The December 3rd Jingle Bells Kettlebell Competition at Crossfit Sweetwater in Suburban Atlanta marked my first return to Kettlebell sport competition in over three years. Despite entering at the last minute, I was able to win the 2x24kg five minute long cycle event.
I had not planned to compete in 2016. I started the year focusing on building my squat strength, and by the time my buddy Eric asked me to enter an October half marathon last spring, I had set a personal best in the full squat. Honestly, I'm not a gifted runner but I liked the idea of the challenge and the opportunity to take long training runs with my friend every weekend for several months. So I set the squat focus aside and embarked on a 20 week half marathon training schedule.
Hurricane Matthew cancelled our race just as we were packing our car to leave. Suddenly my fitness challenge for the year had vanished and I wasn't sure what to do. That's when I was invited to enter the Jingle Bells Competition.
Although I'd spent months working on an endurance base, I had not trained the competition lifts in three years. Bearing that in mind I registered to use the 20kg bells for the men's ten minute long cycle event instead of my usual 24kg bells. Having less than two months to train, I knew anything more than that would be too ambitious. i began training right away using the 16kg and 20kg bells.
When the heat schedule arrived the night before the event, I saw that almost every male competitor was using the 16kg bells. I was the lone competitor using anything heavier. The only exception was a heavyweight crossfit athlete and competitive weightlifter who'd entered the 5 minute long cycle sprint event with 2x24kg. That got my interest. Since we were scheduled to lift next to each other, why not give the spectators a true head to head competition with 2x24kg? And, I have to admit, my competitive side was itching to lift against a younger, stronger athlete.
This was truly a foolhardy decision. I literally had not picked up two 24kg bells for a set of clean and jerks in three years. Despite this fact, I emailed the organizer and asked to switch to the 2x24kg event.
The day of the event I talked myself through the mechanics of the lift using heavier bells. The hard part, I knew, in adjusting to heavier bells is the jerk. Your legs are the last to acclimate to heavier bells, and it usually takes weeks for your legs to recalibrate the mechanics for the lift, in addition to adapting to the increased conditioning demands of the heavier weights. And not to state the obvious, but it's just harder to repeatedly jerk heavier bells overhead. I knew I'd need to have near perfect, efficient mechanics on every clean in order to save all my strength for the jerks. If did that, then I would maximize the reps I could complete.
In talking through the preparation for my set with Kettlebell sport coach (and legend) Ken Blackburn, he estimated I'd average 8 to 8.5 rpm, or 40-45 reps. He hit it dead on the money as I finished with 43 reps. Although a far cry from my 60 rep personal best for five minutes, it was still good enough to win the event. I honestly didn't know if I could go the entire five minutes, but thankfully, I fell into a groove right away and the time passed,quickly.
The overall event was friendly and well run. All of the competitors showed good sportsmanship, and there was a strong feeling of comraderie. Jenn Casey and her colleagues at Crossfit Sweawater were gracious hosts. And I can't overlook the awesome Mexican buffet that we all got to enjoy after lifting. I'll be looking forward to their next event.
Happy New Year, and God bless you all!
Since taking office as the DA, I'm not able to train for GS like I used to. It's not so much the time commitment - I exercise every morning before breakfast. The true limiting factor is the energy requirement to sustain that kind of training. Simply put, lifting kettlebells is like sprinting up a steep hill. It's hard to "ease" into it, or to work at a low intensity. You're either busting your butt or you're not. There's no halfway.
I've written some posts about my struggles with tendinitis that first surfaced in 2011. For kettlebell sport lifters, it generally manifests itself as a soreness or even sharp pain in one or both elbows. And that's when the fun starts. Since I wrote my blog posts about my tendinitis struggles, several lifters have contacted me about their own experiences, and many have asked for advice. Given how many have asked, I thought I'd write this to help them and anyone else who faces the same struggles.
1. Tendinitis is an overuse injury. The only way the symptoms are going to subside is resting the injured area. You can try to use lighter weights, you can try to switch to other exercises, but at the end of the day, you aren't going to heal until you stop doing exercises that use the injured area. For elbows, that means no pressing or rowing or curling, in addition to the competition lifts. Even some static yoga poses can aggravate the injury. You've got to rest the injured area.
