The Art of Kettlebell Recycling

Backswing for hardstyle Swing, Clean and Snatch

What is kettlebell recycling?

It is efficiently recreating identical reps (e.g. of deadlift, squat, swing, press, clean, snatch) one after another without movement quality deteriorating and without wasting excess energy. 

Your ability to recycle well determines not only how long you can last in a training set, or how well you perform in any activity or sport, but how long your joints (knees, shoulders, spine) will last you in real life.

But before we tackle the best way to recycle our reps, we need to understand muscle contractions.

Concentric, Eccentric, Isometric – the three types of contractions.

When you stand UP during the Kettlebell Swing, your main mover muscles (glutes, hamstrings) contract and shorten against resistance. This phase is called a Concentric Contraction. This is the most effortful phase of the movement because you are moving in direct opposition to the force of resistance (in this case, gravity)

When you hinge BACK into the backswing, your main muscles (hamstrings, glutes) have to lengthen against resistance. This is called an Eccentric Contraction and it might feel less effortful because you are going WITH gravity. However, it is actually a more challenging maneuver for your muscles and nervous system. I’ll explain later why exactly that is.

Finally, when you momentarily pause at the bottom and at the top of the swing, your hamstrings and glutes don’t lengthen nor do they shorten. Instead they stay contracted while maintaining the same length (fully lengthened at the bottom, and fully shortened at the top). This is called Isometric Contraction and it is physiologically the easiest of the three to execute against resistance. However, of course it is not that easy.

So, why is it not easy to perform Eccentric Contraction (lengthen against resistance)?

Think about it, on the backswing (when you’re hinging down), your hamstrings are still contracting WHILE lengthening with gravity. You might be thinking, why do my muscles need to contract while lengthening with gravity? Wouldn’t it be easier for them to just relax and let the gravity pull me down? 

No. That would be a disaster actually.

To better understand this, picture the act of bungee jumping. The bungee cord lengthens while resisting gravity as it allows you to gradually slow down your descent before you rebound back up. If the bungee wasn’t there, you would die. If the bungee was just relaxed, you would still hit the ground with full force. If the bungee was a normal rope that couldn’t stretch, you would experience a whiplash when the rope reaches full length, or the rope would tear under the sudden strain and you would fall. The bungee absorbs the pressure of gravity by gradually lengthening and slowing your descent down before you stop and reverse course.

Your hamstrings and glutes do the same job as a bungee cord when you hinge your hips into the backswing. They slow down and control your descent, which means they prevent themselves from reaching full length at top speed, which would tear them and lead you to crash head-first into the ground. By doing that, they also greatly improve their tensile strength and elastic capacity, because unlike a bungee cord your muscles and tissues are living material that gets stronger as it gets used. That’s why exercise is so important to a human body. Your body is an antifragile entity, which means it gets stronger by overcoming manageable stress. (for a better understanding of the term ‘Antifragile’ applied to more than bodies, read Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s book ‘Antifragile’)

When applying the three types of muscle contraction to training, you can emphasise one of them more than others.

Emphasising Concentric contraction (the UP phase of the swing) is great for training speed and power. This is the sport of Powerlifting, Olympic Lifting and kettlebell ballistics (however, kettlebell ballistics – Swing, Clean, Snatch – use more eccentric contraction that Olympic Lifting, which is very good news for your body, because… see below).

Emphasising Eccentric contraction (the bungee jumping phase) is great for:

– increasing strength, 

– building muscle, 

– improving the health of ligaments, 

– injury prevention and rehabilitation

– improving active flexibility.

Most of strength and functional training, bodybuilding, rehab. 

Emphasising the Isometric Contraction is great for:

  • Teaching muscular control
  • Achieving full body tension
  • Activating dormant muscles
  • Safest form of training

This is done in the first stages of rehabilitation, gymnastics poses (e.g. the iron cross, the planche), yoga, pilates and kettlebell mobility.

Kettlebell Recycling is an Eccentric contraction performed at high speeds, akin to bungee jumping. 

The Recycle

The multiple recycling of a ballistic movement (Swing, Snatch, Clean, Jerk), aka the essentric phase, is what makes kettlebell training so uniquely potent. 

Then why is it often neglected in technique practice? For the same reason it is avoided altogether in Olympic Lifting – because the lifting up is the ‘sexy’ part. It’s the ‘look how strong I am’ bit. The lowering phase is when nobody is looking, right?

Wrong.

The recycle is where the magic happens. Just as your biggest, strongest and most functionally useful muscles (butt, back and hamstrings) are NOT the ones you see in the mirror, so the phase of the lift that best builds those powerful muscles is the one you are most tempted to ignore – the lowering phase aka the eccentric contraction, aka the Recycle.

The recycle makes us stronger, healthier, more flexible and less injury-prone.

The Art of Kettlebell Recycling.

The principles of recycling the kettlebell are as follows: 

1) Maximize the use of big strong muscle groups and minimize the use of small, easily exhausted muscle groups. 

2) Plug up energy leaks.

3) Move around the kettlebell, don’t make it move around you. 

4) Commit to good technique. 

Let’s break it down:

1) Maximize the use of big strong muscle groups and minimize the use of small, easily exhausted muscle groups. 

You are only as strong as your weakest link, so preventing the unnecessary exhaustion of smallest muscles is the name of the game with kettlebell recycling, and in any physical activity in general.

While the kettlebell at the top of the swing is ‘floating weightless’, the falling kettlebell at the bottom of the backswing is 2-6 times the weight of a stationary one. This means if you have just snatched a 16kg kettlebell, it’ll be at least a 32 kg kettlebell that you are catching in the backswing. That’s a lot of loading on the body. That’s where the gold is, but that’s also where the dragon lies. As Professor of Clinical Psychology Jordan Peterson of the University of Toronto says: ‘to get the gold, you must slay the dragon’.

Remember that Concentric – moving against gravity – is where you are weakest, Essentric – moving with gravity – is where you are moderately strong, and Isometric – not moving at all – is where you are strongest, you would want to use the largest muscles in the concentric and eccentric fashion (shortening and lenthening) and smallest muscles in Isometric fashion (staying put).

Your largest muscle groups are glutes, hamstings and lats.

Your smaller muscle groups are traps, rotator cuff, shoulders, biceps, triceps, spinal erectors, neck erectors, forearms.

