Wednesday, December 31, 2008

10 thousand hours, the Kettlebell Clean and Perfect Form for Strength - again

Year End Clean Up
I'd like to talk about a nervana experience i just had, the last day of this year, working on my clean and press. As some of you know, i've been trying to improve the strength of my press by following a version of Kenneth Jay's beast pressing protocol. I've celebrated the effect of volume on form, and how that translates to strength. I've lauded strength as a skill that practice of correct form gives.

In this post i'd like to talk a bit about related insights that come from high volume (by "high volume" i mean LOTS of practice) and how this lead to an insight about the clean that might be useful to you, and how it lead to a PR for me in a C&P set, with heavy emphasis on the "personal" part of PR.

Making Connexions: the Ten Thousand Things
I've recently been listening to the audio book of Gladwell's Outliers. His mission is to show that success is not talent alone - the myth of the self-made man (sic) - but that it is a combination of talent, opportunity and context. This is all pretty much sociology 101 (at least the way it was taught 10-15 years ago): nothing is in isolation; we are all products of our context, and some of those are the context of "demographic accidents." Take sports training for hockey in canada or football (soccer) in the EU.

He Shoots and Shoots and Shoots and Shoots - and then He Shoots and Scores.
Gladwell demonstrates how, alas, the canadian hockey training system (and football/soccer) is biased towards kids born in the first few months of the year, and how statistically kids born in the last quarter might as well not apply. No really, the pure stats are overwhelming - all because the system biases towards kids at a very wee age who have a few more months maturity than their younger peers at a time when those few months makes a BIG difference.

As Gladwell argues, if the system had two or three periods - phasing in testing of kinds when they're ALL at exactly the same age - +/- a month or so, then the sporting world could double (or triple) its talent pool.

The key thing that Gladwell pulls together with this work is that these kids who are selected to play hockey in special teams get more ice time, more coaching, contact with better players etc etc etc. There's a cumulative effect that such that by the time they're leaving highschool, they are so much better than their casual hockey playing peers, there's no contest.

Practice - And a lot of it for Expertise
Indeed, in the most impressive part of the book to me, Gladwell shows that a person, to reach this kind of Expert level, needs to put in 10,000 hours of practice: effort with the intent to improve performance.

He goes over cases by other researchers looking at virtuoso musicians. Not one - not one! - of them (including, we see, Mozart) got away with less than 10k hours of practice to achieve mastery of their area. This is critical: there were no stars who rose to top on talent alone without this effort - equivalent to 3 hours a day, every day, for ten years. Gladwell shows that practice time ramps up over time, so it's not actually 3 hours a day non stop, but progressively building building building for a child, to a teen.

Aside: How to get 10,000 hours is no small thing: sometimes it's the result of so many cascading opportunities it's no wonder one has to be in the right place at the right time, over and over again with the wit to take advantage of those opportunities. The cases in the book make this stunningly clear and hard to deny. The affluent youth is certainly at an advantage over a less affluent youth, for instance, whose practice time may be more taxed because they have to hold down jobs - unless their jobs feed into what they want to practice in any case.

How does all the above story of practice relate to the Clean?
I'll come onto what i think is happening with the Clean and Practice in a moment. First a bit of background.

In the past month, i have not done 10 ooo cleans or presses. I've not cracked 1000. I've done around 700 presses and 150 cleans. It's interesting to start adding these things up. Makes me kinda go "only 700?? - you call that "high volume"? and yet that's 150+ reps a session on high days. So what have i learned from as *little* repetition as sub 1000 reps? Form, breathing, and today THE CLEAN.

Here's the deal: Good clean (seems to) equal(s) "Going Small"
The last big day i had that was supposed to be my "heavy" day doing maybe 12 complete reps with the 16k if i'd amazingly doubled on the week before turned out to be 36 reps - a 6 fold increase on the previous week. I put this down to improved attention to breathing technique.

Doing a few C&P during the week, i tried getting some sense of a ladder of C&P's: if i could do 36 singles a side, surely i could do at least 2 consecutive C&P's on the left? While i found i could do is three C&P's in a row on the right, but still stuck on singles in the left. Indeed, while i could fire off five presses in a row on the right with the 16, i could not get more than 2 presses (not C&Ps) on the left, and usually just 1.

This did not make sense to me physiologically. What was the problem?

Today, after a break from concerted heavy pressing of 9 days rather than the usual 6, i wanted to focus on consecutive C&P's after doing some partials work with a 20 (mm mm good). As before, i start with the strong/more coordinated side first. The first thing i noticed is that the clean seemed a wee bit easier - feeling more like the 12 than the 16. I also noticed that the whole breathing/form cycle was feeling more like the light day (work with the 12 and 8) than it had with the 16. That is, i was able to exhale a bit on the lowering of the arm, and definetly exhale on the drop (i'd been rereading pavel's discussion of the drop in ETK so this bit on form was fresh in my mind).

When i moved to my left side for the first attempted set of c&p's i failed just as usual when going for the second C&P. Stupid. Put the bell down, do a C&P from scratch with little recovery and there it is. Try the second; nothing. Shite.

Ok, now for the big Clean observation:
So i went back to the right. and really focused on the clean, really hearing brett from his kettlebell basics for strength coaches and personal trainers dvd (recommended) echoing pavel in ETK about the clean as so crucial for a good press. That's when i got the first sense of an ah ha. The clean was a little thing. A small move. Ya ya i know: we practice tame the arc, but in my conceptualization of the 16 as "heavy" i was reefing on this thing to get it up while still keeping a technically tamed arc.

When i tried deliberately what i'll call "going small" on the left hand side, the bell sorta landed in a slightly different place; it felt different around my wrist. Inhale. Up it went. ok. try that again for a single. good. up it went. do the drop for the repeat, go small up, there's that neat landing. UP! i just got two reps - no hip - pure and clean, literally. come down, go for the drop, go small into the clean, same landing, up it went. I got four fricking non-stop C&P's in a row on my left side. That's a personal record. Personal especially in that there's no competition where 4 C&P's in a row is a big deal, but it's a meaningful bench mark for me, i can tell ya. And it seems to be unequivocably the result, yet again, of technique technique technque. But how did i *get* that technique?

This is where i think the 10k comes into play.

If Strength is Also a Skill, where are our Ten Thousand Hours?
I have been focused on this move diligently with reps. So there's practice. I've also been teaching intensely over the past week, including teaching the clean (which i've found is way harder to get than the high pull; it's easier to teach the high pull first and then come back to the Clean as a "low pull" - first part before the stab up). Because of this effort to communicate to others, i've been thinking a lot more about it myself - wondering if it's been a lame clean that has screwed up my left side performance of consecutive C&P's over singles.

Combine these efforts today with intent to explore possibilities. Explore being less formal than experimental design; more "hacking" as it's called in software engineering. Good hackers are principled about their hacks: they narrow the set of possibilities they could try to likely candidates. I make this distinction lest the interpretation of "hacking" be read as assing around till something comes up. And in this case, quite early in the exploration, a solution was developed.

