Swing a Kettlebell for Health, Strength and Happiness

‘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

Further reading:

book icon2Your 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.

book icon2If 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).

17 thoughts on “Swing a Kettlebell for Health, Strength and Happiness

  1. You got me intrigued! I just learned about them this summer when I had to take a mandatory gym class in school.It looked scary and thought I’d shift my shoulder blade sooner or later;so never touched it.Thought about the non-portable thus non flexible part as well.Started to read up on body weight exercises instead. I *dream* of doing 100 push ups/day(is that sad?). Doing modified push-ups here and there(you should see how proud I get after TWO rep.) and already dreaming of Madonna arms! SO want to start some sort of strength training. Will definitely try out Kettlebell!

    1. 100 push ups a day – you and me both, sister! (I can do the wussy kind, but forget about getting anywhere close to a hundred…) With kettlebells, you always use your hips to power every move (just about), so there’s no need to worry about dislocating shoulders or anything else.

      DO let me know if you try them! I will be SUPER excited to know what you think. We can geek out together and discuss various moves.

    1. One session with a good trainer will be better – but only if they really know their kettlebells. I am rather sexist in the way I prefer women trainers, but it doesn’t matter if you’re not fussed.

      You can use YouTube for modification. The link I include in the post is really helpful for correcting things that will only come up after you start doing it for a while – like if you’re feeling any sort of pull on your shoulders or lower back. None of it done well, of course, should ever hurt (though there is that most pleasing ache from your muscles waking up when you start.).

      I can also send you some links for some good workouts, if you want to get a better idea of the range of moves you can do.

      Do let me know! I am SUPER excited about your doing this.

      1. I’m excited too! I REALLY want to start doing strength training (out of vanity,sadly) but it’s hard to be consistent;especially coming from a culture like ours.Started running on treadmill in Atlanta since I was pretty sedentary otherwise; unlike Montreal, where I’d get a decent amount of cardio with walking and schlepping grocery.

        Don’t plan on buying kettlebell here in Montreal (I did check out Craigslist for a used one though)so it’ll be a month or two before I get going with it.Perhaps I’ll start with the link you gave here and any other beginner’s video.I’d love the other links as well!Muah!

        1. Woo hoo! Even if vanity is the motivator, your bones will thank you.

          Are you going back and forth between Atlanta and Montreal right now? 50-50? Yes, I miss daily activity too. The kind you don’t even realise you’re doing it. I thought I was very active in Bombay, until I went back to London and my usual walk to the next tube station killed me. How quickly that happens. But then again – how little it takes to get back up.

          Take a look at this video:

          Will send you some more if you like this.

          Please note: buy a cast iron kb, not a vinyl one filled with sand (even if those are prettier and can be colour-coordinated…). Vinyl over cast iron is fine, but unnecessary. Best to go with the basics.

            1. Yes, best to avoid. They’re okay for the more lifting/pressing moves, but for the ballistic ones (which are the really fun ones – like swinging), the cast iron works a lot better.

  2. Informative post Nupu…like your time sense , like 4.2 / 7.2 minutes :p after reading your article I really feel ‘ I must start the gym again ‘ ;) Btw where did you find to buy kettle bell here in Dhaka !!

    1. Thanks very much, Nayar! Do you have a gym you like? I would like to find a swimming pool, if you know of any. I’d appreciate the info.

      I’m very happy avoiding gyms and using my kettlebell! My cousin Rubaiya very kindly sourced it for me – they can be purchased from Body & Sports on Kemal Attaturk in Bonani. They’re great too – proper cast iron with big enough handles. Highly recommend them.

      1. Going to the gym is the most boring thing I ever faced though it’s worth going there. If you wanna join any gym happily , then I can name one, Dazzle, it’s just beside my house. Talking about swimming, you can go and have a look at CCCL in Gulshan 1. I heard it’s pretty clean. Planning to put my kids over there.
        Thank you for sharing the idea of having kettlebell from where and why ;) !!

        1. Thanks, Nayar. I went to the CCCL. The pool was okay (though I couldn’t see my hands, so not terribly clean…) but it was very chaotic with young girls swimming in all directions. I didn’t get a chance to swim properly at all, being ‘attacked’ on all sides at all times. But guess I should try to go when they’re at school and see how I like it then. Would be curious to hear how your kids like it.

  3. He he he …my dear organic friend Nupu ….you can’t get anything here in Bangladesh as fresh and perfect as you had in abroad and we never mind , rather used to it…think every time at least I can avail this among all ;) …after hartal, I’ll go there and fill up forms. Hope aunty is doing fine and got rid of cold. Please convey my Salam to her.

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