Interview With Ken Blackburn: Top Kettlebell Instructor And American Record Holder In The Jerk And Chair Press

An all around fitness and martial arts training expert, Ken is the owner and head instructor of Extreme Athletic Training. He has taught kettlebell training to hundreds of students, and is one of the premiere functional strength teachers in the United States.

His background in the martial arts has created a unique approach to training where the emphasis is on balanced conditioning while developing high levels of mobility and athleticism.

Ken is also one of the top American kettlebell competitors and currently holds the American record in the jerk and is the 2007 World Champion in the Chair Press.

Ken is the Director Of Operations for the International Kettlebell And Fitness Federation (IKFF). He teaches kettlebell certification courses all over the world with Steve Cotter. For more information on their certification program go to www.ikff.net

Ken will be one of the instructors at the Kettlebell Training In the Age Of Quarrel Workshops this Fall in NYC, Los Angeles, and Panama.

Tell us about your athletic background. How did you get into strength and conditioning?

I’ve been involved in athletics and martial arts since I was a kid. In high school, I was into track (shot-put and discus), Tae Kwon Do (“king of the demo” I might add), Filipino martial arts and kickboxing. Of course, like any guy at that age, I wanted to look good as well and adhered to a conventional weight training protocol – plenty of bench presses, concentration curls and impromptu posing.

During/after college, I was fortunate enough to train at Byrd’s Boxing gym for a couple years alongside former heavyweight champion Chris Byrd. I learned a lot about functional conditioning at that time. Aesthetics were more or less irrelevant. In addition, there is something very cool and educational when you can watch a world class athlete like Chris in action. With the exception of Steve Cotter, I have never seen anyone move so effortlessly and athletically – gives you a powerful example to work from.

How did you get into training others?

In regards to training/coaching, I have been doing that since I was 15 years old. It sounds cliché, but it is very fulfilling to help others reach their goals. There is a point when someone reaches a break through in their progress where they re-define what is possible for themselves – being part of that process is very rewarding.

When and why did you get into kettlebell training?

My first exposure to k-bells was via a Steve Cotter workshop at my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu club in Walled Lake, MI. I’ve always been obsessed with athletics and conditioning and was hearing a lot of positive things about k-bells via books, articles and online forums. After the workshop I was hooked. The exercises involved were multi-joint movements, worked the whole body simultaneously, required a certain degree of athleticism and mimicked the contraction rhythms associated with martial arts training. Plus, they are just plain fun to lift.

Do you think kettlebell training is a fit for everyone or is there a particular type of trainee that will get the most benefit?

I do think k-bell training is for everyone. It is not just for hard-core types or elite athletes. A great example is the diversity of competitors that attended the kettlebell competition at the Arnold Sports Festival. We had young kids, teenagers, and people over 50 etc. It’s a flexible enough tool to where it can be in alignment with almost any body type and fitness goal – weight loss, enhanced mobility, muscle hypertrophy, work capacity, joint health etc. The key is to ensure the program is congruent with the goal. That is one of the things we are going to clarify at The Age of Quarrel Workshops.

There is a debate on the merits of various applications of kettlebell training. Some argue that the sole purpose of the kettlebell is for work capacity and that kettlebells are made for jerks and snatches. Others argue that kettlebells work great as a weight training implement. What is your take?

I think it’s in our nature to create walls around concepts. To narrowly define and categorize things – there is a comfort in that. However, k-bells are objects with variable resistance that can be used in a variety of ways. It’s a very flexible tool. The nature of its design makes some exercises more difficult and others more stable. It can be used for general fitness, competitive sport, juggling or a multitude of fitness goals. K-bells can also be used to develop maximal strength to a point. Eventually, it will make more sense to transition to a barbell in that regard. To continue purchasing bigger and bigger k-bells is both expensive and inefficient. That said, most people are going to find exercises like the double snatches with standard weight bells challenging regardless of fitness level.

Do kettlebells work well when combined with other training implements or should the trainee focus solely on kettlebell training?

I feel they are very compatible with other training implements. As an example, I utilize k-bells, barbell jump squats, battling ropes, running and bodyweight exercises in my current training program.

On the other hand, I think it’s important to pick a primary goal or focus. K-bells are 80% of my workouts since my focus is competing and attaining Master of Sport. The other implements are used only as assistance exercises. Once that goal is achieved or if I have a long break before another competition, I will switch my focus to something like strength or agility. K-bells will still be in the mix but not the central point.

What are you using kettlebells for with your own training and what are your current training goals?

As mentioned above, my current training goals involve k-bell sport and attaining Master of Sport in the Long Cycle (clean & jerk). At my bodyweight, that will mean getting 69 reps with the 32kg bells.

My training involves longer timed sets (work capacity), shorter timed sets (speed focus), jump squats (leg explosion) and things like the battling ropes and running for general conditioning and recovery. I also include joint mobility, agility and flexibility work to prevent injury and ensure I move efficiently.

