Squat heavy and face fear

Squat heavy and you know the deep level of psychological transformation you undergo to dip into the hole and come back. Hard training is different from hard life situations. In training, you control the level of difficulty and commit to it. In life, you can’t control the level of difficulty or the timing.

This is why training is so important. Physical training can prepare you for the hardships of life. The preparation comes from your mental capacity to deal with higher levels of sustained stress. Whether it is a physical load or a mental burden of fear, the same workings within the mind and body take place in response. Training teaches you to continue to function with precision under pressure.

When you train under heavy load, you will learn to stay calm while under pressure. It is physical pressure in training, but your mind must also deal with that force. You may want to escape, you might fear that the load will crush you, or you might panic in the belief that you won’t be able to make the lift. When you reach the level of skill where you can train with loads over twice your body weight, the principles will be magnified.

The squat simulates these pressures well because the load is above you and there is no external resting point for the weight. Once you unrack the weight, you are directly between the load and the ground. Contrast this with the deadlift, in which the weight could be dropped to the floor.

Without an immediate escape, the way to properly deal with the load is to accept it. Become comfortable with the weight. Grip the bar ever tighter, pull it down into the groove between your shoulders and back, let the bar become part of you. Find balance vertically and horizontally in your new, unwieldy shape. Keep in your peripheral vision the plates at the ends of the barbell. Gently hold them in awareness.

Balance the bar like a tightrope walker. Stay between your feet, as if you were on an island in the middle of a massive blue ocean. Grip the floor with your feet. Root yourself down like a thousand year old oak.

Keep your back tight and your ribs locked down. Your body is a concrete pillar. Allow only the movement of your hips and knees, opening and closing naturally as you descend and then ascend.

The only other movement comes from the belly as you pull in air to the bottom of your lungs. Press against the belt if you wear one, or build up an airtight balloon with your abdomen in lieu of a belt.

When you’re squatting double your mass or more, you will begin to feel the pressure. It’s a different force from the one on your back. It’s the pressure of fear and intimidation. The familiar feeling, if you’ve been bullied, of a bigger or stronger enemy staring down at you, threatening to crush you. The pressure is in your mind now, it’s crept in from the weight on the bar and is now knocking on the door of your soul.

The first stages of this level of difficulty in training will be easier to navigate. By this point you’ve built enough strength to be able to suck in a deep breath and blow past the fear.

Later, when the weight becomes nearly unbearable, you’ll learn to face it. Rather than stomping through the thin curtain, you see that it’s now a wall. The fear can’t be shaken from your head. Now, you’ve got to stay with it in there. Don’t waste your time or energy trying to run from it. Rather, root your feet harder into the ground, grip the bar tighter against your back, and solidify your belly right against that fear. Face it, and accept it.

You’ll see that this new pressure, the fear and intimidation, are merely different forms of load. All you need to do is recognize this, and make this pressure as much a part of you as the bar and the plates on your back. The fear that soaks your heart, the intimidation that fills your mind, they are fine.

Tighten yourself up and lock them in as you descend, and rise.

Apply this to life. You don’t have to squat heavy to use this principle. The next time you face someone or something that scares you, don’t run. Stay and face it, grip it, make it a part of you, and rise.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Getting Sleep with a Newborn

Brilliant friends!

About a year ago, I wrote about how I was trying to figure out how to sleep better. I set a routine around a two-hour train commute, getting up at 4 a.m. and sleeping around 10 p.m. Having dinner on the ride home gave me time to digest before going to bed. This improved sleep quality, although I was still tired on many mornings. I wanted to relax at home and talk with my wife, and I often stayed up past my prescribed bedtime. So there was a stretch where I was squeezing it all in, the train rides and work, evenings and sleep, and strength training.

Well, that was twelve months ago and much has changed since. During my wife’s late stages of pregnancy, I started to drive to work in case I needed to come for her on a moment’s notice. This shortened the commute by about half an hour, but I couldn’t eat while driving. I traded the benefit of eating early with the joy of eating at home with my wife. Although I ate later and didn’t sleep as soundly, I did have a little more time to sleep in the morning.

Then, my wife gave birth to a beautiful baby, and I went on parental leave. Just before my leave, though, I took on a management role at my job. At the same time, I accomplished the StrongFirst Lifter barbell coaching certification. Within a week, my life became quite different.

All went well with my wife’s labor and delivery. When the baby was first born, we slept little. We woke the baby every couple of hours to feed her, day and night. We learned  she was having tummy issues with some of the food we ate. Until we figured out which foods to avoid to ease the pain of gas in her belly, our ears were tested by her unceasing crying. We discovered that whatever foods gave me gas, gave the baby gas, even if it didn’t affect my wife!

