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From Gymnastics… to Bodybuilding… to Powerlifting… to Russian Kettlebells

January 18, 2011 09:44 AM

Mark Reifkind,Gymnast, Bodybuilding, Powerlifting Training with Russian Kettlebells
Mark Reifkind,Gymnast, Bodybuilding, Powerlifting Training with Russian Kettlebells

Dragon Door: Why don't you fill me in on your athletic background.

Mark Reifkind: Training has always been a passion of mine. I started out as a gymnast, and competed for four years in high school. I got a full athletic scholarship to the University of Iowa, where I was captain. I was a Big Ten Conference finalist on parallel bars. But I had multiple injuries from the gymnastics: a full knee dislocation in high school and a full shoulder dislocation in college, which ended my gymnastics career.

At that point, since I couldn't use my upper body, I became a distance runner. I did ultramarathon training, which evolved into triathlon training. I also started doing cycling races. I had a good solid background in the ultra-endurance events.

At the same time, I was coaching gymnasts at the Oregon Academy of Artistic Gymnastics. I worked with Tracey Talavera, the assistant lead coach and Olympic team member, and Julianne McNamara, who also competed in the Olympics.

I went between ultramarathon and triathlon training, and of all things, bodybuilding. [Laughter' I went back and forth between 125 lbs. and 175 lbs., and I did that a couple of times per year. I was really enjoying the physicality of bodybuilding and the physique, but I hated how my body felt.

D.D.: Talk about how your body felt when it was built up from bodybuilding.

M.R.: It never felt good. I just felt bloated and heavy. I mean, I'm coming from a gymnastic background where I was 135 lbs. and then I went to 170, and that made it hard to move. But to be honest, I liked the attention. I liked the female reaction to it, and the respect from men. There's instant respect when you have a good physique. I had great big arms and a big chest, so I got a lot of respect that way. But I never liked how I felt.

So I went back and forth for a couple of years. I just loved all of the training; the physicality of it. I did that up until 1985, when I started working at Gold's Gym in San Jose. I became the training partner of a professional bodybuilder. That really ramped up my bodybuilding. I started competing in 1985, and got to coach a professional bodybuilder. And I started doing a lot of research. I'd always been an "information junkie." I would read everything. Even when I was a gymnast, I would read running and powerlifting magazines.

In 1989, my partner Scott Wilson and I, the professional bodybuilder, purchased World Gym. And at that point, I had run the gamut in bodybuilding. I mean, the gymnastics and the ultra-training were very quantifiable; I knew where I was. Bodybuilding was a beauty contest and it was very frustrating to me. I trained very hard and I achieved things, but I came up short. I came in third a bunch of times and it felt like there was no rhyme or reason to it. I wanted something more athletic.

When we bought World Gym, there were a lot of powerlifters and track-and-field guys there. This had been a very old gym. I was amazed at how strong these guys were, because they didn't look strong. I mean, I have a very close friend in training. He's a great powerlifter, six feet tall, and at the time he was 175 lbs. and could squat 660 lbs.!

And I was coming from a very judgmental bodybuilding background where you value everybody according to how they look. I ended up going to a national powerlifting competition to help a friend and I was just amazed. I'd look around and see people that looked like totally out-of-shape truck drivers squatting 800 pounds. Deadlifting it. You could not judge people by how they looked. I was blown away! It was exactly what I wanted to get into my routine — something athletic, something quantifiable, and it didn't matter how I looked.

So I got into powerlifting, which with my injuries was probably the stupidest thing that I could have done. I was talking to this woman during the lunch break about my background and she said, "So you're brain damaged, too, right?" [Laughter'

When I got into powerlifting, it was like, here's a skill, here's an athletic performance. Whatever I wanted to do, I could attempt. If I wanted to try and squat with you when you were squatting 800 lbs., they'd let me put it on the bar. There's no holding me back, like in bodybuilding.

I was Head Coach for the IPF Women's World Team in 1995 and for the U.S. Pan-Am Women's Team for powerlifting in 1997. I competed in powerlifting from 1989 through last year. The Ironman, which was my first meet in 1985, was also my last.

Along the way, I studied and studied. I did well in school, though I never got my degree. I was all over the map in terms of educational majors and classes. I chose not to go the academic route, because I wanted to get into the real-deal stuff. I went the competitive route in which we really learn how to do things. Like the concept that Fred Hatfield refers to as the racetrack: "If you really want to learn how to drive a car fast, where do you go? You don't go to the university. You go to the racetrack."

Everything that I've ever done has been done "at the racetrack." I studied all the top powerlifting authors and visited them and developed relationships with them and did powerlifting for all of this time. Then I hurt my back in 2000, and found kettlebells in 2001.

D.D.: Hmm. Quite a while ago.

M.R.: In my search for new information I found your site and Pavel. I've always read Russian training information. I went to Drs. Michael Yessis and Zatsiorsky. So when I saw Pavel and read his background and saw all of this information on the Dragon Door site, I got very excited. That's what got me interested in kettlebells.

Right around that time, we closed the gym and opened a fairly high-end personal training studio. I had pretty much carte blanche as far as a budget. The first things I bought were two full sets of kettlebells.

D.D.: So you had done kettlebells for almost three years before coming to this Certification?

M.R.: Yes.

D.D.: How has the Certification been for you? Talk about what you've learned here and about how it relates to the way you've trained with KBs these past three years.

M.R.: Well, it's amazing! It's an amazing process. Like you said, I had been playing with KBs myself for a couple of years before I met up with Brett Jones and Mike Castrogiovanni and people like that who really helped me train and prepare for this.

