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Layoff and Improve

July 11, 2007 12:31 PM

Like many people, kettlebells have completely changed my training and made me a lot stronger, faster, and have given me more muscular control.

When I started training with kettlebells I rarely took a break longer than two weeks from lifting them, or from lifting weights in general. As I evolved, my lifting became more and more automatic. I realized too late that I had been training on top of some major imbalances and that my form had gotten lazy and sloppy.

Most of my training discoveries come either from meeting people who love training or from taking a break from training and getting a chance to reflect upon what I have been doing. In this case, my discovery came from a five-week layoff from kettlebell training.

Instead of feeling compelled to lift kettlebells, I let my body speak to me and tell me what it wanted.

The reason I am writing this article is because the layoff from kettlebells improved my lifting and, long term, I am convinced will make me a better lifter. I think the same concepts can improve your results too.

I want to address three things in this article:
  • Reflection
  • Recuperation
  • Results


Whether it is in training, relationships, or everyday living, it is easy to get caught up in living day to day without pausing for reflection. There is a time for shut up and train, but it is also just as important to take a look at why you are training, what you are training for, and how your body is responding to your training.

I spent five weeks away from it all in Mexico and did just that.

Training took the form of walking, joint mobility, Captains of Crush grippers, back bridging and other flexibility work. I also spent a lot of time thinking about posture. Kettlebells tend to pull everything forward and I wanted to begin pulling backward, which is why I focused on bridging and opening up my chest. I did whatever my body felt like doing whenever it felt like doing it. Not necessarily convenient for those with jobs and responsibilities, but an ideal situation for making some discoveries if youcreate the money and time to do so.

For me, and I suspect many others, there is a trap with training where the fear of losing what you have developed prevents you from trying different things or even just taking a break. But looking back most of my progress has come after a rest and the insights that come from doing something completely different than what I am accustomed to. But in order to accomplish this you have to accept the fact that some of your training progress may regress in the short term.


In the layoff one of my main concerns was that in my training I had relentlessly pushed forward while ignoring imbalances and even pain. In looking around in gyms and other people's training, the majority of the time is spent breaking down, rather than building up. I had fallen into the same trap.

Lifting weights, running, jumping, and calisthenics challenge the body to adapt to stress, whereas activities like certain types of yoga, qigong, breathing, visualization and flexibility and mobility training seem to help the body deal with the stress that has been imposed upon it.

The key is healing. The faster you can recover the more you can train. By devoting equal focus to recovery from intense sessions, and making recovery your intent, you can train harder and get better results.

To me, activities like yoga, qigong and flexibility and mobility training are more reflective in nature, and thus help you to work deeply into the body. At the end of a yoga practice, for instance, many practitioners spend time in savasana, or corpse pose, where the emphasis is relaxation and the practice is absorbed into the body where the intent is improvement and learning.

Contrast the end of a yoga session to how most weight training sessions end. Most athletes simply shower after their last exercise is finished and recuperation is relegated solely to that which is obtained by sleep. A more conscious approach to healing will always yield better results.


When I returned to the United States I took up kettlebell lifting again. I had lost some strength and wind, but my reps were crisp and tight. I lengthened my spine, I folded from the hips, and my hands were very strong from the emphasis on the Captains of Crush grippers. I was very pleased and somewhat surprised that my form had improved so much.

Then I recalled a section in Beyond Stretching that discussed how lay offs can help push you past a plateau in a skill (rock climbing was the example used in the book).

If you begin performing a skill on auto-pilot, you are no longer learning. You are simply repeating. The problem is, many times repetition can deaden awareness. It is possible for form to begin to break down, especially when you are fatiguing yourself during long, high rep sets.

In my case, higher repetition kettlebell work had made me a more efficient machine. I rounded my back to decrease the distance the bell traveled, I fired the fewest amount of muscles possible to move the kettlebell, and stopped applying many of the tension techniques. From the hard style perspective, I had gotten very sloppy—and I was completely unaware of it.

When you are learning, there is greater conscious involvement during the execution of the movement. Your consciousness is influencing how the signals are sent to your muscles and you make adjustments based upon how the movement feels. When it becomes automatic, you no longer listen to the feedback unless something is seriously hurting.

Take the following analogy. You are driving your car. It is an easy task and requires little conscious involvement. Then it starts snowing. If you continue to drive on automatic pilot, you will soon end up in the ditch or worse. You need to apply consciousness to the task of driving at this point to account for the change in conditions.

Like driving, the conditions of your training will change over time. If you are continually training in a fatigued state, your form will begin to get sloppy. If you continue to train this way,the new, sloppy form will become automatic. After a while, the sloppy form will begin to break down your body.

By taking a break you give the skill a chance to escape the clutches of "auto-pilot" and again fall into the realm of conscious control. Another option is using film and analyzing your form in your exercises. I am definitely a fan of using the tool of video to improve form and increase awareness. But with video you will still continue to push and train, all the while stressing your body. In a layoff, you let your systems rest. You do other things and take on different focuses. You learn other exercises, other techniques, and explore different facets of training.

One of the reasons I believe I have been more successful in my training is because of the emphasis on skill and learning in the RKC/PTP system. Learning is a continual process and skill is constantly being refined. In the constant push to get ahead and get results faster, however, the nervous system can become overwhelmed and gradually, almost imperceptibly, begin to perform at a lower level.

When I began writing this article I looked up the word sabbatical. According to a "sabbatical year is a prolonged hiatus, typically one year, in the career of an individual taken in order to fulfill some goal, e.g. writing a book or traveling extensively for research." The lay off is a sort of sabbatical. A chance for reflection and a chance to gather energies to apply them to a task with renewed vigor and understanding.

The famous martial artist, Bruce Lee, severelyinjured his back before filming his most well known movies. He spent several months in reflection, learning and digesting his thoughts on martial arts. Despite his injury, which plagued him until his death, the time off helped him become a better martial artist than he was before.

Because we are conditioned to be so competitive, to be always occupied, we fail to take the necessary time to digest learning, to reflect on what we are doing, and to recuperate our energy. Therefore, we compromise our results. As the Chinese proverb goes, "Impatiently rushing produces no result."

Justin Qualler, RKC is a kettlebell and performance instructor based in Milwaukee, WI. He offers workshops, classes, and personal instruction. Visit his web site at for more info or e-mail him at