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An Interview with John Kalil, RKC Instructor

John Kalil Stretch With Kettlebell

Dragon Door: According to Mike Krivka, you might be one of—if not the oldest actively teaching RKC Instructors, leading at least 7 classes a week! How did you first get involved with kettlebells?

John Kalil: Through my son, Chris who is 43. He was back at the house for about six months, and was working out at one of the local gyms with someone who now works for Mike. She was training Chris, started showing him how to use kettlebells, and then suggested that he try one of Mike’s classes. Mike was just getting started with his gym and was renting half a warehouse space—in fact, he had to put chains through the kettlebell handles every night because he couldn't lock up the door! Back then, Mike only had 1 or 2 classes a week.

Chris asked me to try one of Mike’s classes, and after going once, I didn’t go back for two weeks! It was really hard and different. I had been all about deadlifts and benching at the time—but even though I could bench a lot, all the sudden I found out I couldn’t do a pull up! I thought about it and went back. From there I got more involved and kept going.

Dragon Door: What's your athletic background?

John Kalil: I've always done something. I actually ran a liquor store for over 47 years—I'm 73, I'm no young guy here—in downtown Washington (DC). But I've always been active. In my twenties I loved to ski, and we'd go traveling a lot to ski. Then I got involved with running for about 10 years. Later I started working with a trainer and did Olympic weightlifting for about 8 years. At that time, I bulked up to about 214lb (I only weigh about 159 now). While I thought it was cool at the time to have big arms, I felt kind of locked in, it was harder to brush my hair or wash my back! Then I started training with Mike.

And Mike isn't just about the kettlebells, he also spends a lot of time teaching mobility and flexibility in our classes. Now I’d rather do 10 really good burpees right in a row than bench 300lb. I love being mobile and think that I'm especially mobile for my age—that's what its all about and it's what I love—and kettlebells have given me that. When I first started, I couldn't even do a chin up with my hands reversed! I've come a long way with mobility even at my age. It’s just a matter of taking the time to do the work.

Dragon Door: How long have you been working with kettlebells?

John Kalil and Mike Krivka with kettlebellsJohn Kalil: Going on about 8 years. At first I got more involved with the gym beyond classes by helping out with small stuff like erasing the boards or putting up the next workout for Mike. Then I completed a CrossFit kettlebell certification that was hosted at the gym. After that, Mike slowly let me start helping teach the classes by occasionally leading the warm up.

At the new gym—with our own lock and key—Mike started to extend classes. Since I’m retired, I started leading the lunchtime classes. Now I’ve been working with him for about 7-8 years and we've since moved to a 2,400 square foot gym where we have about 17-18 classes a week. I lead about 7 of those, and do personal training in the morning.

I was determined to learn about kettlebells, so for the first 2-3 years I probably went to every class Mike had! I soaked up as much info as I could from him. He knows his stuff when it comes to kettlebells and is all about technique. He still corrects me to this day, which is great because I still want to learn!

About two years ago, Mike said that I needed to get an HKC certification because it would be good for our gym, he thought I could do it and I felt like I could do it. Then, Mike and Phil Ross led an RKC workshop, so I went and did that too! While our gym is growing, we still focus on hands-on personal teaching, it’s kind of a family thing. We had the Christmas party at my home, and we also have cookouts.

Dragon Door: Who do you train at the gym?

John Kalil: Most of our clients are in their 30s, 40s, and 50s. I don't think we have more than one student under age 30. We train a lot of women and couples too. Of 70 or so members, at least 60% of them are women in their 45-50s. I'm the oldest person in the gym!

Mike is very good at making the workouts very interesting, and has names for each of them. He's really progressed over the years and now includes a lot more mobility drills like handstands and bear crawls. At my age, I like knowing that I can crawl up and down that gym. These are all great tools and I firmly believe in them.

Dragon Door: A lot of older people are not as active and haven't been as active for their whole lives. How would you recommend that they start with a program like yours?

John Kalil: Most of my clients are older people, I think they train with me because they see what I can do. I don’t think it's ever too late to start anything. We have kettlebells from 5lbs all the way up to 108lbs! For example one of my clients is 78 and we work with the lighter bells, a lot of bodyweight drills, and mobility with drills like hip thrusters and wall squats. I think the main thing for older people is learning to really sit back while squatting, and to strengthen the glutes. The glutes support it all, so when that butt goes, there goes the hips and everything else.

I guess I'm bragging a little bit, but I feel very mobile for my age. I don't think I could have done that with other type of training or Olympic lifting.
John Kalil Goblet Squat with Class

Some of my clients at the gym who work out with kettlebells 4-5 times a week also do barbell deadlifts which is great, but we keep it moderate. There's nothing wrong with barbell training as long as you have the kettlebell to keep you flexible. I am the perfect example, before working with kettlebells and Mike, I couldn’t even do a pull up! Even though I could bench press over 300lb, I didn’t have the mobility to pull my body up! Now, all that stuff makes me feel good, I can even jump up onto a box at my age.

Dragon Door: What are some of your favorite moves, kettlebell or otherwise?

John Kalil: I love double kettlebell squats and thrusters—singles or doubles. I don’t mind doing snatches and ballistics sometimes, but I don't go crazy. And you might laugh at this, but I love burpees! I like the movement, they just get me going. Sometimes I work out with my classes but I usually work out on the weekends and get a total of 3 days a week. When teaching the classes and warming up with them, I like to be on the floor and ready to help them.

Dragon Door: What's next for you as a coach and a student?

John Kalil: Staying healthy, since I have a few little health issues. But really what I want to do is just whatever Mike wants to teach me. I want to keep working with Mike at the gym and helping it grow as long as he'll let me. And I want to just keep learning. I'd love to keep helping as long as I'm able, because I love working there. I told my wife of 46 years when I retired and left the store—it was tough running a liquor store—that I wanted a job where I would be able to set up appointments instead of having to wait for people to come in. Now I have the classes, personal training clients, and free time.

I like teaching, and get more joy from helping someone who doesn't even know how to sit back on a ball or do a push up, than leading an experienced class. I love to see the outcomes and how people progress from the very beginning. When someone new joins our gym I'm there during the class to scale it down and help them through the entire session.
John Kalil Leading Kettlebell Class

Dragon Door: Are you also helping to design the workouts?

John Kalil: I write them for my own clients, and for about 1-2 months out of the year with the classes. Most of the time Mike gives me the workouts for our classes. We always go over them beforehand and work on them together. He has thousands of workouts and their names are often hilarious.

For a while we were mostly doing a combination of timed workouts and rounds. Now he’s stopped doing rounds because technique seems to suffer when the classes just try to get the reps in as opposed to using timed sets and no rep counts. Everyone seems to be more conscious of their technique with the timed sets because the goal is no longer a certain number of reps at any cost. Now that most of our workouts are timed, we use a lot of on the minute or 30 seconds-on 30 seconds-off patterns.

Dragon Door: Do you have a favorite workout?

John Kalil: I like the "Two Minute Warning". It's 5 burpees, 10 snatches, 15 mountain climbers, and 20 kettlebell swings—starting every two minutes. When the clock starts you have to do all the exercises in those 2 minutes. If you can’t do it, you sit out the next 2 minutes. At my age, I can usually get in about 7 total rounds, but one time I was able to do 10 with a lighter kettlebell as a cardio workout. If you do it right, you will have about 20 seconds rest before the next two minutes begins.

JohnKalilStretchWithKettlebell thumbnailJohn Kalil, RKC leads classes and is a personal trainer at CrossFit Koncepts in Gaithersburg, Maryland.  He can be contacted through the gym's website or email care of Mike Krivka at