Difficulty strengthens the mind, as labor the body.
In Experiment No. 1, I set out to condition my mind by introducing it to frequent meditation sessions, and reported the results here on Raptitude. It was a real eye-opener for me, and I was able to break new ground in terms of my understanding my mind. In other words, I feel markedly stronger, mentally. For Raptitude’s second official experiment, I’m going to get physical.
My weapon of choice is actually one Soviet troops used for many years to stay one glorious step ahead of their capitalist foes in the realm of physical prowess. While western drill sergeants were punishing their men with long jogs and pushups by the dozen, Red Army soldiers were out in the pastures hoisting 53-pound iron balls above their heads a thousand times. Every morning. In a blizzard. Taking breaks only to wrestle bears, for fun.
The weight they used is called a girya, known in the English-speaking world as a kettlebell. It resembles a cannonball with a thick handle. It was over three hundred years ago that the first kettlebells appeared, used as counterweights for measuring market goods.
Once they became popular for that purpose, I’m sure it wasn’t too long before boastful farmhands began trying to outdo each other by loading more counterweights. Much bragging, drinking and juggling ensued. Informal, vodka-fueled competitions began to arise with enough regularity that men began to use them solely for their uncanny strength-building properties.
Formal training schools and sanctioned competition were not far behind. Naturally, the military recognized the kettlebell’s ability to make ordinary people much tougher and deadlier, and began to use them to that effect.
So what’s the big deal?
The initial assessment people (not excluding myself) tend to make about the kettlebell is that it is just a differently-shaped weight, nothing but an eccentric dumbbell with the handle on the outside instead of the inside. But kettlebells are used completely differently, and they have several indispensable advantages over conventional weights:
- They resist the muscles from different angles in one movement. Many kettlebell movements are ballistic in nature, meaning that the kettlebell is swung or otherwise maneuvered about the body, recruiting many more muscles than a typical dumbbell exercise. In particular, it works the smaller, oft-neglected stabilizer muscles support the bigger, showier muscles. These little muscles and connective tissues actually make the big muscles functionally stronger. The result is a balanced, herculean torso where no muscle is too big or too small. Kettlebell movements get the muscles cooperating instead of competing for attention.
- They’re good for the joints. I did not believe it when I heard it, but proper kettlebell use can rehabilitate damaged shoulders and elbows. In 2003 I strained both shoulders in an awkward snowboarding crash. To my great dismay, I soon found I could no longer throw a baseball or a football without searing pain. This lasted for five years. After a month or so of kettlebell grinds, I discovered I could throw a football like it had never happened. I was dumbfounded. There is zero pain now.
- Kettlebell exercises replicate functional movements. You can do thousands of dumbbell curls and get stronger at very little other than dumbbell curls. Many of the common weight movements can increase muscle size, but they do not necessarily confer the kind of strength that’s useful in day-to-day life. Kettlebell movements are compound exercises that work the body from all angles, improving abilities you may actually use outside the gym. This is called the WTH (What The Hell?) Effect: suddenly you find yourself better at things you never even practiced, because your whole body is better.
- They’re portable. Taking a kettlebell to the park is a time-honored tradition in the kettlebell world. The Philadelphia Kettlebell Club’s credo: “We train with kettlebells in case civilization is temporary… don’t rely on anything you can’t carry.” Try bringing your Bowflex on the plane.
- They’re fun. I did not like working out before I discovered kettlebells. I mean, I did it, but it was always an unappealing activity to me, and I never found a program I was interested in sticking with for more than a few months. I can’t put my finger on what exactly is so fun about kettlebells, but they are.
- They are intense as hell. And that means two things. They work your body harder than it’s probably ever been worked, and your workouts stay short. Twelve minutes of kettlebell swings and I’m staggering and almost hallucinating. This is great. And that means no whining that there isn’t enough time to work out. For excuse-makers like myself, that is a huge psychological advantage.
- They are indestructible. Fifty thousand years from now, when the earth is just a smoldering wasteland, aliens will arrive and find nothing but cockroaches and kettlebells.
My Experience With Kettlebells
Now, I’ve never been a couch potato, but I’ve never been Jack Lalane either. Over the last ten years or so, at any given time there was probably a 50% chance I would be doing some sort of regular workout. My programs would be ad-hoc and they usually didn’t last very long. I would get discouraged or bored or busy and end up at square one again after a month or two. But because I never stayed ‘off the wagon’ for very long, I’ve never been terribly out of shape. Now, with this new experiment, it’s time to get terribly in shape, something I’ve never really excelled at.
The main problem was that I wasn’t having fun working out. It was a tolerable but unpleasant activity, and only a patchy combination of willpower and desire would keep me going back to the weight room. This always gave out sooner or later.
I was introduced to kettlebells last fall by an internet friend who had used them to completely transform himself. He went from dangerously overweight to rock solid in a little over a year, using these exotic Russian implements. I was sold.
