The Piñata & The Wrecking Ball: Why can small people hit so hard?

You can’t tell freakishly strong people by looking at them. Some athletes “look like Tarzan but play like Jane,” but I’m fascinated by the opposite, people who are deceptively strong. People who look like a piñata but hit like a wrecking ball.      

(That’s not just paddycake. That girl jabs like a tire iron.)

An octagenarian taijiquan teacher once had me bang forearms with him, and his felt like jelly rolls with rebar in the middle. This summer a female instructor of maybe 120 lbs. demonstrated a slap block on my left arm that felt like it came out my right kidney. Last week I took stinging jabs from a 12-year old jeet kune do prodigy, and she whipped out these lazy leads that could smack my eye like a rolled-up beach towel.

“Stealthy Strength”

As cool people who read this blog know, strength is a surprisingly “stealthy” quality. It’s almost as hard to pick out strong people by looking at them as it is to guess who’s a good piano or chess player. Much of “real-world strength” comes down to the very unsexy, un-visual traits of grip and rotation/counter-rotation, and hence as a great man once wrote, “strong hands + strong abs = strong person.” (And as we began to explore last week, the formula really should read “strong feet + strong hands + strong abs.”) There are some other factors too, like connective tissue and neurological efficiency, but you can’t see those with the naked eye either, short of dissecting someone.

Bob Peoples deadlifted almost quadruple bodyweight, in an age before steroids, at age forty, but you’d look right past him on a beach. A farmer his whole life, Peoples obviously had unearthly tendon and ligament strength that few Americans today are likely to approach. That’s a HUGE ingredient in “stealthy” strength that’s not visible in a weight room mirror.
Frank’s hands are like the massive root ball of a mutant redwood in the Dagobah system.

Granted, there exist some useful heuristics, but they’re not eye-catching or (to a modern eye) intuitive. Dan John has remarked that, if looking for strong football players, you should view them from the back, where you can scope out their glutes and hams and lats, because those muscle groups count for more than chests and shoulders. And if I had to wager on a strongman contest, I’d put my money on someone with big, tendonous hands and forearms. My great uncle Frank, who repaired elevators for 40 years, has hands that grew thick in every dimension and freaky tendons like gnarled tree roots on Yoda’s home planet. Last time I visited, he spent the day putting in split-rail fence posts by hand at age 85. 

As we’ve discussed here before, you can tell more about physical attributes by seeing people in motion.  Loose-limbed people with corrugated abs or whippy waists? Those are your natural lumberjack types. Definitely pick them for your volleyball team. At one softball game in grad school, this skinny guy from the school of education tried out a bat by making a couple loose, sleepy arcs from the shoulders, and instantly you knew this guy could knock satellites out of orbit. Twenty more like him with ponies and croquet mallets could have Genghis Khan’ed the whole Metro Boston area. 

A few months ago I began again with my boyhood obsession, martial arts. I started making pilgrimages to the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts, home to three interlocking programs in boxing, JKD, and my boyhood favorite, wing chun.

Jason Korol, head instructor at the Greenville Academy of Martial Arts. In coming months I’ll be reflecting a lot on this blog about their teachings, but I’m totally unqualified to do so. Whatever damned fool things I say are not their fault and probably do not adequately describe their ideas. What does do justice to them are their excellent books and YouTube channel. You should probably just stop reading this blog now, go there, and forget about Lean Solid Dogs forever.)

After 20 years as a (mediocre) strength athlete, I can’t help relating everything they teach to strength sports and thinking of fight training as a sort of “applied strength” sport.

I know, I know, jeet kune do isn’t a “sport” in the sense of “rule-governed recreational contest,” but it still is in the older sense, in which hunting, fishing, and mountaineering are “sports.”

No, fighters don’t lift barbells or kettlebells for a score, but they score by exerting force on something heavy. Oly lifters loft barbells, shot putters throw iron balls, pugilists throw shots, and wrestlers throw bodies. QED: fight training is an applied strength sport. 

And a body accustomed to strength sports finds tons of familiarity in the new skills of fight training: the feet and knees feel like club swinging; the elbows feel like a certain kind of bench pressing; the “short power” (短劲) feels like board presses and lockouts; technique training benefits from “greasing the groove;” things about the wooden dummy feel like girevoy sport.

