Kettlebells Put to the Test
by Nate Green
I have an embarrassing confession to make.
I can't walk up a long flight of stairs without getting a little winded. If I play a game of pick-up basketball, I'm usually huffing after the first few minutes. And while I could use my mild asthma as an excuse for my aversion to anything resembling cardio, that's just a cop-out.
I'll say this for me: At 5-foot-9 and 190 pounds, I certainly look athletic. And it's not entirely an illusion. I can deadlift over 500 pounds, grab the rim on a basketball hoop, and knock out a few reps with 315 on the bench press. So I'm not out of shape. But I'm not exactly "fit" either, since I'm only really good at things that are over quickly. (I'd throw in a sex joke here, but I'm too tired. Feel free to insert your own.)
Granted, I have no desire to run a marathon, but it'd be nice to do something like this without leaving my breakfast in the sand.
Which brings me to kettlebells. I was introduced to them at a recent seminar with Mike Mahler and immediately saw their benefits: portable, challenging, and cool-looking. I also thought they could help me with my conditioning problem.
Mahler agreed to help me out, but only if I was willing to give his program a solid two months. For the first six weeks, I'll do my kettlebell workouts at home on days when I'm not lifting. The last two weeks, I'll incorporate the 'bells into my regular gym-based program, enabling me to use them for strength purposes and as "finishers."
"You're a strong guy," Mahler wrote in an email, "but a lot of times pure strength can work against you. Kettlebell training is unique and you'll have your work cut out for you. It takes time to learn how to use them properly. But if you're looking for amazing conditioning and challenging exercises, you've come to the right place."
He also assured me that I don't have to become a card-carrying member of the Kettlebell Kult to get the benefits.
"I use barbells, dumbbells, and body-weight exercises all the time," he told me. "The thing to remember is there are tools for every goal. As for the cult, I prefer to live in reality and keep an open mind. Besides, a lot of them are idiots."
A week later, two cardboard lumps arrived at my front door. Mahler had sent me two 53-pound 'bells from Lifeline Kettlebells. It was go time.
As soon as I open the email with the first installment of Mahler's program, I know it's going to suck ass.
I'll do two workouts a week. This is the first:
1) Double-KB clean and military press, 6 reps
2) Alternating renegade row, 6 reps (each side)
3) Turkish get-up, 3 reps (each side)
4) One-arm front squat, 8 reps (each side)
5) One-arm KB swing, 15 reps (each side)
Here's the second:
1) Double-KB clean and push press, 7 reps
2) Double-KB bent-over row, 8 reps
3) One-arm windmill, 5 reps (each side)
4) Double-KB front squat, 5 reps
5) Hand-to-hand KB swing, 12 reps (each side)
The exercises aren't the problem — they're fun and challenging. What's hard is doing them in circuits, with just 30 seconds between exercises and 90 seconds between rounds. I'll do a total of three rounds.
"These workouts are pretty intense," Mahler warned me. "You can get burned out pretty fast if you don't work into it gradually. I generally start people off with one session per week so they can get acclimated."
But I'm going to start with two. Double or nothing.
Right off the bat, I have to modify the program. The short rest periods leading up to the high-rep swings at the end of each round are killing me. So, with Mahler's blessing, I add 15 seconds of rest at the end of each exercise. They're still killing me, but at least they're killing me at a more leisurely pace, giving me some room to work on my technique.
Kettlebell training is as close to an art form as you'll find in the world of strength and conditioning — that is, if you're doing it correctly. Take the double-kettlebell clean, for instance. An elegant, powerful move that builds tremendous strength in the hamstrings and lower back, you perform the clean by swinging both 'bells between your legs, squeezing your glutes, and quickly standing up while flicking your wrists, catching the bells in the sweet spot between the crook of your elbows and your biceps.
When I try it, the 'bells just flop over and slam into my wrists.
"You're trying too hard and using brute strength," Mahler replied when I told him about the problem. "It's not like an Olympic barbell clean. Don't dip underneath it when you catch it. Just let momentum bring them up, and get your elbow through. And don't even think about trying to curl it."
