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How an injury-devastated weakling — who needed his wife's help to walk across the room — gained a complete recovery into full-performance strength

January 18, 2011 10:34 AM


Having used Pavel's training techniques to transform himself from sickly to Superman, Steve Freides is 149 pounds of pure inspiration. Once bedridden with a severe back injury, Steve not only recovered, but reached an enviable level of fitness and flexibility. He received his Russian Kettlebell Challenge certification in April of 2003 and attended Pavel's October 2003 stretching seminar, where the following interview was conducted.


Dragon Door: So before you got into Pavel's stretching techniques, you found kettlebells. Is that right?


Steve Freides: Yes. I posted a question on a weight lifting newsgroup and someone recommended the Power to the People program. I thought that was great because it really helped my back. After a while I joined the Dragon Door Discussion Forum and there learned about kettlebells.


D.D.: What did you get out of Power to the People ?


S.F.: I had tried weight lifting in various forms over the years, but never found anything I enjoyed or that worked for me terribly well. When I read PTTP I was extremely impressed with Pavel's no-nonsense approach—you can tell he knows all the theory but he focuses on what works, plain and simple.


D.D.: Just to back up a bit, what is the context for your strength training? Are you involved in martial arts or some other fitness regimen?


S.F.: I've enjoyed running since my late 20's. I was a very unathletic child. I have asthma, and in my late 20's I started running just to stay in some kind of shape. And I noticed in my early 40's, as do many people who are thin like I am, that I was just getting too skinny—I was losing muscle mass. Running was no longer keeping me fit the way I wanted to be fit. I thought weight lifting was the next thing to do, and before you could say "deadlift," I became a certified kettlebell instructor, and now I'm at the stretching intensive.


Someone once asked me why I was doing all these things and I answered, "I want to be the master of my body." You can't really limit yourself if you want to be the master of your physical person. You need to be strong, you need to be flexible, you need to know enough about how things work that you can show other people. You need to know when to be cautious and when to take risks. I'm enjoying it. It's a great ride.


D.D.: What is your exercise regimen now, on a daily and weekly basis?


S.F.: Mostly kettlebells. It's just amazing. You know, a few minutes with the kettlebell every morning, and even though I've not ridden a bicycle for six months, I get back on the bike and it's like I never got off. And in some ways I'm stronger than I ever was. I used to have to worry about riding all winter in order to be in half-decent shape in the spring. Kettlebells have changed that and are truly magical in that way.


After starting with Super Joints exercises, my core routine consists of Pavel's recommendations for kettlebell training—a few grinding movements followed by a few ballistic movements and some ab work to finish. I love the kettlebell Military Press—it's really helped me strengthen my midsection and keep my back healthy. So I always start with that, follow with Windmills, and then whatever other grinds I'm in the mood for: might be barbell deadlifts, might be kettlebell Front Squats or Pistols. After that I do whatever I like from the menu of Snatch, Jerk, Clean, always ending with One-Arm Swings.


I then do a very short ab session, usually 1-3 reps on each of two different exercises from a list that includes Standing Wheel Rollouts, Full Contact Twists, Ab Pavelizer Janda Sit-ups and Suitcase Deadlifts plus long hold with an 88-pound kettlebell. I finish up by stretching several evenings per week, usually at 10 pm or later, when the kids are asleep and I can really relax.


D.D.: What have been your gains in training with kettlebells?


S.F.: That's a hard question to answer.


D.D.: Well, for example, have you been able to progress from lighter kettlebells to heavier ones?


S.F.: Well yes, but that's a relatively minor accomplishment. Six years ago I suffered a very severe herniated disc in my back; I was talking to my wife in the upstairs hallway like I'm talking to you folks, and the next thing I knew, I was being carried downstairs on my dining room chairs by EMS people. When they got me to the hospital I was in such severe pain that I couldn't let go of the gurney for them to examine me. In the following weeks and months, I lost most of the feeling in the inner part of my right thigh. I also lost most of the muscle mass in my upper right leg. I was bedridden for six months. And it was a real wake-up call in terms of…you know, I had been running,


I had dabbled in weight lifting, but I now I was having a real taste of being a disabled person. I couldn't do anything. I couldn't walk from here to the doorway without having my wife to lean on, or holding onto a table or a chair or something. It was miserable. And I said, "I want to recover from this. I want to live each day like it could be my last day. I want to run faster and I want to be stronger and be the master of my body. I don't want to let this happen to me again."


Deadlifting has made a huge difference in the strength of my back. Pavel has observed, rightly so, that all the stretching in the world isn't really going to help a bad back get better. So I started with deadlifting and found that, while my back was much better, I could still do things like tie my shoes the wrong way and tweak my back. Those kinds of things didn't put me back in the hospital, but I realized I had a slightly brittle sort of strength.


Kettlebell Swings are what I recommend to everybody who has back problems because they are just the right tonic. They load your back very briefly, and they're one of the few things that can strengthen connective tissue in your lumbar region. We all sit in chairs all day, we all overly round our backs and the tendons and ligaments get stretched out. And it's very difficult, even if you strengthen the muscles with the deadlift, to really strengthen that connective tissue.