Club swinging is to kettlebells what heroin is to cough syrup. Master coach Tom Furman, my personal voice of reason and adult supervision, put me back onto this and directed me to the work of this guy, Mark Wildman. Like everything Tom tells me to do, it’s awesome. And the carryover to wing chun was unexpected but enormous.

So it feels like an ever-new mystery when I get overpowered in fight training by short, thin, or otherwise gracile people who, it seems to me, can’t possibly have as much power. Not just outmaneuvered and outskilled, but manhandled or just plain pounded. I’m talking bony teenagers, featherweight women, even a girl who’s too young for PG-13 and weighs less than my checked luggage. What gives?

The wooden dummy, wing chun’s “second sifu,” tells you when your structure is weak. This is what strong looks like: bones all lined up in triangles that point at the bad guy’s center of gravity. With structure this good, even if this student were made of balsa wood, with some footwork he could wedge this bad guy up off his center of balance. And then comes the hand in the throat.

The answers still come down to elementary school physics, just as with barbell squats and bicycles, but the applications are zanier, more complicated, and more interesting than plain old flat-footed strength sports and cyclic endurance sports. That makes “martial strength” like chess to powerlifting’s checkers.

How Come Girl Scouts, Flyweights, Elves, and Stick Figures Can Hit Hard? 

Here’s what this humbled, has-been strength athlete has figured out so far. 

1. Fast and Loose

“Hitting hard is about mass times acceleration,” said the coach one night. “You can’t get bigger during a fight, so you have to get faster.” And it turns out that speed is teachable, too. A lot of it seems to involve being loose—tense is never faster that loose. So if the light, willowy person can relax better than the stiff, heavy person, she becomes a better puncher. 

This is an area where I have TONS of room to improve. Just as “the man with a hammer treats everything like a nail,” I approach every problem with tension. Now that I’m waking up to what “usefully loose” really feels like, I’m discovering excess tension all over my body: in my quads, my hip flexors, my waist, shoulders, arms, and even my traps. I would hear coaches telling me, “Relax, be loose!” but it took weeks before I experienced what it was like to punch with a relaxed waist. (For what it’s worth, my “aha!” moment was a low-speed mitt warmup, hitting crosswise for a completely unrushed 1-2-3-4-5. It felt like hitting a slow, fat softball when you’re not rushing to meet the ball and, with no effort or tension, you bang it right on the sweet spot when it’s exactly out in front of you.)

2. Levers

Height and long limbs look like they help a lot. I wouldn’t know, since I’m a short fireplug, but long limbs must make great levers. They sure do when tall people are flinging them at me. Those punches come in fast and hard, sometimes quicker than I can even see them.

Don’t cry for the short people. They have their own leverage tricks, like at clinching distance, where Lady Physics smiles on the lower center of gravity. (Photo courtesy of parhessiastes.)

But long arms and legs are only one type of leverage. There are others too that are part of any person’s punching mechanics. At the Greenville Academy, there’s lots of talk about Jack Dempsey, and I bet that nobody would think it was too weird if I showed up with quotations from the Manassa Mauler’s book Championship Fighting tattooed on my arms. In fact, if Greenville weren’t so Protestant, you’d probably see icons of Jack lit by votive candles. (As it is, I’m pretty sure one family at the school named a child after him.) So anybody who’s paying attention in Sifu Jason Korol’s classes should know by heart Dempsey’s four sources of power for straight punches—the “falling step,” “springing step,” “shoulder whirl,” and “upward surge”—plus a couple others that aren’t legal in boxing, like holding and hitting. Mostly these are simple applications of leverage. For example, once your fist is in motion, you can put more speed on it by springing off your back foot (a class 2 lever) like a fencer, and/or rotating your shoulder girdle (a lever arm) around your vertical axis. Skilled people can sequence those so that they add up like two waves that are “in phase” and then the fist/palm/foot cracks the mitt like a bullwhip, reliably.

