Is it the time that hurts, or is it the pace?
As you gain greater experience with kettlebell sport the optimal program for you may change.
As a coach, I’ve noticed that beginners may have multiple small differences that can add up to have a large effect on their training compared to more experienced lifters. Often you see differences in a few key aspects of kettlebell sport, which can be broken down into technical, tactical (pacing), physical and psychological aspects. Ultimately these small differences will increase your perceived effort and fatigue, in this blog, we will explore these little differences and how you can adjust the program accordingly.
Obviously, increasing efficiency is where a beginner can make the biggest bang for buck gains in kettlebell sport performance. Oftentimes someone new to kettlebell sport with a solid base gained from other sports or gym training can reach rank 1 within a year of training (for mid to heavy-weight lifters, more work for lighter body weights). By improving their technique, they can better express their physical abilities on the platform.
By improving one’s technical efficiency, you will be able to spare your current physical resources for the same given effort or allow you to perform a greater amount of reps for the same amount of effort. For many beginners, they fall into the former category. So oftentimes improved technique will allow you to last longer, hopefully reaching 10 minutes. Surviving 10 minutes is a distinct contrast to adding a few reps to your personal best.
Another technique consideration is movement variability, in cyclical sports like running and swimming, movement variability is a fantastic way to spread load.
A general breakdown of movement variability based on experience for is:
– Beginner: some good reps, some bad reps
– Intermediates: mostly good reps, typically performed in a similar way
– Highly experienced: can adapt their technique to perform good reps in different situations.
The most dramatic example of technique adaption in kettlebell sport is the survival reps performed during the snatch. A less dramatic example would be increasing your second dip in the jerk or snatch as fatigue sets in if you did not apply enough power. This will allow them to spread the load across the body, hopefully prolonging performance. In contrast, the extraneous movement during bad reps will contribute to increased fatigue, and performing things with small technical bandwidth (reduced movement variability) without adapting technique, may, to a lesser extent, contribute to fatigue, in the example of the beginner and intermediate, respectively.
Further, better performers have lower endpoint variability. This is particularly evident in the snatch event in kettlebell sport, many lifters will change their technique to get out the last few reps but still have identical fixation.
Coaching is the fastest way to improve your technique.
Often beginners will benefit greatly from pausing in key positions. By reinforcing key positions you can often, in grain these positions which may go out the window as you get fatigued in the latter stages of a set.
Example Pause Jerk
An intermediate lifter looking to expand their technical bandwidth in the snatch could add in variations of the movements such as squat snatch, swing snatch, pause snatch, pre-swing snatch and or dead long cycle (see video).
Example dead long cycle
Have you done a 10 minutes before?
Experience counts for a lot the first time you do it, it’s very daunting, but once you’ve survived 10 minutes with a given weight, your move up to the next one. The process repeats itself, however, once you’ve performed multiple 10-minute sets with the same given load your optimal pacing strategy will start to become apparent.
Often this experience helps your body dictates a predetermined plan or pace, sometimes called feedforward in the research, with experience you should be able to get the most out of your body and guide your way to your best result for a given time. If you’re doing something for the first time, you may start to panic or change your race plan midway through, this change in the plan might be for the best, but if you’ve not practised it, or experienced be before, may result in an increased perception of effort and fatigue.
For example, a goal I worked on for some time was 100 reps of the jerk with 32s, I struggled to break 90 reps in the 10 minutes, but when I allowed myself no time limit and really took my time I was able to break it.
Feedforward example – Here is a video of that set of 107 reps taking 15 minutes.
In some ways, this sums up the difference to me, when I started lifting 32s, I could not think of anything worse than lifting them for more than 10 minutes (10 minutes was bad enough), but now it is more about the goal reps and pace because its the pace that hurts more than the time.
During this 15-minute set, I attempted to cruise as easily as possible to prolong my performance so I reduced my pace and went by feel.
My preferred way to pace is to try and sit on a comfortable threshold and increase towards the end of the set, increasing the pace in the latter minutes will call upon greater contributions from my anaerobic energy systems. This will result in great reps over a longer period of time.
Starting off you will need to build up your experience with longer set. Take your time slow build to longer sets, as you feel more comfortable with them you can increase the frequency in which you expose yourself to them. For example, some people may focus on intervals and only do a longer set (of 6+ minutes) every two to three weeks. The main focus should be to use protocols that allow you to build up your experience (in short and long sets) slowly without burning you out.
The physical breakdown of kettlebell sport is often said to be a combination of strength, flexibility and endurance.
Being stronger means performing repetitions at a lower percentage of your maxim strength, which will help with movement economy. As kettlebells get heavier, there seems to be a minimum power threshold per repetition, so having a good strength reserve will help.
Flexibility is particularly important because it goes hand in hand with relaxation for some key positions. Most commonly, beginner’s have trouble with the rack position, often having to flex their knees to support the kettlebells, this means that the quads can’t fully relax and recover between repetitions. This may contribute to the challenge of a set, in contrast, a more experienced lifter may be able to let their legs relax, which will facilitate perfusion or penetration of the blood into the muscle allowing for some recovery between reps.