So, to recycle efficiently, you want only your glutes, hamastings and lats to shorten and lengthen under load. All the other working muscles should maintain as much an isometric contraction as possible, which is the least energy/demanding contraction. 

This means that:

a) Keep your back straight and neutral at all times. 

Keep all back and core muscles statically contracted. Not only will this decrease the risk of back injury, but it will also increase your continuous power output. Spinal erectors are small postural muscles and must stay in an isometric contraction throughout all heavy lifting and everyday living.

b) Keep your shoulder packed into the socket at all times. Not only will this decrease the risk of shoulder injury, but also increase your continuous power output. The rotator cuff are a group of small postural muscles which must stay in an isometric contraction throughout all heavy lifting, and pretty much throughout life too.

c) Keep your midsection braced continuously. 

There is a lot of attention on ‘visibly bracing the midsection’ at the top of the swing, snatch, clean etc. And it’s correct. The bracing of the midsection at the top of the movement prevents you from bending over backwards under the load and injuring your lumbar spine. However, it is during the backswing that the lower back is in most danger, especially at the very bottom of the swing. The kettlebell exerts tremendous forces on your spine at that moment, and there is no butt to save you – your glutes are not doing much in the hinged position (don’t believe me? Try hinging your hips back and squeezing your butt at the same time. Can’t do it? There is a good reason why ‘bending over’ means ‘assuming a vulnerable position’). So, in the absence of the stabilizing power of the glutes, it is the bracing of your midsection that prevents the lower back from being overloaded during the backswing. Brace your midsection at all times, and especially on the backswing. 

d) ‘Butt Commitment’. 

At the top of the swing, once you have squeezed your glutes, keep them squeezed, and don’t begin hinging back until your upper arm is in touch with your torso. Hinging means that your butt is no longer active, and you want to delay that moment as long as possible. Otherwise you will be putting an unnecessary strain on your midsection and lower back. In my YouTube video about the Seven Deadly Swinging Sins I call this error Butt Commitment Phobia. Don’t commit this error if you want to be a kettlebell ninja. 

Remember, small muscles groups like the lower back fatigue first, and if you want to have the most efficient and lasting power output, it is best to save those muscles any unnecessary work.

e) Keep your elbow straight on the backswing.

The elbow doesn’t exist in deadlifts and it doesn’t exist in the backswing either. The arm is just a rope attaching a kettlebell to the body. The biceps is a tiny group of muscles. If you engage the biceps by bending the elbow on the backswing, when the kettlebell is at its heaviest, you will either injure your biceps muscles and ligaments, or your body will severely curtail its power output so as not to injure its biceps. Don’t do it.

e) keep your kettlebell arm connected to your torso all through the backswing. 

When you go hiking in the mountains, do you carry a) a suitcase or b) a backpack? 

When you carry a heavy object like a small child, do you a) hold it close to your body or b) hold it out in front of you in outstretched arms?

In both cases, the correct answer is b). 

Wearing the backpack keeps the weight close to your centre of mass (the torso) which makes it much easier to control and move with. Conversely, holding the weight out makes it difficult to manage.

During the backswing in the Swing, Clean and Snatch, the arm must be made ‘one’ with the torso. You do that by ‘squeezing your armpits’ and pulling the arm into the torso using your lats (biggest muscle in the upper body). Without the lats, you will have to rely only on your small rotator cuff muscles (back of the shoulder) and once they cook, on upper traps (neck) to support the kettlebell. This leads to weaker consecutive reps plus, if habitually practiced, gives you headaches and shoulder problems due to overuse of upper traps, which destabilize your shoulders and pinch the flow of blood to your brain. 

Moral of the story? Make the kettlebell part of your torso on the downswing by connecting the upper arm to the torso before beginning to hinge back. Make the strongest muscles do all the heavy lifting and leave the little guys to do their supporting jobs. 

2) Plug up energy leaks

The more joints the action requires to participate, the less powerful the action will be. 

That’s because you have a finite amount of power and that power needs to travel from the source (the hips) to the objective (the kettlebell) with minimal dilution. Every unstable or misaligned joint that the stream of power encounters on the way – spine, shoulders, elbows, wrists – is a potential power leak. 

All sport performance and human functionality can be reduced to a powerful hip hinge and stable surrounding structures. Therefore, in a movement that trains the hip hinge (kettlebell swing) the hip is the primary joint that is moving. All other joints are secondary.

Limit moving joints to the essentials. Do not move any joints unnecessarily.

This means that you want to:

– Keep your pelvis neutral at all times. Avoid tilting your pelvis in either direction. Don’t be the Elvis Pelvis. Move from the hips, not the pelvis.

– Pack your shoulders. Unpacking your shoulders – aka poor posture – is the biggest energy leak after Elvis Pelvis.

– Keep your neck neutral. Craning the neck might be okay in the slow sports like Powerlifting (even though I would argue it is not the best practice for life-long health) but in the high-repetition world of kettlebell swings and snatches, performing 100s of rapid whiplash ‘nods’ with your head in the space of 10 minutes is not conducive to a healthy spine.

3) Move around the kettlebell, don’t make it move around you. 

What is the shortest distance between two points? 

A straight line.

When lifting and lowering a heavy weight, and especially doing so at speed, you want to have that weight travel in as straight a line aka the shortest possible distance between point A and point B.

When recycling the kettlebell, you want to keep it as close to the centerline of your body (the vertical ‘stack’ of ankles-knees-hips-shoulders-elbows) as possible.

What does this mean for recycling the clean? 

To initiate the drop, lean slightly back as you let the kettlebell fall – close to your body – and pull it into the backswing, where your arm is connected with your torso. What you DON’T want to do is stand ramrod straight and throw the kettlebell forward as if you are casting a fishing line. That doubles the path of the kettlebell, not to mention throws off your balance taking your weight from heels to toes and disengaging your posterior chain.

What does this mean for recycling the Jerk? 