2. Yes, that means you will atrophy. Yes that means you won't look "swole". I know many of us wrap up much of our identity as an athlete and even as a person in our "fit" appearance. Let it go. The sooner you stop lifting the sooner you'll heal the sooner you can train again.
3. You can no longer depend upon GS for your GPP. The greatest asset of a kettlebell sport athlete is a solid endurance base. You can get that base from almost any aerobic activity. Running is the traditional form of GS crosstraining and endurance building, but it can also include rowing or cross country skiing or anything that provides a good endurance base. Considering that we're talking about overuse injuries, it's probably not a bad idea to do a variety of activities to keep any kind of overuse injury from developing. But relying on your GS exercises themselves for your endurance base? Forget about it. Why? Because...
4. Tendinitis may heal, but it never truly goes far away. Yeah, so this is the worst part. Once you get tendinitis, you will always be subject to it coming back. Even after you're cleared by your doctor, even after you've returned to GS and broken all of your old records...it can come back. And if you don't monitor your activity to ensure you aren't training too hard too often, you are guaranteeing that it will come back sooner rather than later.
The sad fact is that tendinitis hits athletes "of a certain age". Call it an arthritis or bursitis preview. But once it's a part of your life, you're going to have to deal with it.
5. All this doesn't mean you can't compete, but it does mean you have to be intentional about how you train. What I recommend is training like you're going to run 5K road races. Run at least three days a week, and walk on the other days. Squats are a good way to maintain strength, although even deadlifts or swings can aggravate your injury if you haven't completely healed. Once all symptoms have gone away (for at least a month), then, and only then return to the kettlebell sport lifts. Use light weights as you resume, and even after you are hitting your old numbers with your competition weight kettlebells, continue to spend a large part of your time using lighter weights at higher rpms. Monitor your training carefully, and any day that you feel any soreness either do a sprint set with lighter bells, go for a run, or both.
6. You will always be tempted to resume lifting early, or to lift a heavier bell when you shouldn't. In those moments, the key thing to remember is that showing up tomorrow is more important than training on the edge today. Anything you do in today's workout that jeopardizes your ability to return the next day is not just dangerous; it's a stupid un-necessary risk that could set you back months. Doing something today that moves your conditioning forward (or even something that "merely" preserves the endurance base you already have) is infinitely better than a risky set that can set back your training months.
Good luck, and I hope to see you on the platform!
At a recent meet, some new lifters asked me for advice and the benefit of my experience. I think "benefit of my experience" is the more appropriate term, since I feel pretty inadequate when I consider the level of coaching available out there. Sergey Rudnev immediately comes to mind, although there are many, many great coaches available.
Still, I get asked enough questions by enough folks that I thought it may be helpful to write a post that shares the insights I've gained and the limited knowledge I've accumulated during the countless hours I've spent lifting these funny shaped objects in my garage.
I'll start with the basics:
1. Kettlebell sport is an endurance sport. Anything you can do to increase your general endurance will help your numbers on the platform. If you are not running, you should start. If you can't run, find an alternative. Many Russian and Russian-coached GS athletes do circuit training to increase their GPP (they also run, of course). And i know more than a couple have used rowers. But running is the gold standard for additional conditioning work. Strength helps, but as of yet there's no statistically measurable benefit. Even Ultra-marathoners strength train, and from an injury prevention stand point, it's a good idea. And there are studies that show improvement in experienced runners who add strentgh training to their regimens, so it only stands to reason that GS athletes would also benefit. However, absolute strength, and even strength endurance, are not predictors of GS performance. The most persuasive reason for strength training for the GS athlete is that most of the top athletes are well-rounded in their conditioning. I will say this: I did my best numbers with the 2x24kg bells at a time when my arms were skinny and flabby and I'd spend most of the proceeding months just running, walking, and doing light squats. Look at strength training as an ancillary part of your training, not as an avenue to bigger numbers.
2. Know what your personal records are, and continually try to beat them. There are many approaches to progressing your numbers, but this method works best for me. There are many trainers with proven records of success that engage in different types of interval training. But I have found that knowing what your personal records are with a given weight for a given time always gives you something to work towards. Even if you don't feel like attempting to break your 10:00 record with your competition bell tonight, you might feel up to beating your 4:00 record with the next lighter set.
