Friday, March 19, 2010

Michael Castrogiovanni Interview: The Innovative Fine Art & Sport of Kettlebell Partner Tossing

For many folks, playing catch is a fun activity - get a little exercise, exercise a little skill to catch a ball while moving or to adapt to a crappy pitch or to pitch well for a great catch. Usually the implements of such game play are at most a few ounces (a few hundred grams). Now imagine taking this game up a notch and playing catch tossing 12kg (26lb) to 32kg (70lbs) or more via an iron ball that has a handle on it.

This particular form of catch is an evolution in Micahel Castrogiovanni's kettlebell practice, developed with his colleages RKC TL Jeremy Layport and RKC Blair Ferguson. It's called Kettlebell Partner Tossing, previewed half a dozen posts ago here at begin2dig. The video above is from Michael's forthcoming DVD on progressions to develop the skills for these out-of-the-sagital-plane movements few of us working out with kb's have ever tried.

I got to see this tossing live (way more incredible and very "beautiful strength"y than even the video conveys) and found it so compelling, i asked Michael if he'd do an interview about his own background in athletics, how he came to kettlebells, how the heck KB Partner Tossing came about and fits into his practice. Michael kindly agreed, and beyond those points, we also discuss some thoughts on who else might consider adding Tossing kb's to their athletic regimen.

Historical Note - it may well be that strongmen (and maybe stronggals) of yore partner kb tossed. You know, it's bound to happen: have a kettlebell; a couple strong people. Eventually, it has to come up "heh let's throw that at each other " (thanks ltd for that '30's link).
The ever vigilant Randy Hauer sent me a link to a demo of Ukraniane KB partner tossing hence me calling Michael an Innovator, rather than an Inventor. What i saw with Michael and Jeremy was not as formalized as the ukranine precision tossing, used heavy kb's, and seems to have the potential to evolve into a sport (my assessment; Michael makes no such claims). It seems to me that by doing a How To DVD on this practice, Michael is making an effort to enable others to gain access to this practice. All good. Here's to you experiencing delight and joy in this practice, too.

Background: In what's known as the hard style kettlebell community Michael is a quiet but potent presence. For context, he is the co-author with Brett Jones of the well regarded Kettlebbell Basics for Strength Coaches and Personal Trainers. We'll come back to this one.

Michael also has a Bachelors degree in Kinesiology with an emphasis in Fitness Nutrition and Health, his certifications include NSCA Certified Strength and Conditioning Specialist; he is an RKC team leader. Michael's training has seen him working with business executives, the Orange County fire authority, high school football teams, and Hermits at a monastery to name just a few. More bio details are available at Michael's Facebook page.

Interview Proper
Have you always been an athletic guy? If yes, what's the path been? if not, what's the path been?
I have always been involved in athletics and it has taken me many years of practice and dedicated training to develop my athletic abilities. I view athleticism as a lifelong pursuit and it is something I am continually working towards improving. I played soccer, basketball and football as a youngster. When I turned 14 I asked Mark Reifkind (the owner of the World Gym at the time and current Master RKC) if I could work out at his facilities. Unfortunately the age requirement was 16. After begging and pleading he told me I needed a note from my mom and dad with their permission to work out. My parents felt it was a good idea so I started at the World Gym shortly thereafter. In high school I played football, tennis and wrestled. I continued wrestling on club teams in college and I furthered my pursuit of athleticism in the weight room and in the class room. After college I spent as much time as possible with leaders in the industry honing my skills, learning as much as I could from as many people as possible.
it sounds like you may have moved progressively away from sports to more strength based training. Is that the case or is something else happening here?
I have been doing strength based training with weights since I was 14 to supplement my sports performance. As I am getting older I am participating less in competitive sports and have moved more towards the strength training, yes. I also do quite a bit of work for my hand eye coordination, overall coordination and agility as well in order to keep things well rounded and balanced. My intention is to increase athleticism and my ability to move optimally and restriction free in all ways, anything that will improve these abilities gets incorporated into my training.
Your early DVD on KB coaching with Brett Jones- it took me ages to connect
the guy with the beard is you! you taught me how to push press a kettlebell, dude! that's a great video. Would you care to discuss a bit more about how that dvd came about since it's become such a reference set?
Sure. The KB basics DVD came from my 2004 presentation on kettlebells at the NSCA national conference. I had made contact with the NSCA and they invited me to do a presentation on kettlebells in Minnesota of all places. I contacted John Du Cane of Dragondoor publications and told him of the business opportunity and he got on board.

