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Power Talk with Top Martial Arts Strength Trainer Dylan Thomas

Dylan Thomas is one of the first full-time professional Kettlebell Trainers in the US. He’s trained numerous Kettlebell instructors, a variety of athletes and martial artists, military/emergency responders, as well as everyday people wanting to break out of the conventional fitness mode and into something more in line with a more austere past.

Dylan is a progressive trainer and knows how to effectively combine kettlebells with conventional weight training and martial arts into an effective fitness system. He’s been doing this for years with his clients and now you get to learn what they have been benefiting from.

In addition to being a professional KB Trainer, Dylan is a 4th Dan Black Belt Combat/Aiki-Jujutsu Instructor and also trains in Filipino/Indonesian Martial Arts. What does this mean? It means Dylan is one tough dude and brings that energy to his training system to make you tougher in training…and in life in general.

Dylan is a presenter at the Collision Course workshop in October I guarantee you the attendees will be raving about his presentations.

MM: How did you get into fitness personally and professionally as an instructor?

DT: It’s a long story but I’ll try to be brief: My mother was in the fitness industry since I was a child. She worked at gyms as an “Instructress” (Yeah, that’s what they called them then!) basically a trainer who also taught aerobic classes. Eventually, she owned her own gym for women and as a kid I was there a lot so I grew up around training. I was a fairly weak little kid, with asthma and a crossed eye, so I got messed with a lot. Thus I gravitated towards martial arts. My step father, who was a martial artist,wouldn’t train me until I built myself up, so I started with the basic push-up, sit-up, dumbbell curl, and running type of workout and progressed to weights around puberty.

When I got older, I worked in construction but even then there was a period of three years where I was lifting and running a lot, but at that point I was moving away from training for toughness and started to train more for looks, since I was in a band, and Henry Rollins, Glenn Danzig and other guys showed it was cool to be in shape, not just some skinny, body-by-heroin and Jack Daniels body.

When I left Florida for Virginia, I stopped lifting all together and threw myself into my job. I was a foreman, then a project manager for a commercial construction company. Over time, I got out of shape. I was getting a gut at 25 since all I did was work, eat the wrong stuff and sit on my ass in order to relax at all.

Well, I got the itch to get back into martial arts again, and it took finding the dojo where I am still that everything changed around.

MM: I saw one of your instructor’s classes and it was hardcore. Certainly not an aerobics-disguised-as-martial-arts class!

DT: No doubt! In our classes, we don’t spend any real time on pure physical fitness. We stretch and what-not, but other than the physical stresses of drilling, training techniques and sparring, physical fitness is on you. The dojo back then was 80% military, with the rest being police and “Get Action!” types. I knew that to be able to hang with these guys I needed to hit the weights and PT again. I mean, one of our alumni was Col. George Bristol, the founder of the Marine’s martial arts program, our #2 Instructor was an SF Officer–you really didn’t want to be a marshmallow in their midst.

MM: What did you do to learn more about training to customize it to your martial arts training?

DT: Besides the training I had as a youth, I threw myself into reading anything on fitness that could be applied to MA, most of it being military-type stuff, I really got into ruck marching and weight lifting. I drifted into reading Pavel Tsatsouline’s articles in Muscle Media and made some great gains in a short time. I was interested in kettlebells, but I thought the price was nuts. Then, one day after a belt test,my sempai, the late Col. Jim Tirey, informed me he’d signed me and my training partner up for a Kettlebell workshop in McLean VA, with some dude named Mike Mahler. As you remember, it was a good, small group that day and you went right to it. I was impressed that as I was swinging the kettlebell, how much stress it put on my breathing and muscles, to be blunt, it felt like fighting. I looked at my buddy and said, “Screw what they cost, tomorrow I’m buying a set and so are you!”

MM: I well remember that workshop and also how you and Jim helped me out with my early VA workshops back in 2002-2004. Those workshops were a great time and the best part was hanging out with you, Warren, and Jim, having a few cold beers after a hard day of training. I miss Jim and those good times.

