3 Ways to Upgrade Your Simple & Sinister Program

There's something innately Russian about the Simple & Sinister program. Maybe it's the Eastern Bloc influence of Get-Ups and kettlebells. Or the appropriate, no-nonsense title given by founder Pavel Tsatsouline.

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But whatever it is, Simple & Sinister (S&S) has had a profound effect on my own program and those I write for others. Containing only kettlebell swings and Turkish Get-Ups, it's basic yet complex. It can be humbling, yet still leave you with plenty of energy to live your life.

And even though I'm not currently following the Simple & Sinister (S&S) program, I still apply the same principles it preaches - mastering the basics, lifting heavy but not hard, not training to failure - in my own training sessions. And I credit those same principles for helping me finish 9th overall in the Men's Open during the Spring 2017 Tactical Strength Challenge.

OK, I had to brag a little.

For those unfamiliar with the S&S program, here it is:

  • 5 Minutes: 20 one hand swings every minute on the minute (10 left & 10 right)
  • 1 minute rest
  • 10 minutes: 1 get-up on the minute, every minute (alternating hands every other minute)

If you're thinking "that's it?" then you have yet to try it. Pick an appropriate weight and you'll get the workout you seek. Pick too heavy of a weight? Well, the bell might just swing you.

But as we live in the Amazon Prime-era, most people want to see progress quicker than their body is ready for. And for many, I believe that patience, time, and proper instruction are the three main factors that will help people see the progress they desire.

Still, I can empathize with those that might be "stuck" somewhere in their S&S program, or those that just want to progress faster. Here are three tips to help you on your journey:

1. Add In Long Slow Cardio (No Really, Trust Me)

S&S and long slow cardio appear to be opposites. The former is a program built on strength and power, while the latter is similar to biking 10 miles or going out for a slow jog.  What could they possibly have in common? 

The answer: the aerobic energy system.

To greatly simplify things, the aerobic system is famous for its role in endurance. It's a very efficient system and sustains us for minutes or hours on end, but it's not great at producing power. Our less efficient, but more powerful, anaerobic system is used for activities that last for seconds to a few minutes (deadlifts, kettlebell swings, short sprints). It's because of this power/fatigue trade-off that it's impossible to run a mile at the same maximum speed you'd run 100 yards.

 Think of it this way..

Think of it this way..

A few years ago, our industry thought energy systems remained in separate buckets. Do long slow cardio to improve your long slow cardio. Do high intensity intervals to improve your anaerobic conditioning (read: do kettlebell swings to improve your kettlebell swing endurance). Everything seemed neat and tidy. It turns out the human body is a bit more complex than we thought.

We've since realized our anaerobic system - used for short, intense bursts of activity - can be improved through long, slow cardio. I've written about this topic before, as long slow cardio has been proven to decrease systemic inflammation, boost your recovery from tough sessions, and lower your resting heart rate by making you more relaxed.

In addition to helping you recover in between S&S workouts, improving your aerobic or long slow cardio will help you recover during your workouts. Besides the macro effects mentioned above, long slow has plenty of micro effects such as increasing the size of your left ventricle, increasing cell mitochondria and enzymes, as well as increasing capillary density.  These adaptions help your body remove waste products and replenish your anaerobic system, so that your swings and get-ups will be less fatiguing. You'll recover faster and won't need as much of a break in between sets.

Pretty cool, eh?

The best way to incorporate long slow cardio into your S&S routine is 1-2 times/week on your "rest" days, while trying to keep your heart rate between 120-135 beats/min for 30-45 minutes. Because you're working at a lower intensity - a brisk walk will do for most people - you don't have to worry about it impacting your S&S work. Using a heart rate monitor will be easiest, and the specific mode of exercise you choose doesn't matter all that much. Biking, walking, or swimming will work just fine.

Many people don't truly understand the interplay between our energy systems and how they're connected. The old "train slow, be slow" mentality couldn't be more wrong. When used correctly, it can take you to the next level.

2. Use as Little Energy as Possible (While Maintaining Technical Proficiency)

I define conditioning as the ability to maintain power output for as long as possible. And when you look at the heart of the 16 minute S&S program - 5 minutes of swings, 1 minute of rest, 10 minutes of get-ups - we want to maintain our power for that entire length of time.