Drop the kettlebell into the rack in as straight a line as possible, neatly folding your elbows through the front of your body and into your torso. What you don’t want to do is flare your elbows out to the sides. You’d think this is simple, but try and perform a few jerks in front of a mirror, or better yet film yourself in slow motion. Most people find out that they are flaring their elbows and having their kettlebells travel in an arc rather than a straight line. You want the bells to drop straight down into the rack, rather than sending them on a scenic route and wasting valuable energy that you could be using for your next rep.*

NOTE: in non-ballistic movements aka grinds, like the Overhead Press, even though you will not be dropping the kettlebells into the rack, you still want to practice an efficient return. The kettlebell travels the same path but it does that slowly. This will build strength in your triceps – a vitally important muscle that ensures shoulder health and upper body strength but is vastly underused in the modern public, not least because of questionable technique allowed to proliferate in gyms and fitness classes (e.g. flared elbows during push ups).

Finally, what does this mean for recycling the Snatch? 

Same as in the Clean, having snatched the weight up, you will initiate the recycle by leaning slightly back as you flip the bell over (note, this doesn’t mean arching your back and stickig your ribs out. Instead it means leaning your entire body back a fraction, literally shifting your weight to accommodate the shift in the kettlebell position), and allowing the kettlebell to descend as close to your body as practically possible, pulling it into the backswing.*

*NOTE you must actively pull the kettlebell into the backswing using your lats. Just having it drop down will yank on your arm, wasting energy, overusing your rotator cuff and neck, and potentially rip the skin of your palms. Use your lats to pull the kettlebell into backswing. You’re the boss of it, keep it tamed.

4) Commit to good technique.

It takes 500 hours to acquire a new movement habit aka make the motor pattern unconscious. It takes 20, 000-30,000 reps to break a bad movement habit.

But here’s the catch: during those 500 hours, you don’t want to have too many bad reps. Every time you have a bad rep, your body learns a different movement pattern.

It takes 20,000 – 30,000 reps to unlearn a bad habit. Habits are hard to break.This is why it is so much easier to train a brand new novice to kettlebell excellence rather than somebody who has learned wrong and has ingrained those bad habits over the years. 

Learning right from the beginning is the best, but do not despair if you have acquired some bad habits, we all have some of those. Simply commit to not doing that again and only using the right technique from now on. Don’t count the reps done with bad technique. Make every rep look the same as your first one. If your technique even hints at deteriorating – correct course or stop and recover. 

What would serve you well is prioritizing good form over any of the following – intensity, heavier kettlebell size, faster speed, working off frustration or showing off. The body understands only reps. It will automate whatever you do repeatedly. It doesn’t know whether it is automating bad technique or good technique, that’s not its job. It’s your brain’s job. 

This is also the best use of a coach, to teach you the difference between good reps and bad reps. Have your coach not count bad reps and only count good ones and watch yourself learn at an accelerated rate. The body and brain hate wasted effort and using this technique in our school produces stellar results.

What part of kettlebell recycling do you find most challenging?  

As always, please place your questions and comments below.

Kat Tabakova

October 2020

Girevoy Nationals 2020: reflections

10 min Long Cycle @16 kg

This is the face of intense struggle and realization from the Girevoy competition this past weekend. It was fantastic and there’s a huge lesson here!

I didn’t train for this event. I had a VERY nice relaxing winter 🙂 and I don’t regret it for a second. But I suspected that I would struggle and maybe even not last the 10 minutes. However, I wanted to do the event anyway.

Why?

Because I wanted to KNOW (not guess) the REALITY of my physical and mental fitness. Facts are more important than feelings. And truth always sets us free, even if it’s uncomfortable at first.

The positive: I gave it my best effort but had the presence of mind to stop as soon as my technique began to fail. I belive that a huge part of mental strength is sticking to your principles even under competitive pressure. My principles include a healthy functional injury-free body for life, aka using good form no matter what. For that reason I deeply admire those athletes who either a) finish strong or b) stop when their technique begins to deteriorate aka live to fight another day. To me it says that the athlete is playing the long game.

The negative: my strength endurance was far lower than I thought. I didn’t even come close to beating my April record. I knew that I was less fit than before, but what made a real difference was actually EXPERIENCING the struggle on the platform. That was what gave me the necessary kick in the pants and those who know me know that I value the occasional harsh reality check.

I wouldn’t have gotten my motivation back if I had decided to sit out this competition. I would have stayed in my comfort zone, vaguely aware of some possible decline but without any impetus for action.

And this is the reason why, to stay fit for life, we must DEFINE our fitness to ourselves (really important), and then TEST it regularly, entusiastically, unflinchingly. And if it helps, publically too 浪. We are social creatures (some more social then others) and for many of us, public testing is supremely potent for motivation.

PS thank you Jen from Crossfit Power Station for capturing the moment!

22 October 2020

Why Kettlebells are like Olympic Lifting 2.0

I love Olympic Lifting.

It is supremely satisfying to hoist a heavy weight over your head. Plus, it builds power, strength, mobility, coordination, lean muscle, core strength, ability to use the body as one solid unit, and mental focus.

However, I’ve always found five downsides to traditional Olympic Lifting (using a barbell) when it comes to building everyday functional ability for a fitness minimalist like myself and my clients:

Barbell Olympic Lifts: Clean & Jerk and Snatch

1) Olympic Lifts are inconvenient to practice.

First, most people don’t have the necessary space, platform or equipment for Olympic Lifting at home, which makes it a predominantly gym-based activity. This shortcoming could be felt especially during the 2020 Covid-19 lockdowns. Secondly, the workouts are TOO LONG. Olympic Lifting demands a significant time investment per workout. First, you have to make it into the gym, then you need to load the bar (multiple times), then you need to warm up sufficiently which takes upwards of 15 minutes, then your rest periods between each set are 5+ minutes –  all in all, Oly Lifting training sessions generally last in excess of 90 minutes. Suitable for the fans of the sport, not for a busy strength minimalist.

2) While I personally don’t consider this next factor a negative, it is for many people. Olympic Lifting is very difficult to master, demands tremendous mobility (anyone who has tried the front rack position and experienced the often associated wrist pain knows what I mean) and has a high risk-to-benefit ratio (for example, barbell snatch is unnecessarily tough on the wrists and shoulders).

While I personally think that it is supremely rewarding to practice a difficult discipline that drives you to improve your mobility and movement skills, it might be frustrating for people to work for months, and sometimes, years before they are able to snatch more than an empty bar. Again, fans of the sport notwithstanding, there are easier and more efficient ways to improve mobility, coordination and power.

