Strength is a Skill
Your spine is straight. You have shifted your weight back so that your knees are above your ankles—this is such an uncomfortable position until you learn to trust the muscles that hold you there—and you check to make sure the bell is between your heels, not out in front of you. Your hands are slightly tacky with the chalk you’ve applied to absorb the sweat. The handle of the bell feels solid in your palms, its circumference just a touch wider than you’d like, the rough surface familiar to your grip. You turn on your lats by squeezing your shoulder blades together, and imagine you are cracking the handle of the kettlebell like a stick of kindling in order to activate your triceps. Do you feel equal pressure between your hands and your feet? You check, and then you initiate with the glutes to protect your lower back. The strain is immense at first, like you’re trying to pick up a mountain, then you are pleased to find the weight glide smoothly upward as you stand in a perfect deadlift.
If you haven’t lifted weights, you might be tempted to think that it’s mostly a matter of brute force, that strength comes from muscle combined with determination and will. These things are important, but something kettlebell training has taught me is that strength is a skill. It comes from understanding systems and networks within the body and the brain; it comes from technique combined with practice and smart repetition, from knowing when to push, when to pull, when to tense or relax, when to breathe, and when to rest. It also comes from having a plan: strategic thinking, goal setting, and implementation over time with readjustments as necessary. These insights are more than just good lessons for creating changes in the body. In a lot of ways, they help me understand how to better create change in the world, as well.
It’s not an exaggeration to say that kettlebells have saved my life. When I first started training, I was recovering from a life-threatening flare of an autoimmune disease; training brought back a positive relationship with my physical self and gave me a community in which to heal. Over time, I felt so committed to the transformative potential of the practice that I became a certified trainer at Bleeding Hearts Kettlebell Club (BHKC) in Portland, Oregon, a city known once as “Little Beirut” and more recently as an “anarchist jurisdiction.” Over the past four years, this gym has undergone a remarkable transformation of its own, resulting in a powerful site of activism and community support.
How have these changes happened? What makes a group of gym rats, weirdos, and housewives into a force for social justice? It’s remarkable to me how much of what I see happening politically in our community genuinely seems to stem from our physical practice. What we learn in our bodies we can practice in community, and what we practice can grow into larger spheres of impact and change.
A common mistake with the strict press is thinking the arm or shoulder does the work. It’s true that there must be an explosive burst at the beginning of a press to get the bell “out of the hole” and a slow burn to get it overhead, which does involve the triceps, deltoids, and traps, but to generate power, the key is to find your connection with the floor and press from the heel, developing an unbroken line of force from your root all the way to the bell. Many of us train barefoot so we can feel the floor beneath us and better control the angle of our ankles and hips, knowing that a key to strength is staying grounded.
Kettlebell training teaches that our base is the source of our power. If we have tension through the rest of the line but are unable to achieve a lift, we need to look to our base to make sure we are properly grounded, that the messages are traveling upward from the root. Just as this applies to the mechanics of a lift, we see the same principle underlying the networks that serve as the base of our organizing.
In the gym, this means staying connected to people and what their lives are about. Some folks are looking to reclaim their sense of self after a difficult period in their lives. Their goals may look different from those of people who have just given birth and are rediscovering their bodies in new ways. Others may be recovering from injury or committing to some kind of change in body composition, a personal goal, or supporting another sport or pursuit, while still others may just crave a healthy means of social connection. All of these are valid reasons to be engaged, and like any political configuration, there must be space for folks coming from all these different personal motivations for involvement.
It also means recognizing needs and barriers to engagement and making a concerted effort to lower those barriers. At BHKC, we provide inexpensive childcare, sliding scale membership costs and scholarships, alternative movements for different bodies’ abilities, and an explicitly trans-, queer-, fat- and women-positive environment in an industry still dominated by cis-identities, thin bodies, and men’s authority.
