The kettlebell snatch and VO2 training protocols

One of the things that pops up time and time again in the kettlebell world is the RKC snatch test and how best to train for it. Usually after someone has passed the snatch test they “get it” and stop freaking out about it and greatly reduce the amount of snatching they’re doing. But what if you’re still in the first group? What if you’re still trying to get your numbers so that you can pass the snatch test?

Back when I started using kettlebells the RKC world was all  going bananas over Kenneth Jay’s Viking Warrior Conditioning. For people who don’t know this great book was based on university level research using the kettlebell as a means to increasing Vo2max rather than the usual running, riding or rowing approaches typically seen. The book is really quite a simple plan to follow and the results from the study speak for themselves – if you follow Jay’s approach you will increase Vo2max.

But like with most things people took a good idea and ruined it through poor application. At no point in the book does Kenneth ever mention that you should follow his program as a way to pass the snatch test, yet that’s what people tried to use it for. Let’s look at some of the basic flaws in this premise:

  1. The basic plan is set up for men using a 16kg bell, and 12kg for women. For some women that bell may be the same as their snatch test bell, but for men that will be considerably less. The snatch test is usually done with a 24kg for men and a 16kg for women. Like with all things, specificity rules and there’s little point getting used to snatching a 16kg bell if the rules say you need a 24kg.
  2. The speed that you snatch at for VWC is set at a minimum of seven reps per fifteen seconds, or just over two seconds per rep. The snatch test is done at a speed of one rep per three seconds. The difference may not sound like much but VWC is done at a pace fifty percent faster than you need to go to do the snatch test. For anything that lasts five minute spacing definitely plays a part. Most people get roughly sixty percent of the reps in half the time, and then need the second half of the test to get the remaining forty percent. Go too fast early on and you’ll certainly pay for it via massive oxygen debt.
  3. One of the issues with training at the speed needed for VWC is that many people start snatching poorly, ending their snatch well short of vertical. But at no point in the book does Jay ever tell people to just snatch any old how and disregard form for reps. There’s even a testing protocol to figure out at what weight and how many reps per interval to start at to make sure everything is done correctly. But people started flailing around like an epileptic at a rave and then complaining their snatch technique went to hell. Sorry, but that’s on you. If you aren’t smart enough to snatch with good form and stick to the plan then you have only yourself to blame.

Let’s break this down and look at what should be going on for people wanting to train for a five minute event (or even ten minutes if the goal is the SSST). A five minute event is similar in time to a 1500m row, 1250m ski erg, 100 cal Airdyne if you’re speaking about in the gym fitness tests. If you’re talking about sporting events that take that long then it’s a 400m swim, 1500m run, 3000m ride. To make this easiest to look at, let’s talk about just the 1500m run.

If you were training for a 1500m run would you:

(a) Train exclusively on short distance/ above race paced efforts.

(b) Do only slow/ longer than race distance efforts.

(c) A combination of both fast and slow work, as well as short and longer duration.

Hopefully, you’re smart enough to see that (c) is the correct answer. So why the hell aren’t you doing that for your snatch test preparation when physiologically the way the energy systems are being used is the same? While there is very much a technical element to the snatch test, as there is a technical element in all sports, but the over riding factor in success comes from training the energy systems needed.

My favourite way to get ready for the snatch test is to have a day of heavier work, like snatching a 28kg or 32kg for sets of eight to ten reps per hand, and another day of doing longer sets, but still shorter in duration than the test itself – something like three minutes on for three rounds is perfect here.

Recent research shows that if you were looking to work on the aspects of fitness that would most help in an event that lasted five minutes what you want are two things:

  • Short intervals of thirty seconds done at a much higher power output than your race would require. These are ideally thirty seconds in length with a full recovery. A five minute cycle works best here of thirty seconds hard with a four and a half minute recovery.
  • Longer intervals of four minutes with a one to one work to rest ratio. These intervals are shown to create maximal levels of lactate and teach the body to better cope with the stress of efforts done at race pace.

Does it seem nearly exactly the same as what I suggested just above? One session of higher weight (i.e. higher power output) and another of longer intervals to teach pacing and lactate tolerance. This is one of the things that always makes me laugh a bit at some of the advice given by certain people in the kettlebell world – they’re not applying critical thinking to the subject at hand. In some cases they’re just big, strong freaks of nature who can do nothing and pass the snatch test. Let’s call them accidentally strong. Because at no point have they actually had a think about what would be the best way to train for a five minute effort. Of course there are differences between running or rowing and snatching, but apart from the technical component you’re still training the exact same energy system for a five minute all out effort doing one as you are the other. It’s about systems, not exercises. So make sure you’ve got the right method for the event, and don’t just blindly start chucking weight around and wonder why you’re not getting anywhere.