Weeks Two and Three
I'm convinced of two things:
1) My core strength is horrible.
2) My conditioning has already improved from the first four sessions.
Everyone says that traditional free-weight training challenges your core. But I've never felt activation like this from a freakin' barbell. It's not just one or two exercises. It's everything in the program. If you have a weakness or imbalance, kettlebells expose it.
In my case, it's the entire left side of my body, a problem that's immediately exposed by the Turkish get-up, the most humiliating exercise known to man. To do it, you lie flat on your back while holding a kettlebell over your head. Then, while keeping your arm locked and your eyes on the 'bell, you stand up. Then you lie back down. Stupid, I know. I do this three times per side and it makes me want to cry, which probably means it's effective.
The next-hardest exercise is the renegade row. You perform it by holding onto the handles of the bells, getting in a push-up position with your feet wider than normal, contracting your abs, and rowing one bell up to your ribcage while the other stays on the ground. You alternate sides until you've done six reps on each. It's supposed to go fast, but because I'm using 53-pound 'bells I need a good five seconds between each rep. Just enough time for me to curse in between breaths.
The other exercises remind me of moves I've done with free weights, but each has an evil twist. For instance, the double-kettlebell front squat sounds easy enough, but I'm amazed at how much core activation is required. Same with cleans, military presses, and bent-over rows — they're all a hell of a lot harder on the core than their free-weight counterparts.
The good news is that I'm able to get through the circuits with just 30 seconds' rest between exercises.
By the end of the third week, after just six sessions with the 'bells, my shoulders and upper arms appear bigger and more vascular. And in my regular workouts, I can feel a difference in my deadlifts, like I'm using my glutes and hamstrings more effectively. It makes sense, considering how many swings and cleans I've been doing, and how much overall work I've been imposing on my posterior-chain muscles.
And I'm finally able to do the windmill with the kettlebells after starting off without using any weight at all.
The windmill is one of the coolest exercises ever. You do it by holding a 'bell overhead with one arm and your feet turned out at 45-degree angles. You push your butt out in the direction of whichever arm is overhead, and lower yourself until your non-working hand touches the floor. Then you stand back up again.
The first few times I tried it, the stretch in my IT band and overall lack of flexibility made it painful and awkward, which is why I had to go weightless. But after just three weeks, I'm strong enough to do all the reps with good form, using the 53-pound kettlebell.
Even more important, thanks in part to the pre-production batch of Surge Workout Fuel sent to me by Tim Patterson, the workouts are starting to get easier. That why I decide to test my conditioning by running up to the "M" on Mount Sentinel in Missoula, Montana.
At 620 feet above the valley floor, with over a dozen switchbacks, the M is where high-level athletes and endurance junkies go to sweat. I've hiked it once before, and almost puked; I'm hoping I do better this time.
My friend Kyle and I start at the bottom at 4 p.m. Because we're so damned competitive, we break into a dead sprint right from the start. This is a mistake.
A quarter of the way up, I feel like someone is punching me in the chest. Still, my gag reflex hasn't kicked in yet, so I downgrade to a fast jog and keep going. We get to the top in just under 13 minutes, which to me is pretty impressive, considering that the last time I tried I almost didn't make it. And that's when I was walking.
I feel as if I've passed a test. So I email Mahler, telling him I'm ready for the next challenge.
Weeks Five and Six
I should've left well enough alone. In Mahler's next installment of the program, the exercises are the same, but the bastard shortened the rest periods.
For the next two weeks, I'm supposed to rest just 20 second between exercises and 30 seconds between rounds. This is insane. Mahler also instructed me to start all of my unilateral exercises with my left side, since it's weaker, which makes sense but still pisses me off.
The first workout with the new protocol sucks just as bad as my first-ever kettlebell session. I'm completely out of breath, and struggling to keep my breakfast down. I have noticed one important thing, though: I'm in the groove. I feel much more comfortable swinging the 'bells and getting them into position, which is a huge confidence booster. The exercises almost feel natural now. Despite the fact I want to throw up all over my couch, I'm actually having fun.
