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A Long-Time Lifter’s First Experience With Kettlebells

Patrick is a good friend of mine, and one of the strongest people I have ever met. He’s also a talented writer. Thanks for the post, Patrick.

Patrick Tracy

Patrick Tracy from Caveman Gym

Guest post by Patrick Tracy

The thoughts of a long-time lifter as he first experiments with kettlebells.

I was first introduced to kettlebells in October of 2009. I was going to a conference for my work, and one of my coworkers asked if I could tote a pair of said implements for him. The conference was in Monterey, California, and I had been gripped with the notion to drive there, from SLC, in a day. Yeah, that’s darned near 900 miles. I’m a goofball. The coworker, Josh Hanagarne (yes, him again), was doing the smart thing and flying out. As you may imagine, the airlines are none too pleased to be confronted with 106 lbs of steel in the form of two cannonballs with handles.

On the other hand, my car didn’t really much care if the equivalent to an eighth grader of moderate size went along for the ride.

It turned out that Josh was something of an inspiration for me. He showed me about ripping decks of cards, bending nails, and other feats of strongman power. We also took the opportunity to go out to the nearby park and swing the kettlebells around a bit.

Josh had, from what I remember, just recently been certified as an instructor for the RKC (the kettlebell gurus). He was kind enough to attempt to teach me a few moves. I tried them. They felt weird, but I went for it, because I’m always keen to learn. After getting me started, he did his structured workout, in which he tried to best his previous mark in regard to finishing a “long cycle” of some kind in less time than he’d done in the past. If memory serves, he did the whole kit ‘n kaboodle in around 37 minutes, where he’d clocked in at about 40 the previous time. I was sort of gobsmacked that he could get through the whole process at all, let alone trying to make it a race.

Up until that time, the only exercise I’d ever done with an eye toward decreasing my time was running a distance. The traditional strength training I’d done sometimes cut down rest with supersetting and such, but we never had special interval timers or anything. If you needed to blow air, you held the weight steady and did so, then pumped out a few more reps. What he was doing looked like some kind of plan hatched by a sadistic and evil mastermind. (I still believe that this may be the case.) Pain. Lots of pain. Most importantly, not the pain I was used to.

In between Josh’s withering barrage of cleans, jerks, and snatches, I did a bunch of swings, as well as some overhead pressing, floor presses, upright rows and high pulls, and some crush curls/goblet squats. Working out in a big, grassy field was something else, also. Liberating, really, and it opened my eyes to how great being outside while hoisting can be.

I was, to be quite honest, not at all in shape at that time. I was not working out, eating well, or getting productive rest. I was under strain, as my dad’s health was in steady and quick decline. That said, I was unprepared for what happened as we began to carry the k-bells back to our hotel room.

Josh carried one of the ‘bells, while I carried the other. As we walked the few hundred yards, I began to get more and more uncomfortable. By the time we neared the hotel, I was having a serious problem. My heart rate went right to maximum, and I had the strong suspicion that I’d faint or throw up. Possibly both. Simultaneously.

I had to sit down. It was a blow to my ego, and I haven’t forgotten. Training to overload is a sequence of chastening experiences, but I reserved the feeling that I got that day for something that happens when one does wind sprints. It was strange, maybe even a little scary. A seed was planted. If something really knocks me for a loop, I find that intriguing.

While I have gone on to do a bit more than dabbling at bending, grippers, ripping, and so on, I have just now gotten up the nerve to buy a kettlebell. I’ve been hoisting sandbags, cinderblocks, and heavy buckets, and so I’m somewhat hardened against this sort of thing now, and I happend to find a kettlebell at a reasonable price. (An Apollo 24k/53lbs, if you care.) I took the plunge.

I did a little biffing around with the ‘bell on the first day, just trying some swings, snatches, and cleans (the stuff I have some notion of how to accomplish, and which I can do without ripping my shirt.) I found out that, yes, I CAN clean or snatch the little 24k. But not well. The snatch looks semi-okay, but I’m sure that I’m “muscling” the move more than I should. The clean, is, frankly, thunderous at the back end, as I’m apparently not yet understanding how to gracefully thread my hand and decellerate the weight without smashing against my arm. Not that I expected to know it all right away, but there’s a fairly enormous gap between watching a video and mastering a technique move like the clean, snatch, and jerk.

