This is a post in 3 parts. Each one builds–ever so logically–on the last! See:
Parts of this article has been written by many over the last 15 years as kettlebells have grown from fringe exotica of Fitness Nation to one of a couple tools in a LeBron James commercial.
See if you can find:
- LeBron James’s kettlebells (generic-style and look awfully light)
- Bonus: LeBron James’s bad overload pushup (cute son, but your hips are sagging like a newbie, King!)
(No disrespect to one of the world’s most gifted athletes! But a coach has to call bad form when he sees it, and of course this one is not at all jealous that his pushup mastery hasn’t yet produced a commercial deal.)
On to the real star of the commercial: the kettlebell. I suppose some lip (fingertip?) service to its background is necessary. Kettlebell history, like any lineage claim, is mostly legend and aspirational gap-filling. It’s pretty clear that the modern incarnation was perfected in Russia, but there are similar tools/traditions found in China and Asia, the Highland Games, and I’ve even seen mentions around Egypt and Greece. Ok, what wasn’t invented in China, Greece or Egypt? But here’s how I fill in the KB gaps: if the oldest weapons were sticks and stones, the oldest tools for developing strength and ability might as well be sticks and stones, too.
Fast forward to stuff that matters. It’s little surprise that kettlebell blew up as a fitness tool. It’s super versatile. You can do conditioning work, corrective work, build strength, power, and athleticism. All with the same movements. The famous ACE study in 2010 captured the headline enthusiasm for kettlebells’ fitness benefit: “Twice the results in half the time“. When you add the qualitative benefits to the quantitative ones (e.g., hand-eye coordination, alignment, quickness, passive muscle activation, fun!, etc.), that 2x multiple increases.
Its shape (a ball with a handle) lends it to all kinds of functional holds and carries. It can be used like two training staples: the dumbbell or medicine ball. It can be held like a bucket or suitcase, a stone, a balance beam (search for “KB handle pistol”!), used as a parallette, hung from your foot. The list goes on. One hold even feels likes the one you use throw and catch your kid overhead. You can swing it, lift it, throw it, juggle it, balance it, brace it, you name it.
With all of this potential, a million different kettlebell ideas of course burst forth. A quick scan of the youtubes will show you too many ideas to ever keep track of. Truth? Most of it falls under the category of this sort of foolery:
(No disrespect to bro dude! But a coach has to call bullshit when he sees it. And of course this one is not at all jealous that bro dude #894 on youtubes figured out how to swindle 300,000 people into checking out 17 killer moves. Is that a follow along DVD he keeps looking at or his guns?)
Unfortunately, thanks to the KB popularity explosion, and well-meaning trainers in everywhere, every time someone boasts “I’ve been kettlebell lifting with my awesome trainer (aka super nice bro dude) for 3 years” means they can squat-swing the hell outta their anterior delt raises and maybe do a get up. Sigh.
So, why kettlebell? Because it does everything anyone ever said it could. It’s perfect for weight loss. It’s perfect for athletic ability. It’s perfect for older bodies, younger bodies, fit bodies, want to be fit bodies, or tall, short, round, or muscular bodies. It’s perfect for healing old athletic follies. It’s great for loading all kinds of useful movement patterns. But if you just read this part to learn about KBs, now it’s time to learn the most important thing you don’t know about kettlebells:
Kettlebell is not a tool. It’s a discipline.
Stretching on a mat doesn’t make it Yoga. Punching a 2×4 in the garage doesn’t make it Karate. Doing something with a metal ball with a handle doesn’t make it Kettlebell. Kettlebell is not a tool. It’s a discipline.
Most of us were introduced to KB thanks to Pavel Tsatsouline and his publisher, Dragon Door. He’s been an inspiration, a personality, and a resource for training concepts and principles to athletes and trainers for well over a decade now. If you like that you have any KB in your life right now, go ahead and thank Pavel and DD.
Like many early adopters, many years ago I spent a bunch of morning hours by myself flipping KBs around in the backyard before I decided to pick up a certification (“Doing Karate in the garage” style KB). Because I’d never heard of anyone else, I could already pass their test, and the weekend was in my home state = Dragon Door’s RKC was surely for me. But the price was steep, it was many months off, and Google asked me if I might consider a link to another certification. It was cheaper, earlier, closer, and it also featured a Russian guy. Why yes, Google, I would consider that! I signed up to become an American Kettlebell Club Coach with the unassuming super-human and esteemed coach, Valery Fedorenko. As I researched and prepared for the cert, I learned that my backyard black belt didn’t amount to much.
That weekend, I watched their team do things that didn’t seem possible. Nothing in the DVDs, books, and youtubes of the time approached what they were doing. At the cert, I watched Marty Farrell, with my same cross-country runner’s build, throwing double 32kg bells (here’s Marty more recently. Still unassuming; still a monster). It was astonishing. He’d burst the ‘bells up with magnificent power overhead and then catch the weights effortlessly and relax into his breath. It was a meditation, but those big meatballs kept going up. Not one bro dude in the room could come close to what he did (probably still can’t). It was the discipline of Kettlebell and it was magnificent. If any of you have a pro-grade KB in your hand and you are not from Eastern Europe, go ahead and thank Valery Fedorenko and his World Kettlebell Club.
Kettlebell is a movement discipline. It’s not a war with gravity like other lifting. It is something entirely else. Somewhere between tai chi or yoga (relaxing into body structure and breath), running (pace and energy management), and Olympic lifting (a controlled fury of whole-body power), is Kettlebell.
