Tuesday, July 14, 2009

By the Sea, By the Sea--My Kettlebell & Me

All hype aside, the kettlebell is an extremely convenient training modality. Lately I've been doing a cycle of body weight training but with my up-and-coming kettlebell certifications it's time to dust off the ol' KBs and start working my kettlebell skills and work capacity. I break training down to two basic forms of resistance: intrinsic and extrinsic.

Intrinsic exercise means using your own body for resistance while extrinsic involves moving an external weight. Since most athletes do both, it's important to develop both skills. As I said, I consider kettlebells the most convenient form of extrinsic strength training, offering such a complete workout there's little reason to do other types of (extrinsic) weight training. (The only proviso I'd add to the above statement is occasional heavy object lifting, which teaches the invaluable skill of round-back deadlifting, my preferred objects being large stones, rocks and sandbags.)

For most people--most of the time--kettlebells offer everything you'd ever want for a functionally fit and proportioned, lean physique, plus work capacity. The past two weekends I've spent at Oceanside Harbor Beach with my bikini-clad aide de camp--who happens to be my biggest fan. This last weekend included more barefoot beach running and kayaking in the sunshine and fresh air. There's a piece of playground equipment on the beach that's perfect for Pull-Ups and as a bonus, the sand provides an especially unstable and challenging terrain for kettlebell workouts--what more can an ol' coach ask for?

I offer you this: all you need is a single kettlebell to get a fantastic workout. Their versatility never ceases to amaze me. I'm a lucky guy who doesn't engage in a nine-to-five, so I've ample time to concoct cool variations with which to torture my online clientele and seminar attendees. This weekend I performed two terrific, single kettlebell workouts and I joyfully share one with you now.

This workout, Workout "A" is designed for core conditioning and strength.

Workout "A" involves working the front thighs with one of my favorite movements, the Hack Squat, a move in which even a light kettlebell is quite demanding. I'm pretty strong in the Hack Squat, but I recommend you start out with caution, especially if you're new to this move. Even body weight Hacks are an excellent start. The Hack differs from the Hindu Squat in that it lacks momentum or bounce. In fact, the secret to doing safe Hack Squats is maintaining high-tension in the feet, calves, hamstrings, glutes and thighs for the duration--do NOT relax at the bottom, but actually attempt to press the calves hard against the hamstrings. This high-tension effort will pay off richly with rock-solid stability at the bottom, plus great conditioning in the feet, ankles and calves.

Hack squats do a real number on the front thigh, particularly at the insertion point above the knee. I suspect this is one reason why in my 45-plus years of grappling, I've suffered relatively few knee injuries in a sport rife with them. But Hacks only hit half of the equation--those all-important hamstring, glutes and lower back making up the second half--and nothing hits those quite like the kettlebell Swing. I like the alternating hammer swing, done with the thumbs up (the same way an MMA fighter or grappler grips up with an opponent). Turning the thumbs up produces great conditioning of the forearm muscles nearest the elbow and giving the kettlebell a little toss then punching the hand out when grasping the handle, provides dynamic grip strength. This is a similar action to the grip fighting used in Judo. These two movements--the Hack Squat and kettlebell Swing--hit every aspect of the lower body, making a beautifully balanced workout.

The next three moves are core intensive, offering a complete workout for the musculature of the upper torso. The first is another favorite of mine, the Crush Push-Up. It's easy to fudge this by placing the heel of the hand atop the bell, but better to grasp the sides of the bell, pushing hard with the hands for tremendous crushing action in the upper body. Another bad habit in the Crush Push-Up is failing to straighten the arms in the top position--make sure to lock out the arms with pit of elbow forward and point of elbow toward the feet--this alignment takes pressure off the shoulders and increases tension in the pecs, lats and triceps.

Notice in the video how my butt is slightly elevated--keep the sternum directly above the kettlebell, which necessitates elevating the butt slightly higher than the regular push-up plank position and creates more tension in the core.

