Wednesday, May 6, 2009

Why kettlebells?

From L to R: Pavel Tsatsouline (RKC Chief Instructor), Prof. Roy Harris (Harris International), Darryl Grauman (Kettlebells Auckland), Dr. Courtney Cheng (RKC II, holding Squealie), me, & Guro Daniel Inosanto (Inosanto Academy) at Squealie's Chinese christening dinner

This post is a little bit of a throwback.

Most of my readers know what kettlebells are and have their own reasons for coming to train with them. But lately, I've frequently found myself having to answer a few questions about why I came to train with kettlebells, so here it is... the most common questions with my straightforward answers. I hope you enjoy.

1. How did you find out about kettlebells?
I first heard about kettlebells sitting in the lobby of the Sports Club/LA with a man I refer to as my white father, Dr. Terry Robinson. Dr. Robinson is one of the pioneers of the physical culture industry, having opened one of the first movie gyms out here in LA, trained stars such as Mario Lanza, and discovered the father of American Kenpo Karate - the late Ed Parker, Sr. His resume is far thicker than that, but that'd take 2 books to cover. Suffice it to say, he's TRULY been there & done that.

I'd head in early in the mornings on Tuesdays & Thursdays to train one of my students and then I'd sit in the lobby with Dr. Robinson afterwards for a while. He talk to me about his thoughts on fitness, training, medicine, and the personalities behind the early years of strength training. He used to always smirk when the trainers would excitedly come in with something they thought was a new invention or discovery and say, "Terry, have you seen this?", and it was something that had been around before their parents were even born.

It was that way with kettlebells too. Even in the 90's, I clearly remember Dr. Robinson showing me pictures of oldtime strongmen training with kettlebells. He said, "Watch, these'll make a comeback, too!"

He was right.

Fast forward a decade, and I'm finishing up an treatment with former Ed Parker student, Dan Inosanto (more well known as the star pupil of the late Bruce Lee). Concerned that he might overtrain or re-injure his back, Guro Inosanto asks me if I'd observe a weight training session that one of his students set up for him.

I go to his Academy the next week and meet Pavel Tsatsouline. The rest, thanks to God and Guro Inosanto, has been history in the making.

2. What is it about kettlebells that attracted you to them initally?
Honestly, nothing. Not a damn thing.

I've hated weight training my entire life up to the point when I met Pavel. There was never a weight training device or method or coach that I'd trained with and really felt like I was doing something that was truly good for my body... aside from mere bodysculpting. I'd always felt some sort of pain the next day that was above and beyond the usual "I just worked out hard" sort of feeling. I'd also seen plenty of guys in the weightstacks moving around like they were in the early stages of being cripples. So in my mind, I'd equated weight training with injury. And even when I first saw kettlebells up close & personal, I had no reason to think they'd be any different.

3. What changed your mind?

Pavel Tsatsouline's method of training is absolutely singular. Nothing I've ever seen out there compares to it. As soon as I heard him open his mouth while teaching Dan Inosanto, I knew he was heading in a direction that was dramatically different from the rest of the pack.

Instead of having Inosanto dive right into tons & tons of reps with some random weight, the first thing Pavel had him working on was a Wall Squat - a sophisticated mobility/stability exercise - to pry mobility into his spine and strength into his hips. Mobility first!

As I listened to Pavel talk about Dr. Vladimir Janda, the posterior chain, the weakness of the glutes, and hip flexor tightness as the root cause for a GREAT DEAL of lower back pain, I realized that I was in the presence of no ordinary trainer. This man was taking my understanding of clinical medicine and turning it on its ear!

The more I listened, the more captivated I became, until finally, after adequate goading from Sifu Inosanto & Professor Roy Harris, who had also begun training with Pavel, I joined in.

4. So what were some of the "benefits" you experienced from kettlebell training?
There are 3 main benefits that I experienced very quickly. I'm sure there are more if I stop to think about it, but these are the ones that stand out the most in my head.
- Lower back pain DRAMATICALLY reduced thanks to Pavel repatterning my lower back and hip movement with "Hard Style" methods
- Shoulder/neck/arm pain & weakness RESOLVED (when almost every other form of treatment short of surgery failed) thanks to ONE exercise - the Turkish Get-Up,
- Lost 20 lbs. thanks to the metabolic repackaging from Hard Style.

Let me clarify for a moment here. "Hard Style" doesn't mean hard in the sense of having to endure bitter hard training, but rather "hard" in the sense of employing selective tension in the body to dramatically increase strength and improve performance without having to bulk up.

As a clinician myself, the first two were enough to knock my socks off. Losing flab and toning up were just icing on the cake.

5. AWESOME! There are kettlebells at my gym now, so I'm gonna ask my trainer to show me some stuff!
You COULD do that, but I have to, as Gray Cook would say, "smack a beehive with a canoe paddle" and tell you that there are far too many trainers out there who think they know what they're doing with kettlebells and actually couldn't tell you the difference between their forehead and their backside in those regards.

Case in point... A well known athlete came to me a couple of years ago with his well-paid trainer in tow and complained that kettlebells were hurting his back. His well-paid trainer came up to me, puffed out his chest, and started doing what he THOUGHT was a kettlebell swing. I had him drop the bell and told the athlete point blank, "No wonder your back was hurting you."

The trainer was demonstrating something hunched over, hardly rooted to the ground, and lacking any semblance of hip extension, posture, or kinetic linkage. I had the trainer sit on the sidelines as I dissected his client's technique and took him from tenuously working with a 35lb kettlebell to confidently and powerfully swinging a 70lb kettlebell, and then swinging TWO 53lb kettlebells.

While it might not've been to coolest thing to do, I kept asking the athlete, "So how's your back doing swinging those HEAVY, HEAVY kettlebells?" Every time he answered that his back was fine, I kept looking over at the trainer and cocked my eyebrow to rub it in a little more.

The kettlebell is a tool. The tool isn't nearly as important as the method that you use to employ the tool to meet your goals. It's like a knife. If you really know how to use a knife in its broadest application, you can basically handle everything from surgery to shaving to sushi to self-defense. If you are clueless and don't respect the knife, you'll probably cut yourself or someone else thinking you know what you're doing.

So while I'm glad that you're enthusiastic about kettlebell training, I think the more important thing is to find someone qualified to teach you. How do you know who's most qualified? Check the list of RKC certified instructors. While some are undoubtedly better than others, this group represents the gold standard in training and qualifications.

Hope this post was somewhat entertaining & informative. I look forward to seeing some of you in Denmark on the 14th and some others in Minneapolis on the 28th!


SG Human Performance said...

Great post Dr. Cheng! I had my same eye opening experience when I was pushed towards the RKC by Gray Cook and was fortunate enough to have Senior RKC, Dave Whitley in my back yard.

Could not believe how the kettlebell talks to your body. Like nothing I have ever seen before.

Coach RJ said...

Great post Doc! I totally agree on your testimonials for "HARD" style. For myself in corporate wellness, it's HARD style with KBs or NO style because HARD=SAFE style, decreased injuries, and increased quality of movement. There is a huge difference in kettlebell training between RKC hard style and just using KBs without proper training. Done correctly-KBs rule. 99% of my strength training is now with KBs and the other 1% always leaves me asking why I just didn't stick to my "hard" style KBs!

Blake and Hollie said...

Although it is tough to find an RKC where I am located, I am thankful for good resources in videos. I have been training with KBs for almost 14 weeks. I too have noticed reduced back pain since starting.

Since I do not have a trainer on this tiny island I have bought Pavel's instructional videos and DragonDoor's KB. However I look forward to moving back to the states to find an RKC. I am very curious to see what all I need work on :)