A Beauty or a Beast? My RKC Experience.
I already knew the kettlebell was one of the best fitness tools out there. I knew it had made working out fun again. I knew it was responsible for making my core the strongest it has ever been. I didn’t know it would become a tool God would use to further shape and challenge me. This weekend was one of the hardest most painful, yet fulfilling, weekends of my life. Years ago, I tried to give birth naturally after having a cesarean. At home with my doula, I labored for hours at home with extremely severe back labor. In terms of pain and perseverance, the RKC is right under labor. Talking to others, I found out other women have felt the same.
For me there were two interconnected realms of the RKC the education and the experience.
Despite being over 200 years old many people see kettlebells as a fad and hence many trainers go to the nearest sporting good store to buy one to use with their clients without ever receiving proper instruction. Those trainers have no idea what we go through at the RKC to properly swing, clean, squat, press, snatch and do get ups safely and effectively with a kettlebell. I don’t know how many times I’ve seen pictures or videos on sites of people doing swings (or worse snatches) improperly. They may not get hurt the 1st or even the 1000th time but down the road with each improperly preformed exercise they are increasing their chances of developing injuries. Even ExRx, a trusted site, has a very very poor descriptions and videos of kettlebell exercises and some of them are downright dangerous. It’s not only about not getting hurt it’s also about getting the most out of each movement to build maximum power and strength. (And for some of us, burning calories.)
We were there is “client” form and “instructor” form. The RKC demands that we strive for “instructor” form. During our drills many instructors walked around the field correcting and encouraging us to meet the RKC standards of the swing (2 arm, 1 arm, hand to hand, and double), get up, clean (single and double), press (single and double), front squat (goblet and double), and snatches because on day 3 we would be tested on the standards. It was impossible for anyone to “slide by” with mediocre form or light bells. Going into the RKC I thought I had awesome form because I had been working out under Doug, a Senior Instructor, just short of a year. Doug gave me an awesome foundation but there was still room for improvement. There always is. I greatly improved each and every exercise especially my swing, clean, and get up. I wasn’t too surprised that my snatches were pretty good (they still improved) since I had been slightly obsessing on them the last 6 months.
In the RKC system, safety is of highest priority, therefore, quality over quantity is a foundational principle. Not only were we DRILLED on our form we learned the progressions for each exercise, troubleshooting and corrective drills for clients experiencing difficulties, the “whys” behind each movement and technique, and when to refer a client to a physical therapist. The importance of barefoot training (barefoot trail running was also touched upon), breathing, program design, and techniques to build maximum strength were also discussed. It’s was a lot. Too much information to retain in 3 days so we were each given a 180 page instructor manual detailing the 6 foundational exercises. I know I will be referring to it often as I advance in my kettlebell practice.
A quick word about the organization of the RKC. Everything was run very smoothly. There was never any doubt about where I should be or what I should do. They respected our time and resources by keeping to the schedule. Everyone was friendly and helpful. A well run organization is a result of the trickle down from the leadership. Pavel Tsatsouline, who has trained Russian Special Forces and currently a subject expert to the US Marine Corp, surprised me. I was expecting a man with the characteristics of a ruthless dictator. After all, he is sometimes referred to as “The Evil Russian”. Instead, he is a humble man of quiet confidence and authority with a sense of humor. He is the type of person when he speaks you want to listen and not because he “demands” your attention. He is a gentleman who says only what needs to be said to make his point and he routinely recognizes/credits his instructors for their insights. I loved that after describing a particular drill he would dismiss us politely saying, “enjoy”.
During the introductions people shared their background. There were firefighters, martial artists, a pro body builder, a former player for the Buccaneers, physical therapists and quite a few former service men. For a moment, my insecurities began to swell up but then I fought to push them aside. At this point (or any at point for that matter) what good would it do to compare myself to others. I decided to be proud that I was even there at all. Besides, I had the snatch test to pass. It was too early to start doubting.
As most of you know for months, I had be leaning out so I could do the snatch test with the 26lb kettlebell instead of the 35lb bell. I had to weigh 123.5 or less. The day before I was still at 124. The morning of the RKC the scale read 123.5. I took a picture with a dated newspaper
because I’m crazy to prove it.