My wife and I were so short on sleep we had hallucinations. When I got up to walk the little human after her nursing, I was often in a daze of half-consciousness. I carried her around in the dark until my arms were numb with aching, my ears turned raw, and still I carried her more, holding her close. When she fell asleep in my arms, I would sometimes sit down and fall asleep too. I was amazed that my arms still held her when I woke an hour later, even when I ended up lying on my back with her on my chest.

My wife, still recovering from birthing our baby, stayed up to nurse her. Because she was also using the breast pump, the cycle of nursing gave her about an hour and a half of sleep at a time. She could barely wake when the alarm sounded, and often moved about with glazed eyes. She also endured the pain of sitting on a recovering bottom while nursing the baby for up to an hour at a time. Her parents and I prepared food and drink for her to have in bed. She needed all the nourishment she could get to make milk, and heal.

I saw a new kind of strength forming in us, the strength of parents. I had always thought of my wife as a warrior of sorts. Seeing her persevere as a mother in the most desperate hours of the night proved me right. It might not seem difficult to hold a tiny baby to let it suckle. But a nursing woman gives the essence of her being to her baby through her milk. All of her nutritional resources are tapped to make this food. She tirelessly wakes, positions herself and the baby so it can comfortably feed, and holds that position for fear of the baby unlatching. Every moment in the beginning is crucial for the baby to receive enough nourishment.

For the new mother, this must be done with her entire body in a state of trauma, just having been stretched to the point of bursting and just having gone through the event of birthing unparalleled by any physical sport endeavor. And, with that, only sips of sleep allowed by the universe despite her desperate thirst for it.

A newborn baby knows to drink from its mother, but the baby must learn to adapt to her mother’s body. She needs to get used to her mother’s breasts and belly and how to position herself in order to receive her nourishment. The baby will writhe and cry and even scream in agony in between good latches on her source of milk. And the mother must endure this initial adaptation for several days, if not weeks.

Seeing my wife go through this struggle gave me the false sense that I too was having the same struggle. But I learned that as the father, it was not my body feeding the baby. It was not me that needed to hold and nurse and stay awake and learn with the baby to nurse. I did everything I could to help position the baby, provide food and water for my wife, and set up a comfortable nursing place. But my role was different and I had to take that on without feeling guilt.

I heard from the maternity classes and books that the father must get sleep in order to be of use when the baby was born. I knew it must be true but didn’t realize the truth until the baby was born. It was hard to let my head rest when my wife was struggling. But it was necessary for me to sleep so that I could help her in my fullest capacity.

Ironically, it was so easy to fall asleep that I was able to nap almost on command. Since I didn’t work, I could actually drop down and sleep the moment I wanted to. The tricky part was to convince myself that I needed to sleep. There was always something to do! Between cooking, laundry, cleaning, and setting up breast pump materials, it was easy to get fired up about doing more. At times, I denied the dull ache of tiredness. But I learned to routinize sleep after a few terrible episodes of prolonged baby crying on no sleep.

A couple of days after returning from the hospital with our baby, I started a regular training rhythm with my kettlebells. Strength practice was one of the anchors in the storm of newborn care. It allowed me to create and release tension. Because I was able to create more tension in training than I had already built up from carrying and soothing the baby, I was able to release the whole of it.

Kettlebell training also rebalanced my body. I often carried the baby on one shoulder or arm longer than the other. After waking from a nap, I would be unable to extend the one arm fully, and one side of my back would be tighter.  Kettlebell clean and presses, swings, and Turkish get ups reset my nervous system and relaxed the tight areas. And of course, it made it easier to fall into deep naps.

I realized, from all the books and articles and pamphlets on baby care we read, that most experts don’t remember the first days after birth. They might remember the general difficulty and the long nights. They know the timing of certain baby development landmarks. However, I doubt that more than a handful actually remember the intense pain, the relentless crying, carrying the baby beyond the limits of sleep, patience, strength, and consciousness. I doubt more than a few remember the intense anger and sorrow and confusion and utter helplessness. Most don’t remember the moments when they wanted to quit, to throw the baby, to slam a fist through a wall, to weep, to tear oneself apart, to murder doctors and nurses, and to scream at family and friends. And even if they did, there would be no way to remember how it actually felt.

Humans are capable of great strength. Motherhood and fatherhood are among the greatest builders of this strength. With each step beyond my own limits, I knew I was growing stronger. Tests of our strength are necessary to push deep into the soul, to knead the spirit and shape it into a more resilient form.

