Integrated Strength: The Right Tool at the Right Time for the Right Person
Back in the days when dinosaurs roamed the earth and I started as a trainer, things were different. The fitness industry of today has grown largely by encouraging people to think of themselves as part of a tribe. Each “tribe” has its own speciality, and by being part of a particular tribe, people feel somehow smarter than another tribe. It’s kind of like the Dr. Seuss book about the Sneetches.
The Problem With Tribes and Trainers
This tribe tendency is not necessarily a bad thing, as being part of a group can help people get out the door and actually make it to training, rather than stay at home and sit on the couch. But I often see or hear from trainers whose tribe has obviously led them astray. Because of the way marketing works, each tribe is focused on a certain niche of training, or even aimed at a certain person. There are kettlebell tribes, bodyweight tribes, power- and Olympic lifting tribes, and even tribes for people who want to wear tactical pants and pretend to be tough guys. But if you’re a trainer and you start to think of yourself as a “kettlebell guy” or a “bodyweight guy” or whatever it happens to be, then you have lost sight of something important - you are being hired to be a results guy.
If you start to think that all your problems can be solved with a bar, or a kettlebell, or by doing pull ups, then you’re in for a shock - because they can’t be. And not only can’t you solve the world’s problems with a single tool or exercise, not all your clients are going to want to do the same thing for the rest of their lives because they’ll be bored out of their brains. It’s all well and good for the tribe leaders to give sermons from their ivory towers about how people shouldn’t need to find training enjoyable or entertaining (after all, they haven’t trained anyone in person for years). But the reality is that if you give someone a workout that is a single exercise, done with a single tool, for every training session for the next few weeks, no matter how successful it may be or what the research says will happen, that person will likely leave you. And then you’ll be a broke kettlebell guy.
Most People Are Beginners
I know what people will say. You’ll say, “But my X is weak, therefore I need a specialization plan to bring up X.” Perhaps. But let’s look at some stark realities when it comes to strength. In traditional Russian literature, people are regarded as beginners in strength training until the point they hit a double-bodyweight squat or deadlift. Now let’s be honest about this. How many people do you see in a typical gym even approaching that number? And the best way forward for a beginner isn’t a specialized plan, but a general strength plan. This is something the Gym Jones guys understand better than anyone else I’ve spoken with, and one of the many reasons they have so much success taking people from ordinary to extraordinary. (Even literally turning a man into Superman.)
And because what most people need is a general plan that covers a variety of movements, they’re likely going to need a variety of tools. And as much as different types of training require the same approach, e.g. strength is usually gained in the three to five rep range and done for three to five sets, some tools or movements do require different use than others. Pistol squats, for example, are generally a terrible high repetition endurance exercise and work much better with lower reps, while kettlebell swings are generally much better off being done more like running intervals, for moderate to high volume and limited rest periods. It’s all about picking the right rep and set range to match the tool, then selecting the right tool to match the person.
Things to Keep in Mind When Building Workouts
- Kettlebells are a fantastic way to train for people who have had hand or wrist injuries that prevent them from being in the position needed to barbell front squat, push press, or jerk. Keeping a straight wrist will allow them to train hard when they otherwise wouldn’t be able to.
- Barbells are the best tool to increase overall strength quickly. While we use a kettlebell to pattern the deadlift, we always get people onto the bar as fast as possible, and their strength skyrockets when we do.
- Simple lifts are better than complex ones. I know Olympic lifting is sexy, but many people lack the mobility and coordination to do them well. This is an area where kettlebells again can be a quick way forward. Learning to clean or snatch with a single kettlebell is incredibly quick and easy to do with an experienced trainer in front of you. Is it as effective, given the loads are far lower? No, but with so many people having poor posture, using a single kettlebell to replicate the quick lifts allows them to train the movements and get the timing, and with far more wiggle room than they have with both hands locked in place on a barbell. The progression goes: single hand before two hands (or double bell), and hang position before from the floor (and kettlebells are always essentially from the hang position).
- Not many people actually need genuine speed work. Gains in speed are minimal until strength levels surpass those double-bodyweight beginner standards. So time is much better spent on developing raw strength first. Clients can spend their time with you getting more strength reps and decreasing their injury risk at the same time.
- A squat is a squat is a squat. While you may have slightly different positions for each of the main squats - goblet, double kettlebell, front squat, back squat, overhead squat - they should all be the same. And regardless of if you need to slightly adjust to accommodate your own imperfections, they are all still a squat pattern. Given that what most people need is just to squat, it matters little what type of squat they use in training. Pick a rep and set scheme that ties in with the goal of the day - lower rep/higher weight if strength is the goal, and high volume/ lower weight if strength endurance or hypertrophy are the goals. The same goes for hinges, presses, and pulls, too, by the way.
- Kettlebell quick lifts are different to barbell lifts that share the same name. You just need to do more reps. If you would do a set of power cleans with a barbell for three to five reps, a simple rule is to double the number of reps you do with the kettlebell, even if you’re doing double kettlebell work. 5 sets of 10 double snatches is an incredible upper-body developer, just the same as 5 x 5 power snatches would be (and for many, these are far easier to master and quickly get to using challenging weights).
- Bodyweight work has it’s own rules, and volume is king. It’s not unusual to hear of people doing bodyweight workouts that take hours, just working a single movement. I’ve done sessions of up to twenty sets of front lever work while building my front lever. When you can only hold a variation for seconds at a time, then you need the volume to build that strength.
Here’s a workout that uses everything:
1. Back Squat 5/2/5/2/5/2
2A. Front lever x 5 seconds
2B. Tuck planche x 5 seconds
2C. Support Flag x 5 seconds each side
3A. Double kettlebell snatch x 10 reps
3B. Incline DB bench press x 5-8 reps
As a trainer, you can’t get tied in to one tool or way of thinking. Be able to integrate everything. I began coaching what I call integrated strength two years ago because I got so sick of seeing people throw away ideas or exercises because they couldn’t figure out how to combine them. This integrated approach that I’ve explained here allows you to pick the right tool at the right time for the right person - every single time.
Photo 1 courtesy of Karl Buchholtz Photography.
Photo 2 & 3 courtesy of CrossFit Impulse.