“Start by doing what’s necessary; then do what’s possible; and suddenly you are doing the impossible.”—St. Francis of Assisi.
If somebody had told me that one day I would be able to comfortably swing the 48kg Beast for 100 reps of one-handed swings in five minutes at a bodyweight of 68kg, I would have told him he was crazy. But lo and behold, I can do exactly this today, and I got here much faster than I expected—and without hurrying.
And that is not all. I pulled close to 2.5 times my bodyweight in the deadlift without having trained the deadlift, pressed half my bodyweight without pressing, hit a bent press personal record without bent pressing, owned a snatch test without snatching, and kept reasonable strength in many other exercises that I did not practice at all.
All I did was follow one simple program—a Simple & Sinister program.
This is my In-Between Simple & Sinister story, so please read on.
Why Did I Start Simple & Sinister?
A year ago, after I finished my barbell Power To The People! program, successfully fulfilling a goal of pulling 2.5-times bodyweight in the deadlift, and after lots of traveling and teaching both at home and abroad, I decided to jump on Simple & Sinister (S&S). My original plan was to own the Simple goals, and then see what to do next. I thought of S&S as a kind of short-term transitional program.
Because I am basically never out of shape, to reach and “own” the Simple goals took me a relatively short time. After only a month and a half, maybe two, I did the 100 one-arm swings in five minutes and five get-ups per arm in ten minutes with the 32kg kettlebell. Once I accomplished that, I thought, “Well, why switch to something else? I enjoy the simplicity of the program and I feel great, so let’s continue.” So I set my sights on the Sinister goal of using the 48kg kettlebell—aka “The Beast.”
Six months after I started S&S, I did my first set of one-arm swings with the Beast and the first set of get-ups with 40kg. In April, I did all 100 swings with 48, and after a year of consistent practice, I am very near to meeting the Sinister goal in get-ups as well.
Here are my thoughts, tips, and tricks from my training diary. You will learn some subtle, but very important details regarding the particular S&S drills. I will point out certain aspects of S&S program that are often overlooked, but which are key to your long-term improvement. And I will also share a few “WTH” moments regarding the transfer of swings and get-ups to other modalities and exercises.
S&S Warm-Up and Movement Prep
Pavel writes in S&S, “Keep your warm-ups short,” and has recommended on the forum that after few months you can skip halos and SFG hip bridges, but you should keep the prying goblet squats. Based on my experience, I am in total agreement with this.
When your shoulders are fine, your overhead position in the get-up perfect, you have woken up sleeping glutes, and you have a crisp swing lockout, you may skip the halo and StrongFirst hip bridge, and just do them when you feel like it (I still do them from time to time). Keep the prying goblet squat.
- Kettlebell Halo is a simple, but effective drill for loosening up the shoulders, but there is more. When I practice the halo, I also practice the correct lockout as well—straight knees, tight glutes, braced abs. Apart from loosening and strengthening the shoulders (this is a weighted mobility drill, after all) I think the halo also helps me keep my elbows healthy. When you start to do heavy swings and get-ups, you will need it.
- StrongFirst Hip Bridge wakes up the glutes and opens up tight hips. They are much needed after prolonged periods of sitting. If you have a desk job, don’t skip them. The hips play a crucial role not only in the swing, but also in the get-up. When my hips are tight, my get-ups don’t feel right, so before the get-ups I sometimes do few roll to elbow naked get-ups.
- Prying Goblet Squat is The Squat, period. Pavel said at our SFB Certification, “Not everybody needs to squat heavy, but everybody needs to squat. And the goblet squat is the squat for the people.” I treat S&S as my “SFG Big Three“— goblet squat, swing, and get-up—and never skip them in my practice. Also, make sure to read Jason Marshall’s “3 Squat Tips: Understanding Squat Cues.”
Tips on the S&S Kettlebell Swing
Most people do the swing incorrectly because they think it is a two-count movement. This is how it’s usually demonstrated on YouTube University:
- 1 (down) = evading to soon, which leads to all kind of troubles like the weight pulling you forward, ending too low between the legs, etc.
- 2 (up) = lifting with the hands.
Wrong. Think of the swing as four-count movement. Let’s start from the top:
- 1—Bell is falling, you wait in the plank.
- 2—You evade and hinge when the arms touch the body and the bell almost hits you in the groin.
- 3—You explosively reverse the movement and come back to plank.
- 4—Bell flies forward.
