Friday, March 12, 2010

asha wagner: 24kg weighted pistol, pull up, press success with Greasing the Groove emphasis on Technique

What do you say of a gal who can one arm strict military press a 24kg kettlebell, do a single leg squat (pistol) with that 24, and do a pull up with said 24kg (53lbs) tied to her waist? Anything she wants? Usual introductions, however, would be to Asha Wagner, and this post is an interview with this super athlete. Indeed, I thought this interview was mainly going to be about Asha's Beast work and her tips for other aspiring tamers, but it turns out that there's so much more to Asha's sports-person-ship and outlook on both life and athletic practice that i'm just frickin' inspired by her attitude and approach to sport. I hope you will be too.

For context, then, a bit about the deal with the three particular lifts of the Beast Challenge that initiated connecting with Asha about this piece, and how for some of us, they've become a sinecure of strength.

At every kettlebell RKC certification, Dragon Door pulls out the Beast Challenge opportunity, named after the nickname for the 48kg kettlebell the guys must use. For guys, therefore, the challenge is a pistol (one legged squat), pull up and press with a 48kg kettlebell. For women, the load is 24kg (the women's challenge has recently been renamed the Iron Maiden. No comment). There are under a dozen men who have completed the BC. And so far, it seems, two women.

Statuesque, serene and really nice fire fighter Asha Wagner is one of them. Asha won the challenge in 2008. Not content to sit on her laurels, as it were, just for fun, she casually pistoled both a 32kg and 36kg kettlebell at the cert.

Asha kindly agreed to have a chat about her beast challenge experience, training, where kettlebells (those cannonballs with handles) and athletics fit into her life, and what an RKC certified kb (kettlebell) trainer does for fun.

Asha, would you say you've always been involved in some kind of sport or athletics?
I've been involved in some type of athletics since I was 8 years old - Peewee league baseball 1 year, softball 3 years, basketball 1 year, rode the bench the entire season so I switched over to volleyball after that and stuck with through college. I was first introduced to volleyball when I was 12, but didn't start playing on a team until I was 14. Now I mainly coach volleyball for a club team here called Starlings Oakland, rock climb, and just started playing rugby.
Cool. why rugby?
I've always been interested in rugby. It always looked like orchestrated chaos to me. While very physically and mentally challenging, climbing to me is more meditative than sport for me. Now, I'm joining mainly for the comraderie, to be a part of a team, and workout, suffer and celebrate as a group.

How has this passion translated into a day job or has it?
I currently work as a firefighter. Firefighting is basically an athletic event.
While biathletes have people skiing behind them with guns, i'm not aware of olympic events that include running through burning buildings. You are being modest. Have you or will you however take part in any of the firefighter challenges (the dragging the hose, going up the stairs, dragging the dummy, etc)?
Yes, the Firefighter Combat Challenge is one of the things I'm training for currently. Along the same lines, I'll be participating in a stair climb at the end of this month, 52 stories, full firefighting gear, breathing air from an SCBA bottle. Should be fun.
To come back to the role of sports in firefighting...
My involvement in sports has been invaluable in helping to prepare me for firefighting. Beyond working out and becoming physically strong, sports helped me to develop, teamwork and communication skills, discipline, determination and work ethic.
How do the above these approaches in particular to fire fighting?
In firefighting we all have specific jobs that need to be accomplished. We have to work as a part of a team. We have to able to effectively communicate our findings, actions and needs to others on the fire ground, especially when conditions change. There will usually be something unexpected that happens, and good communication and problem solving skills go a long way towards mitigating that.

As a direct result of the workouts I've been through, I'm used to being physically uncomfortable and gutting my way through it. When you're clawing your way with a 100 lbs on your back up a hill so steep you have to grab on to shrubs to keep from falling over backwards, it helps to focus on the moment, forget about the top of the hill, and just be determined to take one more step. That's something I learned from athletics

I also enjoy mountain and road biking, swimming, skateboarding, snowboarding, unicycling, and pretty much anything where I get to get out and move and play.
When not being Sport Asha, what sets your hair on fire to do?
I love the arts, music reading, hanging out with friends and family, traveling, camping, puzzles and games, again pretty much anything where I get to play and have fun.
Great that there's the emphasis on fun. How do you bring that to the volleyball team you coach?
With the kids it's a balancing act. I have the older group of girls in the club, the 18 and unders. I usually throw in a good amount of variety in the drills to keep them engaged. I try to make sure that I compliment as much or more than I criticize. They seem to respond well when they see the other coach and I hop on the court and let our love of the game come through.

