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Dragon Door Interviews Josh Henkin, Senior RKC and Creator of the Ultimate Sandbag and Dynamic Variable Resistance Training Systems

July 25, 2013 06:41 PM

Josh Henkin, Senior RKC and creator of the Ultimate Sandbag Teaching

Dragon Door: How did you get started with strength and conditioning?

Josh Henkin: As a teenager, my sport of choice was basketball. At age 14, I was definitely one of the better players at the basketball courts by our house—I played all the time. One day during a game, I landed on a giant crack in the court and basically turned my ankle upside down. It was so bad that the doctors weren’t sure that I'd ever be able to walk without a cane. Obviously, I was very depressed about the situation. My older brother didn't want me to just sit around and sulk, so he took me to the gym. He got me interested in strength training, and I was able to recover from the injury. My brother also introduced me to the assistant coach for the Chicago White Sox who also worked at my brother's high school. I was very lucky to have these influences and an introduction to strength and conditioning at an early age.

I've always enjoyed being around athletics, even if I knew that I wasn't going to be a professional athlete. So, the field of strength and conditioning was one of the coolest ways to have an active part in the development of athletes.

Dragon Door: That would explain your degree in Exercise Science.

Josh Henkin: Correct, and I went to Arizona State. Getting out of the cold winters in Chicago was definitely nice. I always knew what I wanted to do, so I worked hard toward the degree and start interning at the right places to really begin experiencing what the profession is like.

Dragon Door: When did you start developing the Ultimate Sandbag and Dynamic Variable Resistance Training (DVRT) systems?

Josh Henkin: I started working on them around 2005. After the RKC, I was really intrigued by the idea of old time strength training and got into what they were actually doing. It was really interesting to see that old time strength training really wasn't the old-school uniform methodology most people refer to. Each strongman had his own way of training.

Though one universal concept was the practice of lifting odd objects—many strongmen talked about it. Even though they'd each use different implements in different ways, the strongmen all tried to fill in the gaps of their strength training. They also understood that barbells and dumbbells were static objects. Many of these guys had backgrounds in wrestling and gymnastics and knew that you had to be very athletic and work with what they called "non-cooperative forms of training." These ideas really intrigued me.

So, I built my own Ultimate Sandbag and it had its very own unique feel and movement. It was also brutally tough, which I enjoyed. But, I also learned from its particular downfalls—especially because I was developing the actual system of training instead of just focusing on implements.

Senior RKC Josh Henkin Presenting Movement Concepts

Dragon Door: I didn’t realize you began developing the Ultimate Sandbag after becoming involved with the RKC and kettlebells. How were you first introduced to kettlebells?

Josh Henkin: Because of my background in Olympic lifting and many of the other iron sports, I knew a lot of coaches. John Davies in particular—probably one of the original people involved with the RKC—told me that I had to check out kettlebells. At the time I just thought kettlebells looked a lot like a dumbbell. I didn't understand why I had to use a kettlebell, when I thought I could do the same things with a dumbbell. But, he was very emphatic about the methodology and insisted that I check it out.

Since I respected him as a coach, I decided to try it. But, I did what most people probably do, I bought a kettlebell and a DVD. But as soon as I started watching the DVD, I started realized I didn’t know what I was doing. Even though I had a background in the iron sports, kettlebell training just felt different. I knew that if I was going to implement it, I really needed to learn how to do it right. I’m one of those people that if I want to do something, I’m going to do it 100 percent. So, that’s why I went to the RKC in 2003.

Dragon Door: What were some of the biggest ideas you learned at your first RKC Workshop?

Josh Henkin: One of the biggest things I learned was the difference between a movement and an exercise. In the past, in fitness as well as strength and conditioning, we were all very fixated on specific exercises. That was the biggest idea I took away—really emphasizing that we are trying to achieve a specific movement with every exercise. Being really specific and detailed about what the specific movement involves lets us optimize the performance of that movement.

In the past I had focused on just performing the exercise instead of getting really good at the movement involved. I didn't really understand all the dynamics or details of a given exercise. We simply did certain exercises because that's what had always been done. After the RKC, I understood how to integrate the body more efficiently. It gave me a broader scope of looking at all movement patterns differently.

Dragon Door: What were some of the benefits you've experienced from kettlebell training?

Josh Henkin: With my history involving a bad back injury, kettlebell training taught me what I was doing wrong in movement. After the back injury, there was always a point in all lifting where I would definitely start to feel my back. Going through the RKC helped me understand what I was doing wrong in my training, and why I injured my back in the first place. With kettlebells, I started finding a lot of my weaknesses, charting my imbalances, and learning the benefits of good movement patterns.

What I love so much about the kettlebell is how it's accessible to so many different people. It's a beautiful tool, because most people are using the kettlebell to achieve another goal. A colleague of mine said, "You don’t need to make people Olympic lifters for sports." Unfortunately, many times we want our athletes to get really good in Olympic lifting along with playing their sport—even though Olympic lifting is a sport in of itself. Kettlebells allow people to train the same qualities as Olympic lifting, but they get the benefits so much faster.