Shortly after I spoke with John, Brett Jones senior RKC and a fellow CSCS sent me an e-mail asking to be a part of the presentation, and that he would help in any capacity that he could. So I decided that it would be a good idea for him to demonstrate the Kettlebell movements. The presentation was a huge success and we received positive feedback for our performance and our chemistry. Pavel, who was also at the conference, remarked at how well we worked together and told us that we should do a DVD. We agreed and worked for the next several months building the outline. We shot the DVD in early 2005 had it edited and on the market by late June of 2005 and the rest is history.
at the point of doing this video, what was your main training? how did it come about?
At the point of filming I had just left the monastery where I had been living for the previous six months. While I was there my training consisted of all things kettlebells, squats, deadlifts, pull-ups and yoga. When I wasn’t working out I was splitting wood, climbing trees, lifting rocks, mountain biking and hiking.

The way that it came about is actually quite cool. I brought my bells up to the monastery and they had some very basic weights in their gym. I worked ninety percent with kettlebells and ten percent or sometimes less with more conventional types of training. My style of training was dictated by what I had available to me and how creative I could be. It is one of the fondest memories I have of training even thought the equipment was minimal.
SO before we get to that one, how did you come to KB's?
Interestingly enough the same man who opened his gym doors to me when I was 14 would introduce Kettlebells to me 9 years later. Mark Reifkind had been telling me about this strength and conditioning tool called a "kettlebell" for several months. Finally one afternoon in his garage he showed me the swing, clean and snatch. After the initial lesson, he ran me through a quick circuit with the kettlebells that left me mindboggled and out of breath! From that moment I knew my training would be changing for the better.

That's cool. What was your practice at this time? still sports focused? strength focused? or did you just trying to get a sense of what you mean your training would get better?
There was still sport focus but it was beginning to taper quite a bit. I had sustained a wrestling injury so my competitive days had come to a standstill. I was predominately focused on rehabilitating myself and getting as strong and healthy as I could. When the kettlebell was introduced to me I realized that my training was going to get better in the sense of more interesting, more creative and in a way a totally different paradigm of training. I moved away from many of the lifts I was doing with the intention of immersing myself in the kettlebell.
How did strength become important to you?

The first response that comes to mind is that I wanted to be as strong as possible so that when I wrestled I could man handle my opponents. If I look deeper, a more honest answer is that strength became important to me because of my desire to not feel weakness or vulnerability and the insecurity that accompanies the two. I guess you could say fear of being week or vulnerable was where it all started-compensation based if you will. I used my apparent strength to feel better about the areas where I was not strong. Later in my strength training career I learned that the very thing I was aiming to avoid, vulnerability, was the key to finding real strength. To be willing to be vulnerable and face weakness is where authentic strength is spawned. The willingness to make mistakes, to fail and to not be perfect is true strength training. This is my ongoing practice and by no means I am a master yet. However, now I know that vulnerability is not something to fear. Rather, it is an ally to be embraced, accepted and learned from.
Sounds like you've had at least one experience - perhaps that was not in the strength space - that led you to this discovery about the vulnerability/strength tao. if you care to share a bit more about that, that could be cool.

The experience that comes to mind is a wrestling injury. I was in tip top shape wrestling five to six days a week going to school full time, teaching grade school P.E. part time and studying some martial arts. My plate was full, my speed was full throttle, and my definition of who I was came from all the physical demands that I placed on myself. I felt invincible, powerful, fully alive and completely identified with my body. At wrestling practice the week before league finals I made a poor choice to wrestle with a novice. I took a sloppy shot, he dove at me, my face met the crown of his head and he knocked me out. I awoke on my back with blood in my throat and no feeling in my legs. I freaked out and began to pray.

