My Interview with Steve Cotter

Hi everyone,

Boy are we in for a treat today. Here is my interview with the highly respected, experienced and cutti ng-edge trainer Steve Cotter.

Steve Cotter draws from an extensive and diverse background as a champion athlete trainer to develop some of the most complete and exciting programs in strength and conditioning today. What I love about Steve’s style is that even now he continues to research and implement the most effective training methods in kettlebells, martial arts, strength and conditioning and many other human performance fields. He never assumes to know it all and is always willing to teach AND, be taught. This humility is his greatest attribute. I think the moment you think you know everything or there is just one path, then you fail as a trainer.

It is a real privilage to have interviewed Steve and his advice is very reassuring and will help a lot of us focus our training to be the best we can be.

Enough said, here is what Steve had to say to my interrogation 🙂

  • Steve, I have found that some beginners lack direct or focus, or want to run before they can walk. In order to get full benefits from Kettlebell training, what is the best advice would could offer: a) a beginner to training in general? b) A beginner to Kettlebell Training?

“I think a crucially important and unattended to bit of advice is to be patient! Practically this means to be willing to stay with a lighter kettlebell and build up volume with that lighter load before moving into heavier loads. This will develop better endurance and also will allow for technical refinements with less risk of injury. Since kettlebell lifting is primarily a strength-endurance activity, being patient in the beginning phase of training will assure a stronger grasp of the fundamentals.  This is good advice for all training in general also. After all, fitness and health is a process and not a one-time event. A little every day will pay more dividends than going gong ho once or twice a week over the long term.

  • Certain Kettlebell exercises seem to be more popular or “respected” than others, like the Clean and Press, the Jerk, the Kettlebell Snatch and the Kettlebell Swing for example. Even though I can do these exercises I rarely use them in my training. You could say I use a more basic approach to the exercises I choose. Would you say, to benefit fully from Kettlebells, you need to used all of these exercises? Can you list what you consider to be the most beneficial Kettlebell exercises in developing overall strength and conditioning?

“The degree of benefit is personal and can vary widely based upon user. It can be for fat loss, or for general fitness, or for bodybuilding or sport conditioning or most specifically, for kettlebell sport training. So what would be deemed beneficial will depend on context. I would say that Clean & Jerk with 2 kettlebells or 1 and 1 arm Snatch are the most comprehensive in that they require the most technical proficiency and also utilize the full range of motion in each. So in that regard they can be considered the most beneficial and of course are the fundamentals of kettlebell sport.

One does not need to use all of the exercise mentioned to get benefit. But the question for me is how to get MAXIMUM benefit. I think for a program to work, it has to be sustainable and it has to be without complication. So to simplify this process, it is worth having at least 1 pressing movement, 1 pulling movement and 1 squatting movement. In this way, a person can work all the major muscles and joint with as little as 3 exercises in a given session. For example, Double Press (or Alternating Press), 1 arm Snatch and Front squats with 1 or 2 KBs would work the body in entirety. Included would be grip work and of course the back and entire posterior chain is being trained and of course the cardio-respiratory system through doing higher reps. So with those 3 exercises, you can work your entire body and many systems simultaneously. Some people like to add in things like Windmills or Turkish Get-ups, which are not traditional KB exercises per se, but do lend themselves well to kettlebells. The main point is to stay active and KB is a great way to do that, no matter what exercises one may prefer.

Having said all this, if one, especially a beginner was going to choose only 1 KB exercise and aim for maximal benefit, I would suggest the swing as it is a whole-body movement, burns a ton of calories and is relatively easy to turn with a lot of positive carryover into daily activities.”

  • Since starting to broad-cast my own Kettlebell workouts, I have encountered what seem to be an arrogance and certain divisions within the Kettlebell “world”. There seems to be intolerance for different styles, variations and creativity beyond the standard approach. You broke away from the Pavel and RKC “styles” and developed your own methods which has enable you progress to offering your Certification, which is a great achievement. Personally, I prefer to “feel” my way through my training, rather than stick to one style or programme, which isn’t for everyone. In your experience is it better to follow a training structure / set programme, or is it better to take aspects from different sources and develop your own training flare? Can you expand on some pros and cons of both?

“I agree with you and it comes mostly from commercial interests. Folks want to believe their guru is the most knowledgeable, even when the results say otherwise, and especially so if they make their living by having some particular letters behind their names.  Then of course there is the idea by some that because their guru is a champion that somehow vicariously through him that makes them better than others. My master is better than you master therefore I am better than you. Haha, it is funny and a bit silly, but it does happen.

To answer your question, I would not say that one approach is necessarily better than the other. It depends largely upon the quality of the source or resource. On one hand, it is not helpful to jump around from my method to another, at least not at the beginning. It is more useful to develop a solid foundation in one way of doing things before experimenting or taking on a new way. On the other hand if the source is bad, or limited and another source comes along that offers more quality or more substance or more depth, it makes sense to follow that “better” way. There needs to be balance. At some level all schools, teacher and methods will offer something of value, but surely some offer more than others.

