The Kettlebell Effect
By: Kandice Swarthout
With an injured neck, I looked at the kettlebells that lined the gym floor. I said out loud, “there is no way I will be able to do these.” My gym rat cross-training life had come to a screeching halt and running had become my only refuge. After months off, recovering from the injury, I started back slowly. One mile at a time. Before long I was back up to 4 miles with only moderate pain. Now, here stood my friend with a big smile, trying to convince me that these kettlebell things were the answer to my fitness woes.
Reluctantly and hesitantly, I met with the new Strongfirst kettlebell coach, Shane, for a class. Within 15 minutes, I could see that I could trust Shane to ease me into this new world of kettlebells. Shane taught the Russian, hard style form of kettlebells that focused on safety and strength as a skill, and also longevity of the athlete. Surprisingly and very quickly, I gained strength with no neck pain! I was hooked.
Then it happened. The elusive “what the hell effect.” Shane spoke of this effect, but I was not totally buying into it. One sunny morning, I set out for a 4 mile run. I hit 4 miles and just kept going until finally at 7 miles, I decided to stop. Of course, I could not wait to get back to Shane to report these results. I was floored! How could it be possible to increase my distance in such a short time? Not to mention, I had not been running very frequently at the time.
What is this “what the hell effect” (WTH) that almost doubled my injury-laden mileage in just a couple of weeks? The Russian kettlebell is a ball of iron with a handle that has been around for over 300 years. The Russian style of kettlebell was introduced to the West in 1998 by Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Soviet special forces instructor. Since then, thousands of athletes have made the kettlebell their primary modality of training or an adjunct to improve performance in amateur and professional sports. The WTH effect is when someone uses kettlebells for a time and then is able to perform considerably better in a non-kettlebell related activity. Search the Internet and you will find testimonies of athletes from all walks of life.
The theory behind this phenomenon is that the kettlebell conditions the entire body and is not a sport-specific tool for training. The kettlebell swing and snatch offer ballistic movements that provide strength and cardio gains. Specifically, these two skills engage an explosive movement in the hips through a hinging motion. The hips hinge back, like in a deadlift, and then powerfully thrust forward sending the kettlebell either chest height or overhead depending on the practiced skill. There are variations to both the swing and snatch and when practiced with volume and speed, offer superb cardio gains. The strength endurance acquired translates to improvement in a variety of sports and physical activities due to increasing efficiency at lower intensities.
The size (or load) of the kettlebell is dependent on your weight, current strength, skills being performed, and goals. One of the beautiful things about the kettlebell is that it is compact and someone could get maximum training results with just a few sizes on hand. Also, in the hard style kettlebell world, it is important to not feel completely spent after a training session. The saying goes, “the workout should put more into you than it takes from you.” It would be a contradiction for a marathon athlete to deplete him or herself in a kettlebell session and not be able to get the next day’s mileage completed. The idea is to maximize the movements for the most efficient results. This means fewer reps for more sets are generally performed to allow for sufficient rest and proper form.
If reading this sparks your desire to check out this cannonball with a handle, I would first and foremost encourage you to seek out a reputable coach. A good place to start is finding a local SFG (Stongfirst.com) or RKC (Dragondoor.com) certified coach. Both of these organizations graduate quality instructors that engage in safe practices and training. The number one key to making kettlebells work for your needs is proper form. Just a warning, if you are a type A personality like me, you will want to do it all and do it well right away. Be patient. Learning the basics will pay off dividends down the road. I am not going to lie; I was a little bored the first week. I quickly elevated to more advanced skills and could not get enough.
This may sound dramatic, but I believe kettlebells saved my life. I thought my gym life was over. The lack of movement from the injury had me well on my way to my physical activity being seriously altered for life. I continue to set strength and distance goals and stand in awe of what I am able to accomplish. I am currently training for a barbell certification and, guess what?... I am using kettlebells as a key modality of training. If you are training for an upcoming endurance goal, such as a marathon, I encourage you to seek out the kettlebell effect. Give it a try and write your own What the Hell story.
For proper form see the photos below.
1. Swing Set
With your feet shoulder width apart, bend down, keeping your back straight and your core tight. Grab the kettlebell handle with both hands as you prepare to swing the kettlebell backwards between your legs.
2. Bell Hike
Hinge by sitting back and bending at the hips, then swing the kettlebell back and behind your knees.
3. Float at the Top
Thrust your hips forward, squeeze your glutes, and stand up straight. At the top of the swing, the kettlebell should go no higher than chest level.
Repeat steps 1-3.
Perform 3-5 reps of 10 sets.
About the Author
Kandice is a certified SFG1 kettlebell and barbell instructor with Strongfirst. She is a dental hygiene professor and licensed professional counselor. Kandice has trained with kettlebells for over 7 years to improve strength and distance running.