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The Power of Iron: Martial Artist and Blacksmith, John Heinz Discusses the Kettlebells' Contribution to His Shim Gum Do—and to the Rehabilitation of Old Injuries

January 18, 2011 09:46 AM

Dragon Door: Tell us about your fitness background.

John Heinz: I am a Jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none kind of person. I’ve been practicing martial arts for about twenty years and along with that I rock climb, dive…a gamut of things. Over the past fifteen years, I’ve been trying to be more cognizant of my strength as keeping strong correlates with what I do professionally. Besides teaching martial arts, I’m a blacksmith and I encounter some of the problems that occur from working with one side of your body all of the time.

Also, I did weight training incorrectly for many, many years. I think most of our culture only learns about bodybuilding technique; you copy what bodybuilders do, and if you aren’t trying to be a bodybuilder, you get a very unsuccessful end result. So, I got into kettlebells and I thought that they worked everything that I needed. I was able to treat my own injuries and the injuries of clients.

D.D.: How did you hear about kettlebells?

J.H.: [Laughter' I’d gotten Pavel’s Power to the People, through the Johnson and Smith catalog, Things You Never Knew Existed…

It said, “Do these two exercises for just 20 minutes a day.” I was like, “All right!” I’d been doing weightlifting, but I didn’t like it. It was just something that I felt I had to do for various reasons. So I thought anything that could give me some results and get me out of there faster was a grand, grand thing. And so I bought the book. For example, the Deadlift, which I pictured as being an awful exercise for you, made my back much stronger. It took away my knee problems too and I thought, “Oh, this guy really knows what he’s talking about.”

I was so impressed with that book and with how Pavel explained things. For example, what the Side Press did for shoulder/oblique development and core strength. And the whole thing is just those two exercises! So then I got greedy and I wanted more; I saw the kettlebell in From Russia With Tough Love. I’d been trying to get my wife to do weight lifting to build up muscle, because she used to just run. I felt that she needed to work on muscular development as well as running.

Long story short, she got her four- and eight-kilo KBs, one book and said, “This is interesting.” She went down to Maxercize, and D.C. gave her a once-over. When she came back from Maxercize, I saw what she was doing, and I was like, “Wow! That looks good.” I could see from just one of the motions how it would translate into overall strength development, especially as it related to martial arts. This system was light years beyond what we’d been doing in previous conditioning. So, I went and got my RKC in June ’03.

D.D.: Do you use weapons in your martial arts practice?

J.H.: Yes. I practice Shim Gum Do, which means “Mind Sword Path”, and I use swords, short stick and long stick. For what it’s worth, I am currently the third highest ranked Shin Boep practitioner; I’m training towards my ninth dan now. That’s not necessarily impressive though, as we have thirty-three dan levels in our system.

Shim Gum Do is a relatively new martial art, in that my teacher, a Chogye Order Monk, is the Founding Master. He’s sixty years old and moves faster than anyone I know. His enlightenment experience was this martial arts system. So it’s new to this world, though the relationship between sword and Zen monks go way back in Korean history.

D.D.: So it’s fairly meditative.

J.H.: Yeah. It’s a moving form of Zen meditation, just as flower arrangement, Ikkibana, tea ceremony, calligraphy or any of those things are. Of course, any martial art can be meditative. A lot of martial arts have kata or forms with them. We have forms in the Shin Boep—the weaponless part. It means “body truth”. We have 330 kata in that, likewise with sword. So these kata provide the foundation for our meditation practice, whether chamson or moving.

D.D.: How do you see kettlebells impacting your use of weapons or any other aspect of your martial art?

J.H.: I didn’t find that kettlebells necessarily helped with sword technique. I think they certainly make your wrist stronger, so you can hit. But the wrist is generally locked in a certain position with a kettlebell. In our technique it’s not two-handed, it’s one-handed. There’s a lot of wrist rotation. Also, it’s very springy with a lot of crouching and things like that. So in the development of core and leg strength, it was actually more critical than wrist or arm strength.

In our sword style, the wrist should be very relaxed. So, the kettlebells don’t make a big difference in terms of the wrist itself, but in terms of the weaponless part of it, kettlebell conditioning is great. I don’t do much free fighting, just once in a while. One of my friends is a ridiculously strong practitioner, and I free fought with him. I hadn’t done any sparring in months, just KB Snatches and Cleans. While my arms and legs were quite bruised afterwards from blocking, I didn’t feel anything while sparring and it didn’t hurt afterwards because of the KB conditioning.

In terms of general core strength, kettlebells are phenomenal: leg strength, power, the snapping of the hips—all of those things. It specifically is a martial arts tool and a general tool as well. It’s another way to learn about your body. The way that I approach my martial practice is very subjective and personal. I try to figure it out for myself, internalize it, which isn’t necessarily very efficient, but it makes it whole.