DT: It was a great time and I remember at one of those post-workshop gatherings you said I should be a kettlebell instructor. I was burnt out with construction anyways (the environment constantly reactivated my asthma) so I took you up on your offer to help me get started, went to the RKC cert, and I’ve been training ever since.

MM: You’ve been a trainer for some time now and have worked with a wide variety of people. What are some of the common mistakes people make with training?

DT: We can go on forever there, but the biggest thing is information. People believe a lot of misconceptions about fitness. I hear things like, “I’m only going to docardio, because I want to lose weight, then I’ll lift weights.” or “What exercises should I do to lose the fat <here>?”all the time. People still believe cardio is the best way to lose weight and they think you can actually spot reduce body fat. Infomercials have brain washed people! LOL!

MM: No lie, the ubiquitous ten-minute workouts on fitness infomercials are particularly irritating!

DT: Ha ha! Then there are martial artist, athletes and G.I.s training with bodybuilding programs that do more harm than good to their performance. I’m not saying there aren’t good points to that type of training nor elements that are useful to the above-mentioned people, but it’s not efficient, it’s not looking at “What is it that I do or will be doing?” How many guys in the gym live for bench presses and curls, with very little leg work other than leg extensions and leg curls? I wish every opponent trained like that! LOL! Lastly, something you touch on a lot is people spending too much time in the gym and breaking themselves down.

MM: You’ve been training people with kettlebells for many years now. Let’s cut through all of the hype: What are the pros and cons of kettlebell training?

DT: I will start with the pros: One, the shape and the way the weight sits is a big advantage. You can rack heavier KBs than you can DBs, so you can work your legs with them better than DBs. They’re easier to use in combinations of exercises within a set as well. I can swing, clean, press and squat in a combo much easier than I can with a barbell and for me that’s great as a martial artist, since youdo different movements and techniques within a fight, not just one movement! It’s also goodfor making things fun because of the variety and randomness you can work in. I like kettlebells much better for shoulder presses, snatches and jerks than any other implement, for myself and most of my clients. I can do these things with barbells and dumbbells but the kettlebellss make these movements more accessible to people quicker. Back to shoulders for a moment, many of my clients love using the KB for shoulder presses over DBs and BBs, because of the rack position and the ability to adjust the path of the bell to fit their anatomy. Lot’s of folks who gave up on shoulder pressing because of injury and discomfort love KBs because they can do these exercises again, and in my opinion, a standing KB military press is a much more functional drill then a bench press any day.The big thing for me though, is that it’s the easiest way I’ve found to combine, speed, strength, power, movement, and conditioning into the same drill.

Man was built for the 3 F’s: Fighting, Fleeing…and I’ll leave the other F to your imagination, ha ha. During these actions, you’re using it all: cardio, strength, sensitivity, flexibility. I believe it’s best to train with that in mind, as the ancients did, with none of the science we have now and they were very impressive.

MM: I know you’re a big history fan, so can you provide a few examples?

DT: Sure, Julius Caesar in his late 40’s would still jump into the front lines of a battle, taking on men on average much bigger than himself. KingLeonidas of Sparta, of 300 fame,was in his late 50’s/early 60’s when he fought in the front ranks at the Battle for Thermopylae. If you’ve ever messed around with a sword and shield, it feels a lot like training with kettlebells.

MM: What are some of the cons with kettlebell training?

DT: Cons: After a certain point, you can only get bells so heavy before they are simply too cumbersome to use, so if raw strength is your thing, then kettlebells aren’t the best primary tool. You, Mike, have showed that you can build impressive size and strength with them, but if someone wants to be either a recreational or competitive bodybuilder, they need to hit the barbells, DBs–and even machines–but kettlebells have a place in there all the same. I train fitness competitor Alissa Carpio with kettlebells for her conditioning, but we originally started with the KBs to bring her legs up and she gained a good deal of muscle with them quickly. Another thing is, they’re a fixed weight, so unless you have multiple kettlebells, you’re limited as far as load variation, a barbell doesn’t have that problem. I, myself, still train with barbells for deadlifts, but not for much else.