The physical involves the emotional and the mental. Our conventional academic view of life separates the physical happenings from the mental and emotional. It is imperative to deliberately push oneself physically in preparation for the great emotional and mental trials that arise throughout life.

With all that being said, I guess I will sleep easily when I need to. As much as I try to shape my days to optimize sleep, it is also important to keep pushing myself harder. I find it more satisfying to really go for it than to stay comfortable all day long. Why walk when I can run? Why stay silent when I can mobilize to action? Why let happen when I can make happen.

Optimize sleep time while optimizing the waking hours.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Swing Barefoot

I do kettlebell swings outside, on the grass if I have the luxury, on concrete otherwise, and never on asphalt or synthetic material. The point is to feel the earth, to be under the sky, to breathe fresh air, and to join the weather, whatever it may be. I swing barefoot.

I find a clear shooting range for swings. The kettlebell is a solid chunk of iron and anything in its path, should I ever let it fly, will be either destroyed or damaged. If a fist can break a wall, a 70-pound kettlebell can crack a support beam. One of the commandments of gun safety is to know your target and what lies beyond your target. The same applies for kettlebell safety.

Doing swings barefoot builds balance. The toes spread and the arches stiffen in response to the swinging iron. As I hinge and the bell pulls me back, my feet keep my weight forward. The downward force presses through my arches into the ground just before the weight stops behind me. I pull the kettlebell back up and again the force drives down through my feet into the ground. This time it’s heavier on the heels. When my hips snap forward, and I straighten into a standing plank, the iron pulls straight ahead, wanting to fly. My feet spread against the ground to keep me still.

The kettlebell swing is a front-to-back movement, but it isn’t perfectly straight. There is some variation in pull from the left versus the right arm, and there is a slight twist of the torso. These variations project the kettlebell more to one side or the other, and this calls for resistance. When the iron strays a fraction of a degree to the side, your feet will instantly respond to keep you grounded. Keep your feet rooted in the ground and feel them push and twist and spread in response to the force of the swinging bell. You must be barefoot to fully benefit from the subtle changes in direction. This is how the swing develops your side-to-side balance.

Although the swing is a dynamic movement, with no resting position and no full stop between repetitions, the powerlifting principles of torque still apply. First, the feet are planted on the ground throughout each set. I line my feet almost parallel with only a slight outward angle, as I do in squats and deadlifts. The more I swing and squat and move with my feet pointing forward, the more flexible my ankles become. The ankles must have twist to translate force from the ground to the feet to the legs to the hips. If the feet are angled too wide, there will be no twist in the ankles. No twist, no torque.

In addition to keeping the feet planted and parallel, you must pull out on the knees to create torque. This will bring the force between your feet and the ground into your hips, giving you the power to snap them forward. It is similar to the torque during the squat and the same as the torque in the deadlift. Your feet can only grip the ground and generate this torque properly when they are bare.

Regular training on bare feet will build their musculature and arch. If you have never trained barefoot, and if you wear shoes that have even slightly elevated heels and cushion, you will feel a significant heel stretch at first. Most shoes drop in elevation from the heel to the toe and keep your ankle slightly flexed. This makes your heel and achilles stiff. The cushion in shoes disturbs foot mechanics and disrupts force transfer from ground by absorbing it. Even minimalist shoes like Vibrams will not replicate bare feet. The shape and curvature of the fabric and sole won’t allow all of your feet to contact the ground naturally. The grip of the rubber soles is too strong and interferes with the subtle mechanics your body would use when barefoot. Let your feet feel the ground and begin their development.

The skin of your feet will thicken and you will develop callouses. This builds readiness for rough surfaces. Find grass if you can, and train on concrete if you cannot find grass. Concrete is a semi-conductor of electricity because it holds water within its molecular structure. Concrete struck by lightning or activated by a strong enough electrical current will explode. This property is good for training. You will be earthing, or absorbing the electrical surface charge of the earth when your feet touch the ground. This also builds strength.

Do not be afraid of ground that is wet, hot, cold, or bumpy. Just remember that the kettlebell is iron and will rust if not dried after use. You can train in the rain, focusing more on grip and ensuring nothing is in the path of the kettlebell. Imperfect surfaces are also good, as you will learn to build stability on uneven ground. Try to have a reasonably level surface, so that you do not build imbalances within your body. Limit yourself to reasonable temperatures, as well. Progressively hotter or colder surfaces build toughness. Extreme heat or cold will damage your feet and knock you out of training.