I doubt however that this combination of effects leading to a solution would have happened without all the previous rep work that had done two things: (1) improved overall technique in the press, so that the press technique, including breathing as part of that technique, could be ruled out as the problem (2) genuinely improved strength sufficiently so that the 16 was experienced as light(er) enough to enable less of a pull to get it up (really, it has been pretty ugly). Bring those things together, and inside a month i've gone from 1 press on the left to 36 singles, to now four full and consecutive C&P's on the left with more in the tank.

This to me, ok, incredible progress (some strength; mostly technique) has come with sub 1000 reps. Imagine what might be possible with 10,000? Or in terms of time, each workout being half an hour just focusing on the press, twice a week. That's one hour a week over 4-5 weeks. Hardly anywhere near 10 thousand hours, is it? It's 0.05 of a percent. A drop in the bucket or an intent-ful start?

Not just Practice But practice practice practice - with intent
What's the old joke about "how do you get to Carnegie Hall?" and the reply is "Practice, practice, practice"? Gladwell showed that the researchers looking at musicians demonstrated that those who would get to carnegie hall did indeed practice - but they practiced alot - and they practiced a lot more than the next level of proficiency down from them. Likewise with other models of 10k success he describes. Before they became field leading experts, no matter their native ability, they got in their 10k hours.

Mine is not a story of 10 thousand hours. In my case, i'm looking at reps rather than hours - the two are not entirely interchangeable, but when we look at learning, there is an argument that says for something to become automatic or effortless we need that many reps.

Perhaps the big Lesson of 2008 in terms of strength as a skill practice for me, and the one i'll take into the New Year is the incredible value of practice and of practice via high reps. I've heard it said before strength is a skill; treat your training as practice, but you know they were just really words before. Now those words have real and proven meaning to me.

So, micro lesson here: the clean - if your C&P is not getting you to where it should be, consider making the clean a smaller pull. It may take awhile to build up the strength to do that, but once you do, and can execute "going small" in the clean, you may find your C&P's start to track in line with your expectations. I'd be keen to hear if that helps you.
macro lesson: practice is good, fun, rewarding - more and more often, please.
A lot of exercise strategies stress "see results in only 15 minutes a day" with the obvious rationale that people have other things they want to do with their lives than be in the gym. That's fine. Charles Staley's EDT is based on 15 minute zones. Pavel's Program Minimum can be 15 mins a day.

I think a lot of us haven't thought of our workouts really really *as* skills we're developing. For myself, for instance, i wanted to be taught correct form and practice it in order to get strong. The end game was to lean out, get strong, show others (especially geeks) how to do likewise. In other words, learn the form, then just do it a lot. Like those mind bendingly boring scales on the piano: know how to do the finger positions, then just keep doing them and upping the tempo. Not that swinging a KB has ever been boring like scales were as a kid, but i have been known to have the TV on while doing them.

So where does the ten thousand hours equals expert come in here? What i'm getting from strength as a skill, as a practice, is that there are levels of expertise to something as simple as pressing a weight. I kinda had an inkling of that the first time i saw Will Williams do a KB front squat, but i didn't make the connection between that and that practice practice practice isn't just doing scales, it's doing each rep with *intent* to learn and do better.

Hearing the Obvious - finally: the Tao in the Ten Thousand Things is Real
Reading the above back, it all seems so basic: i'm not saying anything new. But i guess it's taken this journey of exploring the Perfect Rep to really hear this message. This is a nice conclusion to a big year of learning and practice: RKC, nsca cscs, zhealth, fms, and this past week completing the ck-fms. It's nice to wrap up with something approaching an insight or better understanding of the meeting and meaning of strength as a skill.

So for the new year, i hope for all the folks who have been kind enough to read through this and make it to the end, that you find new love and purpose in your practice of strength, and if not new, then reinvigorated. I hope for you a year filled with health and practice so engaging that you don't hit any dry patches where you lose faith, stop working out for any length of time. So i guess i hope you find a way to practice daily, to get to a love of practice that takes you to your own 10k in fitness and in health.

All the best for 2009,

Rest is good!

it's a Little Thing - the little clean
Why avoid practice?

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Perfect Rep Quest Con't: Insane Improvement - from Breathing?

Ça me surprend.
It's been one more week of the mc variant of the KJ Beast Hi/Lo volume program. I hadn't planned on writing up until next week as i didn't anticipate having anything compelling to report, based on Light Weight/ High Rep day - just steady progress. The change on the low volume/heavy weight day seems, well, absurd: it's a six fold increase on last week. What's that about? Let's recap:

Light/High Volume day (dec 18): steady progress
Good improvements, more in line with what i'd call normal increases with a kind of EDT approach.
  • In the first 15 min PR Zone, 13 sets of 5 reps with 12k. fine.
  • In the second 15 min PR Zone, 4 sets of 5 with the 12, followed by 12 sets of 5 with an 8.
That's two more sets with the 12 over the previous week (a 16% increase with the 12). And an additional set as well over the previous week. So (17*5*12 =1020) + (12*5*8=480) =1500, up from 1420 last week. That's a near 6% increase over the previous week. That's ok. A 6% increase is just not going to happen every week. So progress. Good progress.

That said, the what was supposed to be low reps / high load day kinda blows this progress out of the water. You won't believe this. I don't know why i'm writing it down. It's too insane. You'll see.
Low (ha!) Rep/ Heavy Day (Dec 21): well that's a surprise
Just to recap, this is my saga to get up to the 24kg. An impossible seeming dream considering i could maybe press the 16 once on the left (my weaker side) and that only on a very very good day. To recap with the sixteen pressing, starting with the right, but gated by the left.
  • 1st week: 1 Rep
  • 2nd week: 2 Reps
  • 3rd week: 6 reps
  • all of these going to failure.
  • this week: 36 reps. I *quit* before failure, and with perfect form.
That's a 6 fold increase over the previous WEEK. SIX! That's a 500% improvement.

Recovery: Less =more reps?
Last week i'd said how important full recovery was. That i was taking my 3 mins, and failed after 6 good reps. So this week, again, i focussed on full recovery, z health drills during those 3 mins.

After i hit 11 reps, which was already one shy of doubling my last week's progress, i decided to cut the recovery back - surely that would nip this progress in the bud. It didn't. So after a few more reps, i just kept cutting the recovery time back: 2.30, 2.00, 1:30, 1:00, 0.45, 0.30, till it got to where i was just C&P'ing, putting the bell down, marking down the rep and time, and repping it again.

Just for ref, here's the times from after rep 11. - a rep is C&P right; C&P left; recovery. The times mark the END of the set - after i've scratched a | for the rep.

12 - 13:03:53
13- 13:07: 02
14- 13:04:40
15- 13:12:15
16 - 13:14:34
17- 13:16:49
18 - 13:18:54
19 - 13:20:55
20 - 13:22:05
21 - 13:22:59
22 - 13:23:57
23- 13:24:40
24 -13:25:32
25 - 13:26:16
26 -13:26:16
27 - 13:27:42
28 - 13:28:18
29 -13:28:56
30 - 13:29:30
31 - 13:30:09
32 -13:30:45
33 - 13:31:20
34 - 13:31:50
35- 13:32:23
36 -13:32:50

Ok, i personally have never ever had a change of this magnitude in a week. Last week, i was SURE that it was because i had rushed recovery time just a bit (from 3 mins to closer to 2min30sec) that resulted in failing at rep 7. This week, after 35 reps, i couldn't fail with as little as 30 secs rest. So what's different this week? I had a shot in my left (weaker) arm Friday which still hurts, so thought i was really gonna suck this week. Other than a virus coruscating through me? It may be breathing.

