Captain America and the Welfare Check

Being part 2 of my field notes from a glorious 48 hours with my boots on. (Find part 1 here.)

The anguish of my unrecognized comic genius: At one point, the command post radioed our group to make sure that we hadn’t eloped with sasquatches or been eaten by raccoons. In the terse language of the Incident Command System, this came out as “Team Twelve: welfare check?” I wanted to drawl, “Thank you kindly, but we work for a living.” I’m pretty sure they weren’t in a mood for my mirth on a command channel, so I kept the fun to myself. But it hurts to be blessed with talent like mine and not be able to share it with the world. One day… One day search base will see me for the genius that I am!!

By odd coincidence, the searcher next to me was a map-loving Russian emigré from Siberia.

Map-reading and cognitive load: Since childhood I’ve loved maps, an unsurprising love for an intellectual, someone who interacts with the world more through concept and abstraction than through his moment-to-moment senses. When you read a map, you encounter the earth through a sort of “God’s-eye view,” taking in at once a panoply of information about the surroundings that far exceed what any one observer on the ground can see. But being a basically unobservant person, I must work hard to reconcile what I see on a map with what my eyes see. If I am in a canyon surrounded by distinctive ridgelines and peaks, then in principle I should be able to find those formations represented on a topographic map and thus find my location, but I’ve found it far harder to do in practice than in theory. Imagine that.

But I keep on practicing, and finally I’ve been succeeding. On this trip I played a game with my hiking buddy: occasionally I tried, in my comical professorial way, to guess our location with just a map and eyeballs and then he checked my guess against GPS or a compass. And … it worked! Pretty consistently! 

But fatigue blunts mental acuity. One teammate, Gunny, told me about a mud run he used to organize. Between wall climbs and rope swings, participants had to stop at other stations and solve math problems in their heads and other brain teasers. I would suck at that. When I suck wind, my head gets “thick” and turbid, like the thoughts are wading in knee-deep Jello. During the search I was navigating non-stop for hours in dense, tiring vegetation, and by the end of our assignment I lost 30 IQ points.

What to do about this? I’m sure practice and experience helps: the first time you “grid” a nasty slope of tough foliage, you’re at the steep part of the learning curve. I’m sure the tenth time is a different experience than the first. And it helps to travel as light as possible. As we’ve discussed before on this blog, researchers have quantified how much extra energy you burn by hauling unnecessary pounds. (Especially on the feet—we’ll return to that point soon in our post on French boots.) 

With the right tricks, it’s shockingly easy to approach a 1.5x bodyweight bench, double-bodyweight squat, and 2.5x bodyweight deadlift. After that, things get complicated and difficult.

However, beyond that, another factor is aerobic conditioning, and that’s squarely in your control. As an erstwhile strength athletes, it pains me to say this but there is no substitute for cardio, and I doubt you can ever have enough cardio, simply because I can’t imagine a time when you couldn’t improve further, or be better prepared for an emergency, just by having a bigger gas tank, better speed, and longer range. Don’t get me wrong—I still love strength, strength is still important, and most people have plenty of “room to grow” and get noticeably stronger with just a small investment in “easy strength” training. But in strength there are some very real points of diminishing returns. One is that, for almost any activity except powerlifting and maybe certain positions in American football, there comes a point when enough is enough. As we’ve written here before, Navy researchers found that aspiring SEALs who were too strong in certain events actually fared worse in training. Their explanation? If you’re deadlifting with such focus that you pull triple bodyweight, you’re robbing training time from equally important things like running and swimming and pullups. That is, you’re over-focusing. This brings us to the second point, which is efficiency. It takes almost nothing to train a healthy man to deadlift two “wheels” (225#, about 100kg). From there, it takes only a little more time to pull three wheels (315#). Four wheels takes a lot longer, and five (495#) takes many years. For six, you need several of the following: freakish talent, drugs, good coaching, a willingness to sacrifice your health, and many years of persistence. Each level gets harder, takes longer, and gives you less improvement in exchange for your time. Once you’re at the top of your game, you might spend a year trying to bump up a given lift just 10 pounds. You’ve become a highly specialized athlete and sacrificed lots of other attributes to become a strength specialist.

In my own life, I won’t run into many problems that call for a 500# deadlift. But I often would like the freedom to move farther faster longer and with more surplus energy and mental clarity that comes from a huge aerobic gas tank. And I can maintain a deadlift of close to 400# without thinking about it. That’s enough for a deadlift—for cardio, I don’t think enough is ever enough.

Captain America and “third-line” equipment: Many teammates have introduced me to the idea of what some describe as “first-line” and “second-line” equipment, meaning roughly the stuff that’s so essential that you attach it directly to your body (e.g. in a pocket or a belt pouch) and the stuff that you relegate to your pack. That way, in case you get separated from your pack, you’ve still got the indispensable “must-haves” for staying/getting out of trouble.

