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Getting StrongFirst Certified

I recently attended the StrongFirst Level I Kettlebell Instructor certification.  This was the first SFG course ever held in Canada – held locally in North Vancouver – so I was really excited to be a part of it.  Lots of my fellow classmates who attended the weekend have written blogs about their experience, and I had always planned on doing the same once the website was up and running.

StrongFirst is a school of strength founded by Russian strength expert Pavel Tsatsouline.  But, I think more importantly, it is a family of humble instructors who take pride in training and coaching to an exceptionally high standard using the fundamentals of strength development (i.e. movement, technique and progression). From the StrongFirst website: “StrongFirst is a school of strength that believes that strength has a greater purpose: strength of mind, strength of body, strength of spirit. We believe that strength is a fundamental skill, upon which all other aspects of life improve.”

StrongFirst replaced the Russian Kettlebell Certification, the RKC, as the gold standard for kettle bell certifications.  There are several kettlebell certifications and styles out there other than the SFG including the RKC, HKC, GS, EKG, and Agatsu, however I set out a long time ago that I wanted to settle for nothing less than the SFG – I aspire to be the best strength coach that I can be, so I want to learn from the best and to the highest standard.

 

SFG Certification Requirements

To pass the SFG and become an instructor, you must show that you are able to perform multiple reps of the following, using a snatch sized bell, with perfect technique:

  • – Double KB Front Squat
  • – Double KB Press
  • – Double KB Swing
  • – Double KB Clean
  • – Turkish Getup

The “snatch sized bell” that you use is determined by gender and weight.  For me, my KB size was 24KG (green for those who are familiar with competition bells). It was either that, or lose 50lbs so that I could use a 20kg bell – definitely not worth it!  It’s called a “snatch sized” bell, because there’s one additional test you need to pass in order to become certified as an SFG instructor – the dreaded snatch test: 100 kettlebell snatches in 5 minutes

 

Suggested Training for SFG

It’s suggested on the StrongFirst website that one trains for at least 3-months to prepare for the certification weekend, but 6 months is strongly recommended instead. Me being the procrastinator that I am signed up only 1.5 months out.  Throw in an untimely ankle injury and a rough cold, and overall I had less than one month to train specifically for it. Despite my lack of training time, I felt pretty confident since my barbell background should have developed more than enough strength and stamina to get through.  The only part of the weekend I was nervous about was the snatch test; I did one practice run back in March, my first time ever, not knowing what to expect.  Despite my best efforts, I only managed to squeeze out a wimpy 76 reps before time ran out, and I was absolutely GASSED and my hands were torn to shreds.

 

Snatch Test Requirements

Let’s go into a bit more detail about the snatch requirements. Candidates have five minutes to complete 100 single KB snatches with the appropriate sized bell (24kg for me). You’re allowed an unlimited amount of hand switches, and you can set the bell down as needed in order to rest. You may not, however, touch the bell with both hands at once, nor drop the bell. Also, you still have to demonstrate good technique during this; You must show a good hip hinge, solid core engagement, efficient bell path, and a full and motionless lockout up top. Failure to do any of these things earns you a “no count” and if you get three instances of a “no count”, then the test will be over for you. Only getting to 76 on my first try and with my hands ripping apart, I knew I needed some assistance with my technique since I knew my strength and conditioning levels weren’t the issue.

 

Enter Tricia Dong!

To get some coaching on my kettlebell technique, I went to my friend Tricia Dong. Tricia is another coach who specializes in kettlebells and tactical fitness. When I learned that she used to be a police officer AND a firefighter, she pretty much immediately became my idol and someone I respect tremendously and look up to, given our similar backgrounds, interests and personalities. What also made me seek out Tricia in particular is that she lives and breathes kettlebells. She’s not only certified under the old RKC, but she regularly trains and competes in Girevoy Sport. Legit.

Tricia was kind enough to invite me to BC Place, where she works, to work on my kettlebell technique. After checking out my swing, squat, press, and getup, she had me do another mock snatch test, this time with only a 16kg (which is all she had on hand). Here’s the full video of my practice test.

 

Technical Difficulties

As you can see, video doesn’t lie. I was dealing with a bit of shoulder impingement on my left side at the time, which probably affected my bell path, but still Tricia gave me lots of tech to work on. As you can see from the video, my two main problems were:

  • 1.) Receiving position + lockout
  • 2.) Breathing.

These two issues are directly attributable to my experience and habits engrained from Olympic-style weightlifting. Tricia noted that weightlifters usually have difficulty with KB snatch technique because the receiving position in the barbell snatch is so different. Moreover, my tendency to Valsalva in O-lifting is totally inappropriate for a 5-minute met con like the SFG snatch test. As you can see from the video, I Valsalva and hold my breath for every rep instead of “breathing behind the shield”, which leaves me starving for oxygen.  Only when Trish cues me to breathe do I remember that O2 is a good thing…

At the end of the day, I completed this mock test with 102 reps. But again, it was with only a 16kg bell, while I needed to be able to do it with a 24kg in about a month. At this point, I still felt a long ways away..

