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Interview with Max Shank, Master RKC

Master RKC Max Shank Floor Flag

"In training, there is no right and wrong—only cause and effect." – Max Shank

Dragon Door: It’s been a while since we've interviewed you. Recently, we promoted your video collection, Kettlebell Essentials. What inspired you to create it?

Max Shank: It's funny, in a way I’ve put my products out in a reverse order. I started with Ultimate Athleticism, my program to help people get to a really high level of athleticism that would carry over to many other areas. But at the time, I didn’t realize that was not the best staring point. Kettlebell Essentials is another step after Five Minute Flow to get people on the path to great health and fitness.

Five Minute Flow also includes habit formation and overcoming barriers to exercise. It’s five minutes of movement in the morning, followed by a cup of water—it couldn’t be simpler, and there's no way to do it incorrectly. The only guidelines are to make some circles with your joints, move around for five minutes, and reward yourself with water. The trigger is waking up in the morning, so there's a trigger, a habit and a reward afterward. That’s the door leading to health and fitness.

Logically, I think some type of bodyweight training comes next, so I have a bodyweight fundamentals course. The next step from there is using kettlebells. Unfortunately, many people try to jump the gun and get too advanced too fast—or too fancy too fast—instead of developing a good foundation with kettlebells. The goal of Kettlebell Essentials was to take smart programming—full body training sessions 3-4 times a week with a balance of upper pushing and pulling, lower pushing and pulling, core exercise, twisting, and mobility—and weave it into kettlebell training.

Usually, people seem to ignore good programming ideas when working with kettlebells, and suddenly they’re doing millions of snatches, presses and pull-ups but absolutely no horizontal rowing, no dedicated single leg work, or hinging. I felt like there was a gap, and created Kettlebell Essentials to fill that gap. The movements are simple, so it’s great for beginners. But, the devil's in the details, and the fastest way to make it more advanced is to grab a heavier kettlebell. My own workouts are basically the same ones in Kettlebell Essentials, I just use a set of heavier kettlebells.

Dragon Door: How long have you been a Master RKC?

Max Shank: It'll be 6 years in 2017.

Dragon Door: And you recently celebrated the milestone of teaching your 100th workshop?

Max Shank: In April, I taught my 100th workshop. I am very very lucky that people actually want to listen to me for 2-3 days during a weekend. I have racked up a couple thousand hours of teaching courses. It's been a wild ride!

Dragon Door: What’s the biggest lesson you’ve learned from teaching that many hours?

Max Shank: First, I think things should be taught in layers. It’s a concept that I teach called "marble statue coaching". The idea is to add progressive detail to your teaching in layers. You go through the information once and teach the rough outline of the "statue". You pass over it again and add a few of the details. Then, on each pass you add even more detail.

So the mistake people make when teaching beginners is to give them eighteen things to remember—when trying to teach a deadlift. The key to teaching a beginner how to deadlift is getting them to have a good bottom position, a good top position, and then getting them to try it out. It really doesn't need to be more difficult.

In the beginning of my career I had a tendency to give too many details. I still see it with younger trainers who try to give too many details and basically coach the hell out of beginners. Basically, we need to avoid giving people 1,000 details right away. Even though all those details might be correct coaching, they’re not appropriate for someone just beginning to try and remember. Really, you don't actually want anyone struggling to think about fifteen details while trying to do a movement. It should just be simple instructions like "go there, stand up, go here".

The other thing is the importance of being concise and consistent. I go with the "three D's: describe, demonstrate, debrief for every movement I teach. Basically, describe it, demonstrate it, then ask if everyone understands or if there are any questions. I think that is key for getting everyone to learn. Some people will be more auditory learners, while others will be visual or kinesthetic learners. You will want to set everyone up for success.

Dragon Door: Something that many of us discuss with fellow instructors—but that doesn’t get much attention outside our group is the importance of recertifying. I first did the RKC in 2010, and the RKC-II in 2011. Every time I have re-certified it has been a huge upgrade. What do you think are some of the biggest reasons or advantages for instructors who recertify?

Max Shank: Here’s the deal with any course—you have your finger on the pulse of what the instructor thinks is the most important concept at that time. In a program like the RKC where things are constantly evolving, it's going to be even better. Something people—myself included—mistakenly think is that if you take a course, then you suddenly have all that information. I have spent more money on courses than I can bear to admit, but I probably only retain about 25-30% of the information at any one time. Anyone who says that they have 100% retention has a photographic or eidetic memory. I definitely do not have that kind of memory, so whatever I remember is basically 10% of what I learned at one point!

Dragon Door: What are you working on right now in your own training?

