We’ve recently written about our experience at the Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) instructor certification. Several people have asked about how we prepared for the weekend, so here is our best advice for surviving – and succeeding with – your RKC.
The Pre-Prep Prep
Our “prep” for the RKC began in earnest about four months before we headed to St. Paul, MN to take the challenging 3-day course. Our program was designed to add a specific set of skills to a foundation of substantial general experience with strength and conditioning training, during which we often used kettlebells as tools. (Actually, it was those round hunks of iron that brought us – Melissa and Dallas – together in the first place, as we first met at a mutual friend’s kettlebell seminar.) Melissa has a particular love for the ‘bells, having used them extensively, trained with some talented RKCs all around the country, and acted as an assistant coach at kettlebell instructor certifications under Jeff Martone on several occasions.
Our first step was to evaluate what would be asked of us at the cert, so we could formulate an effective plan of attack.
The Physical Requirements
On top of their general strength, fitness and coaching ability expectations, the RKC has several specific physical requirements:
- Do 5 pullups (men) or a 15 second flexed-arm hang (women).
- Complete 100 KB snatches (at a specified weight) in under 5:00.
- Be able to demonstrate technical proficiency in 6 movements (that require significant full-body strength and coordination).
We’ll add a 4th requirement here: be able to tolerate a beating. (We’ll talk more about this shortly.)
Our post-cert analysis of these four requirements? The pull-up/hang and technical proficiency tests are reasonable for most people, assuming some basic strength and significant experience with your hand(s) on a ‘bell. The snatch test, while the most physically demanding requirement of the RKC, is also also perfectly doable for a person with reasonable fitness, significant experience with KB snatches, and a little mental grit. However, the snatch test requirement leads many people to focus obsessively on that one metric – at the expense of the other, significant demands of the weekend. (And most people overlook that you’ll not be performing the snatch test fresh and rested – a serious tactical error.) Finally, that 4th requirement… well, that is mostly a mental capacity. Which many people perhaps ignore during their preparations, but for which, thankfully, we trained.
Don’t get me wrong, we’re not saying the RKC was easy, or that it does not require focused and determined preparation. We’re simply saying that it is attainable for folks willing to do some specifically targeted hard work (and work smart).
When we decided to formulate a “plan of attack” to step up our readiness for our testing, we knew what we could and could not do. We knew we’d have no trouble with the pull-up requirement, but the snatch test (i.e. 5 minutes of high work output) and the requirement for general work tolerance had our full attention. When we registered in December, we knew that our work capacity was not adequate – and we knew we had to tackle that first.
Since we were preparing for a specific event, our training, likewise, was targeted at improving our abilities relevant for that event. We did not practice double-unders or kipping muscle-ups. We did not do sumo deadlift high pulls (in fact, we never do that foolishness). We did not pick exercises out of a bucket and hope they got us to our goal. Instead, formulated a specific plan of attack, based around the following concepts:
- Getting better at snatching kettlebells. We worked with several RKCs on snatch technique, and incorporated KB snatches in a variety of formats into many of our training sessions.
- Continuing to work pull-ups into our regular training program, since we think the pull-up is critical to foundational strength development, and it was one of our testing metrics.
- Practicing the various movements that we needed to perform (essentially) perfectly at the RKC, like swings, cleans, presses, front squats, Turkish getups, and snatches.
- Find a damn good strength and conditioning facility to get us physically and mentally prepared to work that hard for that long.
Let’s look at these four points in a little more depth.
Goal #1: The Snatch Test
In the four months leading up to the RKC, we snatched more, and more often. The point of doing more kettlbell snaches was to improve our technique (and thus save our hands from tears, blisters, and grip failure) and to reacquaint ourselves with snatching under metabolic duress. However, we did not beat the snatch test to death. If we prepared properly, we’d not need to practice the test more than once a month, assuming you’re starting to prepare a few months out. (In fact, we only completed practice snatch tests three times leading up to the cert.) The focus on technique work and practicing the movement in the middle of ugly conditioning sessions was critical to our success; both of us passed our snatch tests with over 30 seconds to spare and lots left in the tank.
RKC Prep Recommendation: Work with a local RKC to refine your KB snatch technique such that you’ll be able to do 100 snatches in a row without destroying your hands (or approaching grip failure). Furthermore, don’t just train 5:00 of snatches. Mix up duration, reps, weights, and add other movements on a regular basis. Dallas really likes a KB snatch/row pairing (ick), Melissa likes snatches and burpees (double-ick).
Goal #2: The Pull-Up Test
Second, attain (or retain) good dead-hang pull-up strength. A good way to get strong at pull-ups is… doing pull-ups. Try a Pavel-inspired “grease the groove” program – we’ve found that to useful for many of our training clients. For the record, kipping your pull-ups will not make you better at real pull-ups, and don’t think that your spastic kangaroo impersonation will be recognized as pull-ups at the RKC. (That only works in CrossFit-Land.)
RKC Prep Recommendation: Make sure your pull-ups are solid and strict in form. Have a third party judge a set using the RKC standards, to make sure you’re not missing an important element. Go into the weekend over-prepared.
Goal #3: The Skill Tests
Third, become intimately familiar with your kettlebell. Make it your best friend. Carry it everywhere. Don’t let it get lonely. Talk to it (optional, but we did). Practice your KB movements, like, a lot. It’s partly so you’re really, really good at them when you arrive, but it’s also so that, when you’re pretty beat down after ten hours of kettlebell work, you still have the neurological durability to perform high-quality movements.
