Building Myelin, Layering Skills, and Transference

Over the past few months, we have focused our posts/attention on one exercise, the two-handed kettlebell swing. Through a series of 4 posts we discussed how to load the posterior chain, increase the chances of gluteal engagement, scapular stability, and finally, proper sequencing. (just scroll down to check them out). While we have received positive feedback about these pieces being helpful for fitness professionals, they weren’t designed to “stand on their own”. It’s time we bring them together.  Much of the source material from this piece is from “The Talent Code” by Daniel Coyle.

Building Myelin

Before we get deep into the discussion of myelin, practice and how they’re related lets define myelin.


Myelin: an electrically insulating material that forms a layer (myelin sheath,) around the axon of a neuron. The presence of myelin is essential for proper functioning of the nervous system. The main purpose of a myelin layer is to increase the speed at which impulses travel along the myelinated fiber.

Myelination: the process of forming a myelin sheath around a nerve to allow nerve impulses to move more quickly.

Circuits: A grouping of nerve fibers that work simultaneously and/or in series to complete a particular movement or task

Now that we have gotten that out of the way lets talk about the relationship between practice and myelination.  New research has revealed that myelin, once considered an inert form of insulation for brain cells, may be the holy grail of acquiring skill. Daniel Coyle has described this new information as a revolution that will forever change the way we view talent and practice. Here’s an excerpt:

“The revolution is built on three simple facts. (1) Every human movement, thought, or feeling is a precisely timed electric signal traveling through a chain of neurons—a circuit of nerve fibers. (2) Myelin is the insulation that wraps these nerve fibers and increases signal strength, speed, and accuracy. (3) The more we fire a particular circuit, the more myelin optimizes that circuit, and the stronger, faster, and more fluent our movements and thoughts become.”

UnknownWhen we take part in “deep” (quality, mistake focused) practice of a skill where quality learning occurs (anything from playing the piano to deadlifting) we build myelin. The more deep practice the better and the more mistakes you make (and learn from) the better. The phrase practice makes perfect has been thrown around for generations and while logical, we didn’t have any scientific basis to back this up. What has been discovered is that it’s really deep practice that makes perfect. Myelin grows in direct response to deep (mistake focus practiced).  For instance, once a mistake is made, it is more beneficial to stop, evaluate what went wrong, and try to immediately fix it on the next attempt than to plow through and disregard your errors.  Twenty minutes of deep practice can easily trump an hour of mindless practice. Daniel Coyle described this process as follows:

“Deep practice feels a bit like exploring a dark and unfamiliar room. You start slowly, you bump into furniture, stop, think, and start again. Slowly, and a little painfully, you explore the space over and over, attending to errors, extending your reach into the room a bit farther each time, building a mental map until you can move through it quickly and intuitively.

As it relates to fitness and high skill work like a kettlebell swing, clean, snatch etc. it’s critical the student takes part in deep practice early on. Being mindful of your position in different parts of a movement and more importantly developing and understanding of what good positioning is… is essential for building myelin.

Layering Skills

Another aspect of building myelin is quality coaching.  A master coach, pinpoints flaws and knows how to address each one and in the right order to optimize performance.  A quality coach needs to have an abundance of knowledge about their given subject (coaches need to build myelin just like their students).  What a quality coach does is recognize exactly what makes their student improve, take them slighlty out of their comfort zone and guide them to the next level.  Every student needs to be handled differently because they all respond to different motivations.  If you have a vast supply of tools in your coaching toolbox (interpersonally and skill specific) you will be a more effective coach.

DSC_1151Bringing this back to the kettlebell swing, if you notice your student is not able to grasp the idea of hinging, put the kettlebell down and do a drill that will help them to feel the movement and positions you want them to achieve.  For a beginner with little movement skills, this is often all it takes to get them out of their comfort zone.  Hinge drills with a piece of PVC pipe and high tension front planks will do much more for this person than swinging a kettlebell. Once they master the hinge and high tension plank have them perform swings to apply this new skill. The coach must then begin to layer in additional skills as needed. Staying with the example of the kettlebell swing these additional skills should include “core firing” / “tightness” at the top of the swing, shoulder packing, DSC_1157and then sequencing.