1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4, 1-2-3-4…
Steve Freides, StrongFirst Certified Senior Instructor has commented:
“I describe this, your steps #2 and #3, as a quick turn-around. In order to affect a quick turn-around, you must wait as long as possible before moving your hips back and then, as quickly as you sent them back, you must bring them forward again. Except for the quick turn-around, the rest of the time is float.”
I take this coaching to heart and have been working on quickly reversing the bottom position of the swing. When I hit the right spot (not sooner and not later), I can produce much more force. Plyometrics without jumping, you say? Yes.
Additional swing tips:
- Make sure you sit deep in your hinge! The hinge is the foundation for kettlebell deadlift, which in turn is a foundation for a proper swing. Dr. Michael Hartle, StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor, told me whenever he runs into problems with the swing or deadlift, he often prescribes the simple hip hinge pattern and the following homework: multiple sets of ten, throughout the day. It works like a magic. When you come back to the swing, you will see a huge improvement in the range of motion and quality of movement.
- When swinging a heavier bell, maintain the plank. Lean back at your ankles at the top of the swing, not at your back. It won’t be a vertical plank anymore, but it still needs to be the plank.
Special Notes on Rest Periods Between Sets
Many students, brainwashed by the do-or-die HIIT mentality, don’t read the S&S book properly, and try to hit the five-minute test limit every single session. This approach might work for a short time, but then the person will quickly hit the wall.
Al Ciampa wrote on the StrongFirst forum, “If you are constantly testing your abilities, you are no longer ‘training.’” Which means, you are no longer improving. The fact that the swings are in the beginning of the S&S training session should tell you what qualities to focus on: strength and power! Don’t worry, you will get the conditioning you are after.
During my regular S&S practice, I always give myself plenty of rest—more than I feel I need. I do Fast & Loose drills and breath recovery drills. I walk around and focus on the upcoming set. A relatively long rest period allows me to do an absolutely explosive set of ten hard style swings with a “one punch, one kill” mentality. I only time my rest periods during the test days, and I don’t “try” to hit the standard (100 hard style swings in 5 minutes). I am 100% sure I can do it, so I just do it.
The results of this strategy? In addition to the desired conditioning effect, I experience more strength and power, and less soreness. On my fortieth birthday, exactly one year after I started S&S, I did 40 consecutive one-arm swings with the Beast. The session looked like this: 20 with my left, switch, 20 with my right, set down, celebration dance.
S&S swing protocol is a foreshadowing of the exciting anti-glycolytic training Pavel is working on. Make sure to follow his advice to the letter:
“Most of your S&S sessions do not rush the clock and wait until you can pass the talk test before your next set. On the last session of each week push harder and occasionally all out and test yourself.”
After only few months into S&S, I put a note in my training diary:
“I am amazed by very fast improvement in swing—the weight is light; swings are crisp and explosive. One-hand swings with 48 seemed like some mythical feat (for light guy like me), now I am sure I can get there. Sooner or later, but yes… I am surprised how well it’s going. I guess that it is because you improve your swings by doing swings—daily. Not too many, or not enough, but ‘minimum effective dose.’”
You might progress faster or slower, but it doesn’t matter. As Brett Jones, StrongFirst’s Director of Education says: keep swinging.
Tips on the S&S Kettlebell Get-Up
Old time strongman Sid Harmer wrote of the get-up in his Feats of Strength: “It is a feat which requires not only strength, but small amount of balance and pluck. I have found that it is a stunt of which most strong men are almost afraid.”
Not us in StrongFirst. We love get-ups. But there are some basics you will need to remember on your S&S journey:
- Grip: Experiment with the grip—deeper, less deep, wiggle your hand, grip. Trust me, there is a sweet spot for your hand and your kettlebell. If you find out in the roll to press phase that your grip feels weird, re-adjust or return the kettlebell to the floor and start all over. Check out an excellent tip from Brett Jones.
- Setup: Packing the shoulder of the kettlebell hand after you grab the kettlebell on the floor and during the roll before the floor press makes the floor press and the roll to elbow much more stable and easier. Try to pack your kettlebell hand shoulder to the opposite hip.
- Roll to Elbow: We all know we have to point the bent knee slightly in and drive hard through the heel of the bent leg. With a relatively heavy kettlebell, I point the arm with the kettlebell in the same direction—of course not too much, otherwise I could lose the kettlebell—and voila, smooth transition without the common leg lift. Think of the center of gravity of a heavier kettlebell. The heavier the kettlebell is, the more you have to “wedge” under it, and the less perpendicular your arm will be. Another good way to learn the mechanics of this transition is to focus on the movement on the way down.
