream at the same point, I can even stash them near the crossing to wait for my return trip.
Finally, maybe it wasn’t the best idea to wear brand-new boots. Though they didn’t need much breaking in, they still required time-consuming experimentation on the trail, trying different combinations of socks, liner socks, and lacing.
However, there was one thing about these boots that was a godsend: they’re actually big enough! My toes have never been so free. I owe this too to John Vonhof, whose simple trick is to remove the insoles from your shoes, set them on the ground, and stand on them. If your feet lap over the insoles at any point, or even touch the edge, the shoes are too small. That’s how I went from a size 9.5 to a 10.5 Wide!
What Went Great
Aerobic base: Aerobically this trip posed little challenge. As in all my training, I throttled back enough to stay within my “MAF” heart rate (“max aerobic function”). And even on such a long ruck, I found, as long as I stay within my MAF heart rate, I can put my legs on cruise control and motor along indefinitely. My feet might get sore, but my heart and lungs can hack it just fine.
Electrolytes: At long last, I didn’t cramp! I can’t take credit for this. The unsurpassable Lean Solid Girl met me at my turnaround point with a princely feast of burritos, trail mix, cold drinks, and (best of all) electrolytes.
Blisters: I only got one blister, on my heel. Zero blisters would be better, but I’ll take this as a victory considering this was a distance PR in boots that were new out of the box.
The Great Takeaway
I didn’t quit. That’s the great takeaway. At 5:30am, only 5 minutes into the day, I still had a lingering headache from the day before, felt like hell, and had no spring in my step, and I thought, “I picked an awful day to do this. It will be amazing if I actually finish 40 miles today.” And I was right on both counts: it was terrible timing–WTH kind of plan is “be sick all day, then max out on snatches, and then do 40 miles the next day?!”–and it’s amazing to me that I finished it. I should have rescheduled–stupid stuff is stupid, and it would have required effort to choose a worse day for this. But once I (foolishly) committed to it and decided to stick with the (dumb) plan, it was almost a certainty that I’d finish–eventually–as long as I didn’t quit.
And that, friends, is the big lesson. (Cue the “rousing emotional crescendo music!”) It seems that in an event like this–a low-intensity slog played out over a very long time–there’s almost no way to suck so much that you can’t finish. There’s no opponent to KO you, pin you, or steal the ball, and you need zero coordination or athletic talent–it’s just walking. Physically the demands aren’t even very intense or the perils great: you won’t get a concussion or cascade off the side of Mount Everest. You can suck as much as you want for as long as you want, but unless you decide to quit (or you get abducted off the road by a UFO), you are pretty much assured of succeeding eventually. As Goggins says, “No talent required.”
This year I was forced to train much differently for the Heavy than planned.
I suffered an injury to one shoulder and both hands that ruled out some of the very training that I intended to rely on, namely pushups, heavy kettlebells (32 to 40kg), and carrying a 150# log or sandbag up hills.
However, the beauty of GORUCK events is that they are so complex and uncertain that they press you to go outside your specialties and train up your weaknesses. Strength athletes probably have years of catching up to do on the aerobic side. Bodyweight exercise studs who are great at burpees and pullups can work on the lateral plane by, say, farmer carrying 70 lbs. Gym dwellers can go outside and build up hiking mileage and dial in the 1,001 details of pacing, footwear, foot care, sun and wind exposure, chafe prevention, and fueling that only come into focus after 12 or 15 miles of walking.
So I worked around my injuries by getting under a rucksack for hours at a time. Knowing there would be a 12-mile (20km) timed ruck during the Heavy event, I did one almost every week. A big believer in the Maffetone method and long, slow distance (LSD), I rucked to work and the grocery store and anywhere else to build up a big base of easy volume. Once I could cruise 12 miles in 3 hours with no appreciable effort, I tried 24 miles (40km) and found that easy. While all that was going on, I sorted out numberless tiny but critical gear issues, like exactly which brand of socks to wear with which boots and when to change them, and how to set my pack straps for the most comfort.
I also made a point of acclimating to cold water and wind, since last time that was my big weakness. I began using the Wim Hof method, dousing myself with cold water outside every morning and swimming in cold water on hikes, to accustom myself to the cold and find out how water affected my gear. This was a huge success. I’ve always found cold weather refreshing and invigorating, and by these jumps in the creek I learned to stave off hypothermic “jackhammering” and prolong my enjoyment of the cold by continuing to breath smoothly. I also learned how to rewarm myself faster and how to avoid panic and keep moving when I did get irretrievably soaked far from shelter. And I also dialed in my fueling.
