Catherine Imes is a Master Coach and Master Trainer with the World Kettlebell Club under Head Coach Valery Fedorenko. She is the first USA Born Master of Sports. She has coached several athletes across the Globe to an advanced ranking including MSWC, MS, and CMS.
Catherine has kindly agreed to answer some of my questions about the future of kettlebells for both general fitness, strength and conditioning and traditional Kettlebell sport.
Me: How do you see the future of kettlebell lifting (or how would you ideally like to see it evolving)?
CI: I see more people integrating it into their existing training. I also see more folks adopting it as their primary training source. I think many folks are coming around to the power of simplicity for fitness and health especially given the complex nature of our daily lives.
Me: The AKC/WKC first became famous due to the focus on kettlebell sport and the guiding wisdom of Valery Fedorenko. As those in the kettlebell game knows this is all about proper technique, sustainability and timed sets. How is this relevant for the ordinary arm-chair fitness enthusiast?
CI: First and foremost it is relevant for safety. If you can’t safely do something several days a week, it’s probably not a relevant fitness avenue. Secondly, focusing on technique builds very good body awareness. This is important for everyone. It may be most important for folks that are older as it will improve their general movement and coordination in their day to day activities.
Me: The AKC/WKC later introduced what is known as the “fitness protocol.” What exactly is the purpose of this protocol and does it in any way translate into later success in kettlebell sport?
CI: The purpose is to provide a protocol for everyone from beginning lifters (who may be de-conditioned) to advanced athletes who are looking for a short workout to stay in shape for their sport. I think the protocol is a great way to prepare someone for Kettlebell Sport. It is not as overwhelming as sport training, but it provides a great foundation since there needs to be an adherence to pace and duration.
Me: A lot of people have been following poor training regimens for years. Others have simply never been into any form of exercise program. One can thus expect a lot of people to start kettlebells with a history of injuries, poor mobility, etc. What are your thoughts on kettlebell training for rehabilitating the effects of injuries or a sedentary lifestyle?
CI: It can rehabilitate if you start slowly and light. But, if you start out with a focus on numbers, you’ll likely expose any weakness or pre-existing injury. In terms of folks who have been sedentary, they just need to start light and make sure they mind technique.
Me: The AKC/WKC approach is minimalistic compared to organizations like the RKC and even the IKFF. Given the fact that people in the West seem to suffer from ADD how do you think a simpler approach will gain appeal?
CI: Well, I think people will like the fact that they can get a workout in a short amount of time. However, I do think that Coaches and Trainers are going to have to become leaders in this respect. I believe that trainers have ADD and sometimes they infect their students with it. It’s funny. When I speak about minimalism, it resonates with many folks. So, I think it is a matter of how it’s presented. We’re not talking about an 8 hour day assembly line job. We are talking in some cases about a 20 min session. I’m sorry, if you need a bunch of variety for something that lasts less than an hour, I don’t think even Ritalin can help you.
Me: Another interesting phenomenon around training in Western countries seems to be the desire to look good…i.e. achieving the bikini body. Do you think traditional training methods can satisfy this need?
CI: Diet satisfies that need first and foremost. If you come to KB training after doing a lot of hypertrophy type work, then you may not make gains and you may lose size. But, if you come de-conditioned or without a strong training background, you will likely gain some muscle. However, I do think folks can maintain a decent physique or improve their physique with the methods. It depends on many factors including their genetic makeup for gaining muscle etc. I can pretty much gain muscle from doing anything and gain fat from eating anything.
Me: What makes the timed set approach and gradual progression provided by the “Fedorenko method” superior to other methods of kettlebell lifting?
CI: I think it brings out your technical flaws much more quickly than any other forms. As someone who coaches folks online, that is very important. It is also the best way to focus on technique and get a feel for the movements. But, I also think it builds work capacity effectively. As the saying goes, you get comfortable with discomfort. Holding onto the weights is tough and really the only way to gain endurance for doing that is to work for time. I did some different training protocols for the first 3 years. It was in the last 3 years that I gave timed sets due diligence, but I saw results and technical improvements much more quickly.
Me: What irritates you most about the way kettlebells are marketed in the West?
CI: The idea that you can use them for anything simply to sell more of them. I think the folks that push the workouts with the really light KBs (like < 10lbs) annoy me the most. That is not KB Lifting in any shape or form. You could grab a soup can and do what those folks propose. So, they are jumping on the bandwagon of KB Lifting, but not really doing anything that closely resembles KB lifting. Still, anything that gets people moving is not a bad thing so it doesn't really irritate or annoy me that much ;)
Me: The AKC/WKC recently introduced “StrongSport™.” What types of people do you see being attracted to this?
CI: I think it will attract already strong men and women who possibly don’t have the time or the inclination to train seriously for the sport. It requires skill but you can’t use the bad rack excuse since it is a shorter set and single arm.
Me: Do you think people with “difficult” physiques, i.e. people who find it hard to rest in the rack position can still aspire to success in kettlebell sport?
