If attending the SFG Level I Certification has entered your mind as anything from a dream to a plan, you have some work to do. Training for the Certification takes a lot of focus and dedication. But it doesn’t have to be grueling, beat-you-up hard work – in fact, it shouldn’t be.
Successfully completing your SFG Level I takes smart planning and execution. While there are many ways to get there, you really just need to find the advice and plan that resonates with you. This article describes my path to a successful Level I in May 2015 and the eight-week training plan I followed, designed by SFG Al Ciampa.
The Challenge of the SFG Level I
When I decided to go for the certification, I knew it would be a challenge. Although I love kettlebell training, I also work a desk job, I’m in my late forties, and I had a relatively short history of strength training. The cert weekend sounded intimidating: two long, hard days of learning and drilling and a third day of testing. Candidates need to demonstrate competence in the swing, press, clean, squat, get-up, and snatch after twenty-plus hours of hard work – and then pass the five-minute snatch test!
But when the time came for my certification, all went well. I was able to focus on and soak up all the expert instruction we received. My team leader, Senior SFG Dr. Mark Cheng, said I was extremely solid, and my team assistant, SFG II Leslie Branham, commented, “Rarely do people come in as prepared as you were. You looked like you were re-certifying!” But others in attendance struggled through the drills, found it hard to pay attention, and worried about the testing. Many did not leave with a certificate in hand.
It’s so important to prepare well, in order to earn your certification and get the most out of the weekend. As SFG II Mark Limbaga commented to one candidate online, “If you did the work, you will absolutely have fun.”
The eight weeks of short-term training was not actually my starting point. I can see, looking back, that it was important I had a solid aerobic and strength base, adequate mobility, and basic kettlebell skills going into this short-term training. These elements take many months or even years to develop depending on your starting point. I’ll describe a few areas I feel were most beneficial.
1. Aerobic Base
I’ve been a recreational cyclist for many years, and I maintain aerobic conditioning with several hours of bike riding each week. Five years ago I did a structured three-month base training program. Dedicating time to build a solid aerobic base seems to have elevated my ability to train ever since, both on and off the bike.
Other options for aerobic conditioning include jogging, rowing, and ruck marching. If you prefer to spend your time with kettlebells, be sure to check out StrongFirst’s new alactic plus aerobic (A+A) training protocols. Whatever the mode, the benefits of aerobic training are well documented.
Your mobility and movement quality may need a lot of work, especially if you spend many hours at a desk or if your physical training has not been well-rounded. Unrestricted hips, shoulders, thoracic spine, hamstrings, and ankles all contribute to what you can do in movements like presses, get-ups, and goblet squats. If your body can’t move properly, you will be limited when you work on both basic and advanced skills.
Many SFGs recommend a movement screen such as a Functional Movement Screen (FMS) when you start out. This provides you with a baseline record of your current ability and a reference point for progress. Wherever you start, improvement is definitely possible, but it’s important to give yourself enough time. You can’t rush this process.
3. Basic Kettlebell Work
This also ties in with mobility, as the kettlebell is a great tool for practicing movement quality. I attended kettlebell class just once a week for almost a year before I ramped it up. The classes I attended were led by Al Ciampa and his team, and focused on movement quality and practicing the basic skills: goblet squats, farmer’s carries, swings, and get-ups. The emphasis was always on mastery of the basics. This slow start helped me learn to integrate the body as one piece and develop foundational skills, i.e., posture, breathing, and tension before moving into more advanced skills.
Tip: StrongFirst Kettlebell and Bodyweight one-day user courses are also extremely helpful in preparing for the SFG. I attended one of each and would highly recommend both for anyone who is able to attend.
4. Strength Base
I followed Pavel’s Kettlebell Simple & Sinister (S&S) for four months, at six-to-ten months prior to my cert. It got me strong. Daily practice sessions with S&S dialed in my swing and get-up, and laid a foundation for squats, snatches, cleans, and presses.
The S&S program offers strength, stamina, bulletproof shoulders, and a unique style of training that allows you to self-study the nuances of working with the kettlebell. A few dedicated months of S&S should get you able to work with a weight that is heavier than your snatch test-sized bell, which is important because you want your standard weight to feel “light” when you arrive for cert weekend. I was regularly practicing S&S with 24kg, which made the 16kg feel relatively easy.