I call this grace.
As it turned out the snatch test was the easiest part of the weekend. I passed and immediately taped up my hands. The line in my previous tear had cracked and I had torn another callous.
We were put on teams under a unit leader. I had 14 people on my team, 10 men and 4 women. My unit leader was Jeff O’Connor and my team leader was Paul Daniels. I was disappointed not to have been put into my instructor’s, Doug Nepodal, group (He was the other unit leader.) but now in hindsight I don’t think I would have been challenged as much. Not that Doug wouldn’t have challenged me, I just would have been more “comfortable” since I knew him. As I found out out later, it turned out Mr. Daniels was just who I needed as a team leader.
The RKC is a “school of strength” and because of that the expectations to push ourselves is high. Everything was based on our snatch test kettlebell. We were instructed to use either one size up or down. Our first day was difficult but doable. Near the end of the day my body felt like jello and my hands were cramping up with pain. The kettlebells felt twice as heavy as they did that morning. When I got back to the hotel to shower I couldn’t wash my own hair because my hands hurt. A few months ago, I mentioned that this weekend might leave my hand looking like I played pattycake with Freddie Cruger. You can’t tell so much in the picture but my right hand had the weirdest red lines coming down across my palms from my fingers…sort of like playing with Freddie! ;-)
Brent helped me as if I was a feeble old lady. I have to say I LOVE this man. He was sick all weekend yet he couldn’t have been a more supportive and loving husband. He took pictures, gave massages, made me food, went to the store, took care of the boys, washed my hair, packed up the hotel room, took the boys on field trips, and offered encouragement when I would come back to our room sobbing.
The sobbing started Saturday, despite it being my birthday. I knew I was in for a long day when I woke up early, like 4-ish am early. My hands were throbbing and my body hurt all over. I had had such a difficult time getting my swings right on Friday that I had begun to worry incessantly (imagine that) about the technique test coming up on Sunday.
It’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to.
Breakdown 1 – The breakdowns started when we started working on one armed cleans. For some reason my hips kept swiveling and not matter how hard I tried I could not find that mind body connection so I lost it.
Breakdown 2 – Hips still swiveling and I’m unable to make the correction.
Breakdowns 3, 4, 5 - Every time someone asks me what’s wrong I try to explain I’m just frustrated with myself but end up crying.
Breakdown 6 – We are dismissed. I cry. Not sure why.
Breakdown 7 – I walk into our room and start sobbing uncontrollably and gasping, “I hurt. I hurt.” over and over again. I never said I wasn’t prone to dramatics.
downTHRU 8 – We were working on double military presses. My shoulders were smoked and I was fatigued. I had failed to pr (personal record) by pressing the 35lb using the new techniques. (My partner, however, pressed the 44lb. She was amazing!) I was feeling weak and said I needed to use the 20lb kettlebells because I couldn’t (double) press the 26lb bells. My team leader saw me struggling and came up to me. Sternly he said, “The problem is not your strength the problem is you don’t believe in yourself. You decide you can’t before you even try.” Ouch. I thought about what he said for a moment and decided I wanted to try again even though I had failed my previous 4 attempts. I cleaned the 26lb bells and pressed. They went up and Mr Daniels ordered, “Again.” They went up again. He said, “Again.” To my amazement I double pressed them a third time. Mr. Daniels ordered, “Again.” This time I shifted the weight in my feet losing my tension and I couldn’t get them up. Regardless, I started crying. This time out of joy because Mr. Daniels believed in me I was able to believe in myself. It’s amazing what we do for each other when we believe in each other.
