Cannonball! Crazy About the Kettlebell

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head Trainer, Mid Age Man

There's something so satisfying about swinging a heavy lump of metal around. Kettlebells are a very flexible fitness tool, designed to build great cardio fitness and create core strength.

My hands are still feeling the effects. No kidding – my blisters have blisters. That’s a first.

Last weekend, I took a class on how to teach kettlebells as a fitness instrument. They’re a current fave. Mid Age Man is now a Level 1 Kettlebell Instructor through “KB” specialists Gorilla Strong, led by the ever-positive (and very strong) Muk Venkataraman.

What is a kettlebell? Think a cannonball with a handle attached. Their use goes back centuries in Eastern Europe, particularly Russia, where they were originally used to weigh crops. The Russian word girya for that weight comes from the Persian word for “heavy.”

There’s something so satisfying about picking up a lump of metal and swinging it around. Before I got my training as a personal trainer, I never tried them. Now I’m hooked.

It’s actually not that hard to swing around even a heavy kettlebell, which is best used as a tool to build cardio fitness and core strength rather than to muscle up.

I use “KBs” in most of my workouts nowadays. I’ve got an 8kg and a 12kg ‘bell here at home, and I’ll often pick up one or two for a few swings when I’m in the gym.

Normally, I’ll perform 30 or so double-hand swings through my legs, the quintessential kettlebell exercise. With my trusty 12kg instrument in hand, I figure that’s a pretty good workout. It gets your heart going.

So there was some surprise in my eyes when our instructor, Muk, suggested that we grab the yellow 16kg kettlebell in front of us, and give it a single-arm swing, 50 times. As a warmup.

Warmup? After that, I’m normally done. But hey, I figured, I’ve come here to Crossfit Asphodel, a hole-in-the-wall gym in Kennedy Town, and find myself surrounded by 18 strangers. Why not give it a go?

Now, Muk is a bit of a master of understatement. “I’m just a weak little Indian man” is one of his favorite sayings. One look at his broad chest, thick legs and stocky core will tell you right away that this is a lie.

But in fact, it is not that hard to swing a kettlebell, even a heavy one, 50 times. Once you get a rhythm, you literally get in the swing of things, and the whole motion becomes smooth. Rock your body a little, stay squat on your legs, use your other hand for balance, thrust your hips forward … and you’re away.

The original Russian kettlebells used in the 1800s were measured by the pood, which equals just over 16kg (16.38kg to be precise). So kettlebell competitions start with a 16kg ‘bell for men, or a minimum of 8kg for women.

“I’m just a weak little Indian man,” kettlebell instructor-trainer and Gorilla Strong founder Muk Venkataraman claims. Given his broad chest, solid trunk and strong body this is patently a lie!

They are instruments that train great cardio health and core strength. They are not weightlifting tools designed to build bulging muscles. Sure, they help gain and maintain strength, but you’re better off lifting dumbbells or barbells to build biceps that’ll rip your shirt.

The idea behind a kettlebell is, of course, to swing it around. Hence the handle. Its swaying center of gravity forces the swinger to do a lot of self-stabilization, thereby working over the muscles of your core. Surprisingly, this is all good for your back.

So I swung a 16kg kettlebell with my left hand 50 times, as a warmup. Then I did it with my right. Then we moved on to learning the correct technique for the “clean,” bringing the ‘bell up to your wrist in the “rack” position so that it’s resting over your center of gravity.

Then we worked on the snatch, taking the ‘bell from the bottom of your swing straight up and above your head. I’d never tried that with … well, anything really. But Muk said to give it a go with the 16kg ‘bell in my hand, so I did. And it worked.

There was a purple kettlebell lying around, 20kg, looking lonely so I decided to give that a try. It ended up on my wrist, and eventually up above my head, as well. By the end of it, I had my eye on the green kettlebell, 24kg. Quite amazingly, albeit awkwardly, I got this up and straight-armed above my head, too. My form needs work, I was “muscling it” rather than the kettlebell moving fluidly into position. But that’ll come with practice.

It’s important to get your technique correct with kettlebells. Since they are heavy and have some bulk, you need to make sure the weight is always running up and down your midpoint. If you like, I’ll teach you how to do it, too.

For instance, the “rack” position brings it up and against your forearm, slightly to your side, not with your wrist pointing backwards, which places undue stress on the joint and means the weight is pulling you back.

So I say this is good for your back … unless you do it wrong. At times, I’ve missed my clean or snatch and ended up hanging the weight out to my side, which wrenches your body in an unnatural manner. I’ve got a bit of a muscle pull on my lower left back as a result.

What should I do about it? Well, I wrote recently about how back pain is often mis-treated by doctors, who prescribe painkillers, advise rest, and if all else fails suggest you go under the scalpel.

Better, in fact, to exercise the painful area. It sounds counterintuitive, since the last thing you may want to do is move around a part of your body that’s already tender.

My blisters have eventually developed blisters, and they weren’t a pretty sight after four hours of KB swings, but my hands will just have to deal. I’m not putting that kettlebell back down!

But I decided to take some of my own “medicine” this evening. Heeding Muk’s advice, I “warmed up” with 50 double-arm swings of my 12kg KB, then worked through 30 single-arm swings with each arm, 20 cleans on each arm, 20 shoulder presses each arm, and 10 overhead snatches to each arm.

Then I did it again. And you know what? It worked! Right after completing each set, I had no pain at all in my back and it felt very flexible. After it cooled down, some mild discomfort returned. But my back feels less tender.

My blisters, well that’s another matter. They’re still repairing, while I work them over and force them to callus up. Maybe they’ll end up in some sort of stasis, always falling off while building back up at the same time.

My hands will have to deal. Now that I’ve got the kettlebell itch, I’m going to picking up that cannonball and swinging it around any opportunity I get.

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About the author

Alex McMillan

Alex McMillan

Head trainer at Mid Age Man. Alex believes there are four pillars to being healthy: physical fitness, sensible nutrition, mental strength, and wellbeing for your body and soul.

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