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Report: Mike Mahler Kettlebell Workshop

Mike Mahler Photo
From my weekend's "don't forget to bring" list:

  • One cast-iron cannonball with handle
  • Towel
  • Water
  • High pain tolerance

Yes, it's time to toss around some kettlebells. A kettlebell is a chunk of iron with a thick handle on it. Russians use them somewhat like low-tech dumbbells. There, kettlebell lifting is a sport and supposedly kettlebells are found in most gyms. America is just starting to discover kettlebells, mostly thanks to Pavel Tsatsouline, author of "The Russian Kettlebell Challenge."

I started lifting kettlebells about six weeks ago, and on October 15th I attended Mike Mahler's workshop in Denver. He's a senior instructor certified by Pavel, and also a prolific author of articles and videos on the sport. Here's my report.

Morning

The class was held in a rec center gym, with about 25 other students and a couple assistant instructors. Students ranged from wickedly strong to totally un-physically-fit. They were very friendly without exception, however, which is not what I expected at a gathering of this sort. Most people at gyms prefer to strut rather than chat, but this crowd was both friendly and even humble.

We assembled in a wide semi-circle around Mike and started with joint mobility exercises. These were great for getting loosened and warmed up. Then we started working up to the clean, one of the most basic lifts, and a starting point for many other exercises. I already had a pretty good clean, built from watching Mike and Pavel's videos. I have several years of dance background -- yes, that includes ballet -- so I'm pretty quick at learning new movements with correct form. I performed these without trouble.

The guy next to me, who I partnered with on many drills, was a personal trainer from Fort Collins. He's a runner and has the lean build to match, and he's definitely strong. The outside of his wrists were taking a beating from the get-go. This is partly due to bad form, as the bells shouldn't smack your wrists on a clean. The other part is just conditioning your wrists to having a kettlebell pressing on them. When holding the bell in clean, some of its weight is pressing against the outside of your wrist, and that just hurts for the first couple weeks. Because of this, I was glad I had some prior experience with kettlebells so my wrists were conditioned ahead of time.

Next up was the turkish get-up, a move I tried to learn from Mike's video but never mastered. The key that unlocked it was Mike's step-by-step approach to practicing each part of the move, first without weight, then with weight. By the time we did a full turkish get-up with weight, I knew I had it. This was why I wanted to take the class: there are things you can watch many times on video but never have it click just right, but when coached in person, it finally clicks.

After that we moved to presses. The military press is pretty straight-forward, and a move I had learned well from the videos. Most others either knew it or learned it quick. Then came the windmill, which I really enjoy for some perverse reason. Again, my dance background and high body awareness were keys to learning this from a video.

The bizarre presses which you'll never see in your average gym are the side press and bent press. I knew the side press already, but I could never figure out the bent press. Finally it made sense with Mike showing it. We also did a partner drill which locked it in. The lats are key here, and this lead to an interesting discussion with my class partner. He can knock off 15 pull-ups, easy, and pull-ups use the lats extensively. He said his lats were screaming during the bent press. I've always sucked at pull-ups, though, but I could do bent presses well, and I'm pretty sure I was doing them right. My partner said I really needed to test my pull-ups again -- chances are I'd surprise myself.

By this point I was convinced of the value of Mike's workshop. I had wondered previously about its value since I had already learned a lot from videos. But now there was no doubt: some of these things you just need to learn in person. And with exercises I had learned before, the reinforcement of proper form in all its subtleties was worth the time and money.

One of the important differences between videos and the workshop is how Mike would build up to an exercise. With the military press, for example, he started by teaching a deadlift, then a clean, then doing a tension exercise, then power breathing, then finally the press. The tension exercise was great: he had us hold a heavier bell than we were used to in the clean position. I was used to a 35lb bell, but now I had an 88lb bell cleaned. Holy cow, it took my whole body just to hold the thing there for 10 seconds! But generating whole body tension was exactly the point. That's the kind of thing you can't get from watching a video.

Must. Have. Food.

Then it was time for lunch, which was was just right because hunger was kicking in big-time. Mike gave a great lecture on program design and nutrition. I can't do it justice here, but fortunately he's already written most of it down. I encourage you to read the articles on his web site for more information.

Afternoon

From there we did swings, which are fun for about 10-20 reps, then they start to become real work. Here I was already pretty good, at least for 20 reps. The interesting thing with swings is a sequence of tension-motion-tension. When you're initiating the swing you need tension, then as the bell gets moving, you need to release some tension and let the bell's momentum carry it, then you need tension for just a moment at the top, then you need to release quickly and let the bell swing back. This is really hard for the weight lifter types who want to power the weight around all the time. The swing is a ballistic move, not a lift. I imagine that weight lifters could stand to gain a ton of agility from mastering these rapid tension-motion-tension sequences.

At this point we'd been going for about four hours. Before the class I had been pondering: how do you survive past the first hour? In a usual workout I'm cooked in a half hour. At the workshop, however, there's enough down time between exercises as Mike is instructing and demonstrating. Then when it's time to work, the sets/reps are just right for drilling the exercise home without getting too exhausting. Also, he's arranged things in the right sequence. Technical exercises that demand proper form or result in injury, like the turkish get-up, are done in the morning. Swings are done later. He's clearly thought through his syllabus carefully.

The workshop ended with the all-important snatch, a ballistic move that's the essence of the kettlebell sport. As with other complex moves, Mike built up to this with several learning exercises. I thought my form was good before coming to the class, but I had a revelation during the class, and finally "saw the light."

While Mike demonstrated this with 88lb kettlebells and perfect form, the best demonstration -- and most humbling -- was given by an assistant. Jen is a woman who lifts kettlebells competitively, and she uses the same 35lb bell that I have. She can do 70 snatches in a row. (I can do 20 on a good day.) She looks like a normal woman, not some mutant body builder. While she's unquestionably stronger than you'd guess at first glance, what she's really using is perfectly efficient movement. She can do this move again and again and again with no wasted motion, no banging the kettlebell around -- it's like watching a fish swim or an eagle soar.

My snatches improved instantly, and I knew just how to improve them further with more practice. I know I'm on the right track to mastering the snatch, and I'm almost there.

Aftermath

To summarize things I learned or greatly improved in Mike's workshop, even after studying the videos: turkish get-up, bent press, double swing, snatch, power breathing, great joint mobility exercises, lots about nutrition, and that kettlebell lifters are a friendly bunch. (I'm sure I've forgotten a few things in this list.) Worth the time and money? Definitely.

Afterwards I was pretty much wiped out and never wanted to lift a kettebell again. Went to bed at 8:30pm. The next day I woke up sore and stiff, mostly in my legs. When I say legs, I mean quads, hamstrings, glutes, groin, everything. I couldn't put my socks on in the morning. I stretched several times during the day and could finally touch my toes again by evening. The backs of my wrists were sore, too, mostly from screwing up snatches as I was getting the form straight. Now I'm ready to start lifting again on Monday. I'm as fired up about kettlebells as I've ever been!

UPDATE: A couple notes: I haven't covered all the moves that Mike taught us in the class -- this report is long enough already. Definitely bring a towel, you'll be sweating like crazy. If you have chalk, bring that too, you'll want it for the snatches. Last, please note that I have no affiliation with Mike Mahler, I'm just a happy customer.

Comments

When purchasing a kettlebell, it is essential to check that you begin off with the correct weight. Too heavy and you could risk injuring yourself; too light and your training will undergo.

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