Coach Caleb’s Corner
It Ain’t Over Until It’s Over
In the StrongFirst school of strength, we like to say that any exercise is not over until the kettlebell is parked safely back on the deck. This is because that tricky lump of iron has a way of continuing to exert its will upon you until you’ve got it out of your hands. That’s why we have another StrongFirst saying; “Never contest for space with the kettlebell, it will win.” I treat my KBs a bit like the Palantir in the Lord of The Rings. (For those of you who may not have whiled away as many hours in Middle Earth as I have, think of a magic crystal ball.) By just touching the thing, you can tap into it’s magic powers, but it also has a hold on you until you can break free of it’s grasp! As such, even a great set of swings can cause a little mischief at the end if we don’t stay focused on the task at hand until we’ve got the iron back on the ground. This becomes especially important for those long training sessions that we all love so much, with lots of heavy swings, that work wonders for our endurance, grip strength and explosive power!
So here are a few simple ways to keep your sets of ballistics safe, (especially for your hard-working back!) throughout even the highest volume training sessions.
1. Remember your Power Breathing!
In this context, I’m not just talking about the power breathing mechanics being used for the lockout of the swing. Yes, we definitely want that sharp exhalation, boxer’s “hiss,” and the accompanied abdominal bracing going into the top of every rep, but we also need a sharp abdominal inhalation when the weight is finishing its descent into the backswing or “hike pass” position. A forceful inhalation through the nose should not only be obvious on the backswing of every rep of the set, but also on the backswing of the last rep before touching the weight back down. Our StrongFirst Girya training manual reminds us: “Diaphragmatic inhalation will make you stronger and your back safer…” “Don’t be lazy, don’t cut this resisted inhalation short.” The description of a “resisted” inhalation means that the sharp inhale we’re talking about here goes into a still-somewhat-braced set of abdominal muscles! We must avoid the pitfall of relaxing the abs too much and forgetting to practice the inhale of the power breath on every backswing. The final backswing of a set before the KB has to get way down low, parked on the ground, is perhaps the most easy to disregard, but the most likely to cause injury. If we cut short our power breathing practice half a rep too early, on set after set of swings, we will indeed suffer the consequences! Keep up all your your good power breathing mechanics, even on that last half-rep of a set.
2. Set Up & Set Down are the Same!
If you set up to address your first swing with excellent posture, akin to your set up for a heavy deadlift, then you should finish the set in that same posture. The first swing of a set easily gets its fair share of respect and attention, (obviously a rounded back on that first hike pass would not be good, right?), but that last swing of a set sometimes gets no love and goes down all wrong. Although the last rep can feel “done” once it has been locked out, there’s still plenty of work yet to be done. Be sure not to get lazy and round the back as you set the weight back down.
Another more subtle pitfall to avoid is letting the KB swing back in front of you too far so that you dangerously overextend your setup posture as you set it down. Just remember that a freeze frame of the moment before the first swing of a set and just after the last swing of a set should be identical.
3. Don’t Decelerate your Swings!
Once again we’re mainly talking about the last rep of a set here, but we certainly don’t want to decelerate any swing. Remember the “Never contest for space with a kettlebell” rule? Picture this; an athlete is finishing up a good set of explosive, hard style swings. The final rep locks out with requisite “standing plank” posture, intra-abdominal bracing and the KB is floating at the apex of the swing. As the weight begins to descend, the athlete applies some lifting energy with their arms to resist the force of the downswing and (horror or horrors!) lets the weight slam into their still-mostly-upright posture to bounce into an undignified halt in front of them before setting it down. Ugh! If we know well enough not to lift with our arms on the upswing then we should know not to “lift” the backswing as some kind of kettlebell brake, right?! I sometimes see this and think, “You’d never get away with that behavior with a heavier weight!” Which brings us to another little motto of ours. “Don’t do something with a light weight that you wouldn’t consider doing with a heavier weight.” We stay safe because of the way we train, not in spite of it. Instead of trying to decelerate the backswing of the final rep of a set, just hike pass the KB as if you’re going to perform another swing… but don’t swing it. At the backswing of any rep it should be impossible to tell if the next one will be a swing, clean, snatch, high pull, or just the weight being set back down. Here’s a quick video illustrating this point.
Whatever the set is, it ain’t over until it’s over, and the weight is parked safely back on the ground. If we make sure we’re in the habit of maintaining the integrity of our technique, even on the backswings of ballistics that never get fired, then we shall remain strong and injury free. Enjoy the trick of making everyone in the gym think you might do another rep of that set of swings, but instead you put the weight down. Really sell it! You’re body will thank you by hurting less, and doing more.
P.S. Here’s a bonus video with a look at safely putting the kettlebell away after you are done with all your sets – Enjoy!