3. Structural Strength

Maybe leverage suffices to explain the 12-year-old JKD girl who zings long-range smart bombs from somewhere around the height of my armpits. But wing chun spends a lot of time on what amounts to clinching, stand-up grappling, or dirty boxing. To my mind, that calls to mind wrestlers struggling for neck and arm control, grip-fighting judo players, Thai clinches, and grapplers pummeling for underhooks and overhooks. That should be Muscletown USA, right?

That’s where I expected some consolation for my ego. “Well, you martial artists. I may not be able to punch a Tickle-Me Elmo doll off a toy store shelf, but if I can just get in a shoving match with you…”

But that doesn’t work either! A gaunt teenager grabs my elbow and pushes me around like a shopping cart! On paper, I feel, I should be much too strong to let him steer me around. Or at least too heavy and short! So how can he do that? 

The guy’s got incredibly good structure. Young, ectomorphic, and still filling in, nevertheless he keeps every bone lined up against me so that, if I push, I’m pushing against a big tripod. If I press further, to bull my way through, the tripod falls aside a couple of inches and then I’m (a) stumbling past with a fist in my face, (b) slingshotted by my elbows, (c) clutched by my throat, or (d) all of the above.

Consider those cool science fairs where kids build weight-bearing bridges out of toothpicks. At a recent one, the winning toothpick bridge supported over eleven hundred times its own weight. Relative to that, my young partner has it easy: he could be nothing but bones in a track suit and I still couldn’t bull in on his structure. With that and footwork, he can walk me all over the dance floor like Fred and Ginger. You have to experience it to really believe it.

All the good wing chun and JKD people there are like that. They may only weigh a buck twenty, but if you try to muscle them, you’re pushing at smoke; as soon as give them your center, rotate away from them, lift an elbow, cross your hands or feet, or commit one of many other positional sins, they’re on you with their entire weight. The whole 120 pounds falls on you all together, in one dense package, like Tarzan swinging on a rope and drop-kicking you.

The cool thing about structure is that it gives more strength without even needing more tension. It’s not magic, of course—physics is still physics. But if you’ve ever been a so-so powerlifter and then gotten good coaching, you know how your bench press goes up in literally minutes when the coach fixes your untutored hand, elbow, and back position. No, you can’t stop a charging elephant or knock out a gorilla just with good structure. But it turns out you can handle most humans that way, which continues to blow my mind whenever people do it to me. 

* * * *

Structure is a (wonderfully) complicated subject. Not mysterious—no chakras, no kundalini energy—but still complicated in the sense that there are so many moving parts (feet, ankles, knees, hips, etc.), degrees of freedom, axes of movement, fulcrums and centers of rotation, and so on. As Sifu Aaron Bouchillon says of wing chun, “Some assembly is required.” 

But there are other, simpler, “plug and play” techniques for hitting power that give quick gratification. Some sound recondite but aren’t (“borrowed energy,” “short power”), others sound as plain and unexotic as they really are, like holding-and-hitting.

We’ll return to those another day. In the meantime, as they like to say in Greenville, in the words of Jim Driscoll, another nearly canonic figure:

Hit first. Hit straight. Hit hard. Hit often.

Lean Solid Dogs, Your Fashion Trendsetter

A few times in my life, I’ve been ahead of the curve on something, like kettlebells and kombucha. But this is the first time that Lean Solid Dogs has scooped the Style page of the New York Times. Here at LSD we’ve been writing for a lot longer (and better, if I may say) about chaussures de brousse (“bush shoes”), the rubber-soled, canvas/jungle boots of the French Foreign Legion.

Style reporters, if you’re reading this, then (1) I weep for you, and (2) pick up jackboots with foot wraps for a future piece. (Also, schedule a story for January on slip-on shoes with German-style foot wraps. I’ll write the story for you in a few days and you can just rewrite it 😉

Feet Are the New Core

Good news: The “core” isn’t the all-important missing link anymore. The cool kids have moved on. Now feet are the new core. Thank heaven, because I got bored of direct midsection work long before the fools in marketing renamed it the “core.”

