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What is the RKC System?

February 13, 2007 04:25 PM

Who am I and why am I qualified to write about this?

My name is Geoff Neupert. I have been involved professionally in the fitness / strength & conditioning industry for 13 years. I have worked and been paid (because there is a difference) as a personal trainer, Division 1 Strength and Conditioning Coach, and a business owner: co-owner of Triangle Personal Training, in Durham, NC. In the last five years alone, I have logged approximately 15,000 one-on-one personal training hours. I have also successfully rehabilitated many injuries associated with strength training and competitive athletics, including shoulders, knees, and low backs.

My athletic background includes being a Weightlifting competitor (New Jersey state champ and national qualifier), Powerlifting competitor and wrestler in college, and a varsity letter winner in Cross-Country and Wrestling in high school. In three-and-a-half years, from high school graduation to semester break of my senior year of college, I gained 90lbs, from 165 to 255lbs.

Three men have had a major influence in my strength training and professional life: my high school principal, Bob Calzini, a world champion powerlifter; my second weightlifting coach, Alfonso Duran, a Cuban ?migr?, member of the Cuban weightlifting team, and disciple of A.S. Medvedyev, Soviet Weightlifting Super Coach; and Pavel Tsatsouline who everybody reading this knows in some way.

If strength training can be compared to a bell, Bob Calzini showed me the bell; Alfonso Duran gave me all the specifications of the bell, told me the bell made a sound, taught me how to create many bells with many different sounds; but Pavel helped me actually hear the sound of the bell. Now that being said, I was very familiar with Pavel's concepts long before I read his material. Alfonso Duran had been mentoring me for years and I owe most of my professional success to him.

But Pavel?ah, Pavel, he developed a usable system that has allowed me to step back and see much of what Alfonso taught that I had been unable to fully comprehend for many years. And for that, I am forever grateful.

So, what exactly did Pavel teach me to see?

Strength training is very dualistic in nature, very similar to the Eastern Yin-Yang philosophy. The RKC captures this duality in a comprehensive user-friendly system.

Strength training is more than just strength training. It is more than just lifting weights: So much more. Not only is it physical, it is psychological, emotional, and for some, even spiritual. (I don't know about others, but I have found myself praying "Oh, God?just help me finish this snatch ladder"?so that addresses the spiritual.) The RKC system challenges the body, the mind, and even the will if you are agreeable.

So what is this system? The following concepts are taken from several of Pavel's sources, but they encapsulate the RKC. They are presented here in their "purest" form, but understand that they are not always so clear cut, so black and white. There is a lot of gray here. Some of the following concepts are almost polar opposites, and yet somehow they are almost symbiotic?one cannot exist without the other.

I'm not sure if Pavel planned out the system this way when he launched his first product, that is, if the Evil Russian planned on becoming a Capitalist Pig, but then again, he is the Evil Russian?so only Pavel really knows for sure.

Grinds v. Ballistics
These categories are at the heart of the RKC system. They divide the system into two halves. The Grinds are one half and are best represented by the Press and the Two-Hand Swing best represents the Ballistics, the other half. The grinds are slow and exacting, designed primarily for maximal strength gains. They can be modified for hypertrophy. The ballistics are primarily for metabolic conditioning, but because of their explosive nature, can increase force and power production. They typically make you breathe hard while standing in one place.

The grinds are predominately an upper body exercise. However, with the appropriate loading, the legs also receive some benefit through isometric tension. The ballistics are predominately lower body exercises. Again, with the appropriate loading, the upper body musculature receives more than its fair share of stimulation. And for those who are still hung up on "functional core training," you'll be happy to know that both grinds and ballistics heavily tax the core musculature. The grinds are typically performed for low reps of 1-5 with longer rest periods--3-5 minutes are the norm. Ballistics are typically performed with high, sometimes very high reps, up to 100, with shorter rest periods, usually below two minutes. Low reps versus high reps. Slow versus fast. Control versus momentum.

Low Reps v. High Reps
At the RKC Instructor course, I asked Pavel why Dragon Door didn't make any super-heavy bells like its competitors. His response: "You need to use the right tool for the job." Upon further explanation, the kettlebell ballistic drills are designed for high reps, for total body conditioning, unlike their cousins, the barbell Olympic lifts. Most trainees have no need for a 145lbs kettlebell. The most they could do is deadlift it. So it would be an expensive doorstop at best (I know, I have two expensive doorstops.). For weights that size, the trainee is better off just using a barbell. In that vein, the RKC makes full use of the KISS Principle. Many systems use a variety of rep ranges: Ranges for relative strength, maximal strength, explosive strength, functional hypertrophy, structural hypertrophy, strength-endurance, endurance-strength, and so on.

Admittedly, unless you're a fitness professional you probably don't know how to train for each one of those and could care less about remembering the various loading parameters. Some other systems have only one tool: lift the weight until you fail. The simplicity of the RKC system dictates the following whether you're a fitness professional or a stay-at-home mom: for strength, perform low reps for low sets with high frequency; for muscular size, perform more sets of your low rep grinds in each training session, but less frequently. Do you want to lose your beer gut or saddle-bags? Well then high rep ballistics are the order for you. High reps for strength? Wrong tool for the job. Low rep ballistics for fat loss? Wrong tool for the job. Simple.