I like to superset Crush Push-Ups with kettlebell Plank Rows. The video shows me with two kettlebells of the same size, but they are actually different weights (26kg & 17kg.) These are hollow competition kettlebells I fill with spare change and use as piggy banks. For those doing the KB Plank Row with only a single bell, post the supporting hand on a rock, curb, mound of sand, or your girlfriend's sweet butt. Ideally, the support hand is at the same height as the opposite hand on the kettlebell handle. Perform all reps with one arm first (on your non-dominant side) then switch yourself around and perform equal reps with the other arm. Minimize any twisting in the torso and keep the feet perpendicular to the ground, never turned out.

The fifth exercise is the KB Hot Potato drill. The Hot Potato is unparalleled for working the obliques and intercostal muscles. The key is to marry the elbow to the side ribs--so that the elbow and structure of the body become one, as it were. (And to you young guys, this is the only marriage I'd recommend in this world!) Like most marriages, it's a deceptive exercise, thus tougher than it might appear. I repeat: you'll feel tremendous action in the intercostals and obliques. Also, watch the mouth and teeth in this exercise--you can smash the teeth, but good, with an airborne kettlebell--so keep the mouth closed while breathing through the nose.

Perform the Crush Push-Up, KB Plank Row and Hot Potato in a circuit fashion (i.e., going from one to another without rest) for rounds. Do as many rounds as you can in 15 minutes. You'll be pleased with the results!

When I finished this workout I was bathed in sweat. My muscles were pumped and swollen with veins showing everywhere. A few kids, who were watching the whole time--and obviously entertained--inquired my age and when I told them I had 56 years, they outright disbelieved and challenged me. This is what the Maxwell training system can do for you, too: keep yourself forever young and keep 'em always guessing!

Yours in Strength & Health,


Of interest:
  • I was recently interviewed by Caleb Queern for the FightWorks Podcast and you can listen here.
  • You asked for it, New England, and now you've got it! I'll be at the Dynamic Strength & Conditioning Gym in Nashua NH presenting a kettlebell workshop and MaxBells Body Weight Trainer certification 12 & 13 September. Come join us! Our host, Kevin Buckley, is a great guy and between him, me and the awesome facility, you're sure to be inspired!

Sunday, July 5, 2009

Celebrate Your Independence!

Reading the popular fitness rags, I've noticed a trend of both "training on a budget" features as well as a push toward home exercise equipment. Interesting that with the so-called downturn in the economy, The Wall Street Journal reports the home exercise equipment business sales are increased, as well as fitness DVDs. People no longer wish to pay big money to join gyms not maintain memberships yet still they grasp the value in keeping up their fitness regimens. In an article I read in Scientific American, money isn't even the prime indicator of happiness; those who'd created a high level of physical health and fitness for themselves were 30% happier than the mean.

Well, the best gyms are plentiful and free, and what I propose is going sans equipment, using the all-access gym already conveniently located in your neighborhood. You've probably walked by this gym countless times without giving a second thought. It's always open--never closes--and no contracts required. What is this place? It's the friendly neighborhood playground of Anytown, USA. But not confined to the USA! I've seen beautiful outdoor playgrounds in Germany, Austria and I'll never forget the idyllic Akuyeryi, Iceland where, working out at 11 PM it was still daylight.

In a playground there's almost always some type of pipe or pole enabling various pulls and with a little imagination you can get yourself a whole-body workout. Here are a few examples of things I've done:

  • Incline Push-Ups with my feet on top of a slide
  • Neutral Grip Chin-Ups on a monkey bar
  • Handstand Push-Ups with feet balanced on the swing set support
  • Alternating Pistols using the swing set support
  • Hand Walking a horizontal pipe on the swing set cross pole
  • Glute-Ham Raise with feet beneath the slide
  • Pike-Up with the feet on a swing seat
  • Parallel Bar Dip atop a horizontal ladder
  • Hanging Leg Raise using the top support of a baby swing
  • Incline Sit-Up on a see-saw
...to name a few.

The limit, as ever, is your imagination. Next year, I'll be presenting a seminar on outdoor, natural training with my friend Dominik Fleischl, who (like myself) specializes in these things.

To give an example of what can be done with very little, this past 4th of July weekend, the ol' Coach (and his teen protege) went on a vacation (from their quasi-vacation lifestyle) to beautiful Oceanside Harbor Beach, Oceanside CA.

