Kettlebell Simple & Sinister Quest: Through Adversity to the Stars, Part I

“If the Way is high, accordingly it has a great number of obstacles.”—An ancient saying

I will be honest—I can’t think of a better foundational strength and conditioning program than Kettlebell Simple & Sinister (S&S). Three mobility drills, two main lifts, and stretching. Done. Rinse. Repeat. Reap the tremendous benefits of this simple, yet very profound program.

The so called “Simple Standard” is mandatory. Once you meet it, you are ready for any subsequent program: kettlebell, barbell, bodyweight, your call.

Here is a quick summary of timed “Simple”:

  • For gents, it is 100 one-arm swings in 5 minutes, 1 minute rest, then 10 get-ups in 10 minutes with a 32kg kettlebell.
  • For ladies, same thing, but with 24kg swings and 16kg get-ups.

Because of my background in StrongFirst kettlebell training, I reached the “Simple” standard in no time, and because I smoothly progressed to 40kg, I thought achieving “Sinister” (same as above but with the 48kg—the Beast) would take me a couple of months max.

Well, a couple of years later…

Read below.

The Obstacles

“We plan, God laughs.”—Old Yiddish proverb

Everything went smoothly until an unfortunate series of events (plus a few more). If somebody had told me, I would not have believed it.

First, I acquired several injuries unrelated to S&S practice, due to bad luck and stupidity. The next was food poisoning (two times in a row), an inflamed wisdom tooth, removal, infection, and another inflammation because it didn’t heal well.

All the above happened in one month—when it rains, it pours. For a period of time, all I could do was lie in bed, do some breathing exercises, squeeze heavy grippers, and laugh—what a tragicomedy.

Well, that month was truly special, but in the following months (and years), other troubles, obstacles, and difficulties just kept piling up: family issues and tragedies, the pandemic, business struggles (running two full-time gyms in the pandemic was no fun), frequent travelling with no access to (heavy) kettlebells…

Sounds like life, right?

Long-term strength training is, however, about mind over matter. If you don’t mind the (get-)ups and downs, the obstacles don’t matter.

Heavy kettlebell get-up

A Blessing in Disguise

“There is no evil without some good.”—Gaius Plinius Secundus

If things don’t go according to plan, you can either become bitter and simply quit—or adapt and overcome. Due to my injury, I had to stop doing get-ups. For a while, I only did one-arm swings and bent presses, but then I remembered Pavel’s old-school “Program Minimum” from his very first kettlebell book which included the snatch along with the bent press. After this, I started to incorporate the kettlebell snatch as well.

Because I enjoyed the simplicity of S&S so much, I started to work on a similar long-term training plan and finally developed what is called the Imperial Program Minimum (IPM). After a couple of cycles of IPM, I bent-pressed a 56kg kettlebell on my right side and was comfortably snatching 32kg in training at a bodyweight of 68kg.

In addition to IPM, I developed other projects, webinars, and programs. As I mentioned, I was travelling frequently and often had no access to kettlebells—not all general population “fitness studios” or hotel gyms are equipped with good quality—or heavy—kettlebells (shame on them). Very often, all I could find were a few machines, stationary bikes, and dumbbells, including fairly heavy ones. This forced me to adapt my training to the equipment available. The result of my experiments, practice, and research of the old-time strongmen’s wisdom is a comprehensive Hardstyle Dumbbell lifting system. You will hear more about it very soon, I promise.

The unplanned detours due to various obstacles and circumstances ended up being blessings in disguise. But I never forgot my unfinished business.

“Just as one takes up again a piece of luggage that one has temporarily put down.”—Nyanaponika Thera

I returned to my original goal and beloved program—S&S.

The one-arm swing setup

Sinister Quest Resumed

“A river cuts through rock, not because of its power, but because of its persistence.”—James N. Watkins

I reached comfortable Timeless 48kg one-arm swings surprisingly fast. Get-ups took me longer and interestingly my stronger side was more difficult. For some reason, I could not do get-ups on my right (stronger) side, and it took me quite some time to figure it out. I actually did my first get-up with the 48kg Beast on accident by mistaking it for a 44kg kettlebell! As I said before, my usual bodyweight is about 68kg, which makes the Beast 70% of my bodyweight.

