Kettlebells (1)

The Dragon Door company has done more than any other to introduce kettlebells to the wider world.  However, they are over-hyped - an image that can give weak souls who use them an exaggerated feeling of their achievement and deterring others from even venturing into kettlebells.  Here is what I wrote to my kettlebell supplier earlier in 2004 after using the bells for a couple of weeks:

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I'm a bit reluctant to say too much now, as I'd like to work the 'bells into my routine and, I expect, learn by my mistakes.

But you asked, so here goes: My 24kg kettlebell arrived and I took it off to my next trip to the gym where I did my usual (non-'bell) routine and then played with the 'bell to see how it worked in with my body. First impressions were that the kettlebell is more cumbersome than a dumbbell for conventional exercises, but that it encouraged me to break away from convention and invent my own exercises. I quickly discovered ways to use the kettlebell that created (good) stresses and resembled wrestling more than conventional exercises: the movement was dynamic, it was a little unpredictable and the exercised involved my whole body. From my ankles right up through my legs and core (the most important part of the body) through the arms to the grip. And then there was balance and co- ordination. One day there'll be grace, flow and poise in there as well. What did I do? Just to gain familiarity through practice, I swung the 'bell around then across my body, back and forth, held in two hands. Then like a soldier marching, back and forth by each side, swapping hands at the top of the forward swing: left, swing back and up, right, swing back and up, left, swing back and up etc. Then I tried holding the 'bell with two hands and swing it back and forth across my body, with a lot of core twist, rather like a hammer thrower (great for balance and control - which I'm still working on).

I was frightened to do cleans and so helped the bell up to my shoulder with my other hand for a few lifts. But that hurt my forearm, so I tried a clean and it went like a dream with the 'bell flipping over and magically coming to rest gently against my forearm. The a clean and press. Still lots to master, but I have managed a few and the rest will just be refinement.

Of course I tried the two-handed swing from down between my spread legs, up in front to eye height and then down again, no pausing and up again. After just three of these, I determined this was so easy and so much fun that I swing it right up so that my arm must have been 60 to 70 degrees above the horizontal. I still enjoy this exercise as much as I did in the early 1960s (when I used window counter-weights - exuberance!)

Lots of other exercises, too - all fun and all exhausting. I suppose the exhaustion comes from the fact that the 'bell exercises the core like nothing else, whereas most other exercises focus almost exclusively on a relatively small part of the body: legs, core, abs, arms, upper back. When survival is at issue it's about how the whole body coordinates to survive; isolation and gym machines destroy the total body integration we should be aiming for. As such using 'bells is about real-life strength and fitness, not just strength that can be applied in the gym but is useless on the street, around the home and in the bush. This exhaustion probably translates into calorie burning, and, in fact, I have never sweated as much in a morning gym session since I was in my 40s. What really appeals to me is that the bells give a thoroughly natural workout, close to the sort of activity our ancestors practiced over millions of years of human evolution and, as such, the sort of activity that our bodies evolved to excel at. Handling a 'bell is also about coordination; you have to think and be alert for the unexpected. The bell's aren't any more dangerous than a weight with bars, but they set you thinking far more about balance and about managing your whole body. No 'isolation' nonsense with a 'bell!

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Since then I have calmed down a bit, but still use the 'bells at least once a week. The only things I would add since the above e-mail are (1)it took about three weeks, but I gained more power, strength and confidence; the feeling of control over my body was great to experience. Now there is NO abs exercise that gives me a lasting soreness - abs (esp transverse abdominus) and body core generally must be pretty tough by now! (2) be prepared for the heavier 'bells to rip your hands about a bit.

   

These pictures show the 24kg 'bell in use.

I also swing the 'bell back and forth, say ten times each way:

   

Read Clarence Bass's introduction to kettlebells

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