Z-Health & Kettlebell Training

This is a copy of an article I just wrote for Pavel Tsatsouline about Z-Health and his kettlebell training program - the RKC. Enjoy!

Can RKC & Z-Health Co-Exist?

A Definitive Answer

Over the last several months it has become apparent that many people want definitive answers to some basic questions about RKC and Z-Health. Pavel has asked for this article to help put an end to the controversies and confusion. So, let’s jump right in with an extremely basic Q&A that encompasses almost all of controversies that we hear from both “sides:”

1. “Can Z-Health and RKC peacefully co-exist, or are the principles of the two training systems contradictory?” Yes, they can co-exist. No, they are not contradictory.
2. Doesn’t Z-Health teach NEVER to use maximal tension? No.
3. Doesn’t the RKC teach to ALWAYS use maximal tension? No.
4. Doesn’t Z-Health ALWAYS prioritize mobility over strength? No.
5. Doesn’t RKC ALWAYS prioritize strength over mobility? No.
6. Doesn’t practicing Z-Health make you weak? No.
7. Doesn’t practicing KB’s make you stiffer and less fluid? No.
8. Doesn’t Z-Health expect you to “diagnose” injuries? No.
9. Doesn’t RKC emphasize toughness and training through injuries? No.

With these answers in place, let’s now look at some basic recommendations for applying Z-Health within the context of your RKC practice.

Z Recommendations For RKC Practitioners

To put these recommendations into context, I will quote my long-time Pentjak Silat instructor Stevan Plinck,

“First you have to learn the rules, so that when you break them, you do so on purpose and not by accident.”

1. Honestly assess your current skill level with all the basic KB exercises – are you a beginner, intermediate or advanced trainee? How do you know? It’s pretty simple. In most cases:

a. Beginner – Under 500-1000 repetitions of the movement.
b. Intermediate – 1000-10,000 repetitions of the movement.
c. Advanced – Over 10,000 CORRECT repetitions of the movement.

2. If you are a beginner or early intermediate trainee for the skill in question your current job is to accumulate skill IN THE KETTLEBELL LIFTS AS TAUGHT IN THE RKC with maximal safety. In doing so, pay attention to the following:

a. The Neutral Spine. Avoid BOTH overextending and overflexing the neck and the low back. Doing either can cause muscular inhibition via different joint-mediated reflexes and lead to injury.
b. Use your eyes to FACILITATE every exercise. In brief, moving your eyes in the correct direction can have an immediate beneficial influence on your movement and your strength. You can read more about this here: Reflexive Lifting
c. Practice pre, mid & post-training mobility and relaxation drills to insure you are developing better movement patterns and the internal awareness of what BOTH tension and relaxation feel like as well as how to generate them.
d. Finally, do not be content with just practicing the basic lifts. In the RKC manual, there are many corrective exercises and drills to facilitate your skill. Learn them, practice them and use them to enhance your movement skill and body awareness.

3. If you are a late intermediate to advanced trainee, you have begun to master the basic KB exercises – now you can break the rules ON PURPOSE to further build your skills and body awareness. So, while still applying all the basic recommendations above, periodically practice the following:

a. Using a very light bell, see how “little” tension you can apply and still lift smoothly and safely. Think about moving the bell as “athletically” as possible – visualize how your favorite athlete moves and emulate that.
b. Again, using a lighter bell, change your swing mechanics slightly to encourage a mild increase in knee flexion. This will more closely emulate the positive shin angles required in most competitive sports.
c. As you practice your max effort lifts, work even harder on all of your recovery work – mobility, soft tissue qualities, visual and vestibular function, sleep, etc. With your increased neural drive, you will generate more and more “recovery” requirements.
d. Practice more “imperfect” lifts to encourage your real-world adaptability. You can make lifts imperfect with odd weightings, altered head and eye positions, working in different environments, etc. Be creative, but be safe!