Swing barefoot. You will build stability, healthy feet, strong posture, and toughness.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Building the Skill of Sleep

Having a small window of time in which to sleep has kept me busy experimenting with different ways to maximize that sleep time. There are about nine hours from the time I get home from work to the time I need to wake up the next morning. Obviously eight full hours of sleep is not going to happen during the weekdays. I’ve been playing with my daily schedule and metabolism and meal timing, finding different ways to give myself more time to sleep and to have better sleep.

I haven’t gotten into taking pills for sleep, not even melatonin, despite claims that it’s natural. Something about ingesting potent sleep inducers doesn’t seem good to me. I’d rather bring about sleep through good practices that allow me to come to that state. With that being said, I do take supplements that help with sleep in indirect ways. The most obvious is magnesium. It’s an electrolyte involved in nerve function and bone formation, and is a natural muscle relaxant. This relaxing effect allows for bowel movement, as well as a generalized feeling of calm, when tired. Taking this at night, about half an hour before bedtime, helps me relax.

So far, I have had only small gains in sleep quality and duration from the other tweaks I’ve been making. Small gains, but effective. The one I’ve been sticking to the longest has been exercise in the morning. Getting my kettlebell training session completed in the morning almost always leads to a better night’s rest. I think it lets me use up more energy, and gets my metabolism way high in the morning, setting up for a gradual decrease until bedtime. It also stimulates me, gets the fire burning, first thing in the morning, and I have found myself in an overall calmer and more confident state throughout the day. After syncing my movements, balance, and sense of space with the kettlebell or other training method, I am more in tune with my reasoning capacity and emotional control. Making better decisions from this state of mind keeps me away from manic spikes in mood resulting from bad decisions or bad reactions to things that happen. And that definitely helps me sleep better at night.

The next most consistent practice has been getting out in the sunlight during my lunch and break times at work, and full on sun bathing on weekend mornings at home. Having a solid 20 to 30 minutes of sun soaking fills me with energy, good vibes, and nutrients. It also tells my body that it is day time, and that I’m supposed to be awake and alert. This is sort of like having a circadian rhythm, a well-defined up and awake time versus a down and resting time of day. I really do think this rhythm is good for us, and it’s been helpful to use it as a guide for where I should be at what times of the day. Do I want to eat lunch inside under halogen lights, or do I want to expose myself to the incredibly bright sun? Do I want all the lights on at night when I want to be resting, or do I want to hang out in a darker environment, maybe with some candles lit? Turning the alertness on full blast in the morning and slowly shutting down at night has helped me redevelop a more reasonable sleep and wake schedule.

A third practice has been to eat dinner earlier. My wife and I were eating dinner after 8pm for almost a year in order to spend that meal time together. This was causing problems, though, for both of us. She was burdened with having to prepare meals late in the evening, and was eating more than she needed on most days because she would eat earlier too. I was eating way too close to my bedtime, often going to bed with a full stomach. I would wake in the mornings and sit up in bed, and sometimes hear and feel the food inside me still making its way down my belly. There was no way that was getting digested well. I’ve also read in Chinese medicine that having a full stomach during sleep actually takes energy away from resting and causes fatigue on the organs. I believe it, based on how I felt in the mornings upon waking. So, although it means eating on the train for me, and separately for both of us, we’ve decided to have our dinners earlier. I can’t believe how much of a difference it makes. I feel more energy at night, comfortable at bedtime, and more alert in the morning. My digestion has improved. Before, I relied on coffee and MCT oil for elimination in the morning, but now I’m golden after a swig of water.

One last thing I’ve been playing with is coffee, or less of it. I heard from a neurogenesis researcher on a podcast that caffeine, in the tiniest amount, stops brain cell generation. I’ve been wanting to see what it would be like to not have coffee more often, after having dabbled with it on travels. On the weekends, for the past few weeks, we’ve been holding off on the butter coffee in the morning. Instead, I’ve been making a tomato soup with marzano tomatoes, basil, salt and pepper, and equal amounts of butter and MCT oil that would have gone in the coffee. The result? I felt the same warm reviving energy and brain clarity as with butter coffee, without the caffeine buzz. What does that mean? I’m not even sure, but coffee stimulates to a higher level, and the fats alone still gave the same energy without that hyper wiredness.

And the best part of it all? I yawned so much the first Saturday I tried this, something I haven’t done for so long. I napped and napped, probably about four hours total, and still slept a full night. When I didn’t have coffee, I could tell when I needed to nap or rest. I would yawn or just get a bit drowsy, something I rarely felt when I had coffee. My guess is that I’m not any less tired on the days I don’t yawn. I think caffeine simply holds that sensation at bay. Useful sometimes, but not all the time. This is leading me to think more about how to reduce coffee intake further, while keeping up the fats in my diet. I’ll have to get creative with soups, and maybe get a new thermos for that!

