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

StrongFirst Level I Recertification: Review and Recap

Last weekend I made the trip to Virginia Beach, VA for the (first!) StrongFirst Level I kettelbell instruction RE-certification.  Every two years, instructors must recertify, either by completing the Level I requirements at a certification, advancing to Level II, or assisting at the certification (for which demonstration of Level I skills is required).  Though my certification was still valid through late August, the timing was perfect to complete the re-cert early. 

Our instructor was Master SFG Karen Smith, perhaps best known as one of the six Iron Maidens in StrongFirst.  One of the best parts of the day was having Karen recount her experience in prepping for the Iron Maiden event (pistol squat, pull up, military press all with 24kg kettlebell, or 53 lbs. for us Americans).  Though many see strength training as a largely physical pursuit, the mental side is equally if not more important.  Some key points from this discussion:

  • Visualization – lying bed visualizing each part of the lift in the weeks before the event
  • Warmup routine planned down to the last detail
  • …But being prepared to make last minute changes. Karen had completed the Iron Maiden at home with relatively short rest, but she knew she would be given more rest at the event and was prepared mentally for this potential change in timing
  • Hit all three lifts in practice, but did not feel complete “ownership” of all three on a daily basis.  Must project confidence no matter how prepared or unprepared you feel.   
  • The mind won’t make you powerful than you really are, but it can ensure that you get every little bit from your underlying physical capacity.  
  • Reminder that it’s not possible to maintain a long peak for all three lifts simultaneously…focus on one lift, maintain the other two, then focus on another + maintain the other two, and then focus on the third and maintain the other two.  Finally bring them all together, but this peak is not sustainable indefinitely.  Must time the peak correctly, no different than preparing for a big race of championship event. 

So how does a recertification differ from a regular certification?  Unlike the regular Level I which brings in mostly fresh instructor candidates (some current instructors do recert there), the recert is limited to current Level I instructors.   With a smaller group, all of whom have been through the daunting crucible of the three day Level I course, we could devote time to discussion on troubleshooting our own technique and sharing ideas on difficult clients.  Great to interact in a small group with fellow instructors all dealing with the same issues at home.  The full three day certifications are awesome and can be life changing experiences, but this day was simply a different experience filling a different role.  Despite the interconnectedness of social media these days, nothing can match the personal interaction with fellow instructors working from the same system. 

What stays the same from a full three day cert?  Snatch test (one of the first things in the morning of the re-cert rather than day 3 of the three day cert), pull up or flexed arm hang test, and technique testing (double bells swing, clean, squat, press and single bell for the Turkish Getup and Snatch).  

As for technique, I can only scratch the surface of what we learned.  Though most of what we cover is review, there are always areas in which we can each improve our teaching and our individual kettlebell practice.  Yet the beauty of the SFG system is that it is not about the kettlebell…the kettlebell is simply a tool, but a tool allowing practice in the skill of strength.

For me, the most important tip was changing the timing of the breath in the clean and snatch.  A common mistake (and one sloppy habit I had myself adopted) was breathing at the “top” of the clean and the snatch, rather than at the hip “pop” which is where the power is most needed.  It’s a very simple fix but also crucial in both lifts, and in the carryover of the clean into the press and front squat.    

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Though we pride ourselves on attention to detail and impeccable form, we also must appreciate the reality that most clients either don’t want or need that same.  Safety follows sound technique but correcting a client’s fourth finger position may be overkill at times.

Some safety details are non-negotiable though…One example is passing the kettlebell from one side to the other when alternating sides for the Turkish getup.  Never pass over your head, but also don’t lift the bell up in transit either.  New students often give us weird looks when we coach how to safely manipulate lighter bells, but in the SFG we always say that you should treat each bell as if it is 100 lbs. 


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Front squat has typically been a strength for me, but it seemed to be my sloppiest lift technically (“butt winking” at the bottom).  Great to have trained eyes to monitor each rep during the day and a good reminder that I should document my own training in more detail along with students to track progress, especially those needing the reinforcement of their progression.   Take home point here was a reminder to use the video camera more frequently for spot checks!

Failing lifts and supra maximal efforts.  Supra max efforts are not really “failure” but instead a powerful way to ingrain critical habits.  In the press, this would involve trying to press one bell higher than your PR and taking it to a sticking point.  I recall at the bodyweight certification, Pavel demonstrated wedging techniques (tough to describe in words, but if you’re familiar with the technique the relationship is clear.  Think of a supercharged quasi-isometric.

