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

StrongFirst Kettlebell User Course with Master SFG Karen Smith: Recap and Review

A few weeks ago I had the privilege of assisting Master SFG Karen Smith at one of her StrongFirst kettlebell one-day user courses in Dallas, hosted by Wade Padgett, SFG at his gym Kettlebell Centric.  One of the highlights of this year has been getting to work with Karen on multiple occasions on both coasts!  You can read prior course recaps from the SFG Level I Recertification and the SFB Bodyweight user-course.

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Although this is labeled a “user course,” many attendees were also instructors who wanted to deepen their kettlebell proficiency for teaching their own clients.  Also great to hear that many had plans to pursue the SFG Level I certification.  This course is an ideal gateway toward the level I cert, especially for the opportunity to learn from one of our master instructors.  With attendees from many Texas cities and travelling out of state from Missouri and Louisiana, this course is understandably in high demand! 


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A few key points from the day…. (disclaimer: since I was moving around and helping students, I did not take notes, so this is largely written from memory in the days after the course!)


Strength and mobility are never separated.  Not only the big muscles but also the toes (important for rooting into the ground in each of the main lifts; also important for the back foot to help drive from lunging into standing in the getup) and the fingers (important for feeling the ground and for maneuverability in the getup…more on that later)…. 

This doesn’t mean you need to go through this entire warmup every time you pick up a bell; the course simply teaches you the options you have. 

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Why this progression: Can you get your body into the positions to safely and effectively execute the movement?  The first thing we learn in the swing is whether you can hip hinge.  If you are an FMS type, maybe you’ll start with the Active Straight Leg Raise or Toe Touch if using the SFMA…

But for this course, we’ll start with the classic butt-to-wall hip hinge drill.  It is the same battle tested drill that master instructors learned in their first course and the same drill that is still taught to people that have never touched a bell.  It works…simple, safe, tactile, and minimal verbal cues required (very “group friendly”).   

Good swing begins with a good setup.  And a good setup encourages lat activation…. 

Amazing the looks of wonderment when students learn the swing truly is a full body exercise.  The lessons you learn with lat activation in the swing carry over into the squat and the press. 

Own the start and the finish.  Wedging – when you prep for the swing with the right tension, the bell almost initiates the swing automatically.  Though single arm swings are not formally part of curriculum in the course, be sure to set up squarely to the bell for one handed…no different than two handed; simply remove one hand

Top of the swing is basically a standing plank with the arms extended in front.  So we practice hardstyle planks on the ground first and then work to standing! 

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Key point: being able to generate max tension with a look of quiet professionalism on your face (Easier said than done!!).    

If you can nail start and finish, middle will fall into place (think gymnastics…good takeoff, stick the landing!)

Once we get into deadlifting (part of the swing progression), we sometimes revisit mobility issues (wait, more mobility training in the middle of the strength session!?!??)…

While I wouldn’t say good swings fix kyphotic postures, it is amazing how using the lats to properly grip the bell can open up the back muscles and get people, well, mobilized.  Many ways to Rome, and sometimes you can “fix” issues with a strength solution, while other times you need other types of interventions.        

Hike drills.  Pendulum.  “Power swings.”  Towel drills.  Anyone who has tried these drills may note that the drills are sometimes harder than repeated swings if done correctly! 

Overspeed drills help you appreciate why we insist on going barefoot or minimalist with footwear….(use the ground!!)   

“Squatty swings.”  The best solution is often to block the student’s knees so they can’t come forward. 

Swings – metabolic effect.  Time efficient, weight loss.  Transfer into barbell lifts (“What the hell effect”…Karen almost hit 2x BW deadlift with almost exclusively KB training). 

Karen talks about her kettlebell awakening when her first instructor cut her total workout volume (no more massive cardio!), and focused on swings.  Result: Better results in strength, endurance, and body composition in MUCH less time.