The other side of the coin is that we push them very hard. We have high standards and expectations for them, every point, every play. Ten or 15 years from now, they probably won't remember the scores to any of these games, but the life skills and lessons mentioned above will stay with them their whole lives. There will be practices where they are absolutely miserable, but oddly enough when they go away to college and come back to visit, those are always the ones they thank us for.
From what we talked about when we were at the Cert, you've been a volley ball player and are getting into Rugby: where do kettlebells come into this?
I didn't find out about kettlebells until a few years after I was done playing competitively.
So what year would this be?
I played for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo '94-99

When I was playing in college, I didn't really know what I was doing as far as weight training and conditioning, but I did a whole lot of it. If I had've known about kettlebells then, I would've been down right frightening on the court. The two handed kettlebell swing almost exactly replicates the bottom part of a volleyball approach jump. It teaches to load the hips and maintain balance and core stability through a dynamic movement. It also teaches linking the whole body together to generate power. For me, I always think of my volleyball swing originating at my toes and traveling up my body out through my arm. A more connected and flowing volleyball approach results in a more powerful arm swing. This is very similar to the kettlebell swing.
Nice observation - i can imagine vball coaches taking notes.
Although i just started playing rugby, so far kettlebells have helped my speed, agility, jumping in the lineouts, leg drive and core stabilization in the scrum, and most definitely stamina. I've been using Kenneth Jay's Viking Warrior Program for around six months or so and have noticed huge improvements in my recovery rate and muscular endurance. I'm very excited to add in the Viking Push Press [demo's in Return of the Kettlebell -mc] we learned about in RKC II.
Have you been able to share these kettlebell protocols with your teammates? what's been their response to kb's?
I've only been practicing with the team for about two weeks now. My role for the time being, is to be a sponge, find out their ways of doing things, and learn as much as I can. I will start bringing a bell out to the pitch to warm up with a few swings before hand. If others are interested in learning, I'll be more than happy to share what I know.
You've done both RKC certs now - why? Whay RKC 1? and then why 2?
I love to learn. I was hooked on kettlebells after a week of working out with them on my own, learning from videos and books. One meeting with Joe Sarti, an RKC in San Jose, improved my technique and ability to better utilize my strength.

Kettlebell Workshop at

Cool. when was this?
I believe this was 2007 when Joe and I first met up. I wanted to learn more, so I signed up for the RKC I course.
So this is June 2008?
February 2008

There was an incredible wealth of information contained in the course. All of the instructors were incredibly knowledgeable and very effective teachers as well.

I wanted to learn more, so I signed up for the level II cert. Level II dissected the exercises in level I and gave me a whole new understanding of the movements and their benefits, and introduced a few new exercises that naturally built upon the movements from the one before it. Now, as I'm sure you've guessed, I want to learn more, so I signed up for the CK-FMS course in October.


Now to the heart of the matter: you're one of only a couple of women to have done the 24k version of the beast challenge. When/where did you pass that challenge?
I passed the challenge in 2008 at my level I cert in San Jose.
Way to show up, Asha. What inspired you to go for it?
I like a challenge, and it seemed like a good measure of overall strength
Do you still think that it is?
Yes, very much so. While each of the exercises may seem at first glance to be upper or lower body exercises, they are all full body exercises. For instance, I start my military presses with my toes, gripping the ground, and then tense all my muscles in sequence from there on up to minimize strength leakage as much as possible.
Lots of questions here: How long did you train for the Challenge? What was your training regimen for each event? Did you come to the challenge knowing that you could carry out each event? - had you tested each event in the challenge at test weight before competing?
My training for the challenge was by no means the most direct and efficient way to accomplish this goal. I guess you you could say i started training for the challenge before I even knew there was a challenge. i had been rock climbing for a few years and wanted to increase my pull up strength for that. i started doing unweighted gtg* pull-ups sets of 5-10 after every call that I went on at work. Gradually I began to add weight up until the point where i was doing sets of 5 pull-ups with a 60 lb pack on my back. this was around 3 years before the challenge.Ii started to develop a little tendonitis in my elbow, most likely from hyperextending on the bottom of the pull up, and not properly engaging my lats, and had to taper off. i still kept rock climbing with some regularity, off and on been working towards a muscle up, as well as really focusing on pulling the kb back down during military presses. That seemed to have reasonably maintained my pull up strength.

