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A College Strength Coach Puts Kettlebells to the Test

January 10, 2005 12:33 PM

My name is Chris Holder and I am the Strength and Conditioning coach for Cal Poly's 20 varsity sports. We are a Division I institution with Division I-AA Football. We are members of the Big West Conference, Pac-10 (wrestling), and the Great West Football Conference. I have been the strength coach at Cal Poly for 4 1/2 years with one short 6-month period during that time as Appalachian State's Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach.

We have concluded our summer training and training camp for my fall sports, so now I can sit back and reflect on how our training went and what kettlebells have done for my teams.

Summer '04

My training philosophy for all of my athletic teams revolves around our speed training. Make no mistake, my belief system is firmly ingrained in producing quick, explosive, fast athletes who not only have exceptional straight-line speed, but who also have great change of direction speed. The foundation of my programs rests its hat on the turning ability of my teams. Now I know that sounds a bit bizarre, but I have been fortunate enough to have been mentored by some of the greatest minds in all of the strength world (Pavel being one of them), and every day I am reminded by not only them but watching college level and professional level sporting events that speed is king. My teams, especially my football and women's soccer teams, will always be the fastest team on the field and the best conditioned team on the field at anytime, no matter whom we are playing. We believe this whole-heartedly and we rest our success (or I rest our success) on great coaching by their coaching staffs and nasty, blazing speed.

My resistance training program, prior to the introduction of the kettlebells, revolved around two simple rules/ We will spend the majority of our work time doing explosive Olympic style movements with great technique and we will perform 99% of our exercises with free weights using a full range of motion for all lifts. Male or female, we are going to pull and squat below parallel and we are going to be great at it. I am a product of the school of Mike Kent, Mike Burgener, and Tommy Hoke who all are sub-parrallel squat believers and great Olympic coaches. These men have created the monster that is Chris Holder, therefore, my teams will constantly produce impressive numbers on the Olympic platforms and my programs will produce healthy, flexible, injury resilient athletes year after year.

The uniqueness of my program (at least in my opinion) (and, once again, prior to the arrival of the kettlebells) falls in how I structure and then program the workouts for my athletes. Besides the speed training, this is where I set myself aside from my peers. The most glaring difference between my program and other program is here, at Cal Poly, we don't use percentages to assign workloads for our athletes. Everything is hand done by myself. I was taught a programming philosophy/technique utilizing a series of pseudo-equations by Mike Kent (Head Football Strength Coach for Pitt) in the spring of 2000. Without getting too technical or into the nuts and bolts of the programming, what it does for me is it enables me to give each athlete individual attention and provides a way to manipulate loads during certain training phases to accommodate the individual. Why is this so special? What it does is it takes into account every scenario possible ...from an athlete who continues to make phenomenal gains to the athlete who is hampered by chronic tendonitis or is getting over a cold. It gives me the flexibility to manipulate loads to ensure constant positive adaptations year round without an injury or an illness sending us two steps back into the abyss of detraining. Kent is a genius.

So, where do the kettlebells come in? I spent a very dark and painful weekend in Minneapolis with Pavel and Brett Jones in April of this year. When the smoke cleared ...my body hurt, Pavel was happy, and I walked away an RKC. A month later, Dennis Armstrong sent a very large order of kettlebells to the door of my weight room and we haven't looked back. See, I played ball for Roy Kidd at Eastern Kentucky, a college football legend who was very old school in how we did things. Now this can be misinterpreted as an insult ...but on the contrary ...from me, that is probably one of the biggest complements that I can pay the man who I am very proud to not only have played for, but who I could help win an Ohio Valley Championship in 1997. What the kettlebells do is represent the old school. None of this fancy crap that does half of the work for you or puts you in the "nicest" position possible so that you don't have to hurt or actually perform any useful work, just raw equipment that does nothing but demand respect and forces you to do all of the training. It's quite a novel concept actually. In this day and age where everything is done on a computer or is created to be the easiest way possible, the kettlebells are a refreshing alternative.

"What the kettlebells do is represent the old school. None of this fancy crap that does half of the work for you or puts you in the "nicest" position possible so that you don't have to hurt or actually perform any useful work, just raw equipment that does nothing but demand respect and forces you to do all of the training."

