Building the Master Quality of Strength With Kettlebells

Why a kettlebell? To bring out the athlete inside.

Kettlebells are everywhere these days in the fitness world. From magazines to Internet articles to TV shows, these cast-iron balls-with-a-handle are making their way around the mainstream of fitness training. Celebrities, professional athletes, and everyday people looking to shed a few pounds and get some muscle are looking to the kettlebell for help.

It’s not like kettlebells are new. In use for at least 300 years, these weights and the basic techniques gained popularity in the Russian military for being the most efficient way to get troops into fighting shape and keep them battle-ready on the field—with the minimum of equipment.

But it was ex-Soviet Special Forces (Spetsnaz) instructor Pavel Tsatsouline who introduced them to America in 1998 with his article “Vodka, Pickle Juice, and Kettlebells” for Milo magazine, a strength journal for those interested in the most functional, serious training available.

Pavel's article in Milo.
Pavel’s article in Milo.

And now the situation has come full-circle with the mainstream of the fitness public (all over the world) clamoring for as much information as possible about what this “low-tech, high-concept” tool can do for their own serious, functional training.

How Kettlebell Training Works

Kettlebell training is grouped into two basic types: ballistics and grinds. Ballistic kettlebell training revolves around swinging the weights (ballistics) versus lifting the bells in a traditional manner (grinds).

When you swing the kettlebell, every part of the body is involved in each and every rep. Your body is always doing something, either producing force (swinging it up), reducing force (as it swings between the legs), or reversing the load (as one goes from the backswing to the next rep). This leads to high workloads with much lower perception of effort. Add in the acceleration forces (three to five times the weight of the bell) and even the average person can do extraordinary workloads in very short order.

 Kettlebell Swings

Swinging the bells lets you work your cardiovascular and muscular systems at the same time and can burn upward of twenty calories per minute, even with light bells—an efficient way to get in shape quickly.

Add in the high-tension lifts such as the overhead press, get-up, and squat, and one you have more than a complete exercise program. You have a state-of-the-art training program that will deliver the results it promises.

Real “Functional” Strength

The essence of “functional” training is that is has a solid carryover to the real world. The body is indeed a linked, interconnected system and needs to be trained as such for maximum benefit. The kettlebell and our methods of swinging and lifting the bells maximize this functionality. Even picking the bells off the floor using the correct form will carry over to everyday life and make you stronger and more resilient in record time.

Plus, by sheer necessity, kettlebell training will help bring out the athlete inside you, even if you never played a sport. Compelling in a way a treadmill or plate-loaded machine can never be, kettlebell swinging and lifting requires balance, coordination, core control, and hand-eye coordination, and teaches the trainee to move as an athlete, hips first.

Kettlebell StrengthFor most people, work capacity is perhaps the most important factor in their fitness life. The ability to perform the activities of your day and have a reserve at the end is vital. Nothing will improve your work capacity faster, or more safely, than kettlebell training. The combination of ballistic and grind lifts, done in many possible ways will increase strength and cardiovascular ability, and stabilize and strengthen the legs, hips, lower back, abs, and shoulders in the quickest time possible—twenty- to thirty-minute workouts two or three times a week.

That’s not much, but kettlebell training is not easy.

Simple—yes. Easy—no.

Kettlebells Build Mental Strength

Growing up and growing old is not for sissies, either, and kettlebell training will give you another component that’s essential for life as well as fitness: toughness. Both a physical and a mental toughness. Just by showing up and getting to know your kettlebell.

Even if all you do is pick it up and carry it, it will make you stronger, tougher, and more resilient. But don’t take my word for it, ask around. Ask the military, law enforcement, martial artists, and athletes around the world that put the kettlebell square in the center of their training. If it’s a fad, it’s been a long, 300-year one.

Ancient Russian weapon against weakness

Get-ups and Swings Are All You Need

Yet for all its usefulness for the athletic elite, the kettlebell’s basic moves, particularly the swing and the get-up, are truly the people’s exercises. Practicing swings and get-ups on a consistent basis will yield results to the average person they couldn’t get from any other kind of training. Because there is no impact, and the work has core, stability, and balance training built into its foundation, it is some of the safest strength training a person can do.

In addition, the cost of entry is very low. All you need is one or two kettlebells and a four-foot by six-foot square of clear floor to practice. By the time you put your exercise clothes on and got to your car to start your drive to the gym, your kettlebell workout would be over and you’d already a better man or woman.