[*Note, GTG - short for Grease the Groove, a concept presented by Pavel Tsatsouline in the Naked Warrior, for frequent reps over the course of the day to develop strength in a move -mc]

The second part of it was the press. when i first started with the kettlebells in 2004, the description said that the average woman will start with a 12 kg and the average man will start with a16 kg. Me, being me, ordered the 16 kg. It sat in my basement untouched for 6 months. I could barely press the thing overhead. Then somehow I got a wild hair to pick it up again, watched the Russian Kettlebell Challenge video and used the tips in there to increase my press strength and get an introduction to the swing. The fast tens program in the winter 2005 issue of hard style greatly increased my pressing strength. Then a few years later I did the Enter the Kettlebell program and soon felt it was time for the 24 kg. While waiting for it to come I began doing push presses and cheat assisted presses holding both the 12 kg and 16 kg in one hand. When the 24 arrived, it was heavier than I thought it would be. I began doing long cycle push presses Grease the Groove until i eventually worked up to 1-2 presses every hour and after every call. This is where I met up with Joe Sarti who gave me a lot of good advice on breathing and maintaining body tension during the exercises.
Sounds cool. Do you remember when you first pressed the 24? What would you say clicked that it went up that day?
I don't remember the exact day so well, but I do remember maintaining about as much body tension as I could muster.

For the pistol, I used pretty much the same regimen as the other lifts, GTG and adding weight over time. A couple of minor knee injuries kept me from going heavy with the pistols. In fact the most weight i had ever used for a pistol prior to the rkc was my 16 kg. I initially hadn't planned on doing the challenge that day and didn't raise my hand when they asked who was going to do the challenge. When everyone left for lunch I stayed behind, grabbed a 24 kg bell, and found I could pistol it fairly easily.
So let me get this straight: you had not EVER pistoled more than the 24, but you HAD been gtg'ing with the 12 and the 16? or mainly the 12?
yuppers, before that day, I had not ever pistoled more than the 16 and before RKC II no more than the 24.
And when you say GTG, how many reps, how many times a day would you say? and was that it? just gtg'ing? For how long would you reckon?
I'd been mainly doing 1-3 reps per leg around 6-10 times per day, 3-5 times per week. I had a partial achilles tear last year at work, so I've mainly been focusing on form and technique with the lighter weights while recovering
Also, if you started with bodyweight pistols, how long would you say it took to get you from your first BW pistol to your 24 at the cert?
I'm not exactly sure on the timeline on this one. I think I started learning the pistol around 2 years prior to the cert. When I first learned the pistol, I wasn't even thinking of the challenge. I had read the description for Pavel's Naked Warrior book and liked the idea of being able to get a full body strength workout with two bodyweight exercises. The challenge just happened to include one of those exercises.

Even though I had not done weighted pull ups for a while, I still felt pretty strong from rock climbing. I figured I'd give it a shot and see what happened. The pull up did prove to be tougher than I had expected. After taking the RKC II course I now realize it was much easier to maintain the hollow position with the 60 lb hose pack for pull ups vs having the kettlebell hanging around my waist. This was also long before I realized how much the hollow position and tucking my shoulders into their sockets would've helped my pull ups.
Ok that's inspiring. Do you have a favorite event in the challenge? Which is your most challenging and/or least favorite?
I really like all the events. Once I worked up to a full pistol, my strength increased in that one the quickest.
Good to know
The press was the toughest one for me to accomplish.
At the RKC II, you pistoled a 32 and a 36, i believe? and you'd like to see the women's event go up to 32kg. Could you expand on that a little bit: why isn't the 24 sufficient?
The 24 isn't sufficient for me simply because, i've accomplished it, i know that I am capable of more, and I like a challenge. I also know that having strength to accomplish this will directly translate into my work and play. When I pistoled the 32 and 36, that was more out of curiosity than anything else. I hadn't been specifically training to lift that weight. For the past two months or so before the cert, I hadn't pistoled anything heavier than 12. I had been using GTG at work, focusing on breathing, body tension and really drawing myself into the bottom of the pistol. When I pistoled the 36, I didn't want to convert it into pounds in my head before hand. I just wanted to go for it and see how it felt. With the tension and balance I had at the bottom, I instantly knew I'd be able to cleanly pistol the weight.
Awesome to hear again how much form/technique plays a role in these kind of strength events. That's really cool. It's funny how sometimes when you grab a weight you just know it's going to click and move up - or not. Was it like that for you with the press when you got that?
The press was a bit more of a struggle. For me, getting my elbow higher than my shoulder is the sticking point. If I can get higher than that, then I know I have the press.

