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Dragon Door Interviews Master RKC, Max Shank about the Highland Games Regional Championship

April 19, 2013 05:30 AM

Dragon Door:  What's the name of the Highland Games Championship you recently won?

Max Shank:  The Queen Mary Highland Games, which is the Western Regional Championship.  I won the light weight division—there's two weight classes, under 200 and over 200.  Some of the competitors who can't see their toes jokingly refer to the two weight classes as "cripple" and "heavyweight".

Dragon Door:  What were the events?

Max Shank:  There's a total of nine events.  There's the caber toss, where you have to turn over what's effectively a 20-foot long telephone pole.  The weight over bar is a 44 pound weight with a handle on it which you throw as high as you can over a bar that they keep raising.  There are two shot put events, the open stone and Braemar stone.  One is a heavier rock, and you're not allowed to have an approach.  You just have to throw it from standing.  The other is a lighter rock, and you're allowed to have an approach much like the regular traditional shot put. 
Then there's two different weights for distance (they have really clever names as you can tell) where there's a 9x4-foot box where you spin and throw a heavy weight and a light weight attached to a chain and handle as far as you can. 
Then there are two Scottish hammer throws.  One is light, and the other is heavy.  The heavy hammer is made from a four-foot long PVC pipe with a big steel ball on the end.  You whip that around your head really fast, then let go and try not to kill anybody!  The last one is the sheaf toss, which I hate with a passion.

Dragon Door:  Why is that?

Max Shank:  The sheaf toss involves taking a pitchfork and flipping or flicking a 20-pound burlap sack over a bar that's continually raised.  Unfortunately, that's one of the events that doesn't have a lot of carryover.  It's technically specific, and unlike anything I've ever done.  For a frame of reference, I won six out of nine events and in the sheaf toss, I got seventh place.

Dragon Door:  So, that's definitely not your strong point...

Max Shank:  That is an understatement.  I've petitioned for them to get rid of the sheaf toss many times!  Luckily, I already had such a huge margin in the lead going into that event that it wasn't too bad. 

Dragon Door:  How did you prepare for the competition?

Max Shank:  I practiced the footwork required for both weights for distance, which involves spinning.  Practicing turns using a kettlebell isn't exactly the same, but it's about as close as you can get without having the actual equipment.  I also bought an indoor shot put and practiced about 20-30 easy and fast throws every day to try and nail down technique for the two weeks leading up to the Games.  Other than that, I just did my normal strength training.

In every session I always include some type of power work, which could be throwing a medicine ball into the wall, vertical jumps, Olympic lifting, or kettlebell swings.  Then I'll practice hand balancing—handstand pushups, or depending on what feels right that day, I might just do strict balancing or freestanding handstands.  I try to cycle between handstands on the floor and parallettes so I don't get totally burnt out.  I also mix in a deadlift variation, either single leg or two legged along with some front lever variations and airborne lunging or squatting.

Dragon Door:  So in addition to your regular training, you only needed to practice the specialized techniques before the Games for just a few weeks?

Max Shank:  I've participated in the Games in the past, but I don't practice the specific skills for them very frequently.  But since winning that regional event earned me a spot in the World Championship for the lightweight division, I'm going to have to practice a lot more!  Some of the competitors travel from as far as Germany and Scotland.  They practice the throws three to four days a week—it's almost like a job for them.

In my training, something that gives me an edge is not having an emotional attachment to any given exercise set—I have no problem cutting it short to come back later and do it again.  I'm a firm believer in staying right in the 80 percent effort zone, so I'm able to complete a lot more high quality reps.  I do some form of resistance training on only three to four days a week.   On the other days I may do anything from Muay Thai, jiu jitsu, ping pong, or golf!

Dragon Door:  How would you recommend an RKC instructor prepare for their first Highland Games?

