The Four Pillars of Strength

by Mike Krivka on February 12, 2014

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Mak_110lbs_KB_pngINTRODUCTION

People are constantly looking for new ways to increase their strength.  They get wrapped up in changing up reps, loads, intensity, and new exercises in the blind pursuit of strength. This pursuit usually entails looking for a new training program, tool, or gimmick that they desperately hope will give them an edge and increase their athletic abilities.  Unfortunately what usually happens is that they fall back on their old training habits and apply them to their new program with dismal results.  Let me borrow a definition from someone who is (obviously) smarter than I am: “Insanity: doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results” – Albert Einstein.

So if I told you that there are four basics tenets of strength that you can apply to the training program that you are doing right now, that would almost instantly increase your strength – would you try it?  Really?  Then I’ll let you in on a trade secret in the strength and conditioning world!  The keys to strength lie in the “Four Pillars of Strength” (and they all start with the letter “G”): Grip, Gut, Glutes and Gaze.  Let’s take a look at each one and see how focusing on one or all of them will ensure that you actually do get what you are looking for!

GRIP

I know this seems obvious but increasing your grip strength, or even focusing on what your grip is doing, will give you a huge jump in the strength game.  Think about when you missed that heavy Deadlift – what failed?  Your grip failed.  How about when you tried to do that strict pull-up and you couldn’t ramp up the tension to complete it – what kept you from making it happen?  Your grip failed. How about the last time you did your RKC Snatch Test (05 minutes to do 100 reps with a 24 kg Kettlebell) – what happened around minute four that made the last thirty or so reps hard?  Your grip failed.

So is it really a question of increasing your grip strength or learning how to manage your grip?  Well it couldn’t hurt to increase your grip strength, and I strongly suggest that you do, but the better you become at managing your grip the better results you are going to get. What do I mean by “managing your grip”?  What I mean is that you need to learn when you should be applying maximum tension and when you should be using just enough tension to keep control of the situation.  Taking the time to master this one technique will make your Kettlebell technique improve, help you manage your fatigue, and allow you to train harder and (more importantly) harder.

Does strengthening your grip only apply to your hands?  Heck no!  Your feet are almost as important as your hands when it comes to grip strength.  The recent appearance of “minimalist” shoes is nothing new to traditional strength athletes who know that without a firm, direct connection to the ground their strength will be fragile and tenuous.  For athletes, especially contact or combat athletes, strengthening your feet and how well they grip the ground during dynamic and ballistic loading will go a long way in protecting your ankles, knees, hips and back.

When it comes to your feet do you know what they are doing when you are swinging or snatching?  How about when you are doing pull-ups or push-ups? Well you should!  When you are performing any movement skill you not only need to maintain control of the load, be it your body weight or a Kettlebell, but you also need to get feedback.  If you are compromising the surface area of your foot, and therefore compromising the quality and quantity of feedback you are getting from your feet, then you are never going to be able to get as strong as your potential.

Test it out:

Pistol or Body Weight Squat – Pick either the Pistol of the Body Weight Squat (Squat) and take some time to explore what your feet are doing when you do this movement. Chances are that your feet are tapping like you are playing the piano with your feet or you are rolling onto the edge of your foot.  Both of these are very common and are easily remedied!  As you are pulling yourself down into the Squat or Pistol “grab the ground” with your whole foot, especially your toes, and feel how much more stable and strong you feel.  Don’t lose this tension at the bottom; instead let it by the driving force behind driving the ground down and away from you as you come up.  BTW – does your hand grip affect your Pistol and Squat?  Heck yes!  Having trouble maintaining tension throughout the whole movement?  Make a fist and crush your grip to help create stabilizing tension throughout your upper body that will irradiate into your legs. You can also squeeze a towel or a hand gripper to get the same effect.