Breathing - Part of Efficiency and the Perfect Rep
As part of a convo with breath master Will Williams, we got looking at the difference between the specifics of the Valsalva maneuver and Power Breathing as Pavel has decribed it. This exchange caused me to go back to anywhere Pavel's discussed breathing in ETK, Power to the People and Naked Warrior.

The version that resonated with me the most? Naked Warrior, where Pavel recalling what he'd learned from Mas Oyama about forcing the air down. But fundamentally, Pavel writes "As long as the contents of your stomach are compressed—you are power breathing" (p.82). That really resonated with me. There's lots more in that chapter of NW and i strongly recommend it, cuz i'm just saying that of ALL the parts of the technique, that is the aspect that really was Ah Ha with me rereading it. I still don't have Will's hiss down (see his front squat vid), but i was able to get that stomach compressed, sinking the breath down. grr.

So what's coming together here? Form of the C&P - it's getting smoother, and i suspect that's coming a lot from the high volume/light days. And that 6 fold improvement over last week? Is that down to the breathing?

You may ask if so, what on earth was i doing before? On the light loads, i'm inhaling when pressing up, and exhaling when bringing the bell down. On the heavy day last week i tried to have enough space to inhale a bit pressing up; exhale on the down.

This time, taking that power breathing of not to inhale or exhale completely, but to hold that compression, i got my air down, held it through the up phase of the C&P, getting a proper park/pause at the shoulder and press up. Most of the time, i still had the breath in me with the bell coming down; other times it was shhh'shd out coming down.

I've become a convert as well to the notion that a good clean sets up a good press. It's not like i didn't believe this before, but with all this practice, i feel like my clean really is becoming smoother - and easier with the 16 - a challenging weight- which is nice. I'll be intrigued to see how this smoothness with the mass translates - or if it does - to my 5min snatch test.

Whither Next with Heavy Day?
Today's practice feels like some kind of breakthrough. I don't really feel any different, but i can't deny the numbers. Many things to check out at any point in the future. Based on these 36 singles, it may be time to start thinking about giving regular ETK ladders a try with the 16.

As for the Bête quest, and since Kenneth's heavy days are supposed to be 5 - 15 heavy presses, requiring that full recovery, it may be time to go for KJ's double bell pressing and partials. That is, use two KB's rather than one. A 16k with a 5 pounder (see, those GNC/Everlast suckers can come in handy) is 18 and a bit kg, so more than 16 and not quite the 20. Kenneth also suggests that the requirements to balance those two bells really pushes on correct form.

Is this a Great Big WTF Effect or am i Dreaming?
Of course a big part of me says that today must have been some mysterious fluke, since i haven't gained pounds of muscle in my shoulders, i'm quite sure (i don't think it's possible within a month for a gal to do that). If there was any doubt before, i'm here to testify: strength sure does seem to be a skill. So here's to neuromuscular adaptation, form, breathing, and lots and lots of perfect rep practice.

Thursday, December 18, 2008

Gifts for the Fitness Geek

It's not too late to think about giving a fitness geek in your life something that will make them *really happy.* If it's too late for the package to make it under the tree, why not print out an image of the thing so they know it's on the way?

The following has suggestions for Stocking Stuffers, Readable References, Kettlebell Training of many Varieties, Lifting, Training Support and of course FOOD. Hope y'all enjoy - and maybe treat yourself.

Stocking Stuffers:
If you need something small to pack into that stocking, here's a couple suggestions

Bands: Iron Woodies are great bands, excellent quality. Especially for someone working on their pullups, these can be a powerful assist.

I like 'em cuz they're
  • a tad less expensive than some of the others, but still very well made.
  • they come in three lengths, depending on application
  • they have a specific "pull up package"
  • Great value for money.
  • they have a specific EU rate, BUT,
  • if you're in the UK, you can get them from London Kettlebells directly

Timers: I've been writing alot about the value of timed sets, being a big Escalating Density Training fan. There are many devices you can use - an egg timer, a good old fashioned clock. The gymboss is designed for workouts, though, with various modes of single time zones; dual time zones (for work/rest intervals), repeats. It's just convenient. And it works.

Hydration. Nothing like a great water bottle to take to the gym, or use at home mid sets. Though i would love to say my passion is for stainless steel, the valves on such bottles usually suck. The best compromise right now seems to be the Camelbak Bottle with bite valve - now without toxic bpa's!

Sunshine. Given the fact that unless you live in sunny climes such that you can bask your body, most of us are apparently super vitamin D deficient. This is the nutrient generated by the sun in our skin. If we don't get a great big sun hit, it makes sense we're tacking to the low side, and this is SO IMPORTANT for calcium in our bones and a whole raft of other good things to work. Daily doses are now recommended to be anywhere from 2000IU (10 times the current RDI) to 15,000IU, pending who you read - anyway it's more than most of us get. This may not seem like a big deal, but as a loving stocking stuffer, a can or two of high potency Vit. D (at least 1000IU a shot) wouldn't go amis - print out one of these articles as wrapping paper. Now Foods and Carlsons make these biggie IU sizes, and seem to have good reviews for quality as well. Vegetairians, take note that D2 is an alternative to the sheep lanolin/fish base for Vit D, and a recent study suggests D2 is equivalent to D3 in efficacy.

Shirts & stuff. Nothing stuffs into a stocking like a highly compressed T. Designed in the UK (Scotland is part of the UK); made and sold in the US of A, Rannoch's Way of the Kettlebell T.s

Other lovely small things that could be in the stocking or under the tree? I know it's not much of kb, but whether as a paper weight or a double kb one-handed press, i still get a kick out of these itty bitty 5lb'ers at GNC. They're just fun.

Recovery Stocking Stuffers (or under the tree if you're feeling generous). If your fitness geek is just starting to workout at home or at the gym, they may not be used to getting that recovery nutrition thing happening with a workout drink, so here's a few to think of:
  • Surge - if resistance is their bag. It's a 2 to 1 carb to protein ratio, just right and nice for workouts
  • Endurox - if cardio is their bag - intense rowing, cylcing or that VO2max kb cycle. That's a 4 to 1 Carb/protein ration, shown to be optimal for endurance efforts and recovery.
  • ICE - this is a BCAA and flavouring drink for someone working out, trying to get lean with the focus on that fat burn - the BCAA's make sure the muscles get the amino acids they need for repair without adding caloric load - BCAA's aren't digested as regular whey protein is.
  • Roll Your Own - if you have an adventurous fitness geek at home, you can provide the ingredients for each of the above by ordering them from TrueProtein.Com or BulkNutrition.Com - or by providing gift certificates to the same. Hydrolyzed whey protein, bcaa's, and maltodextrin/dextrose in the appropriate ratios, and you're rocking.
  • TO SHAKE IT ALL UP: my fave shaker cup by far - cuz it really works - the turbo shaker.