But this weekend, a teammate’s example got me thinking about what I guess could be called “third-line” gear, stuff that you can’t schlep around all over the field and probably won’t need—but you’d still like to have options. Normally I keep that kind of “just in case” stuff in my car—tons of water, a hatchet and shovel and knife, ropes, lights, and spare clothes. And that’s great—until I catch a ride to a call in someone else’s car! This other teammate, a lantern-jawed Captain America-type, had a better idea: he showed up at staging with both a pack and an elephant-sized duffel bag that he stashed in the truck. As he told me, “Sometimes you can’t be sure what to bring, so I bring everything.”

This sounds like a good piece of insurance for when I show up at a call and find a situation that’s different from what I expected—which is every blessed time. I always arrive to find weather or terrain or something that’s different from what I expected. And in that moment, I think, “I can get by with my usual boots/gloves/layers/whatever, but I would have brought something specific if I’d known it would be this swampy/parched/dusty/thorny/humid/ drizzly/windy/cold/hot/rocky/slippery.

Food, Non-eating of: I still prefer not to eat much in the field. Over two days I spent about 4000 calories more than I ate, subsisting mostly on milk and pistachios, and it was only late in the second day that I developed more than a casual interest in food. If the keto crowd are right, this means that I’m sufficiently “fat-adapted” to draw my energy directly from fat stores (which I have in plenitude right now). This is a nice perk. Aside from mere convenience, I love being liberated from the alternating hunger and nausea I felt during the Star Course, when I was all sugared up.

Chest rig and dump pouches: At the big search, the chest rig was a dream. As often happens, I suddenly had to start manipulating a bunch of tools at once and clear space in pouches for a second radio and batteries, and the chest rig kept everything in order almost effortlessly. Losing stuff is a thing of the past for me—thank you, chest rig! And I finally I realized what I should be using those thigh pockets for: dump pouches. When somebody thrusts a jumble of spare radio parts into my already full hands just as I need to ruck up and jump on a departing vehicle in a hurry, I can either (a) juggle like a circus clown, (b) lose stuff, (c) drop everything on the ground and start sorting the puzzle pieces while everyone waits there, or (d) use those big thigh pockets as dump pouches and then sort out the whole Rube Goldberg machine when there’s a quiet moment. I’ve tried A through C before, with unimpressive results. But D looks like a winner! 

Marching to the Battement of Their Own Tambour

This is the inaugural post in our new series “The Je Ne Sais Quoi of French Surplus.”

The French army has done things its own way since at least the Revolution and nurtured a distinct military tradition quite separate from those of the Anglo and Germanic countries. And this independence has showed up in its gear.

After World War II, France relied on hand-me-downs from the United States. Her army struggled through the Fifties to reassert itself and met with ruin in Indochina, Suez, and Algeria, finally ending the decade with a failed military coup. After those demoralizing débacles and the irksome dependence on the US, the French military was going out of its way to be different again. President de Gaulle pulled France out of NATO and reasserted French uniqueness and its independence from even its Western allies. For the military, this meant that the Sixties were a decade of reequipping itself with uniquely French designs in weapons, clothing, and gear.

From the beginning, the French government had always designed and built its own equipment in-house, rather than contracting with private companies. Instead of famous brands like Colt, Remington, Heckler & Koch, and Steyr Mannlicher, France’s arms manufacturers were state-owned arsenals like Saint-Étienne. These government designers could approach engineering problems differently from their commercial counterparts, since they worked within different constraints.

That is one reason that French gear can look as different as Australian fauna do from Asian or African animals: they are the products of separate lines of development and evolution.

https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Comparison_of_ammunition_of_automatic_rifles_(WW1_and_WW2).png
France’s Lebel cartridge was revolutionary but not quite mature. By the time designers recognized its problems, it was too late to start over. France was stuck with it through WWII. (Source: Wikimedia)

One moment in this evolution had huge downstream consequences, one of those junctures where it doesn’t pay to be an early adopter. In 1884, French government inventors devised the first rifle firing “smokeless powder,” a propellent that drives rifle bullets much faster than old-fashioned gunpowder. Eager to capitalize on their discovery before their German rivals, the army rushed the new cartridge into service.

Had they waited, they would have discovered bugs in the new cartridge, like its severe taper, that would soon make it obsolescent. And they could have fixed these bugs (as the Germans did) while they still had time. Instead the French swiftly committed themselves irretrievably to a dead-end design and remained saddled with the Lebel cartridge for the next 60 years.

