Throw Away the Scale, the Detriments of Overtraining, and the Importance of Sleep

Let me preface this with saying I’m not pushing a Whole30 on you in this post (although I do think everyone should do one in their lifetime as an education of how the food they eat affects their body composition, mood, and sleep and that’s all I’m going to say :)) But the lessons I learned written about in this post happened during my second Whole30.

I did my first Whole30 in 2012 and learned a ton about how the food I ate was affecting me. I looked better, felt better and figured out that grains make my face break out. There was definite validity in this way of eating and I was on board. I am a bit of a nerd, though, and wanted some real metrics on my second go ‘round. I needed tangible numbers if I really wanted to share the benefits with my friends and students.

August 2013 was my second Whole30. I am a strength educator who has to constantly tell my students that weight is just number and doesn’t necessarily reflect body composition. I also have to talk people down from the ledge and explain that more is not always better and overtraining is detrimental to progress. In our modern society, we glorify busy-ness and many people use their lack of sleep as a bragging right when, in actuality, good quality sleep – and enough of it – is key to both our body’s recovery and productivity.

Here is what happened on my second Whole30:

I did a hydrostatic body fat test on Day 1 and Day 28. At both “dunks” I weighed 130 pounds. Day 1 I was 16.3% body fat and Day 28 I was 13.8% body fat. I had lost 3 pounds of fat and gained 3 pounds of muscle. Do you think I looked or felt the same? No. But if I had been relying on a scale to tell me how I was doing, I would be extremely disappointed that I wasn’t losing weight while eating this clean. Throw the scale away. This also proves that you don’t always have to lose muscle when you lose fat.

You might be thinking that I trained hard 5-7 days a week to get these results. 3 pounds of muscle is a lot for 4 weeks. In the 4 weeks between dunks I only trained 9 times. And in those 9 training sessions I only did moderate exercise: 45 minutes of heavy kettlebell work but never training to failure. As my mentor Pavel Tsatsouline says, “Training to failure is training to fail.” I was treating my training sessions as practice, not “smokers.”

Also, this way of eating wasn’t a drastic change for me. As a Whole30 forum moderator, I was already not eating grains or legumes and barely eating dairy. This Whole30 made me realize that sugar and alcohol were the things affecting my sleep. I would have no problem falling asleep but would wake up at 3:30AM and toss and turn for a few hours before the alarm would go off. This adversely affected my workouts and my daily productivity. It was a terrible cascade making everything worse (including mood) because I wasn’t getting the right amount of quality sleep. Full disclosure: I do drink alcohol when not on a Whole30 but I know the consequences and can make an educated decision of when it’s worth it and when it’s not.

Before this Whole30 I thought my sleeping problem was because of caffeine so I gave up coffee for 30 days and nothing changed. But not having alcohol made all the difference. I would fall asleep right away and be dead to the world for 8 hours (and sometimes wake up without an alarm.) I’m sure sleep quality was the reason I was able to gain three pounds of muscle in one month only training an average of 2.25 times per week.

So throw away the scale, overtraining is not the best way to get to your goals, and don’t underestimate the importance of enough good quality sleep. These are the three things that were validated by my second Whole30.

Where Do I Start the Bell and Why?

kettlebell prevention

 

 

When training people who are newer to kettlebells, often you will see them pick the bell up off the ground by standing up and THEN swing the bell behind them. That method is not optimal for a few reasons. In this photo posted by Prevention.com, you can see that the starting position of the bell is in front of the lifter, making a triangle with the feet. This allows her to tilt the bell toward her which gets her posterior chain loaded and to pack the lats and get fully engaged from the get-go. Her first movement is then an aggressive hike back and an aggressive stand up. Starting in this proper alignment allows for safe mechanics and muscle engagement. When someone picks the bell up off the ground first and then starts swinging it can be dangerous by facilitating rounding of the back and a disconnected body. A safe swing starts out just in front of the lifter, makes a triangle with the feet of the lifter and allows muscle engagement from the start.

