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Kettlebells, Rugby Players and... Opera Singers!?

February 12, 2008 03:29 PM

As the 2007 Rugby Season began in Manitoba, I knew that some of the players taking the field for their clubs, provinces and country were better prepared for the rigours ahead than ever before. They had spent many months working kettlebells with me and the results were obvious. But that's the end of the story. I'd like to tell you how kettlebells came to be applied in prairie Canada, how they were used to develop rugby players, what difference they made in performance and how opera singers are involved.

First a brief overview will help. Last year, in praising Pavel's excellent 'Enter The Kettlebell!' book and DVD, I wrote:

"For the last 4 years I've increased the percentage of Kettlebell exercises in the training of my Elite athletes, regular folks, and high school students. Hockey, volleyball, basketball, football, soccer, boxers, and other athletes, have all greatly benefited from their kettlebell training.

In addition to being thrilled with their outstanding results, everyone I train actually enjoys the Kettlebell practices. In a recent example, I put a group of male and female Provincial Rugby players (Manitoba Buffalo) through twice weekly training sessions for 4 months (and continuing). Their program emphasized Kettlebells. After a dynamic warmup, we trained power, strength, followed by Kettlebell cardio, finishing with a cool down walk and easy static stretching... The test results: A dramatic loss of body fat, more muscularity, far more strength and power, a big increase in rugby specific endurance measured in various shuttle runs, and an increase in 'mental toughness'. Now that the season has started, my kettlebell trained players stand out in their ability to get around the pitch (field) and make play after play. They're hitting harder, they're quicker, and far more enduring."

The success experienced by these provincial rugby players training with kettlebells sparked interest in the larger rugby community. After the 2006 season I was asked to again run a training session for provincial rugby players as well as the Winnipeg Wasps, the club that I played with in Winnipeg for over 20 years.


Starting November '06, I trained 2 kettlebell groups-the Winnipeg Wasps Rugby Club and the Manitoba Buffalo men and women (the Province's representative teams). Their ages, experience and strength training history varied greatly. Included in the groups were several players that were currently or formerly members of a Canadian national rugby team, the former MVP in the Canadian men's 'Super League'; and two combinations of fathers and sons. Both of the fathers are in their early 50's. The rugby players were joined by several soccer, hockey, and Ultimate athletes.

Also included in our group are several choir/opera singers, who were recruited by a member of the Wasps Club who is also a talented singer. These singer-athletes confirmed my decades of observation that good artists and athletes have a lot in common in terms of focus, concentration, intensity and work ethic. They were a more than welcome addition to our kettlebell groups.

Looking at the above, it's easy to see that my kettlebell trainees were coming from varied physical backgrounds--some were overweight (fat, actually); some needed more (useful) muscle mass; some were already lean and muscular. Regardless of their starting point, my goal was to help make them better able to play rugby. Whether they ended up playing rugby or singing "Ave Maria", the design of the sessions were similar for all.


All the training was done at 'Garden City Collegiate in Winnipeg, Manitoba. As the only full-time Strength Coach in a Manitoba high school, I've trained thousands of kids, national and professional athletes in this weight room, which I've been building since 1981. We're about to have a large addition to our school, in which a new weight room will feature prominently. Kudos go out to our forward-thinking School Division Superintendent Brian O'Leary (who has taken to kettlebell training like the proverbial 'duck to water') and the unwavering support of School Principal Steve Medwick, both former athletes. Our school is unique among Manitoba high schools in its strength training philosophy and practice.

When I first arrived, the school's weight room consisted of the ubiquitous 'Universal Gym' and some free weights. This is typical of (the lack of) strength training in many Winnipeg high schools. At most schools it is an afterthought at best. As one of my All-Canadian University women's volleyball players, Andrea Charbonneau, told me: "At my high school the weight room was a little room where the football players went. We (girls) didn't dare go in there. I had no strength training before going to university." I trained Andrea for 5 years, increasingly using what I learned from Pavel's writings and tapes/DVDs. After a highly successful University career, Andrea went on to play professional volleyball in Grenoble, France. Several of the mothers and aunts of the volleyball players that I trained joined my women's weight training classes after seeing the positive transformation in the players' bodies. Naturally, I train my athletes (male and female) for performance, but the fact that they all get 'better looking' by the month doesn't hurt either.

I teach/coach in the training room all day from Monday to Friday, plus evenings and Sunday afternoons. Our room has become well-known in strength and conditioning circles around Winnipeg and was recently used to host the Manitoba Schools Olympic Lifting Championships.