When did they coin that phrase anyway? I missed the Nineties, living in pre-internet China. But when I came home, I found retail fitness consumers doing “Pilates” (no relation to the crucifixion, it turned out) and I was solemnly informed there was thing called the “core.” The big message was that, even if you have strong prime movers (legs, hips, shoulders), you can’t employ their power if you have a weak, uncoordinated middle. 

In the early 2000s, what Tapout shirts were to MMA, Prowler pushes were to power sports. The Prowler was like a pre-Crossfit beta test for the “masochistic fitness cult identity ritual,” using test subjects who were fat, thick-necked bearded men who looked awful in lycra.

We were taught to think of power flowing up from the ground, through the legs and out the arms; but it would “leak” or dissipate if the midsection lacked the strength to “connect” the lower and upper body. This was and still is true. Imagine you mount a medieval battering ram on a parade float made of Jello: it can’t smash down the castle gates. And if you build strength with, say, a barbell, you work mostly in a vertical plane (against gravity) and might be quite out of your element trying to use it in a horizontal world, unless you have the abs and waist to help your leg drive “turn the corner” and flow through your arms. So in powerlifting and other insalubrious corners of the world, people started dragging sleds and pushing Prowlers.

But there was a glaring gap in the “power coming up from the ground” metaphor that no one bothered to notice. That’s the feet. Imagine a powerful batter or boxer whose feet were replaced with papier-mâché, or his ankles were turned into chewing gum. That would be the end of him. When he hit a ball hard or punched, he’d crumple at the ankles. Or imagine throwing a medicine ball or hitting a heavy bag while you’re on roller skates. You’d feel like the proverbial “cannon shot from a canoe.”

Yes, abs are important for expressing strength horizontally, but they’re actually far downstream of the feet. If strength were a flow chart, then the very first boxes would be, “#1. Are the feet generating power?” “#2. Are they sending it at the right angle?” and “#3. Are the feet holding firm, or are they collapsing or sliding off the launch pad?” The midsection only comes in much later, somewhere between “#12. Am I even going in the right direction?” and “#43. How’s my hair?”

Landing is even more important than launching (terrorism aside), with even bigger forces. Your feet do them every second or so. Given the million changing angles and variables and the insane tempo, and the millions of iterations, I can’t believe that feet have an even better safety and reliability record than jetliners, which another example of mind-blowing forces tamed so reliably that we are only shocked by the rare failures.

In aviation, when an aircraft makes one of these “inappropriate exits from the runway,” the hilariously understated technical term is “runway excursion.” The Latin is unimpeachable (ex+cursus, “running off the course”), but to me it sounds like “a visit to an air strip by Mrs. Beele’s 3rd graders” instead of “an Airbus screaming off the tarmac, plowing a furrow into someones’ neighborhood, and crushing into Dunkin Donuts.”

I got this particular memo late in my mediocre athletic career. I had just left powerlifting (which was forgiving of unathletic feet) and started doing weighted uphill carries and rucking. Needless to say, you don’t get far in those without active feet, and I was amazed to find my feet growing, in my forties! That shouldn’t have been a shock—after all, feet are made of muscle. I’d always thought of shoe size as a fixed quiddity, like eye color, but over a year or two I went up almost a full shoe size. 

Dr. Joel Seedman, prophet of foot and ankle conditioning for power athletes. Five years ago, his cutting edge work was read by a very small circle of cool kids, the very earliest of the early adopters. Then word leaked out and Seedman became the Next Big Thing. And in the past year the “early majority” have become interested and now small wars are fought over his ideas on Instagram.
OK, maybe there’s Chinese acrobat somewhere who can do Muhammad Ali footwork on her hands, but I can hear tendons popping and wrists snapping all the way from Beijing.
Your feet are your personal NFL offensive linemen. Anonymous and under-appreciated, even the lowliest have world-class strength and agility. They deserve more glory, because unless they do their job perfectly at every second, the whole play collapses instantly.

Even at that, my feet are still proving to be the biggest “growth area” in my re-emerging interest in combat sports. Since the summer, I’ve revisited my boyhood love of martial arts and so for the first time in maybe 30 years, I’m really moving my feet in all three dimensions. That is a subject for another day (actually, many many days!), but suffice it to say that it’s introduced me for the first time to the wonders of the heroic, athletic foot. “Footwork wins fights,” as the saying goes, and boy do the feet have to work! In one minute of sparring or drilling, your entire weight is changing direction abruptly 50~100 times, propelled by the feet. I take it for granted until I imagine attempting that same work load with my hands. Can you imagine shuffling, pivoting, and skipping like a kickboxer on your hands?! Impossible. 