Max Shank: I don’t have any real training goals at the moment. It's funny because as soon as you start transitioning from being an athlete to a coach, you have to really make time for your own training. I’m basically just following the template I laid out in Ultimate Athleticism—I do full body workouts 3-4 days a week and some sort of movement that’s 5-Minute-Flow-esque every day. Other than that, the main thing I'm working on is trying to get better at piano.

Dragon Door: Wow! When and why did you start to learn to play the piano?

Max Shank: I had never played music before, so last April I got a guitar and took lessons for about six months. And while I liked guitar, I wanted to learn music a little bit more. A friend who is a musician suggested that I take up piano, so I bought a piano and have been playing piano off and on since last December.

Interestingly enough, learning music with drills, scales, pieces, and measures really helped solidify my ideas for what I wanted 5 Minute Flow to look like, and how I wanted to put the components together. There are so many parallels with movement and music, so I am really enjoying it.

As always, I just like acquiring new skills. Having to learn some new skills—physical or otherwise—is probably a big part of fulfillment and consistency. I’ve also just started long boarding with a skateboard. I’d never done it before, so I have my helmet and pads on like a child when I go around the neighborhood. I like anything that will improve my ability to move in many different scenarios.

Dragon Door: That makes sense as acquiring new skills can often get us thinking in different ways. What do you think is really essential to long term successful training?

Max Shank: It comes down to consistency. If you type the numeral 8 into Google, it will actually auto-compete to "8 minute abs" which is a little bit silly—because truthfully a better program would be "8 year abs" but that would be a tough sell! But, it comes down to long term consistency. The way you achieve long term consistency is by avoiding two things: boredom and injury. If you can avoid boredom and injury, then you will want to stay active and you will be able to stay active.

For example, when creating my program Simple Shoulder Solution, I noticed that in the exercising population many people had to stop exercising because of shoulder issues. Obviously if someone is injured they won’t be able to stay consistent or perform. In the non-exercising population, low back problems are the most common.

But I also saw another gap—people would say that they’d love to work through Ultimate Athleticism, Master the Kettlebell, or Kettlebell Essentials but that their shoulders were all busted up. Even at the professional athlete level, trainers just didn’t have a good understanding of how the shoulder works. Now, I am not the absolute shoulder expert, but there are so many pieces of the puzzle which have a tremendous impact on whether you have a functionally strong and pain-free shoulder.

For example, breathing is hugely overlooked, yet the muscles responsible for breathing basically plug into much of the upper body. And, many upper body accessory muscles assist in breathing. These muscles are basically borrowed from the same upper quadrant as the shoulders. If you have a faulty or dysfunctional breathing pattern, it can actually pull muscles out of alignment. So breathing is the first step in "order of operations" I outline in Simple Shoulder Solution.

A common mistake most people make is to target the glenohumeral joint—the ball and socket joint is the most mobile joint in the entire body. That mobility also makes it the most vulnerable. That joint doesn’t have much of a boney structure to hold it into place. It is mostly held together by ligaments and muscles. So if you try to fix that joint first, then you will usually end up taking the most vulnerable and most mobile joint and making it hypermobile. This can even destabilize the joint and make it even more at risk of injury.

Instead of working on the glenohumeral joint first, we look at breathing, then core strength. When someone doesn’t have enough core strength, they will start "borrowing" muscles like lats which then act to fill in the core. When a lat can’t function as a lat, then the teres has to try to be a lat. The teres is really small muscle and isn’t designed to do that much work—its also one of the rotator cuff muscles. So, when the teres can’t fully function in the rotator cuff, then guess what, that glenohumeral joint will not be safely sucked into the center of the socket where it needs to be.

So, after breathing and core strength, we work on the shoulder blades. Since the scapula also do not attach to the torso, they slide around and are held in place by muscles. So, the muscles need to be able to elevate the scapula, press it down, protract forward, and retract them backwards. If you don’t have good scapular control, then you won't have a stable structure for your glenohumeral joint.

This is why it’s so important to work on the underlying issues instead of directly working on the glenohumeral joint first. Often the original problem will disappear during those early steps. My order of operations is to look at breathing, core strength, thoracic spine and neck mobility, scapular movement, and then finally glenohumeral movement.

Dragon Door: And that kind of follows the model for training you were discussing before—don’t get too specific too quickly—fix the basics first.

Max Shank: Absolutely, you don’t want to jump to the next step until you've really nailed the first ones. When progress is tiered like that, then everything really works better for long term success.


MaxShankFloorFlag thumbnailMaster RKC Instructor Max Shank is the owner of Ambition Athletics in Encinitas, California. He is very active in martial arts, competes in the Highland Games, and promotes a holistic approach to overall fitness. For more information about Max please visit

Max Shank is the author of Master the Kettlebell, now available in paperback and ebook format.

He has also released Kettlebell Essentials, an on-demand video course and Ultimate Athleticism, an ebook and training program.