Readable References:

Strength Training Anatomy, Frederic Delavier, Amazon US ||Amazon UK
This is a fabulous illustrated manual that shows what muscles are hit by all the main weight lifting moves. It's organized by muscle group: arms, shoulders, chest, back , legs, butt, abs.
It shows the muscles in the context of the actual move, so you can see why those are the muscles affected. This book is recommended for the interested fitness geek.

Manual of Structural Kinesiology, Thompson, Floyd, Amazon US || Amazon UK
Now while the Anatomy book is grand for seeing muscles used in context, it doesn't explain how that muscle operates in a move. This text on kinesiology does just that in a well illustrated and highly accessible fashion. It's one of the books i've used in putting together why the pull up is a Lat based move, and how firing the lats works in the kettlebell swing. This book is recommended for the more serious fitness geek.

SuperTraining Mel Siff (US, via Amazon || UK, UKSCA)
For a book easily acknowledged as one of the best in the field, if not the Bible of training, it is not easy to find. So if you have a serious fitness geek on your hands who does not have this tome, scoring if for them will trigger some truly warm seasonal glow. This ain't a book for the faint of heart, but for those keen, the rewards are a plenty. Serious Fitness Geek recommended

Essentials of Strength Training and Conditioning. Beachle and Earl Amazon US ||in the UK
This is the NSCA's main text for their CSCS certification. As an overview of all aspects informing athletic performance, from muscle physiology to hormones to lifting practice to program development, it's a fabulous reference. This is the BRAND NEW 3rd edition. It's a FAB reference for any coach or someone you can see becoming a serious fitness geek.

Science and Practice of Strength Training. Zatsiorosky and Kraemer Amazon UK || Amazon US
This book is a great complement to both Supertraining and Essentials. It focuses on plan development, the rational and approaches. Again, this is serious fitness geek territory.


Now if you've heard someone you care about saying they want to get back into shape, and you've discussed kettlebells, of course the best way to get them started is that bundle of tough love for the beginner and experienced swinger alike that is Enter the Kettlebell, book and DVD (review here). If they are brand new to the experience, you may want to add the appropriate kettlebell to that package, too. Dragon Door makes the best US made bells in North America. London Kettlebells is the best value in the UK, and Kenneth Jay's are indisputably the best in the rest of the EU.

Muscle Mass & KB's If you're also want to be-gift someone who is keen to add some mass while getting strong, and are keen to support a kettlebell addiction, the original source of the KB+Heavy=Mass is of course Mike Mahler. Kettlebell Solutions for Size and Strength is a great one, but my fave is actually the Kettlebell Solution for Fat Loss and Mental Toughness - and not because i've used it to burn fat; because the videos of the big moves are better than the previous edition. I'd combine the ebook "The Agressive Strength Solution for Size and Strength" and its workouts with the Mental Toughness DVD. DVD's Available in the US from MM's site; available in the UK from London Kettlebells.

Cadio and KB's If you're interested in helping out someone who wants to get a little more cardio into their lives, there's any of the Art of Strength vids, the Newport in particular (review) being a challenger. These are available from AOS in the US, and from yup, London Kettlebells in the UK.

Cardio Overdrive: VO2 Max. Advanced Strength Strategies, Kenneth Jay. This is it: the original VO2max KB program, illustrated, discussed, demonstrated as formally taught at the RKC Level II cert.

Deadlift Nirvana. If the fitness geek in your life has discovered the deadlift (perhaps you've helped foster that discovery), of course the best program for getting into that move is Pavel's Power to the People. If you're concerned about that person's well being, though, and want to ensure they're getting that all-critical form just right, there's a super DVD that can help: Brett Jones and Gray Cook's Secrets of the Backside. The DVD details potential issues with the lift, how to correct them, and of course, shows (from dual angles) proper deadlift form(s). Excellent.

Pull Ups. Lifting oneself is a great alternative or complement to lifting heavy objects. An affordable, non-invasive pull up bar is one that can work in a door way. In the UK, there's Golds Gym Telescopic Chrome Chinning Bar. I've been using this at the office for over a year. i can quickly attach and detach iron woody bands to them for high rep days via a carabiner (big mouth type from REI). In the states, a version of this kinda bar is available, too, by Go Fit for about 18 USD.

There's more than one way to swing a pull up. If you have a space that allows it, the TRX is a mechanism that puts many bodyweight assisted exercises, from pull ups to dips, all in a single unit. By space, i mean a beam somewhere you can put a hook into, or a tree or a bar. I've seen these slung of chain link fences. There are other similar gym-in-a-bag products, for sure. This just happens to be the best built - really. The design of the sliders for instance is really top rate, using very good hardware.

And for yet one more spin on the pull up or the dip, especially for crossfit junkies, one of the sweetest versions of the classic rings are these super-light and portable rings by Elite Fiteness. Great articles on the site as well as companion DVD's.

Training Support
Dynamic Joint Mobility.
Perhaps one of the most crucial and often overlooked aspects of a fitness program is joint mobility. The reasons for taking ten minutes to move *each joint* through its full range of motion are myriad.

While there are a variety of joint mobility DVDs, the one i recommend is Z health. You can see why in a series of three posts (1, 2, 3), but the fast answer is that there is a well-founded scientific, neurologically centered reason for *each* move in the program.

The program starts with R-Phase, and is complemented by an abbreviated routine called the Nueral Warm Up. It is followed by I-Phase. R-Phase is what it's founder Eric Cobb refers to as the vocabulary of the program; i phase is the grammar. If you want to start with only one DVD, the R-phase DVD is great, but i'd recommend getting the R-Phase and Neural Warm Up 1 package. R-Phase provides detailed moves and instruction that are critical; the neural warm up would potentially move too fast without those building blocks, and precision is the name of the game here. The advanatage of the Neural Warm Up is that, based on what you learn in R-phase, it takes you through a total joint range of motion session in 10 mins. Z Health DVDs are a great family gift, too: we *all* move.

The Gift that Keeps on Giving: Give the Gift of One on One Assessment
If your athlete is just starting out or is an experienced fitness geek, there's one thing that will always provide a super return on that gift: give them a check up session with a certified trainer/movement specialist.

For hardstyle Kettlebells, there are RKC's all over the world (listing) that can give a keen eye to movement and tweak it to add to that athlete's movement efficiency. Speaking of efficiency, most of us could move better. The Functional Movement Screen is one assessment an FMS specialist can offer to evaluate movement patterns. If your beloved geek has been complaining of pain or weakness in certain moves, the Z Health assessment by a Z certified trainer is another great tool. As currency crumbles, you will find that there are an increasing number of RKC's who are also FMS and Z certified, so you can get even more bang for that gift-giving buck (or euro or pound).

Food that says health and love:
And finally, since eating is such a critical part of any fitness geek's repertoire - indeed without which nothing - help in the hungry heart cannot go amiss.

Raw Cacao Nibs. What says love better than chocolate? This legendary aphrodisiac has also more recently been listed as a "super food." Lots of protein, good fiber, polyphenols. Good stuff (here's more info).

