Dan John: Principles of Training for the Russian Kettlebell Certification (RKC) Preparation Program

One of the things I like to tell the RKC participants on Day Three is simply this: “It’s not where you start, it’s where you finish.”

The hard travel to the facility, the rough nights in a strange hotel, the 12-hour days and the ruined hands are part of the past.

Now it’s time to finish this.

My approach to prepping participants is straightforward and simple: follow the Rite of Passage. But, as we recently reviewed our last successful RKC Level I Certification, the group that meets with me five or even seven times a week began noting the small, but important additions that put them over the top.

Mike Brown’s extensive notes (included herein) provided the “black and white” of our journey and it was my job to flesh out the thinking behind this approach. Many roads might get you there, but this is our road:

  1. This is a peaking program. There is an expectation at the end to pass the RKC.
  2. The broader the base, the higher the peak. Both in terms of time and density of training, a lot of work needs to be done.
  3. Don’t try to add more; let it flow (“Start with the end in mind,” as Steve Covey says). It’s not where you start; it’s where you finish.
  4. This road has been walked before—use the Rite of Passage as the primary tool.
  5. The RKC Level I Certification is a three-day intensive, technical practice. During the months of preparation, focus on preparing the body, mind and spirit—not just the nuances of every technical movement.

Mike: I arrived at the first day of the cert with an abundance of energy. I had put in seven weeks of focused training and knew I had built up enough physical and emotional momentum to drive me through the weekend. My mind was at ease because I trusted my training. My thoughts were clear because I had a checklist of what I needed to do to overcome each test. I didn’t feel a sense of nervous apprehension, but rather a joyful urge to strain and learn.

I have had the great honor for the past few years to welcome a number of interns into my gym, training halls and home. I do ask one thing: I want them to become RKC certified. As we don’t always have a perfect option in terms of sports schedules and certification weekends, we have had to trust the process of accumulating the qualities needed to pass the RKC, the “quick” process of intensifying the training for the weekend, and the ability to transform that base of training into a ready athlete and student.

As I review the plan, I am reminded of the dozen or so trainees who have marched through this strategy. I have learned from each one. A couple of issues stand out:

  • The snatch test is the bugaboo. It sits out there in the minds of every applicant. For men who are lighter, the ‘bell’s weight can be an issue.
  • There are six kettlebell movements studied during the weekend. If the candidate passes the strength tests and has a good attitude, it is my fault if the person fails on the technical aspects of the six moves.
  • There are going to be a lot of swings. There are going to be some hard workouts. You must be in good enough shape to complete the workouts and stay mentally focused during the teaching sessions.

Let’s start with the end in mind. Let’s start with the Peak Week. I suggest that for any event you have on your horizon, count back the weeks and plan well. If you are getting married in June, use those popular monthly and weekly checklists to plan all those details. Taking care of something early almost always trumps tardiness.

A quick point: If you have read my work, you will note I generally don’t believe in peaking. Actually, I believe most people throw away success in the week or two leading up to an event by not trusting the program. We add a little here, we do something stupid there and before you know it there goes the chance to excel.


Points of Emphasis for RKC Preparation Week

  1. Hand care: This is the week we can not have tears and rips. The swing load is light, so do whatever you need to do on a daily basis to address hand issues.
  2. Begin using sugar-free orange-flavored Metamucil every evening. Under the stress of the weekend, digestion and elimination issues become increasingly important. Chuckle away at this advice, but you won’t be laughing if you ignore it.
  3. Don’t get cute on your diet. Don’t experiment with new foods or eat at the vendor with a discounted price on “day-old sushi.” More than one candidate has failed due to poor food choices.
  4. If you are flying in, drink a lot of water and spend some time moving around when you land. Be sure to have two alarms to wake up and bring eye shades and ear plugs in case you get lucky enough to room on the same floor as a high school basketball team.
  5. It’s time to let the arrow fly. Don’t add anything. Don’t get a deep tissue massage or spend 12 hours in a sauna if you don’t usually do it. Trust the process. You can not get better in 48 hours.
  6. Stick with your plan. If you decided to do the snatch test with the 20-20-15-15-10-10-5-5 and hear your partner is doing 10-10, rest, repeat—well, good for your partner. Stick with your plan. That plan, the one you have been doing for a few months, is pretty good. Even if it isn’t.

Now, let’s talk about the little details that will make the weekend easier.

  • Wake up earlier during this last week. Mike would wake up and do just one pull-up upon rising to practice getting set to go.
  • Build a checklist: chalk, tape, band aids, first aid stuff, cash, towel, protein shaker and protein, several pens, food, snacks, water bottle, extra shirt (trust me on this one) and coffee drinks in a can. Bring anything that will make you a little more comfortable. Making this list and checking it will set your mind a bit more at ease. Set this up on Wednesday or Thursday.
  • Some recovery stuff as you approach the weekend. Hot-tubbing might be fine if you usually do it, but remind yourself to be looking forward to the training as you tub.
  • Have this posted on the front of your brain: Trust the process. Trust your training, trust your approach, trust all the work you have done. When something challenges you—and it will—trust the process.

