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.

Stretching for kettlebell lifters who hate to stretch

https://www.yogajournal.com/poses/side-stretch-satisfaction
Anti-rotation. Al Kavadlo doesn’t twist and fall here because his QL is keeping his waist rigid.

The poor quadratus lumborum (QL). It does much more than its share during one-arm movements like kettlebell swings and presses, where it keeps your torso rigid and facing forward. It needs to be stretched, but if you are a blocky, stiff muscle head, good luck getting into the standard “straddle stretch.” Before you know it, you blow off stretching it completely.

That’s what Jump Stretch bands are for. If you’ve knocked around the powerlifting world for more than 5 minutes, you probably think of JS bands as “accommodating resistance” for your weights.

In American powerlifting circles, most of us know Jump Stretch bands as tools for “speed day,” when they let you safely accelerate light barbells fast, so you don’t launch them.

But from their inception, JS bands have been at least as much for stretching and mobility as for resistance, and they are a godsend for stretching tissue that’s ornery or hard to get into position for. Pecs, shoulders, lats, biceps, triceps, hip flexors, and quads are all much easier and less arduous for me to stretch with bands than on a yoga mat.

But the quadratus lumborum is the poster child: normally I can scarcely get into position for QL stretches without being limited by flexibility (e.g. hamstrings in the straddle stretch) or muscular endurance (e.g. holding onto a door frame).

But if you have a band and somewhere to anchor it, you can stretch out your QL without annoyance. For comfort, use a deadlift strap for your grip so that you can hang for as long as you want without your hand tiring.

Like yoga in a dungeon. You get to wear the same skimpy shorts, but you’re tied up and hear clanging metal.

Bells in the Baltics

Speaking of Baltic hardmen like Hackenschmidt and Pavel, our Vilnius correspondent Sgt. Šileika has been trying kettlebells. He reports:

“Kettlebells are so cool because they have their own idea of where they have to go. It takes my whole body to control them. Just handling them is an exercise in itself.”

http://www.usgsf.com

So true! Many years ago I had a kettlebell delivered by UPS. The guy asked me to open it and show him what was inside. He’d been weirded out by the mysterious 70-lb. thing wobbling around inside a small delivery box, like an egg standing on end, and thought maybe I was receiving illicit shipments of mercury.

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.

Rucking: Does Muscle Mass Help or Hamper You? (Part 1)

Rucking looks to be the “next big thing” in exercise. In a word, you fill a rucksack (a glorified backpack) with weight and go hiking. For bonus points, you can haul other heavy things too: sand bags, a water can, a kettlebell, a log, a sledgehammer, a stone, a weighted sled. 

Try to read this book and not develop a running addiction. Just try. I dare you.

Like many strength athletes, I retired from powerlifting reluctantly because I was accumulating injuries. Desperate for something to do, I started jogging and … loved it! I gravitated toward obstacle course races, on account of the goofy, exciting agility drills and also because I could put my strength to some use. Sure, I run slower than a man wading through oatmeal, but I can climb walls and flip tires all morning, so now I only sucked at half of the event.

For me, one key was to run barefoot. As a teenager I was prone to shin splints when I ran, but once I ran in bare feet, my gait changed and I got lighter on my feet.

It also helped that I was literally lighter, in bodyweight. Once I stopped lifting seriously and started jogging, thirty pounds dropped off me and I felt like I could lope along forever like a stocky gazelle.

To train for the obstacle courses, sometimes I hiked the foothills carrying heavy things. Such joy! From running, I had learned to love the endorphins that come from long, slow cardio, but I had to restrain my enthusiasm to keep my feet healthy and happy. They could carry my stumpy powerlifter body bouncing along the pavement for only so many miles a week without complaining. But now in weighted hiking I found a whole extra modality, and while my feet took it easy, I could get high on endorphins using all my other muscles.

An early adventure with Vanya the 32kg bell and a clapped out laptop bag filled with bricks.

The great gift of weighted walking is that you can shift work around the various muscle groups, resting some while you load others. For example, carry a kettlebell in one hand like a suitcase. When that hand tires, switch hands. Then carry it on your shoulder, and then the other shoulder. Then over your back, and maybe even “racked” at the chest or at arm’s length overhead. That will take you a long time, and then you can return to the “suitcase carry” and repeat the cycle indefinitely. You are spreading the work out all over the arms, shoulders, back, obliques, abs, hamstrings, and quads, and nothing gives out first. You can do this for hours. It doesn’t pound your joints, and you can work around any injuries just by avoiding positions that hurt. 

From here, it was just a short hop to group ruck marching events like the GORUCK challenges, organized by a backpack manufacturing company owned by ex-Green Berets. Originally they dreamed up these bootcamp-style marches as marketing events to promote their line of backpacks, but the events themselves proved even more popular and took on a life of their own. Now you can choose from GORUCK challenges lasting from six hours to 48 hours (!!). 

These people are my tribe. As regular readers know, I think that because humans evolved to face physical hardship in small groups, we need that experience in some form. GORUCK provides plenty of intimate, shared strife. I grew so attached to the folks who survived the 12-hour “Tough Challenge” with me last year that next I’m joining them for the 24-hour “Heavy” event. Gulp.

As I train for it, I’ve been contemplating this question: How big should I be? What’s the optimal bodyweight for carrying a backpack of bricks and a log for 40 miles? The answer would be simple for a straight endurance event like running an ultra-marathon (weigh less) or a straight strength event like Highland Games (weigh more). But what about an ultra-distance strength-endurance event like rucking? I certainly wouldn’t want an extra 10# of bricks in my rucksack, weighting me down unnecessarily. But what about an extra 10# of muscle? That sure would help me carry logs and sand bags, but enough to justify moving all that extra bodyweight?

(To be continued)