Back to Basics

Learning is boundless. – I dare not say that I have reached any state of achievement. I’m still learning, for learning is boundless.”, Bruce Lee

Several months ago I was making some announcements about class schedule changes to a group of my clients before class.  In response to this announcement one of my clients asked me the following question in front of the group, “Isn’t the 8 a.m. class a beginner class?”

To which, with a smile on my face, I responded to this client, and to the whole group, “Yes, the 8 a.m. is a beginner class, HOWEVER, we could all use a beginner class once in a while, if not once a week.”

My Sifu once said to me, “Artemis, it’s like the old Washington Post ad, “You either get it, or you don’t.”

If you “get it” you understand that “learning is boundless” even with a movement that you have been doing for years.  For example, a black belt practicing his/her most basic form will not only perform it much differently, and with much more skill than the student who just tested on that basic form for the first time, but also the black belt may discover a new nuance with the form that he/she can improve upon within the form.  Whereas the beginner student is merely trying to remember the sequence of movements and has not yet achieved that level of learning with the form.

This concept applies not only to martial arts, but also to kettlebell training or any other complex skill.  The beginner who is practicing his/her kettlebell swing for the fourth time is just trying to remember how to piece everything together while the more advanced student who is practicing his/her swing for the infinite time is working to delve deeper into having a faster more powerful kettlebell swing.

If you “get it” then you understand that there is a higher level of learning that can be achieved for even the most basic movement that one knows.  As Strength Coach Dan John writes in his book Intervention “I think greatness is usually seen in the courage to master the fundamentals.”  Dan John even asks his athletes, “Are you willing to go back to the basics?”.

If you are that person who is always looking for the next routine, or needs excessive variety in your training, such as a new and different workout every time you train, then you DON’T “get it”.  The people who don’t “get it” are more often than not the people who need the most repetition in their training and have the most to improve upon.  This is because they have too much or they seek too much variety in their training rather than trying to delve deeper in how they can get the most out of the most basic movement.

I remember when I used to practice weapons basics for the kung fu weapons forms that I know.  Sometimes I would complain to my Sifu about how my basics, for example flowers with the straight sword, sucked.  My Sifu would reply to me, “Have you practiced 1,000 flowers?” I would reply, “No Sifu.” His response, “Ok then.  After you do 1,000 flowers, then maybe we can talk. In the meantime, keep practicing.”

You here this a lot in martial arts, that it takes 1,000 kicks to get one great kick or practicing a movement 1,000 times to only begin to improve it.  This truly applies to anything, kicking, punching, forms, weapons basics, kettlebell swings, kettlebell cleans, Turkish get ups (have you done 1,000 get ups??).  It takes one’s body to repeat a movement so many times for your body to merely begin to understand the movement pattern.  This is one of the reasons why repetition is key when it comes to learning a movement and performance.

Let’s take the Kettlebell Swing for example.  A little over a week ago I decided to have my kettlebell classes focus on heavy two handed swings for class.  It had been a while since we had done a heavy swing day in class, so it was time to bring it back. The people in the classes approached the bells like it was the first time that they had done heavy swings before and over the course of the class it became clear to me that everyone’s swings needed A LOT of work.  If you don’t have a solid swing in kettlebell training, then most other movements suffer as a result.  It’s like kung fu, if your mabu (horse stance) needs improvement, then all of your stances likely also need improvement and subsequently your forms.

As a result of this discovery, swings have been the main focus in classes for the past week and will continue to be the main focus until I start to see some improvements in people’s swings.  Even then, I will maintain a strong emphasis on people’s form for their swing.

The last time this happened it was with the Get Up.  I remember one day in class I was watching people do Turkish Get Ups and I thought, “Man, we need to do Get Ups more often!” After that class I made the decision to always do Get Ups, every single class.  The Get Up is on the menu no matter what.  Some form of the Get Up, full, partial or even a get down to get up, is the first thing my clients start with in classes.  Since then, everyone’s Get Ups have improved.