Training Tip Tuesday Episode 9: Breaking Down the Turkish Get-up

The Turkish Get-up is one of the best exercises for all-around strength and mobility. It’s just a matter of fact that our Western society doesn’t roll, stand and kneel very often anymore, and kids are playing video games under trees at the park. The get-ups takes us through all of those movements causing us to both perform and feel better. This video breaks down the Turkish Get-up for the beginner and those looking to refine their technique.

 

Training Tip Tuesday Episode 8: How to Do the Kettlebell Swing

The kettlebell swing is one of the most important exercises in kettlebell training. It combines strength and cardio for a “power packed best bang for your workout.” This video offers a few quick tips on the kettlebell swing and tips for not muscling with the arms.

What are your best kettlebell swing cues? Please share in the comments below!

Training Tip Tuesday Episode 7: How to Get a Heavier Military Press

 

In our last episode, we talked about having a loose grip on the kettlebell handle during the quick lifts, such as cleans, swings, and snatches to avoid calluses.  This episode, we are going to talk about having a tight grip on the slow lifts, such as presses, in order to move more weight.

There is a theory called irradiation that states “Muscles contract harder when they contract together.” This means that if you try to make a lift a full body lift, you can move more weight than if trying to isolate a single muscle group. When you set up for a military press, for example, you want to make your body one solid column. You grab the ground with your toes, corkscrew your feet into the ground, pull up your kneecaps to tighten the quads, contract your hamstrings and glutes, fire your abs, and squeeze both the fist of your free hand and the hand gripping the bell.  Then you power breathe to maximize tension and lift a great deal of weight.

In Power to the People, Pavel said, “You can’t shoot a cannon from a canoe.” This statement means that if your body is loose and void of tension, you won’t move much weight.  And because (as we mentioned earlier) muscles work harder when they work together, a solid platform will get a large load overhead.

We jokingly call this the almond butter jar theory because if you are opening a jar of almond butter and the lid is not on very tightly, you can just use a few muscles to open the jar. If, on the other hand, the lid is stuck, you pull it in and squeeze your glutes, abs, biceps, and more until the lid pops off. We use our body as a unit in every day life, so we might as well train it that way in the gym!

Training Tip Tuesday Episode 6: Adjusting Your Grip to Minimize Calluses

When beginning a kettlebell training regimen, one of the most common complaints is having calluses

on the hands that make it hard to train.  One of the main causes of calluses is over gripping the bell handle on ballistic exercises.

Kettlebell exercises can be divided into two categories, grinds and ballistics.  We have discussed this in a previous training vlog but to recap, a grind is a slow exercise (such as the military press) where you grind through to the end, and a ballistic exercise is one where there is a force and then the bell floats, such as a swing, snatch, or even a kettlebell clean.

On the grinds, you want to grip the bell tight to make sure you are using as many muscles as you can (we will talk more about this theory called “Hyper-irradiation” next week) but on the ballistics, you want a loose grip.

A loose grip on the ballistics allows the handle to shift and move around your hand without excess friction.  If you grip the bell tightly on ballistics, you will be fighting the natural movement of the handle around your hand and cause the skin that’s in the way to get worn and callused. A super tight grip can even cause blood blisters in some cases.

You’ll see people on the internet bragging about their calluses but what they are really doing is bragging about an injury.  In extreme cases (such as the snatch test at an SFG cert or heavy preparation for an event) you may get calluses on your hands, but it shouldn’t be a way of life for kettlebell lifters. If your hands are constantly callused, it’s an indication that your technique is off and could use some tweaking.

If you do find your skin getting rough and callused, as you improve your technique, also take care of the calluses that are forming.  My personal favorite is using a Ped-Egg that you can find in the “As Seen on TV” section of your local drug store, and I’ve heard of people even using sandpaper to file their skin down and finishing off the day by putting bag balm or udder cream on their hands and sleeping with them covered in socks.  Do you have an additional method of avoiding or treating calluses? Please share in the comments below!