I’m still loving the benefits that fats bring me, and fasting for most of the day, training early, and not having to worry about carbs, protein, fat. As long as I keep my food mostly clean, eat starches later in the day, and exercise, I’m able to maintain good health. The missing piece for me has always been solid sleep. Little by little I’m getting better at it.

Live powerfully.

Plant the feet on swings

Today’s swings felt pretty good. I was rushed this morning, having taken a bit long to do some virtual errands over coffee. By the time I was outside on the sandstone tile with my hands powdered, the iron bell positioned on my doormat-turned-kettlebell-landing-zone in front of me, I had negative ten minutes left. I pushed ahead anyway.

What the hell, I’d run my dog instead of walk him later. Poor beast, his life runs on my schedule. But I needed to get this session in today. I was feeling warm and excited to get it done.

Squats for warmup were smooth. I clean the bell up to my chest and rotate it up and behind my head, resting it on my clenched traps where a low back squatting barbell would be. I’m tightly gripping the horns of the bell, elbows high. I can actually still keep my shoulder blades back and down in this position, enough to keep my spine neutral and my chest broad.

I assess my tissue health during these squats. If I’m tight, I have trouble keeping my elbows up and shoulders packed. I feel it in my hips as I squat. My feet want to turn out as I descend into and rise out of the hole because my calves and ankles don’t want to move.

Today I was feeling smooth. I attribute that to better food and sleep this week, after some pretty harsh stretches of junk food while on the road the past few weekends. Wheat, sugar, and vegetable oil: The monumental ingredients of American agricultural corporations. I had my fair share and was really feeling it. Constipation, grogginess, acne, aching joints, tight tissues. Glad to be feeling better today.

On the swings, I paid close attention to my feet. The most important thing is to keep the heels planted, according to Pavel Tsatsouline. But it’s easy to forget about the front of the feet and let them pull up off the ground. This tends to happen on the upswing, either right at the pop or just after it. When the tension from the kettlebell disappears at the top, it’s almost natural for the torso to pull back a little more with that slack. This then causes a bit of imbalance, causing the toes to come up as the shins flex.

I don’t like that because it’s not stable, and I’m pulling too far back with my torso, endangering my low back. So I keep my feet planted, heel to toe. To do that, I have to keep my body balanced, keeping the hinge centered over midfeet, and bracing at the top to straighten the body, rather than pull back.

I banged out ten sets, a bit out of breath on the fourth one, and humming along by the seventh. Ten getups later I was running down the sidewalk with my dog to his usual dumping grounds. We got back in time for me to shower and head for the train station.

I am currently working on the one handed swing for the 32kg. When I remember, I get in one set for each side, usually on the second or third set. One is enough for now, as my form is still stiff and rigid as a scarecrow in the effort to keep things stable.

I’ll be working toward doing all sets one handed in these upcoming months. I’m glad the weather is cooling down too, because sweaty hands can lead to ripped callouses. Look out for updates.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Big decisions and keeping up kettlebell training

In making big life decisions, there’s the weighing of pros and cons, the cost analysis, predicting the emotional impact, and measuring the effect on your loved ones. In the end, though, there is the decision. Sometimes you make that decision based on the sum of all the math, however inaccurate, you did. But I think it comes down to something deeper. There’s a feeling, an inner arrow, or a surrounding vibe that you sense as you let go of your grip on the details.

Let yourself feel the pull of your daemon, and you may come up to find that you’re facing the other direction, or that you’re a lot further down the path to a decision than you thought.

I’m working through some major life decisions now and am coming close to the end of the process. Not sure where I’ll end up yet, but wherever that is, I’ll be sure to place myself there with full commitment.

Currently, my kettlebell regimen has been suffering, but I’m still going with it. With a long commute, I haven’t been getting a lot of sleep and I’m eating dinner pretty late. This is catching up to me. I am very grateful that I can have dinner with my wife, our dog nearby, and that the sleep I get is in a quiet and dark place. I have also been traveling quite a lot, almost every weekend for the past month. Training every day with the 32kg kettlebell was hard, too hard, with my small recovery time.

I took a break for almost a week at the end of July. During the weekends that I traveled I took days off from kettlebell training as well. All in all, I trained an average of four days a week in July, and three days a week in August.