The Kettlebell Sport is becoming very popular and many trainees want to dive in and compete. How would you recommend they get started with training for kettlebell sport competitions?

First, find an experienced coach. Someone who understands the sport, has competed and can communicate/demonstrate the proper technique for all the competitive lifts (jerk, snatch, long cycle). The technique is very specific and it’s important to start off understanding the proper posture, hand position, breathing and groove. Once that happens, learn how to construct an effective training program around your specific goals. Working with an experienced coach in these regards speed up the learning curve, lessens the chance of injury and prevents unlearning bad habits down the road.

In addition, I can’t stress enough the importance of coupling the k-bell lifting with a joint mobility and flexibility program. The easier you can move with minimal amounts of unnecessary tension the better. The mobility/flexibility work takes the “parking brakes” off the movements so to speak, prevents injury and promotes faster recovery.

Also, keep an open mind and incorporate other physical and mental training methods that other lifters may not be doing – qi gong, meditation, visualization, NLP (Neuro-Linguistic Programming), Yoga etc. Anything that can speed recovery and give you a mental/physical edge is a good thing.

You are a big fan of the competition style kettlebells. Please explain why they are your preference?

I like the competition style kettlebells because the dimensions are the same regardless of weight. Example - a 12kg bell and 40kg bell are the same size. As a result, the technique and alignment stay the same for the both bells. With other styles of kettlebells, there is normally a significant size difference between a lighter and heavier bell which creates a new learning curve every time you make a weight jump. The color scheme of the bells promotes progress too – not to many guys want to lift a pink kettlebell for any length of time J

Your son Mitch is making some waves with his incredible performances at recent kettlebell competitions. How did Mitch get started with training for kettlebell sport and what motivated him to give it a shot?

Thanks Mike! I am very proud of him. Mitch has been involved in the sport for about a year now. His initial motivation was weight loss. He was living the good life – too much x-box, Doritos, soft drinks and downtime..ha ha As a result, he got heavy and wanted to make a change. He set a goal to compete at the IKFF/NAKF nationals and competed with the 12kg bell. Since then he has moved up to competing with the 24kg bell. At a recent meet, he got 52 reps in the jerk in 10 min and 84 reps in the snatch in 8 min. Since losing the excess weight and leaning out, his new motivation is simply improving in the sport and having fun. He is very driven. Actually, I need to chase him out of the gym to prevent over-training. I want to go home, relax and watch Matlock and he wants to do inclined sprints on the treadmill…ha ha

Many MMA athletes are now using kettlebells as part of their overall training regimen. What recommendations do you have for MMA athletes that want to add kettlebells to their training programs?

As mentioned above, the first step is to find a good coach. No need to try and reinvent the wheel and unlearn bad habits down the road.

Second, start with the classical lifts – swing, clean, snatch and jerk. These are especially beneficial for the following reasons:

1. They are full body exercises. Functional and give the athlete a good bang for their buck in terms of time investment à results.

2. The energy transfer starts in the legs and travels up. This reinforces and mimics the correct generation of power used in striking and other movements.

3. The same with contraction rhythm – fighters are constantly transitioning between being tense and being relaxed in the ring. It’s important to do this in the most efficient manner possible to conserve energy yet be explosive and connected at the right times. K-bell training in this regard is the same.

4. Learn how to generate power within a short range of motion

5. The movements are more athletic than conventional weight training

6. Mental toughness – 10 min set of clean & jerks without setting the bells down is something that truly needs to be experienced to be understood J

From there, begin integrating other exercises into the mix. Combining an over-head squat with a snatch is great example since it forces the athlete to constantly transition between movement types – high acceleration movements that require an initial explosion/then being relaxed combined with movements that involve maintaining a high degree of tension over a longer period of time. To equate this to fighting, this reflects the transition that occurs with striking/throws and clinching.

Also, I think it’s important to ensure the training program is congruent with the individual fighter. Some athletes are very strong but need more work capacity. Others have tremendous work capacity but need functional strength and explosiveness. The great thing about the k-bell is that it’s a versatile tool and can be used in a number of ways.

What are some common mistakes that people make with kettlebell training?

The first thing that comes to mind is that people start off with too heavy a bell – especially men. Learn the proper mechanics, alignment and breathing with a lighter bell and the heavier bell will take care of itself down the road.

Second, people marry themselves to a certain kettlebell paradigm and close their mind off to anything else. It reminds me of what use to happen more frequently with martial arts – boxing is better than karate, wrestling is better Judo. In the k-bell world, we have intense online wars waging in the same regard – 10 min sets are better than high intensity intervals, pressing is better than jerking. It’s missing the point. Almost everything has a time and a place depending on the individual and what their goals are.