Here’s the order we use when layering skills in the kettlebell swing:

  1. Hinge
  2. Core Firing / Tightness
  3. Shoulder Packing
  4. Sequence

**Please note: Our last 4 Kettlebell Coaching Series Posts addressed how to coach each of these ** View the coaching videos here 


If you want to develop complex skills, the drills used to improve them must have a direct transference to your goals.

Another practice that helps to build myelin, and was briefly mentioned above, is slowing a skill down to a snail’s pace. The above section referenced the hip hinge drill as a tool to help teach the kettlebell swing. This is drill is purposefully performed SLOWLY.  It’s important to feel the top and bottom positions in the swing before actually performing the exercise due to the speed of movement.  The swing is essentially a hip hinge on steroids. No race car driver begins their career driving at 200 mph!  He or she probably started with a bike, than a go-cart or 4-wheeler, then maybe some small dirt track races.  They most likely spend at least a decade racing at lower speeds before safely and effectively driving at 200 mph with other cars only inches away.  Now you might say, I’ve had my drivers license for 20 years does that mean I can drive a car 200 mph?  The obvious answer is no, but the reason why may be cloudy.  Driving to work and back has no transference to racing.  By law, you are allowed to drive 65 mph  on some highways in our area.  Therefore, your circuits are only myelinated for driving up to 65 mph.  And what happens when someone gets too close to us?  We beep our horn at them!  We are used to a nice cushion around us.  Driving a race car requires much deeper  and more specific practice than driving our sedans to a grocery store provides.

As you can tell we are fans of the “Talent Code” and highly recommend all coaches read it. We also feel if you are training others with kettlebells it’s critical to your development as a coach and to the safety of your students you get a coaching focused kettlebell certification. When it comes to teaching bells it’s all about having a systematic well thought out approach.

In our Level 1 Certified Kettlebell Instructor (CKI-1) you will learn:

  1. Our system for teaching each of the Kettlebell Big 3 (Swing, Goblet Squat, Turkish Get Up)
  2. How to developing your coach’s eye
  3. Corrective exercises and coaching drills to “fix”movement flaws,
  4. Simple yet effective programming strategies.

Visit our homepage to see our upcoming seminar schedule.

The Kettlebell Coaching Series Pt 2: Glute Activation

Glutes. There is a lot of talk about butt muscles these days. Two months ago Tiger Woods blamed his poor play on the inability to fire his glutes during his swing.  While we are not sure that was the problem for Tiger, lack of muscular contraction in the glutes is an issue for many people. As a result, a lot of time and effort is spent by trainers, S&C Coaches, and performance coaches simply trying to get the glutes to “fire”.

Here’s a very brief anatomy / physiology review of the glutes

glutes2The glutes along with the “abs” are prime stabilizers of the pelvis and torso. The gluteal muscles are a group of three muscles which make up the buttocks: the gluteus maximus, medius, and minimus. The three muscles originate from the illium and sacrum and insert on the femur. The gluteus maximus is the largest of the gluteal muscles and one of the strongest in the body. Its action is to extend and to laterally rotate the hip, and also to extend the trunk.

Everyone wants to “strengthen their core”, but it seems we overlook the glutes. A term was coined (not sure by whom) to describe the inability to contract the gluteal muscles. That term is “Gluteal Amnesia”. Basically it means we forget how to contract our glutes. This is a real issue for some people. Sitting for long periods can lead to the gluteal muscles atrophying through constant pressure and disuse. This is also associated with lower back pain and difficulty with some movements that naturally require the glutes (i.e. rising from the seated position, and climbing stairs).

Glutes and Swings


When it comes to kettlebell swings, a strong gluteal contraction is critical to produce adequate power to correctly perform the movement and to stabilize/protect the lumbar spine. Based upon the information above it is clear steps might need to be taken in order to make sure the glutes do their job in the swing to prevent disaster. There are many simple drills to help students fire those glutes.

Here’s a few we really like…

Please keep in mind that there are many, many more options. However, we have found these drills to be effective in helping students learn to reach a high level of Maximum Voluntary Contraction (MVC). MVC is the greatest amount of tension you can apply to a muscle. It is important to ensure your students can generate an adequate level of glute MVC before performing swings.