The Rationale

If the above information has answered your questions about the compatibility and blending of RKC and Z-Health – that’s great. You can quit reading now. However, if you want to understand the rationale behind the above and why I consider the systems incredibly complimentary read on.

To begin, let me share with you a quote by one of my favorite nutrition researchers, Alan Aragon:

“One of the things that people miss is that most professionals in a given field tend to agree on the majority of fundamental principles. For example, I may disagree with some folks on the amount of fructose that can safely be incorporated into a diet, but that probably represents 10% of the whole picture, 90% of which I’d probably be preaching to the choir.” (Emphasis added.)

This is a profoundly true statement – in almost any field the arguments, disagreements and divergent strategies usually revolve around 5-10% of the whole picture – NOT the whole picture! We live in an amazing time in which we are ALL standing on the shoulders of the giants who have come before us – academically, scientifically and athletically. These greats have given us tremendous working foundations to build from. In our efforts to become ever better and more efficient at accomplishing our goals, we will spend OUR lives refining the next 5%, so the generations that follow can do the same thing.

I have often said, both privately and in public that Pavel is one of the few authorities in our industry that I have read everything he has published – cover to cover. His work in sifting through scientific and experiential data to build the RKC system is unparalleled in the strength training industry in my opinion. Additionally, I believe he has done more to bring neurology into the forefront of strength training than any other author – a difficult task that I am immensely familiar with.

The fact is that when you compare basic RKC and Z-Health training principles and tenets side-by-side they are in near-total agreement across the board. Here are just a few examples:

• Safety first.
• Strength, like all athletic attributes, is a skill.
• Tension is strength.
• Tension and relaxation are opposite sides of the same coin.
• Strength is neurologically governed. To increase strength and athleticism then, safe disinhibition of our neural brakes is key.
• Emphasize technique/movement quality over any and all programs.
• Imperfect training is important for real-world application.

You may be asking at this point, “If Z and RKC agree on so many basic tenets, why the confusion?” The real issue seems to be the misapplication or misunderstanding of principles taught in both systems. People tend to take information from these courses and apply it as “gospel” across all realms. This is incorrect. In every training scenario our job is NOT to blindly follow our favorite Z-Health or RKC principle, but to intelligently apply the correct principle to the job at hand. To illustrate this point, allow me share a story with you…

“The Scenario Dictates Everything”

Two of the most useful concepts that I learned from my combatives mentor, Tony Blauer are:

1. The scenario dictates everything, and
2. There are no techniques. Instead, there are only the 3 T’s: Tools, Targets and Tactics.

You see, in contrast to traditional technique-focused fighting systems (if he does X, you do Y), the emphasis in Blauer’s approach to combatives is to develop the spontaneous ability to apply the right tool to the right target at the right time based on the scenario. Another way to say this is to use the phrase “maximal efficiency in obtaining the desired result.”

One of my combatives students and training partners had a very real experience of this not too long ago. He is a police officer, SWAT team leader, as well as a handgun and combatives instructor for his department. In our training sessions, we often talk about “tool appropriateness” because, as Blauer states, “The scenario dictates everything.”

This officer is an outstanding shooter. Very smooth, fast, accurate and incredibly comfortable moving and running his handgun and long gun. However, because he has so many thousands of hours of work with his handgun, it has always been his “favorite” tool. With all of our training then, we have worked very hard to help him re-view that tool as “just another possibility…”

The learning experience came in the middle of an arrest when one of his partners lost his focus on a suspect who spun away and lunged for my training partner’s holstered handgun. In almost every case when this happens, an officer’s first instinct is to also grab their gun to maintain control. This usually instantly devolves into a vicious, spinning, twisting wrestling match – often with deadly consequences. My training partner, having drilled this same scenario hundreds of times in our training sessions STILL reacted primally by grabbing his holstered handgun – in other words, protecting his favorite tool. Then about a second into the fight, he remembered what we say in training, “sometimes you have to let go of the weapon so that you can hurt him enough to make him incapable of using it against you” – in other words, the scenario dictates everything. As that thought flashed through his head, he released the built up kinetic energy of the gun grapple and threw “the hardest, fastest elbow” of his life – knocking out the assailant and fracturing his jaw in the process – in other words, applying the best available tactic to the most opportune target.