Yet any average, undistinguished feet can be trained to do that for hours, every day. All the the humble foot asks is some food and rest, maybe a hot soak now and then, and some gentle massage on a lacrosse ball while you watch TV. On that meagre upkeep, your two personal super-athletes grow colossally thick and muscular (just compare your hand to your foot for a moment!) like a pair of NFL offensive lineman with even less recognition.

Coming up over the approaching weeks and months, more on martial arts from the perspective of strength sports.

Becoming Durable With Tom “The Truth” Furman

“Most people are highly skilled at self-deception.”
–Tom “The Truth” Furman of Physical Strategies, at 60+

Successful people have a trusted someone who tells them truths that they’d rather avoid. When a conquering Roman general paraded in triumph, decked out as the god Jupiter, a veteran next to him would murmur in his ear, under the crowd’s cheers, “Remember you are mortal.” Modern generals and leaders employ a “red team” or some kind of “loyal opposition” to pick holes in their plans. 

This is because, as Orwell wrote, “To see what is in front of one’s nose needs a constant struggle.” So sometimes I think master trainer Tom Furman’s greatest talent is just that he confronts me with truths that are good for me.

Yes, it runs deeper than that: he reads all the journals, attends the workshops, follows the new trends, and then filters them through his bullsh** detector that’s five decades thick. Sober people like Tom are the reason that I survived the early 2000s without severing my spinal cord or blowing tendons by following stupid trends like high-rep timed barbell snatches or back squats on a wobble board.

But above all, Tom keeps the truth the truth. I owe him a report every Monday on the week’s eating, exercise, weight, and waist. And when I delude myself about the tale of the tape, “Tom the Truth” tells me what I’m choosing not to know. 

If the most effective way to lie is to change definitions, Tom guards them from me. If the sneakiest way to subvert success is to move goalposts on the sly, Tom fixes them in concrete. The blue collar fighter from Pittsburgh tore up the “Everyone’s a Winner!” memo and crumbled it up between his thumb and pinky to train grip strength.

In a year of family trials, there was one huge joy too! Lean Solid Girl got promoted to Lean Solid Wife.

Hence I could have had no better coach during this past year of family troubles than Tom, to help me self-arrest before I slid down a mountain of travails and into a Himalayan crevasse of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream. Tom gently but firmly kept me pointed upward and didn’t entertain my self-accommodating illusions that maybe faeries were causing me mysteriously to hold water temporarily-for-months-at-a-time.

Now that I’ve climbed back out of the Valley of the Shadow, I’m still on track. Under Tom’s wholesome influence, I’ve regained lost ground and also shaken nagging mobility limitations and periodic joint issues too.

This Summer’s Game

This summer I’ve been ordered by the doctor to lay off serious training for a couple months following a small (but perfectly benign) surgery. I’m prohibited from anything to raise intra-abdominal pressure, which is tantamount to a prohibition against doing anything. 

That means no running, kettlebells, backpacks, pullups, presses, or punching bags. Barbells are banned; dumbbells are disallowed, except those tiny ones coated in neoprene. 

Athletically, this sounded worse than a jail sentence, since even in lockup I could maybe pump out hours of bodyweight convict workouts. Instead, it’s more like three months in a nursing home, shuffling slowly and doing water aerobics.

But you can make a game of most anything. After all, what are strictures except rules of a game that you haven’t invented yet? So this summer’s game has been, “Doing something, anything, to move around that won’t get me in trouble with the doctor. My score is total minutes per day. Bonus points if it improves something that I’ve neglected.”

To my surprise, this has been fun and productive! Aside from walking modest but growing distances, I’ve found ways to say occupied with light Indian clubs, dumbbells, and bands; rubber tubing to do I, T, Y, and W pulls to prehab the shoulders; modified pushup and crawling variations; the few stretches that don’t violate the surgeon’s rules; and easy static holds in one- and two-legged squat positions, up high with no abdominal bracing.