Given the risk… why swing at all?

It is the fitness professional’s job to measure the risk and reward of each exercise. When the reward outweighs the risk it’s reasonable to consider adding the exercise in question. We all know that there is an inherit risk in swinging kettlebell, aka a cannonball with a handle. However, good coaching combined with the right movement prep and drills can significantly reduce the risk of injury in the swing. Additionally, the potential rewards are substantial. Research has proven that kettlebell swings are an incredible exercise for your “core”, posterior chain, and more specifically glutes. Two recent studies published by Stu McGill and Leigh Marshall in January 2012 and another by Kreutzfeldt Zebis and colleagues in July 2012 showed a very high MVC of the posterior chain (glutes and hamstrings).

Muscle % MVC
Glute Maximus 76
Glute Medius 70
Semitendinosus 115
Bicep Femoris 93

McGill also included a case study on Pavel Tsatsouline and when swinging a 32KG bell he was able to achieve 100% peak muscle activation in the glute maximus and over 150% in his erector spinae.

As a frame reference, the glute MVC numbers for some other “hip extension” exercises are 55% MVC in the Deadlift and 52% in the Sumo Deadlift (as per Bret Contreras).

Bringing it together

Teaching your students to brace their core to protect their spine and minimize “energy leakage” is a basic skill that MUST be taught. Practicing this skill until it becomes automatic is critical so that your student can safely progress to higher level activities. While kettlebell swings are a great hip extension exercise that helps develop strong glutes, laying the foundation of gluteal activation and general bracing strategies are essential, otherwise swings simply aren’t safe.  If you follow this model, adding swings to a student’s program will upgrade their movement skills and general fitness.

Metabolic Matching and Sports Performance

The term “sport-specific training” has been thrown around A LOT over the years. While the idea in concept makes sense, many top fitness professionals have gone on the record saying this type of training can be bad for the athlete (due to muscular imbalances, negative effect on movement quality, injury, etc.). In their opinion (and ours) we simply need to improve movement, strength, and power and MOST of the sport-specific work should take place when practicing specific skills for the athlete’s given sport. While this can and will be debated for years to come, it IS fair to say that matching the right intensity and volume of conditioning work to a sport is critical for athletes to be successful. This statement is pretty hard to argue. Dr. Stearne, a colleague of ours who teaches in the Exercise Science Department at West Chester University, calls this concept metabolic matching. Metabolic matching is exactly what it sounds like… matching the metabolic demands of a sport with the appropriate intensity and duration of training.    AndyReidEagles-

Being from the Philadelphia an easy way to approach this topic is talking Philadelphia Eagles Football. While at the moment there is a lot of controversy surrounding the Eagles personnel moves we’ll focus on the strength and conditioning and leave the other “stuff” for another day. When Coach Chip Kelly came to town there was a huge shift in the way the Eagles ran its offense. Former coach, Andy Reid, used a traditional offensive scheme that used nearly the entire play clock (40 seconds) between plays… some would argue even longer given his reputation as a poor clock manager.  Chip Kelly’s approach is quite different — his goal is to run as many plays as possible during the course of the game.  Due to Chip’s offensive philosophy, his team uses the least amount of time between plays in the entire NFL, roughly 20 seconds between plays.  Now we are not NFL Strength and Conditioning coaches, but you can guarantee there had to be a change in how the team prepared for the season in regards to their anaerobic conditioning.  This situation is one of the nuances of metabolic matching.  The training must fit the goal.  Even though the sport is the same, the way in which the coach runs their team is very different.  If Chip’s players trained like they were still running an Andy Reid Offense, they would be much less likely to be able to keep up with the pace. Since there can be such significant variability in each sport based upon coaching philosophy it’simgres important to get as much information from your athletes as possible. For example, if working with a basketball player you need to know if is the coach running a “grinding” offense, traditional offense, or a fast break style. Does the coach like to do mass substitutions so the players are fresh so they can press the opposing offense? If you really dig deep you’ll be able to program just the right work to rest ratios, volume, and intensity.