3.Working with lighter bells helps with the heavier bells. Many novice GS athletes want to train with a heavier bell immediately upon making rank with a lower bell. While this is understandable, it's not always the best idea. Lighter bells are easier on the joints and allow a higher training volume, and are less likely to cause injury. If you start to scoff at this, try a 5:00 set of 2x20kg long cycle at 13 rpm and let me know how that goes for you. You will, of course, need to transition to your competition bells for most sets before your competition. But achieving mastery, not just competence, with a lighter bell is very beneficial.
4. Most working sets should be in the 5-7 minute range. This is a personal preference. I have found that working this time range is the most effective in building a baseline pace for a given weight. While many athletes have demonstrated success using shorter sets, 5-7 minutes seems to provide the most bang for the buck for acclimating to a new bell and building competence with it.
5. Life begins at minute seven. Just as distance running includes at least one long run a week, your GS training needs at least one long set per week. If your training doesn't regularly include sets of 7-8 minutes long (and occasional 10 minute tests) you are setting yourself up for failure.
6. Sprint sets do have a place. Understand what it is. Sets that last 1-4 minutes can help you build a faster pace with your competition bells (say, learning to lift the bells at 11 or 12 rpm instead of 8 or 9), so that you can burst through stagnating pr's and increase your conditioning. Super fast sprint sets with lighter bells are also a great way to maintain conditioning when you have sore elbows. A 56 rep 4:00 2x20kg set is certainly challenging to an amateur athlete who competes with the 24kg bells, but wants to rest his joints while improving his sports specific conditioning. It worked for me.
7. Kettlebells reward you for showing up. Not to state the obvious, but the more frequently you can train, the better you'll perform. The only limitation to this rule is the next one...
8. Beware of overuse injury. This is a repetitive activity, so take appropriate precautions. Stretch and do range of motion work. Strength train if you have obvious weaknesses or imbalances. If you lack basic general endurance, then run, row, or circuit train to build a foundation. Use lighter kettlebells if you have to for a workout or two. You might even take a day off occasionally. Better to take one day off every now and then than a few months off all at once when you become injured. The idea is to keep yourself healthy so that you can continue to train several times a week.
9. Work on your technique. This includes your mechanics, your breathing, and the union of the two. Video yourself and have others critique it. Even if you can't get a coach, have other lifters watch your video to spot your flaws in technique. Just turning in the camera will make you more mindful of your technique even while your recording than ou would be otherwise.
10. Learn to relax during your suffering. Let's face it, kettlebell lifting is suffering. And it's a sport that rewards those who are willing to suffer the most, both during training and in competition. Last weekend several folks commented about how relaxed and calm I looked during my set. Let me just say, it was hell. My heart rate never settled down how I'd anticipated after the first minute or two, and the set just never got easier like they usually do once I hit a rhythm. It was just pure suffering.
Despite all that, folks said I looked calm, or even bored. But let me be clear: I wasn't expending any energy to hold anything in. Instead, I refused to expend any energy to express how badly I felt. None of that would help me get another rep. All there was for me to do was to breath when I needed to breath, rest in the rack and in the lockout when I could rest, and expend energy only when needed to get another rep. Focusing on my form, and getting the most reps using the smallest effort was all the mattered. Grunting or groaning took oxygen and effort that I didn't have to spare. Expressing your suffering gets you nothing. So don't bother.
So there are ten things I've picked up during my kettlebell experience. I hope this has been helpful.
Until next time,
Eight weeks ago today I saw that Scott Shetler was hosting the AKA/IUKL Georgia State Kettlebell Championships. I started training for the event that night, and the next day I registered and paid my entry fee.
Many of you know that I took off from kettlebell sport training for most of 2012 to run for DA in my district. I drastically reduced my workouts and intensity, and essentially was de-conditioned for almost a year. After winning the election, I resumed more rigorous workouts, but I had to take it slowly, and I wasn't training for kettlebell sport. Mostly, I worked on improving my squat and ran in charity 5k road races.
All that changed 8 weeks ago when I saw the comp was scheduled. I paid the entry fee just to make myself train for the event. I knew that otherwise the demands of my job and family would keep me from serious sport training and I'd do something easy and "sensible". Merely paying the fee made me train, even when I was tired or it was inconvenient.
It became very clear early on that my endurance had suffered greatly since last year. I had difficulty lifting the 24kg bells beyond 5 minutes, and I couldn't hold the same pace as I did before.