3) Olympic Lifting has a limited skill transfer to real life.

There’s a risk of structural imbalance (strength discrepancy between sides of the body) due to the barbell being used bilaterally (aka with two arms at the same time). Training with a barbell, while creating superior strength gains, is more likely to produce imbalances between the right and left sides of the body. Being a sport implement, the barbell does not resemble real-world objects in the way our body interacts with it.

Moreover, Olympic Lifting is a sport – and thus its objectives lie more in the direction of winning than in creating a structurally balanced body. For example in the Olympic Clean & Jerk, you are encouraged to find a dominant side for Split Jerk (aka one leg is always in front, the other is always behind) and stick with that arrangement for the bulk of your practice, regardless of inevitable unilateral lengthening of the hip flexors and strengthening of the glutes on one side in comparison to the other.

4) There’s little in terms of endurance, of any sort.

Training different energy systems is important for overall health and metabolic flexibility. Olympic Lifters utilize the anaerobic energy system, but not the aerobic one. 

5) And finally, while there is little in the way of eccentric loading of the posterior chain – hamstrings, glutes, upper back and the rotator cuff.

This is because the barbell is dropped once the lift is made. This problem can be solved by recycling the lifts (aka by using a lighter weight, lowering the barbell under control and performing multiple reps of the lift. Crossfit uses this format a lot, with mixed results due to often inadequate technique instruction, but it is still a valid method that I enjoyed greatly in my years as a Crossfit athlete and coach). The shape of the Barbell doesn’t lend itself to recycling too many reps, as anybody who tried and developed bruises on their hips and thighs knows.

Kettlebell training solves the above shortcomings of Olympic Lifting when it comes to training for lifelong fitness. In fact, Kettlebell training can be viewed as Olympic Lifting 2.0.

Kettlebell training contains Olympic lifts – Clean, Jerk, Snatch. However, in addition to all the power, strength, mobility and coordination benefits of those lifts done with a Barbell, kettlebell lifting carries a number of additional advantages.

Instruction for Kettlebell Snatch

1) Unlike Olympic Lifting, Kettlebell lifting can be done virtually ANYWHERE, all you need is a couple of bells and 2×2 square meters of space. This is very relevant to those who don’t have a quick and easy access to a lifting platform. Kettlebell practices can be effective at as short a duration as 5 minutes. Most of my workouts are 10-20 minutes long and rarely exceed 30 minutes, including warm-up and stretch.

2) Kettlebell lifting, while far from effortless to master, is nevertheless more accessible, faster to produce results and has a small risk-to-benefit ratio (provided you use a coach and commit to good form). This is because kettlebell training is done with a lighter weight, the shape of the kettlebell feels more natural to handle, it is less risky to throw overhead, while at the same time it challenges the rotator cuff and stabilizer muscles more than the barbell.

Instruction for Kettlebell Clean

3) The superior structural balance and real life skill transfer bestowed upon your body by kettlebell training is beyond comparison. The kettlebell ‘speaks the language of the shoulder’ in a way that the barbell simply doesn’t. 

4) Both the aerobic and anaerobic conditioning effects of kettlebell training are legendary. It improves strength and conditioning, all while delivering the benefits of the Olympic lifts.

5) Kettlebell training is all about the recycle.

There is a large eccentric element for the posterior chain during the recycle, which is what earned the kettlebell such a glowing reputation as a strengthener for buttocks, hamstrings and back.  Mastering the recycle is fundamental for getting superior results from your kettlebell workouts, and it will be the topic of my next post. 

Instruction for Kettlebell Jerk

So, if you want to get the benefits of Olympic Lifting without the associated hassles and with a ton of superb health bonuses, kettlebell is your friend.

Kat Tabakova

August 24 2020

3 (actually, 7) reasons NOT to Exercise for Fat Loss. And 3 Things to Do Instead.

Over the past few months including COVID lockdown, I have been getting an increased amount of questions from you, all about weight loss:
What exercise should I do more of to lose the belly?Should I start training twice a day?Why isn’t my weight decreasing even though I walk twice as much every day?Is it better for weight loss if I do 2 hours on the elliptical machine or 2 hours of walking?Should I start running?What are the best kettlebell exercises to lose weight?Should I do intermittent fasting? Should I cut out sugar?I’m training every day, why is my weight not decreasing?and on and on…
So, I decided to write this post to hopefully help you understand the relationship between exercise and weight loss once and for all.
When it comes to exercise that is aimed at weight loss, it is a grossly ineffective tool for the job. It is so ineffective in fact, that it does more harm than good and I would actually advise against it. 

1. Exercise is vitally important for HEALTH


Before we go into why exercise isn’t very helpful for losing fat, let’s just get one thing very clear: exercise is vital for health. Regular exercise reduces blood sugar, blood pressure and triglycerides. It decreases the risk of Type 2 Diabetes, Alzheimers, stroke, heart attack, certain forms of cancer. It boosts immunity (especially outdoors exercise), improves cognitive ability, slows down cognitive decline and increases energy levels. It stabilizes mood and hormones and is the best-known (and least promoted, because you cannot bottle and sell it) treatment for depression.
Exercise helps with healthy weight maintenance (case in point: out of all the Biggest Loser participants studied, it wasn’t the winners who were most likely to keep the weight off long term, but those who kept up a moderate exercise regime after they lost weight).
Exercise is also what’s called ” the Cornerstone Habit” meaning it is a habit that once adopted, sets off a whole chain of other positive habits in one’s life, such as better eating, better sleeping, higher productivity, better focus, reduction of smoking and drinking etc. Regular exercise leads to increased confidence, a sense of self-efficacy and self-respect.
So, exercise is life. It is vitally important. And that’s why I do what I do.


However


2. Exercise alone is nearlyuselesswhen it comes to fat loss.


And no, it is NOT about doing that one magic workout routine, running intervals, doing sprints, using that one special tool (not even kettlebells, sorry to break this to you) or combining ‘weights and cardio’. There is no ‘killer finisher’ that will ‘melt the fat off you’. And there is no 8-week Bootcamp challenge that will lead to healthy and, more importantly, sustained weight loss.


