Saturday, November 28, 2009

How to Add 10-20 repetitions to your 5 minute snatch test....

For those that train with Russian kettlebells, the five minute snatch test is a common measure of physical prowess and kettlebell mastery. This is especially true in the following contexts:
* The Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) certification. Potential instructors are required to be able to do 100 snatches with a 24kg.
* The Tactical Strength Challenge (TSC), a worldwide, multi-location competition that includes deadlifts, pullups, and the five minute snatch test.

While the objective of this test is simple, improving your performance is not always well understood. The approach that a lot of people take is to just take the test many times. This will work at first, especially if your conditioning is not very good, but after a while your progress will level off. The reasons for this are simple:
* This approach dos not address your weaknesses
* This approach often leads to practicing snatches with bad technique
* The demanding nature of this test can lead to overtraining.

In terms of how we go about improving performance, we need to address the following areas:
* Overall systemic work capacity
* Snatch technique and efficiency
* Planning and execution on the day of the actual test

Anybody who has ever taken the snatch test knows that it is very hard work. Even though it is only five minutes, your heart will beat out of your chest, your lungs will be on fire, and your muscles will be filled with lactic acid. When we talk about "work capacity," we are talking about it in the context of the snatch test. You can be able to run a marathon, but still be too gassed to do well in the snatch test.

The SAID principle (Specific Adaptation to Imposed Demands) says simply, you get better at what you do. This does not mean that you have to take the five minutes snatch test over and over again in order to get better at it. What it does mean is that you have to choose exercises that will get the best carryover to the snatch test. Because there are many athletic qualities and technical nuances in the snatch, my feeling (and this has been buoyed by experience) is that it is best to not only attack the snatch as a whole, but use different exercise that focus on the different parts of the snatch.

The kettlebell snatch can be though of as a three stage rocket:
* The POP - at the bottom of the kettlebell snatch, the is the powerful hip thrust that projects the kettlebell forward

* The PULL - this is pulling back with the upper back, posterior shoulder, and upper arm that changes the direction of the kettlebell from going forward to up and back

* The PUNCH - this is the active moving up the hand upward to get move the kettlebell handle around the bell in order to facilitate a soft landing (i.e., soft catch) of the bell on your forearm.

In terms of conjugate exercise for the kettlebell snatch, in addition to the full snatch, I like to use exercises that focus on different parts of the snatch and/or improve overall work capacity.

* Heavy Kettlebell Swings or Double Kettlebell Swings:
- These focus on a powerful hip POP at the bottom.
- Because you cannot rest at the top, they replicate the lactic acid accumulation much faster than what you get from non-stop snatches. Ironically, I find double swings with 24kg bells much more taxing than double snatches with the same weight for that reason.
- I typically do these for 5-10 sets of 10-15 reps, and really try to compress the rest periods to tax work capacity.

* Dead Snatches:
- Dead snatch are done from a dead stop on the ground.
The dead snatches focus on the initial pop of the snatch.
- This also teaches the feeling of weightlessness that you should feel in the "pull" phase of the snatch, helping you keep the bell close to the body.
- This helps you learn to push the chest forward at the top of the snatch, increasing the speed at the top of the snatch.
- Choose a weight that you can do for 3 sets of 10-12 reps with each hand.

* Hang Snatches:
- Hang snatches are done with the bell hanging in front of you.
- Hang snatches teach you how to focus on a nice, tight arc.
- They also teach you how to use the hips to absorb the downward motion of the snatch (i.e., the “butt punch”). This lets you utilize stretch reflex in your hips to gain speed at the bottom part of the snatch.
- Choose a weight that you can do for 2-3 sets of 10-20 reps with each hand.

* Snatch Sprints:
- These are taking a given protocol of reps and doing them as fast as you can (the protocol depends on the ability of the client).
- They provide insight on when you should optimally perform hand switches during your actual test.
- I typically have my clients do this for their first 2 or 4 snatch sets (e.g., 25L/25R or 20L/20R/15L/15R) during a test week.

