The other day I had a chance to interview friend and mentor Coach Nico Rithner about the merits of kettlebell lifting and conditioning in general. Coach Nico is a pioneer in the kettlebell community and is the author of the definitive “Essentials of Kettlebell Lifting” (follow the hyperlinks below for more info and to order). This interview is free of filler and gets down to brass tacks on why kettlebell lifting is a great tool for lifelong conditioning. Coach Nico is doing some really great things in the kettlebell world to promote those crazy ‘Cattle Balls.’ Enjoy!
JS:Hey Nico, you’ve been a respected leader in the KB and conditioning community for many years, how and why did first get involved with using kettlebells as a form of conditioning.
NR: I started lifting kettlebells sometime in 2002-2003. I started like most people in the states, with Pavel’s material. I remembered not being very impressed with what kettlebells could do but I enjoyed the fun stuff such as kettlebell juggling. At the time my training was primarily with barbells and it took a long time before I started looking at kettlebell as more than a toy. The two trainers who initially influenced my change of perspective were Anthony Deluglio and Steve Cotter. Deluglio was doing aerobic intervals with a variety of movements and Cotter had a video encyclopedia, which at the time was the best resource available. I remember contacting Cotter about getting certified to teach his techniques and he pointed me to what at the time was called the American Kettlebell Club. I took that course in 2007 and I was very disappointed with the course but the concept of kettlebell lifting for endurance piqued my interest. I started exploring that venue and learning more about muscular endurance training with kettlebells. Technique wise, I attended one of first Cotter’s courses and got to meet Ken Blackburn, who helped me with the Russian style techniques of Girevoy (or at least, the techniques we knew in America) That was a game changer for me and helped me explore the potential of this type of training.
What put me in a different path with kettlebell was training the Glendale Raptors rugby team(at the time with just kettlebell sessions). Another influential job was training members of the public safety community. Working with athletes and populations with complex needs – such as fire fighters – made me re-think the training approach I was taking and jump-started the development of my method of training that we teach at the IKL kettlebell certification courses
JS: How are the benefits of KB training different from the many other tools of strength and conditioning?
NR: As a coach I am a problem solver. When I plan for training I use a problem-solution approach and that forces me to look at my training tools objectively. Kettlebell lifting, like calisthenics, barbells, or any other form of training are but tools in the coach’s toolbox. It’s a mistake to be a purist because the training choices you’ll make will be inspired by the tool instead of the athlete’s needs analysis.
I find kettlebells particularly useful for muscular endurance training. Kettlebell training is very flexible and diverse which helps me accommodate very different needs. I can use the handle feature for swinging motions and train balance, coordination, and timing, for example.
JS: With the popularity of Crossfit and bootcamps these days, what is your opinion of randomized WODS, muscular confusion, and similar methods vs the more familiar periodization and cycle type training?
NR: I have an open mind on regards to what methods are used so long as they are safe and help us meet the training objectives. Generally people training with those methods have fitness based goals and only train a few times a week. This gives them plenty of time to recover before they do another intense bout of general exercises.
A more formal training format becomes crucial as the volume and intensity of training go up, to avoid plateaus and overtraining. Periodization is essentially the manipulation of work and rest ratios and we use it to improve performance. In addition, an individual training for performance would have to consider specificity of training since not all training produces the same results, i.e. a sprinter would not train long distance running because that training would not only not help him be faster but also would change his muscle composition making him slower.
JS: You have been the Strength and Conditioning coach for the (2011 National Champion) Glendale Raptors rugby team for years; rugby is a sport that demands power, strength, mobility, and endurance. What type of training do you focus on with these players and the specific goals I listed?
NR: Rugby present multiple challenges to the S&C coach. From a fitness point of view size, strength and power matter but they are not very useful in a match without endurance. Using periodization we address all this aspects of training so we are ready for the matches. We have good off seasons periods that we use to prepare for competition. This help us to train aspects of fitness that would be too fatiguing during the season. In-season training is always a challenge. The priority is maintaining fitness and keeping fatigue levels down.
We use Olympic weightlifting, kettlebell lifting and field work to condition Raptors.
JS:Endurance sports are hugely popular in CO, why should a triathlete, cyclist, or runner use kettlebells to benefit their specific sport?
NR: Muscular endurance and core strength would be two good reasons to practice kettlebell lifting. Endurance athletes often overlook resistance training or see it as a waste of time. I think the main reason for this thinking is that usually it’s just added to programs that are designed for athletes who don’t lift. As a result the program is too high in volume and the athlete fatigues, and becomes overtrained or injured.
Endurance programs including kettlebell training can use them for strength, muscular endurance and for anaerobic conditioning.
JS: Proper kettlebell lifting is as technique oriented for performance and safety as Olympic lifting, golf, and other sports. This can be intimidating for a novice lifter or someone completely unfamiliar with kettlebells. What steps would you recommend for someone just starting out with kettlebells?
NR: Engage a coach and start light. There is learning curve to kettlebell lifting but is not very long. By comparison learning how to run or swim efficiently and safely takes longer. It’s part of the training process. Learning how to engage their core, finding the right alignments to move or hold the weights, and even breathing are all part of the process of training with kettlebells and there isn’t really a short cut. A good coach will definitely make a big difference, when I teach at the IKL kettlebell certification course, I introduce a number of drills to the instructors so they can help students to learn the techniques faster. Ultimately, creating the right expectation and progressing the novice one successful step at a time is what it all boils down to.
JS: Finally, if you could only do 5 kettlebell exercises, which do you think provide the most overall benefit for general conditioning? (Desert Island 5)
NR: I hope I’m never in such a situation, but I would use these 5:
Half Snatch (single or double)
Jerk (single or double)
Turkish Get Up
Clean and Squat (deep squat)
JS: Nico, thanks so much!
NR: No problem, have a good one!
For more info on Nico and his organization’s, check out the following websites.
One last thing, I did the 20 min long cycle (clean & jerk) set yesterday with the 24kg bell and it went fairly well. I held a 6 rep/min pace (120 total reps) for the entirety, but also switched hands each min so there is plenty room for pace/endurance improvement.