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Kettlebell Training for Special Needs Kids: A New Twist on "Integrated" Training

May 10, 2006 11:46 AM

Like most families, we're busy. We need an effective fitness program that we can easily integrate into our routine and follow consistently for the long term. For us, there's an added requirement: it has to work for all of us, including our 16 year old special needs daughter. Kettlebell (KB) training and the Power to the People (PTP) principles fit the bill. We developed the approach described in this article to meet our family's specific needs and limitations, but the basic principles can be applied to adapt workouts to accommodate a wide range of situations.

Some background

The special needs community includes people with developmental disabilities (i.e. various forms and degrees of mental retardation), physical disabilities, and often both. The majority of these individuals have at least some difficulties with balance, coordination, muscle tone, and stamina. Also, many medications that control or reduce symptoms also affect metabolism, increase appetite and/or reduce the sense of satiety making weight control more difficult. Add stress and the largely sedentary lifestyle of the majority of American families and you've got a real challenge.

Our 16 years old daughter, Corinna, for example, is very small (she's 4'5" at 16 years old). She has a moderate developmental disability, poor coordination, and Tourette Syndrome (repetitive sounds and movements or "tics" that come and go). Medication helps the tics tremendously but does make weight control harder. She is very social and will try hard to please you when doing things together but tends to lose focus when doing things on her own.

Our goals

My husband, Andy, is a serious recreational cyclist interested in overall fitness and functional strength without bulk. He uses weight and kettlebell training as a complement to his cycling training. I'm an RKC and Master's powerlifter, and we're both interested in helping Corinna achieve and maintain a healthy weight and overall fitness. We're looking for effective routines that meet the individual needs of each of our family members, and we want to be able to do them together with Corinna.

Workout principles

The routines we've developed are built around the PTP principles. They are quick (usually a half hour give or take) so they can easily be fit in with other things we have going on. We build the routine around exercises the adults are using (the deadlift, for example) then we modify it for Corinna. Either Andy or I work out with her in our garage gym using a very efficient I go-you go approach. We enjoy time together, we both get our workout in, and an adult is right there giving her their full attention when she's lifting to provide help, correction and encouragement. And, since the basic KB techniques are simple (although they do require concentration), she was able to learn them fairly quickly. (Special thanks to Brett Jones of Iron Core La Jolla for some great teaching tips.)

Here are two routines that have been tailored to Andy and Corinna's needs and capabilities. Both workouts use three exercises. The first two exercises are for strength and are alternated for the given number of sets. The third exercise for conditioning is then done for the given number of sets. For all three exercises, the two partners alternate each set in an I go-you go fashion. The workout area in our garage gym is set up for both people before the workout begins so that they can move smoothly and safely from person to person and exercise to exercise and not be in each other's way.

In adapting the movements for Corinna, we consider the level of skill involved in the move, the amount of weight, the ease of going back and forth from one person to another (having to change the setup in between each person takes too much time), and the amount and length of concentration involved. Concentration is important in all athletic endeavors, but particularly so when you're swinging a cannonball around. We have her do more sets of lower reps to achieve a given volume so that she can complete each set safely and not lose focus. Two sets of 10 swings with a short rest works better for her than one set of 20, for example.

Andy and Corinna's Workout #1

The first workout uses the PTP minimalist one pulling/one pushing exercise idea plus swings. Specifically, it uses the deadlift (DL), the one arm military press, and the swing. Andy does the deadlift with a barbell and weights, and Cori does a sumo deadlift with a kettlebell. Both use kettlebells for the military press. In the swings, Andy uses one arm, while Cori uses two. For reps and sets, they alternate their workouts using 5 sets of 5 reps or 5 sets of 3 reps. A note about KB size: Cori is pretty small so the new small bells from Dragon Door have been particularly helpful to her for pressing. We started with 2 lb (approximately 1 kilo) dumbells and have worked up to the 4 kg KB she is using now.

Andy: DL set
Cori: Sumo KB DL set
Andy: KB military press set
Cori: KB military press set
(repeat the cycle for the specified number of sets and reps per set)


Andy: 1 arm swing set
Cori: 2 arm swing set
(repeat the cycle for the specified number of sets and reps per set)

If I'm preparing for a powerlifting push-pull (bench press/deadlift) competition, Cori and I might do the same type of workout together, except that I would do the bench press in place of the military press. We have two barbells (one for the DL and one for the bench) so that no time is wasted changing the setup between exercises.

Andy and Corinna's Workout #2

We like this workout as an alternative to heavy deadlift sessions. This workout also uses three exercises, this time swings, squats, and the snatch. At this point, the snatch is a little beyond Cori's capabilities, but I think we'll get there in time. Again the two partners work I go-you go and alternate the first two exercises on the list for the required number of reps, then do the last exercise.

Andy: 2 arm swing set
Cori: 2 arm swing set
Andy: 2 kettlebell front squat set
Cori: Set of box squats holding a single kettlebell by the horns
(repeat the cycle for the specified number of sets and reps per set)


Andy: Snatch set
Cori: Swing set
(repeat the cycle for the specified number of sets and reps per sets)

There you have it. These workouts are quick, simple, adapable, inclusive, and effective. They meet all of our needs and they allow us to work out together with Corinna doing exercises that are similar or identical. We can do them without even leaving the garage. That's integrated training!

The workouts we've described were designed to meet our specific needs and goals, but the principles can be applied to designing workouts to accommodate a wide range of abilities and limitations. They can be used whether you have a garage gym with a powercage and a large selection of free weights and kettlebells, or just a few kettlebells or even dumbells in the back yard. That's flexible.

Power and fitness to all the people!

Thanks to Sarah Lurie of Iron Core La Jolla for her enthusiastic support of our endeavors, and to Pavel and Steve Freides for their kindness and encouragement to Corinna at the AAU Deadlift, Bench and Push-Pull World Championships held in December 2005 in Laughlin, NV.