Still, I lifted as often as possible (even on vacation at the beach) and I ran on the other days. Today was the comp, and I was fortunate enough to win the amateur men's heavyweight division for long cycle with 77 reps of 2x24kg. While that result is 20 reps shy of my personal best, it was good enough to earn a Rank I from the AKA/IUKL, and win the amateur division. It's also 1 rep better than when I won Best Male Lifter in 2009 at the Southeast Championships. I'll take it.
So what's next? After successfully returning to competition, my next step is to begin training towards a pro ranking with the AKA/IUKL, and enter some road races to make me improve my overall conditioning. I'm running another 5K on Labor Day, and I hope to order some 32kg bells soon. For now, I'll leave you with photos of me and my friends Scott Shetler, Josh Dunn (who won the pro division and best male lifter), and Mike Sherman (who won best male lifter for biathlon):
Those of you who know me (either personally or on Facebook) know that this was not a year for athletic goals for me. Professional goals? Yes. Athletic? Not so much.
I successfully ran for DA in my community, and running for office made severe demands on my time and my energy. I spent most of the year becoming deconditioned, and most workout involved five minutes of easy long cycle with two 20kg kettlebells.
Since the election was over, I've resumed working out with a vengeance. The difference this time is the emphasis.
I've heard it said that men in the 40's lose one pound of muscle per year. Many trainers recommend weight training to men in their 30's and 40's to prevent this natural decline. I've also thought that adding a basic weight training routine would help prevent the recurrence of tendinitis in my elbows. So after the campaign ended I started a regimen of cleaning and pressing (not jerking) a Kettlebell, and double Kettlebell front squats.
A few days ago I shifted my focus to dead lifting, back squats and presses. I know that I'm best motivated by competition, and there are many powerlifting contests in my area. I've decided to set a goal of hitting the "intermediate" level of dead lifting for my weight class, which is 350 lbs. I may enter a 3 lift meet as well (bench press, squat and dead lift).
Until then I'm enjoying working on a new challenge. I'll let you know how it goes.
So since my tendinitis came back earlier this year, I took some time off, then resumed lifting very slowly. I took great care to manage both the frequency, volume, and intensity of the training load so that the tendinitis didn't creep back up. This meant using the 20kg bells more often than the 24's (forget using the 28's, I've almost written them off).
Despite all this care my elbows have been increasingly sore, and several days ago I had a sharp pain in the left elbow when I was doing some chores. Fantastic.
So now it looks like I'm going back to running, walking and squats while my elbows heal.
I suppose that I shouldn't be frustrated. This time last year I was in the same position. And after a summer of running I set several new personal records within weeks of resuming GS training. Nevertheless its quite frustrating that the tendinitis seems to hit me every time I near a competition, regardless of the care I take in managing the training load.
I'm beginning to think that, once the elbows are healed, I should continue running and do nothing for my upper body but very low volume moderate intensity workouts. The idea would be to continue that for a year or so, and only then return to GS.
In the meantime, I am enjoying running and walking at night. There are worse things than the runner's high.
Until next time.
Yesterday was Saint Patrick's Day, a day I always celebrate because of my Irish heritage, and my appreciation for his work as an abolitionist and minister to the Irish People. Fittingly, this week was my first to return to using the ubiquitous green 24kg kettlebells. Commonly referred to as "the people's bells" (I prefer that to the more derisive "mediocre balls") the 24kgs bells are the most common weight for amateur and senior men's competitions. I have heard that in Russia and Eastern Europe its not uncommon for some contests to be limited to 24kg-only for the men instead of including the 32kg weights for the pro-level athletes. Maybe I just like to remember that since my tendinitis has prevented me from lifting the heavier bells with the intensity I'd like. In any event, on my first day back I limited myself to 40 repetitions. I was glad I completed that in 3:45, but I know it will be at least a couple months before I threaten the hundred rep barrier again. In the meantime, I'm lifting only 3-4 days a week (instead of my usual 5-6) and running the other days. I'm sure I'll use the 20kg bells occasionally just to keep my elbows rested. I'll let you know how it goes.
I am a 46-year-old married father of three, and a career prosecutor. My wife and I (and our kids) are very involved in our church.
My one real hobby is lifting kettlebells. I lift at home, in my garage, after we have put the kids in bed and made their school lunches for the next day.