Three days ago, after a year of anticipation, I became a StrongFirst barbell instructor. (StrongFirst is the organization helmed by Pavel Tsatsouline, who also started the RKC years ago.) This was the organization's second-ever barbell certification, and the first on U.S. soil. I will not attempt to fully summarize the experience---that would be impossible, and if you're interested I urge you to attend the next one in Virginia this October---but rather to highlight a few important lessons I learned.
The kettlebell is a forgiving implement, and will miraculously conform itself to your movement patterns while simultaneously grooving better ones. What this means is that even if you are weak, fat, immobile, and thoroughly out of shape, the kettlebell is the appropriate tool to unlock your body, strengthen your muscles, and metabolize body fat.
The barbell, on the other hand, is an unforgiving implement. You must conform your body to it; the trade-off is its virtually infinite loading potential. You can load an Olympic barbell from 45 to well over 1,000 pounds in tiny increments. It is the ultimate strength tool.
However, for a beginner, teaching and reinforcing good movement patterns---the squat, hip hinge, and press---with a barbell is not optimal. It's not impossible, just not optimal. A "lightbulb" moment from Friday's front squat session was the realization that, with a solid foundation of kettlebell training, movement pattern correction never needs to be done in barbell training.
Good mechanics in the goblet squat, for instance, pre-solve any problems that may arise in the barbell squat. A base of get-ups, arm-bars, and kettlebell pressing pre-solve problems that others may experience in the bench press or overhead press. A flawless kettlebell deadlift and swing ensure a flawless barbell deadlift.
What's more, maintaining these kettlebell skills ensures that their barbell variations remain problem-free.
2. Tension and "wedging" are the keys to expressing strength
This is a difficult concept to describe, but the best and strongest athletes in the world are able to wedge themselves against whatever load they attempt to move, whether it's a barbell in powerlifting, an opponent in martial arts, or even a runner wedging against the ground.
Wedging can be described as generating tension throughout the entire body so that any loose bits tighten up and more efficiently transmit force. It's the process of sealing up energy leaks, so your force is directed exactly where you want it. It's the difference between towing a heavy load with a bungee cord and a steel chain. Watch a world-champion like Michael Tuscherer prepare for a heavy squat. See how he wiggles against the bar, ratcheting his muscles tighter and tighter? That's wedging. Which leads me to number 3:
3. Mobility is critical for strength because it enables wedging and optimal biomechanics
If certain joints are locked up and immobilized by tight and/or loose, overactive and/or underactive muscles, you cannot optimize your biomechanics. You are fighting with one arm tied behind your back.
In my experience, drills like the arm-bar and prying squat are golden for athletes seeking to maximize their strength.
4. Sharpening a blade makes it smaller
For building strength, the optimal rep range for the majority of your training is 4-6, with five being the sweet spot. It's heavy enough to drive neural and muscular adaptations, but light enough not to overly tax the nervous system. It is challenging, safe, scalable, and repeatable.
However, some athletes may occasionally need to "peak" their strength and prepare for heavier efforts. Powerlifters and throwers are good examples. This can be done with a few weeks of training at higher intensity---i.e., poundage. The problem is, working too close to your body's maximum capability for longer than about three weeks can devastate your strength, so for intermediate and advanced athletes, peaks must be carefully planned. Remember, sharpening a blade makes it smaller.
If you're not a strength athlete, peaking is really never necessary, and the key to making continued progress is to set a new PR without maxing. Perhaps you set a new 5-rep PR, or even 3-rep PR. There is no need, really, to ever lift for one all-out rep. Why risk it? Keep driving up your 3 and 5, and you will be stronger. Once you've PR'd your triple, go back to sets of 6-8 for a few weeks, which will serve as an appropriate "deload" after the heavy triples.
Put another way: don't worry about what you can do at 100% effort. In a very literal sense, if you were ever to expend 100% of your energy at one time, you would die. Strive constantly to improve what you can do at 80% effort, and your strength will progress virtually unimpeded for years.
5. Sophisticated programming is eerily simple
I cannot convey many hours of programming lecture and Q&A into a few paragraphs; take my word for it, though: it was the best rabbit Pavel pulled from the hat over the course of the weekend.
The StrongFirst instructor manual, at scarcely 100 pages, details some of the best programming I have ever seen. Decades of research and practical experimentation summarized and distilled. It is deceptively rich.
One absolute highlight of the weekend for me was serving as a programming case study, and having Pavel (with the help of 7x IPF world champion powerlifter Ellen Stein) put together a 12-week squat program for me (left), designed to take me from a 500-pound max single to a 485 max triple--which would put my 1RM in the neighborhood of 540.
6. Bonus lesson: Ron Swanson is the unofficial StrongFirst mascot.
This is very fitting. Very fitting indeed.
In conclusion, I am still internalizing much of what I learned and did this past weekend. If you are a trainer, coach, or enthusiastic lifter, make it a point to attend a StrongFirst certification or course. If you seek to become the best physical and mental version of yourself through smart, hard training, seek out a StrongFirst-certified instructor.
Culling the wisdom from decades past is the new state of the art. Don't get left behind.