- Tall Sit: Focus on this position on the way down. Many students bend the elbow of the supporting hand on their way down.
- Low Sweep: Many students do a cross-over of low sweep, high bridge, and a squat, which results in awkward and jerky transition. Practice this phase a lot, without a kettlebell. Divide the low sweep into two moves: first, tuck in the straight leg, and second, swing it back, brushing the floor with your shin. It is called a low sweep for a reason. Sweep the floor with your shin. Same on the way down—sweep your bent leg forward, touching the floor with your shin, and sit down as soon as possible. Only then extend the bent leg. Make sure the non-kettlebell hand stays locked to give you better support during the transition.
- Lunge to Standing: Before standing up from the lunge position, I adjust my front leg a little bit in. Standing up becomes much easier. On the way down, I adjust the front foot a little bit out before the (reverse) windshield wiper. It might not apply to everybody, but this adjustment suits my body type (i.e. the length of my lower limbs). Experiment, of course, without a kettlebell.
- Get Down: Don’t hurry. You will unlock many of the transitions on the way down. Indeed, many of the old timers practiced the get-up as get-down/get-up. If you rush the get-ups, you can’t “steer” the weight. Take your time, do every single transition with patience, and stop at every stage.
The S&S Program and the Element of Practice
Two keywords for your practice are κάλλος (kállos, “beauty”) and σθένος (sthénos, “strength”). Perform your exercises like somebody is watching and giving you points, with absolute focus on perfect technique, like you are being judged at the SFG Certification by a Team Leader. The reward won’t be applause or a certificate, but better technique, skill, health, and strength. And that is what matters.
“Years ago, my friend Dr. Jim Wright said something that got burned into my brain: ‘Consistency and moderation over intensity.’ Not nearly as sexy as “Do or die!” or some other juvenile T-shirt slogan, but you could not think of a better set of directions for durable performance.”—Pavel and Dan John, Easy Strength
S&S is a form of constant practice, i.e. multiple sets with the same weight, or a kind of a step cycle. You spend some time with your current weights, and when you really own them, you add one set with a heavier weight. Pavel has noted on the forum:
“Remember that S&S is designed for you to do in a manner of ‘I can do it again tomorrow with the same level of energy and the day after tomorrow.’”
With that in mind, here are my thoughts on going heavier and going easier.
How to Incorporate a Heavier Kettlebell
With a light kettlebell, you can swing incorrectly. With a heavier kettlebell, you can’t as the kettlebell will teach you. In the swing, a heavy kettlebell will pull you forward, it will drop down rather than back, and it will not fly chest high if you are lazy with your hinge.
In a get-up, it’s a different story. The technique of a get-up with 24kg and 44kg is quite different, because the center of mass has shifted. Most people will encounter problems with the roll to elbow phase. With a heavier kettlebell, try the following:
- With a kettlebell that is relatively heavy for your bodyweight, the arm with the kettlebell will not be perpendicular to the floor. If you try to do so, you will either lose the kettlebell or your straight leg will kick up when you roll. Shift the kettlebell slightly to the direction where your free hand and extended leg is pointing.
- Don’t do a sit-up (we all know this). Dig that heel hard into the floor, lift your glute first, point the bent knee slightly in, and roll. Make sure the foot of the bent leg stays flat on the floor.
- Wedge underneath the kettlebell when you finish the roll to elbow. The best way to find out how to do it is to the reverse the movement, and do it slowly.
Are you scared of a heavier kettlebell? Try this. Just get familiar with it (“Hello, 48. I am Pavel!”), doesn’t matter how. Deadlift it, do a few partial get-ups with it (even just roll to press), grab it and carry it to the other side of the gym, or push press it and hold in a overhead position. Slowly get used to it, and you won’t be afraid of it when the time comes to do [fill in the blank] with the kettlebell. When you mistakenly grab 36 instead of 32, it is a good sign. When you get stronger, big kettlebells start to shrink.
When you train with a new, heavier kettlebell, it will feel challenging, but it shouldn’t feel very heavy. When the previously heavy weight starts to feel lighter, you are getting stronger. When the old weight feels relatively light, the new weight doesn’t feel heavy.
Easy Days Option
I enjoy working on my deload days with lighter weight, doing things like overspeed eccentric swings and static-dynamic get-ups. I feel these were a great help, and in my opinion, this is one of the secret ingredients of S&S—the ingredient many people miss.
Ten-second pauses in lighter get-ups will teach you something about alignment, it will help you to identify the left-right asymmetries, optimize the structure, improve smooth transition from perfect point A to perfect point B, and exercise your patience.
