Wednesday, November 30, 2011

How to build epic strength: why tension matters

I am about to tell you, my dear readers, a story that is, objectively speaking...


My Pistol is Loaded.
All right, that’s not entirely true, but in my (correct) opinion, it’s still pretty awesome.  It’s the story of how I worked up to a pistol on each leg with a 70 lb kettlebell, using nothing more than my own bodyweight in practice and with an ultra-simple program.   

Ever since I discovered the one-legged squat, or “pistol”, upon reading Pavel’s bodyweight masterpiece The Naked Warrior, I’ve been in love.  It’s the ultimate go-anywhere leg strengthener that lends itself perfectly to all sorts of beneficial things: strong (and shapely) legs and butt with zero equipment, a power-enhancer for kickers of all types (martial arts, soccer, football, etc.), and if you do a few in front of friends who have never seen a pistol before, they’ll think you’re Superman.  So far I haven’t been able to impress any women with them, but you can’t have everything, right?

I’ve practiced pistols sporadically since 2008 and always had dreams of knocking off reps with heavier weights.  Wanting, of course, isn’t enough, and when push came to shove, I just wasn’t willing to put the time and effort into them.  However, at the beginning of this month and after a lot of thought into what I needed to do to improve on my pistols, I started to “grease the groove” (practice a few reps here and there throughout the day) and progress quickly followed.  

I focused all my attention on two things.  The first: technique, and specifically, really mastering the negative.  Too many people overlook the negative on any exercise as a critical part of mastering an exercise (Six-time Mr. Olympia Dorian Yates correctly points out that ignoring the negative amounts to “missing half of the rep”), and I think the pistol is a prime example.  The best I can say about many aspiring pistoleros is that their negative looks like they’re falling with style (to quote Buzz Lightyear).  Not a good habit to get into unless you get “style points” for your falling.

My second focus: tension.  A lot of it.  More than what I actually needed to complete the rep.  Typically in the RKC we focus on maximum tension with less-than-maximal weight and gradually peel away the tension as needed in order to build up the skill of full-body tension, which is (as you'll see) the keystone in the arch of true strength.  Since I was planning on building up to pistols with added weight, I ramped up the tension that I practiced.  The results?  Outstanding!  Within twelve days of greasing the groove with high-tension bodyweight pistols, I nailed a PR and did a solid pistol with a 53 lb kettlebell on each leg – something I had only dreamed of years before.  

 Inspired by my successful experiment, I decided to see if I could go up one size of kettlebell after REALLY ramping up the tension.  I took a few days off and practiced producing higher and higher tension with each practice session, squeezing everything I could out of each rep (again, with my bodyweight only).  Within one week, I got my 70 lb pistol on each leg.  They weren’t especially pretty, but for the time being, I’m counting them.  

 Proper practice pays off

This leads me to two important points: One, when it comes to building strength, technique matters.  Two, when it comes to building strength, tension matters (Understand now why I put my emphasis on those two things above merely adding weight?).  Other variables come into play, sure, but if you plan on skipping those first two steps, don’t plan for much else.  Have the patience and focus to put your time into improving these two aspects of your lifting and don’t get ahead of yourself.  Nail these and a lot of other things will fall in place.

I'm a HUGE believer in bodyweight exercise, and I can't speak more highly of both the book and DVD versions of The Naked Warrior .  The book and DVD together helped me achieve the two exercises dissected in both of them - the pistol and the one-arm pushup .  That's why they're this week's...

Products of the week!
Click HERE to buy the book and HERE to buy the DVD and make an investment in your strength, your health, and your all-around amazingness.  And if you're in the Omaha Metro area and you want to take your epicness to the next level, contact me for a consultation! 

And since strength is only part of the health equation, be sure to try out my free (and new favorite) recipe of the week!  It's a dessert, so I know you'll find room for it.

You'll need:
2 bananas
1 handful of almonds
1 pinch (or two) of coconut shavings.

Chop up the almonds and bananas separately.  Mix them together in a large bowl and add the coconut shavings.  Mix liberally, serve, and enjoy.

Until next time folks, lift heavy and eat clean!


Wednesday, November 23, 2011

Happy Thanksgiving!