Trapped by a lousy legacy cartridge, ingenious French designers were limited to developing oddball guns around it to make the best of a bad situation. (Source: The Chauchat Wasn’t the Shittiest Machine Gun–But It Was Still Pretty Shitty)
Credit: US DOD imagery database
The FAMAS was ahead of its time in certain ways (like its integral bipod and user-friendliness for lefties). But it looks like it descended from a UFO because the French designers took an unconventional approach to almost every problem. (Source: US Dept. of Defense)

Unchastened, the French took their own direction again in the Seventies with the FAMAS rifle, which is effective but incorporates so many delightfully weird approaches that I’ve wondered whether the designers in Saint-Étienne were just trying to be novel. Some of the differences are eye-catching, like the “bullpup” configuration (with the magazine behind the trigger), the distinctively huge carry handle, and the three-point sling that lets the rifle seem to float in mid-air at the chest. Other differences are internal, like the virtually unique and superbly cool operating system (called “lever-delayed blowback”).

But systems are systems–they’re integrated. When you make one unconventional change, that can have ripple effects throughout the system and obligate you to change still more elements. Before you know it, your country’s whole system of équipage is the kangaroo, going it all alone at the end of a long branch of isolated, independent evolution.

Photo used by kind permission of Keep Shooting.

In the French case, their cool operating system could not quite handle NATO standard ammunition, so they had to devise and manufacture their own special version of the NATO cartridge. Their design also could not use NATO standard magazines either, so they had to invent their own, smaller magazines too. And the French sling attaches the rifle to soldiers’ chest, so in order to free up space there, the designers then also needed to devise an asymmetrical load-bearing vests with pouches only on the right side of the chest and the left hip. And voilà, the French soldier was now the kangaroo of the Western world, with distinctive pouches in odd places.

Though not exactly rare, France’s alien-looking gear shows up in our surplus market less often than castoffs even from the tiny Dutch and Belgian services, and it’s hard to find information about the peculiarities of its design and use even in French, much less in English. Much as with Russian gear, trying out la tenue française is an engrossing exercise in gearological anthropology, tracing the thoughts of the designers who were tackling all the familiar problems in novel, sometimes inscrutable, sometimes brilliant ways.

Chest Rigs: A Love Song

Other than kettlebells, if any object screamed aloud for the attention of Lean, Solid Dogs, it would have to be some kind of (a) surplus outdoor equipment (b) made to carry heavy loads over long distances, (c) especially in hot, dry climates, and (d) with a Communist parentage. What if I told you that such a thing exists? And that it’s been upgraded by Western capitalists for comfort?

As you can see, I’ve had some work done to make my cheekbones and jaw more prominent.

Ladies, gentlemen, lean solid dogs, I present to you [drumroll] … the South African Pattern 83 chest rig.

The weird brown bib got to South Africa by a circuitous road from China that led through Israel.

During the Cold War, what did South Africa and Israel have in common? Both were Western-style states outnumbered by neighboring hostile Soviet client states, but for political reasons they had to be as self-sufficient as possible for arms and so they produced more of their own military equipment than would otherwise have been rational for countries their size. This included everything from nuclear weapons to small arms and “soldier systems,” the everyday items of individual clothing and equipment.

In the Sixties, both Israel and South Africa were using the standard rifle of the Western-leaning world, the FN FAL. Dubbed “the right arm of the free world,” the Belgian-designed FAL was used by most Commonwealth and NATO countries (except the United States) and their African and Latin American client states, being as ubiquitous and iconic among anti-Communist armies as the Kalashnikov was among their enemies.

Americans who recognize the FAL mostly know it from coverage of the Falklands war, where it was used by both sides. (Royal Marines Museum, Portsmouth)

The FAL and the Kalashnikov also symbolized the very different strategies of the Cold War’s two rival camps. In the Kalashnikov, the Communist Bloc had pioneered a new direction in small arms: a rifle requiring little training. The Kalashnikov used a small, light-shooting cartridge that conscripts could learn to use adequately with less marksmanship training. And famously, the Kalashnikov tolerated abuse, neglect, and harsh climates. It was ideal for the mass conscript armies for which the Soviets designed it, and later for Third World insurgents and part-time guerrillas. 

The FAL’s big cartridge (on the right) is seldom used as a rifle round anymore. It shoots farther, flatter, and harder than its old ComBloc rival (left), but it is harder to shoot well and weighs too much. (Photo by ammotogo.com)

The FAL continued to use an older style full-strength rifle cartridge like those of the World Wars, which offered terrific knockdown power and accuracy at the longer ranges where the NATO armies planned to engage any Communist spearheads in West Germany.  The powerful FAL was commensurately harder to control and slower to shoot, but the NATO armies could afford the extra time and expense of training their troops to a high standard in traditional rifle marksmanship, so they accepted the tradeoff. (The big NATO round is also just a lot heavier, and this is not a small thing—ammunition gets heavy. It may have helped that NATO expected to be fighting a defensive battle with supply lines only getting shorter as their armies sagged under the impact of Soviet tank armies. In contrast, the Soviets planned for their columns to race forward at top speed, and they always had to worry about keeping them supplied from their own fairly primitive logistical infrastructure. They must have been happy to save weight and bulk.)

