The Steel Snake Eats Its Tail

Today’s game was to sew straps onto both ends of the Steel Snake and take it out for a slither.

Over 4 miles (6.4km), the Snake and I agreed on a few things:

  • With straps added on, it slips and flops around less. That way it’s much easier to carry.
  • Since it’s pretty slender, you can stay completely upright.
  • For both those reasons, you can relax under the load and carry it much, much longer. 

However, the Steel Snake gives you too many choices. When I dreamed it up, I thought it would be great that I could carry the snake lots of different ways, including wrapped in various ways around the waist, neck, and shoulders. And although you really can carry in different positions, it’s a pain to shift around and you spend as much time fiddling with it as marching. Furthermore, though lots of carry positions work, only one works spectacularly well, and that’s worn across the body like a sash or a bed roll.

So as my next experiment, I’ll change the Steel Snake into a dummy-proof fixed loop or “steel sash.”

Or maybe it will be called The Awkward Ouroboros.
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Field-Testing the Steel Snake

The problem here isn’t so much the weight as the SHAPE of the weight. Good luck resting this above your center of gravity.

In the real world, when we need to lift or haul something challenging, it’s less often because it’s terribly heavy and usually because it’s awkwardly shaped. Stones are bad. A half-filled keg is worse. It is like a stone whose center of gravity sloshes around and wrenches it from whatever tenuous hold you have. It can be an ordeal to shoulder just 50 lbs., much less to move around with it for a few minutes.

Don’t worry, I’m sure we’ll get a few breaks from the team weight. Like surf torture.

And what if you had to carry that 50 lbs. for 24 hours? What would be the ideal shape? That is the question for the upcoming GORUCK Heavy event, where aside from rucksacks and other evil toys, we also need to devise a 50-lb. “team weight” and carry it for the whole 24 hours.

Again, it is about center of gravity (COG). Theoretically, you want to carry weight directly above your COG. On top of your head is the most efficient, or at least across your shoulders.

But for GORUCK, the problem is that everybody will already be shouldering heavy rucksacks and be a little stooped over.

Sometimes you can rig a shoulder pole or yoke that slings the weight below your center of gravity, for stability, so you aren’t top-heavy and precariously balanced. These would be great if we didn’t need to climb hills and rocky defiles. But at GORUCK we will.

The Army field manual suggests carrying part of your load on your waist. It’s efficient because you can make the load hug your center of gravity. Similarly, a “double pack” divides the load between your front and back, so that you can (more or less) share a common COG with your backpack while standing upright. The Army literature recommends these when practical, but that is rare in military settings. (For one thing, you can’t crawl well.) It also won’t quite work for us at GORUCK–everybody will already be carrying an individual ruck–but it does give me ideas…

So behold [drumroll] the Steel Snake!

With quick and dirty sewing lessons from Lauren the Miraculous, I sewed up 50 lbs. of lead weights and steel chain in a 9′ (2.7m) ripstop chain sleeve and took it out for field tests with a rucksack over a 2.1 mile (3.4km) stretch of country road.

With the Snake, you can re-distribute the weight in the most efficient, comfortable way at any given moment–around your waist, over one or both shoulders, on your chest, on your back, even shared between two people–and you can keep shifting it as you go, from tired muscles to fresh muscles. It’s not exactly a hot soak with essential oil, tea lights, and an Enya album. But for lumbering overland with 100 lbs. (rucksack + team weight), this is actually pretty pleasant. And for extra cool points, people will think you’ve been accosted by a boa constrictor in a clown suit.

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.

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.

David Rigert: even now one of the most popular Soviet sportsmen ever. But what the hell kind of name is “David Rigert” for a Russian weightlifter?!

It’s a trick question: Rigert isn’t ethnically Russian, he’s German.

Rigert was born in 1947 to a family of “Volga Germans” who immigrated to Russia in czarist times and supplied the Czar with many of his army officers, like Rigert’s grandfather.

But you can imagine how popular Germans were during the war, even Soviet Germans, and Rigert’s family was forcibly deported to Kazakhstan along with other Volga Germans. (Think “Japanese-American internment” if it were carried out by Soviets, with their, er, “businesslike” approach to state security.) Never mind that the Rigerts were of Jewish descent and hardly likely to sympathize with the Nazis. Stalin distrusted Jews too, and in any case he didn’t take chances with enemies of the state.

As it happens, Russian Germans account for a disproportionate number of the world’s great celebrity strongmen: when F.W. Müller (1867-1925) relocated to Victorian London and invented bodybuilding showmanship, he anglicized his Russian mother’s name and became famous as Eugene Sandow. George Hackenschmidt (1877-1968), the celebrity wrestler and strongman who also started a new life London after leaving his German-speaking community in czarist Latvia. And Rudolf Plyukfelder (b. 1928) and his Volga German family were deported by Stalin from their home in the Ukraine to Siberia; there his father and brother were shot but he survived to work in a mine and later became an Olympic champion and national coach for the USSR.


Like Hackenschmidt, Pavel Tsatsouline also grew up in Latvia.