To summarize the swing…it is mobility.  It is strength.  It is work capacity.  All in one.  That’s why it is the center of the kettlebell universe! 

See also, Swing Tutorial at Girls Gone Strong


The getup can be an exercise or a lift.  We talk about the evolution of the getup from its origins in Pavel’s system (“Comrade, lie down.  Grab that bell.  Now get up”), to the CK-FMS/Kalos Thenos getup with the high bridge, to the current iteration without the high bridge. 

Getup is about safety.  Don’t pass the bell over your face, practice proper wrist position, have an educated spotter around if you are going heavy

Grip strength and wrist position in getup may reflect neurological load…maybe can lift the weight but can the brain+body handle it in neurologically taxing move like the getup?

Always many questions about how much the knee is allowed to cave.  Some inward movement is allowed, but not too much.

You can benefit from getup practice without doing full getups.  And sometimes it helps to practice from top-down.

Learning to roll underneath the bell.  Conceptually, linked through the armbar drills. 

Tall sit…learning to get the non-grounded glute pointed toward the ground

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Focus on a good press from the floor

Bottoms up getups…force you to go slowly and own every bit of the movement.  Great teaching exercise without the teacher having to overly cue the student.  Self discovery!

Free strength…using the toes to drive up from lunge into standing (Again, the benefits of barefoot).


Squat – don’t forget to grunt, even if it feels goofy!

Pulling yourself into the descent!  Great example of using strength to foster mobility (depth). 

Rip the handles apart -> broadens chest, extends T-spine, irradiation. 

Descend but not so deep you lose lower spine angle (“butt wink”).  While there is endless debate on propriety of butt wink in squatting, as part of strength practice, you should be able to control it in a sub-maximal effort. 

Elbow position (point of elbow into VMO) is one way to monitor squat depth in the goblet squat. 

Difference between squat and swing?  Knee bend.  But interesting how much a good swing will help the squat.


Press is taught from the top down.  Learn to pull the bell into the racked position (Active negative), then push yourself away from the bell

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Press incorporates elements of the swing, getup, squat

Sometimes you need to take something away from clients (example: client who needed T-spine work to do volume pressing…No pressing for you until you improve even though you can press Beasts!!)

But this is all done with safety in mind…

Standing underneath pull up bar and pushing it away…similar application of wedging

One time when it is “good” to fail?  Supramax effort with bell you can’t press fully.  (Gray Cook…”Fewer ways to lift a heavy weight incorrectly than a light one.”)

Press is only as good as the clean.  Clean is not formally taught, but it works its way into the course by necessity


(Note: I was not part of the entire programming discussion, since few “victims” volunteered for a grad workout to sample what they might experience at SFG Lev el I and needed supervision!)

One benefit of learning from the only female Master SFG in the world?  Sometimes a female perspective is needed for females.  Many male trainers preach a message of how lifting heavy weights will not automatically turn females into bulky muscleheads.  Yet often it takes a female voice who can “walk-the-walk” for the message to sink in…. 

Strong and aesthetic are not mutually exclusive.  Strength as part of lifestyle!  Strength is not a number…it is an attitude!  Using strength as way to empower, going beyond the percentages and numbers… 

Programming – once you reach a peak, you can either climb off or you can fall off!

Have a plan.  You can succeed with WODs (and sometimes that’s all people want or need for their goals of breaking a sweat…), but will never reach your potential training this way.


Great day.  Great course.  Great people.  This course is a must-do for anyone interested in deepening their kettlebell knowledge.  Though it is very much a learn-by-doing experience, you could literally sit in the back of the room and never touch a bell and still benefit greatly from the information presented.  In fact, most students agree that the brain gets as much workout as any muscle. 

Unlike the certifications where you must prove your mettle for the full weekend (in addition to soaking up three days worth of information and proving your ability as a teacher), the course offers students the opportunity to self-select their effort level.  In this course, we had a group ready to work hard and learn, offering an ideal combination!