IDF with FALs in 1965. The following year these rifles did not fare well in air thick with particles kicked up by the tanks.

Being in the Western orbit, Israel and South Africa kept things simple and used the FAL in the Sixties. That is, until the Six Day War of 1966. Israeli soldiers had trouble keeping their FALs clear of airborne sand and dust, and many soldiers armed themselves instead with Uzi submachine guns or captured Kalashnikovs. After the war, when the Israeli Defense Force looked for a new rifle, they ultimately chose to manufacture their own version of the Kalashnikov!

South Africa enters this story in 1980, when they replaced their own FALs. The international pariah had few other sources of arms and military expertise than Israel, which was almost as hungry for allies as the South Africans, and the Israelis had proven the worth of their homegrown Kalashnikov variant in dusty conditions like the ones in which the South Africans were fighting the Border War. So the South African Defense Force (SADF) chose to manufacture a licensed variant of the Israeli rifle.

In selecting a Soviet design and improving it, the two countries were doing something that China had been doing expertly for decades. China was also a country surrounded by enemies, beginning with the Soviet Union itself. The two Communist countries divorced messily in 1956, and China abruptly lost access to Soviet help for its arms industry. Nevertheless, by then the whole Chinese military was already outfitted in basically Soviet style, so henceforth their designers would begin from inherited Soviet designs (even reverse-engineering later Soviet inventions, like the famous RPG-7) and then improve upon them.

Their proudest achievement was the chest rig. When the Soviets invented the Kalashnikov, they created a great rifle but never got around to inventing a good way to carry those big, heavy “banana magazines.” Soviet soldiers were given long, floppy belt pouches holding almost 5 lbs. of ammo to hang on their belts, along with a canteen and a shovel and other items. The Chinese copied this set-up at first and hated it. When you stood, the gear pulled the back of your pants down—the Chinese are a slender people and this was not working for them. When you crawled or climbed a tree, you might accidentally crawl right out of your equipment belt. And when you ran, gear flopped in all directions like a beaded dress on a go-go dancer. As we say in Chinese, bù xíng: “no-go.”  

In response, they invented the chest rig. Or to use its colloquial Chinese name, the “belly bag” (肚兜). Other people had experimented before with ways to carry gear, guns, and ammo on the torso instead of the waist—people in America began wearing shoulder holsters in the 1870s for pistols, ammo, and other items, and the British tried a “jerkin” full of pockets and pouches. But the Chinese chest rig hit some kind ergonomic sweet spot. It let you carry plenty of weight and bulk reasonably comfortably. It was quick to get on and off. It’s cool to wear and does not chafe. It leaves your arms free and stays snug when you run. You can crouch, lie, crawl, and roll. And you can access your gear, with either hand, without looking, even while sitting or walking. 

The South Africans took notice—and southern Africa now had plenty of Chinese armaments floating around—and when they adopted a Kalashnikov, they adopted the Chinese idea of the chest rig too and upgraded it along the way. The South African chest rig was now made of a water-resistant nylon instead of canvas, adjusted easily with slide buckles, and closed with Velcro instead of Chinese frog buttons. And South Africa padded the straps for despicable capitalist comfort. 

And in the age of Iraq and Afghanistan, chest rigs seem to have gone mainstream around the world, a fact of which the Chinese internet is extremely proud. “Score-keeping” of national accomplishments, inventions, and slights is a prominent feature of national psychology in the People’s Republic, and one site features multiple articles with titles like “Even the US Military Likes Our Army’s Soldier Systems and the Soviets Copied Them Massively” and “Even American Soldiers Like the Chinese Type 56 Chest Rig.” But they are right. In Afghanistan the Soviets picked up the Chinese chest rigs from their enemies and came up with their own version in the Eighties dubbed the lifchik (“bra”). And we have photos of American troops wearing Chinese chest rigs in Vietnam and early in the Allied war in Afghanistan.

American Ranger in Vietnam, Soviet airborne soldier in Afghanistan, and some kind of American specops ninjas early in the Afghanistan war, all wearing the Chinese Type 56 prior to their services developing their own chest rigs. (Photos from kknews.cc)

*          *          *

I tried the South African rig to replace the Coaxsher radio harness I was issued for search & rescue work. Though many people like the Coaxsher, I kept loosing things out of its tight elastic sleeves. I would try to shimmy my radio in hastily with both hands, often while moving or juggling other tools, and soon I would find that it was wriggling out under pressure from the stretchy sleeve material. One night during a long search, the radio popped right out and went missing in the underbrush. Happily a teammate found it hours later, but I now had to dummy-cord the radio to prevent it from inching out. Yet on my very next search I lost my GPS unit! The reason was the same: it did not fit into the tight elastic sleeve well and would squeeze out if I put it in hastily, without stopping to coax it in with both hands.

