Never, under any circumstance, arrive in Vegas before 11 A.M. on
a weekday.

You may have heard that “there’s always something
crazy going on in Vegas.” Fuck. That.

I spent the first few hours wandering around the Luxor watching
idiots play slots, eating runny scrambled eggs at an
Egyptian-themed diner, and banging my head against a slot machine
waiting for my room to be ready. (On the bright side, my head
banging won me five dollars, which bought me a bottle of
water.)

But I wasn’t there to ogle scantily clad women or to lose
my paycheck with one limp-wristed roll of the dice; I was there to work. The next day I was to be picked up by Mike Mahler to
attend his level-one kettlebell workshop. There was, obviously, no
time to play around.

So after hitting the strip, having a few bourbons, watching the
topless Fantasy show, flirting with the waitresses at Tender
Steakhouse, and slumbering back to my room at 1:34 A.M., I was
ready to get down to business.

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The girls of Fantasy

–>

If you don’t swing, don’t ring

After some breakfast, coffee, and a half dozen Hail Marys,
Mahler picked me up and we drove to UFC legend Randy Couture’s
gym for the seminar. It was a small group, and we were all excited
about the one-on-one attention we were about to receive.

xtreme couture

Xtreme Couture

Mahler explained that kettlebells are traditionally known as
endurance tools; a lot of guys will actually do 10-minute sets of
swings, cleans, and snatches to help build up their aerobic
capacity, strengthen their stabilizer muscles, and increase their
flexibility.

He also quickly dispelled the dogma promulgated by some fanatics
that kettlebells are such a superior tool that you don’t need
anything else to get in great shape. “They’re not the
end-all, be-all. I love doing barbell, dumbbell, and body-weight
stuff, too.”

Before we got started with the swings and cleans, he told us
about the importance of tensing every muscle in our body to help
increase strength while doing certain movements.

To get an idea of what he means, try this: Contract your glutes
and make two fists. Push your hips forward like you’re locking out
a deadlift, and push your stomach down, squeezing your abs. Screw
your feet into the ground and tighten your wrists, forearms,
biceps, triceps and shoulders. Now you’re ready to generate
some power… or at least crush the metacarpals of the next guy
who offers you a handshake.

As he wrapped up his intro, he emphasized the importance of
power breathing, which slows down the amount of air that comes out
of your lungs and keeps the midsection contracted.

To power breathe, put your tongue behind your top two teeth.
Breathe in through your nose, hold the air, and push your tongue
against your teeth as you breathe out through your mouth. It should
kind of sound like a snake hissing.

After a few minutes of practice, we stripped off our socks and
shoes – it’s important to use your feet to help you
generate power, something that’s hindered when you wear shoes
– and began learning the basic movements.

The Exercises

Romanian deadlift

“Just about every kettlebell exercise engages the
hamstrings and the rest of the posterior chain,” Mahler told
us. That’s why the Romanian deadlift, which teaches us how to
load the hamstrings properly, is a good one to start with.

Place the kettlebell between your feet and back by your heels.
Bend your knees slightly, and sit back like you’re about to jump
forward. Looking straight ahead, grab the ‘bell with both
hands, maintain a neutral spine, squeeze your glutes, and stand.
Let it pull your shoulder blades down. Reverse the motion by
pushing your hips back. Let the kettlebell rest on the ground by
your heels between each rep.

This movement is the foundation for proper swing technique,
which starts almost every ballistic kettlebell movement.

Single-arm swing

Place the ‘bell between your feet and get into the Romanian
deadlift position, this time grabbing it with one hand instead of
both. Remember to keep your back flat and to look straight
ahead.

Swing the kettlebell between your legs forcefully, as if you
were passing a football to someone behind you, and then quickly
reverse the motion, explosively driving through with your hips and
bringing the ‘bell to waist level. Let gravity pull it back
down between your legs as you repeat the motion.

Despite its superficial resemblance to a front raise, the swing
is a posterior-chain exercise. So you have to remember to sit back
on each rep, load the posterior chain, pop the hips, and let your
shoulder stay loose throughout the movement.

kettlebell

The one-arm swing
(All photos of Mike Mahler demonstrating
exercises courtesy of Michael Neuveux.)

Single-arm clean

“A lot of people do the clean wrong and bang the hell out
of their wrist,” Mahler said. “You’ve got to work
around the energy, and not against it.”

Place a ‘bell between your feet and get into your go-to
position. Swing the kettlebell between your legs, quickly reverse
the motion, and pop your hips. But instead of letting it go back
down, rotate your hand around it, and “catch” it between
your forearm and biceps. Make sure to keep your elbow in and your
shoulder down – you don’t want to shrug.

This seems simple enough, but I’ve got to warn you, if
you’re used to performing Olympic barbell cleans, it’s not
even close to the same thing.

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The one-arm clean

–>

A few points if you’re having trouble:

• Think about throwing an uppercut, snaking your elbow through
instead of pulling it up like a traditional clean.

• Before you start, grip the kettlebell handle on the opposite
side of the arm you’re pulling with. So if you’re doing
right-handed cleans, you’ll want to grab the handle near the
left side.

• Don’t try to dip underneath. Think of it as a very fast
curl, although you don’t actually want to engage your biceps
to curl it. It’s still a posterior-chain exercise.

• Make sure to “catch” it with your hips locked out,
glutes contracted, knees slightly bent, and shoulders squared. This
is very different from a traditional power clean, in which you catch it
with your hips back and knees bent.

