While kettlebells as an exercise tool have enjoyed a renaissance in the United States, they appeal mainly to a relatively small niche of strength enthusiasts: individuals who recognize that hard work and a back to basics approach to strength training trump anything that the pretty, comfortable, machine infested brass and fern commercial health clubs have to offer. Within this small group of hard working and hard core devotees is another smaller and I daresay even more hard working and dedicated group of athletes who compete both domestically and internationally in the kettlebell competition known as Girevoy Sport. I have with me today for a brief question and answer session two individuals who are not only dedicated and successful GS athletes but are also tireless promoters of this fledgling (in the States anyway) extreme sport. I’m pleased to introduce two extraordinary women, the first two athletes from the States to medal in international GS competition, Catherine Imes and Lorraine Patton.
ESB: Welcome to the blogosphere! I hope this interview will help to generate more exposure for the Girevoy Sport and I am excited to provide a venue for you two to share your knowledge, experience and accomplishments! So let’s get to it. How did you first get interested in kettlebells? How long have you been using kettlebells? When did you decide you wanted to give Girevoy Sport a shot?
C.I. I had seen an Advertisement in Muscle Media 2000 for KBs. Soon after, Pavel started writing articles for them. I picked up PTP based on the articles. Then he wrote an article outlining KB exercises with dumbbells. I did high rep dumbbell swings, clean and jerks and snatches for a year and saw great conditioning benefits and then I finally coughed up the cash for a 12kg and 16kg bell in 2003. So, I’ve been using them for 3.5 years.
When I joined the DD forum in 2003, they had just held their first competition in Virginia I think. In January 2004, they finally had one in Chicago. Lorraine had been encouraging me on the forum to compete. So, without any GS specific training, I drove there for a meet. I really enjoyed the competition, but really enjoyed the people I met. In May of 2004, I competed at my first Nationals in Sterling, VA. There I got to meet people like Lorraine and it was an unforgettable event.
L.P. Back in 2001, I was a huge fan of Pavel’s PTP method. I was a deadlifting fool. So, I had come to trust him in matters of strength. He just had come out with the Russian Kettlebell Challenge and I thought that there was no way in hell that I was going to do any of that. But I saw the reviews of the book and became curious and since you could do the exercises with dumbbells I gave it another look and purchased the book. Well, then I bought a 16kg. KB – the lightest they had at the time. I got it and thought ‘what the hell have I done – I can’t do anything with it’. So, I started with swings and you know what happens. Now I can’t walk 10 feet at home without tripping over a bell. The big attraction for me was not the kettlebell itself but the fact that you can take a weight and swing it around rather than just lift it. Dynamic stuff. A sport’s got to have an endurance component for me to be interested in it.
ESB: Cate, you recently competed at the World Kettlbell Championships in Latvia. Was this your first international competition of any kind? Compare it to your experience of competing in the States.
C.I. This was my first International Meet and first time traveling abroad. There were a lot more competitors and of course the overall caliber of competition was higher due to the dedicated GS Coaching and experience. The competition itself wasn’t really that much different, i.e. on the platform it didn’t matter that I was in Latvia vs. being here. The competitors were for the most part very friendly and just reiterated one of the reasons I love this sport; I love the people.
ESB: Lorraine, you were also in Latvia and you've competed overseas several times. Share your international experiences with us, please.
L.P. I went to Moscow for the 2005 World Championships and to Hamburg for the 2006 Veterans Snatch Classic.
Let’s set the record straight here. None of us were really ready for competition that first year but yet it was important that we go and try. What we lacked in ability we more than made up for in enthusiasm and interest. I can’t tell you how gracious the competitors were. We learned so much – they had our undivided attention. I feel we owe it to them to continue training and to improve. We all made friends that we continue to keep in touch with. It opened up a new world for all of us.