Kettlebell Swings are the perfect medicine for this condition. Religiously, every day, even days when I know I'm going out to ride a bicycle for 100 miles, I will swing a light kettlebell for a set of ten reps on each arm first, because that, more than anything else I do, is what keeps me healthy. If I had to drop almost everything, I would probably deadlift, swing a kettlebell, and do nothing else. So that's my big thing: it helped me go from an invalid to a normal, functioning person. My friends look at me now and they go, "Steve, you know, you look like something out of Cirque de Soleil," or "You move like a gymnast." I do the Dragon Flags. I can do full side splits.


D.D.: You can do a Front Squat with two 32-kilo kettlebells.


S.F.: I can do a Front Squat with two 32s. I press a 32-kilo kettlebell, which is almost half my body weight. I'm 149 lbs.


D.D.: That's fantastic.


S.F.: Yeah. We actually just put an article up on about the program I used. I have to say that the Dragon Door Forum has been very helpful. I was trying to figure out what to do to be able to press the 32-kilo kettlebells. I was getting close but not quite getting it and the people were very helpful. We put together a rather complicated program, but one that worked.


D.D.: Has your back problem returned in any form since you started with kettlebells?


S.F.: I get asked that question a lot, and the answer I give is that I treat my back as I imagine an alcoholic treats alcohol. I can't ever forget about it. If I forget about my back, it bothers me. I have a permanent injury in my back, and it's not going to go away. But I now know how to take care of it. As long as I'm mindful of it, I'm fine. But if you watch me closely you'll see I do some things a little differently. There's some funny stuff going on back there, and before I swing my kettlebells, I've got my own self-chiropractics to get things in the right place. If I don't do them, I can still hurt myself. I hope people look at what I do as a testimony that you don't have to be limited by even serious injury.


The emergency room doctor told me, "You probably should have back surgery." On my second trip to the hospital in three days, one of the orderlies was walking around, saying, "Oh, I just had back surgery and I feel great!" I mentioned this to the lower back specialist I later found, and he said, "Ask him if he still runs. Ask him if he bikes. They can fix you up so that your back doesn't hurt when you sit in a chair, but very few people return to full activity after the surgery." He continued, "You're very badly hurt. Your road to recovery will be long." It was true. It was about 13 or 14 months before I could walk without a limp.


It's been an excellent adventure ever since. I've learned a tremendous amount. And I've entered the field professionally, teaching kettlebell classes at the Ridgewood YMCA, starting a week from tomorrow, and offering personal training at my home. It's good stuff because it works. You know, that's the bottom line. A lot of people I know complain about the Dragon Door site, saying that it's full of hype. It's difficult to tell them, "It's true!" I mean, look at me. I could be in one of those movies on the Hallmark channel, you know?


D.D.: How has the stretching workshop been for you?


S.F.: The stretching workshop has been very educational and a lot of fun. I think Pavel said it in the beginning: "There are a lot of things you just can't put in a book." I've done a lot of things that I've never done before. Walking backwards down a wall with my hands? I never thought I could do that but I did. And your [John Du Cane's' Wall Squat, that's a great thing.


But perhaps the biggest thing from this weekend is that I've learned how to start flexing my lower back. As you may know, it's natural to tense up where you're injured, so while I've acquired a lot of flexibility in most places, I haven't in my lower back. The Wall Squat is the first time I've actually been able to flex it. And it didn't bother my whole nerve/disk problem. So I'm ready to do something like that, and I'm very glad I found a way to do it—that alone make the weekend worth the price of admission.


D.D.: I heard you telling the group that you had a set of stretching exercises that you use religiously to keep your back in check. Can you talk about that?


S.F.: Not particularly stretching exercises, just exercises. You have to ask, "What keeps the back of someone who sits in a chair most of the day healthy?" For me, the key ingredients are three things: a strong midsection, a strong lower back, and flexibility throughout the entire hip area. Sitting in a chair tends to give you weak abs, an overstretched lower back, and overly tight hips and hamstrings. With all this in mind, I always do joint health type movements, focusing on the hips and hip flexors, then kettlebell Military Presses to tighten the midsection and teach proper spine alignment, feeling the weight transfer from my outstretched arm all the way through my hips and right into the ground. My core exercises continue with the Windmill for hip, hip flexor, and hamstring strength and flexibility. At that point, I put in whatever else I'm interested in working on for the day—barbell deadlifting, kettlebell Front Squats or Pistols, kettlebell Snatches and Jerks, etc., all of which help strengthen my lower back.


I then do kettlebell Swings as the finishing movement of every workout I do. If everyone with a bad back learned to properly swing a kettlebell every day we'd have a lot fewer bad backs in this country. If I'm short on time I will usually do only kettlebell Military Presses, Windmills, and Swings, and if I'm even shorter on time, only Swings.


D.D.: So it's a complete package for you, Steve, using joint mobility, weight lifting, kettlebells, stretching, and martial arts. Did I leave any thing out?


S.F.: That's everything. I think most Americans think of all the different kinds of things I do as separate but to me they're all different aspects of the same thing, namely having a strong, healthy, flexible body and a mind to match. If you truly value your health then it's your obligation to do all the things it takes to help you achieve your goals. To do anything less would just be a cop-out.