And I'm clearly a leaner and better-conditioned athlete, without stepping foot on a treadmill or elliptical machine.
A kettlebeller with flaming balls.
I've officially moved my new training tools to the gym. While the owner is fine with me keeping them in the corner, everyone is asking to use them. (Swear to God, the next person who calls them "kettleballs" is going to get a 53-pound 'bell to the solar plexus.) "Sure," I say, curious as to what in the blue fuck they plan on doing with them without any instruction.
The first guy holds them at his sides while doing walking lunges, which sounds like a good idea until the 'bells hit the ground every time he takes a step. Which kind of defeats the purpose.
The second guy tries a snatch and almost pops his shoulder out of its socket as he fails to decelerate the 'bell at the top of the movement.
No one else asks to use them after these two mishaps, which is fine by me.
My training partners and I plan on mixing the 'bells in with other exercises, and then using them again at the end of the workouts as finishers.
Since we train four days per week, we plan on using two-handed and one-handed swings in our upper-body workouts, and the clean-to-press on our lower-body days. I soon realize that this means working the posterior-chain muscles four times a week. It's a lot more taxing than it sounds.
The kettlebell swing is one of least complicated and most effective exercises for conditioning I've found. Thanks to Mike Robertson (who's been writing my traditional training programs for the past few months), we have a hellish routine where we do 10 sets of 10 swings in 10 minutes.
To set up for the one-handed swing, you place the 'bell between your feet and get into the Romanian deadlift position, grabbing the 'bell with one hand and making sure to keep your back flat and head down.
You swing the kettlebell between your legs forcefully, as if you're hiking a football to someone behind you, then quickly reverse the motion, explosively driving through with your hips and bringing the 'bell to waist level. From there, you let gravity pull it back down between your legs as you repeat the motion.
And if you're feeling really brave, you can try the hand-to-hand kettlebell swing, in which you actually let go of the 'bell at the top of the swing, catch it with your other hand, and reverse the motion by bringing it between your legs before swinging and switching hands again. It looks just as cool as it sounds.
My clean-to-press improves from one workout to the next. The trick, Mahler had told me, is to rest in the rack position, with the weights resting on the outside of my forearms. It allows tension to dissipate, giving you more power for the second half of the exercise, the press.
But with kettlebells, recovering your energy in the middle of an exercise is harder than it sounds; it takes some effort just to hold them in the rack position, and it takes a lot of focus to transition from the clean to the press. The payoff is that once you learn to relax despite fatigue, while maintaining muscle tension, you've acquired a skill that carries over to virtually every sport.
I'll try to remember that the next time I need to delay my orgasm.
For the final week, my training partners and I start experimenting. After all, with a couple of 'bells and some elastic bands we can make traditional exercises a little tougher and a lot more fun.
First up is a bench press with a kettlebell on each side of the barbell, a move we got from Craig Weller.
We push for 20 reps, but as with so many other kettlebell exercises, once we lose our focus we almost knock our teeth out.
Ditto on adding kettlebells to a barbell for Bulgarian split squats. Worst. Exercise. Ever.
So what do I have to show for two months of serious training with kettlebells? First, I've improved my conditioning in a pretty dramatic way. I ran the M two more times, and finished in less than 11 minutes the final time.
But I've gained more than endurance. My shoulders and upper arms look more muscular than ever, my deadlift has increased by 15 pounds (thanks to all the swings, I'm guessing), and I've picked up a new style of training that will keep me entertained and progressing for years to come.
Would I recommend buying some kettlebells and learning a few drills? Absolutely. I think they're great to incorporate into a traditional training program, and they also provide a fun and useful way to recover on your off days. But would I train exclusively with kettlebells? Never. For pure strength and hypertrophy, nothing can replace barbells and dumbbells.
Thanks to the kettlebells, I have another tool in the toolbox, another skill acquired, and another goal reached. And for me, that's good enough.
Nate Green is the author Built for Show: Four Body Changing Workouts for Building Muscle, Losing Fat, and Looking Good Enough to Hook Up, which is in bookstores nationwide.
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