Too often, however, we psych ourselves up for our conditioning much in the same way we would for a heavy lift. Rousing our nervous system can be great for a maximal effort deadlift - it focuses attention and forces someone to push hard. But doing the same on your conditioning will end up working against you.

Instead, we want to actively calm down prior to and during our conditioning. And if that sounds counterintuitive, that's because it is.

 Fun Fact: clocking in at just under 5 minutes, it's the perfect snatch test song.

Fun Fact: clocking in at just under 5 minutes, it's the perfect snatch test song.

To understand what I'm trying to convey, let's imagine a brief scenario. Two people with similar strength capabilities and conditioning profiles start a kettlebell snatch test. They're snatching the same size bell at relatively the same speed, but Person A is using a high threshold strategy. They're gripping the bell hard, their eyes are wide, and they were belting out lines from "Thunderstruck" by AC/DC before they even started the test.

Meanwhile, Person B's goal is to use as little energy as possible. Almost zen-like, they stand still and conserve their energy before the test. They hold the bell as loosely as they can, focusing on their breath and heart rate, and ensuring the bell always travels the most efficient path.

Who do you think will have to put the bell down first?

Here's the big secret: I've been both Person A and Person B. I have the numbers to back it up, but Person B is going to win every time. Person A is expending way too much energy and they're going to be feeling much worse after the first few minutes.

I'll often see people make the same mistake and act like Person A on their conditioning. Fortunately, I've outlined two tips below that almost anyone can use to conserve their energy and improve their S&S conditioning.

First, when most people perform swings, they'll often hold the kettlebell in a white knuckled death grip. This type of grip actually promotes blisters on your hands, as it increases friction and prevents the bell from naturally moving up and down your palm. Even more, this grip is very fatiguing on your body. Just by relaxing your hand slightly, and gripping the bell only as tightly as you need, you'll see an improvement in the quality of your conditioning.

Note: Whenever someone blisters their hands from a kettlebell, 99% of the time it's from gripping the bell too tightly or using too much chalk.

 Don't treat your swings like this.

Don't treat your swings like this.

Second, there's a tendency to use too much force on each swing, or to treat each swing as a maximal effort. However, you don't need to act like Spinal Tap and "turn it up to 11" - the most technically proficient swings occur at a lower percentage of effort.  Instead of giving each swing 100% effort, think about using 70-80% and embrace the float of the bell. This is going to improve your conditioning as you're not constantly emptying the tank, and you'll continue to reap the benefits without being so gassed.

Of course, that doesn't mean you should be performing half-hearted swings or get-ups. Far from it! We always want technical proficiency in these two movements (outlined here).  

But there are plenty of ways we can succeed while leaving some gas in the tank.

3. Take as Much Time as You Need

This last point is just as philosophical as it is practical. Don't try to rush your progress over the long term and don't rush through your daily workouts. I know, it sounds boring. And for years, I was the worst offender.

While prepping for my first TSC, I realized I had never completed a true snatch test - as many kettlebell snatches as possible in 5 minutes. I thought the best way to prepare was, you got it, by doing weekly snatch tests. In the four weeks leading up to the event, I saw some marginal improvement each time - from 107 reps to 116 during the TSC.

In hindsight, I wasn't allowing myself to reach my potential because I was constantly testing myself. It was the only way I thought I'd see progress. I couldn't have been more wrong.

Because just like in academics, you don't gain the most knowledge by constantly taking tests. You need time to explore and to learn. That way, you're not treating each workout as a max effort attempt. And just like in academics, if you have a great program/teacher, the test will be an afterthought.

As my philosophy changed, I decided I wouldn't do a full snatch test prior to the TSC this past Spring. The result? I placed 5th on snatches with 139, making it my best event. The last time I completed a full snatch test was 8 months prior. Obviously, I was training snatches and my conditioning for several months, but I wasn't putting myself through a grueling test every session.

As always, I'm not trying to interrupt your gainz, just hoping that you'll learn from my mistakes. It may take several months or years to accomplish the Simple goal or the Sinister goal laid out by StrongFirst. But as slow it might be, progress is never boring.