This doesn’t mean the gym has always been a site of liberation. During the 2016 election, it was a hotspot of Hillary pantsuit liberals with deep investment in the electoral system, but the next four years showed the potential for change. What really made the eventual shift to radical praxis possible was starting in a place that made people feel welcome regardless of their fitness, their experience, their identity—especially for traditionally marginalized groups, or their personal motivations. We focused on helping them show up, making them feel like it was a place where they could belong, and then offering structural support (like childcare or a participation scale based on the concept of mutual aid) that would allow them to commit and stick around. The inclusivity was the starting point, not the ideology—or to be more precise, the inclusivity and structural support are fundamental components of the ideology. Making people feel welcome and meeting them where they are at is a political orientation that is too frequently skipped over in the pursuit of total alignment or perfection, which leaves our movement fractured, fringe-dwelling, and ineffective. We cannot control what brings people to the struggle. If we are patient and can start from a place of care that is genuinely unafraid of complexity, we are better able to form strong, diverse networks that will stay intact and dedicated through the long haul.
Consistency over Intensity: showing up
A common mistake that people make when they first get into any kind of fitness program is to dive in headfirst without a full understanding of their own capacity, work out intensively for a short period of time, and then either get injured, or get frustrated by a lack of immediate results and give up. These folks often walk away with a narrative of, “Oh, I tried [insert activity] once. It wasn’t for me.” But any true attempt at transformation isn’t a quick taste—it’s a commitment to a practice over time. A handful of ass-busting workouts will neither sculpt your abs nor enable you to pick up that big bell you see the slight woman across the gym handling with ease. What they will do is make you sore, and if you push too hard without also incorporating things like rest, sleep, and flexibility work that teaches about the ways in which your different physical systems are interrelated, you are more likely to see injury than gains.
The same goes for movement work. Sometimes, when a moment is hot and it seems like suddenly everyone is in the streets, folks will get activated and jump headfirst into the excitement that comes with times of rupture: the often liberating thrill of protests, the rich and beautiful swell that comes with first contact with expressions of solidarity, the sense of tremendous urgency, and of course the meetings after meetings after meetings. After throwing so much energy at a moment, it can seem impossible that change doesn’t happen simply as a matter of course—we want it so badly! We’re working so hard! The slowness of social transformation can feel glacial, unacceptable, untenable. Without taking care of ourselves—through rest, sleep, and flexibility work that teaches about the ways in which our different systems of oppression are interrelated, the ways in which history can offer both lessons and inspiration, and ways in which we have internal work to do, as well—it can be easy to burn out, get hurt, or lose the spark.
The metaphor of weight training is particularly useful, here: we are training. We are learning. It is a practice. One or two or ten big lifts is not what makes us strong. We train through repetition, building not just the muscle fibers needed to move increasingly heavy weights, but also developing the neural pathways, the timing, and the intuitions necessary for success. As we build muscle memory, we gain a sense of familiarity and trust. We know what our bodies can and cannot do, and where the fuzzy edge of potential between those lies. We know where the work needs to happen, and what we can rely on as foundations for the rest of our progress.
In organizing, it is also an ongoing practice that produces change over time. Our approaches may evolve as our needs and goals do. We may develop and try different strategies when circumstances shift. Most importantly, we maintain an ongoing presence in our networks and establish our reliability and familiarity. By showing up, we cultivate the fundamental trust necessary to do the difficult work that lies ahead.
For years, I was the token anarchist at the gym. It wasn’t a secret, but it also wasn’t exactly a selling point. It was just this weird quirk that one of the trainers had these ideas that lay outside the drumbeat of liberal activity and campaigns to wear pussy hats or get out the vote. I was also the person who programmed many of their workouts, taught them how to keep their bodies safe, and cheered them on whether they succeeded or failed. Our common pursuit was more important than the specifics of my convictions. Also, I was their anarchist, which meant that, when there were protests downtown and windows were broken, or when there were pictures on their social media feeds from the front lines of a standoff with riot cops, they felt safe in asking, “Why is this happening? Help me understand.” And they trusted me enough to listen to my answers. Sometimes just maintaining that shared commitment and trust is enough to form a strong foundation of affinity. And with affinity comes the potential for action and change.
You Can Do Hard Things / We Do More Work Together than Alone
Picture a timed carry or racked hold, with twenty people in the space, all shaking and straining in unison, sweat streaming down their faces and necks. Their muscles quake as they try to hold the tension consistent throughout their bodies, their shoulders and arms screaming to put down the weight. But they don’t. The timer ticks on, time clearly slowing down in the moment, a minute lasting an eon. Some are holding more weight than they ever have before, having been encouraged or pushed or goaded by their coach or their friends. The load rides the line of unbearable, but no one breaks. When the buzzer goes off, there is a collective groan of relief as the bells are set down, some expletives, a few high fives.
