Monday, April 2, 2012

Pyramid Formation: Confidence from the Ground Up

When teaching kettlebells, I really enjoy instructing workout sequences which are both effective in building strength AND building confidence. Let’s be honest here: for those seeing kettlebells for the first time – the exercises, the swift motions, the apparent oddity… it can really become an uncomfortable sight. Then, just as you feel like you’re ready to accept the idea and try it out, an instructor picks up a 50-some-pound cast iron wrecking ball and decides fling it in the air like it’s nothing more than a beach ball. Talk about intimidating!

However, the purpose of physical training is not to intimidate and bring fear. The purpose of training is to strengthen, optimize, and sharpen one’s mental willpower and physical performance.  Confidence is something which can be trained. More importantly, confidence must be harness to capture good form and proper technique during training itself. Good form and proper technique carries over to performance and ultimately is an essential component for injury prevention.

The pyramid formation is named for the visual appearance of a group kettlebells with the largest available bell being in the center, flanked by decreasing weight classes of kettlebells.  The result is a big heavy bell in the middle and tiny bells, decreasing in size toward the outstretched sides. When seen from ground view, you see something of a pyramid image.

To use the pyramid formation, say for the “Kettlebell Swing”, one would have an individual commit to a certain number of repetitions (I usually use five swings) at each weight class starting from one end of the pyramid, climbing to the top, and finishing at the other.  In this manner, the individual would begin swings from the lightest bell, meet in the middle with the heaviest bell, and then finish with the lightest bell. If at any time the kettlebells become too heavy, the individual is exertionally exhausted, or their form becomes unsafe – the exercise is terminated and the physical limit (weight class) of the pyramid formation is defined at the last safely and successfully executed weight class.  It is important to define the criteria for exercise termination for the safety of the trainees. Many times, the Pyramid Formation is seen as a fun challenge. “What’s the biggest bell I can snatch or swing?!”  However, physical training is no good if you get hurt during training. While the Pyramid Formation is lots of fun, this sequence is ultimately becomes an exercise test which measures for exertional limits. Every smart test must have a predefined start-point and end-point.

The pyramid formation is quite useful as it can do several things for the instructor and the trainee:
  1. Beginning from the lightest weight available is an immediate ice breaker for the new and tentative kettlebeller.  Things are already unconventional and unfamiliar. Starting light is always a welcome approach.
  2. While performing the Pyramid Formation, trainees can quickly build confidence as they approach each increasing weight class. Many quickly realize that despite the intimidating increase of weight, proper technique renders even the heavier bells a controlled instrument of their will.
  3. The Pyramid Formation gives the instructor a systematic and progressive gauge to measure the physical limits of the trainee during a particular exercise. The last safely and properly completed weight class is considered the “Max” repetition(s) and/or weight class.
  4. The Pyramid Formation is a helpful tool for the instructor to assess a trainee’s technique and control. This is particularly apparent as the trainee reaches their maximal weight. This is also abundantly clear during their descent in weight classes to the “bottom” of the pyramid. The downhill portion of the Pyramid Sequence is a popular time of temptation to use substitute and compensatory strategies to “muscle out” the lighter kettlebells now that the heaviest weight has been conquered.
If you were to set up Pyramid Formation for kettlebell swings at 4kg (8lb) increments starting from 18lbs (8kg) up to 53lbs (24kg), you would have 9 total kettlebells to swing. If you were to try this at five repetitions each, due to all the shuffling around, this specific pyramid formation would probably take the average individual two minutes to finish if one were to perform continuously. Personally, I typically encourage for minimal breaks during Pyramid Formations to discern a consistent and accurate physical limit.

While the Pyramid Formation a great tool for assessment, it is also a fantastic warm up routine.  The Pyramid Formation can be used for kettlebell cleans, presses, windmills, Turkish Get-Ups… just about any kettlebell exercise can be used with the Pyramid Formation.  It can be done for any combination of repetitions, time frames, and variations.  As long as the key factor of monitoring movement control, safe technique, good form, and enforcing strict criteria for exercise termination is upheld, the Pyramid Formation is a beneficial experience and one whopper of a confidence booster for the newbie kettlebeller.  Just remember, training should make us stronger, not make us become in need of rehabilitation.  Be Smart: Make it fun, Keep it safe. 

Starting from the ground up is always a solid way of setting up for success. The beauty of starting low is that it comes with relatively low risk and minimal fear. Ending high is a great way of building confidence and marking goals.  So try it out! Set up a pyramid formation and build your confidence from the ground up!

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