As I got to know the discipline and its athletes, the list of remarkable qualities grew. These people had pound-for-pound strength of heavy lifters, work capacity of triathletes, and grace and mastery of pro athletes and dancers. And because their discipline favored movement mastery over brute force, older bodies were still highly competitive. And weren’t broken. They had resiliency and ability well beyond (behind?) their years! Plus, different shapes and sizes can be highly effective, even at the international level (most sports or positions favor a specific build). Here’s one of the world’s best female KB athletes out-lifting most guys twice her size (yes, that’s a 24kg/53lbs kettlebell she’s snatching):
Kettlebell Sport boasts some of the best all around athletes and movement masters, name your discipline. It can be hard to tell this from how easy they make the high complexity competition lifts look. But check this demo before a competition:
All else in my movement life became a supplement to Kettlebell, and everything got better. My deep back injuries from rowing and cycling (both = vigorous sitting!) and years of heavy lifting (got no love for lanky long levers) began to float away. I stood taller. I breathed easier. I held less tension in my body. I jumped better. I ran better. I lifted other things better. My martial arts improved. Not just my power and stamina, but my technical movement, my structure and patterning. My body understood movement better. I moved easier in everything I did.
I had filled my body with all manner of complicated therapeutic and corrective treatment. I stopped PT and passive therapies like massage, acupuncture and adjustment-based chiropractic. I stopped active therapies like Feldenkrais and Alexander. I stopped searching for therapeutic yoga classes and working with a private stretching and mobility coach. Instead, I just lifted Kettlebell. At some point, I even quit the 10+ year Instructor path I’d been walking in martial arts, and my job, and I started developing a training program and opened a space. The first piece of equipment I bought? Kettlebell. Surprise!
So why Kettlebell Sport? Because it’s not just a sport or competition, it’s a discipline. You don’t have to compete or care about competing to practice universal principles of strength & movement: pushing, pulling, extending, flexing, throwing, catching, carrying, power, strength, stamina, and on and on–it’s all there. Kettlebell. It sits between and builds upon everything else you could want to do with your body, mind and energy. Want to run, climb, swim, punch, hike, yoga, Tough Mudder, yardwork, shovel, carry groceries and kids better? Kettlebell. Want to do all of that for the rest of your life? Kettlebell!
And unlike many physical paths these days, Kettlebell done right is not a YOLO-so-might-as-well-train-like-it’s-your-last-workout-everyday form of self-destruction. In movement or life, wisdom is earned over the difficult, deliberate and steady trek up the mountain. Step by step or rep by rep. The blind berserker raging toward a cliff only finds… a cliff. This beserker knows a few of those! (Psst: Come to the mountain. The view is much better.)
We’d already coached a whole crew of people out of acute injuries, out of body mileage, out of tired old gym routines, out of problems from other athletic endeavors. And into renewed strength, movement ability, new clothes, new skills, new perspectives on life. We’ve coached folks in their 60s to out-perform folks in their 30s, wives to out-perform their fit husbands (our favorite!). We already loved Kettlebell!
Then we met the Orange Kettlebell Club (OKC)…
When I checked the Orange Kettlebell Club out online, I found a spirit, and energy, and a sincerity of mission that was undeniable in their pictures, writing, and lifting. A minute into the first phone call with Jason Dolby and I knew these guys were everything they seemed to be. We set a date.
I was finishing a coaching session when the OKC crew arrived. Another coach directed them to our favorite coffee shop, so after my session I sprinted down there like a school boy. I saw Buckley Mountain and he saw me running like a fool. He isn’t the sort of guy who welcomes with open arms a beeline sprint from a stranger with a topknot. I pumped the brakes and introduced myself. It turned immediately into a booming welcome with handshake and hugs. It was clear these guys are the sort of people for whom growing their family is part of their mission. I was immediately thankful for knowing the OKC.
The weekend was nothing short of amazing. These guys are like traveling martial art masters. On a true Quest in the classical sense. Those who know the brilliant story of the swordsman Miyamoto Musashi, will understand John and Jason.
(Special thank yous to Corey Padnos for making the connection with OKC, Juliet “Candybythepound” Lederle for your assistance in setting up our weekend, and to Cyn “Diesel” Roulston for sharing your wonderful spirit and lifting with us!)
An incredible example of the OKC spirit in action is Jason Dolby’s annual One Hour Long Cycle, a worldwide charity lifting event. Gymnasium was proud to lift with everyone and support the cause this year! Take a look at Jason’s incredible 60:00 long cycle set ending with 154 reps @ 2x24kgs! But with KB, the reps don’t even tell half the story. Look at his face, his body, his breath, his mind between reps. Anyone who can pour this kind of feeling into his mission, is someone who has an amazing and rare heart. And someone who puts meaning into every rep and every breath in between:
The OKC’s undying momentum and energy to promote Kettlebell comes to a head this February: The 2014 California Open Kettlebell Sport Camp. They’re hosting a competition and teaching event to truly “make history” for the discipline. They’ve gathered the world’s top lifters and coaches under one tentpole. It promises to be nothing short of the world’s definitive Kettlebell coaching and lifting experience to date.
Of course if you are interested in Kettlebell, GET THERE! If you have a chance to host or attend an OKC training or certification: DO IT! If you have a chance to lift on a platform with OKC athletes, REACH OUT! If you’re near a facility that is affiliated with them, VISIT AND JOIN!
This coach and lifter humbly offers one word to describe what it’s like to play his part in the OKC’s mission and Quest for Kettlebell: BOOM.
(Some recent OKC-inspired Kettlebell action at Gymnasium:)