We push each other to work harder and to resist the urge to give up when things are difficult. Then the moment passes, and we all find it’s a little easier the next time around. We do far more work together than any of us would do alone. Plus, the experience of endurance is an important lesson in and of itself—to discover that we are capable of doing hard things and surviving, of succeeding. But doing so in community also develops our sense of togetherness and furthers a capacity for empathy that can extend into active solidarity.
At the gym, this has looked like noticing both the surplus of energy that is created through the collective bond and also harnessing it to do work in the world. Initially, as the community was still finding its political feet (the staunchly liberal years), this largely took the form of fundraising events for local charities, races and competitive workouts and costumed arm wrestling tournaments that both generated tremendous amounts of money for a range of groups, but also further solidified the sense of togetherness. The work toward a common purpose had a multiplying effect. At the peak of this stage, we raised $21,000 in one night for a queer youth resource organization, the result of both inspired generosity and months of dedicated work.
As a Trump presidency, the ascendancy of the Black Lives Matter movement, and dozens of other issues pushed people farther to the Left, the same sense of camaraderie developed emergent properties of motivation, momentum, and trust. An intersectional feminist book club developed as folks sought to educate themselves better and put their convictions into practice. Affinity groups formed, turning into street crews ready to roll downtown for protests. The lesson here is that when we team up, we are powerful—and this experience can happen where we are. We don’t always have to go looking for sites to activate; there can be the potential for transformation in the places and communities of which we are already a part.
Everyone Cries on the Mat
Exercise stimulates neurotransmitter production, sometimes resulting in endorphin floods often described as a “runner’s high.” Sometimes the effort feels like a bonfire for pain, like it’s burning off all the frustration, the anger, the sadness, transmuting negative emotions into positive work and bodily benefit. It is glorious, exhilarating, and freeing. Other times, it feels like it serves to pull you into your body rather than letting you float overhead in your brain. Rather than release, the effort merely wears away all the carefully constructed armor to reveal rawness and discomfort underneath. The same neurotransmitter activity that brings a high can open floodgates, as well, and sometimes the sweat on your face gets mixed with tears as something heavy is set free. Sometimes you don’t even know why. When this happens, no one reacts other than to offer a high five or a quick, damp hug. Everyone cries on the mat.
This is another important lesson for us in our organizing spaces—creating space for release and for loss. Under capitalism, everyone is wounded and hurting. Successful spaces need not only to offer inspiration and strategy for progress, but also to create space for pain and ways to process and heal. An aspect of becoming radicalized that I think is under-attended to is the grief that comes with it, for some. In my own process, as I learned more of history, more of the theory, more of the experiences of people who have the least to gain from our system, the more I had to let go of the sense of solidity that the framework offered and turn elsewhere for answers, models, and hope. Radicalization means divorcing oneself from dominant narratives and letting go of myths that are often so deeply held, they are mistaken for self-evident truths—like the idea that our productivity is a measure of our worth, or that cops keep us safe. This is obvious for some, but for others, stepping outside that story and imagining a new one is scary work, work which requires new and courageous forms of imagination. The truth is that the old story was always rotten, but letting go of even a rotten story can be frightening, as anyone who has done the difficult work of healing trauma can attest. As radicals, I think we can do a better job of helping people mourn their stories and former sources of pride, even as we encourage them to dream up better ones.
Cooperate, Don’t Dominate
After doing a lot of shoulder work, you’d be smart to spend some time in what’s known as an arm bar, resting partly on your side in a thoracic twist, with one arm overhead perpendicular to the floor, holding a light weight directly above the shoulder socket. It’s not a lift, and it’s not a stretch, exactly. It’s a quiet moment of communication. It allows your nervous system to talk to your proprioceptive system and run a quick check to see how everything is going. Your shoulder muscles may twitch and dance as the larger muscle groups turn off and relax, and the tiny microstabilizers kick into action. After a few minutes, your shoulder will feel gooey and peaceful in a way that is difficult to describe, but that communicative work is key to joint flexibility, as well as to overall fitness and body learning.
