Wednesday, February 11, 2009

Interview with Rannoch Donald - "the truth is you just need to get on with it"

In the past weeks I’ve had a couple of interviews on this blog that I have really enjoyed putting together. The interview with Erwan Le Corre contains some inspiring material that really challenges how we think - not just about exercise but about our whole attitude to life. It was also fun to interview Brad Pilon and get some more of his thoughts on intermittent fasting.

Today I am turning to someone closer to home for an interview. I first met Rannoch Donald in December 2007 when I went to one of his kettlebell workshops. Then last summer he invited me start his Combat Ready fitness classes – conditioning sessions attached to the Edinburgh Krav Maga Club. I loved it and as a result have started to take Krav Maga classes too. I always enjoy talking to Rannoch. He is a motivating enthusiastic coach. His interests are as broad as mine and we have shared a few DVDs and books. In this interview we talk about kettlebells, mobility, getting older, martial arts vs self defence and most importantly - simply getting on with it! It is great stuff and as motivational as you can get!

Rannoch, thanks for agreeing to do this interview. Can you tell me a little about your background in conditioning / fitness? How did you get into this stuff?

I've always enjoyed physical activity. I can't say I was ever gifted at any particular sport but I like a challenge. I started Karate when I was 13 and from there went on to Kung Fu, boxing, Jui Jitsu, stick fighting.... Anything that involved hitting stuff or rolling around! I realised early on that being able to push the pace that little bit harder - to dig deep - was an invaluable asset when faced with people who were naturally athletic. I am a great believer in the "fight in the dog". Unfortunately - like a lot of folk - between work, family and life in general I'd been kidding myself for a number of years that I was still fit and healthy. It took breaking my leg a few years back to wake up and realise I had been playing at it for some time. Nothing I was doing had any intensity or focus. Just disparate bursts of activity without any thought of recovery or progress. All that changed when I started working with Pavel's body-weight drills and then kettlebells.

I first came across you as a kettlebell coach – you were Scotland’s first RKC (and are currently rated no 4 in the world!). Why did you start training with kettlebells and what made you decide to get certified as an RKC?

In an effort to rehab my leg I started looking for something scalable. The physio treatment I received made no difference but thankfully Pavel's articles in Muscle Media led me to the Kettlebell. I picked up an adjustable plate loaded handle, a copy of Enter the Kettlebell and some articles off the net. I soon found the plate loaded kettlebell wasn't suited to the Snatch so I acquired my first real KB from the guys at London Kettlebells who supplied me ever since. I was hooked!

The whole body moves, dynamics and power generation required to move the kettlebell made perfect sense to me. I saw immediately why someone referred to Kettlebells as "The closest thing you can get to fighting without throwing a punch". I'd not experienced that level of focus between mind and body since my sparring days. Before I knew it I'd signed up to do the Russian Kettlebell Challenge Certification in Denmark.

The kettlebell world seems to have developed some differences that are almost “sectarian” in their intensity with each side presenting their approach as the “one true way”. You seem to have risen above this: you are one of the top rated RKCs but have also become certified by the IKFF in a slightly different style of kettlebell lifting. Why?

When I originally certed in Denmark, there wasn't another credible Kettlebell Certification. My training had evolved from Pavel's books and Steve Cotter's DVD's. A few years later when the opportunity to do Steve Cotter's IKFF certification presented itself I was thrilled at the chance to learn from another world class teacher and their methodology and style of training.

The schism that you talk about however is the domain of keyboard ninjas and Internet warriors. The forums are awash with people who's opinions are tougher than their training . This type of brinkmanship is endemic in the Martial arts, fuelled by people who spend too much time thinking rather than doing. The Kettlebell is a ball of iron with a handle on it! We aren't going to see any mind blowing innovations for that piece of equipment. So people argue about what you should do with it. You have to ask what is it about an individual's agenda that can only be promoted by criticizing others? "My Guru can beat up your Guru!"

I don't think there are any credible coaches, teachers or trainers out there who resort to this. People can be drawn together through mutual respect or collective contempt. I'll roll with anyone who offers an empty hand, an open mind and a smile on their face.

I think there has been a lot of Internet “hype” about kettlebells over the last 10 years or so but the big benefit has been that this has refocused people on simple functional movements and intense routines. Do you think the “tool” – the lump of metal with a handle - can ever distract people from these essentials?

There is a huge amount of "smoke and mirrors" about training in general. The constant need to turn every aspect of activity into a science or a certification can suck the joy out of, what for most people should be, straight forward endeavour.

The practice I promote is one of longevity, functionality and resilience. If your interest is always based on "more" then you will ultimately see diminishing returns. If your progress is based on "better" - improving movement, becoming resilient - then you have the prospect of a lifetime practice.