That is because while what we eat is responsible for 100% of our energy input, our physical activity (of which formal exercise is only a tiny part) is responsible for less than 30% of our caloric output*.
*Unless we are professional athletes. In the case of athletes, the problem is how to get in all the calories they need, and they need a lot more than it is healthy for a regular human being. Hence the use of shakes, to bypass digestion. Professional athletes have notoriously disordered digestive systems due to the vast amounts of food they have to process on a daily basis. Having done some elite competing for 5 years myself, I can attest to that.
Most of our caloric output happens from the life maintenance processes such as breathing, organ function, temperature maintenance, brain function etc. So, our caloric output is mostly NOT under our voluntary control. 


3. Fat-Loss Exercise is Harmful to Long Term health and wellbeing
Think about modern fat-loss exercise styles: exhausting Bootcamp sessions, frantically alternating between cardio and weights, hundreds of burpees (not burpees gracefully performed as a skill for getting on and off the ground, mind you, but UGLY burpees, those that look like a dying fish), interval training, circuits, sets to failure – sweat blood and tears in other words.
There are four problems here:


Problem A

If you have ever done these forms of exercise for any length of time, you know how HUNGRY such activity makes you feel. What you might not know is that the increase in your high-intensity exercise-induced calorie consumption is disproportionately LARGER than ALL the calories you burn through that exercise  – yes, including the ‘afterburn’. Ouch. And, to add insult to injury, if you engage in such exercise for a significant period of time (longer than 8 weeks), it will RESET your appetite to crave MORE food even when you reduce your activity or stop exercising completely. Double ouch.That’s why so many athletes from high-intensity sports like Rugby grow rather… rotund once they stop their gruelling training regimes. The training is over but the new appetite setting is much harder to retrain.


Problem B
Intense fat-loss exercise causes physiological changes that undermine lat loss. Whaaat? Google ‘metabolic compensation’ and you’ll know what I mean. It is a well-known phenomenon of unconsciously reducing ALL your physical activity throughout the day following an intense exercise session. The body compensates by becoming stationary. Lack of activity throughout the day is terrible for overall health and wellbeing, not to mention your waistline.


Problem C
And let’s not forget about injuries. There is a concept used in the fat-loss exercise circles, that of Inefficient Exercise. The theory goes, if you engage in forms of exercise that your body doesn’t know how to do well, you will move inefficiently (aka ‘flail about’) which requires more calories to be burned. So, what you have to do is constantly seek out exercises that you are BAD at, and do them at high intensity. Then, as soon as you are becoming better at them, you must begin doing some other exercise that you are bad at, to preserve the inefficiency. Do I even need to explain this? And this leads to a much more sinister final problem.


Problem D
The biggest issue, in my opinion, is psychological. We have established in the very beginning that exercise is vital for life-long health and wellbeing. However, the hyper-intensive style of exercise that is geared at fat-loss is very far from pleasant, rewarding or sustainable. The most commonly seen psychological effects of such exercise lead to the same outcome …. beginning to hate exercise and quitting altogether. Now, that’s a real blow to health.


Now, add to this mess the ‘inefficiency principle’. Not only are you performing hard miserable gruelling labour but you are also not letting yourself get better at anything. So, you suck, all the time. After all this energy wasted (less than half of the 30% of your energy expenditure, remember), you have gained no skills and have probably acquired some lasting injuries for your trouble. Oh, and you hate exercise to boot. Nice. 


There are actually many more reasons not to use exercise for weight loss, but if you wanted me to put one final nail in that coffin, this should do it. Multiple junk food producers (Coca Cola, US Department of Agriculture, PepsiCo, Cargill, Mondelez and Nestle, to name just a few) spend inordinate amounts of money to lobby the government to name lack of physical activity as the main cause for obesity, and to promote public gyms and exercise incentives. Why do they do it? Because naturally, without the lobbying, the hundreds upon hundreds of studies linking poor nutrition with obesity will become public knowledge and that means a reduction in profits. Instead, a different agenda is pushed – eat your cake and then train it off at the gym. Very handy, wouldn’t you say? Except, of course, it doesn’t work. 


So, what can we do instead?


Here are three things you can do to reduce your body fat sustainably and without damaging your health or psyche in the process.


1) Eat for nutritional density.
This means foods that provide a bang for their caloric buck in nutrients. This means whole foods, not processed foods. Meat, vegetables, nuts and seeds, some fruit, little starch and no sugar. Begin here and adapt to your lifestyle and taste.


2) Keep track. 
This means different things to different people. Keep a food journal for at least 6 weeks out of a year. Measure your waistline or take photos every 4-8 weeks. Even weigh yourself once a week, if it doesn’t stress you out (remember ladies, it’s just a number and doesn’t say anything about your worth as a human being).

Personally, I don’t do any of the above. Instead, I prefer to measure fitness progress, especially those movements that depend on moving my own bodyweight. How fast can I run 2.4 kilometres compared to 8 weeks ago? How many more push-ups or chin-ups or burpees can I do with perfect form than I could do last month? Do I still fulfil the Kettlebell Academy fitness standard for my sex and age? Those things tell me more about what really matters to me that any waist measurement could. However, to each their own. Do what works for you, but do measure something.


3) Do exercise for health, consistency and mastery, not fat loss.
Since the positive effects of exercise are so vast and since they accumulate with time, CONSISTENCY is the most crucial factor to which all other factors should be secondary. This means that anything, ANYTHING that might negatively affect your exercise consistency, should be seriously reviewed and potentially discarded.


Mastery and improvement are great contributors to consistency because we like doing what we do well, and we like to improve. Learning a valuable movement skill (like kettlebells 🙂 that translates into many areas of life is a gift that keeps on giving forever.


I cannot emphasise this enough. If you prioritize health, have an unshakable exercise consistency and train in the pursuit of mastery, the world is your oyster. This is what I dedicated my life to teaching. This is what Kettlebell Academy is all about.

Bonus: Thing to do #4

Dial in your sleep. Numerous studies (as well as life experience, professional experience and mom’s advice) indicate that consistent good quality sleep is the main ingredient in having a healthy weight. Conversely, for many people who seem to be doing everything ‘right’, sleep is often the missing link when it comes to shifting extra fat. Sleep controls your appetite centres as well as how your body stores energy. Focusing on improving sleep until you get 7-9 hours per night will also lead you to improving your nutrition and getting a healthy amount of exercise, as those factors affect your sleep in a big way.