Big muscles often get the attention—the biceps, the quads, the things people point out to admire when they’ve undergone hypertrophy after long periods of focused development. But health and strength require that all the tiny muscles are active and attended to, as well. If you’ve ever done a new or unusual exercise and woken up the next day sore in places you didn’t know you had, then you understand how neglecting the little things can have big negative effects.
What this teaches us is that collaboration happens within the body as well as without. Different jobs require different actors, and all are important to the overall project. We need to pay as much attention to the small, interconnected bits as to the big, flashy pieces that get attention. Some folks are charismatic on the bullhorn and move masses with their words, but we also need the envelope stuffing, the soup making, and the everyday tiny efforts at inclusion and welcoming that hold the big movements together. It’s the unnoticed labor that often keeps us balanced and moving forward, and for our organizations and efforts to thrive, we need to develop this balance with intention. If you are a leader personality, work on expressing gratitude and appreciation for the less prestigious work of others. If you are accustomed to operating quietly behind the scenes, know that you are essential and valued. All roles are important, and communication is essential to cooperative success.
All Systems Are Interconnected
Often a particular movement can be used as a diagnostic tool. As a trainer, I may ask a client who is struggling with their swing to show me their deadlift, instead, or one who is failing a press to demonstrate a clean. This is because movements do not happen in isolation, and habits of form that develop in response to one load or set of challenges can influence the way one approaches or handles others. A deadlift will tell me how someone is hinging and placing their weight, whether they are using their glutes or transferring the load to their quads or lower back. A clean will show me how one prepares for a press, what their rack position looks like and how they ready their body for tension. All systems are interconnected.
This is especially apparent to anyone who has ever been badly injured while training, myself included. Injury is often the result of an error in approach—overtraining, poor form, or compensation for weakness elsewhere in the system is revealed when something breaks down. It is common for folks to want to focus on the lifts they do well and underdevelop those practices that are difficult or have less prestige attached—a big press is impressive, but nobody gets badass points for developing their plank endurance or being consistent in stretching their hip flexors. This often leads to imbalance.
For a long time, I swung very heavy with high repetitions; my musculature was plenty strong to manage the load, but over time, this practice revealed weaknesses and bone degeneration in my spinal column that were beyond my control or ability to heal, and I ended up with a catastrophic disc herniation that paralyzed my left leg. Recovery was incredibly slow and is ongoing to this day, but it also provided me with the opportunity to examine much more deeply how all the systems in my body are related and to strengthen them more equally, with an eye toward longevity over prestige. I had to put away the big bell and do things like precision core development and relearning how to balance, neither of which will get me marked any longer as the strongest guy at the gym. It forced me into a position of humility that was tough to swallow but has made me a more effective athlete and trainer in the long run.
This lesson is particularly difficult to learn in organizing work. Where are we overtraining, either out of habit or a longing for political capital or prestige? What are our weakest links? How can we continue to celebrate and employ our strengths while attending to a better balance of practices, including those we find the most difficult or the least likely to be rewarded with praise?
As the gym developed into a true community center, it was easy for it to be lauded as a model: an all-women staff coaching hardstyle kettlebells and Animal Flow, a large proportion of clientele identifying as queer or trans, a successful sliding scale model with scholarships available, childcare that was practically free. Yet even as we patted ourselves on the back for the things we were doing really well, there was a glaring problem that we hadn’t figured out how to address—it was a community center, yes, but that community was largely white. We hadn’t done enough to examine our own practices, our outreach, or the ways in which we were or weren’t supporting the work and projects of our local communities of color, and it showed in the demographics of our clientele and training staff. Sure, part of the issue was geography—the gym is located in a neighborhood that is predominantly white, but that is true of many areas of Portland, and there were plenty of clients who traveled across town to train with us. None of them, however, were Black. We were attending protests, putting up signs, and engaging in tough conversations with one another and with others through social media, but we weren’t doing the deeper work of listening and adjusting our model to make it genuinely welcoming and inclusive for a broader section of population. It was a serious weakness. It was time to look much harder at our practices and approach.
Get Eyes On
Sometimes what is happening in our own bodies may be more easily seen and understood from the outside. This is another potential lesson in humility—even trainers need to be coached. If one of us is struggling to break past a plateau in gains or is experiencing consistent pain that might indicate a problem in form, we have to be willing to swallow our pride and accept help from others, despite being “certified.” We call this “getting eyes on”—asking for other trainers to watch our movements and get some perspective on where the errors may lie. It may only take a moment for another set of eyes to notice what is invisible to ourselves over thousands of repetitions.
