Scotland's Record-Breaking Kettlebell Extraordinaire
Abigail Johnston has had a whirlwind career in Kettlebell Sport. In the short five years that she's been lifting kettlebells, she's trained herself to be on par with Russian athletes who have been lifting since they were tweens, broken more records than I can keep track of, and established herself as a force to reckon with in every single Sport lift (single AND double). Not only is she one of the top lifters in the world, but she is one of the only high-level female coaches whose students have achieved excellent results in competition. I was lucky enough to stay with Abi at her home in Glasgow after the IUKL World Championships in 2015, and get a peek into her life. She impressed me with her dedication to her craft, her modesty, and her kindness and care for her students. Read the following interview to learn more about this lifting extraordinaire!
1. What is your athletic background? How did you find Kettlebell Sport? I didn't get in to sports and fitness properly until quite late in life. I spent my summers between studying at the university as an activity instructor for a kids adventure holiday company, teaching things like abseiling, climbing, fencing, canoeing, etc. I was always drawn to sporting pursuits but I didn't training until I found martial arts in 2008 (at 27 years old). I found kettlebells in 2011, when my instructor introduced them to me as supplement to my martial arts training. After attending my first competition in early 2012 I was hooked!
2. Who is your coach?
My coach is Eddie Sheehan, Ireland's first Master of Sport. I started training with him shortly after my first competition in 2012, and he has been coaching me ever since.
3. What are some of your best results? Snatch:
28kg - 100 (5 min set)
24kg - 201
24kg - 197
2x20kg - 84
28kg - 116
24kg - 136
4. In my opinion, you are the best all-round female kettlebell athlete in the world. Did you set out with that as a goal? What do you think is the biggest contributing factor to your lifting success?
Oh Brittany, I'm blushing! I'm very honored that you'd say that, but there are so many strong females out there that I admire! I wouldn't say I set out with being the top female athlete as a goal, but I do think whatever we take on we want to excel in. I'm lucky that I've been able to train consistently and work with a great coach the whole way.
5. What do you think is your biggest weakness when it comes to kettlebell lifting? What is your biggest strength? My biggest weakness is definitely my competition nerves. Some people live for competition, but I've never felt it was my main driver in training. I need to work on lifting under pressure as it can get to me and affect my results. It will come! My biggest strength... I'd say my strength in lifting may also be a weakness at times (how is that for a clique'd interview answer!): I love to analyze my lifting, movement, and technique. On a good day, this helps to get me to that completely focused flow state that everyone chases, where it's like time moves in slow motion and you can feel everything that's going on in minute detail. On the other hand, when training goes through plateaus or downturns, my analytic nature can cause me to over-complicate everything. Then me and my coach have to work to untangle it all and get back to basics so I can progress again.
6. Why do you enjoy lifting? What is the best part for you? For lifting itself I think this goes back to that flow state I mentioned before; I love the feeling of intense and complete focus where so much goes on in your mind that 10 minutes feels like it lasted the length of a feature length film (a good set mind, or else it's more like a horror movie you want to forget about immediately after!). For the sport in general, I'd say what I enjoy most is a combination of my lifters achieving their goals and the great friends I've made.
7. When and how did you start coaching kettlebells?
I initially started out by helping with the kettlebell classes I attended. I traveled to Omsk, Russia in 2013 for a 10-day level 3 instructor course at the Siberian State University of Physical Education (Anton Anasenko was one of the lecturers). I also took the IKSFA level 1 & 2 courses with Sergey Rudnev. These courses introduced me to different styles of programming for Kettlebell Sport, and afterwards I was approached by my first online lifter for coaching. I moved to open my own business, a small fitness studio, and started getting invited to teach more workshops. Since then I've become more and more involved in coaching kettlebell athletes at my studio and online.
8. What are the most important aspects of being a good coach and getting results from your students?
I think it's important to remember that it's about them and not you. Be led in all aspects by the type of person they are and what they need from you as a coach, rather than trying to fit into some mold of what you think a "good coach" is.