Anyone who knows me knows I’m a complete health food nut, and have been ever since I started following the Warrior Diet in 2008.  Normally I’m pretty strict about eating as natural and organic as possible for a few reasons: 1) Eating processed crap catches up with you fast, and 2) I feel WAY  better when I eat healthy.

However, lately I’ve been letting myself be a little more lenient on occasion, and it’s not uncommon to see me indulging in a few decidedly not-so-healthy food and drinks.  My faves?  Well, Guinness and Moscow Mules to begin with (If you don’t know what a Moscow Mule is, you’re missing out), and  the occasional large pizza or big, greasy double burger and fries from Five Guys Burger and Fries.  And you know what?  

I’m leaner than I’ve ever been.


I’m not a nutritionist or dietician, or really an expert on this sort of thing at all, but if I had to chalk that up to anything, it’d be this: 
1)                 My training (i.e. “workouts”) is hard, smart, and brief.
2)                 I actually LIKE eating healthy, so I gladly do it regularly.
3)                 Eating like crap every once in a while isn’t the end of the world.

These (and and other) factors matter for various reasons, but the third one is especially important.    You don’t have to give up your favorite foods, just cut back.  Not even all at once.  Keep a food journal, track the crap you shovel into your mouth, and over the coming weeks and months, strive to reduce it while replacing it with fresh fruits and vegetables, nuts, and lean protein.  

If you know there’s going to be a day that you’ll be eating like trash, don’t sweat it; just plan for it!  Thanksgiving’s a perfect example.  Fat loss expert Josh Hillis has said “Thanksgiving is a FREE DAY…Seriously, go crazy.  I swear, it's not what you eat on Thanksgiving that makes you fat or fit.  It's what you eat the other six days out of every week.”  Why stress about how much/little to eat on Thanksgiving?  Go nuts!  As long as your diet and training regimen are on point on all the other days, going overboard once isn’t going to derail your efforts.

And in the spirit of going overboard, I’m going to share with you, my dear readers, my all-time favorite recipe for No-Bake cookies that my friends Jay and Andrea Erickson make:
2 cups sugar
4 tbl cocoa
Dash of salt
½ cup milk
½ cup peanut butter
1 tsp vanilla
½ cup butter
3 cups quick cooking oats

1.       Measure oats out in a separate bowl.
2.       Combine all ingredients except the peanut butter
3.      Bring to boil and cook for 90 seconds
4.       Remove from heat
5.        Stir in the peanut butter, allowing it to dissolve.
6.        Add in the oats.
7.        Mix well.
8.       Drop by teaspoonfuls on cookie sheet or wax paper.
9.      Cool for 30 minutes or until solidly set.

Happy Thanksgiving, all!


Friday, September 23, 2011

My review of The Fighter's Workshop

The Fighter’s Workshop this past weekend was good.  I mean REALLY good.  Like, out-of-control good.  It didn’t meet my expectations; it introduced itself briefly, then politely excused itself so that it could go far beyond them.

No joke.

I haven’t been able to stop thinking about it since it ended Sunday afternoon, especially how perfectly what Pavel and Eyal each taught meshed together.  It was like a marriage of the minds, and the participants were fortunate enough to attend the wedding.  What I really liked is how closely it can all be summed up by two of my favorite quotes by Bruce Lee:

“You think a fight is one blow?  One kick?  Until you can put combinations together without even thinking, until you learn how to keep moving, and to endure, hire a bodyguard or lead a less aggressive life.”

 “Before I studied the art, a punch was just like a punch, a kick just like a kick. After I studied the art, a punch is no longer a punch, a kick is no longer a kick. Now that I understand the art, a punch is just like a punch, a kick is just like a kick.”

The first quote best typifies Eyal’s approach to teaching.  It’s really more about the fight at face value; ultimately, you have to perform, and, as Pavel often repeated during the weekend after a drill, DON’T THINK.  The emphasis was on getting good at the technique, followed by the ability to simply react to a threat without thinking.  That’s the hallmark of a good martial artist and a crucial element in winning any fight. 
In the beginning Eyal broke the techniques down to single strikes (punch, kick, elbow, knee), but from there on out, all the emphasis was on combining the techniques and repeating them over and over to make them second nature.  As the lessons wore on and reached the territory of defending against armed assault or against multiple attackers, he slowly added how to defend against basic knife and gun attacks to the combinations we learned.  It was very effective.  So much so that looking at the group at the beginning of day one to the end of day two was like what you might expect from looking at classes spread weeks apart.  From my vantage point, experienced martial artists as well as total novices had improved by leaps and bounds in a remarkably short amount of time, thanks in large part to Eyal’s keen eye and deep, unparalleled insight and knowledge on effective fighting.