Bonus: If you know and understand the S&S book, you will have an easier time with the SFG Course manual and written test. (Yes, some candidates pass everything except the written test. Be sure to read your manual during your cert weekend!)
As you ramp up your training leading up to certification, there are many potential pitfalls:
- Doing too much: overtraining and injury.
- Not doing enough: at best, excess suffering and anxiety; at worst, not passing.
- Doing the wrong things: doing weeks of snatches because you are fixated on the snatch test.
The best way to avoid these pitfalls is to have a good training plan. The eight-week SFG-prep targeted training plan outlined below is the plan I followed. Although Al wrote this plan with my abilities and goals in mind, I think it may work well for others. If you choose to use it, keep in mind that your snatch test-sized kettlebell depends on your gender, age, and weight. Mine is 16kg. Also, at plan start, my deadlift 1RM was 225lbs, and I could press a 20kg as a 1RM. This may provide a frame of reference.
The plan is quite simple: four sessions per week of sixty to ninety minutes each. The plan is eight weeks long, counting down to Week 0, the week of certification. The earlier weeks focus on strength, and the later weeks focus on conditioning. You may notice that there are no snatches in the plan until four weeks out, but don’t worry – it works. I wanted to avoid a high volume of snatches in training because of minor shoulder issues, and this plan had me gliding in for a smooth landing with an easy 100 snatches in 4:30 in both my final training session and my snatch test.
Keep in mind the density of training in the conditioning sessions is important. There are specific rest intervals prescribed for both the swing and snatch. When the plan says “rest: 20” or “rest: 10” between sets, there is a world of difference there. Pay close attention to the plan – and your clock – during these sessions.
A warm-up before each session is important, as the exercises listed assume you are prepped and ready. Some days you will need more movement preparation than others. Good options include Original Strength resets, crawls, bottoms-up work, and the warm-up routine from Pavel’s Kettlebell Simple & Sinister.
SFG Level I Preparation Program by SFG Al Ciampa
The sessions can be completed at whatever time and day of the week works best for you. A rest day between session two and three each week is helpful. The only other training I did was one bike ride on the weekend. I had no soreness, injuries, or setbacks during this period and felt great throughout.
As training load is accumulating, it’s important to get adequate sleep and nutrition, and assist recovery in whatever way you find most helpful: massage, foam rollers, stretching, etc. I found it easy to get distracted by the intensity of training and preparation. It helps to periodically go to a yoga class or whatever “soft” practice (in the words of Senior SFG Steve Freides) works for you.
As you progress through the plan, have your technique reviewed by an SFG certified instructor. While you can expect to be adjusted at the cert, you don’t want to have to make major changes on game day. Trying to undo bad habits and build new ones in 72 hours can scatter your attention, and you may miss opportunities to soak up the finer points that will enable you to effectively teach others. Strive to dial in your technique to all the standards outlined on the StrongFirst site in advance of your cert.
How My Cert Played Out for Me
As I arrived at The Dome the first morning, I thought, I am SO glad I prepared. This is going to be great. The first day, I think we did over a thousand swings! I thought, this was the reason for a lot of swings in my training. As we learned and practiced get-ups, I thought, it’s a good thing I am so comfortable with this that I could do it in my sleep, because there are a lot of moving parts and you have to get every step just right.
The second day, we performed presses, and more presses, and yet more presses, and I thought, all those presses ladders, high volume, and working with the 20kg are really paying off. Sets of five would never have been enough. As the weight got heavy for cleans, squats, and snatches, I thought, lots of work with a weight heavier than the one I am required to use was a good idea.
On the third day, I realized I hadn’t had to take any pain meds, and thought, that’s a definite sign that I trained right, at my age! When the time came for the snatch test, I thought, I am so glad I have done this more than once with plenty to spare. I know how to get this done even, though it is the third day and we are fatigued. For the skills tests I thought, no problem. Just do what you’ve learned and practiced with those small adjustments you have learned here. As I started the written test, I thought, good thing I spent the last two evenings reading the manual! At the grad workout I thought, I am glad I built a strong work capacity, because this is purely AWESOME! And finally, as Dr. Cheng handed me my SFG instructor certificate, I thought, wow, I am so glad I did this! What an amazing day!
The SFG is an incredible journey. Not only the certification weekend, but everything you will do along your journey toward that goal. It is truly a life-changer. So, dedicate yourself to a well-planned preparation, and enjoy the ride.