The lesson here is that sometimes you need to ask for help. There is a secondary lesson inside of this, which is: ask first. Only seek help from those who are willing, and don’t expect people to coach you for free. In other words, we weren’t going to march up to our clients of color and demand that they help us make our space more welcoming to others. Instead, we sought out trainings and models that were available for us to educate ourselves better on how to transform our practices, to understand our roles in holding up white supremacy, and how to make lasting changes and commit to them inside and outside the gym. One aspect involved supporting trainers of color to establish themselves as leaders in the fitness community. We developed a fellowship program designed to provide access to practice and certification for athletes of color. Other aspects included doing the difficult self-reflective work of unpacking our own individual engagement in the movement and seeing clearly how we were failing to show up for Black-led organizing efforts on their own terms. This work is ongoing, and something we are committed to struggling with, in our work, our training, our personal lives, and our organizing.
Exhale with the Exertion
Gyms are traditionally pretty gendered spaces. Part of our work as trainers is to destroy this tradition and many of the expectations that come with it, and to help our community reprogram their notions of strength and of self. This often looks like helping people who have been socialized not to express power or ferocity to find it in themselves and tap it at the source. If you’ve been to an old-school iron gym, you know there’s often a lot of macho grunting that goes on, something that you’ll rarely hear in a workout space that is dominated by femme-identified folks. At the same time, not all of those noises are pure posturing—there are mechanical reasons behind certain shouts and explosive exhales, designed to generate power, tension, and the proper timing of exertion. One of my favorite breakthroughs with newer clients is when they learn to shed their shyness or the social programming that tells them to be quiet and not to take up space, and they learn to grunt to initiate force, particularly on a heavy squat.
The exhale is also key to the press and more complicated series of movements, like the Turkish Get-up. We practice what’s referred to as “breathing behind the shield,” holding tension in the abdomen while allowing our breath to move and act as a slow release of pressure, or in sharp bursts when needed. With more ballistic kettlebell movements, like the swing or the snatch, the breath is used explosively, and timing the inhale and exhale is key to both generating power and endurance. The disciplined intake of oxygen feeds the fire we are stoking in our cells. We learn to breathe so that we can keep going.
This lesson is simple: breathe through the hard times. Know when to push and when to relax. Breathe into the belly and use that breath to maintain focus and calm under stress. This applies whether we are in the streets or caring for children, writing or cooking or setting up phone trees, painting signs or doing jail support. This is true whether we are alone or working with a group. Breathe deeply, and exhale with the exertion.
When businesses began to close in March of 2020 due to the rapid spread of COVID-19, our gym closed its doors, as well. What we thought would be a quick shutdown to “flatten the curve” turned into a six-month hiatus in which all of our training and classes went online, with occasional, informal, distanced meetups in parks. The camaraderie that was so pronounced in person became abstracted and more difficult to maintain through screens, but we adapted quickly, lending out our bells to our clientele so they could continue training with us, modifying workouts so that things could be done in living rooms and backyards with minimal equipment, and offering individual check-ins so that people could maintain good form without the direct contact of in-person training. We used social media to stay connected with everyone, and the community responded in kind, sharing survival tips, mask templates, leaving treats and messages on doorsteps. We practiced mutual aid as if by instinct.
But as I write this, the pandemic wears on, and the numbers in the classes have dwindled. What makes us strong is a kind of presence, an experience that happens between us as physical beings in a physical space, and holding on to that is difficult as our time apart grows longer than any of us dared imagine at the beginning.
When in-person classes reopened on a very limited basis in September of 2020, the irony of working out in masks was not lost on anyone. After years of coaching people to be more explosive with their exhales, we now had to ask folks to do so with the most robust face covering they could manage; another kind of breathing-behind-the-shield. Our primary focus is on keeping everyone healthy and safe: our class sizes are strictly limited so that everyone has plenty of space; masks are worn continuously; there is no touching allowed in the gym, no more high fives—as the sign on the wall says, “Love people with your eyes;” equipment is not shared, and everything is bleached and mopped after every class. Many people still choose to work out from home, and we still offer prerecorded options and live classes through Zoom, trying to hold our community together. We continue to breathe—these are hard times.