MM: What are some of the common mistakes people make with kettlebell programs?

DT: Not getting instruction. There’s a skill set and a learning curve to using them properly and it’s a very rare individual who can read a book, watch a video, and then use them right. Most people who do that complain that their backs hurt when they perform swings, their wrists hurt when they clean and snatch, and their shoulder joints hurt after pressing.

I liken it to trying to learn martial arts from books and videos–it’s a great way to get your ass kicked. You need basic instruction–the small things matter–but it’s not rocket science either, you don’t have to go to the kettlebell Shaolin temple and study for a long time under a master.

If you are properly taught how to swing, press, clean and snatch, then you can now start to pick up new drills from videos and books because you have the foundation techniques that the other exercises are built from.

Another problem I see is people all over the place with their training. So much of the kettlebells rise has been Internet-fueled, with the attendant pros and cons, including training ADD. Lots of flavor-of-the-month stuff going on and people jumping from thing to thing too fast and too often.

The other problem I see are a lot of people in the kettlebell community looking for guru’s. They’ll dive into one guy’s system for a while and then something else comes along and suddenly they dump on what they were doing and follow some One True Way and then off to something else a month later.

MM: I know what you mean. Many KB enthusiasts refer to kettlebell training as the ultimate form of training. Do kettlebells work best as a stand-alone training system or as one of several training tools?

DT: Well, you can use them as a stand-alone tool and get great results–as long as you make small changes here and there, you can go a long way with just kettlebells, but I do think they’re better used in conjunction with other tools, depending on your goals and needs. Even when I was doing kettlebells at home, I still put in some bodyweight stuff , including pull-ups. If I had to live on an island, I would take kettlebells above anything else (for fitness) but I’d be climbing trees as well.

If you’re in a sport that’s well-rounded, you can get away with kettlebells only, but I’d find that boring. Most of the people I train in the gym do a mix, kettlebells are the center, for sure, but I’m big on doing pull-ups, or using the assisted pull-up machine. I use a good degree of Freemotion machines as well as body weight drills. I also encourage people to have either a sport, a martial art, or some kind of other physical outlet besides just working out with kettlebells and resistance. So, can they be a stand alone tool? Sure, but I think it’s best to use them as part of a larger system, be they the center or not. In construction work I carried a hammer; a screw gun; a tape measure; a saw; snips and a level, among other things, and there was some interchangeability of tools in a pinch, but scew gun on screws and hammer on nails worked best–ha ha ha!

MM: What are the benefits of kettlebell training for the martial artist?

DT: The main reason I use them is because of what they do forme as amartial artist and more and more MMA stars using them shows that others are impressed with them as well. As I said earlier, working with a kettlebell can be very similar to working with weapons or fighting, as far as physical stressors go. The mechanics of kettlebell lifting is very in-line with martial arts.

You don’t punch from the chest–it comes from the legs, to the waist and into the upper body in a synergistic manner, at least if you want to destroy what you hit and not be off balance from punching from your chest and shoulders. In Jujutsu such people are called Throw Baitand when you grapple, you don’t isolate your chest and push the guy off, you use as much of your body as you can. This carries over into common, everyday things as well.

With ballistic moves, you use the whole body to generate power, just like throws and take downs. I’ve noticed that the guys in our Jujutsu class who train with kettlebells tend to hit harder, move faster, throw better and last longer than those who don’t train with kettlebells–and almost all of our guys work out with something. I’ve got a lot of the guys into kettlebells and yoga and it’s improving everyone all around, which makes for better classes.

Much is made by others about the ballistic shock of kettlebells being good for taking hits, but in my opinion, you need to take hits to get good at taking hits. The added strength does help you fight of submissions.

