One of the main proponents of “Hardstyle” Russian Kettlebells is that strength is a skill. It’s more than just building strong muscles, it’s learning how to coordinate those muscles to do that press, that squat, that pull-up, etc. Strength is a skill. It can be learned.
I am reminded of an article I read recently in Psychology Today titled “The Trouble With Bright Girls.” It was an interesting read. I’m not sure I agree with all of it, but the part that really struck me was this:
… bright girls believe that their abilities are innate and unchangeable, while bright boys believe that they can develop ability through effort and practice.
As a former ‘bright girl,’ I was used to many things being easy for me. I was good at school, especially math and science. I was a good musician. These things came easily for me, so I pursued them. On the other hand, I wasn’t good at history or geography. I wasn’t a great reader. And I definitely believed that I was innately good at some things and not others, and accepted that that’s just the way things were.
I wasn’t a good athlete. I played basketball for a bit, but rarely got off the bench. I ran track for a year, but I ran on my tip-toes and got terrible shin-splints, and I knocked over the high-jump bar every single time. I don’t remember anyone working with me to improve my athletic skills (except for my dad, who believed all of us girls could do anything that we wanted to). There was a general attitude of ‘you either have it, or you don’t.’
In the past few years, I’ve learned that this just isn’t true. When I started climbing, I found a physical sport that I was immediately good at. However, climbing led to kettlebells, and it was then that the work really began.
I wasn’t good at kettlebells right away, and that didn’t surprise me. The messages I got from my coach, though, were not only of encouragement; he worked with me to teach me the movements, and teach me how to improve. His attitude was that strength and movement are skills that can be learned. I saw that attitude continued in subsequent coaches as well.
The result? I learned how to use my body. I am still learning. After a year and a half, I am not only stronger, but I am more coordinated and not as klutzy (although I still tend to bang my toes on things far more than I’d prefer). I actually know what people mean when they say “lift from your legs” now. For the first time in my life, I feel athletic. Apparently it’s not just an innate skill.
An example: I’ve been focusing a lot on push-ups the past few months; starting with a really solid plank and keeping that position the whole way down and the whole way back up. I couldn’t do a push-up with good form 4 months ago. My kettlebells coach worked with me to learn how to coordinate my muscles to get that good form. First a solid plank, everything pulled tight. That is a skill in itself. Then I worked on very slow negative push-ups for a while, lowering myself down to the floor in plank position. Knees down to come back up. Repeat. After a lot of practice and patience, I can now do 1 or 2 solid push-ups, nose-to-the-floor, with good form.
What I’ve learned is that just because something doesn’t come easily for me initially, I can still learn how to do it. “I’m not good at sports” doesn’t mean I can’t learn to be. I now find myself in an athletic body; something I never would have imagined. Someone today suggested that I should try rowing. Instead of doubting my innate physical abilities, I thought that it might be really fun to learn.
I often hear people shy away from things they want to do because they just don’t think they’ll be good at it. They want to play the guitar, or be more fit, or fix up their house, or learn calculus (ok, maybe there aren’t a lot of people who exclaim “I want to learn calculus!”). I’m convinced more and more that most things can be learned, no matter what the starting point or perceived innate ability. Some things may come more slowly than others, but that’s no reason to not pursue them.
Once I can do five solid push-ups, I’m moving back to getting that first palms-out pull-up under my belt.