Kettlebell Swing or Snatch – the same concept holds true here as it did with the Pistol or Squat. You’ve got to pay attention to what your feet and hands are doing if you are going to ever become stronger doing the Swing or Snatch.  There are two key moments in the execution of both the Swing and the Snatch that you want to pay close attention to what your hands and feet are doing: during the backswing of the Swing and the Snatch and in the overhead lockout of the Snatch.  In both of these positions it’s easy to concentrate on your grip, as you should, but are you over-concentrating on your grip?  Maximum tension should only be applied to the Kettlebell grip at the bottom of the backswing and at lockout overhead; all the rest of the time you need to use just enough grip to keep the Kettlebell under control.  How about looking at what your feet are doing as well?  Your feet should be gripping the ground maximally on the backswing, really grabbing the ground and giving you a solid base to drive off of. During the Snatch you should think about doing the same thing when you hit the overhead lockout; grip the Kettlebell tightly to buffer the impact and create a stable strong base to receive the load on.

GUT

Your Abs are the bracing system for everything you do and learning how to use them properly will allow you to generate more force as well as accept more of a load.  Being able to regulate your abdominal tension is critical when it comes to creating power from the ground up – and it’s invaluable when it comes to protecting your back.  The concepts behind Intra Abdominal Pressure (IAP) will teach you how to create a “virtual belt” around your midsection that not only reinforces the spine but allows you to transfer energy more efficiently.

Just bracing your gut and hoping for the best isn’t enough; learning how and when to tighten is the real key.  Coordinating breathing and the amount of breath you inhale and exhale are important as well as learning how to “bleed off” tension (through hissing and/or the martial arts kiai).  You’ll see people panting, huffing and puffing while training; never once thinking about how that unregulated breathing is affecting their performance.  Having a strong gut is not a matter of doing sit-ups and crunches – both those exercises have faults that only lead to more problems down the road.  While I’m a big fan of the Ab Wheel, or as I call it “The Wheel of Pain”, you really need to shown how to use it correctly or you’ll overstress your shoulders and lower back.  So how do you get a strong gut?  Learn when and how to breath.

Sucking in a big gut full of air and letting it out is going to get you nowhere.  You need to regulate the amount of air you bring in, how much tension is used to maintain it, and how to effectively release it.  Taking in too much air at one time is counterproductive as well as taking in too little; not to mention trying to maintain it by using your throat. Yikes!  I teach a really simple technique to get enough air in, braced, and ready for use that seems to work well for most people.  First off you can’t take a big “gulp” of air through your mouth. It’s going to create pressure in the wrong area and lead to problems.  All you need to do is take a “predatory sniff” of air through your nose and hold it. NOTE: the “predatory sniff” is a technique you can observe right before someone take a swing or tackles a defender.  It’s a cue that an attack is imminent but it is also a great way to prepare for an explosive energy requirement.  Hold that breath in your gut, deep in your gut and not up in your chest, then let it out under control through your teeth like you are hissing.  This sequence will take a while to develop but once you get it down you will be able to reference the skill on demand.  Time this breathing sequence with your efforts and you will find that you aren’t getting breathless or winded… but did I mention that this takes practice to achieve?

Test it out:

Pull-ups – applying this directed breathing during a grand makes it easier to stay “tight”.  Try doing a pull-up with a big gut full of air and see how it feels.  Now try it with the method described above.  It should be a lot easier and feel tighter and “crisper”. One of the things you will need to work on is regulating how much air you release. Too much too soon and you’ll be left only half way up… this is a regulated release of air, with the accompanying abdominal pressure, that lasts the whole movement.

Swings – Kettlebell Swings can make even the most well conditioned athlete breathless; but it doesn’t have to happen early in the session. Take a quick sniff of air on the backswing of the Swing and then explosively let it out in conjunction with your hip snap.  You’ll find that the Kettlebell moves faster, and higher, than usual and that you are able to regulate your breathing for longer as well. This breathing pattern is quick and crisp and doesn’t require as much air to make it effective as the grinding version.

GLUTES

Much aligned and often ignored, especially by guys, the glutes are the biggest, and as far as I’m concerned, the most important muscles in the body.  So developing the ability to integrate them fully and activate them at the appropriate time will make you strong – fast!  While everyone knows (not really, but let’s assume they do) how important the Glutes are then why do we still see people with soft knees and soft Glutes at the top of their Kettlebell Swing and Snatch? That’s because they aren’t tying in the Glutes to the end of the hip snap and missing out on tying in the biggest muscles in the body into their technique.

