Tuesday, August 24, 2010

A ten minute lesson - the Kettlebell Sport inspired challenge

A Ten Minute Lesson


Roland Denzel, IKFF-CKT

This article also featured on JPFitness, Feel free to comment or ask questions about this program and many other articles, topics, and programs, here or at JP's.

A ten minute history lesson

I’m currently training for a sport called Kettlebell Sport. At the face of it, it sounds dumb. The name sounds dumb, anyway. Kettlebell Sport. It started in Russia, where it’s called Girevoy Sport.  Way back when, kettlebells were only weights used to weigh grain on big scales, not weightlifting tools.  The heavy weights, or girya, had those handles so a farmer could lift the weight on and off the scale.

Presumably, after a long day of weighing stuff, the farmers hit the kettlebells and hit the vodka, all the while challenging each other to lift, swing, and press the kettlebells more and more times.  Their kettlebells were just a couple of pretty standard weights, so challenging each other to go heavy started at 16kg and ended at 32kg. Going for time or reps was the challenge, and after many repeated challenges, the “sport” was born, finally settling on a period of ten minutes, which is really quite a challenge.  It caught on over there in Russia, and people have been doing these ten minute challenges ever since.

Don’t have any kettlebells?  Dumbbells are the other option for this ten minute lesson, but they have a far less interesting history, including no Dumbbell Sport! Dumbbells have been around for thousands of years, but since they were actually designed for strength training, there’s less opportunity for crazy. Still, you might think it’s crazy enough just trying to jerk a weight for ten minutes!

The challenge

Our challenge, using a dumbbell or a kettlebell, is based on this ten minute competition that started back in Russia, years ago. In short, the goal in the sport is to perform lifts, pretty much non-stop, for ten minutes. The winner is the one with the most reps. There are a few rules and complications for the real competitors, but the bottom line is ten minutes, non-stop, hard exercise. That’s tough.

I know it might sound pretty ho hum, but think about picking up a dumbbell that you can press overhead ten times. Now start pressing it overhead, as fast or as slow as you like, for ten minutes…without setting it down. What about rest? Sure, you can rest, let it settle on your shoulder for as long as you like. After you’ve “rested,” press some more. If you still can’t imagine, try it for a few minutes. Long before you get to ten, you’ll see my point.

In competition, you’re going all out. You have a strategy to get as many reps as possible in your ten minutes, pacing yourself, counting reps and minutes, and resting strategically. You need at least one more rep than the other guy, but you can’t know how many he’s going to get so you just go, go, go!

In training, the idea is to increase your reps over time. Each week, you need to try to get more reps done. You’re challenging not just time and the weight in your hands, but your body and your mind. You are pushing yourself to go one more rep, all the while it’s getting harder and harder as the minutes count toward ten. Yes, you can rest, but the rest that’s allowed is a joke – you can’t set the weight down or you’re out. You have to hold it to rest. Brutal.

How (and why) to fit this into your regular program

First, why am I recommending that you subject yourself to this ten minute lesson?  Let’s face it, it’s just ten minutes. It’s ten hard minutes, but still just a short time. Don’t let the brief nature fool you, it’s tough. Just like four minutes of Tabatas didn’t fool you, at least not twice, don’t let these fool you, either.

Most of us want to get stronger, leaner, and better conditioned, and we look for ways to burn more calories and get in more reps, all without destroying our progress in the weight room, the track, or the kitchen.

Enter GPP (the why of it all)

You may have heard the acronym GPP, or General Physical Preparedness before. The last few years, “doing” GPP has become popular, even though many people don’t know why they want to do it. I think I first learned of GPP via an article by Dave Tate, who found himself super strong, but unable to walk up a flight of stairs or chase after a ball without feeling like dying. Dave looked for ways to improve his GPP, got in “better shape,” and then found that he was able to also work harder under the bar. GPP helped him get stronger.