This is rough on my psyche, because I take pride in my training. I feel accomplished, energized, and ready to rock for the entire day after a morning kettlebell session. I’m happy that I gained strength over time with such a simple tool as the iron bell. Not being able to train for so many days of the week is not easy to deal with.

It’s alright though. For now I’ll keep doing my best. The hardest part is getting up in the morning and starting my routine. If I lay down to nap for a bit, or if I take too long making my coffee, I won’t have time for training. The trickiest part is going to bed earlier. There’s not much time from walking in the front door to greeting my wife and dog to eating dinner and going to bed. I want to draw my time with my wife out longer, but I withdraw from my morning when I do.

Yeaterday, I did my first full training session in five days. It felt great. Still doing Simple and Sinister, 100 swings and 10 getups. Swings are two handed right now. I ventured into one handed swings a couple of weeks ago, doing one set for each side.

Boy is that 32kg heavy. I’m able to get the bell up to the top of my abdomen, but not quite fully up to chest level. And my movement is restricted with the strain. Yesterday was all two handed swings. Got in a small set of pullups before lunch. I love days like that.

Today was a day off, because I had to write out some plans in the morning. That’s fine. I’ll get back into it tomorrow morning.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Getups on wood

A very uncomfortable lesson

Swings and getups continue to teach me strength day to day. After moving into a house and inheriting a dog, I’ve had more breaks in training than I would like. Still, what training I can do is enough to get stronger. Kettlebell training can be done almost anywhere, and new settings introduce challenges and carve out unique aspects of strength. Recently, I discovered the unpleasant and extremely instructive training setting of a wood floor for Turkish getups.

Doing getups on a wood floor is like getting a massage from Pinocchio. Every joint and every pointy, protruding edge of bone gets a nice, hard rub from the floor. The elbows, wrists, shoulders, pelvis, knees, ankles, and feet all get a good, Italian-wooden-puppet rub down. The most painful part for me is the knees. The rising sweep ends with the back knee on the ground, and it’s the first contact between the knee and the floor. This part isn’t so rough, as my free hand is still planted on the ground and taking much of the weight. The weight is held straight up by my working arm, in line with the arm supporting me from below.

Next, however, comes the movement of the getup that brings agony. From the hand on the ground, I shift my weight back to the legs. The weight distribution moves to my knee and front foot, and once I’m stable enough to take my hand off the ground, I bring my torso upright and then face forward. Throughout this transition, my bony knee is pressing into the floor and rubbing around in different directions. I am inwardly dying.

The part after that was also barely survivable at first. To fully face forward while on one knee and bring my hips forward, I pivot my back lower leg straight back to line up with my front leg. The pivot requires me to spin on the knee that is on the floor, grinding and smashing into it. I hear various bones, ligaments and tendons rubbing and popping and groaning during the pivot. For the first week of this I could barely bring my torso upright because of the pain and discomfort.

I tried wearing sweats over my usual thin polyester exercise pants, but it barely made the pivot any less painful. At first, I thought it would be impossible to carry on past one or two sets. But I found that I could adjust my movement and my positions to reduce the abrasiveness of the floor. For example, if I flexed my knee during the hip shift from the windmill position, it tightened things up and kept my joint compact. This reduced the amount of loose knee tissue that could rub around on the ground.

At some point, though, I still need to open that knee up as I bring my torso upright. Naturally, as I push my hips forward and open them up, my knee is going to open a bit too. I’m learning to bring more of my weight onto the forward leg which has my foot on the ground. There’s still a good amount of knee grinding against the floor as I rise, but it’s less painful with my weight loaded onto the forward foot and the connected leg and glute.

Lastly, there’s the pivot of my lower leg back to line up with my forward leg. Here my knee is full on the ground, pressed down from the weight overhead, and I’m spinning on it to turn my lower leg back. Again, I find that keeping my weight forward on my front leg and foot helps lessen the grinding. The first and second reps are usually most painful, and the third rep is easier. The pain isn’t an injury pain, it’s more of a massage pain – the kind that comes from jammed up tissues being loosened and undone.

After doing this for a couple of weeks, I noticed that if I focus on the kettlebell in my hand more, and less on my grounded knee, I find that the pain is much less. This makes me believe most of it is in my head. It’s also probably because when I focus on that weight above, and getting up, I’m also hitting that position in a concise movement. I’m spending less time in the transitions where my knee is grinding the floor. And I think it just feels more painful when I’m in the awkward positions of the transitions, with my torso at an angle, my head moving and my gaze unfixed. At the stable positions of windmill, and then being on one knee, I’m not moving and my knee isn’t grinding. To get there, I have to focus through the discomfort.