Particularly fun have been wall pushup variations to strengthen finger and forearm extensors. Whenever I get sore elbows, I’ve learned, it means I need to work those extensors, which are always too weak to match the flexors. 

Calorie Balance and Deficit

“If you want to tell people the truth,” wrote Oscar Wilde, “make them laugh, otherwise they’ll kill you.”

To my great surprise, I’m staying in a small calorie deficit without trouble. I feared that I’d be consigned to the couch all summer, with no ruck on my back and a spoon in each hand. 

Tom had a simple preventive medicine for this: Eat less. Tom subscribes to the school of “Calories in, calories out. You can’t deny physics and chemistry, and you can’t outrun a donut.” It’s a simple truth, an unpopular one, and it survives perennial attempts at hand-waving circumvention. You have entered “The Tom Furman Zone.”

Fortunately, if you accept that an unwelcome truth is, well, true, life gets much simpler! When I had to get much less active and scale down my calorie intake, I learned that Tom really has been speaking the truth when he tells me, “You need less food than you think.” There’s plenty of utility in hacks like volumetrics, where you fill up on foods high in fiber and water content, but I always take a good idea too far. In my case, that looks like me compulsively eating horse-sized bulk meals out of with a family-sized salad bowl, trying to satisfy myself on sheer poundage. 

But when I have a normal, low level of activity, I’m okay eating normal (and measured) servings of food. (And for tracking food, Noom is a gift from the heavens. It makes logging and budgeting calories supremely easy.)

I’m even leaning vegetarian again, which is a balm to my conscience, and my body isn’t objecting. Maybe this is an upside of getting being lean and light, not carrying extra weight (fat or muscle), and going light on the exercise. 

Next stop on the Tom Train is to trim off a final six or seven pounds, two more inches of waist, and get to a good fighting weight in the 150s. (Call it 70kg and change.)

At that point, I’ll want to reward myself with something I hope to write about soon, the “Skinny Cat Challenge!”

Reset

What I’ve been busy with

Lean, solid dogs, it’s been entirely too long. I’ve missed you! Since I last posted, I went “operational” on the county Search & Rescue team and started climbing a steep learning curve in any number of training courses–K9 search operations, swift water rescue, rope rescue, emergency medical response–and a handful of real searches.

Not easy! Not since the high school cafeteria have I felt so out of my depth. But as Joe Rogan points out, it’s good to go well outside your comfort zone, do things that you suck at, get humbled, and get better. On that score, this has been a valuable period.

But I’ve been sitting on my butt a lot, nursing some accumulated injuries, getting stiff and lethargic and fat.

Bow to your sensei!

At times like this, I go back to the work of Dan John, who’s a giant on a par with Clarence Bass. Both men have changed the way health & fitness nuts train and made themselves living libraries of decades of theoretical and practical research. Dan always takes me back to fundamental movements and attributes, which is exactly what I need right now. Specifically, it’s time to take care of mobility and de-blubbering.

To let my injuries heal, I’ve needed to reacquaint myself with beginner-level “patterning” movements, movement quality, light weights (16kg, 20kg), and low speeds.

And I’ve revived my custom of fasted jogging at first light down to the creek for a polar bear swim, with some bonuses along the way like bear walks and crab walks (all directions), pushups, and sideways and backwards running. In the orchards nearby there are some old stumps and branches that lend themselves to carrying and waiter-walking too. (Today’s trick: walking bottoms-up presses with part of a dead tree limb.) I’m not trying hard on these jogs, just having some fun. These are not even workouts, just jolly romps to play around in fresh, cold air and water.

Later in the morning or afternoon, I’ve taken a page from Dan’s book Intervention and done a series of simple stability and mobility exercises with sets of light kettlebell swings sandwiched in between to get the heart rate up.