The kettlebells have found their place in not only the strength training but also in my speed/conditioning program. I have incorporated several of the 'grind' movements into the daily routine to complement what we already do. Where the kettlebells have helped us most is in our conditioning. We are ANAEROBIC athletes at Cal Poly. My distance runners and distance swimmers are the only aerobically trained athletes around. Even my women's soccer team (who I love and are working hard at giving me my 3rd consecutive Big West Championship and 3rd birth into the National Tournament) are trained in an almost totally anaerobic environment. What I have used the kettlebells for are a nasty versions of the Man/Woman Maker that we all suffered through at the RKC. As of now (because it is the summer months and most of my teams are still at home on break) my football, women's soccer, and volleyball teams are completely trained in kettlebells, and all perform the Man/Woman Maker of some form of evil or another at least twice a week. The joy I receive from the fear on the faces of the athletes who are entering the room for the first time of the day to find out their kettlebell fate could only be fully appreciated by Pavel himself.

Bringing this all together, the point in which I knew that the kettlebells were making the impact on my athletes was late this summer. Like I said, I pride myself on my speed program and the attendance this summer for football was record breaking (if there was actually a record). My speed drills are cruel and unusual at times. Well, one particular day on my calendar was picked out and programmed months in advance to be the most grueling, vomit inducing run sessions of the year. We did what is called 'the Mustang drill' which involves 5 consecutive 180 degree turns initiated by rapid verbal commands all within a 10-yard "coned" area. After multiple sets, we went to the Four Corner drill. This is cruelty at it's finest. Without going into painful detail, this is a visual command drill that, when a rep has been completed, the athlete will SPRINT upwards of 70 yards with 5 very technical turns within. Sounds easy, take my word for it, there is nothing easy about it. So, on a normal day, the Mustang drill and Four Corner drill will be set at 12 sets of trials per drill, and each drill will accommodate between 6-10 athletes. This ensures approximately 25-35 seconds of recovery time between trials for each athlete. Well, on this day, it was set at 3 athletes per drill, which gave each athlete somewhere in the neighborhood of 10 seconds of recovery between trials. One other important element is that these two drills are to be performed with 100% effort. There is no jogging or loafing ...this is fast, hard, 100% effort for each trial. They crushed it. I was expecting athletes bellied over gasping for air and begging for mercy. What I got was 65 footballers and 4 soccer women who were tired, but ready and able for more. It was one of many days I force on my athletes and myself that give a clear picture where our fitness levels are for that stage of the training cycle. We were the fittest these teams had ever been ...with 3 (!) weeks of training still to go. It was wonderful and was directly related to the kettlebell work. It was one of those rare times where I scripted two months in advance when preparing for the off-season, and when the time came and we blew the test out of the water. Basically, I started to panic because the bells and the athletes had done their job, and I now had 21 days left not to screw up.

"We were the fittest these teams had ever been..."

From time to time, I try and reflect on what I am doing and how my athletes are responding to my training. I feel that I am a good fit here at Cal Poly and I am proud of my athletes and their accomplishments. Now, with the addition of the kettlebells to the arsenal, I have the flexibility to explore some of my own creativeness and the pain tolerance of some of the most dedicated and driven student-athletes in all of college sports.


Below is the second installment of the training article I wrote this summer. We have finished our Fall season(s) and I couldn't be happier with the outcome!

Fall '04

Women's Soccer

My women's soccer team won it's third consecutive Big West Championship and made its third appearance in the National Tournament. This season was a major gut check for my ladies, as we struggled midway through the season. But, as usual, my girls lifted their play at the end of the regular season and finished in a dominant fashion. Our final record was 11-3-6 and, as stated above, we won our third consecutive conference championship. As far as our training went, we were the fittest, fastest and strongest team every time we took the field.

"We were the fittest, fastest and strongest team every time we took the field ?the only thing we did different from the previous years was our kettlebell training."