Latvia was wonderful also. Cate medaled! How can you beat that? Everyone improved. Valery Fedorenko encouraged us to go to Moscow and do whatever we were capable of. He said that with that behind us we must improve and so we did. I wasn’t about to let him down. He’s been very supportive of us.
Going to International competitions has made me realize that we are doing a very good job here running our meets. I like that we are small and friendly and very inclusive. The meets have been organized and well run. At his seminar, Valery Fedorenko announced that he’d be holding meets also and what’s interesting is that he will add more events. I think that will go a long way to attracting new competitors. We’ve tried that to a certain extent in the past – I think it was Jim Haines idea to have more events – but we should give it a try again. We witnessed the jerk relay in both Latvia and Moscow and actually our guys got to compete in that this year. I think they had a great time.
ESB: What in your opinion will it take to make GS more popular in the States?
C.I. First of all, it will take a dedicated base of us sticking with it. The problem is that it started out pretty strong interest wise because KBs were growing and appealing to serious athletes. The first meet I attended in Chicago had as many competitors as our last 2 Nationals. Our 2004 Nationals was huge. I think we had 5 platforms. I think we’ve got that solid-dedicated base now thanks to people like Lorraine. The competitor turnover has slowed. I also think that having someone like Valery Federenko in the States is definitely going to help. He’s passionate about promoting Kettlebell Sport. It helps to have the support of someone of his caliber. Steve Cotter is also dedicated to helping this grow and he is widely recognized athlete/coach and well respected.
L.P. That’s a tough question. The sport is a hard sell. It’s growing though and steadily. I love the folks we attract. The sport attracts people with a distinct personality that I’m very attracted to. They are patient, persistent and analytical.
But like I mentioned above, the inclusion of new events may attract those to whom GS is boring.
ESB: How do you train? By that I mean, how do you organize your training? Do you periodize your training? Use other tools besides kettlebells?
C.I. I’ve recently changed my view on training for this sport. I no longer view it as a “seasonal” thing. I owe my conditioning to GS type training. I used to train for a meet, and then not do repetition snatches for months until training for the next meet. Now, after a big meet (last one being Latvia), I took a small week long break, then I began to phase snatch sets into my training starting with 2 per week. I gradually build my duration while cycling my pace. For example, if I get close to 18-20rpm for a given duration, I know that I can probably increase my duration. I’m up to 4 sets per week now. I’ll probably work there for a few weeks 8-10 minute snatch sets. Then I’ll back off for a week and only do a couple, and then increase it to 5 times per week. High Rep Swings w/32kg and 24kg weights and one-arm jerks will be a mainstay of my training as they have been highly recommended by Valery.
I use John Brookfield’s Battling Ropes for more grip endurance work. I also do some Crossfit inspired met-con circuits with the ropes, swings, rowing, sandbags, etc. for conditioning. I’ve been using ZHealth for Joint Mobility.
I will do low-rep strength work 2-3 times per week. It is a nice break from the high rep stuff and it allows me to maintain my strength levels. I will also do some double ballistics with the heavier bells, e.g. double swings, LCC&P, etc.
L.P. Cate and I spent the weekend at Valery Fedorenko’s workshop. We had many conversations about training of course. The one point we all agree on is that if you come from a strength background you are clearly ahead of those of us who come from the pure endurance sports. I have to work hard on strength. I do the basics – deadlift, squat, military pressing, assisted chins and the like and I do them PTP style 4-5 days a week. Of course I then do snatches, swings, snatches, jerks, snatches and more snatches. My training is also periodized. I do a period of volume, then one of timed sets (usually about 6 weeks) and then I’m ready to compete. Now since the workshop it’s back to the drawing board and I’ll have to sharpen up my technique again before doing anything else.
ESB: How many times a week do you train and for how long?
C.I. I’m training 5 days a week now. My training sessions last anywhere from 10 minutes to 60 minutes total depending on the time I have. For example, I trained a 10 minute snatch set this morning due to time constraints I had to save the Jerks and Swings for this evening.