So today’s session looked like this, doing 10 or 15 swings before each item and each switch from left to right side:

  • waiter walk (L & R)
  • walking bottoms-up press (L&R)
  • goblet squat
  • hip flexor stretch (L & R)
  • windmill stretch (L & R)
  • goblet squat again
  • hip flexor stretch again (L & R)
  • windmill stretch again (L & R)
  • wrist stretches
  • pigeon pose (L&R)
  • lion pose
  • pushups with a lot of scapular movement and serratus activation
  • downward dog
  • dolphin pose
  • superman pose

That got me 300 swings, and that was quite enough, thank you!

When we return, some reflections on snow camping in the mountains.

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 set, your only chance to rest is in this position, but you need flexibility. (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 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.”

It takes a Russian to look at this and think, “Oh, the entertainment possibilities!”
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.”

Selouyanov on Endurance (Pt. 1): A Guest Post by Dr. Smet

Russian training methods and Russian sports science. Raise your hand if you (a) love these things but (b) don’t read Russian. Then you probably owe almost everything you know to Pavel Tsatsouline, THE great interpreter of that subject and almost the most influential voice in American exercise. Pavel created an appetite for English-language popularizations of Russian training research much greater than any one man can satisfy, even a pedagogical genius like Pavel. Today guest author “Dr. Smet,” a Russian-educated physician practicing abroad, takes us behind the curtain of Pavel’s latest book for a direct look at some of its source material. Dr. Smet’s blog Girevoy Sport After 40 is required reading for lean solid dogs, lazy badasses, and grapplers and kettlebell competitors. He has graciously allowed me to cross-post his original piece. -Dog in Chief

Pavel Tsatsouline has finally published his long-awaited book on endurance training, the Quick and the Dead. Despite the hype, in the end I was underwhelmed. Don’t get me wrong: the book has useful information but, as it makes clear on the last page, it is a long infomercial for the StrongFirst Strong Endurance seminar.

Victor Nikolaevich Selouyanov (1946-2017)

The material in the book is based on the research of a few Russian sport scientists and coaches, most notably Victor Selouyanov, previously mentioned in my blog [Girevoy Sport After 40 -ed.] in the post “The Heart is not a Machine.” Selouyanov was a bit of a renegade, and because of disagreements with the science establishment he never completed his doctorate. Nevertheless, his contribution to the understanding of training endurance was invaluable, and Russian sports science is still bitterly divided between his followers and opponents.

Selouyanov wrote several books, among them two that are of interest to me: Physical Preparation of Grapplers and The Development of Local Muscular Endurance in Cyclical Sports. Both deal with endurance, and Selouyanov’s concepts allow a systematic approach to training endurance in pretty much any sport. I will briefly and loosely summarize the most relevant parts of the book for grapplers (my current love).

Muscle fibers

From practical point of view Selouyanov was talking about two distinct groups of muscle fibers: glycolytic and oxidative. Glycolitic muscles are capable of producing great force, but because they are not very good users of oxygen they get tired quickly – in a few seconds – and are not very useful for activity that requires endurance. Oxidative fibers, on the other hand, do not produce as much force, but are virtually impossible to fatigue in aerobic conditions. Their power production drops from maximal to about 80% and stays there for a long time.

What gets oxidative muscle fibers at the end is the accumulation of lactic acid and, more precisely, hydrogen ions and the resulting acidosis. It happens if the production of lactate exceeds its elimination, which happens when you demand too much work from your muscles.

Oxidative muscles are good users of oxygen because of large number of mitochondria in them. Mitochondria are “power stations” of the cell where oxidation – the reaction between various substrates and oxygen – occurs, which results in the regeneration of ATP, the fuel that feeds the muscle fiber and allows it to contract.

Therefore, in order to develop endurance you have to do two things: build myofibrills (units of which muscle fibers are composed) and build mitochondria around them.

Classification of training loads based on long term adaptation

Methods of training are aimed at changing the structure of muscle fibers in the skeletal and myocardial muscle, as well as other systems (endocrine, for example). Every method is determined by several parameters that reflect the external features of a given activity: intensity of contraction, intensity of exercise, duration (repetition, series of the actual duration of exercise), rest interval and the number of sets or series (explained later). Each method activates internal processes which reflect immediate biochemical and physiological effects of a given training method. The final result is long term adaptation, which is the actual goal of using a particular training method.