So the getups on a hard wood floor teach me to focus on the movements, on weight distribution, and on being concise. While I will not do this regularly, as I’m not that excited about grinding my knees, I think it is a good training setting every once in a while to remember these things.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Today’s training: 100 two-handed swings with 32kg. No getups.

Walking the Tired Line

It’s a little over three weeks now from my first kettlebell sessions with the 32kg iron. To recap, I’ve been training every day with the 24kg kettlebell for about a year up until the middle of last month. I began the transition to 32kg in getups because I was able to do five on each side in well under ten minutes every day. This was Pavel Tsatsouline’s requirement set forth in Simple and Sinister.

On the weekend that I first took up the 32kg bell, I knew I would be more tired and need more food and rest. I projected this would last for the duration of my transition, which I estimated to be about a month. It has certainly been more tiring. I’m regularly more tired in the mornings, and it’s been difficult to jump out of bed into the dawn. I eat a late lunch regularly, almost every day around 2 or 3pm. Still, without enough sleep during the weekdays I am slow to recover. I slept much later into the mornings on the last few weekends, to try to recover.

Being in the middle of this transition, I detach and take a bugger perspective to make the tiredness easier to handle. But today I experienced one of the great dangers of not recovering enough from training – injury. My latissimus seems to have gotten strained near the attachment to my shoulder. It’s nothing major, but it highlighted the involvement of this muscle area in the getup, and more generally it’s contribution to shoulder stability. The getup teaches me about my shoulders in this way. Not having rested enough during increased weight training, my lats strangely take the hit. This reminds me of how important they are as the foundation of my shoulders.

I’m currently doing four getup sets of the 32kg, and one set of the 24kg for each side. My swings are still with the 24kg. Remember I’m doing these outside, at the bottom of the staircase leading up to my home. As long as I live in an upstairs apartment, I’m going to use just one kettlebell for the swings. Perhaps when I’ve got the getups settled at 32kg, I’ll think about taking two of the irons with me down and upstairs.

Live powerfully,

Steve

Thirty two at thirty two

It’s been about twelve months since I started regularly training with the 24kg kettlebell. At about an average of six days of training a week, I’ve used this kettlebell for swings and getups for around 288 days. That’s 28,800 swings and 2,880 getups. It’s time to start using the 32kg kettlebell, which I bought and began training with last weekend.

I’ve done powerlifting training to take my squat from 315lbs to 370lbs in a year – at 168lbs body weight – and I know that the length of time and the number of reps you do of an exercise doesn’t mean much on its own. I have seen people with “years of experience” in the gym who are not strong. So I’m not talking about my brief kettlebell history here to say I’m an expert on it.

I give these numbers for context. I’m a novice, and have been honing the skills and strength that are required by, and developed by, swings and getups. Swings have strengthened my lower, mid, and upper back. I no longer get the small pangs I used to feel from sitting too long, or from doing a bunch of work in the yard. Sure I get tired and sore here and there, but rarely do I get a random back ache. Sprinting up hills or stairs is much easier. I find a reserve of energy and tension in my body that is quicker and more responsive than what I felt after a year of powerlifting. I also have better balance, better posture, and less fatique from walking, running, and sprinting during my daily commute.

Getups transformed my shoulders and upper back. There’s not much difference in appearance. I haven’t grown in size, and actually may have gotten a bit skinnier over the past year. But my shoulders are now stronger when my arms are extended, more comfortable, and less problematic on a day to day basis. I can grab things better when they’re far away or behind me, and I’m much more confident in my ability to move things around further away from me.

The getup has also sewn together my whole body with thicker and tighter threads, so to speak. I am more coordinated from head to toe, and feel stronger and more responsive as a whole. Powerlifting brought good brute strength to my entire body, undeniably. I can shoulder bigger loads than ever before in my life, after barbell squats, deadlifts, bench and overhead presses, and Pendlay rows. Kettlebell getups helped me to make this strength more cohesive. Pressing a heavy load up overhead and then bringing it back down to your chest builds your pressing ability. Holding weight straight up from a supine position on the ground all the way up to standing and back down builds much more meaning into that kind of strength.

There are many good uses for the strength gained from heavy barbell exercises. Kettlebell training multiplies the usefulness of that strength. Using the 24kg kettlebell still isn’t quite easy. But compared to the early stages of my training, it’s not nearly as hard. Taking up the 32kg kettlebell recently has brought me back to the mindset of a beginner. I struggle to execute the most elementary movements. I sweat more. I breathe hard, unintentionally. And a little soreness in my muscles and joints has returned. I’ve been adding sets with the new bell slowly, just replacing one more 24kg set here and there. It is an incremental progression.

