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Dragon Door Interviews RKC Team Leader Mark Bixby

December 25, 2012 01:37 PM

Dragon Door: You mentioned finding kettlebells in an unusual way, can you share that with us?
Mark Bixby:  I was working on my undergraduate degree in philosophy and English in Austin, Texas while working my way through school in a restaurant.   I started working in kitchens at the age of 15,  and began cooking as a sous chef for a small Mexican/Caribbean cuisine restaurant at 18.   After graduation, I wanted to pursue a master's degree in Humanities and continue my culinary pursuits, so I applied to St. John's College in Santa Fe, New Mexico.

At the St. John's College gym facility, I saw an ominous sign attached to some kettlebells which were actually locked up.  This was in January of 2002, and I had no idea what a kettlebell even was.   The sign basically said, "Please don't touch the kettlebells until you've been professionally trained, you can die using them!"  Or a similar crazy-sounding warning.   So I ignored the kettlebells, and continued with my regular exercise routine.  Occasionally I would see a few students use them.

The school's fitness director was a Brazilian jujitsu champion.  She found out about kettlebells right when they first were just bursting on the fitness scene here in the U.S. with Pavel and Dragon Door.   She'd ordered the kettlebells for the school, and I'd often see her and the wrestling team training with them.  I was kind of intrigued, but at the time they had an almost cult-like devotion to their kettlebell and jujitsu practice.  Initially I was put off by that, but still intrigued.

When I finished my master’s degree in summer of 2003, I got my first teaching job at Desert Academy High School in Santa Fe.  Another guy who went through the Master's program with me also found a job at Desert Academy.  He had played with kettlebells a little bit before we graduated.  Since we didn't have a nice gym or weight room at the high school, he said he had a couple of 24kg kettlebells and would show me what he knew.   He said it was an awesome workout.

We started working out with kettlebells together in 2004.  We had no formal training, and were just trying to figure it out from watching internet videos and remembering what we'd seen the wrestling team at St. John's practice.  We continued in this self-taught path for a couple of years, doing our best with what we had. 

Then in 2006, my wife Keira had our second baby and wanted to get back in shape after her pregnancy.  She had seen me using kettlebells, noticed it was intense, and that workouts were quick.   But, as a Feldenkrais bodyworker, she could see something about my technique looked less than safe, so she sought out formal instruction.  She finally found Zar Horton and went to train with him in Albuquerque in 2007.   Afterwards she came home and told me that we'd been doing everything wrong.  We had to relearn everything.  Soon, I started driving out to Albuquerque and training with Zar too. 

Keira was RKC certified in early 2008, and we started our own training business soon after.  I was certified in 2009, but before then I was basically working childcare—when people would show up at the park to train, Keira would lead the kettlebell workouts, and I would watch seven children, including our own kids! 

The moms Keira was training lost a lot of their pregnancy weight quickly.  They were also becoming seriously addicted to kettlebells.  Very soon, we were inspired to open our own gym in August 2008.  Now, we're at our 2nd location and have tripled our original membership.  Currently, we have 150 members and between 25 to 30 kettlebell classes a week.   It just seems to keep growing. 

Dragon Door: Now that you’ve been promoted to RKC Team Leader, what's next for you?

Mark Bixby: It’s interesting, I’ve been enjoying Dragon Door's diverse offerings.  I still love kettlebells and use them three to four times a week.  But, I also attended and enjoyed the first bodyweight workshop with Max Shank and Pavel last year.  I've really gotten into using clubbells to improve my mobility and coordination.  I love the flowing, dance-like movements with clubbells. 

I’ve been using Convict Conditioning to continue working on body weight exercises.   Also, in May of this past year, we hosted a MovNat certification training at our gym with MovNat founder, Erwan Le Corre.  We’ve incorporated some of those movement patterns at the gym.  Along with kettlebells, we've added climbing, throwing, jumping, swinging, rolling, and other primitive movements.  We have a diverse range of movements at the gym now. 

Dragon Door: When you first started training with Zar, and learning RKC style kettlebell training, what changes did you notice?

Mark Bixby: When I was self-taught I had been doing more of a CrossFit-style swing, extending the movement up high for the first couple of years.  I started getting some pretty gnarly back injuries, and would have to sit out for a couple weeks at a time.  When I first began to really learn the RKC techniques, I noticed increased strength from harnessing tension correctly.  I also noticed body composition changes that directly came from properly using more tension.  The biggest thing was ending the pattern of an injury every six or seven months because of bad technique. 

Dragon Door: Do you mainly lead group classes like Keira, or do you focus more on individual training?

Mark Bixby: I do both. I teach five group classes a week and train several private clients.  Additionally, I’ve put together many special programs which are very specific and targeted.  Keira and I co-wrote an extreme program that’s very cardio intensive, and focuses on body composition improvement.  It runs for six weeks of five days a week, and is very popular with the women who train at our gym. 