L.P. 4-5 days. Time depends on the period I’m in. I bet none of the GS sessions go over 45 minutes though.
ESB: Lorraine you have the distinction of being the first American to medal in international competition at the Veteran’s Snatch Competition last year in Hamburg and Catherine, you medaled in Latvia…talk a little about what that was like for you.
L.P. I was very excited to participate in Hamburg as that was the first World Master’s meet that allowed women to compete. I trained very hard for that. None of us had any idea what the numbers would be like. So it was very gratifying to find that I was in the pack. With the exception of the exceptional Lyubya who reached 241 snatches, the rest of us were within 30 reps of each other. So that was very cool. Paul Tucker was there representing Australia and he did well. The list of friends for both of us grew! I must say I really like the Masters. They’ve shed their egos for the most part and train hard, compete hard and party hard! A very gregarious group.
C.I. Honestly, winning a medal was awkward. I didn’t feel like I was deserving of a medal because of my relatively low numbers. However, I was very happy to bring home the medal for our team. I think we earned their respect. Several of us went the full 10 minutes and the men did outstanding considering their experience level.
ESB: It is interesting to me that the Women’s Snatch Record holder is also a Veteran age athlete. I remember Andrey Kuzmin telling me once that many Veterans (male or female) continue to improve in the snatch and can still compete very well in the Open division since the grip seems to get stronger with age and grip endurance is maybe the determining factor for high repetition snatches. Many of the top U.S. lifters are at or near Veteran’s age…what do you think is the appeal of this grueling sport to the Veteran age athlete?
L.P. That we can actually do it. I joke that I’ve had so many injuries that are haunting me now I had to find a sport that I can participate in while standing still. It’s great to see the guys close to or over 70 competing with the 16s. Their numbers are fantastic and they are in great shape. I have no doubt that they can still use the heavier ones also. I hope to be in the over 65 female pack some day.
C.I. I think it may appeal in the U.S. to more veterans. Let’s face it: I compete in this sport because I love it and I love the people. The endurance aspect has taken me way outside of my comfort zone and it has taught me patience. There’s not much glory and it may not appeal to younger-competitive athletes in the U.S. I think “Masters” may be more apt to appreciate those values and enjoy the sport. Veterans will realize the health benefits of this sport and the requisite training. I know I’ve heard Lorraine say more than once that KB Snatches have helped her shoulders. I’m 35 this year and I’m in better shape than I was at 25. At 25, I would not have had the discipline for this type of training. At 25, I would not have had the funds to travel like I do today and that is another reason why you may see more Master’s competitors in the U.S. In the former Soviet Republics their travel is subsidized at least partially by their government.
ESB: Share a little with us about technique. What have been the biggest issues you have had to resolve? Describe how you troubleshoot your GS technique…what are you trying to improve technically at the moment?
C.I. My biggest strength and weakness is my “strength”. I’ve gotten a long way by just performing mediocre technique because I’ve got a decent amount of strength. It likely makes up for the fact that I’ve got less than an ideal body-type for GS.
Getting acclimated to the competition bell has been the most recent challenge.
As far as troubleshooting my technique: I go on feel. I know if my posterior chain starts to give out on me, I may not be “following” the bell on the downswing. If my grip starts to give out prematurely or what I deem premature, I focus more on following the bell and the overhead lockout.
I’m trying to work on following the bell on the downswing so that I can take advantage of the momentum. I’m also trying to get my lockout position consistent.
L.P. ACK!!!! Having come back from Fedorenko’s seminar I’m not sure I can answer that right now. I have so much to work on. Nothing like competing for 3 years and then taking my first lesson. I have a fair amount to undo. Grip is undeniably the first to fatigue. Local shoulder endurance used to be a factor but I seemed to have resolved that. I hate to be vague but I probably could write pages about this. Give me some time to straighten this out and I’d be happy to get back to you.
