By Al Ciampa, SFG and Pavel Tsatsouline, CEO
In the Simple & Sinister Progression Tactics blog, you learned how to accelerate your Kettlebell Simple & Sinister progress by optimizing your training intensity with the talk test. But there is another, more accurate way to monitor your rest periods besides the talk test: heart rate (HR) training.
Your HR, or pulse, is a rough indication of your current level of stress, including the work that you are performing. If you “work to an HR,” you will provide a metric to the conditions that you can compare over time.
Heart Rate Training as Applied to Simple & Sinister
First, you must find your target heart rate. There are many ways to do this, but the easiest and likely the most applicable to the population is “180-your age” by Dr. Phil Maffetone. In this case (swing intervals), you may add 5 BPM to your “180-age” result to get your target. Whatever your target HR, you must not exceed this during your session.
So, 180 – your age + 5 = target HR.
Next, you will notice that when you perform your swings, your HR will spike somewhere between 5-15 seconds after you complete your set, and may or may not linger around this value. This is the task: ensure that these spikes do not exceed your target HR.
This takes some practice. So, do a set of swings and observe the monitor. Do another set of swings, and again, observe the reading on the monitor. In a bit of time, you will get the feeling for what your starting HR must be – “the HR observed on the device before a set” – to ensure your HR does not exceed your target during the spike after the set. A few preparatory sessions will suffice for discovering the dynamics of your heart’s response to exercise.
The initial work sets of your session will require some time to elevate your HR. The heart’s rate lacks in response to work, initially. Do not interpret this as a free ride to do more swings until your HR spikes. You will regret it. Rest appropriately between sets for the initial few minutes of the session. Again, your own practice will teach you more than we can. As a personal experiment, take your swing session out to 20-30 minutes one day, in sets of 10, using the above instructions, and observe how your HR dynamics change.
The Importance of Tension in Heart Rate Training
There are many external factors that can affect your HR values: heat, humidity, hydration level, medications, illness, stress level, sleep, etc. However, the most important one within your control is the tension you use during your swings—its magnitude and timing.
High tension will spike the HR, but total tension at the lockout is non-negotiable—this is hardstyle. But this tension does not need to be maintained throughout the set, except in heavy double swings that are no longer ballistic; they are what Jeff O’Connor called “fast grinds.”
One can find moments of relative rest during the float and the backswing, which will lower the HR without compromising the swing’s power. After the kime, power your plank down. Keep just enough tension to maintain your structure and protect your spine. Just like a fighter who maintains a moderate brace between strikes, just in case, but maximizes it only on impact.
Cranking tension up and down in a blink of an eye is not an easy skill to acquire. Be patient. It might turn out that to keep your heart rate from exceeding the “180 minus age” ceiling after a set of 10 swings, you are forced to use a very light kettlebell.
If this is the case, use a favorite StrongFirst tactic of cutting the reps and upping the sets: instead of 10×10, do 20 sets of 5 reps. Peter Park, a strength and conditioning coach who has most of the elite he trains do Simple & Sinister-type swing sessions, comments:
In the swings I would expect their heart rates to stay below max aerobic even when doing 10 hard swings (some will be able to do more). In the beginning of the base building 5-ish is what most people can do. My goal is to get 10 hard swings on the min while staying aerobic. I put a HR monitor on and keep track. Not only do I like to see the max aerobic ceiling, but as the athletes get deeper into the base training, their heart rates drop incredibly fast, often to 90 or 80 at the end of the minute. I can often gauge when an athlete is ready for a break from racing or speed training when this swing test and other max aerobic tests start to decline.
You will have an easier time keeping your session aerobic while using a heavier weight. This format will subtly change the benefits—more power gains, a little less muscle hypertrophy, and a greater ability to quickly relax your muscles after contractions. When ready, move up to 14 sets of 7 reps (98 total), and eventually 10×10.
Once you have spent a number of sessions locking down your technique, tension level, and starting HR, you will likely notice you are able to do more work under the same HR as time goes on. This is improvement.
Russian sports science differentiates training loads between “external” and “internal.” The former refers to doing so many reps, with so much weight, with this much power, this little rest, etc. The latter reflects the internal cost of the external load. In the type of training discussed in this blog, the HR reflects the internal load. If you can get through your 100 reps in less time without compromising the swing quality and at the same heart rate, then you have gotten in a better shape.
Some folks begin to see improvements right away; others will require more time. It is unlikely you will progress all the way to the “sinister” goal by following your HR in training. Occasionally, you will need to compress your rest periods and go glycolytic.