You have to let go of the bowstring to let the arrow fly. So, looking backward (or would this be forward?):

Week 7: Peak Week—The Lead-up Week in Detail

Saturday—Light Program Minimum

  • Original Strength rolling and correctives to warm up
  • 100 swings (2 hands) 5 x 20
  • 10 get-ups (1/1×5)

Sunday—Program Minimum

  • 1/1×5 get-ups, vary the load up from water glass to snatch bell
  • 100 swings (any set and rep scheme)

We approached the last weekend before the RKC cert as a time to let all the work of the past six weeks “settle.” Saturday and Sunday were opportunities to come into the gym, do two of the most important movements and get a sense of easing off. It was a time to focus on easing up. That’s an easy thing to talk about, but most people try to gear up more and more. You must ease off and let the performance happen.

Monday and Tuesday—Rest/Recovery

  • Go to the gym, and do correctives and foam rolling to keep mentally prepared

These were basically two “off” days. These two days insured complete recovery from the training of the past months. We are looking ahead to the three-day weekend, certainly, but we are also attempting to begin to ramp up, too.

Wednesday—Program Minimum

  • 100 swings, 10×10 wave the load, but complete a few heavy (48kg) sets
  • 1/1×5 get-ups, keep the loads light and focus on smooth transitions

This is the last “heavy” day. The “hay is in the barn” and now we are ramping up the students for the weekend.

Thursday—Rest

The RKC Level I Certification is three days, so we added an additional rest day. This is from Coach Ralph Maughan’s “Two Day Lag Rule,” and we decided to toss in an additional off day to allow the load of work from Friday and Saturday not to be encumbered by any exhaustion for Thursday. It also gives the traveling person a free day, so you can apply this idea no matter what the situation for the Cert.

Friday

  • Show up. Don’t Quit. Ask Questions.

Back to the Future

So, that was the final lead-up week. I agree with the great Tommy Kono that it is best to be a touch undertrained than at all overtrained. If you just look at the last week, you might get the impression we don’t train very hard. That is not true.

The key to thriving the RKC, not just surviving, is to train for a few years and have all your qualities at a high level.

I strive to teach a lot of things from the Olympic lifts and powerlifts to the kettlebell moves and planks throughout the year. Our general approach to training is “Easy Strength,” where we pick movements we wish to improve and do them. The simplicity and logic of that statement frightens me as it is the truest thing I can write.

I expect all my students to be in solid general shape throughout the year. If you can remember this little axiom, it might save you: “Always try to be three to six weeks from top condition.”

Again, this is the Tommy Kono approach. The key is to always be within striking distance of peak condition. Now, this is vague and obviously students of Marty Gallagher use 12-week cycles and some sports need more time to peak, but the concept is to maintain and retain solid conditioning most of the time. When it is time to go for it, like during the RKC preparation, we are not that far off.

Lift. Train. Practice. Learn new things.

When you get the email that the RKC is coming around, realize that now is the time to raise the bar.

6-Week RKC Preparation Training Program Overview

We train this five days per week—Monday through Friday, rest and recover on the weekend. There are six full training weeks, with one peaking (transformation) week.

Overview: Weeks 1-6

  • Monday: Rite of Passage Light
  • Tuesday: Variety 1
  • Wednesday: Rite of Passage Medium
  • Thursday: Variety 2
  • Friday: Rite of Passage Heavy

Overview: Week 7

  • Saturday: Program Minimum
  • Sunday: Program Minimum
  • Monday/Tuesday: Rest or Correctives
  • Wednesday: Heavy Program Minimum
  • Thursday: Off (create your checklist for the weekend)
  • Friday: RKC Day 1

In Detail

Monday—Test Day, Week 1

  • Easy press/pull-up and snatch other two weeks. 5x (2 rungs lower than heavy day) Before doing the Rite of Passage, we tested the pull-up, snatch test and press bell size test.
  • Max strict pull-up
  • Snatch test, as many as possible in 5 minutes with the 24kg. I recommend 20L/20R 15/15 10/10 5/5, trying not to put the ‘bell down.
  • Clean and press test. Find a ‘bell you can clean and press (a clean between each press) for about 8. This will be your training weight for presses.
  • Then: 3x (1,2,3) clean and press plus pull-ups

Tuesday—Grad Workout Day

  • Double ‘bells: 2 clean/1 press/3 front squat, shake out the tension, then repeat, week 1-20 minutes
  • Week 2: 25 minutes
  • Week 3: 30 minutes
  • If you have enough equipment, alternate between 16kgs, 20kgs, 24kgs and 28kgs. Actual grad workout will be double 24s.