A really great way to put max love into another's hands is by going straight to the source with organic cacao nibs. The great thing about the nibs is you can eat 'em for one heck of a cocoa hit straight out of the bag. You can also pour them in a bowl with raisins and nuts, and have an incredible taste sensation - the raisins bring out an almost red wine-y flavour to the nibs. Awesome. They're also great in a blender to make a protein shake. Add in some coffee beans, and it's lethal.

Organic Raw Chocolate Cacao Nibs by Sunfood Nutrition are probably the best quality in the US. In the UK, intriguingly, a wee company called "detox your world" has made the best effort to get the best sources onto the island.

Cooking? Who said Cooking?
Making a healthy but decadent meal for someone is also an act of love, of course, but what to cook that meets both these requirements? The Gourmet Nutrtion Vol. 2 cookbook to the rescue. The pictures alone get taste buds salivating. Check out the site: there's a sampler you can download for a range of recipes from the book.

One of the big plusses of GN2 is that it has all the nutrition info of the complete recipe AND it gives that info based on large and small portion sizes. One more benefit: it has meal templates as well to help make selections based on your fitness goals.

If you're giving this to a cooking neophyte, no worries there, either: there are sections on what to shop for, basic tools to have in the kitchen and some basic techniques for making sure these recipes work.

Ok, and as an aside, in case the one you love doesn't quite know how to think about their eating you could also bundle in the Precision Nutrition System which includes 7 books/guides for creating and supporting 10 habits for lifetime successful eating (review here). This ain't a *diet* plan, where one is restricted in what they want from eating for a period of time. This is an approach to eating - all the time. Paradigm shifting habits, we're talking.

You can also give them this pdf for free on the Strageties for Success that is Precision Nutrition. It's a 40 page condensed version of the whole system, as a preview.

And to All a Good Night
All the best of the Season to you, and here's to a healthy, happy, prosperous New Year.

UPDATE: additional book ideas from pain management to motivation now listed


Monday, December 15, 2008

mc's version of KJ's beast pressing protocol - just fyi

Protocol Review: What do i do?
A few folks have kindly asked exactly what am i doing in this volume protocol for presses i've been writing about recently (here's the latest post). Thanks for reading and for your interest.

The following is my current rif on KJ's Beast Plan for Presses (described in the RKC manual, 2007, 2008 and the subject of a forthcoming book).

As said, this is a slight variant on the protocol developed by Kenneth Jay. Any compromises to that plan are entirely mine. This post is not a protocol endorsement at all - i'm just experimenting and have not completed that experiment. I'm posting this in the interest of being clear about the method of the approach. I'll continue to report my results, but i'm only a sample of one so far. If you're interested in playing along, by all means, but again, no guarentees :)

With that caveat in place, here we go:

Light Day
  • pick a weight i can do ten reps with and get ready for multiple sets of five
  • set a timer for 15mins (i like the gymboss as a physical device & use it alot, but for a BIG screen version, this freebie javascript page rules.).
  • Press strong/best side for 5 - inhale on the press/exhale on the descent. focus on form each rep.
  • Press weaker/lesser side for 5
  • Put the bell down
  • Do TEN bodyweight DeadLifts (so focus on form, in particular, bone rhythm, so that's getting the ass down fast to finish with the knees, exhaling on the out, inhaling on the up. These are done FAST - as fast as can be done to keep that perfect bone rhythm form, yes, but also to keep the heart up to test the effect of integrated cardio)
  • mark down complete set with a | in a workout book.
  • Take a breath
That's one complete set of presses with active recovery. I do as many of these as i can within the 15 min zone. The rest between sets is only as long as the active recovery bw DL's.

As soon as form on the press starts to go south - like a complete rep but needing to put in a hip - go to a lighter bell, and keep going.

I do two 15 min zones. Many challenges within this: getting to 200 reps with perfect form; getting to the complete cycle with the same weight are two good ones.

Heavy Day
Again, i set the 15min timer - not so much because i want to work for 15 mins, but because i want to make *sure* i use the full period for recovery. If i cut that short, the rep fails. That's all there is to it - at least for me. And strength work like this is 2-3 mins. The timer helps me stick to that because i HATE waiting and like to rush to do the next press. For me, that's a doomed strategy, so i use the timer. Then, with heavy bell ready,
  • i do my C&P on the strong side; park the bell.
  • Pause for a breath to feel in the zone.
  • Do my C&P on the weaker side. park the bell.
  • Do z health drills during the recovery period.
  • make SURE the full recovery period has passed.
  • Repeat.
Once the bell on the weak side needs an assist to complete, i grab a lighter bell, just to finish that side with a complete rep - end with perfect form of a complete rep. And then heavy pressing of full presses for that day is done.

Then recovery. Then it's onto partials.
reset timer.

So, Kenneth has neat ideas here: if i don't want to do parials with a 4k jump up to the 20, i could do partials with a double bell combination. KJ is a big fan of stacking bells, even if they don't come up to the goal weight of the new bell. Here's where that happens for me: just before one heavy bell looses form.

So, the Partial recipe is to press up with the assist of the other hand, come down to sticking point; press back up; come down a little further, press up; down a little further, press up. This approach to partials is very cool. It works on both sides - where i get down to on each side is a bit different, but it's working.

Two notes on the partials: perfect form.
First, as said, if i feel form is about to get lost, i bail to go to the 16 stacked with another bell, for slightly under the 20 weight, to about an 18. Second, breathing and handle gripping.
Many folks already know this; i've heard it alot too, but it's not until i've really practiced it with this approach that i've gotten how vital it is. For me, it's
  • inhale going up; exhale coming down - it's just smoother, more in control - for me, anyway.
  • grip the handle especially if in grief on going up. When i've felt my weaker side pushing through the sticking point, gripping the handle with extra force on the heavy day, and towards the end of the light day, helped keep the form groove.
There's at least a two day gap between the light day and the heavy day for pressing, so that's *only* once a week for the complete pressing cycle. The other days of the week are currently replete with fighting despair while trying to build up my pistol and pull up, again with heavy/light days per both, snatching once a week (or so) to stay solid with the new RKC snatch test numbers, and a whole lot of rowing thrown in for fun, happiness and alternating steady state/interval cardio. Thanks to KJ there too for pointing out the similarity between rowing and snatching.

Ok, wow, surprised that took so many words to detail, but i hope that helps anyone curious about exactly what i'm doing in these sets.

Sunday, December 14, 2008

Strength and the Perfect Rep, continued: volume works

A week or so ago i posted about my initial experience of trying Kenneth Jay's high reps lower weight / higher weight lower reps work. The report covered my first effort with high volume.
To recap First Light Day of Cycle:
  • 9 sets of 5 at 12kg, followed by 8 sets of 5 with 8's in the first 15 min zone.
  • Then 20 sets of 5 with all 8's in the second 15 minutes.
  • Breaks were used with bodyweight deadlifts focusing on bone rythmn, form and breathing.
  • ((9*5*12) + (8*5*8)) + (20*5*8)= 1340 vol, with 37 sets total - 185 reps
Since then, i did a heavy day, which for me is with a 16.
A bit of background: for me, getting a 16 press on my left side has felt pretty hit or miss. The stars have to be aligned or something. I was therefore keen to see if the reps of grooving in the form were going to have an impact. The answer seems to be "yes."