I am one who, while a teacher at the same time remain a student. I have learned from Pavel but when I absorbed what I could from him I studied with Valery Fedorenko, who has much greater technical proficiency and experience as a lifter. But Pavel I think is a better communicator even though Fedorenko is a far better craftsman. So I learned different things from each. After Fedorenko I have studied with Oleh Ilica in Italy, who is also a World Champion at the highest level of KB Sport and to me is the best coach I have studied with to date, as well as the best overall athlete. Although Fedorenko may be a more gifted Kettlebell lifter from a pure technique perspective, Oleh is a better all-around athlete and his use of other modalities (barbells, gymnastics, flexibility, martial arts) appeals to me.  In a few months I will go to Russia for a week to study directly with Honored Masters Sergey Rachinskey and Sergey Rudnev, who have each trained many many many champions. So I of all people want to learn from anyone and everyone who has something to teach. However, I look for the similarities more so than the differences. Kettlebells is an art from and as such learning and practice is an on-going process over time.

Follow one program for at least some time before changing, but investigate and explore. What I can say for sure though, is that there is no One True Way!

  • In the past year I have become what I like to call passionate, but others may describe as obsessed, about encouraging women (especially) to focus their training more on strength and performance over, for example, fat loss. I believe you gain a far greater self-belief in achieving these, than just focusing on how you look. In your experience as a trainer, what advice/encouragement would you offer women who are oblivious to their potential?

“I agree with you. Aesthetics is an extension of performance. If you focus on performance your body will get stronger, more fit, usually leaner. If you focus on aesthetics, it may get leaner and look nicer, but may not improve in function. Also, outer beauty is a reflection of inner beauty. This is a sum of health, fitness and most of all attitude. To be beautiful we must (men as well as women) feel beautiful.

Women are super strong. They have strong minds. Women can bare children and give birth. No man can do that. So women have a mental toughness and physical endurance that is exceptional. Whatever strength limitations are in place are largely cultural and tradition. I know some very strong women in the kettlebell and weightlifting world who most men would be envious of. So the sky is the limit.  Don’t believe that you cannot or should not. The only question should be “do you want to” or actually “do I want to? “ and if the answer is yes, than you can over time, progressively. “

  • What is the best kettlebell strength test?

“Probably the most pure test of raw strength would be a Bottoms Up Press. Since KBs are fixed weights, once you can lift the heaviest available KB, the only way to make it harder is to turn it Bottoms up to change the leverage. A Bottoms UP Clean and Press with a 48kg KB, for example is an elite level of strength of grip and upper body. Another good one is the 2 Hands Anyhow with at least 2x32kg for men or 2x16kg for women.

  • If you could choose one body weight and one Kettlebell exercise, what would you say are your favorite and/or the best, and why?

“For BW I like the pistol because it is very athletic, it works strength, flexibility, balance and agility simultaneously and strong legs are a strong body. Also there is a lot of athletic carryover simply because we are almost never double weighted in athletics (or in life), we almost always have our body load predominantly on one leg or the other.

For KBs I alternate between Snatch or Clean and Jerk depending upon what I am working on. But if I have to pick only one, I pick 2 KB Clean and Jerk because you can work all the body with one exercise, plus grip, plus cardio. It is a man’s or woman’s exercise!

The other week I had the privilege to interview Bret Contreras about strength and conditioning related questions. The next two questions are ones I have also asked him, but I am interested to see other views on these subjects, even if the first one may be a little predictable (given your expertise), but I like to know the “why” behind it:

  • Kettlebells, barbell and bodyweight: Personally I train for variety most of the time and I try to use all of these methods, plus mixing paces to get the most from my body. However I am interested to know what you would consider the best type/method of training for women to achieve overall strength and conditioning?

“I don’t believe that there is a best; there are better methods relative to goals. For example, if the primary goal is to achieve maximal limit strength, I consider barbell to be the best tool. If the goal is to maximize cardio-respiratory fitness, I suggest running or cross-country skiing, or rowing. If the goal is maximal power, I would recommend Olympic weightlifting. If the goal is a balanced blend of strength-power-endurance, I think kettlebells are the best for that.  So specificity of goals is the most important determination as to what best tool or method to follow. Because your question asks about overall strength and conditioning, I think kettlebells may be the best single tool for general fitness, however for athletes who have the same goal, I think a blend of training protocols—kettlebell, barbell, bodyweight conditioning, calisthenics and flexibility and mobility training is most suitable.

  • For a while now, I have had a bee in my bonnet about how the fitness industry tends to portray being lean and shredded as the main symbol/goal of great “fitness” and achievement. Personally I believe they have missed the boat. What are your views on this and, in 3 words, how would you sum up “fitness” or being “fit”?

“Fitness has more to do with performance capabilities than aesthetics. Aesthetics is largely related to genetic propensities. What is fitness in 3 words: vitality, performance, pro-creativity

  • I read in an previous interview you said “Mind-body integration is essential to success…”. How would you say one can nurture this integration?

“Through the study practices which require total mental involvement in the physical process. A rule of thumb is that if you can watch tv or read a magazine while exercising, the exercise is not mind-body, it is body/no-mind. Mind-body exercise is meditative in nature.

  • Finally, any plans for you and the IKFF to visit Belfast?

“There are no scheduled plans of of the moment. We have IKFF courses in Dublin every year or 2 and for 2011 we have courses scheduled for London, Birmingham and Wales, and possibly Edinburgh, but so far not Belfast. Would you like to invite me?

Thank you again Steve for answering these questions for us. I would like to extend an official invite to you and the IKFF to Belfast in the future.  I have quite a collection of Kettlebells that can be used anytime.

“Thanks very much for asking me to participate in this interview!”

The pleasure is mine.

Courtesy of Steve Cotter, Director, IKFF

  • March 8, 2011

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