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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  • Kerry D

    As a massage therapist this is exactly what I see for clients’ needs they need strength in the areas they are weak to overcome learned postural patterns and gait patterns that are causing chronic pain and they also need to lose the flab from their bellies so there is less strain on their low backs and so their hip flexors can be relieved of some strain. Right on and thank you for reinforcing my love for Dragon Door!

  • Daniel Lona

    Andrew, you seem to place a premium on being athletic. In fact, you stated that “Standing still lifting weights doesn’t make you athletic.” Ok, but other than the TGU, all Russian-style kettlebell movements require a person’s feet to be planted in the same place, something you’re clearly not too impressed with. So what confuses me is why, given that opinion, you would want to be RKC – which we all know stands for “Russian *Kettlebell* Challenge.”

    You believe movement comes first, and that athleticism is an important quality to possess. But if that is your philosophy, it seems that RKC would need to be about something other than the kettlebell. In particular, it doesn’t sound like you’re that impressed with what kettlebell can offer. Which isn’t a problem really, unless kettlebell is the primary tool of the system you teach…which it is under the RKC. Or at least has been up until this point.

    Bottom line: it sounds like you favor a system of training for everyday people that doesn’t predicate itself on strength, or kettlebell as the key tool ( Again: “Standing still lifting weights doesn’t make you athletic.”) Fine. But then why teach a system that has kettlebell as its primary tool, particularly when you see it as something with such limited value?

  • Jim Micali

    Andrew missed Pavel’s point. It is a matter of degree and semantics. In Cook’s model authentic mobility is your strength base. Isn’t the ability to stabilize your lumbar spine while performing TGU a strength quality? So what comes first the the chicken or the egg? Kettlebells help lay a very useful foundation for the fitness client as well as the high performance athlete. If mobility is the foundation of athletic movement, then that foundation should be a strength. It seems as though this article is an attempt to distance Dragon Door from Pavel.

  • Andrew, you write, ” … you are not a strength coach. You are a fitness trainer…”

    I am a strength coach.

    You write, ” … it’s important to remember again why people come to us – to look better…”

    Strong people look better.

    You write, ” …So it’s strength last, not strength first…”

    At the RKC, yes, apparently so.

    You write, ” … 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…”

    My performances continue to garner gold medals and world records in my sport because it has age and weight classes (I weigh 67.5 kg or 149 lbs.), as do many of the sports you mention. I intend to keep achieving both for a long time, and I’m a good deal older than you (I’m 58).

    You write, “… 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….”

    I am tough, manly, and hardcore – and strong, and fit. I became this way by “standing still lifting weights.”

    You write, ” … 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.”

    I’ve never heard of a client being stopped at the end of their deadlift and asked what their triathlon finishing time is – to each his own. One is not a better choice of sport than the other, nor is there a need for most people to choose one over the other.

    For those who believe, as you do, in strength last, there is the RKC; for those who believe the opposite, there is StrongFirst.

    Thank you for the opportunity to present an opposing point of view. My best wishes to you, Andrew, for success in all your future endeavors.


  • s.williams

    My respect is with Pavel Tsatsouline, who taught me how to use the kettlebell,proper form & forged my love for the wicked iron ball..
    IMO this is a low blow to the man I respect & who created this site.. It does however strengthn my allegance to Pavel & his new site StrongFirst…

  • Have to say, I agree with Steve. This seems to miss the point. Somehow, ‘trainers’ (or strength coaches, or whatever), are expected to maintain low bodyfat levels as they age, but are no longer expected to set PR’s, or compete at high levels? I sort of think that’s a bit counter-intuitive. I think anybody who knows human performance understands that movement matters, so does endurance, aerobic/anaerobic conditioning etc. But to think strength should be the last thing we worry about….that’s perhaps appropriate for some training goals, but I don’t think any of my clients or athletes would particularly agree. Either way, looking forward to reading more, and I don’t really care what side of the fence people fall on; there’s something to be learned from everyone in this community.

  • Tyrone Henriquez

    It seems like Andrew has a good point of view, but I agree totally with, Daniel, Jim, and Steve.

  • Eric Killin

    When you say that RKC is not about strength first than you must have misread their curriculum to pass the tests. You have to be strong to make it through the three brutal days of Instructor Certification. On top of that you have to perform all the workouts throughout the weekend with a snatch size bell which for that average person is a pretty heavy weight. If I had not been strong first before going into that weekend I would have torn all of my muscles and became a pile of mush.