As far as troubleshooting is concerned though, I worked with Steve Cotter for a period of time. I became super analytical as I had to answer to him. Do a long set and see what stops you. Something is going to stop you from continuing. That sounds obvious and easy but it’s actually pretty tricky. It’s tempting to say that everything feels like crap so I stopped. Really think about why and where you are uncomfortable. It’s very telling.
ESB: I know GS is still a small sport in the U.S. … Olympic Weightlifting has local events and a grass roots development program culminating in an elite squad that trains at the USOC. Local meets are used to qualify for National meets which are used to qualify for Pan Am and other international meets including the Worlds and Olympics. The NAKF has had a pretty open participation policy to try and grow the popularity of the sport. Do you think there is any merit to the idea of setting domestic qualifying standards that local meets could use to qualify athletes for those larger meets such as the Nationals? How far off do you think we are from setting those kinds of standards?
L.P. Absolutely not yet and not for the foreseeable future. I have no idea when to start qualifying standards but we are no where near close. I would hate to deny anyone the experiences I’ve had. Let’s see how the sport grows. There’s so much room to grow before eliminating anyone from anything.
C.I. Yes there is merit to it. I’m with Lorraine that we need the sport to grow first. I would say that we are probably a couple of years away if we see continued growth.
ESB: Now that Valery Fedorenko is manufacturing Comp Bells here in the States, do you think we should require their use at local meets? My thinking is, if we want to compete overseas and host international meets here in the States and develop our athletes we will need to do that eventually anyway regardless of what the individual athlete may choose to train with at home. Any thoughts on when use of comp bells in NAKF meets should become mandatory?
C.I. I attended Valery’s Certification and received a full set of competition bells. I will make both types of bells available to the competitors for the foreseeable future. I think the bells need to be “more” available for a while before we can mandate that they are used solely in competitions, i.e. athletes need to have time to acquire them. If someone has International aspirations, then they definitely need to be using and competing with the competition style bells. I also believe that we probably need to reserve an MS designation for people who attain it with the competition bells unless we come up with our own rankings. I for one won’t attend a meet unless these bells are available, but that is just me.
L.P. Not yet. People should use what they are training with. They should also know that if they want to compete internationally they will have to get professional kbs and work hard with them. Personally I think if you want to compare yourself to someone in another country you should be using the same equipment. But that’s up to the individual. I also must say that making the switch has been very tough. I’m not yet completely comfortable with them.
ESB: What’s next for you in GS competition? Upcoming meets and so on.
C.I. The next Cross Country meet and then the May 2007 NAKF Nationals in Salt Lake City.
L.P. Well, there’s the Cross World meet on March 17th. There’s the Nationals on May 5th. I’m going to the Ukraine for a Long Cycle meet in March but unless they threaten me with violence I’d rather not participate. I’m going to further good relations and I can fly on a buddy pass so off I go.
ESB: Wrapping it up here, is there anything else you want to add or comment on that I haven't addressed?
L.P. Yes. My list of people to thank is huge and getting bigger every day. First I want to thank Matt MacNamara for hosting the 2007 Nationals in Salt Lake City. I know how big a job that is and how much work it entails and I’m so happy he decided to take it on. I know he’ll do a wonderful job with it. Also involved with the Nationals is Matt Goodrich - our official translator and tour guide to Moscow and St. Petersburg and an invaluable help to us in Latvia and Moscow. I have no idea what we would have done without him. Fortunately he is completely irresistible to Ukranian women so it’s not too dull for him.
Not a whole lot would happen in the GS world without Christine Uberti, Catherine Imes, Steve Cotter and our NAKF President Sean McGuire. There’s a lot more folks to thank but I’d be writing forever. It’s a great group and I’m forever grateful to be a part of it.
C.I. Thanks for putting this together.
ESB: My pleasure! Thank you for taking the time to talk about GS and your experiences. See you soon! (I hope that Cyrillic in the title translates like I meant it to!!)