It is amazing how not only these ladies but all of my female athletes have taken to kettlebell work. I have learned a lot about coaching the past few years due to this team. Keeping my ladies' interest in lifting has been a struggle, and I feel that the kettlebells have not only elevated our game, but also pumped some life back into the day to day training. The swagger we had this season was real. My ladies played a physical style of soccer that this University has never seen from this group. Getting stuck in, challenging air balls and winning ball control at the point of attack was a complete 180 from what we have seen in the past. The physical nature of their play was a direct result of the confidence they had in their strength and durability from the training. Some of the collisions on the field this year -initiated by my ladies, of course -rivaled that of a football game. Nasty and aggressive was how we played and I can honestly say that we struck fear in the heart of our opponents in each game. Any team who took the field with us knew that they were in for a brutal, vicious 90 minutes from a relentless team who wouldn't take losing as an option. Our fitness was the best I've seen in my five years here, and the only thing we did different from the previous years was our kettlebell training.


Cal Poly Football
Ohhhh, where do I begin. As in the first article, entering this season we had the most physically demanding off-season to date. The work these men put in was something to be marveled at and the excitement for the season was very real. I knew we would go out and dominate, and that is exactly what my guys did. As with my soccer women, the only substantial training difference from years past were the kettlebells. Some may say I was crazy with my unrelenting kettlebell work, especially during the season, but it proved to be the X factor for our success (as far as speed, conditioning and that 4th quarter mojo we had was concerned). We rattled off 7 straight victories to start the season...the best start to any season I have ever been a part of in my 13 years playing and 5 years of coaching. These victories were not "gimmies" either...our conference was tagged as the second most difficult conference in the entire county in 1-AA football, proving that we were for real. Our opponents were not slouches by any stretch. At one point during this 7 game run, we were ranked as high as number 5 in the national polls. Game 8 was against our big rival and we were beaten with 14 seconds left on the clock in the 4th quarter...it was absolutely heart breaking. Our 9th game, and second loss of the year, came by the hands of a 1-AA powerhouse at their place. This was the only true beating we received this year. We were still licking our wounds from the loss the week before, and this team capitalized on it....we played poorly and paid the price. Games 10 and 11 were a much different story. We manhandled our 10th opponent to win our Conference Championship, and then traveled to our 11th opponent and demolished them at their house to finish the regular season. Our final record was 9-2 and we were going into the post season (as we thought) peaking for a second time this season. Our hopes of a playoff run were derailed though. 1-AA football plays a playoff style tournament (very much like college basketball) to decide the National Champion. The participants are awarded a spot in the playoffs by winning either their conference championship, or by being selected by a committee. Since this was our first year in this new conference, an automatic bid to the playoffs was not awarded and will not be awarded to our conference champion until the 2007 season...so we did not receive the automatic bid. And then, we were one of four team jockeying for the last spot for an "at-large" bid...and we did not receive the nod. Once again, a heart breaking event for a team who worked their fingers to the bone this season.

"Some may say I was crazy with my unrelenting kettlebell work, especially during the season, but it proved to be the X factor for our success (as far as speed, conditioning and that 4th quarter mojo we had was concerned)."

And now for the bright spots. I had the honor of coaching 3 All-Americans this season: Jordan Beck- middle linebacker, Chris Gocong- defensive end, and Kenny Chicoine- safety. Beck and Gocong took it one step further by finishing 1st and 2nd in the voting for the Buck Buchanan Award (awarded to the top defensive player in the nation for 1-AA football). Beck, the winner of the Buchanan Award, led the country in tackles per game average and led our defense to one of the most impressive showings this school has ever seen. Beck's final statistics were insane. His competition for the award seemed to have little chance, as Jordan's final stats made him a shoe-in for the award. Gocong led the country in sacks with 17.5 for the season. Fortunate for us, he was only a junior this season and is returning for his senior campaign this next year. If Chris prepares with the same intensity he did this last season, I'm not sure there will be an offensive lineman in the country who will be able to block him. He should be the front runner for the Buchanan award going into our 2005 campaign.

"...we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the kettlebells? The Man Makers kept our conditioning and endurance in the stratosphere."

The kettlebells ...we owe a tremendous debt of gratitude to the kettlebells. As with the summer training, we performed Chris Holder's version of the Man Maker twice a week during the season. The Man Makers kept our conditioning and endurance in the stratosphere. At one point during the season, Kyle Shotwell (stud linebacker for our defense and a guy who never leaves the field when our defense is out doing it's thing) came up to me near the end of the season and said, "Coach, it's amazing... I never get tired out there." and my response to him was, "It's the kettlebells, Kyle." Similarly, Ben Cobian (monster offensive lineman) and I would sit and laugh about how our opponents didn't have a chance with us when it came to our speed and fitness due to the kettlebells. I know that if you were to ask him what the single one determining factor for our dominance this year, without hesitation, Ben would respond, "The kettlebells."