So, getting back to what that approach means in terms of sports, I always have to pay attention to every little detail. What does it mean? How does it affect a block or a kick or moving out of the way? You have to analyze all those things for yourself. The way that kettlebells are taught here, you also have to be very aware, as it’s an entirely different kind of relationship to a weight. It’s a whole other realm of bodily awareness. Both my wife and I love that about them.

In regards to the blacksmithing part of it, I’m right-handed. Blacksmiths (and probably carpenters too) get a lot of unilateral upper back development and it pulls on the spine and shoulder. My right side tends to overdevelop and I need to counterbalance that growth on the left side, while keeping my right side open and flexible.

D.D.: You’ve found that kettlebells make a difference?

J.H.: Oh, it’s just an easy tool to do it with. I mean, body weight exercises like pullups help, and I love to bent press. It really fires a whole bunch of muscles in your back.

D.D.: Have kettlebells helped you heal any old injuries?

J.H.: Yeah. I had Lyme disease a couple of times, and that generated a lot of joint pain in the knees. So because of the Lyme disease and the amount of overtraining in my youth, I couldn’t do very deep squats with heavy weights. It was also partially out of fear and a lack of knowledge. I’d have to wrap my knees just like a mummy. But having learned biomechanics from Pavel, about connective tissue strength development from Swings or Cleans or Snatches, that has made my knees much, much stronger. Also, years ago I hurt my left shoulder snowboarding and it put some slop in my shoulder joint. At some point later on when I’d impinged my Supraspinatus (where it goes through the AC joint) and the inflammation became chronic, I had to do a bunch of different rehab exercises. I didn’t want surgery and have them pare away at my acromium.

I proceeded to rehab my shoulder to keep it tight and strong, but with dumbbells it seems that you have to do a lot of different exercises to achieve that. The kettlebells seem more ergonomically friendly than dumbbells, when doing shoulder presses. Once I could do heavy side presses, I got into full shoulder presses from in front, getting a lot of external rotation using the rear deltoids to fire. So getting a full shoulder workout, I don’t have to do rehab exercises anymore.

Right now, I have something going on in my lower back. I don’t know how I did it, but I keep on inflaming it. My chiropractor said it’s an impingement in my lumbar region, and if I can’t get an adjustment from him, doing Good Mornings temporarily removes that pain, because the exercise is causing space in the facets. But I can’t carry a heavy kettlebell around with me all day if I’m out and about. Maybe if you guys miniaturized a KB, making it with depleted uranium then maybe we could do something. I don’t know.

D.D.: [Laugher' We’ll work on that one. You referenced working with clients earlier. Can you talk about your work as a personal trainer?

J.H.: Yeah. I had one client that had been in a car accident. He must have pinched something in his back and he couldn’t get rid of that pain. It was chronic for a couple of years. He tried different modalities: healing with chiropractic, deep tissue massage and maybe acupuncture, but pretty much a traditional allopathic medicine approach. It wasn’t helping him, so he came to try kettlebells. I taught him Good Mornings and after a couple of days, I had him do some Windmills. He had a steady diet of that for a week or two just to develop strength. After a week, he called me up and said that he had no more pain in his back. For the first time in a couple of years, he was pain free.

D.D.: Wow, that’s great. When you say clients, what’s the service that you are offering? For instance, do you have a physical therapy background or a sports medicine background?

J.H.: I go out of blind ignorance. [Laughter' No, I don’t have a sports medicine background. I use the kettlebells in my martial arts classes for conditioning purposes. But I do have people I teach who want to learn KB conditioning as a health tool, who aren’t interested in martial arts. So there are two facets to my teaching.

At one point, before doing kettlebells, I felt I should go for a physical trainer certification. I mean, I knew enough at that point, partly because I was trying to find out so much about my own injuries and how to rehab myself. I learned a lot about physiology and stuff like that.

D.D.: I was wondering, because you were using a lot of terminology.

J.H.: Actually, I learned most of that for a different reason. I took an anatomy course—drawing anatomy. We had to draw a skeleton, draw nudes, and then the day that we had to go draw a cadaver my car got stolen. So I didn’t actually get to go draw the cadaver, but that’s neither here nor there.

It was really technical…you had to know skeletal structure and muscular structure, all these different things and that’s what stuck with me. So, I had that experience to draw from (no pun intended). But I approach training others subjectively, with a lot of experience from martial arts. And I just feel comfortable teaching kettlebells, because concepts are explained and presented so clearly in the RKC course.

D.D.: Are the KB classes that you teach connected with your martial arts school?