When we talked about it later, he said nothing in his life has ever reinforced so clearly for him that there is no best tool, target or tactic – just the best “set” for the job at hand. And, that to be a complete fighter, you have to have a complete arsenal. I couldn’t agree more…

How Does This Apply To Training Using Z & RKC?

When it comes to training the human body, I consider the 3 T’s the simple answer to many of the common “confusions” that arise. If you are a student of sports science and human movement, you know that there is no “one size fits all” answer for every problem our athletes face. In other words, strength is not the only attribute that matters. Nor is flexibility, mobility, speed, endurance or any other attribute you care to name. Based on their sport and/or profession, our athletes often need a blended range of these attributes and many others. Our job as coaches is to help them develop and then maintain their capabilities at the highest possible level – as long as it is promoting ongoing health and performance.

Another way to say all of this is, there is no Single Factor that is the most important; there are only tools, targets and tactics that are most appropriate at the time. This is important to understand because this is where the confusion seems to arise.

When some RKC’s learn that Tension is Strength, this is often misinterpreted as, “Use maximum tension, at all times, with every weight, in every activity, for the rest of your life…”

Conversely, when Z-Health practitioners hear, “A primary element of athletic efficiency is to use balanced tension and relaxation,” this is often misinterpreted as, “Never use maximum tension in anything you do, ever, as that would put you out of ‘balance’…”

Both of these ideas are OBVIOUS MISINTERPRETATIONS when written this way, but they illustrate a very typical “all or nothing” mindset that many of us as athletes carry. True professionals eventually recognize this about themselves and learn to avoid this type of single factor thinking.

Blending The Systems

In today’s fast-paced, marketing-driven world, it can be difficult to sort through all the hype as you work to blend Z-Health and RKC practice. To help simplify this process immensely, let me share with you a couple of very simple but profound ideas. As I already mentioned – mastery takes work and repetition. It takes time and energy and commitment that can be easily squandered chasing the next new fad or the latest controversy. As you look at your life as an ongoing process of mastering those things that are most important to you, think about these two concepts:

The Rule of Straight Lines – Success coach Mark Joyner uses this phrase often and it’s a great reminder that there is usually a straight line between where we are and where we want to be. We are often sidetracked off that straight line by an endless number of things – new programs, magazines, articles, books, conversations, etc. However, if your goal is to master and integrate RKC and Z-Health together, there is a straight line to doing so:

a. Attend every certification of both systems that you can afford.
b. Get coaching from others who have demonstrated great success in the blending process.
c. Commit to daily personal practice.
d. Apply these systems concurrently with every client you train.
e. Stay focused day in and day out on this process – you will accomplish more in a year than most will in their entire career by applying a laser-like focus.

The Yes/No Rule - Remember this statement, “Yes doesn’t mean yes, until you’ve learned to say no.” I first heard this phrase from our business partner in Z-Health – a man with more professional, athletic and business success than most will ever achieve. It’s a powerful idea and concept to apply in your training as you integrate RKC and Z-Health.

What’s the point of this statement? It’s really simple. In your life, until you learn to tell people “No” and mean it, you can say “Yes” to everything without it being true. In other words, you have to first MASTER the ability to say “No” for “Yes” to actually mean anything. The same is true of Z-Health and RKC. Until you have learned the path for mastering tension and have practiced it, overemphasizing “appropriate” tension may distract you from your strength goals. By the same token, until you have mastered movement and mobility practice, overemphasizing maximum tension may distract you from your pain-free movement and health goals.

It is up to you to assess where your current strengths lie, and make a straight-line path to where you want to go. Rest assured that there is a place along that path for both the RKC and Z-Health systems to help you reach your goals.

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