Survival... A Beginner's Guide

Article by Catherine Imes, AKC Coach and Kettlebell Master of Sport

“Kettlebells are survival tools. You have to figure out how to survive…”

Valery has echoed that phrase several times during the certifications I’ve attended. No statement captures the essence of Kettlebell lifting so simply and concisely.

Survival in kettlebell lifting is a pragmatic endeavor. It is going to mean different things to different people based on their experience and other factors. When learning how to survive, we have to find our limits. Not only do we have to find those limits, but we need to understand their consistency, i.e. Why does the limit exist?

There is a huge mental aspect to Kettlebell Lifting. It is quite different from other training protocols in that you don’t set the weight down after X number of reps. For most of our work, we set a distance or duration along with a pace. For a beginner, this is a very challenging facet of the modality. Our natural reaction is to crank out reps and set down the weight and rest.

A beginner has to learn how to go the distance they set forth. They have to learn their true limits. They have to learn the difference between general discomfort and actual set stopping pain. Furthermore, they have to figure out if the discomfort exists because of conditioning or if the discomfort exists because of technique. The only way to know is to do.

Initially, survival is possible through mere brute force and ignorance. One won’t necessarily know or be able to execute the techniques that make survival easier. Initially, this makes survival much more daunting. However, the beauty is that over time, one becomes more adept at the techniques necessary for survival by surviving. Confused yet? Basically, if we don’t push the limits initially in terms surviving a duration, we have no incentive for improving “how” we survive a set or becoming more technically adept.

This is one of the reasons it is always recommended that one starts relatively light. The weight cannot be so overwhelming that it guarantees failure within a minute. The weight should allow you to safely survive several minutes even with mediocre technique. It shouldn’t be easy, but it should enable you progress in terms of duration without hurting you. It should force you to acclimate and to figure how to breath and rest even while you are relatively uncomfortable.

New lifters need to assess how they really feel during a set, after the set, and even the next day. When you set the weights down, could you have gone longer or were you about to drop them? If you couldn’t hold onto them, what was giving out on you? When the set was over, could you have a conversation or did it take you 5 minutes to regain your composure to be able to talk? The next day, were you able to train the same duration or were you unusually sore?

You must ask yourself those questions. If you are working with a coach, he or she should be asking you those questions and you need to answer honestly. It is one of the few ways to figure out if you need many technical improvements or if your limiting factor is fortitude and conditioning.

Several of us who’ve been doing this a little while start to get acclimated to the duration aspect. Holding the weights is no longer the primary challenge or even part of the intensity. Survival now means how do I get more reps within this duration? I know I can keep the weights in my hand, but how do I utilize the duration and the rest to get the most amount of reps?

At this point, survival is more about learning how to become more technically adept for each rep. Survival may also be a matter of simple conditioning. Once I know I can go 10 min on given exercise with a given weight, the challenge becomes one of making each rep better. Sure, I arguably will not have gotten to this point with horrible technique. But, now to get more reps in a duration, I’ve got to become even more technically proficient and better conditioned.

Survival may mean developing better timing on my snatches so that my lockout is more crisp and the reps have less impact on my grip, or it might mean dropping faster on the 2nd dip of the jerk. If I’m doing LCC&J, it might mean getting more proficient on my cleans so that they land in the right spot for the Jerk.

This is one of the reasons we recommend a certain number of reps with a given weight before moving onto the next heavier bell. If you haven’t demonstrated reps within a certain range in a duration, then it is hard to gauge whether your technique is adequate to safely increase the bell weight.

One thing is for certain: You will not become more technically adept at keeping the weights in your hands without working for duration. You will not be forced to improve. In addition to that, you will not become adept at executing the reps if you don’t do them when you are at least somewhat fatigued from pushing the pace faster when you are ready. Part of learning how to survive is allowing yourself to work while fatigued. This is where technique is so critical. Sure, good technique will keep you from fatigue for a while, but you’ll still get fatigued if the pace is fast enough or the set is long enough. Once you hit that state, you need the mental fortitude to stay with it and survive. In essence, you will even further refine your technique by surviving and that in turn will make surviving the next sets easier.

Figuring out how to survive is the challenge for all of us. “What” we need to do to survive a set will vary by individual based on their experience and even their goals. The ability to survive is the common trait among all Kettlebell Lifters.

Catherine Imes is an AKC Coach and the first Master of Sport from America. Coaches Imes and Fedorenko. She is also Women’s Team Captain for Team America, and is a Champion Kettlebell Lifter with several years competition experience, having placed Nationally and Internationally among the best in the World. She can be reached from her website for Coaching, Workshops or Kettlebell Fitness.