"Coach, it's amazing... I never get tired out there." My response to him was, "It's the kettlebells, Kyle."

We begin our off-season training for the 2005 season in a week. My fear is that these men have developed so rapidly in the previous off-season and during the in-season, thanks to the kettlebells, that I am going to have to rethink our entire program so that I am doing enough to continue to push them. Training intensities are set by my philosophy, but now have to be altered because I think that the kettlebell work has almost created a monster. I fear that what I would traditionally do at this time of year will almost not be enough to make any real gains in strength and speed. So, thanks to you, Pavel, and the sickness of the kettlebells ...it's back to the drawing board for me.

On behalf of this University and myself, thank you for everything you have done,

Your Friend,
Chris Holder

"?if you were to ask him what the single one determining factor for our dominance this year, without hesitation, Ben would respond, "The kettlebells."



Jordan- Jordan Beck: Freak....enough said. Jordan was our middle linebacker for the football team. What Jordan has achieved here at CP is nothing short of amazing. All-American two straight years, All-Conference and more importantly the Buck Buchanan Award winner this season (Buck Buchanan award is given to the NATION'S top defensive player- the most prestigious award that can be given to a defensive player at this level). Has broken every school record that he could get his hands on...has led the team in tackles for what seems forever....and with all this athletic prowess, an outstanding individual who radiates leadership and character. I will probably never have the opportunity to coach a more talented or gifted athlete as long as I coach. Jordan is an enigma. Will be drafted in the 2005 NFL Draft and will make the team he goes to a better team just by signing his name.


Cobian- Ben Cobian: CP football offensive lineman, team captain. Ben is the embodiment of hard work. A large, stiff, out of shape athlete when he came to us in the summer of 2000, Ben has redefined his body and completely changed himself to become one of the most dominant and athletic offensive lineman in the nation. Ben is like a sponge when it comes to training. A true believer in hard work and is everything a coach in my profession dreams of. Would gladly chew broken glass if I told him it would make him better. Ben is a beast on the field who's versatility and athleticism basically saved our season this year. The only attributes that can rival his drive and determination in the weight room, are his character and leadership. Ben is an outstanding person who will have a solid chance at playing in the NFL.


Heather- Heather Bryan: Soccer Mid-fielder, team captain. The definition of toughness and perseverance. Heather was confined to a wheelchair in the summer of 2003 with surgery on both of her legs. She was basically written off by everyone including her coaches and myself and was given the bleak news that she might not play soccer competitively again. Well, that didn't stop her. After a long rehab, Heather started lifting again with a fire that everyone marveled at. Her intensity and dedication to training catapulted her into the lifting elite. She shattered every Olympic lifting record that I have for my female non-track athletes. Her successful attempt at 70kg on the clean is to this day the proudest moment of my coaching career (she successfully broke that record the very next week...). She led her team to it's third straight Conference Championship. The kettlebells have been a God send for her and her enthusiasm about training has not stopped even though her eligibility has been exhausted. Heather is truly my hero.


Turbin- Kelly Turbin: CP football player, defensive end and borderline genius. Will graduate in a couple of quarters with his Masters Degree in Engineering (of all things!) all while being a total badass in both the weight room and on the field. Freak in the weight room who pressed 225 lbs. 46 times upon entering training camp this Fall. Team Captain and one of the team leaders for the past five years.


Paki- Paki Gordon: CP football player and track star. Played several positions on the football team and was involved in several sprint events for our track and field team. Is finishing his studies in Kinesiology and continues to train like a warrior in hopes of continuing his football career at the next level.



Chris Holder, RKC is the Strength and Conditioning coach for Cal Poly's 20 varsity sports. We are a Division I institution with Division I-AA Football. We are members of the Big West Conference, Pac-10 (wrestling), and the Great West Football Conference. I have been the strength coach at Cal Poly for 4 1/2 years with one short 6-month period during that time as Appalachian State's Assistant Strength and Conditioning coach. Contact Chris at holder54@hotmail.com.

 

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