Wednesday—Medium Press/Pull-up and Swings

  • 5x (1 rung lower than heavy day)

Thursday

  • Week 1: 2 sets of 100 snatches using any ‘bell (really light 12kg, for example)
  • Week 2: 1 set of 100. Try to use a heavier ‘bell (20 or 24kg)
  • Week 3: 3 sets of 100
  • Then: Eagles8 double front squats plus farmer walks, repeated eight times without putting the ‘bells down. Here is the goal: 8×8 with 24kgs.

Friday—Heavy Presses/Pull-ups and Swings

  • Goal is 5x (1-5)

Reassess after your first three-week block of this training.

Weeks 4-6

Monday–Easy Snatches (Snatch ‘Bell), Easy Presses and Pulls

  • Week 4: Roll dice for snatches. Press and pull (1,2,3) x5
  • Week 5:
    • 5 minutes of snatches at 50-60% effort. This is an assessment. Mike had the goal of 60 and easily made 80. We knew after this that he would pass the snatch test.
    • Get-ups and pull-ups. 1/1×5 varying the load on get-up. (1,2,3) x5 on pull-ups. We felt we needed a refresh day, so get-ups were subbed for presses.
  • Week 6: 5 minute snatch 50-60%, presses and pull-ups

Tuesday

Week 4: 500 Swings and Pull-ups

  1. 10 Swings, 1 Pull-up
  2. 15 Swings, 2 Pull-ups
  3. 25 Swings, 3 Pull-ups
  4. 50 Swings
    Five Rounds

Week 5: Swings and Grad Workout

  1. 10
  2. 15
  3. 25
  4. 50
    Three rounds
  5. Then: 6 rounds Grad Workout

Week 6

  • 500 swings, go heavy on 10, 15 and 25

Wednesday—Medium Press/Pull-up and Swings

  • 5 ladders, one rung lower than the heavy day

Thursday—Snatch only

Week 4

  • 2×100 (20/20 15/15 10/10 5/5 as fast as possible)
  • Light! x 100
  • Light! x 100 (10-16kg, Mike mostly used the 12kg)
  • Time these two sets. Then: 20/20 20/20 15/15 15/15 10/10 10/10 5/5 5/5. Use 20kg through the 10s, then switch to 28kg or 32kg for 5s. This portion is not timed. Take breaks and practice fast and loose.

Week 5

  • Repeat week 4

Week 6

  • Light! x 100 (10 kg)
  • Lightish x 100 (20 kg)
  • Light! x 100 (12 kg)
  • Record time on sets then: 20/20 20/20 5/5 5/5. Use the 16kg on the 20s and the 28kg on the 5s. This must be completed under five minutes. Shoot for close to four minutes.

Friday—Heavy Press and Pull-ups/Swings to Limit

Goal is five ladders of five rungs.

  • Week 4: Wave the load each ladder. Example 20kg, 24kg, 28kg, 20kg, 28kg. Light, medium, heavy, medium, judgment call on the last set.
  • Week 5: Heavy weight on all ladders
  • Week 6: Wave the load on each ladder
  • Week 7: Peak week! See above

RKC Preparation: Specifically, the Snatch Test

Mike: This is the exact program we followed. There is nothing new or revolutionary; just five days a week of hard, focused training. The magic is in assessing and course corrections. Treat each training session as an opportunity to assess.

You may ask why we used such light weights on the Thursday snatch day. The snatch test requires only 100 reps. By practicing those reps with a light ‘bell, we are able to come up with the answer to the question: What is the issue? Is it technique? Lungs? Pacing? For example, during the final weeks if you are able to make 100 reps with the 20kg in just under four minutes, you know you have a full minute buffer for that extra four kilos. This builds confidence and momentum without taxing the system.

The Rite of Passage calls for snatches at 50% effort on Monday. During the first week test, I managed 80 hard reps in five minutes. By week five, my goal was 60 reps in five minutes at 50% effort. To my surprise, I did 80 reps and it was laughably easy. The assessment we made that day was that I was more than ready for the snatch test without ever going to the limit in training.

The key here is to build momentum both physically and mentally. We take an Easy Strength approach to building up snatch performance. A problem I see often is people try to train to their limit each and every snatch practice. You would not do this with your deadlift, so don’t do it with your snatches. Build confidence and smash your rep barrier on test day.

The Snatch Test Issues

Two issues arise whenever I see or hear about preparation for the snatch test. First, the snatch test isn’t a problem for a lot of people and I need to make that clear: The men and women who show up with a “big engine” and years in the weight room tend to blow the test apart. They shrug, look over at me and seem to say: “What’s the big deal?” For many of them, the pull-up test might be the issue, or maybe something else. There is always something else.