The Certification was exactly what I had wanted in terms of information, quality of instruction, professionalism, and cut-to-the-chase productivity. That's what I like. Yet at the same time, the attention to detail was/is unsurpassed.

I've been to other certifications and left feeling disgusted. I mean, they were a joke to me! But I had to have them, because where I was working I had to be certified. This RKC weekend was a whole other level of certification, of instruction and of intentions. They made sure that you really understood and were able to demonstrate what you were attempting to teach.

So I am very, very, very impressed with this whole process. It was a lot of fun, and I was amazed at what I could do.


D.D.: Especially with your injuries.

M.R.: Exactly, and that's why I hadn't come before. It was literally a sense of fright. I didn't think that I would be able to do certain things, because I might hurt myself trying. I come from a very competitive background. When I spoke to Pavel recently he said, "You know, I come from a tough unit." And that's my thought too. You put me in front of it, I'm going to hurt myself to accomplish it. And these days I can't afford to.

D.D.: Right. How old are you now?

M.R.: I'm 48. And it's just me at the studio. There are no back ups. If I don't work, I don't get paid. I have to make sure that I am uninjured, so that I can work!

D.D.: What kind of people are you training with kettlebells these days?

M.R.: I train a variety of people. Everyone from 12-year-old gymnasts to 65-year-olds, although most of my population is between 45 and 65.

D.D.: Men? Women?

M.R.: Both. I would say it's almost 50-50. In the beginning it was mostly women, But now it's pretty distributed. I train some couples — some together but most individually. I have a lot of men with varying degrees of ability, injury, and high mileage from sedentary jobs. I also do a lot of what I call pre-rehabilitation with kettlebells. It's like injury-proofing.

I look at things very posturally and in terms of stabilization, as well as strength, power, and endurance. But everybody gets trained with kettlebells. That's why I named my training studio Girya. It's been open for two years now.

I've done a lot of unique post-rehab stabilization training. This has helped me realize that basic fundamental postural movements are just as important as training with free weights. I never really used barbells with this population. It didn't seem correct or necessary. These weren't performance-oriented people.

But I always wanted to have a weight that I could hold in both hands and have between my legs. Because I didn't want to load people's spines with traditional squats. And I didn't want to load people's spines with traditional deadlifts, because they are very high-skilled movements. So I'd always use a dumbbell, although I would hold it almost like a kettlebell, and I would do dumbbell deadlifts and squats. But it was so limited because people couldn't hold the weight very long.

The kettlebells are perfect for my clients. And they're even better than I originally thought they'd be, because I thought I'd only be doing deadlifts with them. Then I realized that you could swing them, and how phenomenal the swing was. And everybody could do it!

This was before I really knew any of the physiology in terms of strength endurance with McGill, or any of these other terms of building up the back. Which in retrospect was ironic, because it's what strengthened by own back after I had an L4-L5 herniation in 2000.

When I hurt my back, I first tried to continue powerlifting. I had come from training Westside barbell for 13 years. I did straight Westside, which is just so much force and loads at very odd angles. When I got hurt, all I could do were single repetitions, and my back would give out. I couldn't train normally any more, and I was very frustrated.

I started swinging kettlebells and all of a sudden, slowly but surely, I could do more loading. My core capacity came up and I could squat more and more. A couple of years later, I hurt my shoulder and I couldn't hold the bar on my back to squat anymore. Just benching was terrible. This pushed me further towards the kettlebells.

So going back to Girya, when we opened up they gym, I saw the KB as the symbol of the efficiency I wanted for my clients. Because they are sedentary people for the most part; they don't have a lot of time, and they don't have great coordination or motor skills or the interest to acquire them. They just want a really good workout. I saw the kettlebell as a symbol of the simplicity and the purity of what I was trying to bring to them in their training. It's worked out just great.

D.D.: Excellent. And you've written some books, too?

M.R.: I've been writing for a long, long time. One of my majors and interests in college was journalism. I wrote for college papers and then got an internship with the Miami Herald and was writing Sunday afternoon/Sunday magazine-type stuff. I just never liked the idea of sitting down and going to city council meetings, so I started freelance writing. I freelanced for Iron Man magazine in 1979 for Perry Rader.

I did articles for Perry and for Iron Man, and then for Muscle Mag International and Velo News, when I was a cyclist. And I've written for MILO; I've written five or six different articles for Randy.

Then in 1985, I was approached to write a book on chest training for Bob Anderson of Runner's World. Don Ross was writing a series called, "Getting Strong" and it became too much for him — he needed help. So they gave me three of the books. I wrote a chest-training book, a back-and-shoulder book and a legs-and-glute book. Only the chest book got published, because Bob got divorced and dissolved Anderson and Publishing. But I wrote the three books for him! I've always found writing torturous.

D.D.: It's tough. [Laughter'

M.R.: I do it, but I really need to have the creative space and time to do a good job. I don't like to be rushed. Ever since I opened my own business, finding that creative time has been harder. So I've written less and less. But I really enjoyed writing articles for MILO and Randy. I'll bet that's where I read Pavel's first article. Yeah, I'm sure of it now. It was about vodka and pickle juice!

D.D.: It was called, Vodka, Pickle Juice, Kettlebell Lifting, and other Russian Pastimes. That was a great article.

M.R.: I loved it. Pavel's articles were right up my alley. And then I've written articles for Dragon Door. I've enjoyed doing that and I talk a lot, so it's kind of easy. [Laughter'

Learn more about Girya, Mark's training studio in Palo Alto, CA at Or email him at