Squonesty

You heard me. SQUONESTY. Squat honesty. Honesty about the quality of your squat.

My last post was about the zenlike flow of a long set of kettle bell swings. It’s what god (god bless ‘im) made kettlebells for. It activates, strengthens and mobilises your posterior chain, from your Achilles tendon up through those soon-to-be-less puny calves, those soon-to-be-less-floppy hamstrings, those almost kettlebell-like buttocks (without the handle, obvs) and into your low back.

It’s simple, it’s straightforward, but it’s not necessarily easy. You need to have one or two things in place before you can gain the benefit from these long sets of swings, and being able to squat well is one of them.

So let’s be squonest about this. Can you go right down into a full squat, feet more or less parallel, HEELS ON THE FLOOR (sorry for shouting, but that one gets me every time), maximal flexion at hips and knees, bum as low as it can humanly go, back not too rounded? Can you? If so, grab that bell and get on with some swings.

If not, then work on it, work on it and work on it some more. The thing is, when you were a nipper, squatting was your normal way of getting to ground level. Look at the little girl at the top of this blog. It’s a natural, dare I say Primal, human movement. Practise by holding onto something for support – a sofa, the post at the bottom of your stairs (has it got a name?), but not your dog. Spend time there, it’s time well spent anyway, even if you don’t have a kettlebell to hand just yet. And be squonest with yourself.

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Kettlezen

If there’s one exercise, one movement, that embodies the kettlebell, it’s the swing. You can get beautifully lost in a long set of swings. You feel the pull on your lower legs as you get the bell going, then your hips take the load, and then your back, and as the bell flies up, your shoulders keep that bell in check. Then you de-load everything as the bell swoops back down, you hinge at the hips, reach downwards as if searching for the bell on the ground between your feet, and launch it all over again.

After a few swings you need to breathe in rhythm with the bell’s to-ing and fro-ing: in, as the bell drops beneath you, out, as the bell is driven up and out. (You can use the out breath to count, too). As you focus on your breath, and stay with the movements of the bell and your body, you become very present in your exertion. Grounded, literally, because every time the bell drives forward you are obliged to plant your feet firmly into the ground to stay put.

Present in the kettlebell moment. Grounded. Mindful of your breath, your movement. The kettlebell swing becomes kettlezen.

Learning to move a kettlebell around takes a bit of time. It takes practice. And so it can become a practice.

A few choice words.

Choice. So many kettlebell types, so hard to choose. I’ve given you some idea of what weights to get when you are setting off for the first time along Kettlebell Road. But if you were looking online or on eBay for your first bell you’d see a bewildering choice of shapes, styles and colours, with huge differences in price.

Since The Market and The Industry realised they could make money out of kettlebells, all sorts of designs have been created, when traditionally there was but one: a round, cast iron blob with a rounded handle. [See photo above, on the left.] In my opinion, this original design is just fine. Relatively recently the ‘competition’ bell [above right], with a narrower, straighter handle shape, was introduced. This is primarily for one-handed work: snatching and pressing, as you would do in competition, and two-handed swings, the bread-and-butter kettlebell exercise are uncomfortable. Not impossible, but more unpleasant, after a few dozen swings, than they ought to be. The rounded handle allows a two-handed grip and is fine for one-handed work too.

Referring to the above photo again, you’ll see that the rounded-handle bell has a completely round profile facing you, while the competition bell has a flattened area in which the weight (24kg in this instance) is marked. Both these bells are perfectly round on the side opposite the weight mark, but not all bells are – they are flattened on both sides, and the flat area has a ridge or corner around it. For the beginner, I’d say avoid these, because you’ll get a corner crashing onto your forearm every time you practise a clean or a snatch. If you can see an image with a nice round surface facing you then that’s good.

So far, I’m recommending a traditional round bell with a rounded handle. A kettlebell is made by pouring molten iron into a mould. There are bells, though, that are made by welding a handle onto the round part. Much cheaper to produce and potentially not safe. I’ve never come across one of these, but I’d avoid them like the Brexit. Some handles are painted, like the rest of the bell, some are left unpainted and smooth, some are chromed. I like them all. It’s a question of taste and practice. You might develop a preference for one or the other over time.

Ebay isn’t a bad place to look. Lots of people get a kettlebell with the best intentions and end up using it as a doorstop. I have got some good ones from there. A UK retailer that I really like is Wolverson. Nice, well-made bells, very good range, excellent service. They have no idea who I am, and this recommendation is entirely unsolicited.

Prices vary. I paid £100 for a 20kg bell in 1999 or 2000, can’t remember. There were hardly any bells on the market then and I even got a discount because the seller/importer was a friend. It’s still my best 20kg bell, in use most days and wih no dust gathered on it. My point is that it doesn’t matter a whole lot what you spend on a kettlebell – these days you might get a good 20kg bell for £40 or £50, but it won’t be long before that 20kg of mine has cost me £5 a year, so even an expensive one works out cheap if you stick with it. And compared to gym membership, it’s very cheap!

 

Weighty matters.

Shout-out to my man David, yo DAVID!

David asked what weight of kettlebell is appropriate for a beginner, and whether to get just one kettlebell or a pair.