• Another difference from barbell and dumbbell cleans: You
finish with your elbow down, pointing toward the floor, rather than
pointing out. Put another way, your upper arm is parallel to your
torso when working with a kettlebell, rather than perpendicular to
it.

Single-arm clean and press

“The clean and press is probably one of the best full-body
exercises you can do,” Mahler said – with good
reason.

The first half of the exercise, the clean, works your entire
posterior chain. The press then hits much of your upper-body
musculature, even if you aren’t necessarily working the
muscles you expect. “It’s the guys who think this is just
a shoulder press that won’t get anywhere with it,” Mahler
stressed. The emphasis is more on your lats, triceps, and core than
your deltoids.

Here’s how to do it:

Start in your go-to position with the ‘bell between your
legs. Do the swing, as described earlier, and then the clean. From
there, without using any leg drive whatsoever, contract your
latissimus and push the ‘bell straight overhead, locking your
elbow at the top. Hold for a couple of seconds, then
“pull” the ‘bell back down into the clean position.
From there you can either do another press, or go right back down
into the clean.

kettlebell

Top of the press

A few tips:

• The kettlebell clean and press has one thing in common with
sex: You don’t want to rush through your reps and finish the
set as quickly as possible. Mahler suggests staying in the clean
position for as long as you need to catch your breath and focus on
the next rep.

• It’s all about compressing and expanding. Once you catch
the ‘bell in the clean position, make sure to contract your
glutes and midsection while pushing your hips forward and keeping
your elbow pointing straight down toward the ground. To press,
contract your entire body from your feet to your shoulders, expand
your body, and press overhead. The kettlebell should be directly in
line with your head or slightly behind it.

• Keep your wrist straight throughout.

Turkish get-up

“What’s so Turkish about this exercise? I have no
idea,” Mahler admitted. Whatever you call it, this movement is
one hell of a core and full-body exercise.

I’ll describe the exercise as if you’re using your
left arm, as shown in the pictures below.

Lie on your back and use two hands to lift the kettlebell into
the starting position. You want your left arm locked out as you
hold the kettlebell with that arm straight over your chest.

Bring your left leg in, bending it at the knee, and set your
left foot flat on the floor. As you do that, shift your weight to
your right arm, with your right palm flat on the floor.

Now fire your right triceps and left leg (hamstrings and
glutes). As you sit up, bring your right leg underneath you and
lift yourself until you’re in the bottom position of a lunge
– keeping your left arm perpendicular to the floor and locked
out.

Take a second to catch your breath, then forcefully stand up.
Hold for a couple of seconds. To return to the starting position,
first do a reverse lunge, stepping back with your right leg. Place
your right hand on the floor, then contract your abs as you get
back down on the floor. That’s one rep.

kettlebell

Turkish get-up with left arm

Quick tip:

Don’t do a lot of Turkish get-ups at the end of your
workout; you’ll be too damned tired to do them properly.
Instead, put them toward the beginning of the workout, but after any pressing movements. Doing them before the presses
will weaken your core and make the pressing movements less
effective.

Using kettlebells instead of dumbbells

Renegade row

Place a pair of kettlebells about shoulder-width apart on a firm
surface. (Notice we didn’t use the mat in the photo below.)
Spread your feet and get into a push-up position, with one hand
around each handle. Contract your glutes and abs and row one
‘bell up to your ribcage. Hold for one second, set it down,
and repeat with the other hand.

Most people don’t use enough weight to get the benefits of
this exercise. Ten-pound dumbbells or kettlebells won’t cut
it.

kettlebell

Nate performs the renegade row with 53-pound
balls… er, ‘bells

One-arm bent-over row

Set up as you would for a dumbbell bent-over row: neutral spine,
weight distributed evenly between both legs, knees slightly bent,
eyes looking forward. Contract your abs and imagine puling the
‘bell up with your elbow – this will force you to use your
lats a bit more, and your hips and trunk a bit less. Hold for one
second at the top, lower, and repeat.

kettlebell

Dude in the white shirt pretends not to look.

Circular crunches, aka “pure hell”

Lie on your back with your legs straight, holding a kettlebell
straight up from your shoulder, with your arm locked. Have a
partner grab your ankles. Do a sit-up. Hold for one second, and
then lower yourself to one side, making a circular motion back to
the floor. That’s one rep. Do another sit-up, this time
repeating the circular motion to the other side as you lower
yourself.

You can also do an easier version by holding the kettlebell in
front of your chest with both hands.

kettlebell

Random notes from Mahler:

• Form deteriorates when you convince yourself you have to go
all out, all the time. Focus on performance, not pain.

• But don’t go easy on yourself either. “It should be
difficult, but you’ve got to make sure you’re in the
groove,” Mahler told our group.

• When your facial expressions change, you’re doing
something wrong. You’re straining, but not in a good way.

• Get comfortable with chaos. Yes, it seems like a contradiction
of the previous point, but it’s really not. You have to accept
that the weights are going to move fast, because you lose energy if
you go too slow.

• If you’re just starting out, it’s fine to do swings
as your only kettlebell exercise for your first three to six
months. Add in some low-rep cleans when you’re ready. You
don’t need to get into the hard-core stuff right away.

• You can’t get in great shape in eight weeks. You can
certainly improve, and the less training experience you have the
faster you’ll see those improvements. But it takes years and
years to get the type of body you want.

• Again, kettlebells are just a tool, not a religion. But
they’re a lot more fun than just about any other tool you use
to build your body.