10,000 Swings with Habit-Based Training
7 minute read
Editor: Sean McBride is one of the smartest people I know, so when he told me he was doing 10,000 swings and using a clicker like Seth Munsey, I knew I wanted to get his thoughts on the experience. Luckily, Sean is also a great writer! Last September I went to Utah at the invitation of Coach Stevo. He didn’t really explain what was happening just that it would be cool and it was going to change the world. I considered this for approximately 11 seconds and then jumped in with 2 feet. I had no idea what was going to happen, but when you put a whole bunch of really smart professionals in a room, provide them with unlimited amounts of caffeine and a complex question to chew on, good things are going to turn out. One idea that really stuck with me was providing incentives to increase performance of desired habits. I am talking, of course, about the metal tally clicker.
The clicker is a way to motivate people to increase a positive behavior. You click once for each repetition and each time you do the brain gives you a delicious hit of dopamine. Pretty soon you become addicted to the natural pleasure of seeing the numbers tick up and up, until the behavior is its own reward. It’s like Pavlov re-doing his famous experiment and cutting out the dogs to do it on himself, but using kettlebell swings instead of meat. This sounded very intriguing to me, and it set my mind racing to the possible applications to both athletes in the gym and patients in my care in physical therapy. However, I have some simple rules about what to recommend to others, top among them is that I never recommend somebody do something that I have not first tried myself. This called for an N-1 experiment.
To do a proper experiment we had to have a dependent variable. I choose the kettlebell swing. Specifically the 10,000 swing challenge, outlined by Dan John. The 10,000 swing challenge was something that has been knocking around my head for at least a year, since Coach Stevo introduced me to the idea back when we first met. Like most ideas that won’t die I had to find some outlet for it, and combining the challenge with the tally clicker seemed like the perfect marriage. Here were the conditions of the experiment:
I have a kettlebell in my garage (24 kg).
I was barely using this kettlebell, and it was lonely. It needed more sweat and chalk to live and thrive.
Consistency is a goal for me. Put another way, I would like to train more often to improve as an athlete. The biggest obstacle for me to meet my goal is my own ability to show up. I joke with Stevo that he has 167 fat loss tips and I only have 1, which is show up to train. The truth in this joke cuts me because I have had a hard time making the habit to train regularly (I’m going to define “regularly” as “4-5” times a week simply because that’s what I would like to be doing. My experiment, my rules.) As a baseline I had been working out 1-2 times per week over the past 3 months.
I began the 10,000 KB swing challenge in January. Every time I completed a set I would immediately click the tally counter and add it to the total. Every time I got to 500 I posted an image to facebook. I posted the pictures to recruit group motivation to stay with the challenge and as an additional type of tally counter. I occasionally worked out with my back house roommate, but mostly it was by myself. Yesterday I did my last workout for the month. I did not, as you can see, do 10,000. I am exactly halfway there. Here are some things that I learned, in no particular order:
I got halfway to my measurable goal of 10,000 swings, meaning, nowhere close to 10,000 swings. However, the primary exercise was in changing habit, with the long- term goal being to change my habit of how often I show up to train. During the course of the month I went out back to exercise 14 times out of 31 possible days. Did I make my 4-5 times per week definition of “regularly?” No, I did not, but I increased my weekly average from 1-2 times per week to 3-4 times per week. As an exercise in changing habits, I am claiming victory with room for improvement.
The first workout was the most physically demanding, but the “hardest” workout was the second. Anybody can do the first day of any workout plan, but it isn’t a habit until you perform it regularly over time. The second workout is where shit gets real.
Swings teach stable neutral spine position through a dynamic hip extension. I think that I “knew” this already, but I “felt” this. I didn’t really feel like I had the form locked in until the end of the second workout, at almost 1,000 swings. It takes a lot of practice to make a movement intuitive, even one that you have done before. I make a living teaching people how to find and maintain a stable neutral spinal positional and I still learned something new from this challenge.
Working out with a partner is infinitely preferable to working out alone. This is coming from an N-1 experiment so this is generalizable to only me, but it’s a good thing to know about myself. I worked harder, faster, and had more fun with someone to join me. I also learned that John Hiatt is equally motivating to performing swings as Rise Against. Music doesn’t have to punch you in the mouth to be encouraging.
Sometimes I didn’t do all 500 swings in one workout. Usually I did 500 in a session, but I split things up depending on how I felt and on how much time I had. I didn’t make any other sacrifices in my life to make this happen. I didn’t lose my job or my relationship to swing a kettlebell. I stopped my workout if something felt physically off or I was mentally done. I swung it when I felt like swinging it and I didn’t when I did not feel like swinging it. That’s probably why I only got through half of the challenge.
Even doing only half of the challenge I got a lot out of it physically. I sit more than I would like to at work and I felt like the swings worked magic to counter-act the ill effects of the chair. Clicking the clicker felt great and I got a great feeling of accomplishment each time I reached 500. I didn’t pre-test any big lift tests so I can’t retest my squat or deadlift PR based solely on this regimen. If any aspect of my physical strength changed more than any other it would be grip. Swinging the kettlebell 500 times in an hour or less will test your ability to hold onto something. I am now better and holding onto things.** **
In summary, the tally clicker is a good tool to increase performance of a desired behavior. Based on the total number of swings done in a month I did not overcome every obstacle to training regularly, but I trained more often after using the clicker than before. I am going to keep the tally clicker around in the garage and I am going to keep swinging the kettlebell. I want to see that clicker get to 9999.