I hope this article has been helpful. I would love to hear your thoughts, either via email or in the comments.

Be well and keep swinging those kettlebells!


Yours in health and fitness
Kat Tabakova

Consistency and Function.

Stair climbing boosts brain performance, slows down the aging process, revs up metabolism, improves fitness and lower body strength.

As a teenager living in the north-west city of Perm, Russia, I was not very active.


One day at a wise old age of 14 I noticed that my flabby butt was beginning to creep down my leg.
I came to mom asking her what I can do about my butt. Mom has always been organized about her exercise, and at the time she was exercising at home every morning. When I asked her to help rescue me from the dreaded ‘buttleg’, both of us knew that I had no patience to do one of her morning workouts. I have tried to do them with her, I have tried doing them by myself, and I failed.

What my mom told me has changed my life forever. “Just start using the stairs instead of the elevator’ she said. (we lived on the 8th floor).  


So that was what I did. 


Every day coming home from school, I would turn away from the elevator and go up the stairs instead.


At first, I was very unfit. Those initial few weeks, I would start out walking the stairs but after struggling up few floors, I would take the elevator the rest of the way. I allowed myself to do that, because I knew that if the exercise was too painful, I would start dreading it and gradually quit. And I wanted it to become a normal part of my day. I wanted to become somebody who climbs stairs instead of using the elevator. And that means doing it for the rest of my life.

I knew that the results will come only after a long time. Remember, I lived in Russia before commercialization of fitness and ‘quick fix’ marketing got the hold of people’s psyche, as it has with the westerners. Back then, we knew that if you wanted to be fit, you needed to know how to play the long game.

How did I keep motivated day-to-day? Rather than focusing on tracking minute changes in the shape of my butt, I decided to focus on improving my ability to climb stairs. Every day, I would make a mental note on how far I could climb and how difficult it felt. I used and tested different methods of climbing. Sometimes, I would take two stairs at a time, sometimes I would try to walk on my toes, sometimes I would run, mostly I would just walk up while thinking of something else. The key was to turn away from the elevator at that crucial moment of choice, the rest was automatic.


Eventually, I was able to climb the entire 8 floors. Before long, I was doing that without even getting out of breath. My fitness, strength, energy and mood have improved – a really noticeable thing for a hormonal teenager.


By then, I had completely forgotten that the original purpose of my endeavor was to shape my buttocks, and when I one day noticed my tush in a mirror, I was amazed at how perky it has become.
And that was the first time I realized that a) aiming at consistency may be the key to log term success and b) that form follows function and that for me it was more motivating to focus on improving function rather than track appearance.


Since then, I have read a ton of scientific literature on these topics and have experimented endlessly. 

And now, I subject EVERY aspect of my own and my clients’ kettlebell training to prioritizing consistency and function.


18 years and counting, this method has not failed me yet.

Kat Tabakova, July 2020

Mindful Eating – 5 Months Later

A few months ago, I shared my journey of beginning to eat more mindfully. I want to update that journey because I believe in being honest, and sharing the truth about the complexity and imperfection of life.

During January and February 2020, I was focusing only on eating, not watching videos, listening to audiobooks, reading or checking my phone.

Then, I decided to try out the carnivore diet style of eating – aka eating only high-quality animal products – grass-fed beef, lamb, organs, free-range eggs and seafood.

So I gave away all my roasted chickpeas (that was the hardest thing to get rid of), my rice and veggies, and began eating meat. The health effects were excellent. I no longer had bloating after every meal that I got so used to with the delicious roasted chickpeas. My skin cleared.

But even though I was experiencing less craving for junk, I quickly became bored with the texture of the food (there’s only that many ways you can cook meat, eggs and fish) and the umami taste.

So, my meals became less enjoyable than they used to be. So, eating became a chore. Whenever I do chores, I listen to audiobooks. So, I began to listen to audiobooks while eating my meat.

The the Covid-19 lockdown happened.

Bit by bit, my mindful eating decreased. On some days it was completely gone.

Currently, I’m back to mostly listening to audiobooks during my meals. The meat is very filling so it is hard to overeat even when you eat mindlessly.

I sometimes watch a movie and munch on fruit or oat crackers with peanut butter.

However, I no longer need to be eating while watching movies, and sometimes I just watch the movie. I also enjoy doing many more activities without eating. I notice when I want to eat in order to escape from reality, and I am able to redirect my focus more often than not.

I have become more mindful than this time last year. Not perfectly mindful, but a little more. To me, that’s an achievement.

This is a short post. I wanted to share this because I think it would have been wrong to leave an impression of the perfect ‘happily ever after’ of mindful eating. Life is much more complicated than what we read in most blog posts, self-improvement books and advertisements. Life is a series of upward spirals: round and round and up and up, peaks of disciplined productivity, troughs of failure and apathy, valleys of bare minimum maintenance, upward climbs of recovery and recalibration with new lessons learned, back to peaks of productivity, and so on.

I like the spiral analogy because it means that with every turn of the cycle, there are new vistas opening up, and there’s more wisdom from experience. The only thing we have to do is to be flexible and keep going.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Start with WHY

Before adopting a workout routine of a famous actor, athlete or model, think about what that person’s goals were.

Was it to look ripped for the 1-hour photoshoot? To look pumped for the 3-months of filming? To kick ass in an elite professional sporting event? 🤔

Or is it to be strong, healthy, move well, have plenty of energy to live life and not have injuries and pain? 🤔

Now consider (or better, research), what was their condition AFTER their training regime / filming is completed? How much money do they earn for looking/performing that way? And from that income, how much money are they happy to pay for physiotherapists, nutritionists, massage therapists, psychologists, pharmacists and doctors to fix any damage done by their training regime?

Having read thousands of books and hundreds of Hollywood and Olympic athlete training plans, and even having completed some of them, I will say this: read the fine print. 👉Those workouts ARE effective. But for WHAT, for WHOM, for HOW LONG and at what COST they are effective, is almost always overlooked. 👈

When putting together a training plan for yourself (doing random workouts from YouTube has never worked long term for anybody), think ‘Is it fit for my purpose? Is it sustainable for my lifestyle? What are the benefits vs the costs of it?’. This will inevitably lead to ‘what IS my purpose, actually?’. And that’s the best place to start if you want to keep on keeping on when your motivation wears off, as it inevitably does.