Slowly I felt sensation come back to my body. Dazed, I sat up; stabilizing my neck with my hands I went to the bathroom and packed my nose with toilet paper. I had a friend drive me to the gas station to buy a big bag of ice for my neck. She wanted me to go to the emergency room and I insisted I would be fine. I had a test the next morning and couldn’t afford to wait in the ER. She took me back to my house and I passed out for the night. The next morning I knew that I was in bad shape, I bombed my test and headed over to Student health services with a swollen neck and pounding headache. The doctor immediately put me in a neck brace, diagnosed me with a concussion and sent me off for a CT scan.

Fortunately nothing was broken. Since I was feeling numbness and tingling in my left arm the doctor sent me to a neurologist who ordered an MRI. We discovered a herniated disc and was ordered to stop physical activity. Everything that I identified with had been taken away from me in a moment and I was left questioning who I was. I didn’t realize how much self worth I put in my identities, as a wrestler, as a coach, as a teacher, as a strong man, etc until I was unable to be those things. I felt that there was more to me than my physicality and I also saw that many of the superficial aspects of my life were what I believed myself to be. The journey back to physical, mental and emotional health was where my true strength journey began. Vulnerability and weakness became the norm and my lessons became more about acceptance and letting go than making personal records and building my body. I began to experience a different type of strength from a whole, new perspective .
It will sound trivial to say that is a compelling and powerful story, Michael. It's the sort of thing one wants to ponder. How then now do you measure your satisfaction with your own pursuit of strength?
I feel most satisfied in my strength pursuit when what I am doing to build strength carries over into other aspects of my life. The measurement for that is quite intrinsic but I know when there is carry over and that is what is most important to me.
Moving then from this intrinsic aspect to the extrinsic and the particulars of your new practice, at the RKC II 2010 cert in San Jose you spoke of a kind of dissatisfaction with kb's always in the same movement plane - effectively, going between one's legs and over one's head. What inspired you to move outside that plane/box?
Ideas came to me and I wanted to try and see if they could actually work. By allowing myself permission to explore the possibilities, the conceptual moves soon became reality that in turn lead to more possibilities. The kettlebell is a creative outlet for me.
Was that a surprise to you?
I see myself as a very creative person so it was not a surprise to me.
Good for you. That's cool. Dare i ask what are the properties of the kettlebell that appeal to you such that it made sense for this kind of exploration?
This is a deep conversation that I think we ought to have over a cup of tea after we have tossed some bells together. I can show you better than I can tell you.
Delighted. How long have you been developing/playing with less static movement in kb's.
The more dynamic movements started in 2004 when I was living in Big Sur at a monastery. Yes, at a monastery.
Well i can think of few better places for one than on the Big Sur road. Pray continue.
I felt confined in the traditional ranges and I wanted to incorporate more movement to promote greater growth in general and in athleticism. So I started to explore as many possibilities as I could imagine.
Can we do something very basic here and ask about movement? Folks used to pressing weights in the gym might already see kettlebell swinging as dynamic and a wee bit dangerous. So to say you wanted more movement may be intriguing for folks watching regular kb vids, or those who are already practicing with them.
Even though the kettlebell moves are much more dynamic than most people are used to, the movements are all done with stationary feet. As an athlete and strength and conditioning coach, I recognize the importance of footwork and agile feet. So when I talk about wanting more dynamic movements, I am referring to moving the body through time and space as well as the kettlebells.
What motivated the partner kb tossing? how did you encourage others
to participate with you?
The motivation for partner passing came from my desire to progress further outside the box. Once I tried passing I immediately knew that it was something that I wanted to pursue. Unfortunately it is not that easy to convince other people to let you throw cannonballs at them. Luckily, I met Blair Ferguson of and he was totally into the idea!