Tension v. Relaxation
Up until meeting Pavel, if you asked me what made a great athlete, I would have answered "His athleticism of course!"(Not bad for a former strength coach.) Of course if that were a test in my mother's English class I would have failed because I used a derivative of a word to define the word itself. So pressed again, I'd say "strength, speed, power, agility, spatial awareness, kinesthetic awareness, etc, etc, etc?" But Pavel, as he so often does, explained it simply and eloquently as the perfect blend of tension and relaxation.

And this concept is found in the RKC system: necessary tension to protect joint structures like the shoulder joint and the lumbar spine while performing grinds like the press and ballistics like the snatch and the swing. (If you have to ask about what the shoulders should be doing during a swing, back to school for you my friend!) Tension is used for force production and reduction, relaxation for energy conservation. Too much unnecessary tension and you run out of energy; too much relaxation and you run the risk of damaging joint structures. And both are used simultaneously in different parts of the body during different portions of each lift--again, the perfect blend of the two.

Skill Work v. Metabolic Conditioning (Training v. Working Out)
Many trainees don't match their process to their goals. They think that all they need to do is "work out." They chase the elusive "pump" and wonder why they don't get bigger and stronger. Ok, they may get a little bigger, but certainly not big enough to justify their endeavors. The RKC hearkens back to a time when weight lifting was actually called "training" or "practice" and its practitioners treated the attainment of strength as a skill to be mastered, a feat to be attained. These were men like Arthur Saxon, who at approximately 200lbs, bent pressed almost 400lbs. I don't know of any trainee who can do that today. The idea of training to exhaustion was frowned upon and thought to make one weak.

But what about the "working out"?is there a place for it in the RKC system? Again, here's the duality of the system. Working out isn't a bad thing, if you know what you're working out for. Working out in the RKC system is reserved for metabolic conditioning, the attainment of stamina, specific for the trainee's end goal. It is not as some suppose, the exercising to exhaustion as the purpose or definition of the [good] training session (That was intense?more HIT anyone?). This type of training not only exhausts the trainee's adaptive abilities but also promotes injuries.

The RKC system on the other hand, fortifies the trainee against injury, allowing him or her to continue to practice his or her skill more and more frequently, hardening the body and preparing it for whatever endeavor the trainee undertakes outside his or her own "courage corner." But what about fat loss? No problem?use high repetition ballistics to "work out." Cardiovascular fitness? Taken care of?use high repetition ballistics to "work out." Strength-endurance? You betcha?just use high repetition ballistics to "work out."

Simple v. Complex
Many systems seek to justify their own existence through their complexity. "Exercise is very difficult. We are the experts. We'll show you how. Look at all the fancy exercises we make you perform for this assessment- you must perform them all before we can determine if you can exercise safely. Listen to all the big words we use. Because we have determined that you are incompetent at this exercise you've never performed before, we have a four-week beginner program with a fancy name that coincidently also has big fancy words in its name, (Integrated Proprioceptive Post-Synaptic Stabilization Facilitation Training?also known as Phase 1 of 37), that will allow you to be better at the exercises you are incompetent at that you've never performed. Then you'll be able to truly appreciate how smart we really are and how lucky you are to train with us."


The RKC on the other hand approaches exercise as easy and asks the simple questions, "What can you do?" "Can you do this?" "How can you do this better?" The RKC also provides the answers to the questions: "Can't feel your lat while you press?here, perform this drill;" "Feel your low back while you're performing swings?no problem?let's correct it with this drill."


Strength v. Mobility
It used to be believed in the sporting world, that lifting weights would make you muscle-bound. Well, guess what? It does, if performed incorrectly, a-la-Joe Weider and Muscle and Fiction?uh, fitness. Just go to your local health club and look at the number of guys with ILS?Imaginary Lat Spread. On the other hand, there is such a thing as too much mobility. I have met a number of individuals who are yoga practitioners or Pilates followers who have great hamstring flexibility, but major lower back issues. But the RKC is a system that simultaneously promotes both strength and mobility. I can't count the number of times I have had clients with tight weak hamstrings. A few weeks later after some hip extension exercises, they finally understand why the years of static stretching never paid off.

Exercises like the swing not only strengthen the hamstrings, but aid in increased mobility at the hip, knee, and ankle joints, thus allowing more flexible hamstrings. The press is a great rotator cuff strengthening exercise allowing for greater stability of the highly mobile and often injured shoulder joint. But this is assuming you understand how to perform the press and swing correctly. If you follow the RKC guidelines, you will. Therefore, you will also be stronger and more mobile. I wish I could get my money back from the other systems that promised the same thing. I could probably take a month off from work.