Luckily, I could still do just enough barbell work to keep my weight up. After 30 years of lifting weights, my superpower is that I can add muscle practically just by looking at a barbell. And though I’m pretty sick of barbells at this point in my life, and I’m very sick of the physiological stress of carrying extra muscle, Army researchers say you can ruck better when you have a lot of lean body mass. So I dutifully pumped myself up to 180 lbs. (82kg), where I competed in my bygone powerlifting days. This was a blow to my vanity, because at 180 I’m smooth, waterlogged, and thick-waisted—I look better on a beach at 160. However, I’m finally mature and smart enough not to screw around with my game plan on a whim, so I stayed the course.
In the last 5-6 weeks, I added even more rucking volume and hurriedly greased the groove in pullups and pushups as soon as my shoulder and hand pain finally abated. I deliberately overspent my recovery resources so that by the time I tapered ten days before the event, I’d definitely crossed into controlled overtraining. Throughout the entire taper I felt sluggish, thick, slow, and tired and only started to feel some energy on game day.
The D-Day Heavy Challenge is in the record books. Before I publish my AAR, this is what I packed.
Rocky S2V boots. I got these on Sgt. Šileika’s advice, and they were champs.
Originally I was planning on wearing my GORUCK MACV-1s, figuring “what could be better for an event than a boot made specifically for that event?” But they kept sliding me down hills, sporting less tread than some basketball shoes, and I had to retire them for safety reasons.
Finnish M05 liner socks. I’ve tried lots of socks, including expensive ones, and these are the winners. They’re also dirt cheap as wool socks go. I brought two extra pair and was very happy that I did so.
Fox River liner socks. Brought two extra pair of these too.
My beloved 70+ year-old Swedish LK-35, the “moose head” pack. This gorgeous old thing deserves a future post all its own.
Jellybro compression tights with built-in knee pads. Recently I’d skinned up both knees, so these were valuable. And I really appreciated the added warmth because the weather turned out much more severe than I’d expected. These were great.
Slingshot knee sleeve. This helped with stability for a knee I was worried about, but it had its drawbacks. More in the AAR.
Surplus British “combat shirt.” This is lightly padded, and I hoped it would protect my separated shoulder when carrying logs. However, I turned out not to need it and it pretty much stayed in my pack.
Surplus French nomex jacket that I used for a windbreaker.
Tailwind. The strategy was to get most of my calories from this. That was working OK, but I needed a denser mixture than the one I used (2 scoops per liter), and I needed more electrolytes too. More on this in the AAR.
GU. Lean Solid Girl turned me on to this stuff, drawing from her past as a marathoner, in one of several pivotal pieces of advice.
Hat and Gloves:
Rothco boonie hat. I’ve tried every boonie hat under the sun, and for me Rothco is the clear winner.
I meant to bring a fleece toque too, but I left it behind.
Mechanix gloves, of course. I tried replacing them with two kinds of German surplus gloves, but the Mechanix shine because they pull on and off quickly when my hands are wet.
6 spare feet of webbing. This routinely proves so valuable for carrying/lashing/repairing stuff that I’d call it one of my most valuable items.
DD waterproof bags, which are decent but don’t open and close as fast as I’d like. If you have a brand you like, please let me know.
Hommit hydration bladder. In hundreds of miles I’ve never had one break or even leak. I’m very happy with these and I’m sticking with them.
Petzl e+LITE head lamp. I don’t like headlamps on GORUCK events, so this little minimalist number is perfect, and despite its delicate looking appearance, it’s proved tougher than my Double Diamond headlamps.
Here at Lean Solid Dog HQ, we heard from an infantry reservist and Afghan veteran with a job, a grad program, and a young child to raise by himself, and he asked me to post my thoughts about getting lean again. I have definite thoughts on the subject, but my only qualifications for holding them are that (a) I’m naturally chubby but I’ve learned how to control that reasonably well, and (b) I’ve read and experimented with diet more than most people. With that caveat, here’s my $.02.
Lesson #1: Leanness mostly depends on how you eat
With modern food, it is possible to eat calories much faster than we can burn them. Yesterday, for example, I hiked 25 miles and used about 5500 or 6000 calories for the day. That’s enormous. But I joined friends for a good, long dinner, including a lot of bread and a pint of ice cream, and I was right back in calorie balance.
The other reason that leanness depends overwhelmingly on your diet is that when you exercise a ton, you goose your appetite upward too. Unless you’re paying attention to your eating, you’ll just inhale more calories to compensate, like I did yesterday. So unless you’re already a naturally lean freak of nature, no amount of exercise is going to let you mindlessly eat strudel and elephant ears ad libitum and get leaner. As the saying goes, “You can’t outrun a donut.”
There are tons of approaches to eating for leanness and health that are effective, enjoyable, and easy to embrace for the long term. And we now know a lot about which ones have the best track records.
Though it can help periodically to measure servings, calculate macronutrient ratios, and log your food intake, most people who stay lean for a lifetime settle into individual routines whereby they simply follow a few well-chosen principles. If you choose the right principles, you don’t have to do mental arithmetic all day long.