The big chest rig solved that. Even while moving, I can drop my clunky brick of a radio into the roomy pouches one-handed every time, and when the Velcro closes over it, it’s not going anywhere.

Still being a search and rescue newbie, it’s often enough that I’m nervously looking at a map in one hand, a GPS in the other, dangling my radio by its antenna with my teeth, and trying to grow an extra hand to flip open a compass. If I have to be all thumbs with the equipment that I do have, I’d rather not lose any extra bits.

And like Mary Poppins’ carpet bag, the chest rig seems to fit everything I try to stuff in. Presently mine contains various batteries, pens, a notebook, a radio, a GPS unit, two compasses, drink mixes, food, plastic bags, gloves, gauze, sunglasses, cellphone, a flashlight, and a pair of chopsticks (long story). Everything is right under my nose, like a toolbox that floats in the air in front of me, and I can get at most things with either hand without looking.

Thus I love and cherish this chest rig more than any other piece of equipment: I have many boots, many rucksacks, many tents and sleeping bags and kettlebells, and though I have my preferences, I can make do with any of them. But the chest rig is the best damn piece of outdoor gear I own and I’ll never go back.

And nowadays they are everywhere. Capitalism has done its magic and made chest rigs available cheaply for thirty bucks on Amazon, in lots of different configurations. For whatever it might be worth, among new production items, the closest thing I know to the South African is made by Blackhawk for AKs, and they offer an innocuous gray color that does not make you look like a door-kicker.

Double Your Work Capacity By Being Lazy

This little $4 Esbit stove has been a huge winner for me. Dating back to the 1940s, it uses technology and design so simple and un-screw-up-able that I consider it honorarily Russian. And though it’s as just a survival stove, if you add a coffee can to screen it from the wind and contain the heat, it gets wicked hot.
I’m paranoid about camp fires getting out of control in the summer, but luckily I could just stand in the stream cook on top of this boulder.

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.

Full disclosure: at 39 lbs., my pack was 6 lbs. (2+ kg) lighter than my first trip. The weather was also cooler. On the other hand, I did this trip with no food but about 200g of nuts.

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!

Romp in the Rain

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.

Girevoy Sport (Pt. 3): The Jerk

The jerk rewards a lot of Gumby-like flexibility in the hip flexors and shoulder girdle. Each of these bells weighs 32kg (70lbs.), and during the 10-minute, your only chance to rest is in this position, but you need flexiblity. (battlebell.ru)

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.

On the right, look at his hand and arm position. It’s awesome. He’s resting the handles across his wrist bones, so he can relax his grip. And he’s balanced the bells directly over his shoulders, again supporting the weight as much as possible with his skeleton, not tense muscles. In girevoy sport, you have to take your rest wherever you can get it. (Source: V.F. Tikhonov, Osnovy Girevovo Sporta [Basics of Girevoy Sport], 2009)
Textbook form. The athlete holds the bells’ center of gravity over his elbows, which are lodged firmly on top of his hip bone, which is over his feet atop straight legs. He’s not arching his low back but instead is stretched out at the hip flexors. And look how far he’s stretched his traps and shoulders down to get his elbow on his hips. (Source: V.F. Tikhonov, Osnovy Girevovo Sporta [Basics of Girevoy Sport], 2009)

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.

Even in an endurance-focused sport like GS, sometimes you find jerk specialists like Ivan Denisov who are beefcakes. (Source: Girevoy Sport magazine)

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.)

Girevoy Sport (Pt. 2): The Snatch, “Tsar of Kettlebell Exercises”

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.

This illustration isn’t perfect, because it leaves out some things like rising up on the toes. But you can see the athlete canting his body back a little (frame 3) and letting his arm press against the chest and belly (frames 4-6) to absorb shock and slow the bell’s fall. And you can see him bend the knees the first time, for more shock absorption (frames 5-7) and then the second time for the big “alley-oop” (frame 8). (Source: http://giri-narodu.ru/index.php?com=simplepage&elemId=18)
My first meet in 2002 or 2003, using an obsolete technique where you only bent your knees once and went into a low squat. This belongs in the dustbin of history, along with the thick-handled, cast-iron kettlebell I was using.

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. 

These handsome old pugs would look callow and dorky if they had a bright, glossy paint job.

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.

Girevoy Sport (Pt. 1): Russian for “What Means This ‘Pain’?”