First Heavy Day of Cycle:
  • I did a C&P on the right with the 16 - good. fine
  • The C&P on the left? solid. wow. That thing just went up. wow. The stars are aligned, right?
  • So then the 2.5-3min break for full recovery (more on recovery times for different kinds of strength here).
  • I did a C&P on the right, starting with the strong side first (here's why).
  • And, amazing! that sucker went up on the left side again - no hip, just solid up.
  • Recovery.
  • I got it up on the right again, the left side stuck half way so it got an assist. Recovery, again right side went up (rep 4) and the left side again hit the sticking point, so got an assist.
  • Recovery.
  • Then did a set of partials with the 20 on both sides. Breathing right here - inhale on the press; exhale slightly on the down; inhale on the extension. up and down as KJ says each time trying to get a little lower and back up. Works.
  • BIG EVENT: 2 solid C&P's on the left. *Doubled* previous effort

Since this mayn't be entirely the easiest way to derive the routine, and since i've had a few questions, if you're interested on exactly what i've done, please see this new post on the protocol.

The personal benefit of volume
The first obvious benefit of volume is that i got a 50% improvement on the left side. Now, i'm pretty durn sure i'm not 50% stronger on the left than i have been. What seemed to be happening is that the form was far more locked in. And so the form was applied to the heavier weight.

Additionally, one of my foci on doing the reps on the high volume day was to focus on breathing, especially on the bell going up - inhale up, exhale bringing it down. Doing that breathing pattern really seemed to make the left side (the weaker side) come into form. Biggest difference: the left press was WAY more relaxed.

Doing this breathing during the partials with the 20 was also a revelation in smoothness. I've done such partials before, and usually ended up holding my breath. Breathing is better :)
The Next High Volume Day
Now this was cool and unexpected. The next high vol day went like this:
  • first 15min zone: 13 sets of 5 ALL 12k's (no break between zones)
  • second 15 min zone: 2 more sets of 5 at 12's followed by 13 sets of 5 with 8's.
  • Not only is that an increase in the number of sets with the 12 (from 9 to 15 - just under 50% improvement) for a total 28 sets. 140 reps / side total
  • The rest between sets was exactly the same as the previous day (10 bw dl's) so it seems the sets themselves were somewhat longer.
  • That said, total Volume is up: (13*5*12)+((2*5*12)+(13*5*8))= 1420. A little under 10% improvement in one week.
What's going on here? The biggie is the total sets with the 12 goes up from 9 to 15. Now this, too, could be adaptation as opposed to real strength increases, but still, the benefit of a single cycle of effort, whether based on neuro-muscular adaptation or on strength or both is not to be dismissed. That's progress. I'll take it.

The next Heavy Day
Well Joy and Amazement, here's the pay off, if there was any doubt. How many C&P's with the 16? SIX. that's right: from 2 to 6 on both sides. That's a three fold improvement on just the session before. To be clear that's 6 C&P singles rather than 2 singles.

How do i know it was only 6? I lost it on the 7th and 8th attempts on the left side - finishing with an assist each time. That was not deliberate. I could not tell from the previous efforts that the left side was going to fail. So i need to learn to listen to that.

Action during Recovery on Heavy Day: i should also note that i did various z health drills during the recovery phase between these singles, mainly, but not exclusively, shoulder drills. Did that contribute to the gains as well? A recent study on integrated cardio (discussed here) seemed to suggest that ROM work (like z) does contribute to strength gains. It's something i'll continue to do when i have a 2-3 min recovery pause on a heavy day. Form form form.

Relaxed Tension?
The big, and i mean BIG difference for me in these C&P's was that they felt smooth. Like they were just gonna GO UP. The left side was not as fast going up as the right side - the sticking point echo was there in the 3rd-6th reps, but i could just tell that i could press through them solidly, stable upper body, no hip coming into it.

Also, with the breathing and form, the move became far more of a clean - exhaling into the rack - and then the press, inhaling into the up, lock, exhaling down into the rack. I hadn't been so aware previously of the rack at the end of the clean, and especially the value of that exhale into the rack. Relaxed.

I know, in HardStyle we talk about tension, and getting all tight and locked, but we also talk about the balance of relaxation/tension. And perhaps that's what was kind of happening here for me: a better balance of tension and relaxation.

When gals doing GS events are ripping off TONS of C&P's with the 16 (inspiring, eh?), my few 6 singles may seem pretty frickin' tame, but, i console myself: i'm not doing GS at this time; my focus is on getting stronger presses. The 16 is a start.

Next Steps:keep going
This report is just ONE complete cycle really of the high/low approach. My approach will be to see how the adaptation/strength curve progresses: will there be more sets of 12, till i get 2 full zones (2 full 15 min periods) of complete 12's; what will the carry over to the heavy presses be? More 16's? how long till finally pressing the 20? will the 24 come into sight, which is the end game here. I don't expect each week to give these kinds of % increases, but am keen to see how the curve unfolds.

Summing Up
It's too soon to make any real summative statements about the effects of high/low volume on my strength - the gains i've had so far seem like adaptation more than raw strength - they're just too big. But so what? The way these moves *feel* is so much better that if i got no other benefit than closer to the Perfect Rep, that would be worth the price of admission. But the payoff seems to be that this protocol, as promised by its author, is also pushing well into strength. Thanks again to Al for pointing me to it.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

Why "Fire the Lats" in a Kettlebell swing?

When swinging a kettlebell in the RKC Hardstyle, you will regularly hear an RKC instructor say "fire the lats" as an aid to "pack the shoulder" or to keep the shoulder from flying out of its socket

(is Lance, pictured left, firing those lats?? aren't those shoulders a bit high?)

When i saw my first RKC and heard this, i had no idea what the above instruction meant or to feel whether or not i was achiving it. Much tough love was administered in an effort to trigger the phenomena.

At the RKC cert, lat firing was realized, along with many other refinements to the swing, such that i understood Pavel's idea of the swing firing down and INTO THE GROUND rather than out. The nirvana moment happened for me when i felt/got that with "lats fired" the kettlebell swing could barely reach chest height - the arms just did not go higher.

Didn't really think about the causes of that effect, but have tried since then to instill it as a heuristic in the folks i coach: when that big side muscle is working, the shoulders stay in the sockets and the arms just will not go more than chest height - individual variation will be a bit below (like me) or maybe a bit above (haven't seen that as much).

So why, you might ask, would the lats being ON have what i've called a "braking effect" on the apogee or top point of a swing?

We can go back to the pull up as a lat exercise to put this picture. As i wrote there:

. .. [the Lats] enable the trunk to be pulled up via shoulder (or glenohumeral joint) extension. How does that work? The lat is like a big triangle of tough stretchy stuff that is nailed down along the spine from the middle of the back, just under the shoulder blade, right down into the butt at the sacrum. That's a lot of back. So the mid (or thoracic) spine is one point on the triangle; the sacrum (at the butt) is the second, and the third is in the arm, on the "medial side of the intertubercular groove of the humerus"

The lat connected in this way supports four movements of the shoulder joint: extension (movement of the humerus straight, posteriorly), bringing it across and in front of the body (adduction); internal rotation (putting your lower arm behind your back); bringing your arm up and around so that you can grab the opposite shoulder to the upraised arm (horizontal abduction).