One of unique benefits is the ability to work with unilateral instability even when you’re using two kettlebells. There’s a lot of self-formation that happens by using two independently moving weights. With a barbell, the independence of movement is lost while many of the kettlebell movements become anti-rotational.

When we hold the kettlebell in front, we’re obviously building a lot of anti-flexion strength—basically a standing plank. This not only takes away a lot of spinal compression, it also builds up real functional core strength that most people wouldn't otherwise possess.

The layers of progression that you can build with just a few kettlebells is really immense. This allows us as coaches to be more successful and selective in building very specific individual programs for our clients. We can use the same basic kettlebells for completely different reasons and different levels of progressive movement.

Dragon Door: Absolutely. Is movement also at the core of your Ultimate Sandbag Programs?

Josh Henkin: Yes, the new Ultimate Sandbag Program uses these concepts and expresses them in different ways. The biggest difference in using a Ultimate Sandbag is that a kettlebell is still a relatively static resistance, but the Ultimate Sandbag has a more dynamic resistance. So they're great complements to each other and we use both for that reason.
Senior RKC Josh Henkin Coaching Ultimate Sandbag Movements

With the Ultimate Sandbag, there’s also holding position, which for me has always been a very key concept. Most people don’t program different holding positions into their exercises. Kettlebells have about 5 different holding positions, our Ultimate Sandbags have up to 11 different holding positions which add different levels of difficulty. We can build new stability challenges and change the entire dynamic of an exercise just by how we hold an implement. The placement of the weight can also completely change the perceived intensity of the resistance. Many times, the real challenge of a movement is maintaining the position and alignment of the body during motion.

Dragon Door: Are these ideas similar to some of the old time strongman methods you mentioned earlier?

Josh Henkin: Yes and no. At first, while training with my homemade sandbag, I realized I was simply replicating barbell movements which quickly became limiting. While the Ultimate Sandbag was unique, I hadn't provided the right purpose and intent in the programming, progressions, and regressions. When I started out, I wasn’t yet aware of how holding position, body position, and other elements play a big role in programming and progressive movements.

Now, what I've done is streamline the implement and the system to allow for more progressions, purpose, and meaning to each exercise. When most people start moving in different patterns and planes of motion, many more weaknesses and asymmetries become evident. It could be when they’re standing asymmetrically, moving to a different plane, or combining several elements. With an Ultimate Sandbag that slowly shifts and moves, every repetition is dramatically different. It’s almost impossible to groove a particular exercise when the implement itself is constantly changing.

Dragon Door: You had a cervical disc herniation and underwent spinal fusion in 2011, but recovered very quickly. Can you tell us about that experience?

Josh Henkin: The experience taught me a lot—it's why I started to gain even more appreciation for the RKC, and the Ultimate Sandbag Program. I wouldn't want it to happen to anyone, but I think there’s a lot of value in the experience of recovering from a severe injury. It’s one thing to talk about training and methodology in a perfect world with no stress, where everyone’s healthy and has enough time to train. But, in the real world, people have a lot of issues.

For the first couple of weeks after surgery, I wasn't allowed to do anything. When I was finally allowed to start walking, I could feel every impact in my neck. Next, I was finally allowed to lift about 20lbs. I kept wondering how I could start to train my body while reintegrating myself because this injury caused a weakness in the connections of my neurological system.

So I started playing with patterning in different planes of motion, different levels of stability, and different positions of resistance. It wasn’t focused on the how heavy the weight was, but how it felt and how it challenged me to maintain my posture and integrity during the motion. I started finding the weak muscles, integrating them, and finding the points where they couldn't support the movement pattern.

My wife was horrified when she saw a picture of me pressing a heavy kettlebell because I wasn't supposed to lift more than 40 pounds. I wanted to test my progress, and was able to press a 97 pound kettlebell. Before the surgery, I could barely press a 24kg (53lbs) because of all the neurological damage.

Dragon Door: That’s incredible! How long were you in physical therapy after your surgery?

Josh Henkin: That was the best part—I never did go through physical therapy.

Dragon Door: How long did it take you to get to that point where you could perform that press?

Josh Henkin: About six weeks. I felt like I was getting better, but up to that point, I hadn’t lifted more than about 50 pounds. But even lifting lighter still allowed me to become capable of lifting far more weight in the end. It changed the way I saw training and how we really need to progress people in training programs.

Dragon Door: You've recently been promoted to Senior RKC, what do you feel like you can bring to your leadership position?

Josh Henkin: I'm so excited about the opportunity. We were exploring bringing some of my programs to Dragon Door, too. It’s a great platform to meet new people. John thought I would be interested in an RKC leadership position now that there seems to be a new era of openmindedness. I think it will be a great opportunity to start sharing new ideas because, "There’s only one guarantee—that things change."

I think we can change the RKC for the better, evolve the program and create a wonderful experience. Ultimately I think the goal of all RKC instructors is to help their clients have a wonderful experience with fitness and improving their health.

Senior RKC Josh Henkin in a fitness studio teaching a workshop about his DVRT System
Josh Henkin is the creator of the Ultimate Sandbag and DVRT System.