 

Sample Training Week

At this point, my test was about a month away. Now that I was armed with what to work on, namely my breathing, bell path, and lockout, I was determined to improve and live up to the StrongFirst name. However, you may be surprised to learn that aside from a bit of technique work, my training consisted of relatively small amounts of actual kettle bell work. When programming, there are two general theories of programming in order to peak for competition: short-to-long, and long-to-short. Short-to-long attempts to harness an athlete’s inherent strength, power, and explosiveness, and once these are maximized, the focus is turned to maintaining these power output for longer and longer durations. In contrast, long-to-short programming works off the strength of athletes with higher endurance capabilities, slowly trying to increase the power output for a given a fixed duration. It is no question I fall under the category of a strength/power athlete as opposed to an endurance athlete. As a result, while I remained cognizant of the things I needed to work on, I continued to build upon my strength, which was strength itself.

Here is a rough outline of one of my sample training weeks.  As you can see, the majority of the training consisted of heavy barbell work, while the actual kettlebell work only consisted of very light snatch technique (12-16kg), light/medium clean & press technique (16-24kg), and heavy TGU technique (32kg).  Please note this outline is merely a sample of what I programmed based on my circumstances, and I would not necessarily recommend it for everyone.  It does illustrate, however, that you do not have to inundate yourself with monotonous KB work for the entire training plan.  In fact, this is something I specifically looked to avoid.

[table]
[table_row][table_cell_head] Day 1 [/table_cell_head][table_cell_head] Day 2 [/table_cell_head][table_cell_head] Day 3 [/table_cell_head][table_cell_head] Day 4[/table_cell_head][table_cell_head] Day 5[/table_cell_head][/table_row]

[table_row][table_cell_body] Power Clean [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] KB Snatch Tech[/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Hang Snatch [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body]KB Snatch Tech[/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Full Clean [/table_cell_body][/table_row]
[table_row][table_cell_body] Bench Press [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] KB Clean+Press Tech [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Overhead Press [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] KB TGU Tech [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Close Grip Bench [/table_cell_body][/table_row]

[table_row][table_cell_body] Back Squat [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Tempo [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Jumps  [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Tempo [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Front Squat [/table_cell_body][/table_row]

[table_row][table_cell_body] Chinup [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Throws [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Pullup [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Throws [/table_cell_body][table_cell_body] Chinup [/table_cell_body][/table_row]
[/table]

 

Three, two, one, go…

After about almost a month of this training, I decided to redo the true 5-minute snatch test using the now daunting 24kg bell. One of the other things I forgot to mention that Tricia helped me with was strategy. I learned there are numerous different strategies and rep-schemes that are used to help manage fatigue throughout the test. These vary from a basic 10-10 alternating scheme, to a 7-5-3 rep scheme with prescribed rest in between. To be honest, I can’t remember the exact rep scheme I tried for this particular trial run; I just know I wanted to get off to play off my strengths, get off to a strong start, and hope to be able to maintain the pace as best I could until I reached 100 reps.

 

…98, 99, 100!

SUCCESS! After five grueling minutes, I managed to successfully hit 100 reps with about ten seconds to spare! I should mention that I did this without SFG supervision, which meant some of my reps could have been “no counts”. However, this was offset by the fact that I put the bell down twice during the test in order to rest, and had I pushed through those rest periods, I would have plenty more time to bang off more reps. Overall, while this may have been a bit too close for comfort for some, it marked the destruction of a huge mental barrier, and I now knew for certain that I was capable of passing. I didn’t let this get to my head though, as this result didn’t presuppose that I would pass when it really counted. However, armed with new found confidence, this marked the end of my high intensity training, and I began a 10-day taper period in order to get ready for the real test.

 

Recommendations

Overall the SFG weekend was one of the hardest physical tasks I’ve challenged myself to do.  From day one, you’re squatting, pressing, and hinging over and over again, and over three days, you accumulate so much volume of exercise from perfecting your technique. Then, once your glutes, hamstrings and back are on fire from the weekend, you have to dig down deep in order to pass all the tests, and I ended up passing the snatch test with less than ten seconds to spare.  Here are some quick recommendations to have a successful weekend:

  1. Get a SFG certified coach to help your technique. Clearly this made the biggest difference in my preparation.  While you learn, practice and refine your technique over the entire weekend, I don’t think I would have passed the tests if I had attempted to self-coach myself through my training.

  2. Practice with hardstyle kettlebells as much as possible. The handles of these bells are much thicker than competition-style bells, and therefore they tax your grip much, much more. It was definitely a big adjustment doing all my practicing and technique work with comp bells, and then having to quickly adjust to the thicker handles of the cast iron bells.

  3. Use ‘sock sleeves’ to save your hands. Take an old pair of socks, cut off a thick strip from the elastic portion, and wear them on your hands throughout the SFG course. The sheer number of reps you will perform over the course of the weekend will eventually tear your hands up, so plan ahead.

  4. Gain some mass, if possible. Just like any strength sport, it is advantageous to be at the top of your weight class.
  5. Have a rep/rest strategy,  I didn’t have much of a strategy going into it, I just ripped off as many reps as I could before I got tired.  I banged off my first 60 reps VERY fast, probably in less than 2.5 minutes – my reps went something like 10/10/10/10/10/5/5. But after that, I was gassed and had to put the bell down several times to take a break.  Practice which rep strategy works for you, and stick to it during your test.

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