Our discussion on Andy versus Chip highlights the importance of strength coaches and trainers understanding the demands of the athlete’s sports, position, AND their coach’s philosophy. It’s so so so critical to develop an understanding of the coach’s philosophy because this will give the fitness professional the insight they need to program… in other words create a metabolic match. For more specific information on metabolic conditioning, kettlebell training, or other fitness topics consider attending one of our upcoming seminars.

Balancing Movement Quality and Metabolic Conditioning

When it comes to programming metabolic conditioning or “MC” for clients fitness professionals usually go about this in one of two ways.

  1. Disregard movement quality and just “get after it”:

In this scenario, the client is pushed to their limits and things like posture, spinal position, knee position and general movement quality are NOT significant factors in programming

  1. A very conservative approach is taken and the client never really gets the “metabolic training effect”:
    1. This scenario can occur because the trainer is very technical and puts movement at a premium (which isn’t necessarily a bad thing from a safety perspective)
    2. This might also occur because the trainer is timid when it comes to pushing clients out of their comfort zone
    3. This can also occur because the trainer recognizes the client has some movement limitations. Instead of getting to the root of the movement issues and fixing them MC is avoided.

Can we hold movement quality at a premium, but still program in MC when a client has dysfunction? This is inevitably the time where you start to think about your approach to the challenge of balancing movement quality and MC. Do you sacrifice movement quality in the name of fat loss? If so, then to what degree? Do you sacrifice fat loss for movement quality? Have you found a middle ground?

exhausted-from-exercise-400x400   vs   singleleghiphinge

This topic isn’t addressed very often (in literature, articles, etc.), but should be. It’s critical fitness professionals find a way to improve movement and add MC sooner rather than later? Why you ask… well… because Americans have a movement quality problem AND an obesity problem. The remainder of this article will address this topic from the perspective of two fitness professionals:

Erik Miller: A strength and conditioning coach working with large groups who uses his coach’s eye to evaluate movement quality

Joe Chaitkin: A personal trainer working in 1-1 and small group setting who uses the FMS and additional movement-based assessments to evaluate movement quality

Erik’s Approach:

As a coach of large groups, most of which are teenagers or younger, improving movement skill is almost entirely what I do. MC is secondary to learning and polishing movement skills. Due to time constraints (even though it is probably optimal to do it first), a formal “movement screen” is not possible. If it is clear that practice and coaching is not producing the desired results (improved movement skills) then a movement screen is performed. (When this point is reached, I introduce the student and his/her parents to Joe!) I tend to be aligned with the mindset that everyone should be able to take part in the basics of human movement, even if there are some flaws. All should practice the squat, deadlift, press, and pull. However, there are many times when completing the full range of motion is impossible. For example, if one cannot keep the spine neutral when deadlifting off the floor, I will raise the bar up on blocks to shorten the range of motion. I implement the same strategy with squats and push-ups. The benefit of training the movement pattern remains intact and we will build up to performing the full range of motion.

So… what do I do if we need to take part in some metabolic conditioning work? First, we practice the basic movement patterns and do lots and lots of submaximal form work. For most beginners this stimulus is enough to present a challenge at the onset of training. Once form is pretty dialed in, it is time to increase intensity. Adding a “metabolic stimulus” is a great way to determine weaknesses and lingering movement flaws.

For example:

A student of mine, who we’ll call Bill had finally learned to proficiently squat and deadlift with light weight. After a few sessions, his major flaw in when performing these movements, a valgus collapse of his right knee, was under control at light weight and slow speed. It was now time to challenge him with some metabolic conditioning. A triplet workout was designed which included a goal time to complete four rounds of the following:

  1. Goblet squats
  2. Push-ups
  3. Running

After the first round, Bill was doing well. No sign of a valgus collapse. The same was true after the second round. However, on the third round of squats, things started to get ugly. As fatigue from the accumulated workload started to set in, the knee started caving in. Bill’s underlying movement flaws came rushing to the surface. Instead of pushing through, we stopped after the third round and he was made to rest, get a drink of water, and received instruction on what was going on (He was unaware his knee was collapsing). Because Bill is a teenager who participates in many sports, it is very important to put him under stress and see how his movement holds up. He had to be pushed with a metabolic stimulus because of the demands of his sports.