The next day, despite having done a big deadlift and overhead press workout that morning, I decided to try a few swings in the evening. My thought was thus: “I’ll try one minute on, one minute off, and see how that feels.”

I have these thoughts. They rattle around in my head like marbles in a spraypaint can. They make perfect sense, often until right as I try to put them into action. In my head, I can overhead squat with a lot of weight on the bar, jump rope without immediatly being reminded of what the scale says, and possibly shoot down the moon with an arrow.

In any case, I went in and started with two handed swings. The first minute, while not cripplingly difficult, got my heart rate up and forced me to breathe like the trainer says to. I had been swinging heavy buckets that weighed about the same as the ‘bell, and I imagined that things would be more or less hunky-dory. Things were…different. A bucket is really big, and has a long lever arm. The “tiny” k-bell moved differently.

I’d never swung with my eye on the clock before, and I’d be willing to bet that I’d only kept it up for a full minute a few times before that. I don’t know how long most lifting sets are, but I would suspect that they’re usually between twenty and forty seconds. A minute feels like a long time.

I then swung for a minute with one hand. Wow. That whole “taxes your grip” thing…yeah, they weren’t kidding. Holding onto a bucket handle is not the same as holding onto a thick iron loop. That, and I was asking engineering for extra oxygen by the end of that second interval.

The refractory minute, as I imagined it would, felt short. I was just getting my breath under control when it was time to start swinging again. There’s nowhere to hide during a kettlebell swing. Perhaps there’s an art to establishing a cadence in which one can last a good span, but for me, I find that the ‘bell keeps coming down, forcing another hip extension. Maybe that’s the point.

The third minute felt long. I was up at “you just sprinted” respiration levels by the end. I nearly called it a day, but at the end of the next minute, I decided to jump over and do another interval of two handed swings.

I was sweating like a big sweaty thing by the time I put the k-bell back where it belonged. It took me about two minutes to have my breath totally fall back to normal, and I sweat freely for another ten. Please keep in mind, however, for your own possible reaction, that I have a knack for sweating, and can, under the right circumstances, actually produce nearly precipitation-level events within a foot of myself. I’m usually wrestling at the time, but still…

For those of you who have been swinging the k-bell for years, I’m sure that the four minutes of work that I described above would just be a warm-up, and I hope that will be the case for me, as well. I’m glad that I bought the 24 kilo size, though. I had considered going much heavier, but I think that it’s probably for the best that I have one that can be swung a bunch, and is also light enough to get the hang of some of the more technical moves.

I really dig the kettlebell. I think, even if I just swing it, there’s some serious progress in that ball of iron. I have read some of the so-far-over-the-top-that-I-can’t-even-see-it-from-here stuff that’s been written, but the cardiovascular load that it puts on the body is no joke. I can see how some of these guys say, “Yeah, I never do cardio, and I’m still losing weight like a champ.”

I would love to see what the amplitude of the power pulses looked like as someone swung a kettlebell. I believe that, as anything that accelerates and stops, the k-bell probably exerts many times its weight during parts of every swing. Fascinating. It seems that the ballistic nature of such an activity must have some quantifiable, favorable changes that go along with it. I’m sure that all of this has been done to death somewhere, and there’s no need for me to get too revved up about it, but it’s one thing to read about something, and an altogether different thing to experience it first hand.

To put it more simply, a 53 pound weight smoked me in all of eight minutes. I’m a big guy. I’ve lifted things since the late eighties. I can deadlift 500 plus. I’ve bent 36 60 penny nails in a row. I have to give anything that can quickly send me packing a nod of respect.

It ain’t over, kettlebell. Not by a long shot. This fat guy’s going to get the best of you one day.

About the author:

Patrick Tracy is an IT genius at the Salt Lake City Library, and a lover of all things physical culture. You can visit him at Caveman Gym and PmTracy.com.


Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Andrew Lowry May 22, 2011, 8:09 pm

    Good post. Thank-you.

  • Todd May 23, 2011, 11:11 am

    Great post. I still haven’t gotten all that far into KB training, but I keep telling myself that I’ll get right on it.