There is so much great information out there. Anyone can go online and find fantastic resources from Ross Enamait, Gray Cook, Paul Chek, T-Nation, John Berardi, the list is tremendous, one simply needs to act on it. But the sheer wealth of information stops people in their tracks!

It's not about the Kettlebell or any other tool for that matter. I know that what works for me might just work for you but the truth is you just need to get on with it.

Stop thinking about doing it, get out of the way and do it!

Start with a simple daily practice of 100 reps (just keep to whole body movements e.g. squats, pull ups, push ups, swings) and take each day from there. You'll work it.

Stop looking for novelty and focus on consistency. The trick is to keep that forward momentum. You really have no excuse. It's a habit. And you can't exaggerate the psychological benefits of taking your own training in hand and the confidence that promotes.

Still on the topic of functional moves and intense routines, you are a big advocate of body-weight training. Why do you think it often gets overlooked with people thinking that they need weights to train effectively? Can you share some of the more testing body-weight moves that you use?

It gets overlooked because people assume it's easy and they can do it. Press ups? No problem. Body-weight squats? Easy.

Really? In my workshops we spend a fair amount of time simply getting people to do basic body-weight moves. I don't care how much you can squat or bench. Can you move your body as a connected unit?

I'm amazed when I meet people who train but can't - for example - do pull ups. If you can't do a pull up why on earth would you consider trying to replicate the move on a machine?

Two moves we use to assess basic strength and mobility are the one legged squat and the Walkout. For the one legged squat you lift one leg off the ground and lower yourself, the knee of the non-supporting leg should touch the floor before the foot. A single rep usually signals areas of inflexibility and weakness. Sounds easy? Try it!

For the Walkout people start on all fours and simply walk their hands out (like using an ab roller) the ideal is to get to full extension, hold and then walk back. A single rep is usually enough to show up any weakness in engaging the core. From these simple drills we can start to engage the body as a single unit.

My personal favourite at the moment is Bear Squat Push-ups. Steve Maxwell does these.

It's a Hindu push up but from the downward dog position you drop into a squat, knees off the ground, push forward and then return to the squat. Fantastic drill. Tie that in with pull ups for a seriously challenging 100 rep workout!

You ensure that mobility has a high profile in the conditioning classes that you teach. When did you start to realise the importance of joint mobility and how do you integrate it into your daily life and training?

At Kettlebells Scotland we call it Mandatory Mobility. It is non-negotiable. Every workshop begins with a mobility practice that anyone can do.

A few years back Andrew Usher of Living Flow invited RMax Scott Sonnon to present a 2 day workshop in Glasgow. The event pulled together a curious crowd. There were people who knew Scott from his Systema and Zdrovye days, others who were more familiar with his Body Flow protocols and Prasara.

A large part of the weekend was spent on combatives but it was the mobility stuff that stuck with me. Once I integrated mobility into my practice I noticed big changes in posture, movement, balance, speed, strength, outlook. The incredible pay off from mobility work should not be under played. Without mobility you become a slave to your body's compensations. Mobility is freedom of movement. I'd go as far as to say Mobility is freedom. We've somehow come to accept - in the West at least - that age means decrepitude. Without mobility there is no strength, no power, no health. You stop being the hunter and you become the prey.

In truth, by actively promoting our mobility we redress the balance which allows us to increase the intensity of our practice.

Your blog is called Simple Strength. Do you think we often over complicate our training? Keeping it simple, what do we really need?

We need to think "practice" first, "performance" second.

There is little value in setting goals without establishing a routine we can maintain. A little done often will produce great results. Beasting yourself a couple of times a month will have the opposite effect.

The idea behind Simple Strength is to look for integration - that elusive unified theory of wellness. Most of us are not competitive athletes. Most of us do not perform a job that requires extraordinary physical conditioning. But most of us are pulled between responsibilities, work, family and the challenge to get fitter, drop a few pounds, get stronger.

So, start with the basics. Find a sustainable practice. Anything that promotes your well being is a springboard to bigger goals. If you choose wisely you will find simple methods that cover all the bases - strength, mobility, endurance, fat loss. And the great thing about this approach is, when you are ready to take on a bigger challenge you have a tremendous base from which to work.

My training couldn't be simpler. A pull up bar, a kettlebell, a sand bag. I've recently introduced some Lifeline cables and Jungle Gym from the Strength Company in London. These a functional pieces of kit that offer huge variety and the opportunity to mix things up and play with your training. We are not talking pec decs and treadmills here!

