Boost Your Gains With Kettlebells
One of the most feared and hated words in bodybuilding is “plateau.” It’s happened to everyone who has lifted for more than a couple of years, and for some it’s happened even sooner if you allow yourself to get into a rut. Some bodies adapt more quickly, which is one reason people turn to cross-training.
There’s a way to keep lifting and still change your body, and you don’t have to go to the lighter-weight-more-reps route. Heck, you don’t even have to turn to P90X or CrossFit. You just need to change your perception that all weights are the same and pick up a set of kettlebells.
A kettlebell is essentially a cast iron cannon ball with a handle. It has a slightly flattened bottom and a triangular-shaped place to grab hold. There is some debate as to where the bells originated, but many believe they come from Russia, with others saying Mongolia and Ireland.
Though you may think they’re just like any other dumbbell, that’s just, well, dumb. First, bells aren’t perfectly symmetrical. The bell weighs a great deal, but we also have to factor in the weight of the handle.
Because the weight is asymmetrical and because you can maintain a grip on the bell while swinging it, your muscles are forced to work at a whole different level. There’s no isolation here. Your core is firing with every micromovement from top to bottom.
Today, you can buy kettlebells of many different weights. Traditional Russian bells, however, are measured in poods. One pood is equal to 16 kilos or 35 pounds. You can buy 1, 1.5, or 2 pood kettlebells. If you want to be authentic, that’s your best bet.
Types of Bells
We’ve already discussed the traditional Russian bells. We’ve also got colorful vinyl coated ones, as well as tiny 5 lb. bells that some women start with.
The vinyl coating is good to protect your floors if you work out on hardwood. It also helps a little bit with the beating your forearms take when you swing the kettlebell.
There are some newer bells filled with water or sand that are even gentler on the arms, though they are pricey. If you have really delicate flooring (or skin), these might be a good option.
I’ve recently seen adjustable weight kettlebells, but the jury is still out on those. It’s a great option in terms of cost savings, but it seems like it would be terribly impractical to constantly add and subtract plates during your workout—especially given that the average workout is around fifteen minutes.
What to Expect
If you’re going to try kettlebells for yourself at home, you’ll probably want to get an instructional DVD and a 1 pood bell if you’re a man, or 15-20 lbs. bell if you’re a woman. That, of course, is for those of you who are somewhat physically fit and don’t have any major injuries.
If you’re new to weights, try 20 lbs for men and 10 for women. I recommend Pavel Tsatsouline‘s Enter the Kettlebell DVD for anyone seeking to learn good form and the basic exercises central to kettlebell workouts.
Pavel was Russian Special Ops, a true Soviet, and has the chiseled marble physique to prove it. He’s conventionally Russian in speech, being forward and brusque. His accent isn’t difficult to understand, though he does ham up the whole Cold War thing.
Getting down to business with this DVD is going to cause you some pain. One of the beautiful things about kettlebells that’s different from conventional weight training is the burn.
When I do squats, my quads beg for mercy. When I do kettlebells, everything begs for mercy. You feel pain from head to toe. Because the pain isn’t isolated, you can go a bit longer before you realize just how wasted you are.
Your lungs are also going to beg for oxygen, as most kettlebell movements get the bell above your heart, elevating your heart rate right out of the gate. If you can hang in there for fifteen to twenty, a mega-burn will be your sweat-drenched reward.
There are just a few basic moves to master to get a full body workout with kettlebells, beginning with the one-armed snatch. While this is one of the hardest techniques to master, you will benefit more from it than probably any other kettlebell exercise, so it’s worth it to put in the work to do them correctly.
Stand with the bell between your feet. Bend your knees to get into a moderately deep squat position (making sure your knees don’t go out further than your toes). Look straight ahead and swing the bell behind you like you’re hiking a football.
Then, use the strength in both your arm and your hips to push the bell forward. When you get to the highest point of that arm (around waist height), you’ll want to stop the arcing motion and push the bell overhead in a relatively straight line, so that the entire movement looks like a letter “J.”
As the bell comes to shoulder height, open your hand as you push up so that the bell is flipping along your palm as it’s parallel to the ground. You don’t want to keep your grip closed because the upward force will cause the bell to bang into your wrist, which hurts like crazy.
Turkish Get-Up (TGU)
You came for the pain? Get ready, because here it is! Start by lying on your back, holding the bell in one hand above your chest with elbow in a soft lock. Bring the opposite leg underneath you and roll onto the hip opposite the bell. You’ll use the motion of the bell and the opposite leg to drive you forward.
At this point, you’ll be on one knee in the bottom position of a deep lunge. Stand up. Lunge back, reversing the entire motion to get back to your starting position. You have completed one rep. Keep it up until you literally can’t get off the ground with your base leg.
How’s that for torture? Don’t forget that even when you’ve done all you can do, you’ve still only done one side! You’ve got to get back down on the floor, switch sides with the bell and do everything for the opposite side of the body.
If you’re looking for pec, lat, and core work, look no further. For this exercise, you need two bells. Get into the top position of push-up, with the bells slightly less than shoulder-width apart. Drive into the arm on the floor as you pull the opposite arm into a row.
When you get to the top of row position, pause for a second of two to really find the burn. My Pilates instructor calls it “finding your moment,” the brief time of exquisite tension that lets you know you’re working as hard as you can in every rep.
Lower the bell with control, and switch sides after each rep. If you’re looking for a little something extra, do three tiny pulses at the top of the movement instead of just a brief pause. Trust me, you’ll know you’re working.
There are loads more exercises, so be sure to check out Mike Mahler’s descriptions.
The Bottom Line
You can expect to get your heart pumping, your muscles screaming, and your fat melting when you add kettlebells to your normal workout routine. For those of you saying that kettlebells are no different than dumbbells, I challenge you to give them a shot.
If you’re looking for a class, whether it’s because you prefer a group setting or need more info on getting the exercises down perfectly, you can visit World Kettlebell Club. They have great information on local classes and trainings, as well as results of kettlebell competitions.
Whether you’re looking to gain strength, get leaner, or just mix up your workout, kettlebells are a great workout, and a speedy one to boot. Give them a shot!