When I talk about working the Glutes most guys ignore my advice and head for the nearest set of dumbbells to work on their curls or grab a bar to work on their bench press.  Women are more receptive to my advice because they understand the “power” of strong Glutes… but for a different reason than the one that I’m interested in addressing!  So why are the Glutes so important?  Because the Glutes are not only the biggest group of muscles in the body they are also the brace for the abs and the foundation for the back.  Weak Glutes and you’re going to be overtaxing your abs and lower back to do the work that the Glutes are designed for.  Especially bothersome are people who have spent an inordinate amount of time developing their abs (think mucho sit-ups or crunches) and have compromised their posture and have effectively short-circuited their ability to fully engage their Glutes.  Don’t believe me?  Take the following two tests and see what happens when you are able to clench your Glutes for all they are worth!

Test it out:

Tip-over Test – Have someone stand tall and strong, locking their knees and clenching their Glutes as hard as they can. Place your hand on their chest and slowly start pushing.  See how hard it is to rock them back onto their heels. Do this again a second time but have them keep their Glutes relaxed; slowly start pushing against their chest and see how easy it is to rock them back onto their heels. Now here comes the clincher: same setup as the previous two but this time have them relax their Glutes and only clench them when they feel like they are going to tip over and fall. Be sure to put your other hand behind them just in case they can’t “catch” themselves. If they can’t catch themselves then they need some serious “Glute therapy” to get them turned back on! If they are able to catch themselves then they will have a shocked look on their face when they realize that their Glutes are the reason why they didn’t fall.

Stance Test – how wide you have your feet apart can directly impact how tightly you can clench your Glutes.  Is really that important? Only if you want to move faster, hit harder, and translate more energy from your body into a Kettlebell or bar. Try this series of tests to see how your stance (distance between your feet) impacts your Glute tension. Start with your feet in stance that is wider than your shoulders. Squeeze your Glutes as hard as you can and make a mental note of how tight they are.  Move your feet in a little this time, just inside shoulder width, with your heels right under your arm pits. Squeeze your Glutes as hard as you can and make a mental note of how tight they are. Now place your feet together with your big toes almost touching. Squeeze your Glutes as hard as you can and make a mental note of how tight they are. Last one: with your feet together once again, put your heels together and let your feet point off at an angle, let’s see 15-20 degrees. Squeeze your Glutes as hard as you can and make a mental note of how tight they are.  What did you find?  Did you find that the wider the stance the less Glute contraction you get and the more narrow the stance (especially with your heels together!) the more Glute contraction you get? What does that tell you about how you can get more power out of your hip snap if you learn to maximize your Glute contraction by minimizing your stance?  Yeah, I thought so…

GAZE

What the heck are you looking at? No really. What the heck are you looking at while you are training?  How much do your eyes, and how they are being used during movement, impact your performance? Quite a bit actually!  If you watch people doing Kettlebell Swings or Snatch you’ll see that most of them have their eyes going up, down, left, right, pretty much everywhere and it gets even worse when they change hands. Training yourself to focus internally is hard enough but you also need to create some discipline in what you are doing with your eyes and your head as you are training. Remember that your head is going to follow your eyes and you can end up doing some weird stuff to your neck and back if you’re not careful.

So what should you be doing with your eyes? First think about keeping your head neutral on your neck.  Neutral means that your chin is neither pointing up or down – you are looking straight ahead. You will see a lot of people putting their head into weird alignments because they are trying to look at one spot while they are performing a lift or movement.  This is something you can do and it does have its benefits – except for the fact that it’s going to put your neck and thoracic spine into some weird loading configurations that you are going to regret in the long run. So if your head is neutral and you start to do a squat what should your eyes be doing?  As you pull yourself back into your Squat your head should track with your torso and your gaze should end up stopping about 08-10 feet in front of you. As you drive up out of the Squat your head should remain neutral and finish where it began at the beginning.