    I have never heard or read an SFG Instructor say, in the past when they were RKC’s or now that they are SFG’s, that, for instance the first time you swing a bell you need to go pick up a snatch size bell. No, we must start at a lower weight or even no weight at all to develop the motor and movement patterns and then once we have those movement patterns down we increase strength by going up in weight and cycling as talked about in Power to the People, Deadlift Dynamite, and his Maximum Impact Barbell course. I think a great example of starting with movement first is one, the progressions we are taught, and two, how we applied them when we had to teach the victims on the final day of the instructor cert. Additionally, once you have worked with kettlebells for awhile you can see how they can be used as assessment tools as well. To be able to do a perfect TGU you must be mobile in the hips, shoulder, and T-spine as well as stable in the core, shoulder girdle, and hips. This is why we follow the progressions given to us in the manual and these same progressions are used at Strong First, and why would they change, they are Pavel’s progressions!!!!!!

    To say that Strong First is not about movement as well as strength than you are mistaken. The kettlebell movements are still the basis of the curriculum to pass. You still have to be mobile, stable, and STRONG to perform these movements. To say that mobility, stability, strength and endurance can’t all be worked on in one training session is bs. If a client has no t-spine rotation would you spend a month just working on that without doing any other strength, mobility, stability, or endurance training? I highly doubt it…. Like I said before, these movements are taught by the same progressions at Strong First. I think it’s sad that you would write such an article knowing that these movements and progressions came from Pavel in the first place which are taught the same in his new company.

    How can you say that “Being in the gym is not the goal nor is having success in it.”??????? This can be the goal for many of us and having success in the gym should be a goal for any person wanting to train!! That is why we cycle to set new PR’s and those PR’s are the very ones that can cause a client to stay or leave. If you don’t make goals for a client and have them set goals to be reached then you have no end point. People want to see progress when they get personal training and the scale is not the only thing they should be looking at. They should have training journals and be excited about trying to set PR’s.

    This write up seems to be more of a push to try to keep people in the RKC when we all know that Pavel is the man who brought us many different perspectives on movement, strength, mobility, and stability that we had not seen before!!!!!! It’s about having all those things and through his many books and dvds all of these things can be accomplished. If it was not for Pavel we wouldn’t have the kettlebell in the first place so think about where we got all of these movement patterns from! (the answer is Pavel in case you didn’t already know :))

    • Rose

      This is just my own personal opinion, but I think you, Eric, and others, are showing a definite lack of class. Andrew’s article had nothing to do with this other company you’re using this blog to attempt to promote. Did you guys actually read anything other than the title?

      It is my personal opinion that each and every one of you who are using this blog to promote your own team are showing an incredible lack of manners – and ethics.

      • JJF

        Why is expressing an opinion that is different from Andrew’s a lack of class?

        • Rose

          Expressing another opinion isn’t.

          What IS tacky is to go onto someone else’s site for the purpose of advertising and promoting someone’s own company, and to bash the company that is hosting the blog. Plus, people are using this site to get free advertising for SF. It’s an ugly way of going about things and very ill-mannered.

          Again this is just my personal opinion – and as Dennis Miller used to say – I could be wrong.

          • Mike

            My reply got posted below in error somehow

  • Peter Sbirakos

    Where is the evidence that Stongfirst or even Dragon Door produced Olympic Athletes that actually went ahead and represented their respective countries? In any sport for that matter.

    Dragon Door and Strong First plus all the myriad other Internet Fitness Companies out there are just that: train the average Joe and Jane and make money in the process. Nothing wrong with that of course, but unless they produce the next Rugby star or NFL star or elite level Gymnast etcetera, all the blog posts from either internet company are just opinion pieces really with very little credibility.

    I suppose on the flip side to that, with the ever growing obesity epidemic problem, they have a role to play.

  • Mike

    This article is quite long winded with what appears to be a theme of “I’m right, your wrong, because I say so”. As pointed out already, it’s littered with self contradictions. The picture is a good example…

    “… 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….”

    ” …So it’s strength last, not strength first…”

    Yet look at me while a stand still and perform a feat of strength for you to see.

    What’s worse here, I think, is that the whole thing kind of smells of “cheap heat” – ragging on “the other guys” to show some measure of superiority, or at least create some buzz via stirring the pot. Though doing so with misguided presumptions based primarily off of a brand name.

  • Interpretation is in the eye of the reader. Not sure what part of this article infuriates some, and causes others to lash out, obviously some parts must have hit a nerve. I read it for what it was worth. I don’t personally know the Author, and I’m not here to defend him.

