Having recently hit my 54th birthday, I can’t help but reflect on what I’ve put my body through and how lucky I was to find the RKC‘s incredible strength and mobility training. The system is truly remarkable. This is a long post, but I strongly feel that many people will benefit from this information. I also want to give hope and inspiration to those who are in pain, struggle with immobility and injuries from their “sins of the past”. More importantly, I want to help instructors, trainers, and their students (or clients) avoid injuries and set-backs. Enjoy!
For most of my life, I was a competitive combat athlete. I played contact football at age 9 and at age 13, had my first combat competition. There weren’t many junior wrestling leagues or martial arts schools around in 1975. I still spar (stand-up kickboxing) and roll (ground fighting in Jiu Jitsu), but not nearly as intensely or as often as I did from 1976 to 2011. However, I keep my skills sharp by doing a great deal of drilling and bag work. Scaling down from that level of training and giving up competition was–and still is–a difficult thing for me. But, my current situation allows me to focus my professional energies on other challenges: developing my students, growing my business, producing videos, writing books and furthering my education. I also get to spend a little more time with my family, coaching my little one and helping my older children reach their goals. This is something I cherish very much.
A couple of years ago, John Du Cane and I were talking. I told him how my kettlebell training and the other movement training I’ve learned since I started with the RKC has enabled me to move much more effectively and overcome the many injuries sustained during a lifetime of contact activities. The many years of football, wrestling and combat sports training and competition took their toll on my body, but I still workout virtually every day. I’m only able to do this is because of my kettlebell and bodyweight training regimen. John said that I should write a blog post and list all of the injuries. I agreed, and while some of the injuries haven’t had any effect on my ability to train, I’ll furnish the list of the most significant. I’ll also put forth the movements that have helped me the most.
Here’s my “Body of Work”
I won’t bore you with all the times that I’ve cracked a toe or broken a finger. I’ve had so many jams, sprains, minor dislocations, and stitches that I can’t remember them all. Many times, I’d simply pop my finger, toe–and once even my knee–back in place, throw on some tape and go back to training or back in the fight. At 17, I broke my thumb in two places while wrestling in the NJ State Freestyle Championships. But I taped it up, finished that match and wrestled in the finals. In my mind, that was “just another day at the office”.
So, we’ll start from the top…
I have had four diagnosed concussions, and several minor ones that I just shook off and either went back on the field, got back on the mat or went out for the next round. Since most of them occurred in the 70’s and 80’s, there was no real treatment, and not much time off. I took a week off when I had my worst concussion, but my eye was also swollen shut at the time and I had 17 stitches in my head and 5 more in my arm. I wasn’t going to be doing much for a few weeks anyway.
I also had my nose broken four times and had it repaired twice. This has had an adverse effect on breathing while training. At one point, one nostril was fully closed and the other operating at 50%. It was difficult not to be a “mouth breather” at that point. Getting enough oxygen into my lungs was tough for a while until my second nose operation. I still use saline spray (Xlear with xylitol) and a nasal inhaler (Oblas with menthol, and oils of peppermint, cajeput, eucalyptol) several times a day. Incidentally, this practice has also helped me avoid many colds and sinus infections. I haven’t had or needed antibiotics in years, which has further bolstered my immune system.
I’ve had three memorable injuries to my neck and have experienced countless “burners” during competition or fight training. For those of you who don’t know what a “burner” or “stinger” is, it’s when your neck (or head) gets twisted, jammed or otherwise forced into a compromising position, usually very quickly and a “hot”, “shocking” or “burning” sensation runs from your neck down your arm. Generally, you experience a “flash of light” in your eyes, pain, and temporary lose the use of your arm. I’ve had this happen more than once in actual combat and had to just deal with it. I’ve experienced so many of these in training and competition that I can’t even try to remember how many times it has happened.
One of my major neck injuries occurred in a football game, and another during a wrestling match. But, the most notable injury required surgery on four levels of my neck. This injury occurred during fight training at the end of 2011, but the situation was acerbated from years of abuse. The MRI revealed two herniated and five bulging discs in my neck, spinal stenosis in many of my foramen, and an osteophyte on the inside of my spinal canal. This caused an edema (bruising/scarring) on my spinal cord, resulting in a permanent spinal cord injury. Four levels of my vertebra had their foramen removed, “windows” were put in the vertebra, and the osteophyte was removed. But, the damage had already been done.