Now, as quickly as I fell in love with kettlebells and the culture surrounding them, I have not made nearly the transformation he did. In the eight or nine months since then, my workouts have been spotty at best. I had a whole list of
Kettlebells have a steep learning curve. The movements are complex, and dangerous if you don’t know what you’re doing. I had to spend a good month getting my form down before I could really ‘begin.’ I didn’t want to get injured, and I was trying to teach myself, so this stage lasted a while.
When I did finally begin, I saw results almost immediately. In four weeks I saw noticeable changes in my muscle mass and definition. I was much stronger, and starting to look ‘cut.’ I couldn’t believe it!
Then tragedy struck. I pulled a muscle in my back when I was being particularly careless, which was enough to derail me for a week or two. Then I got busy and put off restarting. Then I started again, but I tried to add in too much other exercise, and continued half-assedly and intermittently until this February. That’s when I started building a blog and my workouts just fell off the map completely. Today, two flights of stairs can wind me.
Sometime before I fell out of the workout habit, a member of an online forum I moderate was looking for a workout routine. I told him about kettlebells and under my suggestion he bought one and started using it religiously. He started as something of a stringbean, but as my workouts became less and less frequent, he started reporting astronomical results. Within a few weeks he had surpassed me completely, and now he’s absolutely tearing it up. I began as something of a mentor to him (how pretentious of me) and now I find myself looking up to him. He’s 19 or 20. I suspect he’ll be bench-pressing cars by the time he’s done college.
I’m going to do what he did, that I should have: become serious about it and start reporting my results.
Time to get serious
The Tiger Woods of kettlebells is one Pavel Tsatsouline, the man responsible for bringing the kettlebell to the Western world. Before invading America, (I heard he he swam across the Pacific with a 106-pound kettlebell in his teeth) Pavel made a living by whipping Soviet commandos into shape. Now he’s a wildly popular author and strength guru, worshipped by everyone who uses kettlebells, no exaggeration. Online, his lair is the forum at his publisher’s site, DragonDoor. He will even answer your questions personally when he’s around. And when he does, he calls you “comrade.”
It is his landmark book, Enter the Kettlebell!, that will be my bible for the remainder of this experiment.
Enter the Kettlebell contains two simple but devastating workout regimens. The first one is called the Program Minimum, designed to attend to the most important and immediate strength-building concerns of any comrade beginning his or her quest for world domination. It delivers outstanding conditioning and rapid fat loss “without the dishonor of aerobics.”
It consists of only two exercises, both of which work virtually the entire body:
- The Swing — A kettlebell, gripped in both hands, is swung between the legs, up to chest level, by using an explosive hip thrust. It looks incredibly easy, but it’s anything but. Forty straight seconds of it and most hearts will be pounding out of their respective ribcages, and one’s lungs will be breaking new ground. All the cardio you need, without even moving your feet. For those who dislike running — or its impact on the knees — kettlebell swings are a fantastic alternative. See a demonstration here.
- The Turkish Get Up — I don’t know what makes it Turkish, but the idea is simple: lie down on your back and press a kettlebell straight up. Then get up, keeping your arm straight with the kettlebell above your head. Then, carefully, lie down again. Then get up again. And keep doing it until the buzzer goes. This is the exercise that has already fixed my ailing shoulder, and I love doing it. See a demonstration here.
The program takes four to eight weeks, so I will see what I can accomplish in six.
As it stands right now, I am not fit. I will take it rather easy in the first two weeks, to avoid injury. Any experienced gireviks reading might snicker at my numbers. That’s okay, I need the benefit of transparency here. I am not an especially strong person to begin with, and I’ve atrophied some, but I’ll fix that. In the second two weeks I’ll be pushing in the accelerator, and by week six I’ll be flooring it.
The goal is visible changes to my physique by the end of week six. Whether I accomplish those aesthetic changes or not, I’ll be much stronger and more resilient, and ready to start the second program: the Rite of Passage.
The crucial factor to my success in Experiment No. 1 was the accountability that was created by promising my readers that I would do it. I had experienced such discouraging initial sessions that I would have quit, had I not made it a public exhibition. This time I’m going to bump the accountability factor up a notch, by actually posting a “before” picture, so that there can be no embellishment or misrepresentation of the results. Six weeks is not a lot of time to make visible changes in one’s physique, so I’ll be actively pushing myself, not just getting my workouts over with.
Here’s what I look like now. Notice the spare tire beginning to form. I will crush it like a rogue enemy of the state.
I don’t know exactly what changes to expect over the next six weeks, but I’d anticipate something like this:
I’ll be posting regular narrative reports on the experiment log, and once a week I’ll post my numbers for the week. I start this Monday, May 18.
Now that the picture is up, there’s no turning back. No going back to the drawing board.
Update: It’s on! Check out my progress here.