Why We Believe In The Strength Matters Level 2 Physical Testing Requirements

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(If you haven’t already done so, please read The Testing Criteria here first, prior to reading this article)

The recently published tests and challenges were the result of extensive research and many conversations that we had with industry experts, including our very own Senior Instructors. We received valuable feedback and constructive criticisms from several respected coaches from around the globe and adjusted where necessary. This post covers our justifications pertaining to each of the three tests. Please refer to our previous blog for specific testing standards.

Concept 2 — 500m Rowing Test

We are here because all of our routes are paved with kettlebells. All kettlebell lovers have their own story about how they discovered the kettlebell and how it positively changed their lives and completely up-ended the direction of their training. Our team of Senior Instructors is no exception. However, we all recognize the need to appreciate complete athleticism. As much as we love the kettlebell, we acknowledge that different tools are better for different jobs.

Cardiovascular capacity is a vital component to complete athleticism and falls under the umbrella term “conditioning”. We all love the ballistic kettlebell movements for conditioning. Performed in an appropriate manner, a decent cardiovascular response can be achieved. However, the kettlebell ballistics are no match against other modalities of exercise (running, cycling, the assault bike or rowing) for achieving fast and effective cardiovascular results.

Testing the modalities is where difficulties arise. We can’t test running because it’s the number one cause of exercise injuries. (However, stand by for some comprehensive progressions for learning and teaching the skill of sprinting, thanks to Senior Instructor and sprinting expert Franz Snideman.) Likewise, we can’t test cycling or the assault bike because most of our affiliated gyms don’t have Watt or Assault Bikes. This leaves rowing at the top of the list for the ever-popular Concept 2.

Anyone who doubts that the kettlebell is not the best conditioning tool and wants some scientific backup, I urge you to follow the excellent work of the Dane of Pain, Kenneth Jay. We love his snatch protocol so much that we put a small part of it into the SMK Level 1. Kenneth first wrote a successful book called Viking Warrior Conditioning, which is packed with physiological science pertaining to snatching. He concluded that the kettlebell snatch, performed with very specific reps, sets and loads will build a “heart of elastic steel”.

In Kenneth’s impressive educational journey he found that the snatch is inferior in comparison to rowing for cardiovascular fitness. He has subsequently written a phenomenal book called Cardio Code, which takes the most interesting parts of the advanced science of cardiovascular training accessible and applicable to us mortals.

Establishing the testing standards for a 500m row was the easiest part of this whole affair. The Concept 2 website has hundreds of officially tested results from all over the world in all age groups. Our testing standards are very close to the 50 percentiles for these results. We then tested them on our loving family members, friends and clients to make doubly sure that they are all very achievable. There will be a Strength Matters table of results where all 500m times will be displayed and the competitive devils amongst you can bask in your glory.

“But 500m isn’t really a test of cardiovascular conditioning.”

“500m is way too short and is more of a test of power-endurance.”

“The test should be 1,000m-2,000m.”

We agree. However, can you imagine the state of the candidates if we threw in a best effort 2,000m row at the start of the day? Not only would the testing period eat a large chunk of the day, the candidates would need at least an hour to recover. This isn’t practical when there’s so much more we need to fit into a three-day course.

We feel there’s a distinct lack of cardiovascular fitness present in the world of kettlebell and strength education, so let’s embrace the challenge. Before testing, the Level 2 candidates will be taught proper rowing technique and given the teaching progressions so they’re able and qualified to teach others.

The Heavy Get-Up Test

Anyone who has done a few hundred reps understands the profound benefits in being able to get up once with a heavy object overhead. Why are we only testing on one side? It is a fair assumption that kettlebell-loving Level 2 candidates who already have hundreds of reps behind them won’t feel tempted to train only one side on a regular basis so we’re comfortable just testing one side.

Testing one side maximizes the accessibility for folks who are harboring chronic injuries or disabilities. Having the candidates test both sides would take up twice as much of our valuable time and let’s not forget, we have lots of exciting material to get through on this certification.

The Heavy Snatch Test

This is a progression from the coveted the Level 1 Swing Test. We didn’t include a snatch test in the Level 1 Certification because we didn’t want people turning up to the course with injuries caused by doing thousands of snatches in preparation, having not been taught solid technique.

The presence of the Level 1 Swing Test means that the Level 2 candidate has an iron foundation of thousands of swings behind them. They have also been taught correct technique by this point, and know that a swing is a snatch that ends overhead, therefore the chance of injury is mitigated.

