I exist in a dilemma. One of my favorite pastimes is Western hunting, usually in the mountains. I love the animals, love the physical beauty of the terrain, and I love the challenge. The problem is that I live, work, and train on a coastal plain—low and flat. For two decades, I struggled to find a fitness program that would help prepare me for my adventures. For me, that marriage of program and objective began when I found StrongFirst.
Let’s back up a few years. I had three kids in diapers, a full-time job that kept me on the road, and a growing side hustle as a writer. Time and sleep were my most precious resources. For the first time in my adult life, I wasn’t weight training. Besides carrying infants and toddlers around most of the day, my only real exercise came when my wife and I pushed a pair of jogging strollers around the neighborhood. We were in survival mode.
In the past, I’d done Arnold-inspired bodybuilding workouts, CrossFit, Gym Jones, and even spent a year getting smoked in an MMA gym. All of these programs were effective in their own way, but none of them were optimal for my needs. I was relatively fit, but beaten-up and often injured. By chance, I met author and former StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, Geoff Neupert on a beach in Hawaii. Our conversation turned to fitness, and he was kind enough to email me a kettlebell program that would put me back on the right path with a minimal time commitment.
Fast-forward another year and it was time for my first post-fatherhood trip to the mountains. I booked a Dall Sheep hunt in Alaska’s Brooks Range. For the non-hunters out there, sheep hunts are some of the most physically challenging adventures that exist. You have to hunt them where they live, and they choose to live in remote, rough, steep, and generally inhospitable terrain. Though the Brooks Range isn’t especially high, its 8,000 feet peaks were roughly 7,750 feet higher than the place I call home. Oh, and I had just turned 40.
I reached out to my friend, StrongFirst’s then-CEO, Eric Frohardt, SFG, for his advice. I knew that Eric had tackled some serious alpine peaks and had done most of his training at Sea Level in Virginia Beach. He put me on a program that was confidential at the time, known as Plan 033C. Today, this program is outlined in Pavel’s book The Quick and the Dead. The beauty of Plan 033C is its simplicity. Kettlebell swings and pushups or dips. That’s it. The key to this minimalist workout is the variability since different rep combinations are chosen at random. This is an anti-glycolytic program designed to optimize performance without poisoning one’s body with lactic acid. How could I get fit without being sore? The concept went against everything I’d ever read or been taught. I was skeptical but, with Eric’s endorsement, I gave it a try.
Because the one-arm and overspeed swings were new to me, Eric recommended that I spend some time with a certified StrongFirst instructor. I chose Jody Beasley, former StrongFirst Certified Team Leader and Elite Instructor as my guide. Jody is an outstanding ambassador for StrongFirst and quickly got my swing technique dialed in. I was having trouble keeping my body from rocking during my swings and Jody recommended that I try the workout barefoot—that did it.
I commenced my training plan, executing the 033C three days a week with some get-ups added for good measure. On “off” days, I would ruck wearing the pack and boots that would accompany me to Alaska. One of those sessions, usually on Saturday, would be a long walk—90 minutes or longer. I sought out every hill and stairwell that I could find either at home or on the road. Due to the minimalist nature of the 033C, I was able to stick to my schedule even when traveling. I may have looked like a crazy man doing kettlebell swings and pushups in a hotel parking lot, but I got it done.
Weeks into the program, I was still skeptical. I’d grown-up with the mantra of “one more rep”. This is too easy—it can’t be working. Once again, my absolute trust of Eric kept me on-track. Then something unexpected happened. The plantar fasciitis that had plagued me daily since a barefoot run on the beach a few years earlier, went away. By completing the workouts barefoot, I was strengthening my feet. So much for the podiatrist’s advice.
After months of strict adherence to the program, it was time to put it to the test. It didn’t take long. Our first day on the mountain resulted in a 22-hour hike to the top of a glacier and back. We lost the trail at one point and spent hours slipping and scrambling across a mossy rockslide in the semi-darkness trying to find our way back to camp. We effectively hiked and climbed all day and all night. It was one of the most physically and mentally challenging experiences of my life but, surprisingly, I was totally prepared for it. My legs and lungs were ready. Our guide, who lives and works in these mountains would stop for a break every few hours—I was always ready to keep hiking. I didn’t even bother sitting down. The next day, I was tired but not sore. It blew my mind a little. How could a workout that is so “easy” be so effective?
The trip was challenging, especially since we weren’t seeing many mature rams, but thanks to the workout I was never physically exhausted. I returned home empty-handed in terms of meat and horns, but as a vocal StrongFirst convert. For the five years since, the Plan 033C has been the core of my fitness program. I’ve recently added some weekly barbell training to the program, primarily because I missed doing those lifts. It continues to be effective. On subsequent mountain hunts, my fitness level has never been my limiting factor.
Back home, I told everyone that would listen about the program. An acquaintance from the outdoor industry was headed to Kyrgyzstan for a Marco Polo sheep hunt. I recommended the 033C to him. When he returned home, his results were similar to mine. “Thanks again for the advice on the kettlebells,” his email read. “I incorporated them into my routine, and it made a difference this week. We did 50 miles on horses in three days, from 11,500 to 13,500 feet elevation on extremely challenging terrain. I don’t think I would have managed it as well without the kettlebell work.”
I am not an exercise scientist—the “why” of this program doesn’t matter to me. What matters is that it works for my lifestyle and that it has helped me continue to do something that I love. It turns out that the phrase “work smart, not hard” can apply to physical fitness and strength. Pick up a copy of The Quick and the Dead and give this program a try.