Breakdown 9 – V02 Max Workout. This was the last thing we did on Saturday after practicing and working out all day. The Vo2 Max workout is basically 15 seconds of snatches followed by 15 seconds of rest for a total of 40 work sets. This ends up being a 20 minute workout. (There is actually a 5 minute test to set your cadence but thankfully we didn’t do that and stuck with the 20 minute workout portion.) I’m really not sure I can find the words to adequately describe the experience. It was mostly quiet aside from the occasional cheer that would rise up. We were all in a big circle and every 15 seconds we would hear “hands on the bell” and the Gymboss timer going off as we were told to “snatch”. Within minutes I felt and saw large blisters forming on the middle joint of my fingers. It hurt. Really. I’m not being dramatic. Every time we were told to snatch it felt like someone was holding my fingers near a hot stove. We had been told if we needed to switch to swings we could but we are also reminded that this was a “school of strength”. Who wants to be the one switching to swings? I knew, I didn’t, despite (more than likely) being the weakest person there. I kept snatching and fighting the pain in my hands and the fatigue in my muscles. After 40 work sets, time was called and tears were rolling down my cheeks. (Remember, it’s my birthday and I’ll cry if I want to even if I have unsure as to why.)
Day 2 ended on a painful but empowering note. I felt alive. I felt strong. I felt grateful.
Sunday morning was our final day and we still needed to pass the technique test, the teaching segment, and the grad workout to earn our certification. Unfortunately, during the technique test I dropped a bell doing a double military press. My left shoulder was fried. However, they understood we were exhausted I was allowed to try again. On my second attempt, I used every ounce of strength I had to execute the presses. I asked if I dropping them meant an automatic fail? I was relieved to find out that as long as we make the corrections to our form during testing or in my case follow kettlebell safety we would pass the test. I had done the right thing by not fighting the bell and getting out of it’s way. The technique testing lasted about an hour and we wouldn’t find out how we did until the end.
After lunch we completed the teaching portion. It was really fun. We were reminded that people have failed for lack of “situational awareness” as that is an integral part of kettlebell safety so I made sure to be aware of my surroundings (where the sun is for getups, where the bells are, picking them up, ect) at all times.
Last not not least was “the grad workout”. I got lucky on this one because it didn’t require any overhead work. My legs are strong and reliable. My arms? Not so much, at least not after 22.5 hours of swinging, pressing, and lifting bells. As it turned out the grad workout was hard but not as hard as I imagined.
We were called to our stomachs (anytime during lectures we had to lay prone or sit up PERFECTLY straight on our knees for back health or else the group would be given swings as a reminder) one more time for a last lecture. We were told some very strong people had not passed but encouraged to not give up. Then we had to wait while our team leaders and instructors discussed our performance over the weekend. The worst part. I’m no fond of waiting. Finally, we were called to our groups and given our evaluations.
I was relieved and grateful. The 20% fail rate held true. Out of the 14 people in our team 2 did not pass and 1 had decided to forgo testing as she hadn’t realized how rigorous the weekend was going to be. I’m confident that those who did not pass will work on what is needed and will soon earn their certificate as well!
Here are just a few of the people who helped to make this an amazing weekend.
There were so many wonderful other wonderful people. Unfortunately, I didn’t get as many pictures as I would have liked and (I also lost a few on one of my cameras) but I am also grateful for Dina Juve, RKC, Angela Sundberg RKC, Renee Yorkievitz, RKC, and, of course, Pavel Tsatsouline!
This past weekend was one of the hardest in my life, yet, so fulfilling. Doug has a tattoo of a kettlebell that says “RKC Enjoy the Pain”
And in a weird way, I guess I did.
The quality of training went beyond my expectations and the RKC is an organization I’m proud to now be apart of. The RKC has been called “the black belt of kettlebell training” and like a martial art the the training doesn’t stop at black belt. There is always more to learn and I’m looking forward to continuing my journey with kettlebells. I’m now aiming for my “2nd degree” and plan to attend the RKC II in the next 1-2 years. As one of my instructors, Dina, put it I was able to “dig in” and find strength I didn’t know existed. As a symbol of belief in and commitment to strength, I bought myself a shiny new 44lb kettlebell.
I may not be able to press it now but I’m choosing to believe that one day I will because, as Mr. Daniels pointed out, I’m stronger than I think I am. And so are you!
If you’ve made it to the end of this, you’ve officially been added to the BFF for life list and clearly must be bored. ;-)
Hugs and High Fives,
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