I’m now 41 and I know you are just a wee bit older. As time passes I want to keep fit but - more importantly - I want to live without pain, from the little aches and tweaks that seem to accumulate over the years to the occasional more serious muscle strains and spasms. I want to keep in a decent condition but not destroy myself as I do so. Do you have any tips for staying fit, healthy and functional as we get older without harming ourselves in the process?

Integrated practice. Using yourself as an example Chris, I know you go hillwalking and do Krav Maga. Immediately you have a decent base right there.

Everyday should include mobility. Do you need to work everything from head to foot? No. If your hips are fine but your shoulder is troubling you, focus your time there but do mobility every day!

Three brief Kettlebell sessions during the week works well. Using the Goldilocks principle you have:
  • an easy day where you focus on movement and precision;
  • a medium day where you push yourself a little harder, still keeping the focus on excellent form; and
  • a high intensity day where you might only practice for 10 minutes but its full tilt, no holds barred.
Understand discomfort and learn to live there occasionally. Understand distress and know when to back off.

I'm a fan of the Gymboss dual timer. Set your intervals and off you go.

I'd also recommend yoga or tai chi for their recuperative power.

It's important to get over the idea that you need to somehow "master" all this. Just do it! There is no secret to mastery, it's all about turning up.

On the days where you are pushed for time or miss a class, do 100 reps. Simple.

You wont go wrong getting a good sports massage once a month. I know you take your nutrition seriously and I'm certainly no nutritionist but I think Fish Oil, a Multi Vitamin and a decent protein supplement are good insurance. I am about to experiment with Brad Pilon's Eat Stop Eat.

Treat yourself as a work in progress - a big personal experiment - and you have licence to do all sorts of crazy stuff......most of which I'm finding really isn't crazy at all!

Many health / fitness / conditioning enthusiasts can get a bit one-dimensional but your blog exhibits an interest in the spiritual as well. Is this where your desire for simplicity in your training comes from?

Fitness without the mindful aspect is a hollow pursuit. My blog is where I set my own head straight. I've been fortunate enough over the years to train and work with some remarkable individuals. The common thread is probably their desire to connect completely with their practice. There are a few writers I am particularly fond of: Alan Watts, Jiddu Krishnamurti.

Truth truly is a pathless land. Joseph Campbell has a great quote "People say what we're all seeking is a meaning for life. I don't think that's what we're really seeking. I think what we're seeking is an experience of being alive so that we actually feel the rapture of being alive. That's what it's all finally about." What a simple, beautiful sentiment.

All I am trying to do is give it a go. I recently read Sam Harris's End Of Faith. There is a particular excerpt which stopped me in my tracks - “...every person you have ever met, every person you will pass on the street today, is going to die. Living long enough, each will suffer the loss of his friends and family. All are going to lose everything we love in this world. Why would one want to be anything but kind to them in the meantime?” We owe it to ourselves to appreciate what we've got and try and live using skillful means.

You have some background in the martial arts and you have said that your recent training in Krav Maga and Tactical Edge has reignited your enthusiasm for training. Erwan Le Corre who I interviewed recently teaches movnat, a system derived from “methode naturelle” which identifies exercises belonging to ten fundamental groups: walking, running, jumping, quadrupedal movement, climbing, equilibrism (balancing), throwing, lifting, defending and swimming. Interestingly he includes “defence” – boxing, grappling – in there. What do you see as the key benefits from training in martial arts / developing self defence skills - the truly functional movements, the self confidence, the social support or something more?

The group aspect is invaluable. A martial arts club is one of the few places where you will find people of all levels who are prepared to co-operate in the pursuit of improving each other's abilities.

I think it's important to distinguish between Martial arts and self defence. I like Paul Vunak's take that one is about self perfection and the other about self protection. The are certainly many martial arts that promote good movement but wouldn't necessarily be helpful in a real confrontation. Martial arts for me is certainly about the journey. I was very ,very fortunate at 15 to train with a group of international students from RGIT in Aberdeen. These guys just blew me away. They had studied different arts and the group would get together and split the cost of the hall. At that time I would train every hour I could.

It was only when I started training with Marcus doing Tactical Edge that I think I realised just how important all that cross training had been and just what I'd been missing.

As far as the self defence aspect is concerned, much of that process is a mental one. Hard wiring techniques is important but within Tactical Edge, applying the concepts is key.

The regular workshops with Mark Davies are a fantastic opportunity to get to grips with the system. I feel very lucky to have instructors of Marcus and Mark's caliber on our doorstep. Something I am sure you will have noticed is the genuine camaraderie of the guys who turn up every week at Krav Maga Edinburgh. People from every conceivable walk of life. It's the sign of a really good training environment. That level of mutual respect allows you to push the boundaries and that is where it gets interesting. And of course, the visceral thrill of combat sports is undeniable but it doesn't surprise me that many people don't "get" it. Once again, out of the comfort zone!