On that note, practice perfect movements. Doing more and going faster, isn’t better. It’s just more, faster. Like our friend Dutch Lowy says, “More isn’t better. Harder isn’t better. BETTER is better.”
Finally, get some professional help from the organization about to certify you. Find a local RKC certified instructor to coach you on form, improve your technique and offer assistance drills to prepare you for the skill requirements. Don’t practice poor movement patterns – let a professional teach you the RKC-approved way to move the KB.
RKC Prep Recommendation: Practice perfect movement, even when you’re tired. Practice specifically when you are tired. Don’t succumb to the perverse urge to go faster simply to speed it up. If it doesn’t look pretty, you’ve got no business going faster. Spend significant time with a kettlebell heavier than your recommended (snatch) weight, because (a) you’ll definitely be using it at some point during the weekend, and (b) it’s a mental thing – your assigned weight won’t seem so heavy if you’ve been using a size up.
Goal #4: Survive a Beating
Last, get used to working hard for a long time. No, we’re not becoming proponents of the randomly prescribed and haphazardly arranged sexy met-con. We’re just saying that if you’d like to get better at doing things for a prolonged period of time (i.e. longer than 5-15 minutes), you have to do some training (mental and physical) to prepare yourself for that. This is where our coach, Rob MacDonald (aka “Maximus”) comes in.
We were fortunate enough to start training under the tutelage of Rob at Gym Jones, right here in Salt Lake City. Rob intimately understands both the physical and mental demands of “taking a beating.” You see, we don’t pay Rob to be a nice guy. We don’t pay Rob to promise quick-and-easy fixes to big problems, or to stroke our egos and make us feel good. And we don’t pay Rob to tell us that doing random things will make us better at specific things. We pay Rob to assess our weaknesses and to buttress them.
Rob learned quickly that we liked short, hard sessions, had spent the past year training only things we were already good at, and didn’t have the “finish at all costs” mentality. And he learned that our work capacity was nowhere near high enough.
RKC Prep Recommendation: Get some help with your programming. You aren’t smart enough to program for yourself, you aren’t honest enough to make yourself do things you hate, and a random exercise plan isn’t gonna get you to a specialized goal. Look to someone smart, experienced and maybe a little bit scary to tell you what to do for a little while. (An experienced RKC with a strength and conditioning background is a good place to start.) You can go back to the “Things I’m Good At” show when the RKC is done.
During our preparation, we did many “meaningful” sessions totaling an hour or more of hard work. (Not necessarily hard work for an hour straight, but an hours’ worth of focused training that would make us much more durable when it counted.) More accurately, we did lots of short bouts of work in the 5 minute range; after all, the snatch test had a 5 minute cut-off. We rowed, Airdyned, squatted, slam-balled, snatched, box jumped and ski erg’ed in short, hard rounds. (And sometimes, we cursed him in 5 minute rounds, too.)
But no 5 minute workout – no matter how hard we worked – would have provided sufficient stimulus to make optimal fitness gains for the kind of challenge we faced. So we did multiple short work segments (called “blocks”) – sometimes with oh-too-brief rests in between, sometimes back-to-back.
This degree of commitment to our training required equal commitment to our recovery, including lots of hour-long low intensity sessions, foam rolling, stretching and getting comfortable in our fair share of ice baths. We did more specific “active recovery” and spent time addressing our mobility issues, both with bodywork and with self-mobilization techniques that Dallas picked up in his ten years as a physical therapist. And while our nutrition is normally pretty darn good, knowing how hard we were working (and wanting it to “count”), we stepped that up, too. It was ON.
RKC Prep Recommendation: Get used to working hard in various short “blocks”, but do more than one block per training session. A daily 5-12 minute met-con isn’t going to cut it for the RKC. It’s also okay to do a 60-plus minute training session and be moving the entire time – but there’s a caveat. Intensity is a potent, dangerous tool, and must be wielded intelligently and with care. Maximal intensity plus excessive frequency plus increasing duration (with inadequate attention to recovery) is a recipe for disaster.
And in our final words on “taking a beating”, here’s some real heresy: Training every session with maximal intensity is not the best way to accomplish this goal. We know, it’s sacrilege to even say such a thing. But if we only ever did AMRAPs or short sprint-type workouts, how would we be able to build the (mental) durability to work hard for ten straight hours for three consecutive days? And if we did try to hit all those hour long sessions at maximal intensity, how would we not eventually be broken? (No, these are not trick questions.)
Goal #5 (Special Bonus Goal): Take Care of Your Hands
Finally, there is one additional behind-the-scenes preparation you must do before your RKC… hand care. Get intimately familiar with your pumice stone, callous grinder, sandpaper and Bag Balm. Make hand care a part of your daily training routine, because when prepping for the RKC, a rip or tear means a week away from hard training. (And we suspect any RKC candidate can’t afford a week off from training.)
RKC Prep Recommendation: Research and practice good hand care in the weeks leading up to the cert. Don’t do stupid things that might cause you to rip (like a bunch of kipping pull-ups), and stop training immediately if you do develop a blister or tear. You can practice with hand wraps, sock sleeves or tape, but we don’t recommend it. Learn proper technique, don’t just cover up the rough spots. (But make yourself a few of these hand protectors before the cert, just in case.)
Special thanks to Rob “Maximus” MacDonald, our trainer at Gym Jones, James Sjostrom, Level II RKC and owner of CrossFit NRG, Chris Brown, RKC and owner of EmerFit, and John Spezzano, RKC and acclaimed martial artist, for getting us ready for the RKC. We are grateful for your encouragement, guidance, expertise, and all the general butt-kickings.