When it comes to kettlebell training you hear A LOT about the importance of the swing and the effectiveness of a good swing. All Russian Hardstyle Kettlebell Instructors emphasize the importance of having a quality swing and how effective a quality kettlebell swing can be, Tracy Reifkind wrote a book about it “The Swing”, Iron Maiden Valerie Hedlund wrote a few posts about it, you can read them HERE , as well as  Tim Ferriss (author of “The 4-Hour Workweek”) wrote a post about it, you can read it HERE, and I know that many other Russian Hardstyle Kettlebell instructors have written about it frequently.

As instructors trained by Pavel Tsatsouline we learn, that if you only practice four kettlebell basics, the Get Up, the Goblet Squat, the Deadlift and the Swing, then that is all that you really need to do.  As far as I am concerned, (and I know that many other Russian Hardstyle Kettlebell Instructors agree) if there is only one ballistic movement that you practice, let it be the swing.  But a good swing at that.  If you have a poor kettlebell swing then you are missing out on the tremendous benefits of the kettlebell swing.  What other movement is a ballistic deadlift, a plank, a weighted glute bridge and a high intensity cardio interval packed in one powerful package??  Nothing but the Kettlebell Swing.  Eric Gahan, my co-owner of Iron Body Studios, writes about this in his post Part One: A Kettlebell Approach to Rehabilitation.

Another thing my Sifu used to say a lot is, “You should practice the form that you hate the most.”  I hate straight sword.

It’s a beautiful form to watch done properly, but personally I hate to do it because the style of the form doesn’t fit my body type; I’m more of a southern broadsword (nandao) gal.

Even though I hate it, I want to be good at it and I hate it because I’m not good at it and it’s hard for me.  Therefore, I need to practice it more and probably the most out of all the forms that I know.

I hear this about the Get Up, and sometimes the swing. “I HATE the Get up!” “I HATE just doing swings!” I don’t know how you could hate either because I love them both.  Even though I do not follow Master RKC Andrew Read, he did once write a good post about the Get Up and I think it emphasizes why people should love or learn to love, the Get Up.

To delve a little deeper into the importance of the get-up, in the book Intervention, Dan John writes “…we know that the adult population needs a lot of things that are often left out of modern training… there are attempts to address this… but rarely do we see people on the floor…. Tim Anderson, the author of Pressing Reset, states  ~One thing that seems to be missing front the majority of the training programs is ground work.  Most people don’t spend enough time on the ground, or enough time learning to get up off the ground.~”  

To my previous point, when you hate a particular movement so much, such as the Get Up, then it’s probably because it’s the one thing that you should practice the most.  Once you practice enough times, you will likely not hate it anymore and be grateful that you are successful at it.

Whether you have been training with kettlebells for three years, one year, or even one month, one can always use a beginner class or take time regularly to focus on the basics, once in a while, if not once per week. This applies to all skills, not just kettlebell training or martial arts. At my former kung fu school in Fairfaix, VA, the Chinese Martial Arts Institute, there was a time that the school implemented quarterly progress checks for all students as a permanent policy. I thought this was a fantastic way for students to maintain a certain level of training. Some students griped about it, because they didn’t want to be held accountable, while others who “get it” embraced it and were grateful to have the review every three months. As a StrongFirst Instructor, I think that similarly I should make sure that every 3 months or so I have another StrongFirst Instructor, preferably senior to me, review my skills and techniques.  As I mentioned previously when I was training for my Russian Hardstyle Kettlebell Level II Certification, I had a senior instructor review my basics. His feedback was invaluable, as often when we train on our own, we can unintentionally acquire some bad habits with our technique.

So, with that, have you practiced your basics lately or the one movement that you despise the most? If not, put it on the training menu for your next training session and try to keep it there so that you have at least one day per week that you review your basics and the one movement that you despise the most and never think of a “beginner” class as a bore but rather think of it as a time to refine your basics.

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