Wow!! That’s the first word that comes to mind when I revisit last weekend’s inaugural Strength Retreat. Several years in the making, this special event welcomed students from all over the world (as far as Korea!) to Hardstyle KBJJ in Corpus Christi, Texas. There’s always uncertainty before any first time event, but Karen, Betsy, Delaine, Pavel, and Hector delivered in epic fashion.
Some people have asked “What exactly was the retreat?” This was surely an educational event. Though it was less formal than a certification, every lesson had a purpose. But on Sunday afternoon there were no certificates or medals. No continuing education credits. No manual. And it was absolutely PERFECT. This event was about the experience and camaraderie in a grassroots setting. The experience of looking inward at our own strength practice, learning from a special group of colleagues, and developing personally to help others become stronger.
The information was immense but was mostly applied through skills practice with occasional lectures to provide physical (but not mental) breaks. Much like a certification, we worked in teams of two, to not only hone individual skills but also to refine our teaching. Yet the teamwork was not limited to working pairs, as the entire group provided a distinct energy across different levels of strength and experience.
This was a unique opportunity to connect the various realms of the StrongFirst system into one place: kettlebells, bodyweight strength, and mobility (the only implement missing was the barbell). One of the many elegant features in the system is how strength and mobility interact. The same basic movement patterns we used for a mobility warmup on Saturday morning are the very same movement patterns used for the big lifts such as the windmill and bent press.
When we put heavier bells in hand, we revisited basic tension principles with careful work on bottoms-up kettlebell exercises. There is perhaps no better feedback for your technique than to groove your bottoms up skills. Yet we were also reminded you can revisit these basics even without a kettlebell in hand, much like a firearms expert dry firing, or rehearsing his shooting technique without ammo. (Couldn’t help but think of StrongFirst CEO Eric Frohardt’s blog on Kettlebell Lessons with a Firearms Instructor, with contributions from Pavel…“The best do the basics better….Strength equivalents of dry fire are easy: greasing the groove with a light weight and practicing full body tension with no weight. Lifting a heavy weight is the equivalent of firing live ammo. The combined effect is deadly.”)
Pavel opened his session on Saturday afternoon discussing energy system development, with a focus on his recent blog posts on Long Rests and his Work Capacity and blog series. Though much of the fitness world has become enamored with high intensity/short rest, Pavel established guidelines to train endurance at the highest level but in a manner that does not detract, and possibly enhances, your strength.
The highlight of Pavel’s session was an entire afternoon dedicated to stretching. Again the interrelatedness of the system became readily apparent. The same hip-hinge the drives the swing and the same “prying” maneuvers in the squat are the same patterns that deepen hip stretches. Stretching is not simply putting your body in positions and letting muscles lengthen. It is an active practice built on strength, space, and load distribution.
We often say strength has a higher purpose. We’re in the business of changing lives, and empowering students through strength. Karen offered one of the most profound statements of the weekend reminding us “If you can’t visualize yourself doing something great, why should anyone else believe in you?” The bodyweight session was a breakthrough morning for many students, with several reaching milestones such as unassisted handstands and headstands, either for the first time ever or for the first time since childhood.
The weekend concluded with a masterful business lecture from Betsy. What made this presentation so meaningful was how she tied business strategy into a wellness model, not a pure sales model. One of the most underappreciated features of the StrongFirst community is the business acumen from within. Though fitness business gurus abound these days, very few truly understand what we do as StrongFirst kettlebell instructors. We were very fortunate to absorb her wisdom from her success in the kettlebell world and from her background in “traditional” marketing.
The Strength Retreat was a powerful event sure to get even better next year. If I could pick one word to describe the weekend it is GENUINE. I know we all left Corpus Christi as more capable practitioners of strength, better prepared to advance our own practice and to guide our students who trust us with their goals.