    I have a S&C cert and train middle/high school Athletes. I wasn’t offended by the statement made saying I wasn’t a Strength coach if my income wasn’t from elite Athletes. I stand still and do kettlebell swings, snatches, squats, deadlifts, etc, which are dynamic movements, all will increase athleticism. I don’t stand still and isolate biceps, or do lateral raises, which do next to nothing to develop athletic abilities. Unless you’re a body builder or doing rehab, isolation exercises are a waste of time for athletic development. I think we all know what the Author was conveying with that statement.

    When I was in the fitness center performing isolation exercises and treadmill work, as I have aged, I was coming home with sore muscles, stiffer joints, gaining weight, and losing strength. It wasn’t until I began kettlebell training that my strength has increased as I have aged. All those bell exercises demanded mobility to be increased before the strength increased. I am stronger, more flexible, and more mobile overall than I have ever been. I also changed my eating habits and have lost weight and body fat. Not bad for mid 50’s. I don’t have a strongman reel by no means, yet my total body strength and conditioning has increased with age. There again, I’m not offended by his statement, because for the most part it’s true. The average fitness center weight room junkie will decline in strength, mobility, and conditioning with age. I treat these people every day in my practice.

    As for looking the part of a trainer, self advertisement is usually the best. However, we’ve all probably seen it both ways, Trainers that look like a Greek statue that didn’t know jack s**t, and others that look like they sleep in a ditch and eat fast food all day, but are brilliant. But why does his statement offend?

    We all know there needs to be both mobility and strength. Which is more important? I don’t care if strength or mobility come first, second, third, last, or mixed together, the fact is both better be present, especially as we age. A stiff joint will not increase in strength. A strong joint doesn’t necessarily indicate mobility. Before a joint can get strong, it has to move first, the better it moves the more potential for strength. I didn’t understand the Author to say strength was last, or that strength wasn’t important or never chase PR’s, etc. I took it to mean strength wasn’t the only thing, strength needs help to be successful, and that strength comes in different forms and not just hitting a PR. A rusty wheel needs movement and lubrication first. It can’t be immediately put on a vehicle a run 100mph. Back to the crib where infants are moving extremities before they have the strength to hold themselves up and then they gain the strength to move around. It seems like a nice combination.

    Maybe the nerve that was hit was from the statement “So it’s strength last, not strength first..”, due to an organization’s name. I certainly can’t read into if the Author was taking a shot or not, cause I don’t know. Maybe it would have been easier to digest if he said, “So it’s mobility first, not mobility last.” Gray Cook said mobility must be established before strength can be added. I don’t see the firing squad aiming at him.

  • Diego

    Maybe the interpretation is in the eye of the reader but lots of the phrasing seemed directly aimed at certain new company called StrongFirst. I personally thought this post could have not existed and I would´t have had cared much. Anyway this post has some info worth reading but shaded by all the “Fitness trainer”, StrongFirst and last wording and obvious contradictions on the RKC reason of being.

    Anyway overall this was good publicity for Pavel and his new company, first time I see it being mentioned on this blog.

    In my own personal opinion I think Pavel is a great source of info but I don´t like to read from only one person like he is the one holding the absolute truth and that is why I read the rkcblog and have enjoyed most of their posts.


  • Mike

    Those in question are not using this site as a means of free advertising. Rather they are simply defending the SF philosophy as this article (by title and tone) has come off as inflammatory. None of these posts have attacked DD or the RKC system. Most would likely agree with some of the points made in the article, but again, it’s seemingly inflammatory tone towards the post SF/RKC split has, IMO, caused some to not take that lying down. However, those posts have not been disrespectful or used as a grounds for free ad space.

    • Rose

      Thank you Mike. We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I think some of the advertising people have been doing on here is tacky – S. Williams, for example. It doesn’t make me right, or you wrong – just two people with different opinions. I say they’re advertising, you say they’re expressing their right to free speech. Maybe we’re both right.

  • Mark


    This is embarrassing. You seem leftout or something. I really feel bad for you.

    • JJF

      Couldn’t agree more!!

  • Lebowski Heisenberg

    Thanks for posting this. I am scheduled for the RKC in Torrence in August 2013 and I was starting to second-guess my decision to go DD and not follow Pavel. I believe, and it is only my gut instinct and nothing else, that in time those that followed Pavel will have to make a similar decision again. The way his leaving has been kept a mystery to the public doesn’t sit well with me. Why not provide a very clear and compelling differentiation between the direction of DD and Pavel, and let us all decide on THAT, rather than, as it seems to me, purely personality and charisma?

    Anyway, what do I know, I’m not even in either club yet! But thanks for the reassuring words on staying with DD and RKC. I’m sure more people than myself are wondering which way to go now.

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