The second quote best characterizes Pavel’s approach.  What Eyal taught in combinations, Pavel taught in isolation.  Many of the participants had little to no martial arts experience.  For them, a punch or a kick was simply putting your arm or leg out really hard and hitting your opponent.  And at face value, that’s all it is.  But, much like a Hard Style swing, a LOT must go into each technique to make it as effective as possible. 
He deconstructed the most basic strikes – linear strikes (jab, cross), hooks, front kicks and roundhouse kicks, and worked his Russian sports voodoo to add power, ROM, and speed to everything in a way that has to be experienced to be believed.  I had a smattering of previous experience with similar things, as Senior RKC Jon Engum (also an expert on martial power) showed me and my coach, Scott Stevens, a thing or two at an HKC workshop in Omaha.  We started on the front kick, during which he pointed out the importance of wedging yourself between the ground and your target.  Check out the video below for a demonstration.  

Lather, rinse, repeat.  Pavel stressed the importance of practicing these techniques rather than merely repping out and letting your form deteriorate (sound familiar?) as well as the importance of NOT THINKING.  Paralysis by analysis has killed many a good lift, and while it’s disappointing with weight lifting, with martial arts and self defense applied in the real world, “PBA” can be life-threatening.  Pavel quotes Tim Larkin in The Naked Warrior as saying “under stress we revert to training.”  If you let part of your training include stopping to think or overanalyze something while you’re practicing, you can be sure that you’ll do it when it will count against you, like on the streets.

In addition to Pavel’s teaching martial power generation, he went to great lengths to focus on flexibility and mobility – a skill that, in my humble opinion, all too often gets put on the back burner or gets only cursory attention from waaaay too many people, whether they’re RKCs or just your average student.  The practice we got in the flexibility/mobility department paid in dividends when it came to practicing the techniques again; the parking brakes had been taken off, so when it came time to hit the gas pedal the difference went from Toyota to Ferrari.  I noticed greater ease and power generation in all of my strikes after even just a little training in this department.  Coupled with Pavel’s tension and relaxation drills, Pavel’s insight on power and strength in martial arts technique training interwoven with Eyal’s no-nonsense destroy-and-escape combinations and Krav Maga tactics made for an incomparable weekend for all who participated.

I began training in Krav Maga for the first time in 2007.  I’ve been to several workshops in the U.S. and have even done some training in Israel.  This was by far the best, most in-depth, and results-producing Krav Maga workshop I’ve ever been to.  It has rekindled my love affair with Krav Maga and all things martial arts.  I highly recommend a workshop like this to all RKCs and anyone interested in kettlebell training.  What you’ll learn about power production and its applications – both to martial arts and to other sports and activities – will be well worth the price you pay.  If this becomes a yearly event (like it should, hint hint to JDC, Pavel, Eyal, and Peter Lakatos!), you can bet you’ll see me there again!

Wednesday, June 29, 2011

The Snatch Test

A few weeks ago, the lovely Amanda Salas of Dragon Door TV asked me to record a 1-2 minute clip for a Fit Tip on the upcoming Dragon Door TV episode, and specifically wanted it to be for the incoming RKC candidates at any of this year's coming RKC certifications.  I thought a while about what advice I should give them, and ultimately decided to dole out some advice on the wheat-from-chaff entrance exam that the RKC is (in)famous for: The Snatch Test.  Check out the video here.

(For those of you not in the know, the snatch test (age and weight permitting) is 100 snatches with the 53 lb kettlebell for men or the 35 lb kettlebell for women)

Here are my top four recommendations for acing your test.  From experience I can tell you these will help because I didn't apply any of these often enough.  And as a result, though I passed on day one and with 15 seconds to spare, my snatch test was as awful as a lot of people probably imagine theirs will be.  That sort of thing is usually a self-fulfilling prophecy, which is why you must do what I didn't in order to make sure that you don't feel like dying once the test is over.