CI: Yes, because I am one of those. But, you have to resign yourself to hard work. You also have to dedicate a lot more time to supplemental work like one arm Jerks. Double jerks for example were not a competition lift for me, but I did want to get decent at them because I coach men. In 2007, I put in significant time to doing One Arm Jerks (Heavy and Light), and gained some flexibility and endurance for holding the bells. After that cycle, I could immediately go 10 min with a pair of 16s. Before doing that, I could never go longer than 5 min. Since then, I've easily done 10 min with 2-20s and 7 min with 2-24s. So, while I can certainly empathize with folks that have a poor rack, it's not an excuse if you really want to do this. It just requires you to work harder than someone else that has a better one.
Me: What are in your mind the biggest training mistakes made by people starting kettlebells for general fitness and health?
CI: They still don’t pay enough attention to technique. I mean, I get that you may not want to put in the time to develop the technique of an elite Kettlebell Sport athlete, but for the sake of safety you should still respect the movements and at least learn them well enough to perform them safely.
Me: What are in your mind the biggest training mistakes made by people starting on the kettlebell sport journey?
CI: Focusing solely on numbers and ranks, and in some cases starting too heavy. Some very strong athletic folks hit respectable numbers (well, respectable by Western Standards) early. I did. Because the numbers come pretty quickly, it’s not always apparent that you have a lot of technical work to move to the next level. So, the mistake is that they think after hitting a certain level that their technique is OK, when in fact it is the one thing that is holding them back from the next level.
Me: The AKC/WKC seems to make a clear distinction between kettlebell training for fitness, strength and conditioning, and kettlebell sport. Perhaps you can elaborate a bit on the broad training principles applied to these different objectives and how they are both similar and different.
CI: The difference is in the protocols not the techniques. The similarities in the protocols stem from starting at a certain pace to learn the movements and working from time. Regardless of the objective, this doesn’t change. We feel that pace is the best way to learn the movements and to get acclimated to KB Lifting. Of course the differences will be in the exercises performed and even the duration. Maybe if fitness is your goal, you will do sets where you switch on the minute. If S&C is your goal, you may do shorter faster sets (Once you are adept at the techniques).
Me: Now that kettlebells are becoming somewhat more mainstream a lot of training materials like DVD’s are appearing everywhere. Websites like Youtube are also filled with people demonstrating various kettlebell workouts. Unfortunately a lot of the stuff out there displays really poor technique and the emphasis almost seems to fall on just kicking your own butt as quickly and as hard as possible. Do you think people are just generally lazy when it comes to learning proper technique and how would you sell people on the importance of proper technique?
CI: People need to understand that there are a lot of ways to get a good workout and part of getting a good workout is working on a skill…tuning or training your nervous system. There are many ways you can “kick your own butt”. If that is your goal, then be smart with your selection of exercises. If you want a good ball busting workout and can’t yet snatch properly, do more swings, run, sprint or something. Until you are reasonably adept at a movement, you have no business trying to really kick your own ass with it. That could lead to injury and developing bad movement patterns.
I don’t think any of the folks I coach will tell you they aren’t working hard. Learning proper technique will make you move better in general; not just KB movements. It will make you more athletic and more aware. Unfortunately, some people are into instant gratification and really don’t have the patience to really get decent from a technical standpoint.
Me: My friend Howie Brewer in NYC recently mentioned to me that he is finding that a lot more women than men are becoming interested in GS. Are you finding something similar? Why might this be?
CI: Women pick up on the techniques more quickly in the West. They typically haven’t spent as much time pressing as their male counterparts and are forced to develop their technique more quickly. In the USA with few exceptions, women do Jerks and snatches better than men from a technical standpoint. Now, the ranks were easier at one point in time, but that has changed. Still, women are finding success more easily because they can set aside their egos and learn the technique. The men that are able to do this have seen success and progress as well.
I also think women like those that lift for the IceChamber team (http://www.icechamber.com/) show that you can be very good and very strong, and yet still not look bulky or big. In the USA, this is important.
Me: What are the chances of the AKC/WKC producing training DVD’s to fill some of the gaps in the market? What are your general thoughts on training via DVD’s or books?
CI: Chances are good, but I cannot say the timeframe <laugh>. I know there are some things in the works and perhaps not too far from production (I know..it’s been a very long time coming). Books and DVDs are good for information. I learned what a snatch was through a book/DVD in terms of just gross basics. But, I find that most people cannot really learn from that medium. They are a nice to have to reinforce what you have learned at a course or through a coach, but not a substitute.
Me: Any final thoughts for people considering taking up kettlebell training? Or just any final thoughts you might like to add.
CI: Folks seriously considering KB Training should try to find a good coach or instructor. Looking at videos on Youtube isn't going to cut it. Looking for routines on the internet won't cut it either. There is too much information out there to figure out what is good and what isn't. There is a lot of good information out there. However, the information is just that and for beginners it is often hard for them to put it into context for any sort of implementation. People also need to think about goals and what they really want out of the training. If it is rank or a competition, that is a very concrete thing. If it is losing weight, that is also a very concrete thing, but diet is also important. Once you have a goal and know what you want, it makes it much easier to find information and to get a plan established for implementation.
Catherine, thanks so much for taking the time to answer my questions. If you would like to learn more about the AKC/WKC and the work of Catherine please visit these sites: