Athletic Achievement—And Why I Chose to Stay with Dragon Door’s RKC

by Andrew Read on March 15, 2013

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Andrew Read - bottom up kettlebell

It may surprise people to hear it but I never attended the RKC because of kettlebells. I had been using them myself, and had moved all my clients to using them and gotten rid of nearly everything else we did, but the RKC wasn’t my actual goal. I wasn’t sure whether or not a trip to the USA was worth it in terms of learning enough to justify the cost. The goal was CK-FMS.

I am a big believer in success leaving you clues. I had been seeing Gray Cook’s name all over the place and had bought some of his DVDs and loved what I saw. Then Dragon Door announced that they were going to run an RKC-only FMS based course called the Certified Kettlebell Functional Movement Specialist (CK FMS). So I made the choice to go to this RKC thing and see what the fuss was about before attending the CK-FMS.

I’m glad I did because I learned that the RKC isn’t about the kettlebell. I also learned that it wasn’t really about how to lift them either. The drills and concepts within can be applied equally to training anyone from regular Joe’s to world championship level athletes – and I’ve certainly done that, training people to lose over 30% of their body weight as well as guys like Major League Baseball pitcher Peter Moylan, world no gi BJJ champion Sophia Drysdale and everyone in between.

If you’ve been in the game for any length of time you know one thing with absolute certainty – there’s no “one thing” that people need. Maybe one client has done years of yoga but never any resistance training – they may need to add strength. Others may have the opposite problem – years of heavy weight training may have wreaked havoc on their bodies and what they need is to rebuild and gain some mobility before they end up hurt, or worse. Others may need to lose weight or risk a heart attack. And then there’s sports performance clients who may need all of that at the same time.

Truthfully I almost walked away from the RKC about twelve months ago. I thought that we were in danger of falling prey to our own marketing and that we were missing sight of our core business. As many RKCs work as trainers, allow me to digress for a moment. We are in the fitness industry. Unless you make a majority of your income from training elite athletes you are not a strength coach. You are a fitness trainer or whatever other buzz word you choose to label yourself with. That means you operate in the fitness industry.

There’s no such thing as the strength industry. The majority of your clients will come to you seeking to look better, and likely drop body fat, and feel better through a combination of increased strength, movement and fitness. The faster you come to terms with that the better off your bank account will be.

One of my big issues last year was the removal of the weighted pull up from the RKCII standards. I have always felt that the weighted pull up forced people to be realistic with themselves about their own weight and take appropriate action. In the lifting world there is often a misperception that bigger is better and that a bigger guy is a stronger guy. Whatever happened to “skinny strength” the driving force behind Power to the People? Looking at the average weight of competitors at the London Games – 72kg for men and 56kg for women – tells us something. Namely that if you want to be truly athletic then body weight plays a large part in the equation and if you’re carrying too much weight then your chances of being successful diminish.

Not only that but returning to my point about being in the fitness industry it’s important to remember again why people come to us – to look better. If you can grab a handful of stomach fat do you really think you’re a great role model for the fitness lifestyle? And do you think your pull up might be easier if you dropped some of that? Being your product is always good for business. People can tell from a mile away if you’re actually truthful and stand 100% behind your product or if you’re just on the bandwagon of the next trend and hoping to cash in. Regardless of how you try to justify it to yourself your personal appearance counts very much in your clients’ eyes.

This also ties in to actually following in the steps of what the industry leaders are doing. When a guy like Cook comes out and says that to develop athleticism you need a base of mobility, stability and proprioception I pay attention. He doesn’t say you need strength as your first priority. In fact, both Cook and McGill state that after developing the base level of performance through mobility and stability you then work on endurance before moving onto strength and power.

So it’s strength last, not strength first. Movement is first and we need to recognize that the RKC is about teaching correct movement.

You can see this continuum developed through the HKC, RKC and RKCII. In the HKC we pattern the swing by teaching the hinge, the deadlift and numerous other drills. We use the goblet squat to develop the hip and spine mobility to squat with heavier loads. Then at RKC we add weight to these patterns but by placing the load asymmetrically we are still assessing movement quality, In addition, as anyone who has been to the RKC will tell you, there are lots of reps – endurance. Then finally at RKCII we develop strength and power with movements like the jerk and the heavy single press. From start to finish the system follows a path that I very much believe in.

The RKC understands its core business is in creating the best possible instructors. Instructors who know and understand how to teach and breakdown correct movement above all else. It often previously felt like all we were concerned about was the personal abilities of candidates instead of their teaching abilities.

I have to be honest and say that I have never had a client sign up with me because of what I could do. They’ve signed up with me because of what I can get them to do and the results they see in my other clients. Think about a high school PE teacher for a moment. Do you ever see one post on Facebook a picture of them out-performing the kids they are in charge of? I’d hope not because that kind of ego has no place in education. Our role as RKCs is no different and that show-off attitude as well as having the focus solely on our physical abilities has to go. It’s all about your clients – your kids in this sense – having the best experience they can with you, not about what you can do.

Without wanting to go too deeply into the psychology of training I also need to point out that if you base your sense of self worth on what you can do, when you get to forty and beyond you’re in for some depressing times. Performance drops as you age and there’s no hiding from it. The average age of medal winners at London was twenty-six. That was a good fifteen years ago for me. If the only thing that I derive pleasure from is breaking my personal records I’m going to have a very sad next forty years. But there’s no reason why we can’t be interested in trying to maintain performance, and by that I mean movement as that is the base, as we age.

For me, that is one of the reasons why I am so interested in movement based programs like the FMS and Primal Move – I instantly knew that these things could make a huge difference and that if I wanted to keep my clients healthy long term than we needed to add these kinds of elements into training.

Interestingly these are the exact same things that help to build athleticism. In a world that is overly sedentary we are seeing more and more people try to maintain fitness in later life. If they haven’t moved much since they were six (a likely scenario in these days of no physical education in schools and low sports participation numbers) they are going to need to build some movement patterns.

I hate to break it to you, and it pains me to admit it, but RKC training will actually hinder some athletic components if you avoid other movements (i.e. actual athletic events). Standing still lifting weights doesn’t make you athletic. In fact, other than make you better conditioned, it doesn’t make you anything – not tough, manly, hardcore or any of those adjectives. It only makes you stronger, and maybe fitter.

If you want to be more athletic you need to be involved in athletic endeavors. That can mean anything from martial arts to dance to triathlon to even things like the Crossfit Games or events like Tough Mudder.

(Here’s an interesting thing about the Crossfit Games – even though most of the events are lifting based the strongest doesn’t win. Last year a female competitor named Ruth Horrell from New Zealand came twelfth. The interesting thing about Ruth is that she competes for New Zealand as a weightlifter and is trying to gain Olympic selection for 2016. You’d have to realize that she would be a standout for strength amongst the ladies and yet she still didn’t win. The reason is obvious – her sports skills, and in the case of Crossfit that would be the huge anaerobic conditioning needed to be successful, are lacking. For her to get better at her sport she needs to play her sport more, not get stronger. This is across the board for athleticism – to win more you need better skills than your opponents, not just a single motor quality in high amounts. Martial artists will immediately understand this as they’ll have seen plenty of Herculean looking guys get beaten up and down the mat by someone who looks far more ordinary but has superior skills).

My interest in all training comes down to one thing – what can I learn so that my clients will be able to go out and use their fitness and enjoy their lives more? If that means they want to go in Tough Mudder, then I need to know how to help them run better and get over obstacles. But it also means I need to make them robust enough that they won’t break while running in training. If it means they want to do triathlons or martial arts or rock climbing or even hike to Everest base camp then I need the skills to help them do that too.

I’ve never heard of a client being stopped at the end of a triathlon and asked what their deadlift is, only their finishing time. In other words – the lifting is secondary to the performance. Making that vital difference to clients is all I really care about. I literally can’t afford to think that I only need one tool or one method to get them the result they’re paying me for. I can’t allow myself to think that all someone needs is to get stronger or be tougher. It’s just not that simple and it’s why I’ve traveled the world for the last decade to find the best answers and it’s precisely why I stayed on as an RKC at this point.

As trainers we often forget that our clients don’t share the same endless enthusiasm for training that we do. They want the maximum result from the least effort. There is one thing that has always stuck in my mind about the RKC:

A school of strength and movement with incidental conditioning. This allows a solid base of GPP to be formed that sports skill and conditioning can be built on.

I’ve been doing that with my clients since before I was an RKC. With a background in performance training both as a coach and an athlete that has always been my focus. We need to keep in mind as we forge ahead that every person will need something different and not allow ourselves to be distracted down the path that we enjoy the most when it comes to their training.

We need to make clients more athletic and find ways to embrace our own athleticism so that the base layer of movement and strength can be added to in an appropriate setting. Being in the gym is not the goal nor is having success in it. The goal has to always be making your clients’ lives better outside the gym. That is a product of many fitness qualities and methods.

That is RKC.

Andrew Read, Senior RKC, is head of Dragon Door Australia and Read Performance Training. Recognized as Australia’s leading functional strength trainer he is a regular contributor to Blitz, Inside MMA, International Kickboxer, Oxygen, Ultrafit and Breaking Muscle. His coaching background spans nearly twenty years having worked with many Olympic and world championship level athletes.

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