I never would have imagined an innocuous post causing such an uproar among a number of people, online and off, who wanted to know more or talk about the exercise
Thankfully, I am a “trenches” coach, I put my work out there to bare and my facility, Superior Athletics, trains about 500 people a year. We aren’t the biggest in the world, but we aren’t small either. This exercise wasn’t for fandom.
The exercise I was doing was a lateral kettlebell swing.
I think it holds a tremendous value in an athletic population.
Whether it is the loading and unloading of a baseball swing, the sudden change of direction in football, or the explosive reaction of a crossover step, this exercise brings all of these together to develop strength and power under load – something you won’t get from other exercises.
The Law of Transmutation
No, I am not using a transmutation circle to turn iron into gold, I am instead trying to turn general into specific. The concept holds well: we want to take general exercises (squats or iron) and turn them into more usable and valuable skills (sprinting or gold).
How do we transmute skills?
Typically, a strength coach would focus on the general and hope that the skill coaches would bring about changes in usable ability. The reality is, through the work of people like Bondarchuk, Dan Baker, Dan Pfaff and more, we are beginning to bring more into an actual training program.
Anatoliy Bondarchuk was a pioneer in bringing his athletes to the top of the sport (hammer throw), winning numerous Olympic medals and changing the way coaches believed you got there.
Bondarchuk was a huge proponent of using “special exercises” to bring additional carryover to the sport. While a deadlift or kettlebell may produce better general strength and power, there needs to be more than this in the definition of strength. Otherwise the people with the best deadlifts would make the best athletes.
At some point, general stops working.
Dynamic Systems Theory
The concept behind dynamic systems theory is that we don’t run on a set “movement pattern” but instead on a highly variable grouping of systems inter-playing throughout our body at high speed, constantly. A glass falls and we catch it – this wasn’t just quick reaction, but perception of space before it fell, nervous, vestibular, and muscular systems all playing to their strengths rapidly, within the confines of what an athlete can already do.
This wasn’t planned and practiced, it was the culmination of every experience and movement this athlete had been trained to use all colliding into a single beautiful moment. You need to be able to jump, land, orient yourself in space, as well as run and create timing – perfect timing. At the speed of the game, this athlete just did it.
As strength coaches, we can begin to add to our athletes portfolio of skills through deep wells of movement competency, and that starts with movement variability.
Movement variability is the idea that subtle changes in execution of an exact skill, will and should vary across attempts. This variability isn’t a negative, but rather a part of the reason high level performers are better – they have had so many variations applied that they have a better grasp on where to be.
When training athletes or coaches, I like to present the idea of schema to them.
Simply, a schema is any number of disconnected thoughts or connection that we currently know, that can help us find a connection to a current unknown.
For example let’s say you know what a baseball looks like. You also know what a grapefruit looks like. Yet, in your life you had never seen a softball. If I told you, that a softball, is just a baseball that is the size and color of a grapefruit, could you then pick it out of a lineup? I would say yes.
That is a schema.
The issue with schema is that they can become rigid, we don’t want to change what we know, even when data supports the change. Our schema becomes our world.
Well, what if our athlete is trying to learn how to swing a baseball bat better? Will more practice of their currently broken swing create any change? Will telling them that all of their hard work has created an ineffective strategy motivate them? Of course, we can sense the answer is no.
Instead, what if we changed their environment? What if we built new connectors and abilities? What if we changed the choices available in movement?
We change where they are hitting, how they are swinging, the size and weight of the ball they are hitting, the stance they are using, and we ask them to swing. With enough change to environment, a new normal will take hold, because we see progress that is different from that which we have become accustomed.
As strength coaches, if we can offer exercises that promote change, by changing the connection and schema that we had before, with a better one, we can theoretically enhance performance and build a more robust and effective athlete.
What Was Old Is New
That is what high level coaches throughout time called the work they did to get track and field athletes to take the weight room onto the track.
As we moved along, we stopped liking these exercises.
They were ugly. They were hard to do and recreate. They didn’t fit a logical progression model of when and where to apply. So we tossed them. We found safer exercises that were “close enough” and we found other low hanging fruit.
But what if you want to build a savage?
You see, I am not looking to just get people stronger, and let them run and get faster. I want them to be the strongest, and the fastest, and the….you get it.
With that in mind, I am looking for 1% better in things. I am looking for connections that bring context to the field.
Why do we bring an athlete to half kneel? Well, it helps to develop their gait mechanics in a safe environment. Why do we hang clean? Well it helps develop triple extension.
Why aren’t we creating exercises and environments that pull athleticism out of people?