* Max VO2 Snatches:
- This is a snatch protocol used to improve you Max VO2, or the amount of oxygen your body uses (typically at 80-85% of your maximum heart rate).
- I prefer using the :15 on/:15 off protocol (rather than :36/:36) because the snatch pace is faster and the protocol is easier to implement with a standard wall clock.
- I like this protocol because it teaches you to practice "fast" snatching and remove inefficiencies in your snatch.
- Because there is a frequent amount of rest, you can get a lot of quality reps in a single session (sometimes over 700 reps).
- Note: if you want to get the best out of this protocol, get Kenneth Jay's book, Viking Warrior Conditioning. To ensure that you are working at the correct intensity (regarding both bell size and repetitions/set, do the cadence test as specified in the book.

* High Octane Cardio (or HOC):
- With this protocol, I alternate a kettlebell exercise with a short jog (100-150 yards) for between 30-75 min.
- This type of interval exercise helps improve overall work capacity.
- It is also a great opportunity to incorporate different types of snatches into your practice.
- If you are doing ETK, this is a great way variety day workout, especially if fat loss in your goal.

* Tabata Swings:
- The Tabata protocol is a very short, intense protocol that call for 8 sets of: 20 work/:10 rest.
- This familiarizes you with the lactic acid resistance that you incur during the test.
- It is also a short workout (4 minutes) that you can easily fit into your workouts.
- The speed and the continuous nature of the swing make it much better alternative for this protocol.

From a programming perspective, I prefer to work heavy/tabata swings and snatches in a 1:1 ratio. As far as snatches go, I like to use 1:1 ratio between using standard snatches and "leverage" snatches. When incorporating them into your program, you are going to have to take into account the other physical activities and other performance requirements.

Also, I almost away do the swings and snatches at the end of a workout rather than the beginning. The reason is that I prefer to keep heavy lifting and grinds early in workouts where maximal tension and focus are paramount.

As far a planning for the day of the snatch test, there really isn't too much to do, but even with that you don't want to leave any reps on the table. Here are some strategies to consider:

1) Planning hand switches: There is a trade off between taking too long between hand switches (you start snatching to slow) and too often (you lose too many snatches while you are switching). Snatch sprints will help you determine what this number should be.

2) If you have a dominant hand, you want to snatch more with your better hand. In practice, I do the same number of reps with both hand so as not to create any further imbalances in the shoulder girdle or the hips.

3) Ideally, you want to end your snatches with your dominant hand. This will help you in keeping you snatching quickly longer into the set. When determining your snatch strategy, plan out your reps to make this happen.

In planning my reps, I want to work backwards from my goal. For example, when I was planning for 140 reps, I came up with the following scheme:
* 30L/30R/20L/20R/18L/22R, according to my time estimates each set would have taken me:
* 30L (0:57)
* 30R (1:03/2:00)
* 20L (0:45/2:45)
* 23R (0:50/3:35)
* 17L (0:40/4:15)
* 20R (0:45/5:00)

Previously, I have done 30L/30R in under 1:50 and 30L/30R/20L/20R in training in 3:16, so I though this was realistic "stretch". It planned for an unequal number of reps and for snatching with my better hand (right) at the end. During the test, I got my first 60 in at about 1:55. I stayed with the pace to end with the plan plus two additional reps on the right side. Another comment regarding your plan - once you start snatching, if you are slowing down or losing your grip, switch. The exception being in the last 10 second, just gut it out. I helped someone break the 130 barrier in the most recent TSC, "The Men from the Boys" barrier, by simply having him do longer sets to eliminate hand switches. One really strong guy got into the 140s by simply tightening up his arc after showing him the hang and dead snatch.

As far as exercise programming goes, the possibilities are endless. However you incorporate these ideas into your program, make sure that you do the following:
1) Make sure you address your weaknesses
2) Make sure you prioritize your training based on what is important for you

Hopefully after reading this article you will be able to add 10-20 repetitions in your snatch test by simply making some modifications in your training plan, tweaking your snatch technique, and by planning effectively on the day of your test. If you have any questions about this article or anything related to kettlebells, feel free to contact me at


Sandy Sommer, RKc said...

What great insight into improving your TSC numbers. I'm at 115 now and my goal is 125 in April. This will get me there! Thanks!

Faizal S. Enu said...

Sandy, keep me posted on your progress....

danfaz said...

Thank, Faizal. Very thorough information that I will start applying!