Training Tip Tuesday Episode 5: How Many Reps of Each Exercise Should I Do in a Set?

 

One of the questions that always comes up in the monthly Kettlebell Fundamentals workshops is “How many reps should I do?”  The answer to that question is “It depends.”Master SFG Doug Nepodal likes to say “5 or less or 20 or more” – but what does that really mean?  It means if you are doing a grind, the general rule is do 5 reps or less and if you are doing a ballistic, the general rule is 20 reps or more.

Grinds

In kettlebell training, grinds are the slower exercises – you know, the ones you “grind through.”  Presses, deadlifts, and even get-ups all fall into the grind category.  These are exercises you would do for lower reps at an appropriate weight.  I tell my students if they get 5 or more grinds in a 30 second interval then they can more than likely move up in weight.  I would rather see one repetition where someone had to connect and use their body as unit instead of 10 where he was repping out lighter weights using just one muscle group. And you can even get your one up with a heavy weight then drop down to a lighter bell, but if you can do ONE with good form then do it at least once a week.

I like to say that presses are one of my favorite ab exercises because to get a heavy press above my head, I have to squeeze my abs very tightly.  As Pavel says, “Muscles are social creatures.  They work harder when they work together.” The more muscles you use, the more weight you can move.  Simple as that.

 Once you understand the concept of full body connection and using your whole body as a unit, you can go back and play with lighter weights using the same connectivity and do a program such as Dan John’s Easy Strength, but you must first grasp the concept of not isolating muscle groups and using your whole body to lift.

The grip in the grinds is a closed hand grip squeezing the handle.  When you close your grip and squeeze the handle tightly, you maintain greater tension and can move more weight because again, you are using more muscles.

Ballistics 

Ballistics are the quick lifts – the ones where you have to maintain a balance of tension and relaxation.  The swing and snatch are the two most common kettlebell ballistics.  In these exercises, you want to do as many as you can until just before your form goes.  Because ballistics are explosive and dance back and forth across the line between tension and relaxation you can do more reps.  There is that split second at the top of the swing where you can “rest” before the next hike and snap and that moment of “relaxation” is important to keep you going. Swings that are all tension all the time are very ugly and make your neck ache afterward.  At the top of the swing and snatch, stand up tall, don’t chicken neck and make sure your face is relaxed.  As Former Master SFG Jeff O’Connor says, “Ugly faces don’t make you stronger!”

There is a place for heavy ballistics and a place for light ballistics.  Make sure to make time for both.  For example, a whole bunch of light snatches such as in Kenneth Jay’s Viking Warrior Conditioning protocol will shred you and make you lean, but unless you are going heavy at least once a week you probably will sacrifice some strength in that lift.

The grip in the ballistics is looser than in the grinds – you can even have an open grip at the top of the snatch!  When you crush grip the handle in the quick lifts, the handle rubs your hands as it turns and causes callouses.  The arms are more of a guide in the ballistics than a driving force so you don’t have to squeeze the bell tightly.

So, how many reps should you do?  5 or less heavy reps for the grinds and a whole bunch of ballistics as long as form is not compromised.  Once you understand how the body works as a unit, play around with different bell sizes on different days – just know that you have the potential to lift a great amount of weight when you are connected and not isolating muscle groups.

Training Tip Tuesday Episode 4: Packing the Down Shoulder in the Turkish Get-up

Knock on wood, I have only had one kettlebell related injury and it was caused by not packing the down shoulder in a super heavy Turkish Get-up.  It is very important that both the shoulder on the bell side and the down side be packed throughout the entire exercise.

I’ve found that many people have trouble feeling what “pack the shoulder means.”  This drill, shown to me by Susan Moore, is the most effective way I have seen to force the packing of the down shoulder.

Set a super heavy bell on its side right where the down hand will be planted (about 45 degrees out from the body.)  As you roll to the elbow, pull the handle of that bell and that will force you to pack the shoulder and show you how the down shoulder works as much as the bell side shoulder. Repeat a few times before continuing in the get-up.