Max Shank:  The nice thing about the Highland Games and the RKC, is a kettlebell swing is effectively the same movement as the weight over bar event.   You basically take a ring weight in one hand, swing it between your legs, and try to throw it over a very high bar as hard as you can.  And at this point, my best is a 44-pound weight over a 16-foot bar.
I think the Highland Games are really great, honestly.  It's such a good outlet for someone who's built up a level of explosiveness from kettlebell swings.  With just a little extra time in training, you can have a really good time competing.  Everyone is really nice, and you're almost certain to be one of most in-shape people participating.  It's interesting, the director of the Scottish American Athletic Association approached me during the last competition because they're trying to get the Games more mainstream.  They've had trouble because many of the best Highland athletes in the world are usually very heavy.  Someone who's in shape who also competes in the Highland Games is almost a rarity especially for the pros where it is a huge advantage to simply be heavier.  They're really looking at the under 200 pound class athletes to help the Games become more appealing to the mainstream. 

Dragon Door:  When is the World Championship? 

Max Shank:  November of this year.

Dragon Door:  We heard about your least favorite, which is your most favorite event?

Max Shank:  It used to be weight over bar because it was such an easy transition from kettlebell swings.  But now I'm caught between the weight for distance and the Braemar stone.  In the last competition, I threw the 24-pound stone 32 feet 7 inches, and won that event by about three feet.

Dragon Door:  Wow.  Can you tell me more about that movement?

Max Shank:  Basically, you take the large rock in your hand, try to wedge it against your cheek, and load up your back leg.  Since I'm right handed, my right leg is back, and my left leg is forward.  Next you dip really deep, uncoil like a spring as hard as you can, and throw the stone as far as you can!

Dragon Door:  As a spectator, some of the events look pretty dangerous. 

Max Shank:  It is dangerous, especially if you're strong, don't know what you're doing, and don't listen or follow directions.  Obviously, picking up a telephone pole and trying to run with it full speed before turning it end over end is arguably not the safest thing to try for the first time!

Dragon Door:  What's a good way to get started?

Max Shank:  The Highland Games are so much about hip power and explosiveness that just jumping, squatting, and kettlebell swings will provide a good foundation for most of the events.  It's also really important to have overall strength in the arms.  Pull-ups, rows, handstands, and pushups are massively beneficial.  You can't flip a telephone pole end over end without some arm strength.

Dragon Door:  Were you able to flip yours?

Max Shank:  Actually I was the only person in my weight class to turn the caber at this last event.

Dragon Door:  Incredible!  And there's also a women's division? 

Max Shank:  There is a women's division, and there are some very strong female athletes who compete, but not enough women are involved for multiple weight classes.

Dragon Door:  Good to know. 

Max Shank:  For reference, I compete in Highland Games, but also compete in jiu jitsu and Muay Thai.  In jiu jitsu, I'm a medium-heavyweight at 185lbs, unless I decide to cut weight as low as 175 for Muay Thai.  At the Highland Games, I'm not only in the lightweight division, but I'm also one of the lightest people competing overall.  In martial arts competitions, I'm always in one of the heavier weight classes. 

At the Highland Games, most of the guys in the lightweight division struggle to get under 200 pounds.  It's really interesting how big a difference weight makes.  There was an ex-thrower who weighed 250, but lost enough weight in six months to compete in the lightweight division—but all of his numbers wend down by 30-35 percent.  This is why the best guys in the world are usually really heavy.  As they say, mass moves mass.

It's a lot of fun.  You go out there and throw heavy stuff, and it really is a good outlet for anyone who's been swinging kettlebells and wants to try another way to use their strength. and explosiveness.

Dragon Door:  How would you recommend that someone like myself train with kettlebells for the Highland Games?

Max Shank:  I would have you practice the events with kettlebells.  Three or more events can be practiced with just a kettlebell.  You can practice the weight over bar by just throwing a kettlebell up in the air as high as you can with one arm.  The weight for distance can also be practiced with a kettlebell of the right weight.  You'll also need either a shot put or a decent sized rock to practice throwing from standing stationary, and also from an approach.  The hammer throw can be practiced with a sledgehammer.   You can practice most of the events with just a sledgehammer, a kettlebell or two, and a rock.  I'd also recommend some heavy lifting—including heavy kettlebell swings—in general to get strong. I also think heavy push presses would also be a great addition.

Max Shank Apr2013
Max Shank is not only an extremely gifted teacher, but one of the most well-rounded and capable athletes in the world.
From excelling in Muay Thai and Jiu Jitsu to performing impressive feats of strength in weightlifting and gymnastics, Max has the ability to do it all–and do it well.
Choosing to lead from the front by his own example, he has dedicated his life to Strength and Health.