CNS (nerve) v. Tissue (muscle)
Most systems focus on the muscle. Not that that is necessarily bad, because bodybuilders want big muscles, and if you're into that--good for you, the RKC can help you. But since many do not (can't remember the last female client who wanted to get HY-OOUGE!) the RKC teaches you how to use your nervous system, literally to trick you nervous system into getting you stronger, without getting bigger. Now, as the great architect Frank Lloyd Wright noticed, form does follow function, so a little muscle gain is to be expected, but that just gives the trainee a pleasant shape to his or her body. Again, most systems focus on the tissue, but fail to fully comprehend that the nervous system controls what happens in and to the tissue and the "tissue quality," which, coincidently, seems to be one of the latest catchphrases in the industry lately. No active nervous system, no active musculo-skeletal system.

Volume v. Intensity
Volume, quite simply, is the amount of work performed in a set time period, or specific training session. It is a measure of work. It is expressed either in tons lifted or in the number of lifts performed in a given training session. It is also the foundation for building, as Pavel says, "an android's work capacity." (Work capacity is the ability to perform and recover from work.) As mentioned previously, there is a place for both training and "working out" in the RKC system, and increasing the amount of work you can perform and recover from is not only the way to improve overall general conditioning, but also maximal strength. Bottom line: The more work you can do, the more work you can do. (Profound, I know.)

Intensity on the other hand, stirs heated arguments in the strength community. People get locked out of internet forums, the opposition's grammar is viciously critiqued, and insults are hurled. It gets particularly ugly. But for all the posturing and pontificating, intensity is simply a number. It is the [average] load you used to work with during that training session. Nothing more. Nothing less. It is usually expressed as a percentage of a maximal lift. It is not how hard you worked. That is called effort.

Traditionally, it is generally accepted that volume and intensity are inversely related. As the load lifted increases, less work can be performed with that load. Training with heavier loads allows the trainee to demonstrate his strength acquired through training with lighter loads with more volume. The RKC system, generally speaking, reserves training with heavier loads for the grinds and lighter training for the ballistics.

Integration v. Isolation
Many training programs are still heavily influenced by the bizarre-o world of bodybuilding. The body has been "split" and the focus has been on muscles instead of movements. Even as a college strength coach, I'd see programs that included specialized exercises for the soleus?which could be argued as a necessity for the individual recovering from an Achilles tendon repair, but for the healthy athlete? I can't see it.

The body, in its intuitive wisdom, only responds to movements and thus there is no such thing as "isolating a muscle." It reacts, it doesn't think. Upon landing from a jump, the body doesn't say, "I think I'll recruit only the soleus to decelerate dorsiflexion of the foot and ankle complex?" As the poet John Donne said, "No man is an island," the same is true with your muscles. They are interdependent and linked together.

The RKC is a system that trains movements. The Press is essentially a shoulder flexion exercise. The Swing?a hip extension exercise. These exercises work all the muscles necessary for performing those movements and then some depending on the load (Interesting how those are movements common to many sports). Next time you're tempted to isolate your biceps, use a crushing grip on your kettlebell and perform a slow negative with your press. Not only will your biceps work overtime, you'll receive a nice bonus in the form of a cramping lat. And if that's not enough, perform ten reps of dead hang snatches with a 32kg bell. Make sure you stock up on ibuprophen and Icy-Hot.

Quality v. Quantity
Unlike most systems, the RKC is focused on the qualitative, or the "What kind" as opposed to the quantitative, or the "How much." Now the "how much" is important?just see the RKC snatch test?but not to the detriment of the "what kind." The RKC is concerned with perfecting the quality of movement first because therein lies safety and efficiency. Without those two, longevity is jeopardized. I think this is the reason many of the RKC recommendations are ranges, as opposed to narrow specifics. What good is 5x5 if I can't perform 3x3 correctly? If I don't understand that there is a range of 3-5x3-5 for training strength, then I could end up injured.

Now here's the interesting part: The "how much" will be answered correctly (Answer A: a lot; Answer B: a lot more) because the "what kind" has been completely addressed. More efficient movement patterns ("what kind") allow the trainee to perform more work ("how much") in each training session, which in turn equals more work performed in the long run.

Back to the Bell
I love the sound of the bell now. The more I hear its beautiful sound, the more it seems I was never deaf in the first place. Just like the sound of a bell, the RKC system has to be experienced, felt?similar to standing under Big Ben in London at midday. There is much more to the RKC than I wrote about in this little article; more exercises, more nuances, more subtleties, and more fun then one trainee should be allowed to have. I mean really, when was the last time you repeatedly threw your leg extension machine around in your back yard just for fun?

Geoff Neupert has been an exercise professional for 13 years and is currently the owner of Integrated Fitness Solutions in Durham, NC. In the last 5 years alone he's logged approximately 15,000 hours of one-on-one client sessions. His background includes Division 1 Strength and Conditioning, Personal Training, and Post-Rehabilitation. He's either currently certified or has been certified through the following agencies: NSCA, USAW, RKC, NASM, ACE. He loves kettlebells because they remind him of his passion for the Olympic lifts, but they allow him to train anytime, anywhere without negatively affecting his current life responsibilities.