Why I swallowed my pride and (finally) got certified as a kettlebell instructor


On the back of the wrists.

And on the upper arms/shoulders.

We (select “harcore” clients and I) wore them as “Badges of Honor.”

“Oh those? Yeah, that’s from doing kettlebells,” we’d say, head held high.

“Wow, that’s hardcore,” were most of the responses.

That was back between 2002 and 2005.

Honestly, though I never told anyone at the time, I was discouraged by the fact that even as a high-level Olympic lifter (we specialize in snatches, cleans, and jerks), I couldn’t figure out a way to alleviate that bruising.

Then, I found out that “Skinny Russian Dude” (a.k.a. Pavel Tsatsouline, Father of the Modern Kettlebell Movement, who’s since become a good friend) could pretty much get someone swinging a kettlebell in roughly 5 minutes…

… While we (my personal training company) were using an ultra-conservative “movement-based” model that took practically forever to get someone swinging a kettlebell…

And the final straw:

How come, no matter how hard I tried, I just couldn’t do 2-Hand Swings without my lower back hurting?

I mean, c’mon! For the love of all things good, I’d just done a triple on the Snatch Grip Deadlift from the knees with 270kg! 

Well, my pride just couldn’t take it any longer.

I had to know the “secrets.”

So, I coughed up the $1500 for the RKC (Russian Kettlebell Challenge) Instructor Certification (not including airfare, hotel, food, and the missed personal training sessions, all which added up to a total of about $4000)…

… And dragged my relatively freshly cortisone-shotted butt (Ok, right hip) from North Carolina to St. Paul, Minnesota, back in June of 2005. 

(Hard to believe that was 18 years ago!)

Back then, there was no YouTube to learn the technique.

I had to read the original Russian Kettlebell Challenge book and watch the VHS.

(Yes, VHS – remember those?)

And the kettlebell exercise techniques weren’t nearly as dialed in as they are now.

Long story short:

<img decoding=” />  I figured out how to no longer bang my arms or shoulders on Snatches and Cleans

<img decoding=” />  I learned how to “wedge” correctly so my lower back didn’t hurt on the 2-H Swing

<img decoding=” />  I learned teaching cues which allowed even Grandma Betty to swing a KB in record time, bypassing / negating the system we’d been using in my personal training business.

The thing that shocked me most however, was the relentless focus on the “basics” and how they set you up for either success or failure with the “intermediate” kettlebell exercises.

The basics (as of today):

<img decoding=” />  The Swing

<img decoding=” />  The Turkish Get Up

<img decoding=” />  The Goblet Squat

These form the LEVEL 1 exercises for kettlebell training.

The Swing:

<img decoding=” />  Counters sitting all day and trains the muscles that move you – the ones you can’t see in the mirror – your glutes, hamstring, lower back, and even calves.

<img decoding=” />  Trains your grip

<img decoding=” />  Improves heart and lung function and builds cardiorespiratory fitness

<img decoding=” />  Is the “platform” upon which the Clean and Snatch are built (trains the “hinge” movement pattern, and proper breathing mechanics under load)

<img decoding=” />  (Re-)Develops power, and trains fast-twitch muscle fibers, both of which we lose as we age 

<img decoding=” />  Rehabilitates lower backs and knees

The Swing is the one skill or exercise, all others are typically built off.

And it is often referred to as the “Center of the Kettlebell Universe.”

In fact, my good friend, and StrongFirst Master Instructor Emeritus, Mark Reifkind says:

“It has been said that a properly executed kettlebell swing is better than 99% of all strength and conditioning exercises. I respectfully disagree. I believe it is better than 100% of all the strength and conditioning exercises – at least for 99% of all people.”

Is he right?

He’s not wrong.

The Turkish Get Up:

<img decoding=” />  Some say it’s the perfect demonstration of the human developmental sequence

<img decoding=” />  Improves shoulder mobility / stability

<img decoding=” />  Teaches the arm where to “live” overhead in relation to the body, preparing you for the Military Press and the Snatch

<img decoding=” />  Teaches how to “lock” the ribs on top of the pelvis and make the body one piece, which is critical for some sporting events

<img decoding=” />  Improves hip mobility and leg muscle flexibility

Many in the “Kettlebell Community” over the last 20 years have reported that the TGU has fixed their old shoulder injuries when nothing else helped.

Others have reported that it strengthened their Military Press.

Personally, I use it as a “de-stressor:”

Since almost all my lifting is done standing, uses two hands, and requires a lot from my posterior chain…

Rolling around on the ground in the opposite position using one limb at a time (holding the KB overhead, lunging), acts as a restorative exercise and helps relax me.

The Goblet Squat:

<img decoding=” />  Restores the squat pattern

<img decoding=” />  “Greases open” the hips, making Squats AND Swings easier, stronger, more fluid and powerful

<img decoding=” />  Aids in correcting poor posture from sitting all day

<img decoding=” />  Reflexively trains the deep abdominal musculature (the Inner Unit) and strengthens the pelvic floor, which when stiff, contributes to tight hips

<img decoding=” />  Teaches proper breathing mechanics under load

<img decoding=” />  Replaces the barbell back squat for many who have lower back, shoulder, knee, or hip issues

<img decoding=” />  Builds muscle with the right loads and volume

The Goblet Squat is probably the one squat you should seek to maintain your entire life.

That’s because:

<img decoding=” /> [a]  It’s a stepping stone to the other types of squats, if you ever want to do them again

<img decoding=” /> [b]  Studies have shown that leg strength and leg circumference are leading indicators of longevity.

What About Programming?

There are lots of variables that go into programming these 3 exercises.

The simplest concept or 30,000 foot view is to slowly build up the amount of work you can do (volume).

Then cut your rest times (density).

Then use a bigger kettlebell (intensity).

There are two programs I generally recommend to people who need to spend some time building their “base” here at LEVEL 1:

Pavel’s, Simple and Sinister, which is built around Swings and Get Ups.

If I remember correctly, this is a 5-day a week program that can be shaved down to 3 days a week, if necessary. 

You can check that out here if you want.

And my SWING HARD! program, is actually 10 different programs, based on your skill, strength, and conditioning levels.

Each are 3-day a week programs, that use 15 to 30 minute workouts, built off the Swing.

You can check it out here.

Next time we’ll take a deeper dive into LEVEL 2 exercises.

Stay Strong,


P.S. I mentioned that when I was first learning how to use kettlebell and correct my technique there was no YouTube.

Problem with YouTube today is although it’s “free,” it’s hard to trust some (most?) of the information that’s on there.

And unfortunately, you won’t know until it’s too late.

Plus, have you ever really tried to search YouTube? 

That’s on the list of “Things I hate to do.”

That’s why when you can, it’s always best to visit a certified kettlebell instructor if that’s an option.

For some, that’s cost-prohibitive.

That’s why I put together ‘THE BIG 6’ Technique Coaching Video series. 

People love it.

It’s based off my insight from training people with kettlebells since 2002 – including being a master instructor for the top 2 kettlebell instructor certifications and traveling around the world teaching folks how to use these things.

I know it’ll really help you out too.

Check out ‘THE BIG 6’ here.

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