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A Champion Powerlifter Discovers the Power of Kettlebells

March 10, 2006 03:14 PM

My name is Ellen Stein and I am a powerlifter. For the last 12 years that word has defined who I am. It has shaped my workouts in the gym and kept me focused but at the same time it has prevented me from discovering other training methods that could have possibly helped me improve my lifting. Hey I have been IPF World Masters Champion five times already so who needs to improve, right?

Wrong! I have never been the type of person who accepts the status quo so why had I fallen into such a rut? Was it because I was already the best in the USA and in the World in my age and weight class? Had I gotten lazy? After all it was the general rule of thumb that powerlifters did just that and only that ? we squat, we bench and we deadlift and I was following that rule. It's who we are and it's what we do.

Oh yeah well sure, maybe we do some "assistance" work but it's been said many times before if you want to be a good squatter then you have to squat and so the same goes for the bench and deadlift. Well fortunately for me I have always had an open mind and I suspected there was something out there that was going to give me the edge I was looking for. My lifts had gotten stale and I was not improving and I felt I was heading down the road of mediocrity. At this point I was just avoiding injury and just trying to stay in the game.

I don't quite remember when exactly it was but somehow I got my hands on a few Dragon Door publications ? Hard Style and Vitalics. I browsed through them, ordered a few books and began reading about this sport of kettlebell training. What first captured my attention were the photos of these small women snatching and throwing 12kg kettlebells like they were made out of air! What power! I immediately felt my competitive juices flowing ? I wanted to be able to do that and of course be the best at it!

I believe it was also around this time in July of 2005 that I attended the NSCA National Convention in Las Vegas and actually got to meet one of these tiny but powerful women. I speak of the beautiful and mighty Sarah Lurie, the owner of Iron Core in La Jolla California, I bought one of the T-shirts from her booth and immediately felt stronger just wearing it. Strange, huh? Soon after I got home I ordered her 2 DVD set, bought myself a 4kg kettlebell and did my first official workout at home. I remember thinking Holy "you- know-what"-this ain't easy! I was sweating and huffing and puffing, something I was not used to since I was used to more anaerobic training and 1 rep max's.

I hadn't enjoyed that type of an endorphin rush since my long distance running career in the 80's! Needless to say, I slept like a baby that night.

Soon after I started to look for seminars in my area (NYC) to learn more about this sport. It was then that I found myself eagerly signing up for Mike Mahler's Level 1 class in November. More about that later.

What happened to me before taking Mike's seminar was even more phenomenal! Let me tell you the story?

In the Dragon Door magazine, I saw a tiny announcement on the bottom of the page looking for people to participate in a raw deadlift meet in Richmond, Virginia run by the AAU. It was to be the Power to the People! Team led by the kettlebell master himself, Pavel Tsatsouline! It was like the opportunity of a lifetime! I managed to get his e-mail address from Mike Mahler and proceeded to contact him. I introduced myself to him, gave him a list of my powerlifting achievements and graciously asked him if he would have me on his team. He wrote back that he would be honored to have me on his team and that I was one strong lady!

Needless to say, I was thrilled that he was honored to have me!!! Well I began to train and having only lifted raw once before I had no idea what I would be able to pull. I did know, however, that there were some AAU records out there to be broken so I was on a mission. I stayed in touch with Pavel throughout my training cycle and reported on my progress. I was intent on improving my deadlift so I asked him about his DVD Strength Stretching and he said he would give me one as a gift when we met at the meet. I highly recommend this DVD for all those stiff and inflexible powerlifters out there and you know who you are!!!

Finally October came and there I was in Virginia shaking the hand of the man who has brought this sport back into the limelight where it belongs. Not only did I get to have some fascinating conversations with Pavel but I also got to watch him compete with a fierceness and intensity I found myself envying. The fire in me had kind of sizzled in the last few years.

I outdid what I expected to do at the meet. I pulled 330 raw (at 126 lbs bodyweight) and set both an American and World record in the AAU!

