Integrity of Movement, and My First RKC Class
I have always espoused the importance of good quality movement, but it wasn’t until I attended my first RKC Kettlebell class that I got to experience how Integrity of Movement can be taught and conveyed through a comprehensive program.
The RKC class, which stands for Russian Kettlebell Certification, was taught completely in Korean (because I live in Korea right now), but that wasn’t a huge problem because the coaches were so well-versed in observing and correcting body-mechanics. They had a huge arsenal of tactile cues and could spot an anterior-tilted pelvis across the room.
The 90-minute class focused on just one movement: the kettlebell swing. For those who have done it, it seems like a fairly simple movement: just swing the kettlebell, using your hips, and keep your back straight.
I’d been teaching kettlebell swings the way I was taught at my CrossFit Level 1 cert for two years. I’ve been doing them regularly for about four years. I had seen all sorts of variations, and I thought I had it down. I was very, very wrong.
The warm-up focused on awakening full proprioception of the body. For the swing itself, we spent 15 minutes on the back position alone. After that, we learned how to set our hips and legs up to get maximum power out of the glutes instead of the thighs. Every step of the way, we broke up to practice with muscular awareness drills that involved partners punching each other in the butt and abs to make sure we were maintaining properly supported posture.
The whole point of being so concerned with the little details was that if you do a movement very precisely, there will be no wasted energy, so you don’t have to be muscle-bound to move a lot of weight. Doing a movement correctly means getting into the right position and maintaining posture throughout, which required a combination of mobility and body awareness.
To demonstrate an extreme example of what I’m talking about, the instructor was able to do a Turkish getup with a small water bottle balanced on his fist. It looks and sounds easy (if you know what a TGU is), but if you try it, you’ll be surprised how difficult it is to simply keep your shoulder, arm, and wrist in a straight line perpendicular to the ground while standing up from the floor.
It meant was that 100% of his movement was being directed to elevating the weight in his hand. None of it was wasted trying to balance or correct.
Throughout the entire session, I was intensely focused on every aspect of my body: tension, breathing, posture, balance. If you’ve ever performed in front of an audience, you will understand that sense of heightened perception.
There was no formal ‘workout portion’ of the class; it was all ‘skill work.’ Nevertheless, by the end of it, I was exhausted and sore, having activated and worked muscles I almost never used. I had gotten a mental workout too, and I could feel every nerve in my body vibrating, as if cooling off from all the activity. This was very different from what I used to feel in even the most intense CrossFit WODs. It was oddly more playful and more intuitive than any workout I had ever done before.
Good Movement is Like Good Food (a stretched metaphor)
When we eat, we don’t naturally focus on the outcome of the meal: the nutrition. Instead, we focus on the quality of the meal and the experience of eating. We focus on high quality ingredients, good presentation, a nice atmosphere, and delicious flavors that complement each other. When all of these things come together, we have a good meal experience that fuels us emotionally as well as physically. If the ingredients are the right composition and of high quality, we naturally derive nutritional benefit.
If, on the other hand, we ignore all the quality aspects of the meal, and just focus on the end result, it becomes perfectly okay to hurriedly consume protein shakes in the car, or at best, scarf down Paleo-approved whole foods on the run with no concern for preparation or presentation (like my apple-sardine car lunch combo from days gone by). From personal experience, I know that even the best ingredients, when consumed in this way, don’t go down well.
In the same way, workouts can also be done with an eye to simply performing the workout as intensely and quickly as possible, with no concern for anything except the end result: improved performance. If you lift more weight, you’ll get stronger. If you push more intensely, you’ll get conditioned. You don’t have to worry if your posture is messy, if you’re breathing is in the right place, or if you have anything resembling a coordinated rhythm. As long as you don’t get hurt, you’ll improve. You’ll also start picking up poor posture habits, little aches and pains, and joint stiffness and can lead to injury or decreased quality of life.
On the other hand, you can focus on the quality of the movements themselves. Make sure you have good posture and exhibit impeccable balance. Make sure your breathing is coordinated. Make sure your movements are precise, controlled, and technically correct. Move with grace, power, and rhythm. Each movement should get all your attention, just as every bite of a gourmet meal out to be savored. If you do this in a challenging environment or with challenging obstacles (like weights), you will get a great workout.
However, in food and movement, you can’t get away with high quality versions the wrong ingredients or exercises. Grassfed, raw milk ice cream is still ice cream. Similarly, beautifully executed bicep curls still won’t lead to functionally useful fitness, and an imbalanced exercise program, no matter how technically correct, can still lead to injury or dysfunctional movement.
Of course, a focus on performance, if approached honestly and taken to its fullest conclusion, eventually leads us to quality of movement.
The Benefits of Integrity of Movement
Putting the effort into establishing good movement patterns will make up for lack of sheer strength, as the RKC class teaches, in the same way that correct preparation can bring out nutritional benefit from otherwise questionable foods (fermentation of dairy, for example). Followers of Pavel Tsatouline will recognize the saying that “strength is a skill,” and “tension is strength.” When you learn to involve your whole being into every movement, you can do some pretty amazing things without looking especially muscular.
Focusing on integrity of movement helps us avoid injury and establish a deeper relationship with our bodies. In the same way that dancers can take joy at simply moving gracefully, we can come to appreciate the simple, joyousness of grace.
After a few weeks of the RKC classes, I found my hips moving more comfortably and my back pain significantly reduced, not just at the workouts but in everyday life. I gained a better understanding and awareness of my posture and learned what my personal version of correct posture feels like. My breathing also became more closely tied to my movements, and I’m learning how to use my breathe to contribute power to my movements.
Other disciplines that place a premium on quality and integrity of movement are dance, martial arts, gymnastics, yoga, and parkour. From my understanding, MovNat also focuses on integrity of movement and lets fitness come out of that, just another reason I’m psyched to learn more about it.
I’ve written a book sharing all that I’ve learned in fitness over the last three years, on my journey from being at war with my body to feeling it is a powerful means to express myself and explore the world. If the ideas in this article resonated with you, please check it out (it’s free).