The other person that I was able to convince to throw bells at me, AND who has been instrumental in the development process is Jeremy Layport. Thanks to Blair and Jeremy I have been able to develop KB passing beyond what I ever imagined.
The difference between the video clip and the demonstration/performance with you and Jeremy in San Jose seemed to be the closeness of the space. There was something even more compelling i found both in the tighter space of the performance and also, sitting on the ground to watch it low. Have you seen video from that seated position of you guys passing the kb? if not, i hope you'll take a look.
I have not and I will take a look at that as it presents itself thank you for the insight.
Also, do you see your movement in partner passing as demonstration or performance or something else?
It is demonstration, performance and training all in one. All aspects are going on when an audience is present. The degree of perceived danger is increased with an audience in front of you-especially the first time demonstrating.
From an athletic wellbeing perspective, what do you see as the benefits from kb tossing?
The benefits are many. I find that the most important thing that it has facilitated in me is greater trust: trust in my body's ability to handle whatever is "Thrown at me", trust in my partner to do his or her best and trust in the process as it unfolds. Another benefit that comes from partner passing, is learning to read situations and make split second adjustments accordingly without compromising structural or personal integrity.
Some additional training effects of KB passing are increased awareness and sharpened focus. As the perceived degree of difficulty and/or danger of a given activity increases, we tend to invest more of our focused attention on the activity at hand. Some side benefits that I have seen are increased eye hand coordination, grip strength and endurance, the ability to manage load and force from many different angles and improvement in one's ability to improvise to name just a few.
i wonder how we could set up a functional mri of kb tossing - just to see how the brain lights up as the risk/attention and coordination go up. fascinating.
That is a great idea and I would love to be a part of that and see what the results would be.
Two quick questions: i'm betting that y'all would call kb partner tossing safe because you train with weights against which you know you can get position when they're thrown. Is that fair?
That is fair and there is still danger involved.
That said, what are your usual partner tossing weights? do you train with these or heavier/lighter weights?
I use as many different weights as possible. The amount of weight is one important variable of this type of training that allows for so many possibilities. As the weight changes, even though the patterns stay the same, the exercises become radically different. I do most of my experimentation with the 12kg, 16kg, or 20kg, with the goal of being able to eventually do the patterns with the 24kg, 32kg, and up. There was a session a few months back where Jeremy and I were tossing a pair of 48kgs for reps back and forth. I also toss the 8kg’s with some of my female clients, it really depends on who I am tossing with and what my intention is for our session.
How much time would you say you and your colleagues put into training tossing daily/weekly to get to the proficiency you have - and let's just get it out there now that you are all veteran kettlebell trainers and practitioners in the standard arts of swing, snatch,get up.
For the year prior to filming the video I was practicing with Blair Ferguson three times a week for one to two hours depending on what we were working on. I only had a few weekends to work with Jeremy several months before we filmed. Fortunately, Jeremy is such a stud and incredible athlete he was able to pick it up quickly and he also had [RKC Team Leader -mc] Chris Holder to practice with and that made a big difference.
Tossing is also a single person endeavor. On the days I was not practicing with Blair or Jeremy I would practice my single man juggling routine to get better at handling the bell and understanding its nature to prepare for partner passing.
You also say you trust your partner to give "his or her best" - have you worked with women in the tossing? if so, are any parts of the experience different from working with men/women in this practice?
Yes I have worked with a few women and there is very little difference other than the amount of weight used. Women tend to pick it up fast and enjoy the challenge just as much as the men I have worked with. I want to work with more women because one of the major benefits is the balancing, grounding and rooting aspects this type of training has to offer. I feel tossing has quite a lot of potential for women of all ages.
In your experience how is tossing different than kb juggling?
There is far less control in tossing vs. juggling
Nice. good point.
You never know what kind of a rep is going to be thrown at you and adaptation is paramount. There is also a component of communication that exists with the passing that is not there when you are juggling. Tossing kettlebells is an interaction between two humans and a way of relating with each other through the kettlebell, whereas juggling you are relating to the kettlbell. Kettlebell passing is in its essence a complete model for communication and I still have much to learn about communication from this type of training.
You sound pretty passionate about the importance of communication. could you speak a bit more about why this is critical for you?
The reason I am so passionate about Communication is because it is the platform for all interaction. To be effective and successful at life is to be an excellent communicator. Communication is both listening and speaking and to be a master of communication allows one the ability to exist in any environment with ease and grace. Listening is one of the most powerful aspects of kettlebell passing, it becomes more than an act of the ears, rather, an act of one’s entire body. Listening takes on a whole new meaning as all the senses are employed to read a given situation as it is unfolding in the present moment.
What would you advice folks to do who are new to kettlebells, see your video and say "wow that looks so cool; i want to do that?"
Wow that will be great for your sales.
This type of training was developed for advanced athletes and kettlebellers. Spend a few years learning the basics before you get any crazy ideas. Strength health and longevity are the goals of training and making poor choices will only keep you from the goals.
You know as soon as you put out your dvd though, that folks who haven't worked much with KB's are going to get excited about this as "extreme kettlebelling"

