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,
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.