Of course, you should get basic instruction from a certified trainer, but that goes without saying as you enter into any new physical venture. Kettlebell training is not without its risk, but neither is being alive. Again, growing old is not for sissies.

Kettlebell Strength

The Master Quality: Strength

Strength is the master quality. From strength all other fitness aspects are derived. Think about it. If you don’t have the strength to oppose the small force of gravity enough to stand up straight throughout the day, how important is your aerobic capacity?

Kettlebell strength is unique because kettlebell training builds usable strength. Basic strength. Functional, real-world strength. And, after you have that, everything else is easier.

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Mark Reifkind
SFG II
Mark has been traversing the physical culture world for the last 44 years. He has been an elite gymnast, bodybuilder, and powerlifter. He has also trained and raced for ultramarathons and triathlons. Mark found the kettlebell in 1998, was certified in 2005, and has been teaching others around the globe since. Mark opened the first ever kettlebell-centric gym, Girya, The Art of Strength in 2003.

As a coach, he has worked with Olympic gymnasts and was the Head Coach for Women's Team USA in 1995 and the first ever Pan American Powerlifting Chanpionships in 2000. He was the personal coach for one of the most successful American female powerlifters Catherine Kelii. He was also personal coach and training partner for Pro Mr. America and bodybuilding legend Scott Wilson.

Mark has been writing in the field since 1979 and has been published by IronMan Magazine, Muscle Mag International, Milo, Runners World, and Velo. He has also written numerous articles for StrongFirst. He has authored Mastering the Hardstyle Kettlebell Swing, Lats, the Supermuscles, and BodyMaintenance, the Users Guide, and Restoring Lost Physical Function.

His blog was the first ever kettlebell blog. His website is Girya Strength, and he can also be found on Facebook. Mark's current project is co-authoring a book with Dr. Ken Ford on delaying sarcopenia (muscle wasting).

14 thoughts on “Building the Master Quality of Strength With Kettlebells

  • I first learned about the kettlebell from Tim Ferriss’ 4 Hour Body. Oddly enough, I stumbled upon Pavel and this website through Tim’s Podcast. Although I have not been doing my exercises for the past few months, it is something I am looking forward to get back to. As a runner, I have not been doing many exercises but am starting to appreciate the need to cross train and build strength as I want to get better at what I do. The plank has been my favourite activity but strength wise, I believe the kettlebell is better rounded exercise. Looking forward to reading more articles about the exercises here.

  • Actually, this isn’t unique to the kettlebell. Sprinting does the same. I imagine there are quite a number of things that can yield similar results. The kettlebell is but a tool. It’s not magic. “Why a kettlebell” might be better answered by the fact that it’s compact and pretty portable- you’re not limited by location. Ease of access mainly.

    “When you swing the kettlebell, every part of the body is involved in each and every rep. Your body is always doing something; either producing force (swinging it up) reducing force (as it swings between the legs) or reversing the load (as one goes from the backswing to the next rep). This leads to very high workloads with much lower perception of effort. Add in the acceleration forces (3-5 times the weight of the bell) and even the average person can do extraordinary workloads in very short order!

    Swinging the bells lets you work your cardiovascular and muscular systems at the same time and can burn upwards of 20 calories per minute, even with very light bells – a very efficient way to get in shape very quickly.”

  • Mr. Reifkind,
    Great article. I have shared it on FB.
    EMailed the link specifically to those who will consider the benefit.
    I may even put it on LinkedIn.
    I tell everyone who will not talk when I am speaking about kettle bells.
    But, your article may be the best tool to push over the tipping point.

    Thank you,
    Bart

  • Very well said, Rif!

    Its been said, “a picture is worth a thousand words.” I believe there are times when well spoken words are worth a thousand pictures. This is one of those times. Very solid work!

  • Mark; Thnak you. Excellent article…Quick question; in YOUR opinion, as a basic template….grinds FIRST, Ballistics second??
    or is it simply, as stuart mcgill says: It Depends!
    Many thanks,

  • The best Health Care plan in the world – a couple of KB’s, proper instruction and the correct nutrition plan. Hopefully this will be the death of the corrupt medical/insurance industry in the USA. If not, who cares I’m following the plan.

  • “If one doesn’t have the strength to oppose the small force of gravity enough to stand up straight throughout the day, how important is their aerobic capacity?” Well put, sir. Thanks for your insight.

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