In Russian, a kettlebell is called a girya. As an adjective, it becomes girevoy. And someone who lifts kettlebells is a girevik. (Provenance of photo unknown.)

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.”

https://www.kettlebellsusa.com/pages/what-is-a-kettlebell

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.

Ksenia Dedyukhina, best women’s snatcher in the world

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. 

Denis Vasiliev demonstrates the jerk.

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.

Boxer at Rest at the Museo Nazionale Romano – Palazzo Massimo alle Terme. (Courtesy of TripAdvisor)

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.”

Goldilocks Boots

I don’t even buy them anymore, I swear. They’re breeding and multiplying.

After experimenting a lot, I have arrived at some hard-won conclusions about boots for rucking. 

Great for flat roads and short to medium distances, but nothing hairier than that.

As reported earlier, I rejected GORUCK’s own house brand of boots, the MACV-1. Though attractive and wonderfully light, they have so little tread that I kept slipping and falling on down slopes. Unacceptable. They also lack a “shank,” a stiffener in the sole that helps you toe off the ground when your arches are tired.

I also gave an audition to Rocky’s inexpensive RLW or “Rocky light weight” boots, which look like the big brothers of the MACV-1. They are reasonably light, deeply treaded, and tall enough that I can “double lace” them, i.e. lace the instep separately from the ankle. However, being an economy model, they have a seam in the heel that many purchasers complain give them blisters (I did have a bit of that too, but you can counter that with an Engo pad) and their tongues are constructed in a strange way that required a long break-in before they stopped rubbing my instep raw. I could have gotten past both these bugs, but crucially, these boots lack a shank. I wore them for a 42-mile training ruck, and after twenty miles I longed for that stiffened sole. By that point I had used up my foot muscles for the day and, lacking a stiff boot sole, I could not toe off the ground anymore and instead was reduced to short, choppy steps. Never again. Not for a long distances. 

Rocky’s RLW or “commercial lightweight boot.” Basically a MACV-1 with serious treads. But not the crucial shank.
The Glock of boots: ugly, indestructible, affordable, reliable Germanic bricks.

And of course I have plenty of heavy boots that could probably kick through concrete, like my plug-ugly surplus combat boots issued by Germany’s Bundeswehr. If a crocodile masticated and swallowed them, the German giants would just emerge from the other side perfectly serviceable. These are just the thing for search-and-rescue bushwhacking. And shanks, oh, the shanks! You could probably drive a nail with them. But at over a kilo each—only Iron Man has heavier boots—these are not boots you can wear for 50 miles.

No, the “Goldilocks” boot is Rocky’s S2V Predator, which is a medium weight (about 800g each) and has the all-important shank. They also scarcely need breaking in. I double lace them, use “ladder lacing” on my left instep (which apparently is bigger than my right), and it’s quick and easy for me to adjust the fit to my level of foot swelling and the terrain. 

These work great with my preferred sock set-up, a FoxRiver liner sock inside a Finnish M05 liner sock. Together with my new, larger and wider boot size, these kept my toes happy, uncrowded, and essentially unblistered for the whole fifty miles of the Star Course. No burgerfeet!

Note that I still love jackboots! I still think of them as my best all-round boots, the ones I’d grab if you said, “Get your boots on, we’re going on a mystery adventure! I won’t tell you any details at all: beaches or woods or mountains or city, wet or dry, rain or snow or sun—it’s all a surprise! Maybe we’ll be gone for a day, maybe for a month.” That would be easy: I would wear my $20 rubberized East German jackboots and bring one extra pair of sliced up bed sheets footwraps.

But jackboots make sense as my ideal general-purpose boot, whereas here we’re talking specifically about walking 50 miles through a city at top speed, which is very specialized indeed.

Selouyanov on Endurance (Pt. 2): More Russian Sports Science from Dr. Smet

Guest author “Dr. Smet” finishes his insider’s tour of the Russian sports science underlying Pavel Tsatsouline’s long-awaited endurance training manifesto, The Quick and the Dead. I follow Dr. Smet’s blog Girevoy Sport After 40 to read about top-dog Russian coaching and research from a medical scientist who also practices what he reports on.

Before we start I have to make a disclaimer of sorts. Soviet sport scientists then and Russian scientists now often have fragmented interest and education in the field. Throughout his lectures Selouyanov makes statements that are debatable, to say the least, even though he doesn’t seem to have experience in the subject. For example, his view is tht the only way to increase the strength of the glycolytic muscle fibers is to lift maximal weights to failure. Therefore, if some powerlifters don’t follow that rule and still get strong – that must be steroids, no other explanation is possible. I am not qualified to argue the subject and am only conveying Selouyanov’s work, so take it or leave it. 