As for failing honorably…professionals hold form during a failed lift or supra-maximal effort.  Amateurs crumble and let form deteriorate.  But sometimes the only way to expose weakness is to challenge people at the edge of their ability (we surely don’t do this enough in rehab…). 

“Fast and loose” – Reinforcing the yin and yang of tension and relaxation…Ability to maximally tense your muscles and modulate to the opposite extreme of complete relaxation (Think boxer dancing around the ring able to instantaneously deliver maximum force in a punch).  Great example of how the SFG is not about the kettlebell…it is about strength.  Most people live in the middle of the two extremes, unable to harness all their internal strength and never able to fully relax.  These are good skills to have, regardless of whether you ever pick up a bell.

Learning some TGU (Turkish Getup) nuances (discuss the balance between standards for testing and more freedom that is allowed when training clients).  TGU is undoubtedly my favorite lift; great to learn additional details.  Also fascinating discussion on the evolution of the TGU as taught in the SFG system.  It began very crudely with no set parameters.  The pendulum later swung toward an opposite extreme of people having technique paranoia and forgetting that the purpose of the lift was not purely style (though technique and aesthetics are important) but more fundamentally to pick up very heavy objects.  Now we’re in a much better place where both extremes are integrated but applied for the right purpose at hand.    

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TGU as an adult version of the neurodevelopmental sequence…reinforces conscious and subconscious strategies used to accomplish terminal movement tasks.  We could get into serious minutiae here, but for now just appreciate the overall expression.  It’s a helpful reminder to focus on patterns not just strengthening muscles.  TGU is, at its heart, a beautiful expression of movement and strength.  Which leads to…

Strength should look good.  Key Dan John point – make your lifts look good (don’t put this before lifting heavy, but aesthetics and poundage CAN be complementary)

Facial relaxion (smile, talk): “volume control”.  Just like changing the volume on the radio doesn't change the music (only its loudness), changing intensity of a lift does not change the lift itself.  Again, these are familiar refrains within the SFG but valuable reminders for our own practice and teaching our students.  The magic often lies outside the technical minutiae but instead within the manner in which skills are performed.  The “how” transcends the bell and can be applied to all forms of skilled movement. 

Grad workout – won’t give it up (it may get re-used!)…but it involved double bells and was hard!  Though the re-certification is largely a teaching environment, you still have to earn your SFG shield at the end of the day!!

Some personal notes on my own preparation:

It is far easier to maintain than to learn for the first time.  Most of us didn’t prepare specifically for recerting yet the performance level was high.  Preparing for one’s first SFG cert typically requires months of focused training, even for people with big strength base (I needed over a year).  For last weekend, I only did two “real” snatch test days, with the most intensive being five sets of 10/10 on the 1:00.  Main emphasis was on heavy swings (1 arm swings and double bell swings).  In the final weeks, I completed a few “speed snatch” drills with the 16kg bell, but kept the volume low due to the warm Texas humidity (no blisters allowed!). 

My overall approach was to modify the old Brett Jones RKC prep program.  Brett has since updated his material for the SFG (highly recommended for all candidates), but since I had good success with the previous program I stuck with what was familiar.    

  • Swing day
  • Press day
  • Volume swing day (but sometimes nothing more than 1 TGU per side to warmup, followed but 5-7 minutes of swings on the minute)

One thing I have been very pleased with this spring is being able to maintain and improve strength on a fairly modest workload.  Though I have not formally done Pavel's new Simple and Sinister program (that's what's next for the summer!), the underlying concepts guided me the last few months.  As a bonus, I have been able to continue racing at a decent level this year, whereas before my first certification back in 2012 I almost entirely put running on hold.   

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Overall, I can’t say enough good things about the day.  I am very thankful for the opportunity to have recertified that weekend, as my school schedule these days is highly restrictive of long distance travel, potentially limiting my ability to recertify later in the year.  I likely would not have gotten to where I am now without the support of so many in the SFG community.  

Related reading

StrongFirst Bodyweight Certification Review

StrongFirst Kettlebell User Course Review

Notes From Pavel Tsatsouline Interview

Notes from Dan John Strength Seminar

Notes from Keats Snideman Interview