I know what you’re thinking!  You’ve seen pictures of athletes going for a world record Deadlift or Squat with their head up and back and their chin jutting forward. Yep – you can do that! If you’re chasing a world record and you are familiar with the risks that you are taking when you do that, and then by all means proceed.  But if you are training on a regular basis and don’t want to take risks with your neck and thoracic spine then stick with the neutral position. You’ll thank me one day…

Test it out:

Posterior Chain Activation Test – Take a stance with your feet just inside shoulder width and with your head in a neutral position, squeeze all the muscles in your body from head to toe. Get a feeling for how much tension you’re able to create with your head in a neutral position.  Now try looking straight down at your toes and then squeeze all the muscles in your body from head to toe.  Once again get a feeling for how much tension you’re able to create, especially in the posterior and anterior chain (front and back of your body). For the final attempt try looking straight up at the ceiling and then squeeze all of the muscles in your body from head to toe. Get a feeling for how much tension you were able to create and if there was any difference in the amount of tension you could produce front and back.

What did you find?  I’m guessing that if you created enough tension in all three positions were surprised to find that you were able to balance out the tension with your head in a neutral position but you lost tension either in the posterior or anterior chain when you looked up or down.  Kind of strange that most coaches recommend that you look up when you Squat or Deadlift but in reality you lose tension in the muscles you are trying to activate. Something to think about… Look up too much, shifting the tension from the posterior to the anterior chain, and you can say hello to Mr. Hernia because you’re going to shift the tension too far and put stress on the abdominal wall.

NOTE: a slight downward tilt of the head works best to fire up the posterior chain, especially if you are a martial artist, soldier or law enforcement officer. This part physiological and part psychological phenomenon but it really works.  Keep looking straight ahead, but tilt your chin down and in a little bit, and you can take advantage of the physical and psychological boost this head position gives you.  

Swing Test – This is an easy test to do and experience.  Grab your favorite Kettlebell and do a handful of Swings.  First try doing them with your head staying neutral throughout the movement; that means that your gaze will shift from ahead of you to in front of you as you swing.  Then try to do the Swings with your head up the whole time.  Keep looking up throughout the technique and get a feel for how your hip snap feels and the weight of the Kettlebell. Finally attempt to do some Swings while looking down throughout the technique.  Get gauges for how your hip snaps feels, how heavy or light the Kettlebell feels, and how your breathing is. What did you find?  Did you notice that with your head in the neutral position throughout the movement that you were stronger, faster, and more relaxed?  If you didn’t go back and try it again; I think you’ll be shocked at the difference.

CONCLUSION

I hope that you take the time to look at how these four pillars can be added into your existing strength training program, regardless of if it is with kettlebells, body weight, or barbells.  I am confident that if you mindfully apply the principles that I outlined above that you will be amazed at how quickly you will get gains!  BTW – don’t try to implement all of these new skills at the same time.  I would strongly suggest that you take one and apply it across a spectrum of techniques and see how it works for you. Then, once you’ve given yourself a chance to explore it fully, add another element to the mix.  Being able to apply all the variables surrounding Grip, Gut, Glutes and Gaze will take practice and few people will be able to get them all working at the same time.  But if you can get two out of three you are well on the way to making some great gains!

***

About Michael A. Krivka, Sr. – RKC Team Leader: Michael A. Krivka, Sr. is a Washington, DC native who has been involved in Kettlebell training for over a decade and is currently an RKC Team Leader and member of the RKC Board of Advisors and the RKC Leadership Team under Dragon Door (where he has been listed as one of the top reviewed RKC’s in the world for the last five years). He is also the author of a bestselling eBook entitled “Code Name: Indestructible” and is in the process of finishing up several other eBooks on Kettlebells, body weight, and the integration of other tools into an effective strength and conditioning program. Mike has traveled extensively throughout the United States teaching Russian Kettlebells to military (USMC, USN, USA and USAF) and law enforcement personnel (FBI, DEA, USSS and CIA)… read more here.

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