So let’s get to the most relevant parts of Selouyanov’s teachings. 

Muscle fibers 
Muscle fibers are loosely divided into three types, depending on the activity of the enzymes, in poarticular ATP-ase. Oxydative muscle fibers (type I) have slow ATP-ase, their speed of contraction is slow and they are resistant to fatigue. Glycolytic muscle fibers (type II) have fast ATP-ase, contract quickly and can be either resistant to fatigue (Type IIA) or not (Type IIB). 
For the purpoose of training muscle fibers can be looked at in the following way:
Oxidative fibers – have mitochindrial mass that cannot be developed further. Each myofibril is surrounded by a layer of mitochondria. These fibers use fatty acids in the active state. 
Intermediate fibers – have lower number of mitochondria. As the result two processes occur during activity: aerobic glycolysis and anaerobic glycolysis. During activity lactate and hydrogen ions are accumulated, so these fibers develiop fatigue, but not as fast as purely glycolytic type. 
Glycolytic fibers – have no or little motochondria, so that anaerobic glycolysis predominates, with the resulting accumulation of hydrogen ions and lactate. 

Factors that determine endurance

According to Selouyanov the difference in endurance can be fully explained by several factors. 
1) First, the development of the oxidative muscle fibers. Among well trained endurance athletes oxydative muscle fibers comprise 90 – 100% of the total muscle mass, therefore they don’t produce lactic acid in excessive quantities that cause significant acidosis and the resulting decline oin performance. To the contrary, among untrained individuals 50% of muscle consists of intermediate muscle fibers which, during their progressive recruitment during exercise, accumulate lactate. 
2) The second reason for better endurance among trained individuals is that their aerobic system switches on earlier, mostly because they have more oxidative fibers, so that the initial production of lactate is lower. 
3) Trained individuals utilize lactate more efficiently. Mitochondria are capable of utilising piruvate, and in the oxidative fibers piruvate is produced from lactate. 
 Fourth reason for better endurance – increased volume of the circulating blood. This, in turn, results in the reduced concentration of produced lactate.
The role of the heart. 
Endurance training leads to the dilatation of cardiac ventricles. This, in turn, makes cardiovascular system more efficient, in the way that the same cardiac output – the amount of blood the heart is capable of pushing though per minute – is achieved by fewer contractions. Training of the heart is a separate topic and will not be discussed here. 

Three types of exercises
All types of exercises utilised for the training of grapplers can be divided into three types. 

Effective exercises. 

  • Dynamic, maximal anaerobic power, to failure – facilitate the development of myofibrills in glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Stato-dynamic, of maximal anaerobic power (100%), to failure (pain) – develop myofibrills in the oxidative and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic and stato-dynamic, of maximal alactic power, done to less than ½ of the limit, performed the light local muscular fatigue, repeated after normalisation of acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic exercises of near maximal power (90%), done to less than ½ of the limit, performed till light local muscular fatigue, repeated after the elimination of acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • Dynamic exercises of submaximal (60 – 80%) power, done to less than ½ of the limit, performed till light local muscular fatigue and repeated after the elimination of excessive acidosis – facilitate some increase of the myofibrills and mitochondria in the glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers

Harmful exercises.

  • All exercises of near or sub-maximal anaerobic power, as well as those of maximal aerobic power performed to the limit and causing excessive acidosis (pH < 7.1, lactate > 15 nMoll/L).

All other types of exercises have little useful effect for the development of endurance among grapplers. 
According to Selouyanov there are two ways to increase endurance and strength in skeletal muscle: increase the number of myofibrills and increase the number of mitochondria. Both are achieved differently in glycolytic (and intermediate) and oxidative muscle fibers, therefore we are left with four training modalities. 
In order to increase myofibrillar mass four factors must be present. 

  • Reserve of amino acids in the muscle cell (provided by consuming protein)
  • Increased concentration of anabolic hormones as the result of mental strain
  • Increased concentration of free creatine in muscle fibers
  • Increased concentration of hydrogen ions

Increasing the number of myofibrills in the glycolytic muscle fibers.
I suspect this part will make quite a few of us cringe. However, the goal of this post is to convey Selouyanov’s opinion on optimal training, so bear with me here. [Editor’s note: In effect, Selouyanov is about to ignore a core doctrine of Pavel Tsatsouline’s, namely the taboo against training to failure.] Glycolytic muscle fibers are activated when maximal muscular effort is required and no earlier. Therefore (according to the good professor), the growth of glycolytic muscle fibers can be achieved only by utilising weights of of maximal or near maximal intensity. The following conditions have to be present:

  • Intensity of maximal or near maximal intensity – more than 70% of 1RM
  • Exercise is performed to failure, i.e. to full exhaustion of CPn and achievement of high concentration of free creatine
  • Number of repetitions – 8 – 12. Last couple of reps have to be forced (with the help of a partner)
  • Rest – 5 minutes. Should be active, aerobic activity at HR of 100 – 120/min, this helps to utilise lactic acid
  • Number of sets: 7 – 9 if the goal is growth, 1 – 4 for tonic effect
  • Number of training sessions per day – one or two, depending on the intensity and athlete’s condition
  • Number of sessions per week – synthesis of myofibrills takes about 7 days, this is how long the athlete should rest after a training session done to the limit.