Start with WHY. Pay attention to the costs, not only the benefits, of the plan. Aim for sustainability.


Build from there.

Phys Cult Privet

Kat Tabakova

10 Essential Exercises for Optimal Fitness

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Imagine your body is made of clay, with each type and frequency of movement shaping the physical outcome. Take your imaginary body-ball-of-clay through your personal movement timeline, considering your early development, favourite activities, accidents or sports injuries, footwear habits, the desks at school, your favourite couch, and driving posture. Create the ‘resultant’ shape in your mind. Now go look in the mirror. The moulded clay in your mind should look like you, right now in the mirror. What you have done to date has resulted in your ‘shape’….We know that the literal shape you are in affects not only the function of your body’s tissue, but also your cellular health. In short, it affects everything…. Your body is NEVER ‘out of shape’; it is always IN a shape created by how you have moved up to this very moment. It is constantly responding and shifting to a continuous stream of input provided by your external and internal environments, even if that input consists only of sitting still, for hours on end.

Katy Bowman, Move your DNA

As a busy individual who wants to feel strong, healthy, injury-free, stress-free and feel great in your own skin, you want to invest your precious time in the movements that deliver the biggest bang for your buck.So, here are 10 golden exercises that comprise 99% of ALL my training as well as of all the training I recommend all other fitness minimalists who want to live life to the fullest but not live it at the gym.

    1. Loaded Carries. At first, I didn’t add these to the top 10 because I consider them so elementary as to be self-evident. However, it has been pointed out to me that they aren’t self-evident to many people. Let’s just say that loaded carries are the simplest and most efficient way to strengthen your entire body. If you could do just ONE thing for yourself, do 1-10 minutes of loaded carries every day of your life. Simply pick up something heavy and carry it for a distance. That’s it. Accumulate 1 minute of loaded carries on easy days, 5 minutes on moderate days and 10 minutes on heavy days. Then watch your body and you mind grow stronger and more resilient.
  1. Rucking – urban walking with a heavy backpack. 30-60 min per day. Much more effective and time-efficient than simple walking, rucking develops stamina, endurance, strength, improves heart health and cardiovascular fitness. On rainy days, I recommend Rucking up and down stairs or Jump Rope for 5-10 minutes.
  2. Kettlebell Swings – one arm, two-hand, double. A non-negotiable posterior chain builder. Do them all your life and you will live long, strong and healthy.
  3. Rope / Rock / Tree Climbing – climbing is the ultimate upper body pulling and core strength exercise. It engages the back muscles and improves grip strength – something that modern population desperately needs. (Pull-Ups, Rows and Hanging Leg Raise progressions replace actual climbing, if unable to climb or if the rope / rock / tree is not available)
  4. Squats – bilateral, unilateral, racked, overhead, single KB, double KB, jumping.
  5. Turkish GetUp – mobility, stability, strength and motor control in one beautiful package. Want to get from Zero to perfect TGU in your own time? Check out my online course HERE
  6. Clean & Jerk – one arm and doubles. The most powerful and power-producing all-body movement you can do with a kettlebell. Especially useful for martial artists (single KB). IMG_0109 (2)
  7. Snatch – Cardio without the ‘dishonour’ of aerobics. The equivalent of sprinting. Before you ask, no, snatches do not replace walking or rucking. They use different energy systems. You need both.
  8. Rows – one arm, TRX, double KB, any way shape or form – in our seated hunched-over-an-iPhone culture, this exercise has a category of its own (otherwise, as a hunter-gatherer, you would be fine just rock climbing, see item 3) because it helps mitigate the slumped forward posture and the insidious multitude of problems that flow out of it.
  9. Burpee variations – in particular, a STRICT burpee (hinge at the hips and place hands on the ground, jump your feet into a push-up position, perform a strict push-up from toes, jump your feet back in and jump up in the air). This movement is superior to a regular push up or a regular burpee because it trains your ability to get from prone to standing. It can be replaced by burpee and push up progressions until the full movement is mastered.
  10. (Bonus!) Hatha Yoga. In all my years of training and coaching clients, I have not found a better, more time-efficient way to stay both flexible, injury-free and stress-free. I have studied to be a Hatha yoga instructor in my past life. Hatha yoga is where you hold the asanas (postures) from 15 seconds to 2 minutes each. Hatha is different from another popular style, Vinyasa yoga, where you move through the postures rapidly. Why Hatha and not Vinyasa? Personal choice. I have a ‘Yang’ type (as in Yin/Yang) personality, aka I prefer powerful and dynamic types of movement – Swing, Snatch, Clean & Jerk – and use the slow and relaxing Hatha Yoga to balance it out, improve flexibility and decompress. Some people prefer to use yoga as the main workout, which is why Vinyasa and Power Yoga gained popularity. Any yoga practice is a Yin practice. People who prefer it like calm, smooth, slow, lower intensity movements. However, Yoga as a discipline does not provide enough stimulus to engage all the various muscle fibres and energy systems of the body. That’s why for people who prefer yoga (Yin people), it is still a good idea to perform strength and power exercises (swing, snatch, clean, jerk) at least once or twice per week, to maintain Type II muscle fibres, boost metabolism and balance hormones. My 10 favourite Hatha asanas are: warrior 3, crescent, locust, downward-facing dog, upward-facing dog, king pigeon, seated twist, straddle, side plank and cow’s face. They truly leave no stone unturned.

IMG_0077Which among the above exercises are on your Top 10 list too? What other movements would you put on your list?

Don’t fear failure. Fear the lack of striving.

In our modern culture of callout, digging up dirt, public shaming, trolling and other secular forms of eternal damnation, the fear of making mistakes can be paralyzing. 
The fear of failing publicly and the risk of looking foolish to some people, instead of being the ‘cost of doing business’ of life now prevents us from ever striving. 


Nihilism, group think, lack of high personal standards, moral relativism – all those things, like JK Rowling’s dementors, conspire to suck the drive to strive out of people. 
Our complete human experience consists of happiness and sadness, aspiration and fear.


The fantasy world Dementors feed on happiness and aspiration, leaving the person with misery and fear. The soul-sucking callout culture feeds on drive, passion, personal values and ambition, leaving the person paralyzed with what’s left – the fear of failure.  