The openness of kettlebell movements tends to ward off that muscle-bound feeling and tightnessyou get with traditional weight programs. Add yoga, and you’re good to go.

MM: You recently told me about a training program that turns a workout into more of a performance rather than a collection of sets and reps. Can you elaborate on that?

DT: I’ll go into it a bit, it comes back to when I was talking about how you can combine moves and string them together, so as opposed to doing a set of swings, then a set of presses and so on, I might pick up the bell and snatch it, then press it, then go into a squat, then a windmill and so on. I like to switch hands a lot, similar to H2H kettlebells–but for the less coordinated or adventurous–and just randomly flow into movements, as opposed to telling myself in advance what I’m going to do. It becomes more like Kata or a dance. Add some music and try to keep it going without putting it down for a whole song.

It’s not as scientific or as structured as a conventional rep and set scheme, but that’s the point: sometimes it’s good to just flow, for your body, but also for your head. It’s not that I came up with anything really new–lots of us have been doing kettlebell combos for years and Cotter’s KBMA stuff is an inspiration–but I do like it less structured and more random. It’s not how I always work out, but it gets tossed in there, either within a regular workout or a quick, random workout of its own and it’s a great way to use those lighter KBs that don’t challenge you anymore in straight sets, after a 3-minute rock song, it feels much heavier!

As much as I laugh when I see Kettlenetics, it’s more because of the puny weight. The way she strings dance moves into kettlebell moves is kind of cool, I’d just rather perform KB moves in a more flowing way, than dance with a KB in my hand.

MM: What do you do for restoration personally? And what’s helped your clients bounce back from workouts faster?

DT: Well, we all have things we let slide or don’t spend enough time on, but boy, that can really bite you on the ass! I really didn’t stretch much–and definitely not with any real effort. I ‘d get by with the flexibility I’ve gained from a lifetime doing martial arts, but even so I can’t do the front splits and straight-up side kicks I could do when I was 16 (nor do I want to!) I was losing flexibility, and after a string of injuries there came a time, about 6-8 months ago, where I was a wreck and couldn’t work out like I was used to. Bro, I couldn’t even squat anymore without my knee screaming and my back aching; it was stupid and I knew better. Using the martial arts-style stretches and sports stretches weren’t making me feel any better either. I kept thinking back to when I was little and Mom had a yoga instructor at her gym and I used to go along with the class. I remembered a conversation with Jon Hinds where he said he used it like chiropractic and all the guys on I.G.X. talking about their yoga experience. We also have yoga classes at the gym where I train and all this was in my mind.

So, one day I came off my horse and joined the housewives for the restorative yoga class at the gym and I felt so much better right after, that I started taking 2-3 classes a week, as well as researching yoga on the web and in text. In three weeks I was back to hitting it hard, swinging and squatting without pain.

MM: Wow, that’s quite a testimonial on the benefits of yoga!

DT: It’s worked wonders for me and I encourage all of my clients to take the yoga classes as well as showing them some basic yoga moves during PT sessions–and I do mean basic, I’m no yogi, and the classes at my gym are beginner-to-intermediate level, but that’s good enough for putting yourself back together again. I plan on delving deeper into the practice, but the basics get you moving right. I also encourage massage, I get one or two a month myself, since I train a massage therapist.

I’m telling you, I felt like I was sixty years old a few months back–not good when you’re thirty-five–and now I feel like I did in my mid-twenties.

I think one of the next evolutions in kettlebells is a kettlebell/yoga integration. I assert that if you do those two activities and you have some other physical outlet, like a sport, martial art or something outdoors, you’re good to go and don’t need much else to be physically well-rounded…at least that’s the path I’m on now.

MM: Thanks for doing the interview Dylan and looking forward to working with you later this month and in NYC next month

DT: You got it thanks

Dylan is based in Northern VA and is available for seminars all over the US and overseas. For more information on Dylan’s private lessons, classes, and workshops email him at:


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