During this weekend I was also introduced to Marty Gallagher, a former powerlifting icon with many titles and championships to his credit and a superb writer of strength training articles for PL USA, the Washington Post, Muscle & Fitness as well as a book about the great Ed Coan (

I also met Jack Reape, a world class military lifter, a real powerhouse of a guy with a spectacular bench who has written numerous articles for many publications including T-nation and Reading his articles has helped me with my bench press training. It was quite an experience. Naturally our team came in first place and a good time was had by all! Many personal bests were achieved by the team's members and I was excited about being a part of this new group of people.

Well now I was really looking forward to Mike Mahler's class since I needed some hands on training to perfect what I was doing at home with Sarah's videos. I had already progressed to a heavier 8kg KB but I was banging up my wrists something fierce. The day arrived and I was about to meet the charming and colorful Mike Mahler! I had already been reading Mike's Aggressive Strength Newsletters on a regular basis and had paid many visits to his website
There I was surrounded by 29 other aspiring KB trainees-each one at a different level of fitness but all with the same desire-to learn and to improve and to be the best we can be! The class was sensational and in a matter of minutes I perfected my technique. I stopped banging up my wrists and easily moved on to the 12kg and even messed around with a 16 kg one! At the seminar I purchased Mike's DVD Kettlebell Solution for Size and Strength which comes with an online user guide that can be downloaded and printed for easy reference. I couldn't wait to get home, pop it into my DVD player and begin practicing all of the exercises!

I am currently training for the USAPL Women's Nationals in February 2006 to be held in Denver, Colorado. I expect this to be my last Nationals as I have decided to become a full time Kettlebell enthusiast and would like to become a certified RKC instructor. I want to be able to share what I have learned with anyone who wants to improve their level of fitness and in turn their quality of life.

I have incorporated many of the kettlebell exercises I have learned into my training with tremendous results. The first improvement I noticed was my overall core strength. I had purchased Steve Maxwell's Abs Back and Core video ( and began doing such exercises as the rotating deadlift, the gladiator press, the single leg deadlift row and my favorite, the bear crawl. Another phenomenal exercise is the windmill-single or double-either one-this exercise is a winner in my book!

I never realized how important core strength is to powerlifting. I had always been a little loose in the midsection, almost like a ragdoll but now my abdominal area feels like a tank! And that's without performing one single crunch!!! I have always had a troublesome lower back too and that seems to have gotten better. I have learned to use Pavel's technique of using your hamstrings to pull you into the squat as opposed to just dropping into it, which tends to use more of your lower back muscles instead of your powerful glute muscles. I am squatting twice a week and have yet to put any gear on with 6 weeks of training left. No wraps, suit or belt and I have already exceeded what weights I normally would lift for reps this far into my training cycle.

The next improvement I noticed was in my shoulder stability.

My bench has always been my worst lift and I have always suspected it was due to some major scapula weakness and overall shoulder instability. My bench has improved a bit during this training cycle and the main thing is I feel a lot more confident performing this lift. I believe my bench will continue to improve and I would like to thank Jack Reape who has given me a bench program to follow, something he calls "rotations". A light first set of 3 followed by a heavier second set of 3 with a pause. Thanks to Mike Mahler I have also learned to involve my lat muscles more in all of the overhead pressing movements, keeping them tight throughout the entire movement. This has also contributed to greater scapular stability and strengthened all the muscles in the shoulder girdle.

My third big improvement and probably the most important is my overall power output.

I find I am popping out of the hole on my squats and my deadlift lockouts are explosive and quick. No more death struggle pulls where the weight gets stuck at your knees and you cannot lock it out. I attribute this to the various KB swings and snatches that train your hips to extend and explode with power. Training your muscles to move quickly and explosively will definitely improve your lifts. Heavy slow training all the time will do just that ? slow you down. Add some of Pavel's strength stretching moves specific to these lifts and you will have a winning combination!

Overall I have also noticed an improvement in my cardiovascular strength ? try swinging a 12kg KB for 20 reps and see how high your heart rate goes! Far more fun and exhilarating than spending endless time on a piece of cardio equipment and way more productive.

I have added a good 3 pounds of muscle to my frame and have simultaneously maintained a healthy bodyfat level. I urge everyone to give KB training a whirl and see how it positively affects not only your body but your mind too!

Power to you!