Sun, Sand, and Bells

by Bill Lewitt, EMT

Jeff’s H2H video was my first exposure to kettlebells.  I was instantly impressed with the tactical efficacy and boredom-proof material.  It was easy to see how juggling a 53 pound (or in my case 36 lb.) iron ball forces you to remain on task at all times.  When I heard Jeff was coming back for a class in Massachusetts, I knew I had to go.

msp003-011Day #1:

We all mustered at the State Police Barracks in Revere, a hundred-year-old building across the street from the beach.  The group was an interesting mixed bag, an Aussie recon sniper, a South African RKC Instructor and Wing Chun sifu, members of the Massachusetts State Police, and me.  I’m easy to see in the class photo.  I’m the one who doesn’t look like any of the above!  A 32 year old out of shape paramedic who looks exactly what you would expect for being locked in an ambulance 24 hours at a stretch.

Right off the bat, I knew this was going to be something different. Jeff ran us through joint mobility drills for the warm-up.  The immediate difference is that these exercises develop range of motion with strength, rather than simple flaccid extension. This kind of flexibility is critical in the field where you have to generate force at odd angles.  Since the tactical environment doesn’t always allow you to adjust, you better be able to do it from wherever you are, whenever you need it.

After warm-ups, we went straight to the weight pile.  Our first lift was the Dead Lift.  I did have some passing familiarity with the exercise, but listening to Jeff talk about it – it sounded a lot more like a martial arts class than weight lifting.  “Grip the bar like you’re trying to crush it.  Take the slack out of the shoulder, breathe deep into the abdominals, tighten the sphincter, and grip the ground with your feet.”  We ran through each of these principles individually, and the amount of effort it took to put up the weight seemed to melt. Then we added weight, and did it again with the same effect.  Then more weight yet again.  Teaching the body to recruit strength from other major muscle groups other than those actually supporting the weight was definitely an eye opener.

In soft-style martial arts we talk about these kinds of things all the time, but I had never heard of this kind of thing in weightlifting or calisthenics.  In just three sets, we were up to 200 lbs, and it felt lighter than the first set of 135.

sand2The Tactical Athlete program is designed to train the skills crucial to operators while minimizing the time needed to train, recovery time from training, and the risk of injuries.  This concept can be seen throughout Jeff’s curriculum of Dead lifts, H2H drills, and maybe his crowing achievement – his Tactical Athlete Pull-up System, or TAPS.

Climbing is one of those things you’re gonna be required to do, whether it is gaining entry through a first floor window (which in New England may be 7 feet off the ground), scaling a wall, or jumping a fence.  While the reasons to do it are many, the one thing that you can almost guarantee is:  you won’t be doing it in shorts and a t-shirt.  Jeff’s Tactical Pull-ups start off with the overhand grip, no thumb (just like grabbing the top of that 8 foot cinderblock wall guys). Integrating all the lessons we learned in the Dead Lift, we forced the body to move as a unit, rather than like a wet sack of rope.  By breathing into the abs, you recruit baroreceptors in the body that respond to internal pressure with great increases in strength.  It also saves your back from injury, which is why Russian weightlifters never wear belts.

sand3Of all the KB drills I have practiced, the hardest for me to learn was the Pistol.  I honestly thought there was no way I’d ever get down into a one-legged squat and recover.  Jeff started us off with the basics of the technique using the Box Squat.  We trained each individual component of the exercise using the universal principles outlined in the Dead Lift, and got to work.  One of the most impressive things I saw was a state trooper, former collegiate wrestler, and runner of the Boston Marathon doing Rock-Bottom Pistols with a 53 lb. kettlebell.  While I am not doing rock-bottom pistols yet, I did get a pretty good Box Squat going with a 36 lb. kettlebell.  I’m still working on it, and I am practicing to get lower and lower.  It’s just a matter of time!

We finished off Day #1 with one of my favorite in the KB arsenal, the Turkish Get-Up.  I don’t know why it appeals to me, but from the first time I saw it on Pavel’s RKC video – I loved it.  What I didn’t realize was how important it is in the “Tactical Athlete” context.  The Get-Up teaches you how to recover, under stress, from getting knocked down.  It moves you safely from the fully supine position to a guard, then up to your classical kneel-and-shoot, and then up.  Done holding 53 pounds directly over your face, the Get-Up definitely forces you to remain task oriented and trains your core like you would not believe.

Day #2:

Gut Check.  0530 and it’s back at it for another eight hours.  The most surprising thing is … I’m not that sore.  I haven’t been to the gym two days in a row in years – and after eight straight hours of lifts, presses, swings – I’m still good to go.  Training to failure may be okay for some people, but if you’re working in a Rapid Response field, whether is military, public service, or in the private sector, you can’t be crippled by your training.  Nothing says you won’t get a call-out, as your walking out of the gym back to your car.  If you just fried your quads doing leg presses, you’re gonna be in trouble.  This will become obvious to all of us later.

Once again, we report to the barracks.  We all grab a few bells and head to the beach for “Hand-to-Hand Kettlebell Drills”.  This is why I came.  The style of kung fu that I practice trains a serious amount of rotational energy rather than vertical energy, so it’s more like swinging a bat than swinging an ax.  It’s all about manifesting power from the core.  Nothing gives that to you like Jeff’s H2H drills.

Hand-to-Hand kettlebell training may actually be the ultimate tactical performance exercise.  It trains balance, cardiovascular endurance, coordination under stress, and good old-fashioned toughness.  We go from drill to drill mixing swings, lunges, presses, flips and catches – this goes on for hours.  Eventually we’re all completely burnt, and we end up swimming to cool down. Massachusetts in the summer may not be Ft. Bragg, but it is still pretty hot!

We returned from lunch and got back to it. More H2H . . . more sun . . . and more sand.  I was definitely feeling my inner sugar-cookie, when we got the news.  A series of explosions in London’s public transportation had been targeted.  Unknown dead; unknown injured.  The Troopers were notified they may be called up as part of the standard response plan to terrorist attacks.  The Aussie and his girlfriend left to go make phone calls to their relatives in the UK.  I was left to wonder about the EMS response to Mass Casualty Incidents and Weapons of Mass Destruction.

sand4We finished off the day with an overview of Jeff’s TAPS multi-level circuits, but I don’t think the bombings were far from our minds.  Ironically Jeff’s slogan was right there in front of us: “Ready In Season and Out of Season”.  The game we all play has no time limit and no time outs. You have gotta be ready for whatever happens as soon as it jumps off.  Go grab a bell and get ready. After knocking off “naked” pull ups for reps, Jeff takes it to the next level.  He clipped two 36 pound kettlebells to a belt strapped around his waist.  He proceeded to knock off some more pull-ups.  You won’t be scaling that wall in shorts and a T…. It’s gonna be with your weapon, your duty belt, a LBV, and God knows what else.

Jeff led us through the warm-ups for the kettlebell evolution.  I was surprised to see how much I had been doing wrong when training on my own.  Evidently, there is a wrong way to swing a huge iron ball!! The mechanics of the KB Swing are exactly the same as the Dead Lift.  Shins straight, butt out, chest open, shoulders back and head up.  I had been training for over a year doing it like a Squat.  The effect of just that one correction changed the entire scope of my practice.  Jeff ran us through the Swing, Snatch, Clean, and variations of the Military Press, giving corrections and key points of each technique along the way.  If you’re going to train with kettlebells, I really can’t emphasize enough how important it is to train under one of the certified RKC instructors.  They will improve your lifts immensely, and save you from wondering what you’re doing wrong.  If you’re getting hurt or not putting up the weight you want to be, there is a reason and a solution.