Kettlebells for the Cross Country Skier

Jul 15, 2014

By Darlene Prois

Lance Armstrong uses kettlebells. So does Gray Cook, a nationally recognized physical therapist and functional movement expert. He, in turn, encourages his clients -- athletes from the NFL, NBA, NHL and WNBA -- to incorporate kettlebell workouts into their training.

Kettlebells, which look like cannonballs with handles, can help skiers become better athletes, too.

Within the past five years, kettlebell training has become a valued fitness tool for athletes in a wide variety of disciplines. They’re using the distinctively shaped weights to improve strength, mobility and balance. Those simple results are hugely significant: a functionally fit athlete with a strong, balanced core is far less prone to injury.

That’s important for anyone, but particularly for an aging athlete like the typical cross country skier. Nearly 35 percent of the skiers competing in the American Birkebeiner, for example, are between the ages of 45 and 55. For them, a properly designed kettlebell program can counteract the negative effects of years of repetitive training. That, in turn, can translate into a longer skiing career.

Kettlebells come in a wide variety of weights, from as little as two pounds to the 106-pound “Beast.” The lighter weights are typically used for corrective and rehabilitative exercises of the arms and shoulders; the heaviest are used for strength.

The core of any kettlebell workout is the swing. A kettlebell swing uses explosive movements to develop muscular power. The effect is similar to that of plyometric training, but with significantly less stress on aging joints.

The starting position of the kettlebell swing is identical to that of the vertical jump and also mimics the strongest striding position in such sports as inline and ice skating.

A swing begins with a basic box squat. From there, the bell is snapped forward to chest height as the legs straighten and the glutes tense.

Arms are little more than handles for a properly executed swing. Instead, a kettlebell swing fully engages the abs, glutes and hamstrings, which in turn strengthens and increases the flexibility of the hip flexors.

Typical weights used for swings by those new to kettlebells are 36 pounds for men, and 18 pounds to 26 pounds for women.

Kettlebells are portable and relatively simple to use. As in any weight-training program you’ll get better results and avoid injury by investing some time in expert instruction at the start.

Brett Jones, a strength and conditioning specialist and a master Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) instructor, advocates finding a trainer who will take into account any movement restrictions, asymmetries, goals, abilities and injury history to tailor an individual program.

There’s no doubt that the kettlebell swing – the core of any kettlebell workout - strengthens the quads and other muscles that skiers use most. But the most compelling reason to pick up bells is that they also strengthen the glutes and abs, muscles that skiers use with far less frequency.

Like skiing itself, kettlebell training is about balance. Kettlebells, however, engage and strengthen muscles through a far wider range of movement than skiing can. Because of its handle, the kettlebell's weight distribution changes throughout an exercise, engaging more of the body’s stabilizers.

Despite their recent surge in popularity, kettlebells shouldn’t be dismissed as a fad: Russian strongmen have trained with them for more than 300 years. The bell’s recent revival in the United States is due to the charisma (and chiseled body) of Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Red Army Special Forces trainer whose hard-style training methods emphasize flexibility and overall fitness.

Among the early converts to kettlebell training was Twin Cities-area trainer and skier, 45-year old John Rock. During his peak racing years, he competed in 10 national championships as well as the 1992 and 1994 U.S. Olympic Trials. Today, kettlebells are his primary workout tool, with the winter addition of three hours to five hours of weekly skiing, as time and weather permit.

“Most people would be pretty surprised that I ski the Birkie in under three hours with less than three hours a week of traditional aerobic training,” Rock said. “I can do that because my body has biomechanical integrity; I’m not leaking energy. My platform is solid so that when I apply force, it goes where I want it to go. If you can’t apply energy efficiently, you go slower.”

Rock, an RKC Level II kettlebell trainer, began using kettlebells in 2004 after seeing them demonstrated at a National Strength and Conditioning Association conference.

“Kettlebells addressed everything my studies said we were trying to accomplish -- core strength and functional fitness,” he said. “It just slapped me in the face; it was so blatant.”

As they age, many athletes make the mistake of continuing to try to develop the speed of a Ferrari engine, Rock said. They fail to notice, however, that their bodies have evolved into Model Ts. What most mature skiers need, instead, are corrective exercises to regain and maintain efficiency of movement.

“They’re trying to train like teenagers,” Rock said. “That’s not appropriate because they’re usually carrying muscle imbalances they’ve gained over the years. After a certain age, we can’t change our engine much, but we can tune up that chassis and make it more efficient.”

Because of the repetitive nature of what they do, endurance athletes’ bodies invariably get out of alignment if they don’t take corrective measures, he said. For skiers, it’s the hips that are most often affected.

“A skier’s hip flexors are typically short and tight,” said Rock. “When something pulls tight on one side, the opposite side has to pull tight to compensate for that. The glutes and hamstrings have to work harder.

“What happens is you’ll see incomplete weight shifts and hip extension, basically someone sitting back on their skis,” said Rock. “It happens to many skiers, even highly skilled ones. When fatigued, you don’t have the energy to balance over your ski and glide efficiently.”

Two kettlebell exercises that effectively help counteract such tightness are the swing and snatch. Both are among a handful of exercises that Rock uses in a typical workout.

“They help open up the hip flexors and strengthen the glutes,” said Rock. “Swing and snatch exercises are hip extensions over and over again. They’re dynamic and fluid movements that flow into each other, just like they do in skiing.”

Hayward attorney Mike Kelsey, 49, credits kettlebells for his first-ever cramp-free Birkie. He began working with the weights a few months prior to last year’s race, hoping to improve his overall fitness level.

“There’s no question that kettlebells made a difference,” said Kelsey. “Even with less ski-specific training, I didn’t cramp up. I was tired, but I made it up Bitch Hill and the next without stopping, something I’ve never done before. My overall strength was much improved; I maintained my balance better and felt more efficient.”

The active, four-season lifestyle of the Wisconsin north woods lured writer/photographer Darlene Prois from the big city to a cabin just off the American Birkebeiner Ski Trail. She joins her husband, Dave, in his enthusiasm for kettlebell workouts. The couple also likes to ski, bike, Nordic walk, canoe and kayak.

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