I started my rehabilitation a little less than two weeks after the operation. For the first week, I could only do planks. I progressed to plank pull-ups (Aussie pull-ups) and incline push-ups for sets of five reps. Within five months, I was able to perform most of my movements again, and began to film The Kettlebell Workout Library. Prior to my operation, I was unable to press a 10kg kettlebell overhead. After only four months of training I was able to press a 20kg kettlebell bottoms-up. I attribute my speedy recovery to my strength and conditioning practice both prior to the operation and the RKC methodology employed afterward.
I have a torn labrum (slap tear) in my right shoulder. Prior to 2006, it used to slide out on a regular basis. At that time, I had just gotten into kettlebell training–my first set of kettlebells was delivered in December 2005. I hadn’t quite developed the ability to engage my lats and pack my shoulders properly at this point. In June of 2006, I was set to shoot 3 DVDs: Fit 2 Fight, Combat Ready and Let’s Sweat. Five days before the shoot, my shoulder popped out–and stayed out. I drove myself to the hospital and they couldn’t get it to stay in. The next day, I got an ART (Active Release Technique) treatment from Dr. Michael Dworkin and my shoulder slid back into place. At first, I rehabbed it with swings while only focusing on packing my shoulders and engaging my lats. My shoulder hasn’t slid out in over 10 years! Not only was I able to complete shooting the videos, but the new strength permitted me to get back to live grappling. I was also able to successfully compete through 2010 in submission fighting. Kettlebell training changed my life and extended my competitive career to span four decades. Very cool!
I’ve had an ongoing battle with my elbows. Back in the day, I used to spend endless hours pounding on the Makawara affixed to the concrete wall in my garage. As a fighter in my early twenties, I didn’t consider the long term repercussions of sending force into an object that could not give way. I just wanted to toughen my hands and hit hard. By hitting the wall-mounted striking surface, all the force that I put into the punches came back at me. All of the years spent fighting, sparring, grappling, and getting armbars finally caught up to me in 2005. I was doing heavy cable curls and the next day my forearms, particularly my brachial radiali were screaming in pain. I could barely turn a door knob, walk my dog, shovel snow off of my driveway or even start my car without an excruciating pain shooting through my arm. It was so bad that one day in 2005, I was training with Frank Shamrock and I couldn’t move my arm at all. He said, “Bro, I’d get that taken care of ASAP”. Good advice. He told me about ART and that’s how I found Dr. Mike Dworkin (the guy who fixed my shoulder).
Kettlebell training taxes your grip. Doing pull-ups and hanging abs wreaks havoc on your grip and elbows. Not to mention BJJ (Brazilian Jiu Jitsu), grappling, kickboxing and weapons training. All of the activities I love were adding to and were the root cause of my elbow pain. I tried all of the standard and non-standard treatments. Here’s what didn’t work: cortisone injections, acupuncture, prescription and a myriad of useless bands, straps and sleeves. Don’t waste your time or money. Here’s what worked: ART and Graston Technique, dry needling, oblique activation and a sound stretching regimen. I leveraged my relationships with the many professionals that I met through the RKC and put together a stretching routine for my forearms/elbows.
These are the best exercises I have found to maintain elbow and forearm health:
This first exercise is a stretch. I place my palm, fingers down, against the wall and keep my arm straight while pressing against the wall for 30 to 60 seconds. Now, I also do this stretch against a suspended, supported horizontal bar for a greater range of motion.
Back of the wrist push-ups: start on your knees if necessary, turn your hands inward and make sure that your arms are completely straight. After you become more advanced, ball your fists and press your knuckles together as you press up to full extension.
Handstands, wall handstands, crow stands, and toad stools: these movements build strength in the shoulders, arms, and core. More importantly, they de-load the the forearms. Practice these strength movements with your hands completely open and gripping the floor will do wonders to counterbalance the effects of a great deal of clenched-fist work.