When I’m on by back, getting ready for the next getup, I wonder how I will ever do this with a 48kg kettlebell. One thing at a time I guess. For now, I thoroughly enjoy the new challenge during training each morning. At thirty two years I make use of my body and the strength I’ve built, which I will continue to build until the day I die.

Live powerfully.

The quirks of daily kettlebell training

Having a kettlebell at home is one of life’s great blessings. It’s convenient and is a great start to each day. There are certainly some challenges that come up as I train day to day, though. I see these as variables to training and additions to my development of strength.

First of all, I live on the second floor of an old apartment building. The floors are not very thick, and I assume based on what I can hear of my neighbors below that any noise or banging against the ground would be quite audible. I used to do my kettlebell sessions indoors, and the whole building shook during swings. It’s not surprising, given the force against the ground with which I have to accelerate the bell. Now that I’m training at six in the morning, I take it outside.

Outside means downstairs, because the landing in front of my door is quite small. I imagine a kettlebell that slips loose mid-swing from the second floor would travel quite far and dig quite deep into the pavement below. I’m not prepared for that risk, so I lug the heavy thing down a flight of steps. This is the first part of the fun of kettlebell training for me. Going down stairs with a kettlebell in one hand creates a nice exercise in balance and stepping. Because I don’t want to wake or startle my neighbors, I step lightly. It’s easier barefooted, of course. Without shoes that restrict the movement of my feet, I can lightly descend and feel the stairs enough to move smoothly and maintain balance. So why is my kettlebell in one hand? Well, because I have my doormat in the other hand. That brings me to the next fun thing.

Since I’m doing the swings outside, I’m pulling up and setting down the iron ball on concrete ground. This creates a nice scrape on the way up, and a dull but resounding thud on the way down. As I want to maintain my privilege of exercising right outside my door for the near future, I needed a way to minimize this noise. So the answer was to bring along my sturdy doormat. The rubber bottom and soft felty top act together as an efficient muffler. To save a trip up and down the staircase, I hold the mat in one hand and the bell in the other. Thus, I naturally go through the strongman drill known as the “suitcase carry”. Carrying a heavy load on one side trains you to balance out that load and develop better stability side-to-side while moving forward. Do it on a staircase and I guess it adds another level of complexity.

It doesn’t end there, of course. Part of kettlebell training involves precision of movement. When swinging the weight, it’s important to keep your feet planted, to stand tall at the end of the hip drive, and to pull it back down with the lats between your legs. If for any reason your heels come off the ground, you must release the bell. Holding on to it can cause injury to your back as you overreach to pull yourself back into the correct stance. Naturally, I wouldn’t want to fling a fifty pound iron ball into the dark dawn. I imagine the effect would be similar to a wrecking ball meeting the side of a high rise. The best case scenario would be a good clunk. A bad scenario could include a shattering crack, a bounce, another crack, a rumbling roll, and thunk thunk thunk down the front steps of the parking area. This is quite the incentive for me to pay full attention to my movements, to execute each part of the swing with precision, and to exercise greater strength in keeping the bell under control. My primary concern is to move in the best way possible. My secondary concern is exerting force. Both of these build strength, but I didn’t pay as much attention to the movement when I was training midday with no concern for how much noise I made.

There are many other unexpected factors that play into kettlebell training early in the morning in an apartment dwelling, but I’ll end with going gentle on the getups. For all the same reasons I want to finesse my swings, I have to be sensitive to the way I come back down on the ground during the different touch points of the movement. I do the getups inside, after I finish the swings and carry the bell back upstairs. To begin there is simply the act of laying down. I can’t just collapse onto the floor. I’ve learned to get down gently, but quickly because I don’t have too much time. Do this for the first time and you appreciate the control it takes.

With the weight in hand, pushing up on the elbow, the foot, and then coming to a stand on the rise, I go soft on the ground too. Counterintuitively, this takes more effort than slamming down on the ground, because the stability is coming from my midsection when I brace myself to make minimal touches on the ground. When I get to exercise on a grassy field, I can slam down against the ground with my foot as I come up to elbow with acceleration. In my apartment when people are sleeping below me, I don’t have that option.

Whatever your situation, if you take up the kettlebell or if you’ve already been training with it, try to appreciate the quirks that come with it. Everyone has a different situation, a different home environment, different time for training, and many other factors that make the training scene unique. See every thing that life brings in your path as part of your strength training. Let it make you stronger.

Live powerfully,

Steve