How would you like to torch some body fat and gain a bunch of strength? Could I also interest you in world class levels of cardio fitness? Sound good? Consider adding Kettlebell training to your fitness toolbox. This month we explore how the KB can get you stronger, while cranking up your heart and lung power. Your fitness game will step up a class after you add them to your arsenal.
The year was 1998 when a thunderstorm was unleashed on the training world. Pavel Tstatsouline came on the scene from Russia and changed the fitness landscape forever. Nicknamed “The Evil Russian”, Pavel introduced KB’s to the American mainstream for the first time. These “cannonballs with handles” didn’t look like anything anyone had ever seen, and Pavel himself was incredulous that Americans would latch on. But the charismatic former Spetsnaz (Russian Special Forces) trainer was just too persuasive, and lifters took notice.
In the beginning, only serious strength and MMA athletes in underground circles bought in. I went to one of the first KB certifications ever held, and the attendees looked like a gang of streetfighters (not far from the truth). But this would soon change.
Success stories about fat loss and hard physiques began to enamor the main-streamers, and soon they jumped in too. These strange looking black bells were practically non existent in America until Pavel arrived, but in a few years they were standard issue in nearly every gym and training studio.
KB’s have been used as a serious strength and conditioning tool for centuries. In Russia everyone from military personnel to elite athletes use them for their rapid results. In the KB world, the Russians are still considered the master craftsmen.
KB’s have a lot going for them. They are compact and have a small footprint. They are nearly indestructible and will last forever, so you can pass them onto the kiddos.
They have the unique feature of being a strength and cardio conditioning tool all in one. That’s what makes them so useful. They’re portable, so you can just throw them in the truck and have your training session down at the park or even the beach. Anywhere. Let me also mention that they are inexpensive. You can get 2 quality bells for a few hundred bucks. Compared with high tech nonsense advertised on TV for 10 times that, they are a bargain. And brutally effective.
KB’s have a unique aura to them. If you’re a work-with-your-hands type, they were built for you. Born in foundries years ago by grizzled rough-necks, they are rugged and have a no frills attitude. If KB’s were tools, they’d be right next to your anvils and sledgehammers. Hard, simple and useful.
Flip through old pics of your great-great grandparents. Try to find any soft, flabby bodies. There aren’t many. Our ancestors of yesteryear worked hard. They farmed and mined and built things. They dug and they drilled. These were not people concerned with I-phone 8 release dates. These folks were workers, and their tough bodies reflected that. KB’s simulate that type of work, and are the closest thing to hard labor away from the job site.
KB’s get results fast. A set of swings with a decent sized bell will make marked differences on your physique, lung power, and riding in just a few weeks. The super important muscles of the back and hips are worked hard, and these muscles are key in athletic endeavors.
You will be either thrilled or scared stiff by the amount of 02 your body demands while you set the KB in motion. Get ready for sucking wind like never before. Think Freight Train. Stay motivated by thinking about your new levels of lung power that will come in handy as you traverse through your environment.
There are hundreds of KB drills, but let’s just focus on the Swing for now. This tried and true move will take your conditioning to the moon. When your buddies see your new wind, they’ll be asking for your secret. Let’s dig into the Swing.
The Swing is the foundation of all KB training, and for now it’s all you need. It is a dynamic move that delivers serious cardio improvement that will carry over nicely to your riding. A steady diet of Swings over a couple of weeks will pay dividends. in many different ways.
Relief from back pain is a side effect that is reported often enough not to ignore. In fact, one Danish study of 40 people with back pain showed that KB training significantly helped reduce discomfort in the neck, back and shoulders. Something to think about. But promise to get checked by your Doc and/or Chiropractor before starting these. There is a fine line between exercise that heals and exercise that hurts.
The overall body conditioning that the Swing delivers will deliver machine like endurance and stamina. The Swing uses lots of muscles and asks a lot of your cardiovascular system. Done right, your body will adapt quickly and have you taking on the tougher sections with more confidence. Let’s get going.