Currently our weight room consists of thousands of pounds of free weights, a dozen Olympic bars of various sizes, two trap bars, a safety squat bar, various benches/machines, two Olympic platforms, a power rack (cage), several squat stands, pullup bars, a dragging sled, several sand bags, bands, etc. There is an open area for dynamic warmups-- joint mobility, body weight exercises, static stretching. We have two 'Reverse Hypers' (Louie Simmons); and two 'Glute Ham Gastroc' benches (Dr. Michael Yessis). We are the only Winnipeg high school with kettlebells, with over sixty bells between 4kg to 48kg (and adding more all the time!). Many of my students have heard me assert that I would rather have kettlebells to train myself and my athletes, than all the fancy machines in the many "commercial gyms" nearby. The kettlebells are far more effective and are producing the greatest results I've ever seen.


After evaluating my athletes, I initially had them perform a 'break-in' or Anatomical Adaptation Phase. The intensity was low to moderate with a variety of exercises using their own body weight, gradually increasing the role of kettlebell exercises as they progressed. Considerable emphasis was placed on learning the correct kettlebell techniques during the AA Phase, which lasted a different length of time for each participant, dependant on training history, age, skill level, etc.

Three of the participants followed Dr. Mauro Di Pasquale's 'Radical Diet' and lost 30 to 50 pounds of fat, while getting stronger. I myself, follow Dr. Di Pasquale's 'Anabolic Solutions' Diet with great results.


As we progressed, I scheduled unloading weeks where athletes would reduce the intensity of their training. Unloading weeks were about every 4 weeks, but varied somewhat due to the schedules of the different sports being played, vacations, work, and most importantly from my observations and the athletes' feedback. Naturally, some needed 'pushing', others needed to be 'held back'. Some players trained twice a week with me. For those that trained three times a week I assigned a schedule that varied between high, low, and medium volume. As time went on, we increased both the intensity and the percentage of kettlebell work. This was easy to do, because everyone greatly enjoyed the kettlebells sessions and results.
I adjusted the programs for kettlebellers that were participating in other sports at the time (indoor soccer, hockey). If I'm going to make an error, I'd prefer to underload rather than overload training. The last thing I wanted to do was to 'blow them up'.

Although we were training for the late spring to early fall rugby season, I wanted my players to be in good shape in the off season. After all, who knows what unexpected daily challenges will present themselves? One of my players, Nathan, just graduated from the Winnipeg Police Academy. Like other police officers, he must be able to fight every time he goes to work! Which night do you 'peak' for when they're all important?


I regularly stressed the message of Gray Cook and Brett Jones in their tremendous 'Secrets of the Shoulder' DVD: "The workout doesn't become a goal in itself. The results are what you're after. The workout is just a way to get there".

Each training session my rugby athletes (et al) started with a Dynamic Warmup ala Pavel's 'Unlock' seminar. We then followed with exercises from the following menu:

Explosion: Kettlebell swings (one or two arm), high pulls, snatches- alternated between training sessions.

Vertical Push: Kettlebell clean and press-various.

Vertical Pull: pull/chinups (using pullup bar, climbing rope(s), extra weight). Kettlebell front squats, pistols, face the wall squats, one and two legged deadlifts, sled drags, farmer's walks, reverse hypers, glute ham gastroc raises, etc. (Deadlifts may be off blocks depending on skill level.)

Horizontal Push: Kettlebell floor press, 'packed' pushups-weight on back, barbell bench press if being 'tested' in the 'bench', etc.

Horizontal Pull: One arm Kettlebell rows, renegade rows, body rows o bar/rope, kettlebell crush curls.

Core: Full contact twists (Bullet-Proof Abs), jack knife (superman) pushups, wheel rollouts, dragon flags, slingshots, figure eights with kettlebells, reverse crunches flat/incline, lying reverse trunk twists, hanging knee and leg raises, Russian twists, etc. Turkish Get ups (My athletes loved these-sometimes done for cardio), and windmills.

We also emphasized Russian neck bridges ('Beyond Bodybuilding'), since neck strength is of key importance in rugby.

