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Athletic development specialists dedicated to the art and science of excellence in movement

StrongFirst Kettlebell User Course: Review and Recap

A couple weeks ago I had the privilege of assisting Senior SFG Jason Marshall at the StrongFirst one day kettlebell user course in Austin, Texas, hosted by Dunte Hector, SFG.  This course was one of several throughout the country that StrongFirst conducts with its master, senior, and team leader instructors to introduce new students to safe and effective kettlebell technique and offer experienced users helpful tips on improving their kettlebell practice.  In the StrongFirst one-day courses, the focus is on four key exercises: the swing, getup, goblet squat, and press.   Advanced students will later go on to purse the StrongFirst Level I certification. 

Below are some notes from the day.  The beauty of this course was gaining continued reinforcement in the StrongFirst principles, which translate across many physical domains.  For my experience at last year’s Bodyweight certification, please see my review HERE.

 

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Swing

Get to basics of the swing…technical points are no different than advanced students such as at certification, but taught in different context.  Get to see how a Senior Instructor can troubleshoot and get a room of varying abilities swinging very well in short time.  Main goal is getting everyone a start and performing the moves safely, and hopefully whet people’s appetite to learn more.  High level group including DC, PT, LMT, several high level trainers, and fitness enthusiasts. 

Swing – beautiful movement…balance of tension and relaxation.  Unlike deadlift which is a full grind, the swing brings elements of both tension and relaxation

Best athletes can relax and can relax at the right time…(Think McGill research).  Sprinters deliver power but also need relaxation to move limbs FAST. 

Hinge – there’s a difference between swing and squat.  There are similarities, but teaching the swing first makes squatting easier

Force – Pavel can generate almost 5x force into force plates during swing using bell approximately 30% body weight.  This is consistent with data showing that most people maximize power using bell of this size.  Consider what is the goal when selecting bell size (power vs strength).    

How we start the swing is crucial…not just finding the position…learn to “wedge”; tension to build up stored energy so the bell almost swings back on its own.  The first rep is the most important rep…everything flows from that first rep, both good and bad.  Novices – remember to lean the bell backward slightly.    

Why to swing in bare feet or minimalist shoes…learning to anchor into the ground (heeled shoes also shift balance and can be dangerous with the weight shifted forward).  Foot to ground contact offers priceless feedback

Keep gaze at the appropriate point on the horizon (no chicken neck).  Avoid looking straight down. 

“Playing chicken” with the bell (interesting to learn in biomechanics class why the overspeed eccentric component really works)  We did not emphasize the overspeed part of the downswing in a tightly enclosed group including several novices, but remember the downswing speed solves many troubleshooting issues. 

Breathing – “hiss” through the teeth to blend with the tension at the top.  That is free power!

Cue for the backswing –bell never gets below the knees.  Great example of external focus cue to avoid hypertechnical minutiae during dynamic movement

Hinge-deadlift-hike-tension at the bottom (did not perform the top of the swing drills)…tension at the bottom drill.  Basically just doing a partial hike of the bell in sets of 1.

Its easy to nitpick things…sometimes just hit the pure basics…improving strength of grip, abs, glutes solves many problems!  For example, I was helping one student with arched back at the top of his swing…better cue offered by Jason was to simply focus on tightening the abs at the top. 

Think effort in the swing as being measured via a volume dial…low rep heavy weight is knob turned all the way up; higher reps have lower “volume” …same music comes out of the speakers, just different intensities

 

TGU

Using the hips to drive the roll.  We simply borrow this pattern from infants. 

TGU had gotten away from strength move and into hypertechnical maneuver.  Originally was an entry level strength move for old time strongmen.  No formal technique. 

Remember to include the breath with each movement

Tai Chi getup – very deliberate…take up to five minutes at constant speed

Everyone slows down when you put a shoe on their fist

Key point – controlled descent from elbow to supine on the way down…not a collapse or “slinky” spine.  Lower the distal shoulder controlled. 

“Beach chest” cue for T spine extension (Works well for guys!)

Almost everyone must be reminded to exaggerate the lunge on the way down

Wrist position is a common flaw with most beginners.  Sometimes it is neural fatigue issue (Grip is one of the first things to go when tired) but in novices most don’t remember to voluntarily keep stability in the wrist.

Position of the grounded arm may change in the start position depending on individual mobility.

Bell position a common flaw, though many women struggle due to bony wrists

Never let the bell pass over you…safety

TGU is a beautiful movement as well.  We don’t only care about hitting the positions of the movement…we also value an aesthetic quality.  Sprinters run fast and look glorious doing so…novice sprinters are slow and unaesthetic…Same applies for any sport/activity.  TGU is great way to practice this quality….See the influence of martial arts and tai chi through the SFG system.  Not just about the kettlebell…its about using the kettlebell as an efficacious means to educate people in movement and strength. 

 

Squat

For the ascent…Think up, not flex and out…most like to bend forward to initiate the up movement (Though counterbalanced weight helps combat that) (Face the wall squat drills, etc)

Hip flexor drill to teach controlled descent

Most like to hold the bell too high with rounded upper back.  Amazing how good bell position in goblet squat “solves” many T-spine issues.  Just getting into goblet squat is a beneficial move for some

Grunt from the bottom – key point: diaphragm

Learning to “screw” your feet into the ground without excessive knee varus from the cue of pushing the knees out.  This is key and one of my favorite points in the SFG teaching approach

Goblet squat corrects many things without you cueing or by using simple non-technical cues

Once you have a good hinge, the squat becomes much easier

Stretching the hip flexors = mobility impairments often make ascent difficult (not always a strength issue)

 

Press

Plank – tension move.  Press is performed from standing plank. 

Hardstyle plank vs endurance plank….hardstyle plank prepares you for terminal strength moves

Groove for the press is the same as a one arm chin up….that’s tough for a lot of people, but good demonstration of how/why that is the case

Good press = tension and groove

Learning how to fail like a professional…don’t just drop the weight if you aren’t gonna make the rep….bring it down to the rack in a controlled manner

Key point….not just tension of the opposite/non-working fist…timing of the fist…full body tension.  Hand begins open and then closes as the bell ascends.  Time your tension

Several PRs and we didn’t even get too deeply into the nuances of the press.  Changes happening at technical and neurological level FAST…Strength is a Skill!

Same as squat….learning to root into the ground

For max press….avoid air “leaking” after hitting the rack from the clean

Hardstyle plank and standing planks.  Two simple progressions to teach the tension for the press.   

Gaze – learn to look upward with the press…don’t stare at the ground!

 

Programming

Lot of information out there on Pavel’s programs – Simple and Sinister may be the best of the series

Safety – treat every bell like you are handling the beast…If you wouldn’t do it with a 106 lb kettlebell then don’t try to do it with a lighter bell…Build good habits so when the bell gets heavy, the technique is favorably etched

A set of ten is not a set of ten reps…it is ten opportunities to perform the perfect rep

SFG principles apply across so many domains (very cool how each of us four instructors came from varied backgrounds…sprinting, rodeo, powerlifting, and endurance sports)

 

Conclusion

Overall a great day and a welcome opportunity to escape the classroom and get back “into the trenches”.  The more I learn about the StrongFirst system, the more I am impressed by the coherence and simplicity of the key tenets.  As Pavel said to conclude the Bodyweight certification: tactics are many, but principles are few.  When you have a grasp the principles, you can apply them in many domains through the use of only a few exercises.