What are your aims as a coach for the future? How are you continuing your own “education” as a teacher and conditioning expert?

As you know we have Steve Cotter and the guys from the IKFF over for the first Kettlebell Certification in Scotland. Dr Eric Cobb will be in Edinburgh in March to conduct an RPhase certification for ZHealth which is very popular amongst the RKCs. Later in the year I hope to have Innovative Body Solutions over to conduct a Certification in their resisted stretching program. These guys were key players in Dara Torres triple silver performance at the Beijing Olympics at the age of 41.

For me, I'm interested in teaching as many people to fish as possible. That is the key to all this. Getting people to take charge of their own practice. My hope is that they in turn inspire their friends to take action. I plan to introduce a Mobility/Bodyweight workshop geared towards people who perhaps aren't convinced that they're ready for Kettlebells.

I plan to provide much more content on the website and and training information on the blog. I want to get the fat dads off the couch! Marcus and I also have a couple of projects in the pipeline: Safe & Strong, which we'll reveal soon! I will resurrect the Combat Ready Conditioning sessions later in the year along with Combat Kettlebells aimed at Martial Arts clubs looking to integrate effective conditioning into their program.

Like we say, "What we teach is how we train" so you can rest assured whatever I am promoting, I'll have experimented on myself first!

Rannoch - thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I've learned things from it and - most importantly - been inspired simply to get on with it! Thanks again.

Rannoch’s blog is at Simple Strength and his website has details of his upcoming workshops. These are always excellent with clear teaching. If you are in the UK and looking for good coaching in the use of kettlebells or in bodyweight conditioning routines you should get in touch. His email address is



Asclepius said...

Chris - where do I start? That is a fantastic interview - it is nice to see you let your subject 'flow' like that and explain his philosophy/ideas.

Rannoch exhibits just about every quality you could want in a trainer.

I like his obseravtion that "The forums are awash with people who's opinions are tougher than their training". Made me laugh.

And again, the idea of moving your body as a "connected unit" is for me, bang on target.

The only area where I might disagree from him is where he advises that we stop looking for 'novelty' and go for consistency. I reckon we are wired for novelty and that is why we lose the appeal of 'one dimensional' treadmill/spinning type work. Although this disagreement is probably not that great as most exercises (such as the planche), offer initial novlety but you then have to show consistency to get better at it.

I am quite intrigued by this interview and think I might have a go with a kettlebell and proabably Krav Maga as well!

Marc said...

What a wonderful wonderful piece!!!
Thank you Rannoch for your time, openness and insight.

I do have one question;
Rannoch recomends Yoga for it's recuparitive qualities. But, is it also good enough for mobility?
I recently started Yoga and am very much enjoying it. I'm focusing on my structural alignment for now.

My martial arts teacher always said to me (in his terrible english) "want to live an extra-ordinary life? Then don't live it in an ordinary way"
I got the same feel all over again from Rannoch's wisdom.

Thank you Chris.


Chris said...

Cheers guys - I think there is some great stuff in here and really appreciate Rannoch's efforts in cooperating with the interview.

Good Stuff

Rannoch Donald said...

Chris, Thanks for giving me the opportunity to think about what I do and articulate it.

And thanks for such supportive comments. I really appreciate your input.

On the subject of novelty. The key word hearing is "looking". I am all for trying new things and no doubt, the opportunity to experiment keeps things fresh. However, the belief that the fun is elsewhere is a distraction. If you become really proficient at the fundamentals, sophistication is a natural progression. Too many people focus on becoming average at everything and exceptional at nothing.

As for yoga and mobility. Mobility first. Yoga will most definitely help with mobility but mobility work is mandatory irrespective of whatever else you do. Think of mobility as brushing your teeth. Something you do everyday. Everything else is optional.

thanks again,


Chris said...

Rannoch - thanks again. I've re-read that a couple of times now and there is some great stuff in there.

So often I let things get too complicated and the internet makes it worse because there is so much information out there. Your call to basics, effort and simply doign something are what I need to hear.

Hope this weekend goes well for you.

Asclepius said...

Rannoch - "However, the belief that the fun is elsewhere is a distraction."

Another gem of wisdom!

This is actually more of where I thought you were coming from. I think people get impatient for results and get easily sold on the next big thing.

It is often overlooked that 'resistance is resistance' whether it is from body weight or iron. Throw in 'functionality' and the approach is pretty much complete. But as you correctly observe, results come from focussing on a 'path' and progressing. It is all in the application.

Millionaire Maker said...

what a nice and interesting blog...keep posting your rendezvous with such great people.