A couple of years ago I attended my first hardstyle kettlebell class with a friend. She had been RAVING about it. It didn’t go great. The moves weren’t intuitive; my back hurt when I tried to swing, and my ego balked at the tiny little bells I needed to use to make it through the class.
A while later, my sports chiropractor set me up with a kettlebell instructor for rehab of a chronic running injury. When I complained about how much I hated kettlebells, his response was “And that’s why you need them.”
Over the years, I’ve become a diehard fan and I have come to appreciate that my chiropractor was exactly right. They were TOUGH for me to wrap my head around, but the strength I have gained through working with them has percolated through to so many parts of my life.
In the most obvious of impacts, my kettlebell practice improved my running. Without running any extra miles, (without even running much, to be perfectly honest) I was able to take 20 minutes off my half-marathon. All of a sudden, I felt STRONG when I ran. I felt strong when I finished my runs. And my injuries tapered off.
I began to feel stronger overall. I started finding muscles where I didn’t know I had muscles. Despite having been a long-time endurance athlete, I never felt like I could just pick up whatever heavy thing was in my way. All the bags of groceries at once. Furniture that needed moving. Heavy shit at the gym. And to be honest, being able to pick up some really heavy shit gave me a confidence boost I didn’t know I needed.
I began to value a skill-focused approach to strength, a hallmark of hardstyle kettlebell training. Not only was I practicing to get stronger, I was practicing to get better. I learned the concept of “earning” progression. Of quality reps over quantity. Of checking ego at the door. I started with the tiny kettlebells and a few years in, I’m swinging and lifting more than I thought I was capable of. And thanks to a skill-focused approach, the same old lift can always be challenged and fine-tuned and improved.
I would be remiss if I didn’t also add- I came to find so much JOY in kettlebells. In swinging a heavy piece of iron around. In the grace of the Turkish Get-Up. In the rhythms of the ballistic lifts. It felt badass.
During my pregnancies, I gradually decreased the weights I pushed but I was able to do a lot of the same lifts. As my center of balance shifted and my range of motion changed, I used my workouts to maintain skills, learn new ones and fight some of the common postural shifts associated with pregnancy. When I couldn’t run, I could still swing. Through swings and deadlifts and carries I kept my core and pelvic floor firing, my posterior chain strong and my body happy.
After I had my babies, the philosophy of skill-focused strength that I adopted through my kettlebell practice really came to the forefront. I took a slow and steady approach back to strength training and running. And while I could lift heavy, I focused on lifting smartly. Instead of progressing strength, I started with cleaning up rusty skills. The first order of business was in building back a solid foundation of endurance and stability. Because even when you can’t lift heavy, you can lift better. In postpartum, taking this skills-first approach helped me check my desire to jump right back into to my pre-pregnancy loads, volumes and lifts.
Too often, people rush back into their postpartum workouts, chasing instant gratification but risking long-term injury. This is not a sustainable approach if your goal is long-term athleticism and function. Remember, check your ego. Earn your progressions. Build skills and progressively build back strength in order to get back to where you ultimately want to be.
By the time my I became pregnant with my second child (three years after the birth of my first), I was running faster and lifting heavier than I was before I got pregnant. And it’s worth noting, that I was able to achieve that strength while managing a bladder prolapse, a condition that at one time would have been considered a death sentence for serious athletics. When you consider a skill-focused approach to strength, consider that management of your core, pelvic floor and intra-abdominal pressure are skills worth mastering as well. Kettlebell training, with its edge in ballistic movements like the kettlebell swing, is actually a stellar tool for training these skills too.
Whatever your flavor of exercise- Crossfit, barre, yoga- consider this skills-first approach. Consider that if you are scaling your loads for pregnancy, or returning to your workouts postpartum, you have an opportunity to build back smarter. Stronger. To groove skills, learn new ones, find joy in the movement and take a break from the sheer grind of always working towards heavier, faster, harder work. Ultimately, it’s not about the tool. It’s about taking a smart and sustainable approach to your exercise.
If you are an athlete, active womxn, or otherwise place a high value on your physical fitness and long term pelvic health, download this guide to learn 4 key considerations to guide your childbirth preparation.
Laura is a personal trainer and kettlebell instructor, based in Redmond, WA, exclusively serving pregnant and postpartum people. In addition to providing personal training, she offers additional perinatal support- as a Seattle-area birth doula and by offering pelvic health support services, online or in-person. Contact her through her website by clicking here.