So, the lat works on the shoulder, or in particular the shoulder joint, by its connection on the upper arm. Firing it will therefore brake the top arc of the swing, and maintain the shoulder control when the arm adducts or crosses slightly in front of the body to do two handed or one handed swings.

You can try this out yourself without a kettlebell. Lock your elbow and first start with your arm at your side, relaxed, and just try raising your arm by moving your arm in front of you and all the way up so your upper arm is close to your ear (if you can't get it to your ear we have another thing to talk about). Look at how great the arc is of that arm. from your side all the way up, like 180 degrees.

Now get your arm by your side and try flexing the muscles you feel along your sides. When you have that "grr" tight feel, now see how high you can raise your arm comfortably. Somewhere around 90 degrees, give or take?

In other words, and here's what at least to me seems so amazing, the muscle is not working within the shoulder to hold it back in its socket, but is actually using this mass of back muscle tied into the inside of the upper arm, to put a brake the arm action forward when it's flexed, and THAT the main action keeping the shoulder "packed" in the swing.

One more visualization: imagine someone tied a thick jump band to the inside of your arm, and held it going under your armpit and across your back. Initially when the band is relaxed, you can move your arm up in a full arc. If that person tightens that elastic up, that's going to limit the degree of the arc the arm can now be raised (this may also help reinforce why the lats are so big in pull ups: that lat muscle wants to get that arm down and back, in the direction of the muscle fiber).

SO the arm is kept from flying up (or out) of the socket with the help of the lats that both hold it back and limit its arc / range of motion when the muscle is flexed.

What is the shoulder socket or glenohumeral joint?
If we talk about "packing the shoulder" in the swing, therefore, we are talking about a joint - the shoulder joint. A joint is where two bones come together to act as a lever. In the shoulder joint, the top of the upper arm bone or humerous, connects with the scapula, or shoulder blade.

The way the lat is connected to the upper arm, therefore, pretty literally, helps keep the arm in its socket.

It's not the only muscle acting on the shoulder joint. There are a bunch of muscles stabilizing the shoulder like the rotator cuff set, but beyond these stabilizers, there are three main actors on the shoulder: the delts, which take the arm to the sides, the pecs which helps bring the arm up (think bench press) or forward (baseball throw) and the lats.

In the swing, while the deltoids and pecs do some work, the major action on the shoulder is the lat. Remeber, the swing is not a pull (from the pec). The swing is carried forward on momentum from the hips. The lat acts first like a brace and then a brake, as said, to keep that momentum from throwing the arm out. This effect is reminiscent of the action of the hamstrings when sprinting: the hamstring acts as a brake so that the leg doesn't go flying out from all that quad power: it wants to pull that leg back down into extension.

The second action is bringing the bell down, keeping the shoulders packed with lats fired, lets one accelerate it beyond what gravity/momentum allows if the arms just come down with the descent of the swing. Pavel demonstrated this powerful pull down into the ground rather than way out in front at the cert using a super light (8K) bell, saying with the right form/muscle work, you should be able to get that power drive acting on any size bell you can swing - even tiny ones. The difference in feel is that the energy of the bell is coming down into the ground. As we practiced this over the cert weekend, many of us started to find ourselves being propelled backwards in our swings just at the end of the swing, showing heel skid marks in the sand.

Note: as RKC Randy Hauer points out, the down phase of the swing is initiated with the hips flexing (hinge at the hips). My point is that in the upper body part of this move, the flexed lats keep that move solid. Thanks for the clarification, Randy.

Putting the muscle together with the movement
By seeing how the lat is connected to the arm, and knowing that a flexed muscle means a muscle that is being shortened in the contraction, you can probably see how that muscle - again with all that muscle mass along the back of the lat working - is going to be able to support the transfer of power from the hips and out through the arms without the arms projectiling out of the shoulder. Likewise, keeping those lats fired and the arms stable while coming down with the bell insures the same protection coming down again, whether with gravity alone at 32m/s/s or overspeeding down.

By considering both how/where the lat is connected to the arm and how it operates on the shoulder joint has helped me understand why "firing the lats" supports excellent form in the swing, as doing so:
  • holds the arm into the shoulder joint socket (packs it in) and thus protects the shoulder during the momentum up of the swing
  • acts to brake the upper motion of the swing for optimal moment of the down stroke
  • supports that big in front of the body DOWN pull on the arms during that hip hinge down stroke of the swing
Update: then there's the spine.
Bonus benefit to lat firing? Spine stabilization. Look at that lat images above: the lat's knit through so much of the spine, right into the butt, you get that working both sides, that spine is gonna be solid through the swing. ya ya, there are all the erectors and stuff in the lumbar spine too, and good thing, but look at that lat go! Thanks to Dev Chengkalath for reminding me that the lats connet to and affect the spine as well as the shoulder in the swing.

Friday, December 5, 2008

More On the Perfect Rep Quest: Volume + Integrated Cardio

I don't usually log my actual workouts here, but with growing interest in the perfect rep/strength development, thought it might be worth logging an experiment.

One of my current goals is to increase the size of the kettlebell i can press (i have dreams of the 24). Right now i'm pressing 3 of the 16 on the right and 1 of the 16 on the left.

The strategy:
  • try integrated cardio in strength work
The tactics:
  • part 1: kenneth jay's High Volume/Low Volume, discussed here.
  • part 2: integrating vigerous cardio between sets, as per Davis, discussed here.
  • part 3: using Timed sets rather than absolute numbers of sets, a la Charles Staley's EDT. If you're not familiar with EDT, there's some great articles on t-nation. here's one.
The specifics: high volume day

So with the goal of getting in about 200 perfect rep presses a side, i set the timer for 15, pressing 5 on one/ 5 on the other. Recovery. During the recovery, i did 10 body weight perfect form DLs - this actually keeps the heart pumping without taxing the shoulders. Using the DL also lets me practice bone rhythm, breathing, head posture, eye movement in my DL. Every second used.

Now i confess, when i got to a scant 45 reps with the 12KB (8 sets of 5), i had to drop to the next size down (8KB) in order to maintain form. So yes i sacrificed pressing the weight to focus on form. But i did not care. The lighter bell at this rate/volume was still effortful while letting me get that pattern engrained.

I did two 15 min "zones" as Staley calls them. Total, 175 reps/arm (17 sets zone one; 20, zone 2).

What was fun: concentrating on the form. With KJ's approach i feel like i've been given permission to do these lighter weigths just to think about form.

Fringe Benefit? By adding in the fast BW DL's between pressing sets, the presses, amazingly, felt smoother - easier even. I wasn't expecting that.

Now whether and how these cycles will lead to strength is of course the other key part of this equation. But for today, this integrated resistance/vigorous cardio felt great, let me focus on form for TWO moves, and strength benefits promised to come. ya hoo.

The next day:
that many bodyweight DL's - am somewhat aware of my hamstrings today - but perhaps that DOMS effect of vigerous cardio is making it less intense than it would be otherwise? hmm.

Part Two of this series continues here: volume and the perfect rep: it seems to be working.

Monday, December 1, 2008

The Perfect Rep - and the role of volume with form.