For the sake of brevity I won’t spend much time on the internal processes elicited by each training method. I assume everyone reading this is a practitioner and is more interested in the description of the method and the long term adaptation it causes.

And so the methods are classified as follows.

1. EXERCISES OF MAXIMAL POWER

External features:

  • Intensity of contraction – 90 – 100%
  • Intensity of exercise – 10 – 100%. 

Barbell squats and bench press, for example, are activities with low intensity of exercise, but high intensity of muscle contraction. Throws performed with the wrestling dummy in high tempo and low rest intervals is the example of high intensity of both muscular contraction and exercise. 

  • Duration – usually short
    • Strength exercises are usually done for 1 – 4 repetitions
    • Speed-strength activity – up to 10 reps
    • Speed exercises – 4 – 10 seconds
  • Rest intervals – depends:
    • For strength exercises – 3 – 5 minutes
    • Speed-strength exercises – 2 – 3 minutes
    • Speed exercises – 45 – 60 seconds
  • Number of series/sets depends on the goals. 
    • So called “developing” sessions use 10 – 40 sets
  • Weekly frequency depends on the goals. 
    • If the goal is to develop myofibrills in the muscle fiber the series is performed to failure
    • If the goal is to develop mitochondria the series are performed to light fatigue

You just witnessed a fairly common phenomenon seen in Russian literature: the discordance of content and the title. This is exactly how it is in the text: weekly frequency – to failure or not, depending etc. It doesn’t make sense, I know, but we will have to forgive the good professor. – Smet.

Long term adaptation. 

  • If performed to failure, this method leads to the increase of myofibrills in glycolytic and intermediate muscle fibers
  • If done to mild fatigue – leads to the increased phosphorylation in glycolytic and intermediate fibers, eventually leading to the increase in mitochondria

2. EXERCISES OF NEAR MAXIMAL POWER


External features:

  • intensity of muscular contraction – 70 – 90%
  • intensity of exercise – 10 – 90%
  • Example – barbell squat or bench press done for more than 12 repetitions
  • If you increase the tempo of exercise and reduce the periods of contraction and relaxation of muscles, you turn these exercises into speed-strength type. Examples include jumping and throwing wrestling dummies

Duration:

  • generally 20 – 50 seconds
  • strength exercise are performed for more than 12 reps
  • speed strength exercises – 10 – 20 reps
  • speed exercises – 10 – 50 seconds

Rest intervals:

  • for strength exercises – more than 5 minutes
  • speed-strength activities – 2 – 3 minutes
  • speed activities – 2 – 9 minutes

Weekly frequency:

  • This method is aimed at increasing the power of anaerobic glycolysis
  • Currently there are no publications that demonstrate positive effect of near maximal exercises performed to failure.
  • However, numerous studies show deleterious effects from this type of exercise.

Long term adaptation:

  • most effective for increasing myofibrilles in glycolytic muscle fibers
  • no increase in mitochondria
  • If terminated well before failure or performed with pauses, this method leads to the development of mitochondria in glycolitic and intermediate fibers: there is no excessive acidosis in the muscle cell, and lactic acid is eliminated during rest. 

There is a method used by Russian athletes, called 10×10. An example in the video below:

Grigor Chilingaryan, one of the specialists from the laboratory of sports adaptology that was founded by Prof. Selouyanov. Start at 3:00

The session consists of three exercises: pushups, jumps and pullups, all done for 10 reps in a circuit, for ten rounds, the intensity –  about 80%. As you can see, the athlete never comes close to failure, and each rep is follower by a short rest – which gives the muscles a chance to get rid of lactic acid and avoid acidosis. This is the example of near maximal training without destroying the body. The coach recommends starting with lower rounds and building up gradually. 

To be continued

Weekly Training Log: The Beginning of the Taper

I weigh in for my first kettlebell competition in 2001 as Com. Angelo looks on. That day I weighed 156lbs. Granted, I had to cut some weight, but these days I’d have to cut off a leg.

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 7: Rucked 42 miles with 25lbs. Hard.

July 10: Snatches on the minute: 20kg for 14 sets of 14; and 24kg for 8 sets of 6. (Total snatch volume: 327 poods)

July 11:

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.?!