When I started regularly implementing heavier weights, I was still able to do my planned training sessions, but I started to have trouble with recovery. Inspired by the wisdom of Plan StrongTM and Built Strong (thank you, Pavel and Fabio), and the smooth progression of IPM, I developed a variation of the S&S program called “Tsunami Wave to Sinister.” It uses three different pairs of kettlebells and waves both the volume and the intensity. It allowed me to keep my S&S practice frequent (usually four times a week), do other activities—and live. The recovery was great, and the progress to 48kg was very smooth. I will share the program with you in an upcoming article.

Many of my StrongFirst colleagues were following my Sinister quest. My training log called “Repeat Until Strong” reached over 350,000 views(!). My friends kept asking me when I was going to peak for the Timed “Sinister.”

Laozi says that “a good traveler has no fixed plans and is not intent on arriving.” I just enjoyed the Quest of Strength and stopped making any plans to meet the “Sinister” goal at a specific time. I just kept swinging and doing my get-ups.

Heavy kettlebell one-arm swing

Finally Peaking and… Fail

“Success is not final; failure is not fatal. It is the courage to continue that counts.”—Winston S. Churchill

“Peaking” is adjusting training variables in order to express a high level of performance at a particular time—in my case, getting ready for the “Sinister” test.

In retrospect, I should have peaked sooner, but I was still getting stronger, enjoying my training and the recovery was great. Also, I will admit it. I am lazy and don’t particularly enjoy the glycolytic baths. By definition, a peak is short term and cannot be sustained.

I adapted a peaking protocol for the snatch test that was published in one of our StrongFirst newsletters and worked up to about 40-45 one-arm swings in a row with the Beast—trust me, it was a killer.

I was pretty confident that I was ready for “Sinister,” so I gave it a shot—and I failed. The last three or four sets of swings were hard as hell, and I knew they would not meet the strict standards. I finished all 100 reps anyway, took one extra minute rest, floor pressed the Beast to start my first get-up and knew instantly if I continued there would be an accident. I abandoned the mission. My heart was in the red zone. For the next ten to fifteen minutes, I couldn’t catch my breath, my legs turned to jelly, and I was lying on the floor wondering, “What the hell is this?” I have never experienced anything even close in my combat arts training or conditioning tests.

Maybe it wasn’t my lucky day. Maybe it was Covid (I had tested during one of the lockdowns). Never mind, back to the drawing board. I humbly took a few steps back and started to gradually progress forward again.

“Why do we fall sir?” asks Alfred, in the first part of the legendary Nolan’s Batman trilogy, “So that we can learn to pick ourselves up.”

And the Dark Knight says elsewhere: “I have one power. I never give up.”

Click here to read Part II

Introducing “Kettlebell Simple & Sinister—now on video
Pavel Macek
Pavel Macek, StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, founder and chief instructor KB5 Gym, is a pioneer of kettlebells in Czechia, Central Europe. He began training Chinese combatives in the Hung Kyun style in 1991, studying in the USA, Hong Kong, and China.

Pavel was the first StrongFirst Certified Instructor in Czechia. He is also an FMS/CK-FMS specialist. In 2008, he opened the first kettlebell gym in the Czech Republic, KB5 Gym Prague. He currently teaches Chinese combatives and MMA (Practical Hung Kyun), strength training (KB5 Gym Prague), and tactical self-defense for various private and government agencies.

Please check out his official page Pavel Macek, English blog SIMPLEXSTRONG, his Repeat Until Strong training log on the StrongFirst forum, and his StrongFirst articles.
Pavel Macek on FacebookPavel Macek on InstagramPavel Macek on LinkedinPavel Macek on TwitterPavel Macek on Youtube

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