On day one, we rose with the seagulls and took a morning constitutional about the grounds. The walk took us to a jetty made up of boulders of all shapes and angles. Taking great advantage of a barefoot-training opportunity, we hop-scotched from rock to rock out the the end. Later in the day was a barefoot run down the wide, sandy shoreline, all the while playing dodge-the-munchkins. The beach was extremely crowded, effectively a dynamic obstacle course between kids, dogs, old ladies, fast moving waves and intermittent stony footing. Interesting that despite the debris continually washing up, we never once experienced any insult to the feet. It's amazing how,
when relied upon, the foot will find the correct placement. It was all dodging, darting and jumping--both forward and laterally--and occasionally sprinting with the waves, not to mention the resistance offered the ankles, calves and thigh muscles by the soft sand. The run was followed with a pleasant recovery walk, ocean bathing and a post-workout shake, followed an hour later by a sumptuous sit-down meal in the van dining hall. (All right, it was a day-old a rotisserie chicken of which I consumed meat, skin and bones!)

Later, as the sun descended in the sky, the moon taking his place, we took off again, this time on the Brompton folding bikes, for a light, post-prandial ride. Light movement like this is extremely settling to the digestion without overworking the system. It's also simply a fun way to tour the harbor area without a motor vehicle.

So, here we got more than enough cardio without ever stepping on a treadmill, elliptical nor stationary bike. We got ample fresh air and sunshine while developing our athleticism, coordination and grace, all the while getting a great workout--something you can't do on gym machines.

Day two has the coach arising once more at the dawn's early light in order to beat the hot dog-eating hordes. Since my thighs were trashed from running in the surf-n-sand yesterday,
I'm due for an upper-body pulling workout and there's a nifty outdoor beach playground just nearby. As the sun approaches its zenith (so the munchkins will be driven off the equipment), so I approach the overhead bar. Since I've been working on ladders and the A-B-C program, I haven't done straight sets of Pull-Ups in some time, thus I decided to test my pulling prowess...

The bar I selected,
being ~2-1/2" thick, was altogether less-than-ideal. It also had some strangely shaped handles welded to it. The painted surface was old and rusted--not slick--which afforded me some good grip purchase. I'm proud to say I performed 20 dead-hang/no kipping/throat-over-the-bar Pull-Up reps.

I am proud of this effort. At 56, this puts me in the 99.9 percentile for upper body pulling power.

Even though my arms were trashed, for the next 20 minutes I performed alternating sets of a variety of Push-Ups and Pulls.

I finished the workout with Elephant Walks, Hanging Leg Raise, and Horizontal Hand-Walking on the overhead pole.

(I'm compelled to mention that I'm unsatisfied with my technique in the hand walk--I can see a hesitation in the movement--but I injured my shoulders some months ago playing jiu-jitsu and they are still in the last stages of recovery.)

These were further finished with three static-contraction exercises:

Side Elbow Plank (2 min each side)
Isometric Crocodile (2 min)

By the end, my whole body was shaking and my muscles were pumped up to the max, thrilling the gallery of MILF onlookers...

Here's the workout breakdown:

  1. Strict, Military-Style Dead-Hang Pull-Up on a thick bar (all-out max set)
  2. Dive-Bomber Push-Up
  3. Parallel-Grip Chin-Up on the horizontal ladder
  4. Iranian Twisting Push-Up
  5. Chin-Up
  6. Scorpion Push-Up
  7. Feet-Elevated Body Weight Row
  8. Elephant Walk-Out w/ push-up
  9. Hand Walk on horizontal pole
  10. Close Grip Hanging Leg Raise
  11. Side Elbow Plank (L/R)
  12. Crocodile Pose (low push-up position)

This is an excellent upper-body workout which served to balance yesterday's sand run. The rest of the day will be spent with a low-intensity walk on the beach and a swim in the sheltered harbor. None of these things cost me a dime, other than the parking fees, and I enjoyed a workout
superior to anything I could get in a gym.

If I were to add a lower-body component to the above, I'd have done alternating sets of Single-Leg Calf-Raise and Pistols (with or without support), finishing with Back Extension and/or Glute-Ham Raise.

Here's to independence!

In Strength & Health,