I remember it very clearly. Somewhere in central Iraq, during my first “OP” in country, I stopped in my tracks. “What the hell?” I had read about this phenomenon many times but was not sure if I believed it. I did now.
Before finding kettlebells and the hardstyle methods, I trained like many others: cardio one day (running or swimming) and resistance training the other. On some days, I would do both. On paper, this program worked well, and I had results to prove it.
I always scored at the top of my age group on our physical readiness test (PRT). At the time, the SEAL PRT* was push-ups, pull-ups, sit-ups, a three-mile run and a long swim. I’m not exactly sure, but I believe the swim distance was a half mile. To score high for my age group, I needed to do 120 push-ups, 120 sit-ups, 25+ pull-ups, and take roughly 18 minutes on the run.
Yet, something was missing. When it came time to work, I just didn’t feel right. It felt like my body wasn’t working the way it was supposed to. I was in great shape by Navy standards, but when it came time to operate, I didn’t feel great. Spending hours and hours under load, as Gray Cook would say, wore me out. Moving under load (wearing body armor and or carrying a heavy ruck) was even worse. Shooting and moving, jumping, and climbing were difficult — and forget about down-man-drills (buddy carries). We were also always moving gear, guns, and ammo, and I always felt weak doing it.
Then in 2005, I saw something that would change my life. I didn’t know him well yet, but John Faas was in the corner of the gym with a funny looking implement (a kettlebell) doing an exercise I was certain would injure him (swings). He told me all about the kettlebell, his friend Pavel, and the website I could visit to learn more.
That night at home, I spent about five hours reading every article I could. Was it really possible to get in sufficient shape using this simple little tool and these basic movements? I decided to find out.
The What the Hell Effect in Action
A couple of weeks went by. My 16kg bell arrived along with a book. The delivery man commented, “What the hell?” as he dropped the package at my door step. That night I read and re-read the The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. The next day, I played around with my new 16kg bell.
Like so many, I thought I could train myself by using the book, the website, and a little coaching every now and then. My biggest mistake was not getting help from an instructor. That’s a topic for another day…
In short time, I was doing the movements well with the 16kg. I purchased the 24kg and started practicing with it. I had a deployment coming up and was interested to see how I’d do using this simple program: grinds one day, ballistics the next, recover the following day, then repeat.
Back to Iraq and my first operation in country. The OP was nothing to write home about. It actually went as planned, mostly. I’m not going to go into details, but at some point during the OP a light-bulb went off. “What the hell?” (Actually it was a Navy-approved version of the expression).
“How is this possible?” I thought. I moved better‘under load or otherwise. The load didn’t hurt me when I was standing still. I could carry things when called upon, jump over things, climb things, and just physically operate at a whole new level and all at a lower body weight — “What the hell?!”
I was a believer. To me, this was “strength with a greater purpose” before I’d even heard the expression. I couldn’t think of a better reason to be strong.
Fast Forward: Rite of Passage
Some time passed and I was deployed again. This time I went over with a new book, a new program, and a new goal. I’d be following Pavel’s “Rite of Passage” program (ROP). I had my trusty 24kg bell and a 32, just in case. All I did during that deployment was the ROP and of course a few walks under load.
Some time passed and I was able to do 5 ladders to 5 with my 24kg bell. For quite some time, all I needed was that trusty 24. Then, I started adding some practice with my 32, all at a body weight of 185lbs. On that deployment, I felt even stronger. The WTH effect was amplified. It was crazy to me how well I felt and moved. The really crazy part was yet to come…
Before summering in the desert, I devised a test and tested myself. The previous deployment had proven that the kettlebell could get me in better operational shape, but could it really improve my measurables? My test was simple: 5km run, bodyweight pull-ups, weighted pull-ups, bodyweight bench for reps, deadlift, and box jump for height. I would go on “vacation” (deployment) and do nothing other than the ROP. Then, I’d come home and see where I stood.
Just weeks after coming home, I retested. “WHAT THE ACTUAL HELL?” How was that possible? My 5km time was unchanged. Bodyweight pull-ups held steady around 25 reps (not bad). Weighted pull-ups were a different story. I could put two 24kg bells on my homemade dip belt and still crank out a good rep. No one believed me. I didn’t believe it myself!
This prompted me to try muscle-ups. This movement fascinated me. I’d never been able to do one. I could now do five. WTH!? My bodyweight bench went up by a couple of reps, even without touching a bench during that whole trip. I could jump on top of the highest box in the gym (nearly as high as my solar plexus).
But my deadlift progress impressed me the most. Before my trip, I could pull approximately two-times bodyweight. This wasn’t that bad, especially considering I have never been taught how to deadlift nor practiced it. When I retested, I was shocked. My new best deadlift was 2.5-times bodyweight. WHAT THE #$%!?
The What the Hell Effect Is for Real
The kettlebell got me in great shape, and better operational shape. It took less time, was more fun, and didn’t interfere with my ability to operate (with the exception of the SSST — don’t do that at night before an operation, just FYI). And I maintained — and even improved — some of the things I measured. I could not believe it. Later, I would go on to use the kettlebell to prepare myself for other adventures. I loved the simplicity and the max results with minimum effort aspect.
*At the time, the PRT was different from the PST of today. The PST is the physical screening test that candidates take in order to earn a chance to try out.
Have you also experienced this phenomenon? #WTHE