Having a well-developed aerobic and anaerobic energy systems means you can use faster paces or leave more in the tank. Like with greater strength, a higher energy system capacity will mean that you use a smaller percentage of your maximum, which will mean you are able to delay fatigue.
Working on your weaknesses is the fastest way to improve. In an ideal world, you’ll perform the minimum effective dose to improve your weakness, as that will minimally interfere with your regular training. This could be to add 1-3 sets of single leg strength training in your program, or Jefferson curls/rack holds to help with your thoracic mobility for your rack position.
Psychology ties all of the previous points together. Your perception of effort is dictated by how hard your brain works to keep you going or the limits your brain places upon yourself (to keep you safe). In this context, there are two main issues for long-term success in kettlebell sports: 1) training stress/enjoyment, and 2) competition performance/survival (time competition).
In terms of habits and training it’s important to focus on mastering your technique and focus on the process of training more so than the results. Typically, results for come out of consistency. A key to consistency is enjoying training and making it achievable.
How you could implement this is: 1) formulate a training schedule that you think is sustainable, 2) modify if you can’t maintain it 90% of the time, and 3) initially focus on improving technique over chasing numbers ( it’s needed use general exercises to maintain fitness levels while you work on technique).
Most importantly, you need to enjoy the process, if you find that it breaks you down, maybe look to reduce the amount of kettlebell sport volume and increase other modalities. Initially, you should still be able to improve your number with this approach.
Kettlebell sport can be full of mind games during competition or a hard training set, as you gain experience and learn to trust yourself and you will be better equipped to deal with negative self-talk. During a set, focus on the process, such as certain cues, cadence or breathing. This may be useful for keeping you on track and giving you something to come back to you if you experience any negative self-talk.
Try not to be too hard on yourself if you don’t hit the goals in every training session.
Focusing on the process can be helpful during both competition and training.
As you get more experienced, your body will learn to pace yourself better, which may change how you perceive things.
Further, as you gain specific fitness related to kettlebell sport, you may be able to tolerate greater training volumes.
Expert: Zach Hickmore
Previously I have seen sac make some very insightful comments about sport psychology pertaining to kettlebell sport so I thought it’d be interesting to get his thoughts on the Psychological aspects of success in kettlebell sport. Zach has a strong background in resistance training and kettlebell training with a MSc in Applied Sport Psychology.
He can be found at:
Having a look through, I really enjoyed reading this paper and your clear intention to bring some more technical elements down to the application level for people.
Points to add:
1. Challenge vs Threat states. Elite athletes view adversity as a challenge, such as having to set a high score or having a lot of work to do on their technique. These are challenges. Failures are challenges to overcome, not signs to give up.
2. Elite athletes are obsessed with mastery. They enjoy the process of improvement and gaining competence at the skills and techniques required to be better at what they do.
3. Elite athletes have excellent control over their focus of attention. Whether it is a person in the crowd or their body freezing up, they won’t get distracted or won’t allow thoughts of giving up early enter their minds. They can keep a clear mind and make minor physiological adjustments without an emotional attachment to these. e.g. Saying “my shoulders are tiring, I need to be using my legs more” and simply make the adjustment rather than saying “oh shit, my shoulders are getting tired too early, how the hell am i going to get through the rest of this set… I’m too unfit for this”
4. In line with this last point, top level athletes know how to talk to themselves to motivate, instruct and manage arousal levels.
5. Elite athletes are in tune with their bodies and are willing to adapt effort, attitude and execution judging by how they feel and aren’t scared to go off plan if their bodies need it. e.g. if you’re feeling 7/10 today, make it a 7/7 day and not allow imperfection to lead to inaction and negativity.
I feel these are major aspects of the psychology of kettlebell sport that I have encountered. There are many many more points around sustaining a training program and building consistency, that basically all boil down to having a good reason WHY you are doing what you’re doing and whether this reason will stand the test of a 10min set, half or full marathon. For example, if your reason to aim for a 450 rep total in a half marathon half snatch is “because it would be cool”… will that reason still feel worth the cost when you’re 225 reps in, half way there and have to up your rpm by 3 to make it? Or will you just quit and write off the whole set? Or will you accept that you might fail and finish the set anyway? My guess is, you’ll need a damn good reason WHY to finish a tough set when you know you’re not going to hit your target half way in.
Here are some references or extra reading on topics discussed in this blog
Snatch Trajectory of Elite Level Girevoy (Kettlebell) Sport Athletes and its Implications to Strength and Conditioning Coaching
Repetition Without Repetition: Challenges in Understanding Behavioral Flexibility in Motor Skill
Fatigue is a Brain-Derived Emotion that Regulates the Exercise Behavior to Ensure the Protection of Whole Body Homeostasis
Psychobiology of fatigue during endurance exercise