In many ways GPP is a fun way to exercise, at least the way it’s been portrayed in the fitness media, sites, and blogs. GPP routines are often swinging sledgehammers, pulling sleds, throwing medicine balls, and flinging sandbags. These activities are so dissimilar that it should make you wonder what the hell they all have in common. They can all be used for GPP, that’s what.

The fact is that GPP is just anything that gets you better conditioned and prepared for “general” activities. It’s non-specific for the most part, and rarely involves the same tools, exercises, or activities that you do in your sport of choice. It’s really just designed to get you into a condition where you can handle a good and hard workload without dropping, dying, or quitting early. Good GPP programming also teaches you to push yourself farther and harder than you thought you could handle, but at a safer physical level than you might be able to in your sport.

Without the conditioning, willpower, and drive to really push to your limits, getting in the reps to get stronger isn’t going to happen, going the extra mile isn’t going to happen, and putting on the speed and sprinting to the finish line might be less like a Ferrari and more like a Prius. Your better GPP puts you in the position, physically and mentally, to push yourself harder, getting stronger, faster, and allowing you to burn more calories in the process.

There are many other activities that fall into the GPP category, such as sprinting, barbell complexes, bodyweight circuits, calisthenics, rope jumping, walking, hiking, and so much more.  You’re likely doing several of these things already, as they are in many great programs, such as the New Rules of Lifting books, Power Training, Turbulence Training, and the Female Body Breakthrough. They may not call it GPP, but GPP it is.

So, I hope I’ve convinced you to keep up, or add in, GPP work. You obviously have a ton of options, since there’s little right or wrong, but I think this plan fits the bill for many people. For most people it’s going to be a better option than many of the others listed.

  • Short – I think a 15-20 minute training session is just perfect for an off day GPP session, so my Ten Minute Lesson fits the bill.  Including a warmup, a cooldown stretch, and a shower, you can get these workouts done in 30 minutes.  A lunch break with room to spare for most of us.
  • Short, part two – A ten minute set at the end of your regular training session is perfect. This is where many books and programs typically have you do your intervals, HIIT, Tabatas, jump rope, or a short bout of steady state cardio, so these fit perfectly.
  • Very little equipment needed – One kettlebell or dumbbell is all it takes. That means it’s good for home or the gym. No excuses.
  • Full body, multi-joint exercise – All the suggested exercises are chosen to hit as much of the body as possible, in minimum time. This is a huge selling point for barbell complexes and  bodyweight circuits that are so popular. Many of the same benefits are found here, too.
  • Self-regulating – Because you’re always trying to beat your last number, you’re forcing yourself to work a little harder over time. Whether it’s a quick increase or large jumps in progress isn’t important. What’s important is that you’re getting just a little bit better, session after session. It’s easy to track, easy to manage, and satisfying to see progress.
  • Easy to see the progression – Many times, intervals and complexes have no progression that you can count on. They shorten the rest periods, increase the distance, and other parameters. I’m sure they work, but they take faith to follow them. After a few cycles, you can test to see if you’re better, but until then, you just have to trust that the progression is doing the trick. If it’s not, you won’t know for a month or more, if ever.
  • Safer – Good, safe sprinting takes training to avoid injury.  Sledgehammer and tire flipping aren’t as safe as they seem…  There are safe options, and this is one of them.
  • Less intimidating – I’ve been embarrassed to do circuits of jumping jacks, burpees and squat jumps in the gym. I know I shouldn’t be, but leave me alone! Don’t look at me!

I feel like I could go on and on, which is why I wrote this article, but I think that’s a good list right there.

How to fit it in

Because it’s short and a little bit brutal, my suggestion is to do it where you would do an interval or HIIT workout. If you’re doing some sort of Tabata or bodyweight circuit for fat loss, just drop them and do these instead.

Like I wrote above, dumbbell and kettlebell jerks are full body, multi-joint exercises, as are the more advanced lifts listed later. They are going to work your entire body, and they are extremely taxing.  Make sure to do them on an off day from your weights, or at the end of a weight training session, not at the beginning.