Here’s how you do it. Stand over the KB with the bell parked about 6-8 inches ahead of your toes. Reach down with both hands and grab the handle with thumbs around, palms facing behind. Your knees are bent and your back is straight, and if it’s correct, it will look similar to the start of a deadlift. Hinge your hips.
With straight arms (the elbows don’t bend in the beginning of the swing) elevate the bell a few inches off the ground and let it drift it a few inches forward the backwards between your legs a few inches- not too far. As the bell starts to return forward, you initiate a snap forward of the hips. Stay tight throughout the move.
The hip action thrusts the KB forward and it arcs upward. Let the bell go to about chest height. Be sure your feet are planted to accept the forces you must handle as the bell returns to earth.
As the bell comes back keep your body tight and allow it to return back behind you. Now initiate the quick snap of the hips that will send the bell forward again. Breathe in as the bell is coming back toward you and exhale quickly, making a “pssst” sound when the bell is at it’s highest point of the trajectory.
In the future I will post workout videos for you on my website, but for now an easy search will find plenty of good demonstrations. One caveat, be 100% sure that the instructor in the vid is RKC or Strong First qualified. The Swing is a fantastic exercise, but it has to be done right- there is little room for error, so study up on form. Email me for a vid, I’m happy to send you a link.
It’s All in the Hips
Your pipes are just along for the ride while the hips run the show. The same goes for the swing. It’s all hips, and like any new lift, it will take practice to get it right.
What typically goes wrong in the Swing is that the trainee wants to turn it into a front raise, which it’s not. A front raise, often done with dumbbells, is where you raise the weight straight out in front of you. Recognize early on that your arms are not raising anything. It’s all hips.
The whip-like snap of the hips makes the Swing fly. It is a deliberate, hard-to-miss-snap when it is done correctly. When you see a proper one, you’ll know what I mean.
Start easy. Learn the movement correctly before worrying about sets and reps. As a guideline, 3-5 times per week of Swings works great. Some KB lifters Swing everyday, but they keep it brief and never burn out by doing too much. If you like the idea of getting some in everyday, go for it,
Why is frequent swinging good? Think of it this way- you’d progress faster by playing guitar for one hour a day, 7 days a week versus for seven hours, 1 day a week. Same idea, you stay fresh and get more from each session. Frequent and brief gets it done.
Two or three sets of 5-8 will do nicely if you train often. But there’s no need to limit yourself. You can work up to 10, 12, 25, 50 or even 100 reps. After a demanding high volume day, make tomorrow painless by going with less volume. Use your imagination and get creative. Go ahead and mix in a set of 12 with a set of 12 burpees. Try that for 3 rounds and I’ll read your hate mail.
KB’s used to be obscure and hard to get. To get mine in 1999, I hauled three of them through 2 airports on my way home to Ohio after a tough certification weekend. Trudging through the airport to the last gate (I always get the last gate) was nothing short of some of the hardest lifting I’ve ever done. Nowadays, just add to cart and let the poor UPS guy deal with them.
You can go to the sporting goods store and buy your bells. They will do the job. But you might want to purchase a couple online from companies like Strong First, Rogue, or Dragon Door. Even something as unassuming as a bell has nuanced differences in construction and finish that matter. These are the real thing, and you will feel the difference in your hands. If you can find some used ones locally even better. I have a few cheap ones that I had to buy in a pinch to accommodate a larger than expected class. There is an undeniably different experience vs swinging quality bells.
Start with 1 or 2 bells. If you are male and weigh 160 lb. or more get an 16 and a 24 KG. For lighter males and most females get a 12 and a 16 or a 18 KG. You can add bells as you recognize the need for more, but I assure you, even light bells will make their mark. Get checked out by the Doc before you get started. KB’s put a serious load on the cardio system, and you need to be sure your ticker is up to it.
Get a big step up on your health and appearance by incorporating KB’s into your life. Do it today, and let it pay your future self back. Time waits for no one. Let’s go.