This isn’t a bad question; David hasn’t disgraced himself here. Kettlebell weights do not advance in small increments. An old Russian measure of weight, the ‘pood’, is 16kg,  and this is what the weights are based around. Typically, the gap between one bell and the next weight up is 4kg (1/4 of a pood). Starting at 8kg, we then have 12kg, 16kg, 20kg, 24kg and 32kg as the standard traditional weights, with 28kg also popular.

Now I’ll quickly jump to the question of whether to get a pair of kettlebells. For a beginner, no. NO, David. Much, much better to get a single one, your starting weight, and another, the next weight up. And maybe a third, the next weight up after that.

Double bell exercises are not for the beginner or improver, but it is probable that the beginner will need a heavier bell sooner or later. Men tend to start off with a 16kg bell. 20kg if you are used to strength training, 12kg if you are less robust than average. So for an averagely fit man, you would start with a 16kg, and think about getting a 20kg and a 24kg in the near future. Similarly, for an averagely fit woman, start with 8kg or 12kg, and stock up on a 16kg and maybe a 20kg. I have a female client at the moment who started with a 7.5kg bell on her own, before hiring me, and even though she has had health issues leading to a lack of muscle mass, that 7.5kg bell quickly became uselessly light. The 12kg bell we now work with is satisfyingly difficult to press overhead, and just right for a long (for her) set of swings. And it’s becoming clear that she will soon be able to swing a 16kg bell.

A final word. With a given weight, pressing or snatching the kettlebell is much more diffcult than swinging it with two hands. When you get good at swinging your 16kg bell, and need to move up to a 20kg, you’ll still need your 16kg for pressing and snatching.

 

Good question.

Someone asked me – in, I think, a positive way – why I was undertaking to blog about kettlebells. Good question. Loving to train, and to train and coach others, especially with kettlebells, is one thing; blogging about the mighty iron blobs is another.

Is it because I like the sound of my own keyboard? Probably. Will it make me feel a little less unimportant? Possibly. Does it scratch a creative itch? Definitely. Will I be able to pay my children’s university fees from it? Absolutely not.

Deep down, what I want is for YOU – yes, you – to become stronger. Stronger in body,  and stronger in mind. And, by extension, more comfortable in yourself. Happier, even. At peace. I want the best for you. Really.

I’m not selling you anything, I have no system, no franchises, no DVDs, nada. I’ve taught and coached (and, spookily, even taught coaching to coaches), and written, all my life; the urge to communicate stuff that will help people get better at stuff is a strong one, and I’m too weak to fight it just now.

Kettlestory. Kettlescience.

The part of London where I live has a busy market. The traders who sell fruit and veg no longer weigh out the produce: they put it out in bowls, and spend the day screaming, ‘Paaand (ie pound, one pound sterling, equal in value to about half a Euro or US dollar at the moment – thanks Brexiters) a bowl, paaand a bowl.’ They’re missing a trick. Why?

Well, the story goes that 17th-century Russian market traders started messing about with the weights they used for measuring produce. Round metal weights with handles. They swung them around and lifted them over their market trader heads, and it soon became apparent that they were becoming extremely fit and strong. Next thing you know, the festivals and fairs where those sturdy market traders plied their wares became host to their strength competitions.

As the culture of strength training blossomed and flourished throughout Europe in the 19th and early 20th centuries, kettlebells, as a by then (sounds a bit like ‘Azerbaijan, doesn’t it?) established training tool, became very popular with the famous strongmen of the time. In 1974, kettlebell sport (probably a separate blog on that) was proclaimed ‘the national ethnic sport of Russia’.

So there you have a very brief history indeed, and a vague idea where kettlebells come from.

Now for the science bit (giggles and blushes, like the pretty lady in the shampoo ad). In all honesty I can’t bear to bore you with the physics of the moving kettlebell, but you just need to know that FORCE = MASS x VELOCITY. This means that if you swing a 20kg bell, the force your body has to deal with is 20kg multiplied by something, which makes it more than 20kg.

The other main thing you need to know about the kettlebell is that the fact it has a handle means your point of contact with the bell is removed from its centre of mass. Move the bell around and it is very unstable, compared to the same weight of dumbbell. So you use more energy, more nervous input, more muscles at a micro level, just to keep the bell stable. Quite clearly this is amazing. You don’t need to know any of this to become amazing, though. Just swing your kettlebell, keep it swinging and feel the unamazingness leave your body.

Why kettlebell?

Buns of steel. A ramrod straight back. Snappy, flexible hips. Legs that don’t quit. Powerful, mobile shoulders. And that’s just my six-year-old son.

Just kidding. He doesn’t really do kettlebell yet.

A kettlebell is a handheld gym. A big blob of iron with a handle. To be swung, pressed, snatched and swung again ad infinitum. Ad strengthum. Ad gluteus very maximus.

The answer to the question, ‘Why kettlebell?’ is right there up above. It’s as if almost every aspect of strength and conditioning has been crystallised into that big iron blob with a handle.

Don’t get me wrong. I know you can get strong and well-conditioned without a sniff of a kettlebell. There are many, many ways. It’s just that when time is tight, when gym memberships are costly, when those gyms are full of mirrors, posers, sweat and inappropriate music, a kettlebell workout does so much with so little.

I’ve been swinging and pressing and snatching that old Russian bell for well over a decade now. I’m going to write stuff about it that I hope will enthuse you. Make you want to stand in your back garden (or my back garden) with a singlet on and a kettlebell in your hand. Make you simply want to get stronger and fitter.