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.
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.
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.
"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.
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.
"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.
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.
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.
"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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.