Saturday, March 3, 2012

The Kettlebell Connection

Before I begin this post, I want to thank all of my readers, followers, friends, and of course my family, for the overwhelming love and support you’ve given during this time my wife and I have been dealing with our recent miscarriage. In our age, the social connections we make go far beyond that of physical presence; the willingness to bond across these new digital frontiers truly demonstrates the generous capacity to share the human experience in ways we are only beginning to understand. One thing is for sure: this experience can be shared at the deepest and kindest levels of sympathy.  Again, all my thanks to YOU!

Last week, I had the pleasure of sharing energizing hours of conversation & interaction across two separate days with Dr. Tim Olson, PT, DPT, CSCS.  Dr. Olson and I found in our discussions a common passion for functional movement, physical performance, and innovative systems for the Physical Therapy profession at large.  Of course, when talking with yours truly, you can hardly get away from the inevitable conversation about kettlebells. Naturally, the topics included the physical rehabilitative qualities of kettlebell exercise, the physics of the kettlebell tool itself, and the various treatment diagnoses of which kettlebells are of benefit.

During my time with Dr. Olson, I found him to be an exceptional expert of human movement and outside-the-box thinking.  From the stimulating discussion and several challenging questions, my eyes were opened to some expanded concepts of integrating kettlebells and Physical Therapy.

Three Lessons from the Kettlebell Connection with Dr. Olson:
  • In addition to the Natural Physics of kettlebell exercise, kettlebells have an innate property to produce proper form during and after exercise. The kettlebell tool itself also acts as an ongoing source of biofeedback (visual and somatosensory) which can produce superior movement when other sources and techniques of facilitation and instruction have been exhausted.  This is most convincingly seen in exercises such as Bottoms Up activities and the Turkish Get-Up. Unlike dumbbells, barbells, cables or resistance bands, the distance between the handle and the center of kettlebell mass provide an additional kinetic chain where the gravitation pull on mass is off-center when grasped. This causes the body to continually adjust and re-adjust with every movement and acts upon the body in a manner which seems to serve as it own form of proprioceptive neuromuscular re-education. This discussion lead to lesson #2.
  • Sometimes the simplest approach is the best approach (ie. K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid).  Many times, the threshold for over-thinking, over-repetition, and over-facilitation is far lower than one would otherwise anticipate. Many times, conscious body movement is its own greatest enemy when aspiring to improve functional performance. Training movement in simple, automatic terms rather than attempting to force the body in sequentially complex arrays often yields superior results in a time efficient manner.  That being said, the kettlebell is arguably one of the simplest exercise tools ever conceived. And yet, in an age of technological wonder, the breadth of potentials when using a simple kettlebell is plain impressive.  The simplicity of the kettlebell’s design and the numerous available applications pose an interesting question when faced with availability of advanced technological complexities: Could it be that the humble tools pave a clearer path to the serenity of human performance?
  • Simplicity in design demands wealth in wisdom. Dr. Olson pointed out that many kettlebell exercises seem related if not overly similar when seen at a glance. In general, kettlebell exercises can be categorized by the emphasis on the focused attention or combination of: ballistics, power techniques, dynamic stability, core strengthening, mat based exercises, prone based exercises, sports specific, and tactical. Of these various categories, each branch holds a core familiarity of technique and form. An obvious example is how the dead lift progresses to the pre-swing which progresses to the swing, then the clean, then a high pull, then a snatch. I have always held the operational definition that “Wisdom is knowledge applied.”  The ballistic progression for kettlebells is a great example of how multiple principles of exercise science sublimely unite during application:
    1. Overloading Principle: Kettlebells are dense heavy objects which tend to be heavier than objects manipulated in every day life. Additionally, the exercise techniques used with kettlebells are done in movements far more explosive and intense than that of normal every day life.
    2. Individual Response Principle: Kettlebells must be customized to each individual per exercise and per progression. Kettlebells which are too light allow for individuals to “cheat” and “muscle” the kettlebell to mimic proper form. An easy way to check if a beginner is cheating on the swing is to add another kinetic link to the swing itself by looping a towel or rope around the handle of the kettlebell. If the beginner is indeed cheating, the bell will droop downward with gravity as the individual can no longer death grip the kettlebell into submission during the swing itself.  This principle holds true in the opposite extreme; kettlebells which are initially too heavy for beginners are simply dropped during exercise or self-limiting due to form.
    3. Adaptation Principle: While many kettlebell exercises may seem similar at a glance, the intricate biophysics for each variation is highly different as experienced by the body.  With careful instruction, a small circuit of the various categories of kettlebell exercises can prove to be an extremely challenging feat even when performed by the most veteran of kettlebellers.
    4. Specificity Principle: As discussed in my “Restoring Movement with Natural Physics” article, a major advantage of working with kettlebells is that we train our bodies in the same physics as the functional activities we strive to improve upon.  This training effect carries over for better performance during function and can be easily adapted for each specific sport, activity, tactical situation, functional movement, or activity of daily living.
My time with Dr. Olson was a refreshing and rejuvenating experience.  To strengthen oneself, one must sharpen iron with iron; being challenged is as important as being inspired. Many times, they are one in the same.  My interactions with Dr. Olson generated for me a deeper consciousness of human movement and functional performance. I express my sincere appreciation and humble thanks to Dr. Olson for his time, his thoughts, and his passionate dedication to his profession, his colleagues, and his patients.

Dr. Tim Olson, PT, DPT, CSCS provides a holistic Physical Therapy service through METROSPORT Personalized Physical Therapy. For more on Dr. Olson and his unique private practice, please visit: and follow Dr. Olson at @timolsonPT.

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