This is a Whole9 guest post by Peter Hirsh, a nationally certified personal trainer and kettlebell instructor who has been teaching and training with kettlebells for over ten years.
When I was twelve years old I took up the sport TaeKwonDo. I was highly active as a child before this but had done little in the way of learning how to use my body. TaeKwonDo taught me focus and discipline and created unity by connecting my mind and body. What I didn’t realize then was I was developing one of the most important aspects of strength: flexibility. The first time I picked up a kettlebell and began learning the centuries old tradition of strongman (or strongperson as I prefer to call it) you could say I took to it like a fish to water. The techniques involved in what we commonly refer to now as “functional training” just made sense to me, they appealed to an ancient knowledge inside of me. The use of machinery and muscle isolation exercises always seemed to be so pointless and counter productive that I rarely enjoyed my workouts.
Functional training turned workouts into practice, giving me something to get better at, something to learn. It also utilized every aspect of strength: mind-body connection, flexibility, muscle tension, and cardio conditioning – in that order. Muscle isolation drills only challenge muscle, so separate machines were created to train cardio; treadmills, ellipticals, stairclimbers, and the like. These machines do almost nothing to improve the mind/body connection. Muscle isolation lifting and high rep/short range of motion cardio only diminish flexibility.
Over the years it has become increasingly obvious that due to our sedentary lifestyles, the biggest limiting factor in strength is not mind/body unity, it is not muscle tension or conditioning, it is flexibility. Not only does flexibility prevent people from moving and lifting to their true potential, it is also responsible for poor posture, injury, and chronic joint pain. Many people sought out my instruction as they witnessed and heard the benefits that functional training provides. I immediately noticed a surprising phenomenon, men with visibly much greater muscle mass than I were incapable of lifting anywhere near what I was able to lift. I saw bodybuilders struggle to hold fifty pounds overhead because they simply lacked flexibility. It requires flexibility to neutralize weight over the bodies’ plumb line. This same plumb line is also considered good posture as people move around the real world in their daily life.
In the gym and in the chaotic world, lifting heavy objects becomes much easier when you are able to keep the weight close to your body. Whether this is lifting furniture with your legs, not with your back, or cleaning&pressing or snatching a kettlebell overhead, this rule is paramount. In order to perform these movements you will need good flexibility, especially in your hips and shoulders. The higher you lift the weight, the more obvious this becomes. By developing excellent range of motion in these areas, you will also significantly reduce chronic joint pain, your risk of injury, and improve overall strength. Tight hip flexors are one of the most common problems in people, causing lower back pain and a whole host of other issues. Overhead weight lifting is the best way to teach good posture to your nervous system as it creates an awareness of your bodies’ plumb-line. A lack of mobility in your shoulders will prevent you from holding weight overhead safely by pitching the weight off to the side or out front and preventing you from straightening your arm at the elbow. A concept in weight lifting called “moving under the weight” takes this to the next level. The turkish getup, overhead squat, and windmill are all examples of moving under weight.
Begin developing strength and flexibility in your hips by performing full range of motion bend/extend, squatting, and lunging exercises. After you have developed proficiency with bodyweight variations, start lifting weight from the ground to hip level, as in the deadlift or weighted lunge. Progressing from here, you can learn to lift weight to shoulder level (the rack position) with variations of the clean. The ability to hip flex, and hip extend (move your hips in front of your plumb line) is essential to cleaning weight. If you lack the necessary range of motion the weight will move out front, making it feel heavier than it should. Take your time and learn how to keep the weight close as it travels upward. You will also notice that maintaining weight in the rack position will be much easier with a slight amount of hip extension. Once your ability to safely rack the weight is developed, you can learn overhead lifting, with the clean and press, snatch, or even the turkish get up. This will require (and develop) excellent flexibility not just in your hips, but in your shoulders too.
To develop overall flexibility, I recommend three different techniques; a combination of strategic stretching, massage, and dynamic range of motion. In my experience, while stretching and massage can be of significant benefit, nothing improves range of motion like weight-loaded dynamic range of motion exercises (DROMs). Stretching will teach the muscle to lengthen while relaxed, dynamic range of motion will teach your nervous system strength within a range of motion. The vast majority of functional range of motion will occur while the muscles are stabilizing the joint and therefore this method is far more practical. For this reason, consider stretching techniques such as PNF (proprioceptive neuromuscular facilitation) stretching that will require the joint to be stabilized while the muscles lengthen. Kettlebell workouts use many different exercises that help develop flexibility by forcing your joint to be stabilized while lengthening your muscle at the same time. Developing flexibility in this way will allow you to maximize your practice by lifting weights to your true potential and will also significantly reduce your risk of muscle and fascia pulls and tears and chronic joint pain caused by poor posture.
Remember, flexibility is the second aspect of strength, your motor patterns are the first. Muscle tension or size, and cardiovascular conditioning come next. When I refer to strength in this way, I am not speaking about your ability to bench press, as this is a test almost exclusively of muscle tension and has almost no correlation to the real world. When I speak of strength I am referring to your ability to safely and effectively navigate through the world and train in the gym for real world functionality. This includes balance, stability, capacity, volume, and of course, excellent motor patterns. If you suffer from chronic low back or joint pain, instead of opting for surgery that only treats the symptom, discover what happens when you strengthen and lengthen with intelligent exercise. Typically, people don’t have “a bad back” they have tight hips. Combining these practices with a diet low in inflammatory foods will change your world and your perspective. Your deep core stabilizers will become activated once again, and you will be able to enjoy physical activity that you thought you would never be able to do again.
I have included an instructional video of the Turkish Get Up. This is an excellent exercise for full body strength and to help you develop flexibility in both your shoulders and hips. Highly underrated, the TGU also teaches your nervous system what neutral posture really is in a series of movements under the stabilized weight. I use a kettlebell in this video but the turkish get up is in no way kettlebell specific, you can use a dumbell or even holding the center of a barbell for a real stability challenge.
Peter Hirsh is a nationally certified personal trainer and kettlebell instructor who has been teaching and training with kettlebells for over ten years. Peter has dedicated his life to the enrichment and well being of others and currently owns Peter’s Personal Training where he teaches classes and trains students one on one in San Diego, California. Wanting to reach a larger number of people with his teachings, Peter started Kettlebell Movement, a website dedicated to maintaining the authentic teachings of kettlebell training and promoting a simple and effective holistic lifestyle anyone can follow. Connect with Peter on Facebook, Twitter, Youtube or Instagram.
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