Stay Fast and Loose
Sometimes when people finish a set, they look like they’ve only barely survived the experience. They lean over on their knees, panting, or sit down, or even lie on the floor. As tempting as collapse may be, it neither gives the body what it needs in terms of oxygen nor helps it recover for the next round. What we encourage folks to do, instead, is to bounce around lightly, to wiggle the arms and hands, maybe dance a bit if the music is right. We call this “staying fast and loose,” which means keeping our muscles in motion without tension to improve blood flow and reduce stiffness. Even when we want to lie down, the best thing to do is just keep moving.
The bright side of the pandemic closure was watching the community blossom into other emergent forms and take positive action to help one another and to engage with the broader political moment. Affinity groups formed as members of the gym joined the thousands meeting downtown night after night to demand an end to police violence and to stand in solidarity with Black leadership. To support this work, the gym began pooling its experience and resources the best ways it could, offering free trainings via Zoom: basic protest safety courses, herbal aftercare for chemical weapons exposure, self-defense, Know Your Rights trainings. The space was shared with other political organizations, serving as a community hub. Food drives were organized, and members began engaging in jail support for folks arrested in the protests.
What starts as an investment in community has the potential to grow outward if we let it. While we cannot anticipate all the ways in which circumstance and differences of opinion may influence the evolution of a group, by committing to one another and allowing what we are capable of doing to evolve, we can respond to the needs of the moment. The same is true for the tactics we employ—just as we have seen essential protest gear metamorphose from signs to reinforced banners to gas masks, an organization needs to be nimble enough to change its strategy as conditions develop. Instead of stiffening up, collapsing, or investing in a single form, we need to be willing to stay fast and loose, to allow ourselves to stay in motion so that we can be ready for whatever comes next.
Time Under Tension
There are no shortcuts to strength. If you want to get stronger, you have to put in the time under tension. The gains come from the long haul, not the individual sets. What coaching and training at BHKC has helped me understand most clearly is the power that comes from seeing revolutionary potential everywhere, even in the most unlikely of places, like a kettlebell gym. I believe in creating a coordinated program of transformation across society, but I think that also means we need to learn to organize where we are, to build things from the places where we live and work, to form the trust and networks with the people we see every day. We need to build things from the ground up in a way that allows for complexity and inclusivity rather than remaining marginal or maintaining a sense of purity or political perfectionism.
I believe that all sites of connection hold the potential for change. By investing in our communities, we can lead by example, even as we listen and learn from others. The commitment is to ourselves and to each other, to putting in the work. Bodies, needs, experiences, and even goals may be different, but a shared purpose can lead to tremendous capacity for change.
I know that in many ways, I am very lucky to work where I do. It helps that the owner of the gym has been undergoing her own journey of radicalization and is a tireless model of supporting her community. It helps that all the other trainers have the courage to do this work, as well, to interrogate their own complicity in white supremacy, to put their bodies on the line during protests, to stay connected to the community with both technology and endless amounts of spirit. Not all workplaces will shift in the way that my gym has—but at the same time, it isn’t a magical process, either. It’s the result of patience, strategy, creating access to information, and genuine love. By developing networks of care, building trust, and offering or supporting leadership in hard times, we create models for all to step up. And as anyone who has worked out with us knows, we are stronger together.
This piece appears in the forthcoming Power issue of Perspectives (n.32), which will soon be available from AK Press and Powell’s Books.
Special thanks to Tana, Eloise, Lacey, Felecia, (and Rachel!), the other trainers at BHKC. I love you.
Lara Messersmith-Glavin is a writer, teacher, and kettlebell coach in Portland, Oregon. Her work has appeared in numerous journals, zines, and anthologies, including Still Point Arts Quarterly, Stoneboat Literary Journal, Radiant Voices: 21 Feminist Essays for Rising Up, and elsewhere. Her new book, Spirit Things, is due out from the University of Alaska Press in Spring, 2022. She is on the board of the IAS, and when she’s not in a classroom or working on a book, she can be found performing onstage around the Pacific Northwest, exploring the woods with her child, or swinging bells at Bleeding Hearts Kettlebell Club. Check out her work at queenofpirates.net.