‘My mother always told me I wouldn’t amount to anything because I procrastinate. I said: “Just wait!”’
– Judy Tenuta
I like to believe I have an excellent work ethic. I trust I am tireless when it comes to getting creative tasks just right. But there is one department of my life where I am appallingly lazy: exercise.
It’s not pretty, but this is how lazy I am: when I lived in India I had a yoga instructor who would come to my home, and I would grumble about opening the door.
So, when I found a form of exercise – kettlebells – that I couldn’t wait to do for no other reason except that I loved the way I felt while doing it, it was really a plate-tectonic level shift for me.
It started with a trainer at my gym in London who bravely made it her mission to find ways to convert me to the joys of exercising. We bounced from cardio machine to punching bags to rubber tubes to elastic bands, and everything in between.
Then, one fine day, she showed me kettlebells. I had vaguely heard of them before – I knew they were Russian in origin, I knew they were so named because they resemble old-fashioned kettles (a cast iron ball with a welded handle) and I had an idea that people swung them around. After my first round, I didn’t want to learn anything else. I was instantly hooked.
I like to be upfront about listing the aspects which are not completely brilliant, but in this case, I could really only find two, and the first won’t apply to most people:
1. They’re not handy for vagabond types who travel a lot by air, unless using a light weight. When I moved from London to Dhaka, I had to leave mine behind and purchase a new one here.
2. It’s important to learn how to use them properly. A Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC)-certified trainer is best, but they are not found in every corner of the world. Here are the next best options:
- Tracy Reifkind’s book The Swing! about one specific kettlebell move (the most important one) that she used to lose 120 lbs. An inspiring read and one of my favourite kettlebell programmes. (There’s an interview with Reifkind on this Half Size Me podcast.)
- The Ultimate Body Sculpt and Conditioning with Kettlebells DVD by Lauren Brooks. Brooks did kettlebells throughout and after her pregnancies, and she has clients who started at age 60, subsequently changing their bodies and lives. The DVD is pricey, but she gives clear instructions on the various moves before she begins her two interval programmes.
- YouTube videos by RKC-certified trainers like this one by Delaine Ross (though I would use these only to check on form and for modification purposes).
Okay, here’s another drawback: 3. The urge to do them daily will be strong (they are rather addictive). But, as with all weights training, it’s critical to get a day’s rest in between to let muscles recover.
So, what’s so brilliant about kettlebells? And why are they superior to regular free hand weights? (Please, don’t get me started on those weight machines in gyms – they’re there so the gym looks fancy and can charge a hefty fee – but any good trainer will agree they’re basically pointless.)
The benefits of kettlebell training:
Stronger core. All moves are powered from the hips, strengthening the core muscles every time. For anyone with an appalling posture like mine, it will change the alignment forever. (You’re welcome, poor back! Sorry for the decades of neglect.)
All-over conditioning. A ballistic-type workout with kettlebells uses every major muscle group. There’s no weird disproportionate silhouette that can be seen with heavy usage of barbells/dumbbells. No bulking, only tightening.
Highly efficient workout. Done correctly, it’s both anaerobic and aerobic. That is, it maximises oxygen in the blood (cardio), and it exerts muscles (strengthening). This is a rare two-in-one workout.
Body shaping. Done only three times a week for 20-30 minutes at a time, it can help re-sculpt the body in a matter of months. Hours of cardio won’t accomplish this; it’s the muscles.
Highly adaptable. It can be used for interval or Tabata training. Or by following a DVD or book. There are kettlebell classes. If outdoors is preferable, it can easily be done in the garden or beach. Or, if you’re a private creature like I am, you can do it in a locked room and dance around in between sets because nobody’s watching.
Stronger bones. This is especially important for women: this will strengthen bones and help prevent a possible future of osteoporosis. (Ladies: I won’t insult your intelligence by thinking I need to quell your fears about ‘bulking up’ because I know you know we don’t have the testosterone to do so, unless we use growth hormones like those female body builder types, which I shall safely assume you are not.)
Complementary workout. Kettlebells – as a functional exercise programme – will enhance all other activities, whether it’s cycling, walking, swimming, yoga, Pilates, racquet sports or anything else. And there’s no need to ever join a gym (hooray!).
Sense of accomplishment. It’s not complicated but it is tough. It’s important to stop when good form can’t be maintained; this may happen within 10 minutes when first starting out. At the end of every workout I feel triumphant, as if I’ve climbed Everest.
Mood enhancer. If anyone is familiar with clinical depression as I am, then they will know how important exercise is. Except, in the depths of my darkness, the last thing I ever wanted to do was go for a walk, and I was ready to throttle anyone who told me to. A kettlebell in the privacy of my room allows me to ‘swing it out’, even if for a few minutes, and release the tension/sorrow/frustrations.
But even if none of the above were applicable, I would still do it because it’s HUGELY fun.
Also, it’s a pretty low maintenance workout.
Here’s what you’ll need:
- Sufficient room, which is not very much. I do it in the corner of my bedroom where I could not swing a proverbial cat but I can swing a kettlebell.
- A place where you won’t be disturbed by small children or pets − you are swinging a heavy object around, after all.
- One kettlebell of appropriate weight; women are generally advised to begin with a 6kg, and men with a 12kg.
- A non-slippery floor or secure carpet (not a rug!).
- Barefoot is best – it stabilises your body and helps to employ correct form (see how low maintenance this is?).
- Lots of water because you will be gasping in about 4.2 minutes
- A towel to mop the brow because you will start to sweat profusely in 7.4 minutes
- Really excellent workout music
Workout music like:
• Harder Than You Think by Public Enemy
Impossible to not feel all-conquering when you hear the line ‘get up and show no fear’. You are harder than you think.
• Bhaag DK Bose/Aandhi Aayi by Ram Sampath
Still one of my favouritest songs ever, though I understand the title is a bit rude – from the film Delhi Belly.
• Any track from the mashup album Feed the Animals by Girl Talk (aka Gregg Gillis), especially Set It Off (mixing Dexy’s Midnight Runners with Bubba Sparxxx) and In Step (Roy Orbison to Michael Jackson via Nirvana).
• The Rocky soundtrack (of course) by Bill Conti, including Gonna Fly Now and Going The Distance. The essential way to end any workout, no raw eggs required.
‘Does breakfast in bed count as a morning workout?’ ― Elizabeth Jane Howard
Your Carriage, Madam!: A Guide to Good Posture by Janet Lane
About body alignment and how all movement is powered from the hips. She talks to doctors, athletes, actors and performers who learn to use their bodies perfectly. Fun and very helpful. It was first published in 1934 but is, criminally, now out of print. If you have a US zip code, you can read it for free online.
If kettlebells are unavailable, or you’d rather not buy any gear, my other favourite home workout is using only body weight for resistance. Justifiably, the most popular one is by Mark Lauren called You Are Your Own Gym (and its sister book, Body By You, written specifically for women – and my preference – though the original one works well too).