This directly translates into firefighting in that we are often called upon to lift in extremely awkward and unstable positions. Most of the things that we lift, don't have weights stamped on them. My goal is to have the balance, core stability, and generate the body tension, that will allow me to perform these awkward lifts, when need, in a safe manner.
What are your training tips for gals keen to do the newly named "iron maiden"
My tips for training would be focus less on the weight and more on form, body tension, and breathing. Pavel's Naked Warrior book and DVD were instrumental for me for learning the pistol. GTG is a very simple yet highly effective routine for all three of the lifts.
Just out of curiosity how was your hanging pull up at the cert?
The most I weight I used at the cert was hooking a 16 kg with a toe. I'll have to put a lot more work into the hollow position before I really test this one.
Ah forgive me - i should have said hanging leg raise - could you speak to that one?
My hanging leg raise was less than stellar, which was extremely eye opening for me. Climbing had always done a great job of keeping my core in shape, without me really having to think about specifically working those muscles. As I took a bit of time off from climbing to let some minor elbow tendonitis heal, I neglected to continue specifically training my obliques. It wasn't until the cert that I realized how that weakness, along with my tight hammies, was limiting my strength.
Don't you love those self-revelatory moments? So let me ask more generally, what are your current athletic goals?
Play, have fun, be healthy.
Not make the rugby olympic team for 2012 or 16?
When I started playing volleyball in college, my coach used to have a row of pictures on his wall of all the volleyball players that had made the school's all time top ten rankings. My goal was to get into the top ten and get my picture on the wall. After a while I soon realized that due to a lot of factors that were beyond my control, I wasn't going to get the playing time to rack up enough stats to be in the top 10. I abandoned that goal and instead focused on making the most out of the time that I was given, squeezing out every play for all it was worth. After my Junior year in college the athletic staff informed me I had the third highest single season hitting percentage in the school's all time history. I finished my college career ranked in the top 10 for single season hitting percentage, career hitting percentage, as well as three categories in the Big West Conference for that season.

So, after all that, now I just tend to focus more on making the most of the time that I'm given.
Focus on the technique not the weight; focus on the moment, not the stat. That's really potent stuff, Asha. Likely less stressful, too. And so within that frame, where do kb's fit into your regular training practice and why?
I tend to change up my main routines every few weeks or so. I like to mix things up. My body seems to respond best to variety in training. I've traditionally used kettlebells for the bulk of those routine. Right now I am primarily using bodyweight strength and conditioning routines. GTG and Viking Warrior are the two constants that are added on top of anything else I'm doing. While I tend to either plateau or get bored with other routines fairly quickly, these two routines have maintained fairly consistent benefits, and I keep them short enough where they still hold my interest.
Super. thanks for taking the time Asha. All the best with your practice.
Hope this helps out. If you have any more questions, please let me know. Thanks for all your time and effort.
Mein Bitte

Cool, no? Strength is a skill. How do ya win the iron maiden? practice practice practice.
Take away: there is no spoon; just technique, practice and enjoying the moment.

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Roland Fisher said...

mc, you've posted some stuff that I've really enjoyed lately, and this is no exception.

Asha Wagner seems so awesome. Her values and spirit around sport and training are much needed.

dr. m.c. said...

thanks for dropping by Roland. nice to see you. i'm still a bit stunned at this philosophy. and heck, am keen to give the practice tips part a go too.


Casey said...

Wow. Very impressive and motivating. Asha is definitely a class act, glad to have her in the RKC. Nice interview with some great take away lessons mc.

dr. m.c. said...

class act, yup, that's nice casey.

i hadn't thought of the RKC as something one was "in"
that's interesting.

hope you're well, sport.
thanks for leaving a note, too.

Chris said...

What a great interview


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