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How to Improve Your lifts by Aligning Your Neck Just Right

May 21, 2003 10:16 AM

The Party knows that learning to generate max tension is paramount for strength. I'd like to address the other side of the coin: eliminating wasted effort and taking the brakes off your lifts.

Here's a thought experiment: Imagine yourself poised and ready to swing a 1.5 pood kettlebell with your right arm. The kettlebell is in the starting dead hang position between your feet. Mentally check your form: Back is flat. Check. Bare feet are grasping the ground. Check. Abs are tensed. Check. Strong grip on the handle. Check. Eyes looking ahead. Check.

Hold it comrade. What were you doing with the back of your neck? Were you looking straight ahead by cranking your head back? Or were you looking straight ahead by extending your neck and looking 'up' with your eyes? It's a subtle distinction, but an important one. You can get by doing the first version, especially if you are as tough as a typical Party member, but the latter version is mechanically superior and integrates your neck with your spine. Unkinking your neck allows nerve impulses to travel more efficiently down your spine and will embolden your attitude. The result: your torso will come up as a unit and you will swing the Kettlebell with less perceived effort.

Another thought experiment: You've just cleaned your 1.5 pood and it's resting on your forearm and shoulder. Everything is tight and coiled from your shoulders down to your toes. Your gaze is fixed on the 'bell in the classic Party fashion. Now think?where is your head? Is it thrust forward with a hunch in your neck, or is it centered over your body mass with the vertebrae stacking nicely atop each other? If you are like most people, you'll find you unconsciously thrust your head forward and down in a 'startle' reflex. Some part of you 'flinched' in expectation of the impact of the weight and you tried to protect yourself. Now your body has to deal not only with the kettlebell, it has to compensate for your head being off center and work even harder. Pull the head back where it belongs and watch your confidence with the weight increase.

One last imaginary exercise; see yourself performing a Windmill with your 1.5 pood. Mentally check your form. Hips and abs tight, arm "punching through the ceiling", feet rooted to the ground. Your gaze is fixed on the kettlebell to keep it from falling on your head. But how did your gaze get there? If you are like most people, you cranked your head back and twisted it so you could fixate on the weight. This is the kind of reflex humans have anytime they attempt something tough, strenuous, and a little scary - they pull their neck in as if they were turtles. But if instead you extend your neck before twisting it a little differently and move your eyes a little farther, it changes the whole feel of the exercise. Something in your chest expands and opens, and suddenly it is much easier to open your chest and punch the weight into the ceiling.

The other reason to pay attention to this aspect of kettlebell form is for purposes of long-term structural integrity. As Paul Chek points out, when we exercise, we don't want our exercise to reinforce the bad habits we pick up in everyday living. Most people have with time permanently developed the 'startle' or 'flinch' reflex (head forward and sunk between the shoulders) as their habitual posture. Kettlebell exercise, to be refreshing and invigorating, should help undo the damage done to us by everyday living, not add to it. Therefore, time and effort spent unlearning this particular habit during the practice session will repay the girevik many-fold by taking the brakes off his lifting energy and also correcting one of the major somatic problems suffered by modern Westerners.

For further examples, see Paul Chek's video series on Swiss Ball exercise for several excellent examples where he corrects the alignment of the models' neck to create the proper extension that undoes this common structural problem instead of exacerbating it. Also see Thomas Hannah's book Somatics for an eye opening discussion of the 'startle' (or 'red light') reflex and other ways it can be unlearned.