One of the observations we’ve made after having hundreds of candidates complete the Level 1 Swing Test is that the bigger men tend to find it much easier than the smaller men who must use the same kettlebell (i.e. a 71kg man swings the same kettlebell as a 95kg man). We’ve addressed this in the new snatch test, giving the big guys a heavier kettlebell, which is the same percentage relative to their bodyweight as the lighter guys (more on that below).

Another observation from the Swing Test is that the most challenging aspect, and the reason why anyone fails, is a lack of ability to recover between sets. On a continuum where strength and power are at one end and conditioning is at the other, this test falls deeply into the strength and power end of the spectrum. Considering the presence of the Rowing Test, we want this Snatch Test to be more about strength and power rather than conditioning.

Five reps per arm, per minute allows each rep to be explosive and Hardstyle. The candidate changes arms dynamically and does 5/5 before putting it down. This offers 25-35 seconds of recovery before the next set. Although more than five rounds was lobbied for, it was decided that explosive reps may be compromised in later sets.

How did we come up with the weight amounts? It’s relative to bodyweight. We tried and tested several percentages and ended up going with 40% for men under 50 years of age and 25%-30% for women under 50 years of age. Our highly experienced and much trusted female coach Dana Sorenson was key to establishing the women’s standards. Although a third bodyweight sounds nice for men, the numbers don’t add up. For example:

•    95kg male: 1/3 bodyweight = 32kg kettlebell (sounds reasonable)

•    70kg male: 1/3 bodyweight = 24kg kettlebell (way too easy)

A highly-respected coach suggested that 36kg might be too heavy for some men over 90kg and we may be asking for shoulder injuries if we don’t cap it at 32kg. Our humble response is that the Get-Up Test demonstrates the candidate’s high level of shoulder stability and their ability to hold a significantly heavier kettlebell overhead (44kg or 48kg). The snatch is an explosive movement, but with good technique the power is driven entirely by the upper legs and hip extensors while maintaining tension in the torso.

Let’s break down the upward phase: The kettlebell ends in the overhead position because the arm changes the trajectory of the load. Most this trajectory change happens around waist height as the shoulder extends (and the elbow jerks back, posteriorly). Provided the hip hinge was explosive enough, the kettlebell’s path is barely affected by the trajectory change at waist height. The handle is merely rotated around the center of mass by the hand insertion.

The kettlebell floats all the way up to the lockout position where it rests momentarily until the drop. At no point during the upward phase does the shoulder have to do anything more than change the direction of trajectory (shortening the momentum arm), which happens below shoulder height. Then the shoulder supports the load of 36kg, which weightlessly floated to that position. A male over 90kg has already proven that his shoulders are strong and stable enough for this by lifting 8kg-12kg more in the Get-Up Test.

The downward phase: With poor technique, the shoulder could be compromised at two points: A) By throwing the kettlebell forwards from lockout, or B) By failing to catch the kettlebell at the right moment thereby creating a downward jerk before sending it back between the legs. With good technique (the candidate should already have) and a sturdy grip (the candidate can train for), both of these possible compromises can be easily avoided. If the candidate can swing a heavy kettlebell, with good technique they should also be able to snatch it (up to a ceiling of about 56kg for the biggest and strongest) provided they have the grip strength to match the hinge power.

In contrast, women over 85kg are on the same size kettlebell as women under 85kg. After extensive discussions and testing, we concluded that for women it’s appropriate to cap it at 20kg. Only the most ninja of women would be able to complete this test with more than 20kg and we are a realistic organization, not elitist.

The only limiting factor for this heavy snatch test, and the only reason candidates might either fail or default to using their shoulder when they shouldn’t, is a weak grip. This is a Level 2 Certification and the candidate should acknowledge in advance that the snatch is an explosive hinge movement that requires a stronger grip than the swing. The grip is often a neglected part of people’s training. For advice on developing an iron hook for a hand please read this article by yours truly.

If for any reason the candidate thinks they are at risk of injury by completing the snatch test or if they have a medical condition that prevents them from doing so, there is an alternative option available: the Strength Matters Level 2 Swing Test. This is the same as the Level 1 Swing Test except with an extra 4kg. This is very trainable, as is the snatch test for the uninjured.

Final Thoughts

Over the coming weeks, we will be publishing training plans, guides and workouts to help you pass each of these three tests. If in the mean time you have any questions, please feel free to comment below.

Here’s to a new standard in physical testing and coaching!

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Why We Believe In The Strength Matters Level 2 Physical Testing Requirements.
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Why We Believe In The Strength Matters Level 2 Physical Testing Requirements.
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In this article, Phil McDougall covers our justifications pertaining to each of the three tests for the new Strength Matters Level Two.
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Strength Matters
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