The first time I trained with Russian Kettlebells I was nervous. I had every reason to be as well since my trainer had warned me beforehand to make sure I went straight home afterwards and soaked in a bath of Epsom Salts. It was a bit of advice I now deeply appreciate.
And after a month of training with the kettlebells I think I can safely say that this really isn't something to be tried at home. At least not until you've had some proper training first.
But first things first, what are Russian Kettlebells and why are they so popular?
History of the kettlebell
The kettlebell is a cast iron cannon-ball shaped weight with a single handle on the top. They come in various weights, the ones I used ranged from 4kgs to 12kgs. As their name implies, they originated in Russia and, according to KettlebellSoldier.com, kettlebells go back hundreds of years with the first mention of kettlebells appearing in a 1704 edition of a Russian dictionary. They claim that men who lifted these weights were called girevik, which is based on the Russian word for kettlebell, "girya".
How they work
Personal trainer and qualified kettlebell instructor, JC Moolman is very passionate about kettlebell training and advocates it as one of the best ways to train as, if it's done properly, offers a full-body workout.
She is so ardent in her belief in them that she's done several courses on the different instructions associated with kettlebells, and doesn’t' beat around the bush when she tells you how after several hours of training she could hardly move the next day.
There are several moves which you use with the kettlebells. One example is the 'swing' in which you squat down and swing the kettlebell in-between your legs, and then straighten up sharply and swing it up to shoulder height. All this while holding your back straight, sucking in your stomach and all the time making sure your grip is right so 12kg of cast iron do not go flying through the window. It's no easy feat, I tell you.
After doing three sets of eight reps each of those, together with several other exercises, and every muscle in your body will be tingling. And then, aching.
Where it works
The best part about kettlebell training is not only does it give you an all-over body workout, but there are so many different exercises that can be done with it that you'll never get bored. And if you've got a trainer as imaginative as Moolman, every session will be an adventure.
However she's also the first to point out that, while kettlebell training offers an intense and effective way to tone, strengthen and build muscle, it's not the only way to train and, since it's only 20 minutes a session, you can easily incorporate it into your other fitness regime.
"Kettlebell exercise not only taxes the muscle but taxes also your cardio ability or your muscular endurance. It's the real deal, and a lot of athletes have learned the benefits of kettlebell exercise as more and more are utilising kettlebell exercise in their training to increase explosive power, hardcore strength, and brutal muscular endurance," she says.
When Moolman agreed to train me with the kettlebells for a month she had a rather cheeky twinkle in her eye that made me nervous. A month later I am now accustomed to that twinkle, and regard it with the same suspicion and trepidation.
She has been training clients with her trusty kettlebells for several years now, which has given her plenty of time to get bored with some of the more common exercises and led her to experiment with others. This, I soon found out, would be to both my detriment and, I can now grudgingly admit, benefit too.
The first day she took it easy on me and we did some 'basic' exercises. The second session, two days after the first, had me in agony for the whole weekend. That's when I learned I was nowhere near as strong as I had thought.
No pain, no gain
The day after the second session I woke up feeling very achy. My muscles knew something had happened to them, but they were still coming to terms with just how bad it was. By that evening my arm muscles quivered when I even looked at them. Picking things up was not an option, neither was opening doors, moving too fast or (towards the end of the day), moving at all.
However it did get easier, and by the time my next session had rolled around I was raring to go. One thing about this kind of workout is that you sleep like a baby after every session.
As the weeks progressed JC varied my workouts so that I never knew what to expect, and every time I left I felt like I'd done a full hour of hard exercise even though it was only 20 minutes. It's that exhausting.
Interestingly, I found that not only did I sweat more, but I drank more water than during a spinning class. I didn't think that by just lifting 'weights' I'd work up such a sweat, but that's the beauty of the kettlebells – it's an all-over body workout. No muscle escapes under Moolman's watchful eye.
Since I only went to two sessions a week with Moolman, I continued spinning classes and other gymming on the 'off' days, but I noticed that as the weeks wore on, while the kettlebell training was getting more intense, everything else seemed to be getting easier.
That's one of the changes I noticed – that in less than a month I felt much stronger and more toned. When I did the circuit at the gym I had to increase the load because the weights I had used before didn't feel like they were making any difference. One thing I would recommed though, is that you really should invest in soem gym gloves if you're planning on doing this seriously because your hands will start to hurt after a while.
Don't get me wrong, I'm no body-builder, and although my arms and legs are looking more defined, they're not exactly bulging muscles. Which is apparently one of the major pluses of kettlebell training for women; it builds muscle and tones without making you bulk up. Of course kettlebells are used by body-builders too, but I would assume they'd use much heavier ones and a much more intense programme.
So I would highly recommend this to men and women who are looking to jazz up their fitness regime with something interesting. But be warned, it's not easy, although the fact that it's a 20 minute workout that's fun should cancel that out!
Source: JC Moolman, personal trainer, kettlebell instructor and triathlon trainer, visit www.activelifetraining.co.za or www.zenstudio.co.za; KettlebellSoldier.com
Contact Marco Wentzel, manufacturer and distributor of Russian Kettlebells in Africa at www.kettlebell.co.za
(Amy Henderson, Health24.com, November 2008)