Since our gym is called dkb, the first special program I created was called dkbPro, and basically used kettlebells, bodyweight exercises, resistance bands, tractor tires—a real variety.  We used this approach to improve athletic goals like the vertical jump, 40-yard dash time, and agility.  We even used a lot of the various agility cone drills used by NFL and professional soccer players.  It is an intense program but brings awesome results.

I’ve also created and led a program called dkbStrength.  We've run that program a few times with great results—it's a combination of heavy double kettlebell exercises and bodyweight drills.  Then, after the MovNat certification, I created a program for our gym called dkbMove, which use a lot of primitive movement patterns like crawling, rolling, and jumping.   The first time we ran dkbMove, we had 12 people participate, including 9 women.  Five of the women were age 40 or older.   It was great to see them swinging from monkey bars, jumping from high places and landing—it was just awesome!

I’m always working on my own programs and work out in a pretty organized fashion.  I love to put all the information together into new programs to offer our clients at the gym, and I especially love to create and lead very specific and structured programs.  

Dragon Door: I'm curious to see some of those programs, they sound like a lot of fun.  Are there any specific exercise combinations, or a workout from the dkbStrength program you could share with us?

Mark Bixby: The most recent incarnation of dkbStrength was three days a week for eight weeks.  Each day had a different strength focus. 

Monday nights were bodyweight.  The goal was to do low-rep sets of handstand push-ups, pull-ups on ropes/towels, pistols (using TRX, partner hand-holding, boxes of various heights), push-up variations, and bridging progressions.  We aimed for 20-25 good reps of each exercise and did relaxation drills like judo rolls or mobility drills in between to keep things loose.

Wednesday nights were our heavy nights: 3-5 ladders of 1-2-3 double kettlebell military presses.  Next, to support pistols we did 3-5 sets of 2-4-6 ladders of split stance deadlifts with pressing weight.  To perform a split stance deadlift, situate feet at hip width and place heavy bells beside the forward foot, "suitcase style".  The toe of the back foot should be even with the heel of the forward foot (like a sprint start), and the back foot should remain on the ball of foot throughout the lift.  Drive the forward foot hip into extension at the top and repeat, switching forward foot after the necessary reps.  This is a great way to safely develop the necessary leg strength necessary for pistols.  Next, we did 3-5 sets of 3-5 reps of loaded pushups (50 to 75 pound sandbags on the back).  Finally, weighted pull-ups, 2 ladders of 1-2-3.

Saturdays included a lot of variety and focused on loaded movement drills.  For example, I might tie a fifty foot-rope to a 100lb sandbag, pull it across the floor to me, then shoulder the sandbag and walk it back to its start position before repeating the process on the other side and moving to next station.  Outside, we'll do 5 tireflips, crawl down a 25 foot length of curb, then finish with a partner "human sled" drill.   In this drill, one partner pulls a heavy gauge resistance band (which is around your waist) while you sprint—there's a lot of rest in between sets.  This drill is for short bursts of high intensity with lots of rest.

Dragon Door:  Did I understand correctly that you have also been developing an app?

Mark Bixby: Yes, for the last year and a half I have been helping design an iPhone fitness app called Teemo.  It went live this year and has been really successful.  The project was a collaboration between a publishing company and design group in the San Francisco area. It's an interval-based fitness program aimed at a more sedentary audience.  This particular audience has a harder time getting motivated to exercise, so an app is ideal.

We used a narrative game for the app, so the exercises were put in a sort of story framework including special challenges.  I wrote a part of it based on an experience in India.  So, I did a lot of research about Goa, then included a lot of yoga, exercises, and strength and conditioning challenges. I put it all within the context of real places and cultural events in the area.  It was a lot of fun to use my knowledge about exercise in such a creative application.

Teemo will be very basic for someone who already has a pretty advanced orientation with fitness and strength, but the app also has beginner, intermediate, and advanced settings.  We filmed over 120 exercises in Boulder, Colorado to create an exercise database, so we're able to reference them within the narrative.  The videos each show the exercise, demonstrated by myself or one of the other fitness models.  It’s very well done.

Dragon Door: That sounds really helpful - but not surprising considering your background in education.   Are you also still teaching high school?
Mark Bixby: Yes, my full time job is teaching high school.  I teach history and English to 11 and 12th graders, and I'm also responsible for some of the school's strength and conditioning work.  So, while I coach the middle age and mid-thirties clients at dkb—where the average age of our clients is about 38—I also train high school athletes.  I've even started a sort of primitive movement club at the school.  About 20 students get together every Tuesday morning for a 45-minute block of climbing trees and crawling around campus.  It’s great for the students, it’s great for me, and it’s just a really nice experience.  There’s a lot of movement teaching and practice going on in my life, and I think it's great.

Dragon Door:    What a cool program!  We're definitely looking forward to seeing what you bring to the RKC.


RKC Team Leader Mark Bixby
leads group classes and conducts individual instruction at dkbFitness in Santa Fe, New Mexico.