For the last exercise, stand tall, pack your shoulders, and keep your neck, shoulder and arm in the same vertical plane. Grasp a small kettlebell, nothing heavier than 16kg, with your thumb facing forward. Rotate your palm so it faces forward, then bring your opposite ear to your shoulder. Be sure to maintain the same plane. For example, if you have the kettlebell in your left hand, bring your right ear toward your right shoulder while keeping all your moving parts in the same plane.
My hands are crucial to my work, activities and life. I’ve had many fractures, jams, sprains and dislocations. Strong hands are critical. There was a time when one of my hands was so weak that I couldn’t even military press a 10kg (22lb) kettlebell. This is coming from guy who had to strict press the Bulldog (44kg – 97lbs) to attain my RKC Level-II! Yes, I was a little down.
The main exercises that helped me regain my strength are: single kettlebell deadlifts, kettlebell wrist twists, pitcher curls, bottoms-up presses, bottoms-up carries, farmers walks, Neuro-Grip push-ups and kettlebell snatches.
Single kettlebell deadlifts: keep your shoulders and hips in prefect alignment, pack your shoulders, engage your lats, grasp the kettlebell handle firmly, and lift. It’s important not to “dip” your shoulder or twist your hips. I am now up to using a 150 pound kettlebell for sets of five reps.
Kettlebell wrist twists: lay the back of your hand against the floor as you grab the kettlebell by the handle. Twist the kettlebell back and forth as you “kiss” the ground with the bell. Repeat for 5 to 10 repetitions.
Pitcher curls: grasp one or two kettlebells by the handle(s) and start with them at your thighs. Maintain a straight back with your arms held at your sides. Keep your elbows in the same position, move the kettlebell(s) upward to the bottoms up position. Repeat the movement for 5 to 10 repetitions.
Bottoms-up press: this movement is the most effective pressing motion to engage your lats and improve your overall overhead press, and it’s incredible for grip development. On a good day, I can do it with a 28kg kettlebell, but I can invariably perform this movement with a 24kg kettlebell, even on my worst day.
Bottoms-up carries: this exercise forces the recruitment of additional stabilizers, not only in the forearms, but in the whole body, and aids in discovering new neural pathways for the hands. Since several muscles in my hand not longer had a signal coming form my brain, I had to find new pathways and develop additional strength in other, previously ancillary muscles and stabilizers. This movement also creates greater muscular endurance.
Farmer’s walks: grip strength development is one of the many benefits of the farmer’s walk. I will typically do 4 to 6 minutes of farmer’s walks as the last part of my workout–as a finisher. In contrast, I generally perform the bottoms-up carries in the beginning of the session.
Neuro-Grip push-ups: I have to thank my buddy Jon Bruney for inventing this device and bringing it to Dragon Door. I love this device and use it a great deal! Grip strength, wrist strength, balance, and core recruitment are developed to such a high level with this little tool. When I first got them in, I could only do about 20 repetitions. Fast forward a year later, my PR is 57 on two hands and 5 with the one armed version. My best is two in a row on my damaged (right) side. I recommend that everyone get Neuro-Grips.
Snatches: snatches tax the grip. Even if you pop the kettlebell in your hand from palm to fingers on the downward movement, spear your hand at the top and rotate your thumb inward at the bottom. The grip will be the first thing that goes, check out people’s hands after doing their first RKC Snatch Test or after executing the V02 protocol, if you have any doubt.
There are a few other practices I employ. I use a thumbless grip whenever possible, and I focus on squeezing my pinky when I’m doing grinds with my full grip. These two variations have helped me avoid recurring elbow problems. The thumbless grip forces you to use your lats more.
There are many other exercises: hanging from a pull-up bar, rows, bottoms-up cleans. I’m not back up to pressing the 44kg yet, but I can get the 40 up on a good day and recently did a get-up with the 44kg. So four and 1/2 years after my surgery, I continue to improve!
Strength and Honor!
Stay tuned for Part 2!
Master RKC Phil Ross is the creator of many strength and conditioning programs, including The Kettlebell Workout Library. Visit www.philross.com to learn about his programs, classes, and workshops. Subscribe to his YouTube channel for more workout and exercise info.