Myofibrillar hyperplasia in the oxidative muscle fibers
The method for developing myofibrills in oxidative fibers is similar to that for glycolytic muscle cells. With the exception that exercises are performed without relaxation. In that case the capillaries in the muscle are compressed, limiting circulation and leading to the hypoxia of the muscle fibers and the accumulation of lactate and hydrogen ions. 
I suspect this works similar to the occlusion (Kaatsu) training that became somewhat popular in the recent years. Selouyanov believes that mostly slow/oxidative muscle fibers grow under these conditions – Smet. 
To get the idea of this method imagine a barbell squat. Except that it is performed in the way that doesn’t allow for the pause at the top, with incomplete range. This way the muscles are continuously contracted to one degree or another, and after 20 – 30 seconds you get the burn, which is the desired effect. 
The conditions for the efficiency of this method are as follows: 

  • Intensity – medium: 20 – 40% of 1RM
  • No relaxation pohase during exercise, the muscles are continupusly contracted
  • Tempo and duration – slect the weight so that the athlete can perform 25 repetitions in 30 seconds. Last few repetitions should cause significant pain.
  • Rest – 30 seconds (active)
  • This exercise is performed in series of 3 – 5 sets. 25 reps in 30 seconds equals one set.
  • Number of series in one session: 1 – 2 for the tonic effect, 3 and more for growth.
  • Number of sessions per week – exercise is repeated in 3 – 5 days.

There is no mention of rest between series. I suppose it is several minutes, until the muscles feel relatively fresh.
Selouyanov recommends doing exercises aimed at growing muscle fibers at the end of the training session and better in the evening. If other types of training is done after this the reduction of glycogen can negatively interfere with the protein synthesis and impair growth. 
Development of mitochondria in skeletal muscle
Formation of mitochondria is controlled according to the principle of the functional criteria. According to this criterion, mitochondria that cannot properly function are eliminated. 
One of the natural factors leading to the destructurisation of mitochondria is hypoxia (e.g. being at altitude) and accompanying anaerobic metabolism. Similar processes occur during anaerobic training. 
Several generalisations can be made in regards to mitochondria: 

  • Mitochondria are energy stations of the cell and supply ATP by aerobic metabolism
  • Mitochondrial synthesis exceeds the destruction during conditions of their intensive functioning (oxidative phosphorilation)
  • Mitochondria tend to appear in the areas of the cells where the delivery of ATP is required
  • Intensive destructurisation of mitochondria occurs when the cell is functioning at high intensity in the presence of anaerobic metabolism which leads to the excessive and prolonged accumulation of ydrogen ions in the cell

Based on the above it is possible to develop methods of aerobic development of the cell. Every skeletal cell contains three types of muscle fibers. 

  • Those that are activated regularly during every day activity (oxidative)
  • Those activated only during training requiring moderate muscular activity (intermediate fibers)
  • Those that are seldom activated – only during maximal or near maximal effort, such as jumps, sprints etc. (glycolytic fibers)

In well trained individuals oxidative muscle fibers are maximally adapted. In other words, the number of mitochiondria in these muscles cannot be developed any more. It has been demonstrated that aerobic training at the level below anaerobic threshold in well trained athletes has zero value. 


Therefore, in order to increase aerobic potential of the muscle fiber it is necessary to build structural basis – new myofibrills. New mitochondria will then develop around these myofibrills. There is a special methodology which has been tested: interval training using two exercises. For example, pushups and pullups from low bar (unloaded, so that the feet are resting on the ground). 


General principles of such training are as follows: 

  • Exercises are performed at low intensity, i.e. 10 – 20% 1RM
  • Exercise is performed at medium or fast tempo
  • Full ROM is utilised
  • Duration – until early signs of local muscular fatigue
  • The template – 5 – 8 repetition of one exercise is followed by 5 – 8 repetitions of another without rest – that is 1 set
  • No pauses between sets
  • Number of sets – 5 – 10 (determined by the degree of fatigue) – that’s 1 circle
  • Number of circles in a session – 1 – 5 (fatigue and is determined by the glycogen stores in muscle tissue)
  • Session done at maximal volume can be repeated after 2 – 3 days, after glycogen stores are restored