Lesson #2: Volumetrics
If you only read one thing about eating for leanness, make it one of dietician Barbara J. Rolls’ books about the approach she calls volumetrics. In her research, Rolls found that people tend to eat the same poundage of food every day, no matter whether it is high in calories or low. So if you want to shave calories off your menu without your body noticing, you can sneak in more stuff that weighs a lot in relation to its calorie content. Think of the old trick of loading up on salad before the main course. But that’s just the kindergarten level. Rolls and her team have worked on this for years and come up with very clever hacks. I can testify from personal experience that you can fool your body very convincingly; you will be full of very satisfying food and your body will not know that it’s being played.
If you want to geek out a little by surveying the leading approaches and the medical research about them, your go-to resource is Clarence and Carol Bass’s site. A former Mr. America, Clarence helped invent the “ripped” look in competitive bodybuilding, and for decades he has acted as both a one-man longitudinal experiment in lean living and a clearing house for scientific research on diet and exercise. In their own kitchen, Clarence and Carol eat much more carbohydrate than I can tolerate, but they also write approvingly about lower-carb approaches that work well for people like me over the long haul.
Whether you lean more toward fibrous carbs or protein or fat, Clarence guides you toward developing your own small repertoire of “go-to” meals that adhere to the volumetric principle of favoring heavy foods that taste good to you with a lot of liquid and/or fibrous bulk. Once you figure out three to five of these standard meals that fill you up with tummy happiness, you can pretty much go on auto-pilot.
Consider Clarence’s favorite breakfast: six kinds of whole grains, frozen fruit, milk, nuts, and even some shredded vegetables (!), mixed up in a huge, steaming bowl. I don’t do well on so much fruit and grain, but Clarence’s breakfast inspired my favorite go-to dinner, my Huge Dinner Salad: a pound or more of greens, a lot of shredded carrots, some kind of meat, a little tofu, a lot of cheese, a lot of nuts, avocado if I have some, and generous oil and vinegar, eaten directly out of a huge 10L serving bowl. If I’m going crazy, I put a little fruit on it. If I’m leaning out, I’ll measure how much cheese and oil I put in. Either way, it tastes awesome to me, takes forever to eat, weighs several pounds, and can be made very “lean” if I want with negligible difference in palatability and satiety.
Some other observations that seem to hold true for pretty much everyone:
Lack of sleep spikes your appetite.
Go to bed ridiculously early, in a room that is pitch black, and get 8 hours. You’ll get leaner.
Eating sugar spikes your appetite. Don’t eat sugar.
Anything you make in your kitchen is better than anything from a restaurant.
Bodybuilding and powerlifting spike your appetite. In fact, that goes for hypertrophy training in general. If you are adding much muscle, then unless you are using steroids, you are adding fat too. Nothing wrong with that, just be advised.
Bodyweight exercises work for me when I’m leaning out. I think I just eat less. When I’m powerlifting I can’t stop eating and put on weight as fast as a teenager, but my appetite isn’t changed much by a regimen of pushups, pullups, and bodyweight squats and lunges.
Ketogenic diets aren’t for everybody, but they sure work great for a lot of people. My sister transmogrified herself on keto in the most stunning fashion, shedding over 100# permanently. The food she makes is second to none, and in my judgment that’s the cornerstone of her success: she figured out how to love eating within her chosen regimen.
Speaking for myself, I get lean almost to the point of “shrink-wrapped” if I’m close to ketosis and I also restrict all my eating to a 10- to 12-hour window. It’s not a ton of fun, but it’s not very hard either, and it puts this naturally pudgy body of mine at about 9% body fat just like flipping a switch.
Some bodybuilders purposely go into a huge caloric deficit (e.g. 1500 kcal) for a short period. I can’t gainsay them–bodybuilders are the masters of body composition and they can accomplish freakish feats, but I’m not willing to make the sacrifices that they do. I’m lazy, so when I even bother to count calories or macronutrients at all, I take after Clarence Bass and just aim for small deficits. Clarence’s rule of thumb for leaning out is, decrease your food intake by just 250 calories a day, increase your energy consumption by 250 calories, and you’re on track to lose a pound a week. Trust me, that’s a lot and you’ll see the difference in your shaving mirror.
Finally, do as Clarence does: get a Tanita scale so you can track not just your weight but your body fat level. The navy “tape measure” method is decent, but it’s not precise enough. The Tanita scale measures pretty consistently in tenths of a percent. With that kind of precision, it’s easy to fine tune your routine. It’s $40, but it’s the most beneficial $40 you can spend. (Even more than a heart rate monitor.)
‘Nuff said. I emphasize again that I don’t have a lot of credibility on this subject. This post just represents advice from actual, credible been-there-done-that people that has stood up well in my (admittedly narrow) experience.