As unpleasant as this activity sounds, it’s actually very rewarding – the challenge more than makes up for the hard work and sweat. With these ten minute sessions, like we do in Kettlebell Sport, what you will learn about your own tenacity will make the experience worthwhile. The calories you burn will be worth it, too. A nice bonus.

I’m not going to ask you to start with a weight that’s going to kill you, the idea is to be able to do it, and build up over time, challenging yourself as you get stronger and more conditioned.

I’m not going to require you to learn to snatch or clean a kettlebell, either. The goal isn’t the lift or the implement, it’s the challenge, the exercise, and the calories burned.

Now, choose your exercise, estimate your reps per minute, set the timer, and get ready to go.

Choose your exercise – Beginner Exercises

DB Jerk
KB Jerk

I chose just these two lifts because they are fairly safe to do and they are easy to learn from a description. For more advanced moves, check out the list at the end of the article. 

DB Jerk

  1. Stand with feel about shoulder width apart
  2. Hoist the DB to your shoulder
  3. Hip and knees are slightly bent, like you’re ready to jump
  4. Dip down just a bit, then explode back up, propelling the DB upward
  5. Dip down again, getting under the DB to catch it at the top
  6. Lock it out at the top
  7. Drop the DB back to the shoulder, cushioning the drop by allowing the hip and knees to bend again
  8. Repeat steps 3-7 for your reps

This is a one handed exercise, so at some point you’ll need to switch hands. I would try to switch at the minute mark, each time.

KB Jerk

  1. Stand with feel about shoulder width apart
  2. Hoist the KB to the rack position, cradled against your chest in the crook of your arm
  3. Hip and knees should be slightly bent, like you’re ready to jump
  4. Dip down just a bit, then explode back up, propelling the KB upward
  5. Dip down again, getting under the KB to catch it at the top
  6. Lock it out at the top
  7. Drop the KB back to the rack position, cushioning the drop by allowing the hip and knees to bend again while sinking backward
  8. Repeat steps 3-7 for your reps

This is a one handed exercise, so at some point you’ll need to switch hands. I would try to switch at the minute mark, each time.

Estimating your reps per minute

This can be tough to do the first time, especially if you’ve never done these lifts before. When in doubt, aim low. If you kill it, you can go heavier or with more reps next time.

You will have ten minutes of exercise.  If you can jerk the dumbbell twenty times straight, with just one hand, then a good goal might be ten jerks per minute to start. 

While you can set a timer for just ten minutes, it’s very hard to know how things are going like that. It’s torture to not know how much longer you have, so don’t even try this. I prefer 20 rounds of 30 seconds, which gives me just enough warnings to keep me going and keep me from wondering.

You will need a timer, of course.

Timer options

  • Watch – you might have a watch with a good timer, so take a look there, first.
  • Gymboss – I recommend this since it has so many combinations. Cheap and portable. Plus it’s got a vibrate feature which is good for the public gym. This is what I use when I train outside.
  • iPhone Apps – I understand that iPhones have timer applications you can get, but I’ll leave that to the iPhone users (I’m Blackberry). I know Blackberries and other phones have them, too, so look around.
  • A big clock – For a few bucks at the discount store, Target, Walmart, etc. you can have a large analog clock with a second hand. Manually set it to noon and lift until 12:10.
  • PC/Mac Timer – If you plan to do these in the house (like I often do), you can find many freeware timers on the internet.  Here’s one at Ross Training, but there are others out there.
  • MP3 – I made a 10 minute long mp3 that chimes every once in a while to keep me in the loop.

Are you ready?

Your dumbbell or kettlebell is ready to go?  You’ve chosen your target reps per minute?  Your timer is set so you can see it or hear it? 

Before I say “go,” here are a few final reminders.

Stick to the plan – At the end of minute number one, two, or three, you might feel like you can do far more than your rep target. You must resist and stick to the plan. By the time you get to minute six, seven, and eight, you’ll be struggling to hit the same target that was so easy just a few minutes ago.