1. Swing heavy, swing often
You can, without a doubt, pass the RKC by following Pavel's Rite of Passage in his book "Enter The Kettlebell".  In it, he has you practicing your snatches only one day a week - on your light day - and swinging for the rest of the week.  This should emphasize the importance of practicing your swings often, and swinging heavy will really help you to summon an otherworldly hip drive that will have massive carry-over into your snatches.  Snatching more than you need to really won't help you much and swinging more than you need to is...well, impossible.  Everyone needs more swings.

2. Own your technique
The Hardstyle snatch technique is a thing of vicious, heart-racing beauty.  However, it's called "Hardstyle" for a reason.  It's hard enough as it is.  Power leakages, inefficient movement and immobility are all gleeful contributors to turning you into an also-ran faster than you can say "no count".  Making your last rep look like your first ain't easy at first, but with practice it is.  And as is written above, swings will charitably donate more to your snatch technique than just having a lot of heart.  If you can't swing well, you sure as hell can't snatch.

3. Pace yourself
My coach, Comrade Scott Stevens, RKC, CK-FMS, completed his 100 reps in just 3:30 at the CK-FMS.  He did 30/30, 20/20.  I have little doubt that he used his extra minute and a half to kick back and relax as he watched those around him suffer for a little while longer.  The point?  You have five minutes.  That's obviously more than enough time to do 100.  Relax, pace yourself, and don't bother setting the bell down.  Unless, that is, you want to mash your body's proverbial pedal to the floor to make up for lost time.

4.  At least once a week, work with a heavier bell overhead. 
For the gentlemen, that means using a 70 lb bell (ideally) and ladies, a 44 lb or 53 lb bell.  To put it simply, it'll make holding the weight you need overhead a much easier affair.

That's it!  These four things will take your Snatch Test from gut check to no sweat.  Why train harder when you can train both harder AND smarter?  The latter will elicit epic results, the former will put you alongside the average gym goer, and if you're interested in being average, you're in the wrong business.

Until next time, lift heavy and eat clean!


Wednesday, June 8, 2011

Caution to the wind

Correctives suck.  They may cure what ails ya, but they're nowhere nearly as fun as hoisting heavy iron overhead or launching it out in front of you repeatedly.  I don't think anyone would argue with that.  I've been doing a lot of correctives to try to fix my strained hamstrings for the past few months, and I've made a ton of progress.  I'm not 100% fixed up yet, but I'm closer to that percentage than I was in March (it helps that my knees don't feel like they want to fly out behind me anymore).  As a result of not feeling 100%, I have mostly avoided two of my favorite things: swings and squats.

But lately, the words of my friend and one-time champion powerlifter Mike have started ringing more and more loudly in my head: "you're a little too cautious."  So I decided to say "f*** it" and throw caution to the wind.

Well, mostly.

Monday I cautiously approached my practice with a few of my favorite lifts: pullups (on "rings"), clean and press, and goblet squat, with some swings for desert and, of course, some grip work afterward.  Here's what it looked like:

Pullup - 5                         
C&P - 5R/5L (24 kg)      
Goblet squat - 5 (24 kg)  

(the above were done in circuit format for three rounds and with plenty of rest between each set)

Swings (24 kg) - 5 x 10 with plenty of rest between each set.

The main thing I was focusing on was keeping the volume low enough to better ease into practice again after a hiatus that has kept me from lifting the way I once did, and, more importantly, to simply practice.  Clearing my head and focusing on the movements led me back to a few of my old a-ha moments.

1) Tension is king, but once you can peel some of it away, do.  As Brett Jones said in a recent post on the RKC forum regarding tension, it's like porridge: too hot, too cold - just right.  You can't know what's "necessary" until you've had too much and too little.  I found this to be especially true on my C&P, as I dialed back the tension little by little and found the bell going overhead just as easily. 

2) Visualizations help.  For example, the past few times I have practiced pullups, I focused mostly on pulling myself up.  This time, I focused on pushing my elbows into my obliques, and it made things much, much easier. 

3) The little things count.  I placed extra focus on glute tension in my squats and swings, as my gluteal amnesia seems to be a side effect of my hamstring strain.  As a result, my knees actually didn't feel as sore the next morning and this morning they felt great! 

I'm hoping this means I'll be back on track to reclaiming my badassery in no time.

* * *

I've been a follower of the Warrior Diet for three years now and I've felt that it's helped me immensely in leading a healthier, stronger life.  Here's what I've had for dinner the past few nights.