A Dementor’s foul influence can be fought not with total removal of misery out of one’s life (as anti anxiety drugs and positivity mantras tend to endeavor) but by invoking feelings of gratitude and appreciation for what one’s got – a Patronus Charm. 


Similarly, the soul-sucking paralyzing fear of failure induced by the callout troll culture (which is much smaller than you think) won’t be solved by trying to eliminate the fear. The fear is part of a full and exciting life. 


However, I found that the fear can be put back in its place when shift focus off the fear and instead get clear on my values, appreciate how far I’ve come, laugh at my own human imperfection (because only the deeply deluded think that there are perfect humans), refocus on what gives my life meaning (learning, wisdom, contribution, family, friendship), practice getting back up again and again dusting off my smarting backside (and bruised ego), learn from the experience, and persevere on my path. 


Don’t fear failure. Fear the lack of striving.

Kat Tabakova

God is a Stabilizer Muscle

I’m currently reading Dennis Praeger’s Rational Bible series.

As an atheist, I have an issue with the concept of God. Even though I used to believe in it as a child and teenager, it stemmed more from the desire for stability than as an outcome of evidence or reason. That’s how I view faith, a desire for stability. A necessary drive in a human mind, which ventures far and wide in its exploration and needs a stable base to return to.

The existence of God is low resolution thinking, in my opinion. It suits people who don’t want to – or can’t afford to – think too hard about how the world works. It’s helpful to just have a set of rules to follow. Faith provides a certainty upon which an individual can build a life in which he can have a firm foundation to then venture into uncertainty. If every individual in a society started from zero, we wouldn’t go past deciding not to kill each other by the end of our life, and none of the progress and human creation would be possible.


It’s like in training – you can’t shoot a cannon out of a canoe, they say. We create tension and stability in the legs when we lock out a snatch. We plant the feet firmly when we want to transmit power from the hips through the core into the shoulders and into the object. Is this the same, but intellectually?


Because the rationale that Dennis Praeger provides reminds me of rationale I heard in the religious school. It’s simplistic and unsatisfying. It’s there to pacify the inquisitive mind of a child but not there to dig deep for the actual understanding of how the world works. It’s purpose, in other words, isn’t the truth, but faith. 
When seeking truth, one has to be able to exist on a shaky ground. Because truth isn’t always as easy to see as interpreting someone’s book. 
It’s also intellectually lazy beyond belief. To take a book, call it The Book, and then apply all your intellect to studying it. That’s narrow. And it’s wrong. 


You study life and truth not through books alone, and especially not through just one book, but through observing the world, making notes, talking to people, including reading their books, creating hypothesis, living them out, being proven wrong. Yes, there needs to be a record of all the wisdom you have collected, and it needs to be added to the one of generations before you. Humans, after all are a COMMUNAL LEARNING SPECIES. 


So perhaps this God, is a symbol, a representation in the human brain, of the human ultimate survival tool – communal learning. God is the depository of all the learning of generations from which each new human can begin, and to which it can return as solid ground in times of doubt and uncertainty. Because uncertainty is essential for further learning and exploration. And being able to tolerate uncertainty is a strength that some cultivate, and others don’t. Or a predisposition that some have a lot of and others don’t have much.


There are two competing forces in a human body – mobility and stability. Both are needed for movement, but more of one means less of the other. A hip is a stable joint but it’s less mobile than the shoulder. A shoulder is a mobile joint, but to be that, it’s also less stable than the hip. The serve different functions in the human physical survival. What makes the inherently relatively unstable shoulder more stable is well balanced muscle of the rotator cuff, many little muscles, each not very strong. Because if one becomes too much stronger than others, it’ll throw this unstable joint out. The purpose of the shoulder isn’t to generate power, but to transmit it by being a whip lash. 


What makes the relatively stable hip joint able to produce so much force? It’s relative stability. The large muscles of the hip can be so large because applying force through this joint isn’t going to dislocate it easily. 
That’s why a snatch or a jerk are far more in line with the function of the shoulder than a press. We use shoulder like a slingshot and stabilize at the top, rather than press with it. Why press with such a small muscle and unstable joint when you have legs? By the same token, we don’t use the hip as a slingshot. Unless we’re doing gymnastics, where everything is in reverse, because it’s more reminiscent of our tree-swinging ancestral past. In gymnastics, we want to have a very stable shoulder – that’s why gymnasts have such powerfully built shoulders, men and women alike. And we want to have a relatively more mobile hip, and that’s why gymnasts continuously stretch their lower body. 


Notice that gymnasts, at least male gymnasts who don’t do a floor routine, do not do much pressing through the legs, I.e. They do not perform squats and lunges – they do more of that with their arms, and their legs are used as slingshot and a ‘tail’ to produce momentum. They keep the legs straight. Female gymnasts of course, rely more on legs, and perhaps that’s why it’s easier for female gymnasts to transition into lifting. 


Males press with their shoulders more than females, whose shoulders are weaker, and who rely on their legs more. Males AND females can of course do both, but males are relatively more predisposed to pressing and pulling with their upper body aka shoulder joint than females. Males are more physical in general. Due to different evolutionary purposes between the sexes.


Going back to God, could it be that the God setting in the human brain provides the stability needed to exert intellectual force on the world. If a human lives in uncertainty about its purpose and the rules governing it’s society, it would be constantly preoccupied with seeking that stability. Just like a body, when unstable (think about a juggler standing on a wobble board) is unable to produce force.

And just like a body that’s become too weak from sitting down, and having lost stability in the hips and shoulders, have tightened up the muscles in search of that stability, even if it means that the mobility, and thus performance, is vastly reduced. The body seeks stability. They mind must do the same. 


Otherwise the mind is doomed to never stray past its front porch in its explorations, constantly navel gazing and trying to find a stable base from which to launch and to which to return. 


God is a stabilizer. And human mind without a stabilizer is as potentially obsessed with itself and it’s elusive stability, as weak and tight and unable to produce force, as a human body. It flails like a baby, erratic, unfocused and wasteful in its movements. 


So that’s why a human mind needs faith and God. That’s why my own endlessly inquisitive mind has always felt quite restful in the notion of a concentrated human wisdom that is presented as God, even though it couldn’t accept the supernatural element on rational ground.

Stability.

Ekaterina Tabakova

23/3/20