So a few questions here: what kind of prep would you say is crucial - how does someone know they're and advanced kettlebeller - you mention time - what else?
You might be an intermediate kettlebeller if you have been practicing for a year or more and teaching for about as long, and you have an RKC, AKC, or IKFF cert under your belt.

Kettlebell Workshop at

You might be an advanced kettlebeller if you have three to five years under your belt and you are a Team Leader, a Senior RKC, a Master RKC, or if you are a competitive kettlebell lifter with several meets under your belt and you are a higher level instructor for one of the other reputable kettlebell certifying bodies out there..

Seven or more years of continuous practice and you are more than likely to be in the advanced category provided you have had a credible instructor teach you the techniques of the trade. Learning from magazines books and DVD’s does not count!

If you can easily complete the single man [sic] kettlebell juggling routine from my KB partner passing DVD with good form and in a safe manner, it is most likely o.k. to proceed. Provided you have had instruction from credible instructors.
Also, i mention "extreme kettlebelling" - it doesn't sound however like it has that "extreme" mantra to you - that you're not driven by how far you can toss or how heavy. What is the key focus for you?
I do enjoy tossing bells as far as possible and passing heavy bells back and forth and you are right the drive is not the extreme aspect of the training. The key of the kettlebell partner passing for me is the highly focused state of Zen like meditation that is achieved from practicing. It is a movement meditation and a form of self cultivation like no other that I have experienced. It is a cross between Tai Chi, wrestling, and weightlifting.
Have to say that my recollection of watching the tossing at the RKC the youtub clip just doesn't do it justice. WHen you kept saying to the group to move back and give you a bit more room, i don't think most of us had any idea what was coming - for what would you need that much room with a kettlebell?
I think it is far more impressive to see KB passing in person then in video format. It was an amazing experience to have the space I did and the audience to demo for. I was so into what we were doing that time and spaces were of little concern.
Kettlebell tossing is an act to be seen by others as well as practiced for dynamic strength, is it not? Where does performance in front of others come into your practice? What's its role?
I hope others see this style of training and realize that it takes good sound judgment to determine if it is appropriate for their personal practice. To see is one thing and to do is a whole different ball of wax. I recommend extreme caution when others consider this kind of training. It is Dangerous! The element of danger adds to the benefit of the training and the reward must be weighed against the risk.
Does it feel much different when there's folks watching?
The performance aspect creates more pressure, when I start tossing the only thing I have on my mind is what's being tossed at me and what I am tossing back.
When you're not tossing kettlebells with the willing, what do you do, Michael?
One of my favorite things to do is train at in Ventura, California with Blair Ferguson. Our collaboration is one of the main reasons that the KB passing has advanced and evolved to this level. I love being active, hiking, biking, yoga, surfing, grappling, kayaking and just about anything else that involves nature. I also enjoy learning, communicating, reading and I am learning to enjoy writing more. Spending time with friends and family is very important to me and I always enjoy developing and growing my relationships.
Yoga? any particular form? and how long has that been in the Michael mix?
I began yoga in 2000 just before I was introduced to kettlebells. The tyle of yoga was predominately vinyasa flow, I have also practiced restorative yoga, tantra, and power yoga. Four years ago, I transitioned to a more aggressive and challenging form of power yoga called Blanchard yoga and have been practicing it since.
Is that activity what sets your hair on fire or is there something else that also moves you?
I tell ya, watching you do pull-ups at the RKC 2 moved me!! The natural world and the mysteries' of life along with the depth and beauty of the human body sets my hair on fire.