The vast majority of the training involved kettlebells. I emphasized the BASICS, a few exercises per session, done well. A typical session might look like this:
  1. Dynamic warmup

  2. A: K Bell swings 7 reps; 3-5 sets

    B1: K Bell press 5 reps; 3-5 sets, alternated with;
    B2: K Bell front squat 5 reps; 3-5 sets

    C1: Pullup 5 reps; 3-5 sets, alternated with;
    C2: Full Contact Twist; 3-5 reps/side; 3 sets

    D: Russian neck bridges 5 reps/side; front and back; 3-5 sets
  3. Cool down

  4. Easy static stretch
All of our training was done in a positive, aggressive atmosphere. We shouted out encouragement to each other. My goal was to bring everyone 'up'. I never, ever, allow the room to descend to the lowest common denominator. We concentrate and get the work done! We have both individual and team goals and we want them bad! We watched Louie Simmons' WestSide crew training--animals! Likewise we watched Andrea DuCane's excellent 'KettleBell Goddess' DVD. What did they have in common? Great focus, intensity and technique! Male/female, young/'old', big/small- it doesn't matter if you do it right.

In rugby, Forwards (numbers 1 to 8) are usually the bigger, stronger players and the Backs (9-15) are usually the smaller and faster players. In our sessions the Forwards often performed GPP (General Physical Preparation) after their power and strength exercises were completed. This might have included a Tabata kettlebell swing drill or an interval circuit of kettlebell walking swings, racked carries, farmer's walks, sled drags, sand bag lifting, burpees, mountain climbers, etc. The Backs performed the structured conditioning circuits less often. They received the majority of their 'incidental' GPP from their regular kettlebell training. In general, the higher the position number, the longer the 'rest' intervals in a match and the greater the speed (and impact!) The forwards are involved in contact more frequently, doing much more upper-body wrestling and tackling but less sprinting.

All of my participants had dramatic results-they increased their max and relative strength; quickness/explosiveness; and endurance. As is the case with kettlebells done right, they all enjoyed outstanding body composition improvements.


So did all this work pay off for these hard-working athletes? The Winnipeg Wasps went 10-1-1 in the regular season, scoring an average of 40 points for and 15 against on their way to winning the Provincial Championships for the first time in years. The Sturgeon Creek Rowdies women likewise dominated in their provincial final, led by Stephanie Harland from our kettlebell group. She went on to play for the provincial senior & junior women's teams and Canada's junior team-in the same season!

Cole with the victorious Wasps and their Kettlebells

Here are some accomplishments and comments of a few of my rugby kettlebell athletes:

John van Benthem, Opera singer, soccer player, rookie Wasps player:
From The Winnipeg Free Press newspaper,Feb 26,2007:

Tenor convincing under pressure
'The Manitoba Opera included it's own share of nail-biting tension and suspenseful intrigue Saturday night, where life seemed to imitate the very art it was presenting…This year's showcase 'Belle Voci', gave new meaning to "the three tenors." The wild night included an ailing tenor (Roger Honeywell) cancelling his appearance the night before, his replacement (Jeffrey Springer) stranded in an airport, and a second substitute virtually sight-reading an orchestral premier with a scant three hours notice…To say the stakes are high for the $1.2 million production would be an understatement. To say that local tenor John van Benthem's performance-coolly filling for Honeywell on ridiculously short notice-was nothing short of heroic is another. Having only received the music late Saturday afternoon-and never performed it with an orchestra-the local singer gave a wholly convincing performance of "He's a Great Man, Celeste", performed as a six minute excerpt with Whalens.'

What the article fails to mention is that John had put on 12 lbs of lean, rock hard muscle in 2 and 1/2 months of kettlebell training. His neck size had increased by well over an inch. An hour before showtime he discovered that his 'opera' shirt no longer fit him! John credits his kettlebell training for helping him deal psychologically and physically with performing in such challenging conditions. And yes, he found another shirt in time.

Dennis Ng, scrum half / stand-off, singer, Wasps; Manitoba weight class bench press record holder: Increased his body weight from 130 to 142 lbs with kettlebell training. He can now bench more 'raw' than he did wearing a bench shirt. Dennis regularly performs full 'Pistols' with a 53 lb kettlebell for sets of 5 reps. His increased power has lead to a dramatic quickness improvement which is visible in every match. He plays a leadership position on the field and was likewise my kettlebell team leader-setting the pace through encouragement and by example. (Dennis scoring in the 2007 provincial final)

Sarah Morgan, soccer player, singer: "I really enjoyed your training. It was something that I had never done before and I really enjoyed the results I got out of it!! 3 pant sizes down and no weight change! I went from what I jokingly call 'negative muscles' to lifting weights I never imagined I would! It was great to step out of my comfort zone and try something that I never thought I would find interesting or fulfilling. Thank you for your encouragement along the way!" Sarah and Shane scored 4 of the winning team's 5 goals in this year's soccer finals.