Another common mistake is that some will limit their fitness activity to just the kettlebell. Yes, it’s an incredibly diverse tool and is 80% of my own training. However, why limit yourself? There are other tools that can be brought into the mix that are better suited to certain goals and still a great companion to the kettlebell training. Absorb what is useful.

Should beginner focus on unilateral kettlebell work or can they start with double kettlebell training?

I think a beginner should start with unilateral work. Managing one bell is easier and thus enhances technique development and safety. In addition, there is a lot to be said for training in an asymmetrical fashion – more closely resembles many life activities/sports and forces the body to balance/stabilize itself. However, once the proper technique is learned, double k-bell work can be added in at any point. Double k-bell requires a different technique and groove so single k-bell work won’t always have a direct carry-over. Plus, double k-bell work is more congruent with those whose goal is strength, adding muscle mass etc.

Louie Simmons is famous for his conjugate method for powerlifting. For those, not familar instead of working on the primary lifts as the focal point (bench press, squat, deadlift) they instead do similar lifts and rotate them often. As a result they can push each exercise hard and then switch to another one before they burn out. Do you think there is any benefit in applying this principle to kettlebell sport training? In other words, instead of just working on the actual comp lifts exclusively (Jerk, clean and jerk, snatch) rotate in other kettlebell exercises and similar exercises with other implements all together.

Absolutely! Bringing in assistance exercises to compliment the competition lifts is a great way to enhance performance and fight both physical and mental burn-out. Overtraining is a very real variable in kettlebell sport training – the high volume work is hard on both the CNS and Endocrine system.

What nutrition recommendations do you have for kettlebell trainees that want to get into great shape? Do these recommendations change for Kettlebell Sport Athletes?

First, take care of your high level nutrition needs. Make sure you’re eating and supplementation is congruent with keeping your blood, heart and other internal organs healthy. If your internal organs are struggling with toxicity and other issues, your performance will suffer. Dr. Jerry Moylan has been a tremendous help to me in that regard. Once that is accomplished, you can start looking at sport specific nutrition protocols. This general advice would apply to any trainee or athlete.

For kettlebell sport specifically, I think it’s important to get plenty of good calories and configure a nutrition program that supports and enhances the Endocrine and Central Nervous system. Both of these systems are stressed as a result of the high volumes we endure in our training. You have written some great articles in this regard. Outside of that, there are a number of different nutrition protocols that can be beneficial – warrior diet, alkalinity based programs, etc The goal is to find one you can live with.

Do you recommend any nutrition supplements for kettlebell sport athletes?

Yes. You have been a big help in this regard Mike. I have experienced great results with your recommendations and the below will reflect that.

*A good/bio-available multi vitamin/mineral

*Pre-workout – Powerdrive 

*Post-workout – combining a good protein drink with blueberries, raspberries etc.

*Other – glutamine and beta alanine to speed recovery and Zinc and Magnesium to support the endocrine system and promote better sleep.

I have also seen solid results with the canned oxygen, especially immediately after hard sets.

Of course, this is just what I use. Supplementation should be customized to the individual. Get some blood work done and find out what you truly need and do not need. Otherwise, you could be wasting your money and potentially harming yourself.

You are going to be doing a section on agility training at the Age of quarrel courses in the fall. What are the benefits of agility training? Is it only for athletes or should everyone be doing some agility training? What can people expect to get out of your agility training material?

At the end of the day, it’s all about movement. Agility training can be thought of as a progression from joint mobility training. The joints are still working through a large range of motion but the coordination, flexibility, strength, explosion and kinesthetic awareness components are taken up a notch. Developing the aforementioned attributes makes someone a better athlete, more resistant to injury and adds a fun/challenging element to workouts. Plus, this type of training has a way of advancing you neurologically where other movements seem easier and less taxing by comparison.

A common question/complaint of agility training is that you can’t easily integrate it into a training program. I disagree. I used this type of training consistently with my Brazilian Jiu Jitsu students. I would combine movements into all sorts of combinations (beginning and advanced) which would be done for 1-3 minute rounds - like shadowboxing but more challenging and diverse. Depending on how it’s configured, it’s a great warm-up or finisher. The regressions and progressions are endless. The movements can be configured to fit a beginning or advanced trainee.

Here is a sample of some of the drills I have used

As mentioned above, I would execute one or more of these combinations for timed sets. To add an element of spontaneity, I would also have them respond to visual or auditory cues. As an example, one person would randomly shout out combinations and the other would respond as fast/smoothly as possible – again for time. This brings in the conditioning element. 3-5 minute sets are brutal.

Great stuff Ken and looking forward to working with you in October!

Ken is the Associate Head Instructor and Director of Operations for the IKFF (International Kettlebell & Fitness Federation). To contact Ken or learn more about the IKFF and their certification program, you can reach him at ken.blackburn@ikff.net

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