Switch hands – Remember to switch hands.  Try to go as long as you planned before switching. I would switch hands at the minute mark, if possible, resting until each minute is up. Over time, you’ll improve.

Active rest – It’s not the rest you want, but it’s the rest that’s allowed. When you need to, drop the KB to the rack position and hold it there to rest.  If you are using a DB, then drop it to your shoulder or upper chest. Don’t put it on the ground.

When to rest – Rest when you need to, of course, but always rest after your reps are done for each minute. Do not push on and get more reps. Stick to the plan, get your reps done, and get more reps next week.

Now GO!

Evaluating your results

After you’re done and recovered a bit, consider how well you did.  Was it too easy to complete all of your reps in the ten minutes? Instead of 10 per minute, try targeting 11 or 12 per minute next week. Did you gas out in minute six or eight? Maybe you went too fast for that weight. Why not try 8 reps per minute, next week. Was it too light or too heavy? Try a different weight next week. The options are almost endless, and there’s no right or wrong.

This first week was tough, right? Next time, with your new target to hit, it’s going to get tougher. You’re battling yourself, and it takes at least one more rep at the end to win the battle. After a few sessions, you’re going to look back at your progress and impress yourself.

Recommended advanced exercises

For those of you who have been swinging kettlebells or dumbbells for quite some time, here are a few more advanced exercises.


DB Clean
DB Snatch
DB Clean & Jerk

Note – The choice of whether to set the dumbbell on the ground between reps or to swing it between the legs is up to you, and depends on your flexibility, mobility, and your ability to not whack yourself with the dumbbell as it swings down and back.  If you have doubts, do them from the floor, just setting it down long enough to start from a dead stop.  Rest is only allowed on the shoulder or upper chest, just like in the DB Jerk.


KB Snatch *
KB Jerk *
KB Clean & Jerk *
KB Clean

Note – The * denotes the official Kettlebell Sport lifts.  Kettlebell Clean & Jerk is also knows as Long Cycle, while the Snatch and Jerk are often done as a two event competition known as Biathlon.

Even though the kettlebell snatch and jerk are a big part of Kettlebell Sport, without training and practice, both will include pain. Both the kettlebell clean and kettlebell snatch require some special techniques to keep the kettlebell from swinging over and slamming against your forearm, causing serious lumps and bruises. Save these exercises for after you’ve gotten hooked and got some training.

Why no dumbbell or kettlebell swings?  Because there’s no good way to perform the active rest. You can hold it in your hands, but that’s still killing your grip, and setting it down defeats the purpose of the active rest. I love swings, but not here.

Wrap up

I know you may end up cursing me for this little program, but it’s for a good reason, not just to torture you. I’m not going to be so cocky as to say it builds character, but what it does do is show you what “hard” really is. Why is that important? Because many of us these days think things like walking to the park is hard.

If you find that you like the way you’re challenging yourself with these ten minute sets, eventually you may decide to look into Kettlebell Sport. Then, things really get going. Did I mention that guys in competition have to use two kettlebells for the clean and jerk? Oh, bad reps don’t count, of course, and you’re only allowed to switch hands once in your entire ten minutes, you really need to be sharp and tough. That really takes things to the next level!

Like I said earlier, this is not a training program, per se, but it’s a good part of your weekly exercise plan. Do your Ten Minute Set in place of intervals, sprinting, or the cardio at the end of your weight training session. If you’re doing them hard enough, you’ll soon know what hard is.

Speaking of Kettlebell Sport, here’s fellow IKFF-CKT and Kettlebell Sport Chick, Nazo, doing ten minutes of Clean & Jerk in competition.

Oh, the blue kettlebell means 12kgs, in case you’re wondering…

This article has also been featured on JPFitness, Feel free to comment or ask questions about this program and many other articles, topics, and programs, here or at JP's.

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