9. What are your students' best results?
Caroline Dougal: 24kg Snatch, 151reps & bronze medal at IUKL World Championship 2016 (MSIC 68kg+ category)
Anna Plumridge: 24kg Long Cycle, 101reps (MS 63kg category)
2x16kg Long Cycle 101reps, 24kg Snatch 98reps
Tanya Mayes: 24kg Long Cycle, 69 reps (CMS 58kg category)
Chris Peil: 2x24kg Long Cycle silver medal at IUKL World Championship 2014
Cynthia Roulsten: 16kg Jerk, 200 reps (also MS and CMS ranks by Ketacademy)
Valerie Abbott: 24kg Long Cycle (CMS)
Angelina Blyth: 20kg Long Cycle (CMS)
10. How much time do you spend coaching technique versus coaching mindset?
It's hard to separate these two, as they are interlinked. Mindset is such a huge part of Kettlebell Sport that it must be considered in programming, exercise selection, and how we communicate technique. I'm no expert on "mindset", but I'd like to think my lifters build confidence through their training and competitions, and that they get the support they need.
11. Do you think a lifter NEEDS a coach to be good? Please explain.
Some lifters don't, but I do. Even if you understand programming and you coach others, it's hard to judge for yourself what is too much or too little. It's easy to get carried away when training goes well, or disheartened when it doesn't. Some people can probably be disciplined with this on their own, but I prefer to defer to my coach. I trust him to keep me right with programming, technique and progression.
12. Which lift is hardest for you to coach and why? Which is easiest and why?
Depends on the lifter and if we've managed to find the right way of conveying what we need to about the lift to each other. Sometimes it just takes finding the right cue or way of explaining something - after that it's just the hard job of time and practice.
13. What would you say is the biggest difference in the training of someone who is just lifting kettlebells for fun versus someone who starts to train seriously?
Can I have two? I'd say consistency and managing expectations. Someone new to the sport (whether for fun or with plans to compete) often sees a rapid progression. They set new personal bests regularly, see big jumps in technique and/or load. They are at the steep rise of that skill development bell curve! Then down the line the curve levels off and they see their training plateau, new personal bests aren't as forthcoming, and results go up and down. Training feels tough or maybe even stagnant. I think the people that manage to keep going are the ones that are "training seriously" as at this point it isn't always so much fun anymore! This is where the need for consistency and managing expectations comes in. If the person doesn't realize or accept that progress will now be slower, dependent on smaller changes, on trusting the program, and on more than just throwing up the reps, they'll get frustrated and eventually give up. This is also the point where consistent, focused practice becomes important in order to make changes and progress. To train for fun to me sounds like you can flit in and out, dip your toe in and train when you want. Not that training "seriously" isn't fun! I just think when you're on that leveled off part of the bell curve you really need consistency to keep chipping away and progress.
14. It takes a long time to develop proper technique and conditioning for Kettlebell Sport. How do you keep yourself or your athletes motivated when the ultimate goal is often so far in the future?
By breaking down that ultimate goal into smaller, progressive goals along the way.
15. Do you use any apps when coaching your students? Which ones do you recommend to lifters and/or coaches?
We use a heart rate monitoring app for training sets, an HRV app for monitoring recovery, a slow motion video app for technique analysis, a spreadsheet app for programming, message app for communication, and video app for uploading & viewing sets.
I'd recommend them all; I've found that they are very useful tools for the coaching process. But don't get bogged down in technology!
16. Why do you enjoy coaching? What is the best part for you?
The best part is watching people accomplish something they worked hard for, or surprise themselves by achieving what they didn't think they could. It feels good to be able to show someone the way and give them a plan that helps their goals come to fruition.
Abigail Johnston is a United Kingdom & World Record holder, and has achieved Master of Sport International Class ranking in all three lifts (MSIC in Snatch by IUKL table, MSIC in Biathlon & Long Cycle by GSU tables). She is passionate about coaching athletes with the Scottish Kettlebell Club and also online. Abi regularly competes for Scotland in International Competition, and has placed in the top three at every IUKL competition attended (2014 World Cup Stage, European Championship & World Championship, 2015 European Championship & World Championship).
Find Abigail on Instagram: @barbreckstudio