What would you say if it hasn't been covered is important for folks to be sure to incorporate into their own strength practice that you think may be missing or underplayed?
Squats, Deadlifts, overhead press and pull-ups.
OK, let's go: why each one, and with which implements?
All implements are good to use and should be used in moderation.

They are all full body exercises and require significant amounts of tension to perform and they all systemically fortify the body.

Pull-ups because it is important to be able to pull your weight.

because they teach you to stand up

Overhead press because this is one of our weakest positions and it is always good to have the strength to put your own luggage in the overhead bin.

Deadlifts because it is important to be able to pick up heavy stuff you never know when you will need this.
As we've been discussing, you do have a video on kb parner tossing coming out. What will it be called, when can we expect it, and where will we be able to order it?
"Michael Castrogiovanni's Kettlebell Partner Passing" (as of right now) is in the final stages of production and is expected to be released this quarter. It will be available through multiple outlets including my website
Fabulous; looking forward to it. I'm sure the three of you could get onto tv shows demonstrating this - that strength can be fluid and beautiful in different ways.
Yes I want to juggle for Oprah
That would be fantastic. How do we make that happen? In the meantime, is there anything else you'd care to share that i haven't touched on here related to wellbeing, fitness, what's important to you in this space?
Yes. I feel that there is one key ingredient to wellness and fitness that is overlooked and often thrown by the wayside in favor of increasing numbers, winning and achieving new personal records.

That crucial ingredient is fun.

We have been conditioned at such an early age to win that the idea of fun gets glossed over. The win at any cost attitude is a fast track to burning out. If a lifelong pursuit of health, fitness and wellness are the goals, I highly recommend doing more of things that you enjoy, that make you laugh and smile, with people you love.
Thank you for taking the time, Michael, to talk about your practice and your new sport. Much obliged.
Thank you for the opportunity to share my experience with you and your readers. Peace and blessings to all.
Michael is one more incredible athlete whom i've spoken with from the RKC II who's independently said the premium should be on fun, being in the moment, rather than numbers. There's a theme from the best practitioners developing here.

Will post an update as soon as Michael's video is out. In the meantime if you'd like to hook up with Michael for training, he can be reached via

In the meantime, let's see that again...

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Unknown said...

After 3 plus years working out with kettlebells, Mike, as well as RKC certified trainers Robert Budd and Carolyn Brumfield, have helped my workouts continue to evolve. I cant thank Mike enough for introducing me to kettlebells.

Ive known Mike for about 12 years and this interview exemplifies just how genuine Mike is not only as a trainer but as a human being as well.

I cant emphasize enough that one should jump at the chance to pick Mikes brain when it comes to working out whether your a gym rat, a weekend warrior or you are just starting down the life long path to be a more healthy individual in both mind and body.

dr. m.c. said...

mark, that is so nice.
i hope you'll copy and paste that and stick it onto mike's dragondoor instructor page. those things mean a lot.


dr. m.c. said...

and mark, thanks for stopping by


Unknown said...

Haven't just met Mike, I could tell what an amazing guy he is. Obvious his physical strength is impressive, but his mental strength or toughness is what inspires me. Too many people in this society categorize strength to only how much weight they can lift in the gym. To me, what you do in the gym must have a carry over effect to our daily life. Why be a beast in the weight room when you are a coward in your personal life?

For Mike to get over the adversity he had on the wrestling mat is sign of his strength to over come "anything thrown" at him. Thus, the metaphor of KB throwing.

Mike is strong as hell, but his mental determination to over come any setback is what impresses me most.


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