Last time, I asked you: What is your Iron Maiden? It’s the thing that seems unattainable. The thing you need to ask others for help to complete. The thing you can’t do on your own. The thing that once you accomplish, you’ll feel on top of the world.
For me, the Iron Maiden Challenge definitely seemed unattainable less than a year ago.
In November of 2010, I hurt my back doing something completely stupid at my husband’s 8-year-old daughter’s trampoline birthday party. I thought, “I’m strong. I’m pretty flexible. I’m physically capable of doing a lot of things.” A backflip for the first time at age 30 with about 2 minutes of demo from my sister-in-law? Apparently, not one of those things…
Lucky for me, my mother-in-law caught it all on video. Unlucky for all of you, it was my camera so you won’t be seeing it on youtube any time soon.
I walked off the trampoline (no stretcher, thank you), but I most likely sprained my back and was out of commission for a while. I couldn’t do one pull-up without pain with just my bodyweight. The Iron Maiden, with 53-lbs strapped to my 130-lb frame seemed absolutely out of the question.
But, the Iron Maiden Challenge is the one thing in our little (and ever-growing) kettlebell community, in which women can showcase their strength, talent, and hard work. I was determined to rehab my back, build my strength back up, and complete the Iron Maiden within the year.
The first couple weeks post-trapoline incident (post-TI), I did a lot of bodyweight exercises. I squatted. SLOWLY. I did pushups. Slowly. I lunged. And when I lunged, I thought about every move I made. I pressed the 8kg kettlebell… and my back hurt. For someone who was pressing the 24kg kettlebells on each side pre-TI, that was a huge blow.
But, I took my time and I focused on my form. Everything I did was modified from what I was doing pre-TI. I continued my practice of Astanga Yoga at Pacific Ashtanga and I modified. Diana, my Yoga teacher and one of my favorite people in the world, teaches a lesson every week at the Shala. Our lesson one week was on injuries and how we need to listen to our injuries so they can teach us something. I tried to use the lesson and I did my best to not get mad at myself for being so careless at the birthday party. Instead, I chose to listen to my injury and learn from it.
What I learned, was that I was using back extension in almost every one of my lifts. Pre-TI, I was working a lot on backbends in yoga and was at a point where I could do a backbend from standing whenever I wanted. My hip flexors and my shoulders were tight, so I would usually stretch those areas out before attempting the backbend, but my flexible spine did most of the work. When pressing pre-TI, my shoulder mobility wouldn’t allow me to press with a neutral spine- I needed to extend my spine to press overhead. To extend my spine, I inadvertently let go of my abs. I was losing strength by releasing my abdomindals and relying on my structure to support me. That old song, “the foot bone’s connected to the… ankle bone; the ankle bone’s connected to the… leg bone; the leg bone’s connected to the…” is ringing true. We’re connected from our feet to our heads and I’m reminded with my injury that if one thing is out of whack, optimal functioning is impossible.
I was learning a lot from my injury….
So, post-TI, there I was, one-arm military pressing with my 8kg kettlebell, really focusing on keeping my abs tight to support my back and increase my shoulder mobility. I had the ‘advantage’ of feeling pain in my back if I let go of my abs. There was no room for error. If I stopped contracting my abs, my injury let me know.
The pull-up was the same. Pain every rep. About that time, I went to visit my friend Franz Snideman to see if he had any tips for me while rehabbing and training for the Iron Maiden. Franz is a genius with making tiny adjustments in movement to help make the lift easier- so if anyone could help, I knew he could. He watched my pull-up, and there wasn’t anything little he could help me with. It was a HUGE adjustment. He basically told me to do the opposite of what I was doing. Apparently, I was doing a typical body-builder’s pullup of all arms, all back extension, no abs. So, he told me to bring everything forward and perform the “tactical” version of the pull-up.
With zero ab involvement in my pull-up pre-TI, this was really difficult for me. I had to re-learn what I had been doing since I was a little girl (well, little tom-boy). As a female who could do pull-ups, I never asked anyone for help with my form! I thought it was either you can do them and you, well, just do them or you can’t and you ask for help! That theory changed when I hurt my back.
So, one month post-TI, I was re-learning my pull-up with bodyweight, pressing with the 12kg kettlebell, and focusing on squatting with both legs, keeping my spine straight.
It wasn’t until March of this year that I felt like my back was finally healed. I had re-trained myself to keep my abs tight and involved during the press and the pull-up and I believe that made me stronger.
I completed the Iron Maiden Challenge at the Russian Kettlebell Certification (RKC) in San Diego in on August 19th. I have been asked to write about my journey to the Iron Maiden and how I became the third woman ever to complete this challenge. I will give more detail on my blog in upcoming posts, so stay tuned!
But for now, I want you to think about what your injury can teach you. Injuries aren’t excuses to STOP all activity (unless instructed to do so by a doctor). Leave a comment or write me an email and share with me what your injury taught you!
- Denver Fitness: What is your Iron Maiden? (simplestrengthandfitness.com)
- Best “How To Do The Kettlebell Swing” Ever, by my friend Val (joshsgarage.typepad.com)
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