The snatch test can make a person have a “speed barrier.” In throwing, there comes a time when you believe you gave it your all and the implement goes a certain distance. How do improve when you already gave it your all?

We use a drill called the Soviet Drill to attack the speed barrier. It is this built-in problem that John Powell described best: “I can’t keep pushing my 100% up. So, I just prod my 80% a bit higher.”

In throwing, we ask: “How easy can you throw 80% of your best?” I often put a garbage can out in the sector and let the athletes try to “sink one” at 80% of their best. Oddly, soon they are tossing beyond their best. The “speed barrier” has been shot down.

In the snatch test, it breaks my heart to hear people come up to me on Day One of the certification and say: “My best is 81 reps in five minutes. I hope your coaching can get me to 100.”

Yes, I’m a miracle worker, but give me something to work with here.

In our method, I am asking you to discover whether or not your issue is lungs or guns.

Do you see the “thin veil into the next life” when doing 100 reps with a half-weight bell? We need to work your system.

If the set is easy as can be, we have a “guns” issue and that means more presses and more swings. The answer is always easy; the application is not.

Dan John Now What book

The principles of the program: a few words from Now What?

Accept this: Performance should be BETTER than practice!

Practice appropriately . . . not just MORE!

The strength coach can boost performance by writing a program that matches the arousal, tension and heart-rate levels that will be reflected during game time. It can be done several ways:

  • Strength and conditioning exercise choices that match performance conditions
  • Workouts and rest periods that reflect game pace
  • Actively practicing raising and lowering arousal, tension and heart-rate levels to give the athletes the tools to control these under the pressure of competition

Strength and conditioning exercise choices that match performance conditions

I have no issue with strength and conditioning workouts for team sports being a bit hectic. Tumbling runs mixed with Olympic lifts and some general bodyweight work reflects what goes on in most team sports. It’s pandemonium, but organized pandemonium.

For an individual sport athlete who performs in silence, the strength coach would find value in programming movements that take focus and attention. In addition, some events, like the shot put, allow a lot more rage in performance. Find lifts that allow the arousal levels to raise.

Workouts and rest periods that reflect game pace

I first learned about this from Ethan Reeve, the stellar strength coach at Wake Forest. He came up with a brilliant idea of having his athletes do a heavy single in either an Olympic lift or a powerlift every minute on the minute for up to 45 minutes. This reflects the “feeling” of American football.

If you compete in a sport with no rest, like wrestling or Ultimate Fighting, keep moving at a high rate the whole workout. Track and field athletes might find longer rest periods appropriate to the long waits they experience between rounds in many of the events.

Actively practicing raising and lowering arousal, tension and heart-rate levels to give the athletes the tools to control these levels under the pressure of competition

This is the master tool. Teaching defenders to recover during the game and having the ability to dial up and ramp down arousal and tension—depending on the job at hand—is a fast track to elite performance.

It’s not just “more.” More flexibility work. More conditioning. More strength work. More correctives.

No. More is easy. More is more. More doesn’t always help. More can sometimes even hurt performance and ruin careers.

It is “appropriate practice.” This concept separates the elite coach from the rest of the pack.

The Key to RKC Preparation: Assess and Test

Mike: Another example of using assessments and course corrections came during my press training. I was building up volume with the 28kg. I did 65 reps the first hard day and 70 the next week, so naturally I decided to move up to the 32kg for week three. I managed between 10 and 15 reps during the next three press days (light, medium and heavy). I would have been just fine with this if I had been taking a longer-term approach to building my press volume. The problem was the RKC weekend demands the ability to handle a ton of volume. We decided it would be wise to drop down to the lighter ‘bell and focus on volume and density. This course correction was made with the goal of passing the certification in the forefront.

So, there is not good or bad decision here, but Mike was focused on passing the RKC, so he humbled himself and took care of the goal. Focus on what you want. Trust me, I want you to pass the RKC. Choose wisely throughout the whole process.

This reminds me of something Dick Notmeyer used to tell about how he dealt with people who went to camps or listened to other coaches: “What they taught you is fine. That is great. But, in my gym, we do it this way.”

This is how we do things in my gym. We change things when our assessment tells us it is not working.

We openly adapt and adopt anything that comes along. When Mike or Parker or Marc or Alice or Geoff or Adrian trail away from the goal, I can step up and repoint to where I think the goal should be.

And, in full candor, they often point me back in the right direction.

In your gym, in your situation, you might not be able to follow this program as outlined. Others have done very well at the RKC doing all kinds of other things. Here is the key: Assess it. Test it. Test yourself.

Then, at the end, let the arrow fly.


Dan John Now What? Video

Dan John Perfecting Your Kettlebell Form, Kettlebell Drills Video


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