Two big ahi tuna steaks cooked in olive oil
6-7 cups of cooked veggies mixed in with a can of kidney beans
A bunch of almonds

7 egg whites and 3 egg yolks mixed with one can of tuna and about 5-6 cups of chopped veggies.
1 1/2 cups of lentils
1 serving of guacamole a la Neghar Fonooni's recipe (one avocado, some chopped cilantro, pico de gallo, salt, and lime juice)
A number of handfuls of almonds


Until next time, lift heavy and eat clean!


Friday, May 27, 2011

An awesome PR

As I mentioned in my last blog post, I've been declining into sissification and un-epicness for some time now, and most of it has been a result of a few injuries and aches that have kept me from training hard, namely achey AC joints from doing some high volume pressing that my body wasn't ready for and straining my hamstrings while stretching a few months back.  As former Senior RKC Rob Lawrence would say "It's all your fault."  Can't argue with that. 

As a result, I've had to shy away from all the stuff I love, like heavy swings and squats and overhead work while I've let myself heal up and done correctives to speed the process.  The only thing that's remained constant in my training lately has been grip work.  Lots and lots of grip work.  I figured, I've always wanted a stronger grip, now's probably the time to get started on it.  So for the past month, that's pretty much all I've done.  I stuck with exercises I had read about and a few that I thought up and wanted to try.  I mostly did:

* plate pinches for time
* bottoms-up cleans with a 53 lb kettlebell
* worked with my CoC trainer and # 1 grippers
* farmers carries with levered sledgehammers (8 lbs) for distance
* and extensor work with a bucket of sand or a heavy rubber band.

That, correctives, and the occasional squat, swing, press, and snatch whenever my body felt like it could handle it, is it, folks. 

So imagine my surprise (and juvenile giddiness) when, while at a friend's house, I casually pressed one of his 32 kg kettlebells for three solid reps on my right side and two on my left!  My previous best was two reps each side with a 32 kg, and that was two years ago after months of the Rite of Passage (prior to a previous shoulder injury that kept me from pressing for a while).  I was stoked, to say the least.  The next day I figured I'd try my hand at one of my other favorite exercises - the pullup.  I knocked off 9 consecutive pullups - another PR!  Neither of these PRs are feats of strength, but they're not bad for not having been able to train them seriously or often for several months. 

It's official: I'm addicted to grip training.  I've been given the okay by my physical therapist to do overhead work, so I'm going to slowly work TGUs, presses, pullups, snatches, etc. into my daily diet of activities as well as continue with correctives to help out my hams and put me on the right track toward badassery again. 

To anyone reading this, if you're not including grip strength into your training, I really think you're missing out on potentially making some awesome gains.  I'm not exactly a physical specimen (I'm about 5'8" and weight 155 soaking wet), so anything that can help me lift heavier and pull more has my undying allegiance. 

More updates to come.


Wednesday, May 18, 2011

Chasing progress

It's easy to "let yourself go" after making great progress.  Once you've achieved an awesome goal, if you don't have another lofty goal waiting to get conquered like your last one, you're just asking to get sucker punched by a backslide into mediocrity.  It'd be nice to say "don't worry about it, because it happens to everybody from time to time," but unless your goal is to be just like everyone else, you shouldn't take something like this sitting down.  The backslide into mediocrity doesn't stop once you hit "mediocre".  It runs much deeper than that. 

I write this because it needs to be written, and more specifically, I write this to call someone out.  Someone who oughta know better; someone who oughta be better at practicing what he preaches.  That someone is me. 

That's right, I've climbed high, but I've let myself fall low.  I achieved my RKC certification seven months ago, and I began a slow, steady decline in my physical abilities shortly thereafter.  There are a lot of things I could try to blame (being busy with school and work, etc.), but after a long time of thinking hard about this, I've narrowed the culprit down to two things:  1) Not setting big goals followed by smaller ones to achieve along the way, and 2) not prioritizing.

It's that simple. 

So this blog, among other things, will be a chronicle of my return to badassery.  It will contain not only my routine for returning to and surpassing my previous achievements, but also my thoughts on various things relating to healing the injuries I've accrued, reaching new heights in strength and conditioning, and thoughts on various topics relating to these things.  Enjoy, and feel free to comment.