This post is a reflection on one aspect that contributes to the experience of the perfect rep: high volume. It's only one part, but i'd like to unpack a bit of why that part, at least for myself, and a rather new understanding of "volume" is becoming such a key part of "perfect."

One of the first things that struck me in reading Pavel's work like Enter the Kettlebell is the emphasis on "the perfect rep." Don't go to failure; don't do so many reps that form goes to hell. Stay fresh. Make every rep perfect.

But what is the "perfect rep"? And how do we know if we have one?

This may not be your experience, but i've interpreted this "perfect rep" thing as getting the form right mechanically, and executing with the correct weight for the correct sets and moving on, eg doing the ladders for ETK's ROP. Upon reflection, though, that progression doesn't sound much like an experience of "perfection," does it? Sure one feels good after doing the workouts, and yes progress most emphatically occurs. But is it "perfection?" And why is experiencing perfection so important? would i know it if i did encounter it?

Some time ago i wrote about how seeing Will Williams doing the kettlebell front squat - in particular the breathing to go with that move - stopped me in my tracks as seeming effortless and perfect. I'd described it as what i'd understood art to be about, when a move goes from the mechanistic to the graceful.

The parts of perfection. Last week or so, looking at the kettlebell front squat, i came back to the front squat, going over how zhealth breaks down the concept of efficient movement into four parts that seems to be a recipe for the perfect rep:
  1. perfect form - hitting the target
  2. dynamic postural alignment.
  3. synchronized respiration
  4. balance tension and relaxation
These points are described more fully in that front squat post.

What's been hitting me of late as a key feature of even getting into step one - hitting the target/perfect form - is volume by repetition. In other words, tons of reps. Which means lighter weights.

What's a Rep, really? Generally speaking, i've thought of reps as simply reps within a set, and that volume is just whatever you get from the total reps x mass for a particular workout. Increasing reps, especially when focusing on strength, has seemed just the wrong way to think about it, too: loads of reps is endurance strength, not power strength, heh we want POWER to PRESS. And it seems many protocols for strength reinforce this. For instance, in Charles Staley's excellent Escalating Density Training, in your 15 min. blocks, once you get 70reps inside a set, pretty much time to up the weight. What more is there to volume than that? Over the weekend, talking with Suleiman Al-Sabah about our mutual pressing goals, Al encouraged me again to think about doing "lots of reps" and reminded me of Kenneth Jay's part of the RKC manual on building strength. So i went to have a bit of a re-read.

The rationale for volume by rep: Kenneth talks about the need to do lots and lots of reps at a weight that can be readily sustained for lots and lots of reps to build up the neurological patterns of what that move is. The caveat to this volume, of course, is that you have to know what the correct form is to be repeated. See that RKC instructor.

Assuming that instruction has taken place, the rationale here for upping volume as half the strategy to strength is that this repetition neurologically groves the pattern of performance for building up the weight. To this end, Kenneth has Low Volume and High Volume days: lost of reps at lighter weight for grooving the pattern vs fewer (perfect) reps at higher weights to develop load.

Patterning is important. I've been focusing on the importance of patterning within z health practice - in terms of healing movement patterns, and taking those patterns from the level of conscious effort to unconscious habit. Over the weekend, i'd decided to focus just on my suitcase dead-lift form with KB's, using the EDT 15 min approach: the sDL's for the first exercise; floor presses for the second. For the sDL's I used a weight about half of what i usually use for such sets, just to focus on rep quality. The main points of concern, like that front squat for hitting the target meant correct head and eye position throughout the move, correct knee position, correct hip hinge, correct butt backness, and doing all this with bone ryhthmn. That's a lot to do. The cool thing that happened was that when everything was firing together, the rep simply felt better: more effective, more efficient, like all the parts working as one thing rather than as a bunch of joints and muscles trying to achieve something. Sadly by the time i was actually finished the 15 mins, and the sets of 5 reps were starting to really connect, (a) the time was up but (b) i was just starting to feel fatigued. Good time to stop, right? And keen desire to do it again. Oh, and i felt that workout the next day, too.

It's funny how when you need to hear something, you keep hearing it over and over, eh? At least i find this. It's like the opposite of a nightmare where you keep having the same monster, only bigger, until you stop turn around and look at the monster and say "can i help you?"

An Example of Rep Volume in Action. The Sneaky sneaky Way of the RKC. It was in the afternoon, after this morning workout, that i had the meet with Al and his recommendation of "lots of reps" and a reread of Kenneth Jay. And in rereading that section, i recollected one of the most profound experiences of the RKC cert: connecting with the swing. Indeed, i had a revelation of what the hardstyle swing form was, compared to how i'd interpreted and executed previous instruction. I felt i *got it* from "firing the lats" to getting the energy down into the ground. it was ah ha, ah ha, ah ha. I left the cert feeling pretty good about that swing, and could hardly wait to share these refinements with others.

How did that happen? Repeated instruction i'd thought and such attention on form over several days, but - i see it all now - the other key ingredient: lots and lost of reps. LOTS. Sneaky sneaky. Every 20mins over three days a timer went off and we were doing swings. And those were just the regularly scheduled ones. Any opportunity for pause was filled with swings, using a bell weight that enabled a perfect rep from first to last. So combine that volume with constant supervision to tweak and correct form, yes we'd better leave with a dang good sense of the swing. The other day i was quietly delighted when i was demo'ing a swing, the trainee laughed. I asked why. He said "well it's so right - the swing - that's what it's supposed to look like." With the instruction, it's the reps, isn't it.

Putting it together: More Reps Are Alright, Jack.
It's taken me till today to put it together that it's just this type of volume with focus on form that, ya, does embed the move in the body. And more, it does provide the basis for increasing the load, just as KJ and Pavel have said. As proof positive, half way through the cert, with the encouragement of team assistant instructor Lynda Angeles, i was double swinging 24s with proper form. That effort with that load would not have been possible - it was certainly not imaginable - prior to this halfway point in the three days of swings marvelous swings.

The take away at least for this first step towards a perfect rep, of Hitting the Target, is indeed doing what it takes to get in the volume of reps. This is not using a sissy weight. Pavel would not have let us get away with this during the RKC, but as KJ says in the RKC manual talking about presses: using a weight you can do for 5-15 reps, and if you're doing 15 reps, your high volume day better be 200/side.

I used to think of light days as just a way to keep effort alive and not burn out from higher work volume. Ho hum. I now find myself energized and looking forward to these high volume lighter weight days as an opportunity to have that form *click* in those moves where i've had instruction, and can monitor myself to feel that connection.

Hope if you've had questions about the role of volume of reps, these reflections might help you too experience where the path to the perfect rep, after instruction and knowledge of proper form, is aided immensely by rep volume.

Note: do look at Mike's comments below on fascial adaptation - and the recommendation to change up trunk positions for HIGH volume (thanks Mike).

Book Plug: Kenneth Jay in the New Year.
Now if you don't have an RKC certification manual to read up on Kenneth's approach to the press, fear not. A book is coming in the new year to focus says Kenneth on, perhaps not surprisingly, the perfection of the press, the pistol and the pull up. In the meantime, happy repping.

update: the quest for the perfect strength rep through volume continues, charting the course here.


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