I usually do the two-hand overspeed eccentric swings when I feel tired. I did them with 24, but it started to feel really light, so I now usually do them with 32. Symmetrical movement, lighter, extra focus on explosiveness.
The common problem at the bottom of the two-hand swing is collapsing of the chest inward. When you focus on “opening” the chest (i.e. trying to do the opposite of what the kettlebell wants to do), you will keep your shoulders in a better position, plus you will work some back muscles you didn’t even know you had. For some reason, they work my rhomboids very well.
I would like to emphasize again: the “light day” option in S&S is, in my opinion, one of the “secrets” of the program. Many practitioners tend to forget about this S&S option, but it is one of the keys to success, especially when you get to heavier weights. Do it. Pavel is right: ”Do not turn an off-day into a day off. Easy training is far better than no training.”
Solid: In-Between Simple & Sinister Transfer, or the WTH Effect
The most frequently asked question I received during my S&S training was, “So, you are only doing get-ups and swings. How about military press, deadlift, etc.?” People like to say that if you practice only such minimalistic programs, you must get significantly weaker in other lifts that you don’t practice at all, right? Maybe not.
Of course, as it has been said on many occasions, the SAID principle typically applies to our training. SAID stands for “specific adaptation to imposed demand.” Said simply, you get better at what you practice. But we all know about kettlebells are famous for their WTH effect.
So, after about six months of S&S training, I decided to run a few tests on this phenomenon myself, and here are the results:
- Half-bodyweight+ military press (one of the requirements for passing the SFG II), 36kg (my previous 1RM)—Easy.
- Bent press, 48kg—New PR! My previous 1RM was 40kg.
- Kettlebell snatch test, 100 reps in 5 minutes with 24kg—Check. No grip issues at all. I did: 20-20,15-15, 10-10, rest, 5-5, finish. I could definitely do 25-25, 30-30, or even more in the first set. It was not easy, but not hard. Heavy swings definitely help a lot. Of course, don’t forget SAID—if you are preparing for a snatch test, you have to snatch. Brett Jones’ snatch protocol from SFG Level I Prep Guide is the way to go.
- Deadlift—160 kg, which is 5kg below 2.5x bodyweight in the deadlift and very close to my 1RM of 165kg.
Karen Smith, StrongFirst Certified Master Instructor happened to be conducting special research for a new project, so I gave her test a shot. The task: 5×5 pistols and 5×5 one-arm pushups (OAPU). These were performed to strict SFB standard and for time, measuring the work-to-rest ratio.
Result: 16 minutes 20 seconds, all sets completed, no failure. Pistols were quite easy, but pushups were harder, especially the last sets. Note: In addition to my S&S training, I have been doing pistols and OAPU once a week for a few reps just to check my symmetry (or the lack of it), as recommended at the SFB Certification.
Apart from that I also tested the following:
- Strict handstand pushups max—14 HSPU. It should be noted that though I learned the technique of HSPUs, I have never practiced them.
- Strict tactical pullups—16 reps. My all-time max is 24, but that was after a specialized pullup program.
Bragging about the numbers isn’t the point, the numbers are not very impressive, but I kept quite a lot of my strength in the lifts I don’t practice at all, just by doing S&S, and approaching S&S as a skill (of strength) practice.
99% of the questions I get asked can be solved with a simple answer: “Read the book. Again.”
I will give you an answer for the other 1% of the questions:
Q: “Can I [change this, substitute that, modify that, or… ]?”
A: “Until you reach at least ‘Simple’ standards, no.”
Steve Freides, Senior SFG, wrote on StrongFirst forum:
“The brilliance of Pavel’s simple programs lies in their simplicity. It’s hard enough for a coach to design an effective program for a student—hard enough but within the abilities of a sizable group of people on our planet. But the ability to design a program that is also simple while still remaining effective, and on top of that, is also applicable to a very wide range—well, that is truly exceptional. Simplicity increases adherence and, in the end, yields more progress for more people.”
I could not have written it better.
The skills and values we learn in the gym have positive transfer to real life outside the gym. That is why it is called functional training. Doing the same exercises for an extended period of time might lead to boredom—or to technical proficiency, finesse, strength, and health. I chose the second option.
Everybody will progress at a different rate. Take your time, don’t rush, don’t compare yourself with others, patiently work on the skill of strength, and own at least the Simple goals, and you will be doing better than ever before.
I didn’t come this far to only come this far. The way to achieving Sinister is simple: repeat until strong!