When I was in Lithuania coaching the USA Police Team at the world Sambo championships I trained with the team from Tajikistan where I learned why their wrestlers were in such amazing shape even into hold age. Their culture discipline called zurkhane taught me a thousand year old exercise approach called club swinging, when even became an Olympic Games sport.
In 1993, I unfortunately allowed my arm to be broken at the World University Games (also known as the Universiade – the Olympics for University athletic teams), when facing my Russian counter-point for the gold medal. Had I tapped out, it would have cost the US more team points; rather than losing by technical superiority (my opponent won on points.) I managed to finish the match without injury disqualification (if your opponent breaks your limb in Sombo, you lose, but I hid this from the referee). That silver medal was the most important victory of my career, because it taught me the value of “connective tissue strength.” My concealment of the injury led to avascular necrosis in my scaphoid: a condition that locked my hand in vice-like pain unable to hold anything. When your sport involves being able to grip a man and throw him to the ground, the inability to hold anything is career ending.
What I discovered as a child – overcoming my physical and learning “defects” allowed me to not quit martial art… as it become a discipline of self-development. In fact, 12 years later, I came out of retirement and won the US Open International San Shou Championships at the age of 36, with only 6 weeks to prepare for a fighting sport I had never competed in. How did I do it? Well, if you know anything about the physical and learning disabilities I faced as a child, all of the conventional approaches failed.
Aerobics, bodybuilding, powerlifting, cross-training, Olympic lifting each were created within the past 100 years. None of these conventional methods are appropriate for combat sports – which are in my opinion, the ultimate test of physical fitness. As the USA National Coach, I sought out forging a conditioning program that was specifically designed to increase the safety, performance, health and career longevity of myself and my athletes.
With my academic background in philosophy and physical education, I infused modern sport science into this montage of scattered folk movements in order to create a systematic approach to a “health-first” method of increasing connective tissue strength. This is where the tractional forces (weight swinging) became more important to me than compressional forces (weight lifting.Two dimensional lifting limits your movement, but club swinging evolved from thousands of years of three dimensional movement.
I was exposed to kettlebells in my six years as the 1st Westerner to intern behind the “Iron Curtain” of the former USSR, studying with their special operations (Spetsnaz) trainers, and the national and Olympic coaches of their national boxing, kickboxing, fencing, judo and sambo teams. Kettlebells were a middle ground between conventional and multi-dimensional, multi-planar training. The kettlebell somewhat displaces its center of mass, and earning the distinction of “Master Coach” in kettlebell lifting by the world champion and now US National Coach, Valery Fedorenko, allowed me to truly understand the nature of the tool and how it can be best used for connective tissue health.
A displaced center of mass creates a leverage challenge, which in turns creates positive neurological force production without the injury to connective tissue caused by conventional weight-lifting. With compressional forces (squeezing down on the joint), the greater the actual weight, the more damage you create to soft, connective tissue. Uncovering this secret – I found most weight lifters live with insufferable pain and injury. However, a displaced center of mass in weight-swinging (such as Indian clubs and Russian kettlebells) needs much less actual weight to be swung yet producing superior force through the tractional swinging.
Tractional swinging allows space within the joints (increasing synovial and ground substance flow), rounds off the bony profiles of joint salts and calcium deposits (preventing osteoarthritis) as well as stimulating the osteoclastic/osteoblastic effect of increased bone growth (offsettting osteoporosis). As a result, I came to learn over many years of trials that weight-swinging allowing someone of my “shallow end of the gene pool” greater heights of strength conditioning, but without the problematic injuries associated with conventional weight-training.
However, the kettlebell has a conventional handle which rests on the skeletal structure (pulls against the fingers like a kettlebell, dumbbell or barbell), unlike the Indian clubs which “distract” through the grip (pulls through the grip like a rope thus requiring connective tissue strength development). Greater weight to the joints means more soft tissue damage, because of the accumulation of trauma. The injuries so common in kettlebell, dumbbell and barbell lifting are prevented by the design of the club – with the weight pulling through the grip rather than against it.)
Unlike weight-lifting, where you must increase the weight of the implement in order to increase the force production, the club is swung. Swinging weight increases torque, which in turn, increases force developing greater connective tissue strength. Conventional weight lifting is restricted to linear increases of force with increased weight added. Weight swinging increases exponentially: swinging twice as fast produces four times the torque. Superior force production meant superior connective tissue strength for me in a fraction of the time and without the litany of injuries associated with weight-lifting.
Most importantly, weight-lifting can only be moved in two planes. This limited range of motion attempts to isolate particular muscles. Isolation, however, is a myth long since debunked. The body is composed of an interconnected myofascial web: a double-bag system. The “inner bag” contains bone and cartilage, and where it cling wraps the bone it’s called periosteum, and over the joints, it’s called joint capsule. The “outer bag” contains an electric jelly we refer to as muscle and covering it we call it fascia. Where that outer bag is tacked down to the inner bag, we call those attachments or insertion points. Our bones and joints float in a sea of continuous tension, and our bones act as compressive struts pushing outwards while this double-bagged web pulls inward in a unique balance which one of my mentors Dr. Steven Levin named biotensegrity” (the biological “integrity of tension.”)
Weight-swinging is tri-planar: moving through the sagittal, coronal and frontal planes – strengthening the myofascial chains across their full range of motion. This increases soft tissue elasticity rather than traumatizing it like the two dimensional movements of weight-lifting. Soft tissue elasticity diminishes as we age and is primarily responsible for most injuries for athletes and the aging. This is why these apparently disparate groups (young athletes and the aging communities) are my largest audiences.
3D movement bathes your joints with nutrition, lubricates them for motion, removes adhesions, prevents arthritis, and keeps bone density strong. Weight-lifting equipment cannot do this.
You see the obvious development of the arms, shoulders, upper back and chest of weight-swinging enthusiasts. However, the most misunderstood difference between weight-swinging and weight-lifting is to connect the superior force production of torque to core activation. It becomes an extension of the body, which is why you see such incredibly powerful abs, obliques and strong lower backs of weight-swingers. Furthermore, all exercises are full bodily intensive: creating incredibly powerful glutes, hams, quads and calves from the leg drive.
Weight-swinging has been from age 4 to 87. Many classes are full of “baby boomers” who are looking to become pain free, agile and graceful, as well as strong, powerful and fit. Weight-swinging, whether medicine balls, clubbells (the modern version of old Indian clubs), kettlebells, at home can benefit everyone, especially in economic times where spending thousands of dollars a year on a health club membership may be outside of the budget.
Copyright (c) 2009 RMAX INTERNATIONAL
Scott Sonnon is the former USA National Martial Arts Team coach and champion, a hall of fame inductee, and keynote advisor to the Arnold Schwarzenegger Active Aging Festival, the National Law Enforcement and Security Institute. Go here to claim your free tips and videos => http://www.flowcoach.tv
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