Shane Pratt, soccer player: When asked how the kettlebell training affected his game replied: "I'm quicker. I'm not trying to play more physically, but I notice my opponents are falling down around me far more often."

Sam Toulson, back row Wasps and provincial men:" Thank you for the work you did with me over the winter. I am definitely a better rugby player for it. My 40 meter time has improved by just under a second...and my straight arm is the other noticeable thing having just last night pushed someone over the ropes on the sideline. I look forward to seeing what else is to come this season." Sam is a hard ball carrier to bring down. He went from 280 to 250 lbs while getting considerably stronger, quicker, and fitter. (Sam showing a change of direction at high speed vs the Brandon Barbarians)

Kyle Martin, Wasps center: A former hockey player, Kyle trained under several strength coaches in previous years. In his first year of kettlebell training, he put on 12 lbs of functional muscle. At Provincial Rugby testing Kyle beat his previous vertical jump record by 3 inches. How many times did Kyle actually jump in our training? None-he did thousands of kettlebell swings and other kettlebell exercises. (Kyle evading a Wanderer in the provincial final)

Roxanne Proulx, Provincial Women: Rox trained kettlebells last winter with me. With her great work ethic and spirit she achieved her goals of playing for the Provincial Team in the Canadian Championships, as well as looking fantastic in her wedding dress. She and her husband are expecting their first child.

Dave Wilson, prop, Wasp and former Provincial player: "As a former rugby player who decided to get back in shape after a 20 year hiatus from the sport, the results of Pavel's insights and Cole's mentoring speak for themselves. Fifty pounds lighter, 2 sizes smaller and 40% stronger are the jump start I needed to get back into playing form."

Nathan Cole, Provincial player and women's provincial coach: "Since starting training with Cole in Late January 2006, life on and off the rugby pitch has vastly improved both physically and mentally, giving me the strength and confidence to strive for my goals. Although at first his methods of training seemed "radical" compared to what I have ever been taught, the results cannot be questioned. Cole and his programs are by far the best training that I have had the opportunity to benefit from. My only regret would be that I did not tap into his vast resource of knowledge sooner." Nat is now one of Winnipeg's newest Police officers.

Scott Duesing, Winnipeg Wasps 2006 Captain, flanker:" I've worked out previously with other trainers but I have never had as much fun or seen the results that I got from using kettlebells. I lost 15 lbs and dropped a good portion of my body fat. Even though I lost weight, I'm lifting more than I ever have before and I'm the strongest I've ever been in my life. I've seen the results of my increased strength and speed while playing rugby and that has helped me be more confident and physical in games." (Scott passing to fellow kettlebeller Dennis Ng vs the Brandon Barbarians)

Mike Wilson, fly-half, fullback, Wasps: set the league alight with his explosive speed and changes of direction, as well as his surprising power in contact situations. Frequently beat 5 or 6 tacklers on his way to scoring yet again. (Mike at full pace)

Sid Roberts, coach, fly-half, Wasps: Sid has always been a very skilled player. At 40 years old he was nearing the best-before date of most rugby players, but a season of kettlebell training made him a leading player on the Wasps premier team. (Sid applying his expert boot against the Brandon Barbarians)

Ron Enberg, 2007 captain, center, Wasps: the oldest player on the field in a sport that favours youthful speed and endurance, Ron's determined work with the kettlebells made him one of the most involved and influential players in every game, especially the provincial final. Long one of Manitoba's greatest players, Ron's kettlebell training promises to keep him playing at a high level for many years to come.
(Ron accepting the well-deserved 2007 Manitoba Premier Division trophy)

Arleigh Mackenzie, Rowdies Rugby Club, 13-year provincial team player: lost over 30 lbs, while greatly increasing her strength and endurance. The day after breaking her thumb, she showed up at kettlebell practice ready to continue training.

The Author, Cole Summers (on the right), in a victorious Winnipeg Wasps 1988 game vs Tatra Smichov in Czechoslovakia.

Cole Summers, RKC is a strength coach for Team Canada Women's National Volleyball Team, National Boxing Team members, Pro boxers, Olympic Hockey Team members, NHL and WHA Pro Team Champions, Manitoba Rugby Union, University of Winnipeg Women's Volleyball Team, University of Manitoba Women's Basketball team, University of Manitoba track, and others. He is based in Winnipeg, Canada and can be reached by email at