Tuesday, March 17, 2009

Kettlebell Q&A

Our esteemed correspondent Olga writes "Are kettlebell workouts safe?" And "What's it feel like to pull that weight over your head?"

Interestingly, the topic of injury came up again while chatting with another student at the studio where I take kettlebells (he takes the kickboxing class, held just before the kettlebell class and sometimes joins in the kettlebell class). "I'm always afraid I'm going to smash myself in the head with that thing," he noted.

The answer is, sure, you can drop that thing right on your head or your toe. But I bench press 105 pounds (did I mention that before?). I could easily drop that on my chest. I can smash myself in the forehead with a 40-pound barbell doing triceps extensions. But it doesn't happen because I am aware of the dangers and plan for ways to avoid them. The more often I lift, the more I get to know how the weights and my body behave together, and the more risks I can safely take. Same with kettlebells. (Although, early in my kettlebell career, when I was still working with a 16K bell, I did take a kettlebell to the crotch during swings. Ouch.) It also helps to have a live instructor, instead of a book or DVD, because he can correct my form so I don't inadvertently hurt myself through doing the exercises wrong.

And, of course, the more you strengthen your body, the less prone to injuries you are. Unless you drop a kettlebell on your toe. No amount of hyperextensions or push-ups are going to keep your toe from breaking in that circumstance. On the other hand, some speed and reaction training will probably help you jump out of the way!

Ultimately, though, I feel like kettlebells are a much safer sport than pursuits like skiing, skating, motorcycle racing. Even a high-impact sport like running seems more dangerous to me: In general, I never feel bad after a kettlebell class, but jogging makes my hip ache every time.

As to what it feels like to hoist that kbell over your head, well, it feels just right. Kettlebells are half brute strength and half mechanics. You get the momentum going with a snap of your hips, and the kettlebell takes on a trajectory of its own and you're just there to control it. When you're doing the snatch just right, there's a moment or two when the kettlebell is weightless, and that's when you pop your hand up, and 26 pounds of cast iron just settles right into the palm of your hand, light as a feather.

Of course, it takes scores of snatches to learn the feel of just how to control that momentum, and I have the black-and-blue marks on the back of my wrists (where the ill-controlled kettlebell comes slamming down against my arm) to prove it.

But in pursuit of my goal of 200 snatches, I have been doing plenty of them, and so my form is getting pretty good. With the little 20-pound bell at my gym, I can do 60 without stopping now, but I switch arms pretty often: 20-20-10-10. With my 26-pounder, I can only do 30 in a row--15 on each side--before I have to take a rest.


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