Some food for thought; he couldn’t keep the problem (valgus knee) in check for six minutes. Imagine what happens during a 2-hour basketball practice. This student was ultimately referred for an FMS.

Another example is of a one-on-one client. He had zero ability to hold a barbell or dumbbell on his shoulders without his elbows flaring out to the side. This immediately told me he was seriously lacking external rotation while his shoulders were in flexion. Pressing overhead or combined movements like thrusters were not an option in the metabolic conditioning portion of our workouts.

We still could get a great metabolic stimulus by working around his flaw: Implementing exercises he does well, like squats, push-ups, and swings got us to his fat loss goal, and it did so without him risking injury. Because he is a “desk jockey” it wasn’t “required” that we take the time to restore mobility to his shoulders. He was overweight with poor cholesterol readings so it was more important to address those issues than to improve his ability to reach overhead.

How Erik bridges this gap:

Grading movement helps guide my decision to alter a workout or adjust the range of motion. This is the basic idea – all strength work and skill work should score in the “A” range. Fatigue is not an issue and improving skills is the main goal. To get stronger, “A” level movement is required! However, when transitioning into metabolic conditioning work, I will allow my clients to sacrifice a perfect grade for the sake of metabolic stimulus. I will only sacrifice one letter grade though. If someone is performing a movement in the “B” range, that is acceptable. Now, determining grade levels is up to you. My standards might not be the same as another S&C Coach, but having consistent standards in place allows for a focus on movement quality and safe metabolic improvements.

Joe’s Approach:

I’ll be honest with you here and admit that at some point in my career I’ve taken each of the approaches mentioned earlier in this article. However, over the years my though process and as a result my approach to MC has changed dramatically. I place movement quality at a premium… I’ve become one of those “FMS guys”. However, I also value the impact of metabolic conditioning.


How Joe bridges this gap:

I use Functional Movement Screen ® (FMS) results as my guide to qualify and disqualify clients from performing particular movements in metabolic conditioning sessions. In fact, if a client’s movement quality is poor from a global perspective (they score a 10 or lower) I will keep metabolic conditioning or even circuit training to a minimum until movement improves to an acceptable level. FYI: on the FMS scale a 14 represents “adequate” movement quality with no increased risk of suffering a non-contact injury.

For example:

A poor score active straight leg raise (think posterior chain limitations and/or core dysfunction) tells me the client is disqualified from the following exercises:

  1. Kettlebell swings
  2. Deadlifts
  3. Lower body plyometrics
  4. Squats

A poor score on the shoulder mobility screen tells me the client is disqualified from the following exercises:

  1. Overhead press
  2. “Advanced” push ups
  3. Pull ups
  4. Heavy rows
  5. Kettlebell swings

It is important to recognize that most people have strengths and weaknesses as it relates to their movement quality. Therefore, if a client scores poorly on their shoulder mobility screen, but performs well elsewhere I can aggressively program (i.e. program MC) as long as I stay away from the list of items above.

Here’s a sample MC program for a client with poor shoulder mobility and good movement quality in all other patterns:

  1. Squat jump Interval
  2. Deadlifts Interval
  3. Traditional Push Up Interval
  4. Battling Rope Interval


Assuming the work to rest ratios and weight loads are appropriate for the client this program is clearly advanced, would provide an adequate stimulus to produce a metabolic training effect, yet is still safe for a client with poor shoulder mobility.

Notice both the “coach’s eye” and “FMS” approach are simply different paths leading to the same destination. Both evaluate the quality of movement patterns and use this information to qualify or disqualify particular movements in MC. The take home point is that its critical to develop a system for evaluating movement that can be consistently implemented and serves as a means to guide your programming. Just think of this as installing checks and balances into your programming. Without such a system, programming for MC becomes challenging for you and dangerous for your client.

Interested in learning more about Metabolic Conditioning? Our next seminar is Saturday, 10/22/16 in NYC. Only $225 with coupon code METABOLIC until 9/22/16. Learn More