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.

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

Metabolic Conditioning and Fat Loss (why it works)

Its resolution time…you know… that time of year where trainers see an influx of clients who usually want to lose weight after being inactive. The challenge facing all trainers is retaining these new clients as they often disappear after a few month. Retention will come down to two things… relationships and results. Lets focus on results. 
This is where it’s natural for us to talk about the use of metabolic conditioning. Metabolic conditioning is a “newer” term used in the fitness industry that is often misused and misunderstood. For some reason, it seems everyone has their own definition and that their “metabolic” workout is the best.
Let’s start with a basic definition of metabolic conditioning: Metabolic conditioning is a form of training in which the participant shifts from periods of near maximum levels of exertion to a lower intensity multiple times. The objective of metabolic training is simply to keep the “system” as a whole under prolonged periods of stress (i.e. heart, lungs, etc.) while cycling through various muscle groups and energy systems. Rest periods should only be long enough to perform the next maximal or near maximal bout of exercise. With this form of training, ALL of the metabolic pathways are used. You are not aerobic or anaerobic, you are both. You will spend periods of time in the aerobic zone and periods of time above the lactate threshold.
Why Metabolic Conditioning Promotes Rapid Fat Loss
The Mechanism
While we all know metabolic conditioning aids in fat loss, most fitness professionals don’t understand the mechanism.  In this section we will discuss some of the science driving the fat loss. Metabolic conditioning results in a high caloric expenditure relative to the work performed and promotes anabolism (fat burning and muscle building).  While this form of training results in high short-term caloric expenditure, it’s the “after-burn” effect (the endocrine system’s response) that has a more profound impact.
Acute Caloric Expenditure
Let’s start with the very short-term impact. Heat is generated to a significant degree during this style of training.  There are no tools readily available outside of a laboratory to measure the energy lost as heat.  However, researchers have shown that up to 40% of the energy burned in a high intensity workout cannot be accounted for because of the inability to measure this heat loss.  This means you burn a 33% more calories with this style of training than would be predicted through calorie counters and EPOC calculations.

The “after burn” effect 

EPOC refers to the elevated oxygen consumption after a workout is complete and can result in significant fat calorie usage for hours and days.  EPOC is triggered mainly by the release of stress hormones (Catecholamines).  A large Catecholamine surge coupled with exhaustive exercise will push the body to generate large amounts of lactic acid, which triggers the release of growth hormone (HGH) and Testosterone.  This combination of hormones drives the EPOC “after-burn” (which can last more than 36 hours).  This mixture of Catecholamines with HGH and Testosterone creates an accelerated state of metabolism which mobilizes stored glycogen and fat and repairs damaged muscle tissue. This “hormonal cascade” is released under very high intensities whether it is the stress of heavy weights, exhaustive sprinting, or high repetition lactic acid generating movements.  In order to achieve the desired impact, all these factors need to be included with shorter rest periods that are just long enough to recover and generate the same intensity again.
Battling Ropes Metabolic Conditioning
A simple way to construct an effective workout is to think about movement first.  Movements that use the most muscle, especially lower body muscles, are great choices. Additionally, choose exercises with long ranges of motion.  A pull-up makes more sense than a biceps curl.  Further, a pull-up uses a large range of motion and more muscle mass is involved. Finally, choose exercises that are simple.  Simple will be relative to your client, but the idea here is to pick exercises that don’t require a lot of steps or complex neuromuscular skills.  The use of multi-step and complex exercise is a double edged sword.  If there are too many steps in the exercise or if it is too technique dependent, it may be difficult to reach the anaerobic threshold.  However, if you do reach the anaerobic threshold it will likely be very difficult to perform the exercise with quality movement.
Here is a simple pairing of exercises:
Kettlebell Swing
The swing is a pulling exercise that uses a significant amount of posterior chain muscle mass. The push-up is a multi-joint, upper body, horizontal push exercise.  Both are relatively simple to learn and perform.  Both lend well to the performance of multiple reps and sets with short rests. Both can be scaled up and down for different fitness levels.