Up your Mobility & Flexibility with Kettlebells

   When you Google “flexibility training”, you expect to be inundated with information about topics like yoga and pilates. However, the kettlebell can also be used to improve range of motion in any muscular junction in your body. You probably associate kettlebells with power-lifters, and you may have had a few kettlebell exercises prescribed to you by a personal trainer. If this is the case, you may be questioning how this weighted ball is going to help you become more flexible.  

   Your muscles are made up of three main types of muscle fibers: slow twitch oxidative, fast twitch oxidative, and fast twitch glycolytic. These names tell us how much oxygen a muscle fiber relies on for contraction. Genetics and training both play a role in determining which type of muscle fiber is dominant in your body. Elite sprinters like Usain Bolt don't prepare for athletic events by running marathons because they want to train in a way that maximizes their sprinting potential. Likewise, if you are training to become more flexible, you will condition your muscles to do so over time by doing certain exercises.

   Muscle fibers of each type are grouped into motor units and spindles, which are innervated by motor neurons. Attached to the motor neurons is a Golgi Tendon Organ (GTO). This is where the magic of flexibility happens. A muscle fiber has one job: to contract. Muscle spindles also tighten up as a response to extension. This is a fail-safe that the body uses to prevent muscle tearing. The GTO works to inhibit muscular contraction in the active muscle. You've probably noticed that you can deepen a static stretch by holding it for a few seconds. That's the GTO telling the muscle to relax. That's what you want to focus on with flexibility training, and the kettlebell is going to get you there.  

    Approach training for mobility with the intent to increase flexibility. The first step is to determine where you want to increase your range of motion. Are your shoulders tight? Do your hamstrings tense up when you think about stretching them? Where are your chronically tight areas? The first step is always the warm-up. Do active stretches and light-resistance movements for several minutes. Your GTOs need time to let your muscle spindles know that you're not going to rip yourself apart by moving.  

   While you're exercising, your intent should be to feel how you move. Put your days of poor form behind you. Your focus for flexibility training is not how fast but how well you can move. Common kettlebell exercises like the Turkish Get-up and Windmill can take your shoulder through an enormous range of motion but can result in poor form as you tire. Don't be afraid to start with modifications to build up strength that will enable you to support the weight of the kettlebell. It's better to begin with a lightweight bell when your focus is on mobility training. The off-center weight of the kettlebell is going to do the job of making your muscles work. 

    Your goal is to achieve smooth, fluid movement with a kettlebell. Part of that is imagining pathways that your bell is going to follow. Many kettlebell exercises are going to improve your flexibility because they incorporate various movements and engage several muscle groups. It's going to take some practice. Practice creates the muscle memory that allows for increased flexibility and strength. It won't happen overnight, but it will happen with persistence.

   A kettlebell exercise for flexibility like the Hip ER/IR (external rotation/internal rotation) requires a different approach. You're going to sink down into a movement while trying to resist the movement. This sounds confusing, but fitness professionals refer to these movements as "eccentric isometrics." Concentric exercises, like kettlebell biceps curl, emphasize contraction while shortening muscle fibers. Eccentric exercises elongate muscle fibers while contracting. In the case of eccentric isometrics, you are resisting gravity throughout the exercise. 

   If you're doing a kettlebell squat, you oppose gravity by moving down at a controlled speed. You dictate how much resistance you apply by slowing down.  Isometrics are resistance exercises that don't change the length of your muscle fibers, like a kettlebell wall-sit. Eccentric isometrics are somewhere in the middle. Eccentric isometrics are similar to a static stretch. Remember the GTOs? They're going to come out to play with these types of exercises. A kettlebell is a weight that you can hold in any position to change your center of gravity. Not only will you activate the muscles being used to hold the bell, but you will also deepen your stretch by centering that weight over different areas. Move slowly, feel what your body is doing, and don't forget to breathe. If you feel a spasm, back off, take a break, and try again in a few minutes.  

    The American College of Sports Medicine currently recommends two to three days per week of flexibility training. The kettlebell is a fantastic fitness tool that can be used not only to increase your flexibility through eccentric isometrics, but through smooth, controlled exercises. Add it to your next flexibility workout, and you will quickly see the benefits. 

   It is important to note that muscular flexibility and hypermobile connective tissue are two different concepts. Hypermobile joint syndrome is a genetic condition where the connective tissue allows a much larger range of motion than the musculature around a joint support. Talk to your doctor before beginning a flexibility plan if you suspect that you may have hypermobile joint syndrome.  



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