J.H.: The same building. We have all sorts of people coming there, because it’s a Zendo. We have people come there for meditation. We have people come there for martial arts. It’s also part of a small high school.

Since we live in a rural area, we don’t have many gyms. Most people that are physically active will either bike or run or something like that. There are a lot of “horse” people here so many do horseback riding.

But the nice thing about kettlebells is that they allow someone to really take charge of their own well-being. Also, there’s a relationship to the weight. Your relationship to a kettlebell is very different than your relationship with, say, a machine. You just plug into the machine, you do this exercise, and that’s it. Whereas with the kettlebell, you have this object that doesn’t do anything unless you know exactly what you have to do. You have to pick it up a certain way. You’ve got to move it a certain way. It’s much more synergistic.

D.D.: Do you want to say anything about your work as a blacksmith?

J.H.: Um, I try not to hurt myself [laughter'. Mostly it’s in restoring old homes. I live in an area that was settled relatively early in our country’s history, the beginning of 18th century to the middle of the 18th century, mostly by displaced English and Germans. I primarily manufacture hardware: hinges, locks, keys?that kind of stuff. I make tools and knives. I grew up on a farm in the Western part of Pennsylvania and I’d always go into the barn and take the files from the shop, turning them into knives or throwing stars. God knows what I was doing, but I’ve always had a fascination with iron and steel.

You know, that’s another reason that I like kettlebells. They’re made of iron. It’s just another way of expressing that fascination [laughter' with the ferrous metals. And it’s an old-fashioned kind of sport.

D.D.: You do armor, too. Right?

J.H.: Yeah, again, historical stuff. I copy items from the late medieval period. Though the Renaissance had its birth in the 13th century, it doesn’t really flower until 1390 or 1410—something like that. So I don’t really do much Renaissance period work. But that has more to do with my own skills as an armorer, as the armor by the early 15th century becomes more technically complicated. I just don’t have enough experience working in that style.

I’m just really into ‘form and function’. As you probably know that’s a well-worn phrase in architecture, but it can and does relate equally to ironwork. That’s why I like knives?they’re tools. How does it interrelate with the human being that’s using it? The knife is a very common tool, everyone has them, whether it’s a butter knife or a kitchen knife. They all have different shapes. You know, a paring knife is different than a chopping knife is different than a cleaver is different than a bread knife. Or armor for example, it’s not an exact copy of what the person looks like underneath, but there’s a relationship between the design and the use. Same with kettlebells; it is form and function.

D.D.: What’s very interesting about the kettlebell, and you’ve been hinting at it, is that people have very strong personal relationships with their kettlebells. I’ve never heard anybody talk about their dumbbells or their weights like they talk about their kettlebells. You know, they’ll paint them, name them…

J.H.: That’s true! I have faces on mine. But again, form and function. I think the shape of the kettlebell lends it to more ergonomically friendly use. It’s closer to the body. Anyway, I drew faces on my 40-kilogram ones. They have a big frown, like a frightened look. The one that I like to use most often has a sort of sadistic grin. As they all start to look like the same size when I’m sweating, the faces are a way I can look quickly at the KBs and know which one I need.

D.D.: Do you feel a special relationship with iron as opposed to bronze, silver, gold? Is there something about iron?

J.H.: Yeah. It’s cheaper [laughter'. No, I work in some silver. Gold, I’d be too frightened to work with cause I’d probably make an expensive mistake.

D.D.: You seem to have a particular affinity for iron as opposed to any other metal.

J.H.: I don’t know, maybe it has some sadistic overtones that I hadn’t thought about until now. I mean, it’s been a part of human culture for 3500 years at least…the Iron Age probably started around 1800 B.C. or somewhere in there. But for quite a period of time, this has been our element of choice for making tools, weapons, anything that we need.

And as for the Bronze Age, iron obviously surpassed this once they learned to carburize iron and produce steel, because then it became harder than bronze. And it was not like one day the Bronze Age ended and the Iron Age began. There was a slow transition. But I think that what I like about it is this: If you bury a bronze implement in the ground it generally won’t corrode away, it’s much more inert and stable as a material. Iron has to be under very specific conditions for it to not rust away. So here you have this incredible material that is very tough, and it can be carburized into steel, and you can do all sorts of things with it, but it’s just as transitory as we are, you know? A lot of B.S. philosophical kind of stuff…

D.D.: [Laughter'

J.H.: Well there’s an analogy between polishing your sword and polishing your mind. It’s sort of that kind of belief. You know, in keeping a knife sharp and clean, you have to pay attention. And with life it’s a matter of being present and mindful in small matters too. But that’s a part of my Zen inculcation. Small things, like Pavel says. It’s the small things.

Check out John Heinz’s ironwork at