Special Exercises allow this. As long as you aren’t trying to break the principles, instead using them to find connection, we can build exercises that fit within your framework and extract additional performance.
Looking At Gymnastics
For the last few years, I have had the chance to see some gymnasts up close in training.
My first day of testing was an eye opener.
Of 8 athletes that walked in the door, the lowest vertical jump was a 27” by a 13 year old. The best? A 34” from a 14 year old.
What the heck did I just see!?
Spacial awareness, body awareness, explosiveness. I was seeing elite athletes who weren’t elite athletes.
If the training and the concepts of gymnastics were turning regular kids into explosive, mobile athletes, what can we take from their training?
Plyometrics work even when you don’t squat 2x your bodyweight
Hanging and floor work creates intense core strength and movement ability at the hips and shoulders
Early exposure pushes the long term athletic ceiling higher
So, the answer we get to, is that we can impact the athleticism of any athlete if we are capable of asking questions and promoting an environment that fosters growth and movement first. Not just quality, but also variety and specificity.
Gymnasts move in tremendous variety, and that foundation is something most coaches should be looking to develop.
My Exercise Choice
In Bondarchuk’s classification of exercise, I would consider this to be a level 2 or 3 exercise defined as such.
“The first category is general preparatory exercises and those exercises are completely different than your athletic event. You’re using different muscles, different body movements, and different bodily systems.
The next category is specific preparatory exercises. These are little bit more specific but still not quite that similar to your event; you’re going to be using the same muscles as your sport or your event, but you’re going to be using a different movement to engage them.
In the third category is specific developmental exercises. These are where you start to get really close to the event; you’re using the same muscles, you’re using very similar movements. The only difference is it’s just a slight difference in movement from the event.
Then the final category is what you’re actually training for. If you’re doing the long jump, the long jump would be you’re competitive event, or MMA, it’s actually being in the ring.”
This was taken from Joel Jamison’s site 8weeksout.com
Watch these golf swings (start till 1:06)
Or this baseball swing
Or even these Jukes and jump cuts in football.
Each of these athletes is doing the same thing, but they are utilizing the movement differently. Yet, each of them is similarly moving in the way of my kettlebell swing.
“Why not just do X exercise instead”
This goes back to movement variability, but I also would pose these questions:
Why a kettlebell swing instead of a hang clean? Why instead of an RDL?
I know the answer. I use all 3. I think that is my point. Kettlebells provide a pendulation and momentum component that makes them more than the sum of their parts. Yet, a kettlebell swing is similar to a hang clean, an RDL, a long jump, etc. Someone isn’t wrong if they choose not to do it, but there will be moments that it is the best fit.
This exercise for me requires an athlete or trainee to be accomplished at a few other tasks before trying it out.
You should have some experience swinging with 1 arm.
You should be able to complete an equal number of snatches with the weight you will use for this exercise.
I also would want someone to have an FMS cleared for rotary stability of 2/2 up.
In a direct fashion, I would select this exercise when the top requirements have been checked, and then I would progress to it in this way.
1a) Medball hip Toss (rapid)
1b) Skater Jump w/ stutter
1c) 1 Arm KB Snatch
1a) Lateral Kettlebell Swing
While this isn’t an exact replica of how I could implement this exercise into programming, I believe with the right circumstances and training experience, this is something that would make a lot of sense to build to this type of special strength exercise.
If the above criteria are possible, there is no reason an athlete or client couldn’t do this exercise, and I feel it is a better option than the options available for the “same thing”.
If your mission is to help athletes become college (or beyond) level athletes, special exercises and the underlying principles that they are founded upon aren’t an optional training variable, but to me a necessity.
General pop and athletes are the same until they are different.
Bill Rom is a strength and conditioning coach on Long Island, New York. Bill has been training both athletes and general population clients since 2006. His clients have ranged from adolescents to 70 year old grandmothers, and from peewee athletes up to former and current D1 athletes.
At Prospect Sports, where Bill is the director, he works with a number of professional athletes from the NFL, MLB, MiLB and more.
Additionally, Bill has been published on EliteFTS.com, one of the top strength and conditioning websites in the world, as well as Stack.com; a website dedicated to improving athletes and is currently working on stories for LiveStrong.com.
He also has done a number of speaking engagements including the NSCA and is continuing to pick up more.
Bill is one of the top young strength and conditioning coaches in the country, and arguably the top strength coach on Long Island.
Superior Athletics is a high performance facility located in Farmingdale, NY, roughly 40 miles from Manhattan. We specialize in helping each athlete, whether a 12 year old soccer player, a 25 year old pro, or an everyday mom, achieve their ultimate success in life or in sports