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Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) Review: Part I

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"If you do the RKC, that tells me you dedicated a lot of time, energy, effort, learning, and money before you ever showed up to register on Day 1. That's a person I want to stand by. It's not about the kettlebell. It's about the person. That is why throwing that thing over your head 100 times is important. It tells me you care about something."

-Dr. Charlie Wiengroff

Recently I attended Pavel Tsatsouline’s Russian Kettlebell Challenge in La Jolla, California.  Quite simply this course was amazing.  The weekend culminated a challenging yet rewarding two year journey, made more difficult by several extenuating circumstances unrelated to training but which certainly made training more difficult.  Below are a few observations of the weekend.  In Part II, I’ll reflect on the preparation …

**The system is incredibly elegant.  OK, maybe “elegant” isn’t the most Hardstyle-ish word, but the progression and regression of correctives and teaching cues have a decidedly preternatural flow.  Each skill is interwoven into a movement tapestry, all clearly with a design.  Total immersion into the system firsthand for three days offered an extremely powerful delivery.    

**The system “makes sense” in overall the human movement context.  The same stuff that helps babies go from lying to upright is the same stuff that the RKC teaches to improve strength.  Maybe different language and techniques, but same concepts.  The same stuff that gets someone out of pain is the same stuff that helps you control breathing for maximal tension and relaxation.  All the same principles; just different applications along one continuum.   

**No matter the quality of instruction you pursued before the course (training with an RKC instructor, taking the HKC), there are certain things the course offers that you simply can’t replicate in “real life.”  Each team (approximately 12-15 individuals in a team) had three official instructors, including a team leader and two assistants.  In addition to our team’s three official instructors, other assistant instructors and the lead instructor (MRKC Brett Jones) constant floated around.  It’s a different type of feedback than you find in a class or even in a private lesson. 

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**Picking a good partner is underrated.  My team was filled with great people, and I have no reason to suspect the other teams were any different.  You’ll spend a lot of time with your partner and if that person comes in as a capable coach it’s a great help.  Although there are many instructors floating around, the students still outnumber the instructors and your partner will watch you and critique you far more often than the staff.  I was fortunate to make friends with Eric Johnson and find he was a student of Charlie Weingroff.  Made the weekend that much better. 

**I don’t know what the other teams were like, but our team felt like an All-star squad…a former Navy SEAL officer and two prior Marines (including one Recon) are just a sample from our team.  The quality of peers at this event was definitely high and it was humbling to train alongside such a group.

**The manual is extremely underrated.  Though the RKC is largely built on "reverse engineering  what really strong people naturally do", the manual is also filled with evidence supporting most qualitative observations.  

**Yes, there are a lot of swings.  Yes, you go for a PR in the press (which many people achieved).  But aside from the volume itself and general fatigue from big efforts, the course offers many hidden difficulties beyond the workouts themselves, such as grip strength, hand health, and shuttling bells between the gym and field several times.  Fortunately, I managed to keep my hands safe all weekend.  As many others have pointed out, nothing is incredibly difficult in isolation, but as a whole the challenge accumulates.   

**Drills delivered to reinforce skill.  Sequencing and timing of drill delivery matters.  This rapid and continuous drill-to-skill transfer throughout the weekend was, in my opinion, an effective conduit through which to facilitate skill acquisition. 

**“It’s militaristic”…well, sort of.  A lot of people dig the regimentation and quasi-military vibe, including myself.  But let’s not get carried away with the comparisons…you get to sleep in a bed of your choice, wear clothes of your choice, eat food of your choice, eat real food during training, speak in first and second person, you aren’t punished for losing a rifle, you don’t have to clean your weapon and reassemble it….  Yes, there’s order and strictness with consequences (Swings!!), but order simply keeps everyone on time and where they need to be.

**“Fast and loose” (the ying-and-yang of tension and relaxation) was the most powerful impression for me.  Having trained with great instructors before the course (Danny Sawaya, RKC II and Keats Snideman, RKC), the concept was nothing new.  But to FEEL this throughout the entire weekend made a big impression.  

**We all like to say “quality over quantity.”  But there’s something to be said for the volume.  Yes there is a fine line between crushing people with sloppy movements.  But it did seem like the volume was appropriate to groove quality movement patterns in a short period.    

**The group transformation is pretty amazing.  Honestly, there were some people on day 1 when you looked at their swings and thought “how are they going to pass the snatch test on Sunday” but less than 24 hours later there was a uniform crispness to the entire group.

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**On a similar note, equally amazing was the transformation from Saturday night into Sunday morning.  My team leader, Senior RKC Doug Nepodal, gave our team a rousing pep talk late Saturday to describe this transformation that typically happens from Day 2 into Day 3 at the RKC.  When we finished on Saturday feeling somewhat worn down, passing the snatch test seemed woefully in doubt.  Sure enough, Sunday morning brought a renewed vigor and great snatch test performances by many. 

**The team support during the snatch test was one of the coolest things I have experienced.  Early in the morning, everyone is amped with the anticipation of that evil demon called the snatch test.  I hopped up and volunteered to go in the first wave, in part to get it over with, but in part because I was feeling pretty good and felt that showing a strong effort would create positive mojo for the rest of the team.   Though I can’t say the test was fun, that morning really encapsulated much of what the course is about.  Some may condemn the snatch test as irrelevant, useless, and even barbaric (not my terms), but the fact is you have to do a lot of things right with the bell and with your body to get that thing over your head 100 times in five minutes. 

**Overall, I can’t say enough good things about this course.  Proud to be an RKC!  Look for Part II in the coming days!

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