The Results Are in! — Experiment No. 2: David Before and After Kettlebells

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To recap for new readers, nine weeks ago I declared I would school myself in the art of the Russian kettlebell.  I resolved to work with the antique freeweight, Soviet commando-style, in accordance with Pavel Tsatsouline’s Enter the Kettlebell.

Being somewhat a novice, I did the first of two programs, humbly named the Program Minimum.  It consists of two exercises you’ve probably never heard of, both of which I described in the original post.  Kettlebells have a steep learning curve, and are about as forgiving as concrete, but I did okay.  

Originally it was supposed to be a six-week experiment, during which I’d see how much of a physical bodily change I could muster in that period.  As I neared the end of the six weeks I was assaulted by life itself, more specifically a badly-timed move, a badly-timed (but previously committed) trip to Ohio, and a badly-timed neck injury, all happening simultaneously, conspiring to put me out of commission for a good two weeks.  So I gave myself a week to catch up, extending the total duration to nine weeks.  Now time is officially up.

Talk is Cheap, So I Took Pictures

Historically I am prone to quitting stuff and starting again whenever I run into trouble.  To cement my commitment to the program I took a before picture of myself with no shirt on and posted it here for all to see.  Today I present my after picture.

Now, the goal was to see what visible physical changes could be accomplished in such a short time with a simple kettlebell workout.  Kettlebell work is very intense, and for that reason, my workouts were very short, averaging 8-12 minutes.  That sounds like nothing, but a few minutes can seem like an eternity when you’re swinging kettlebells around.  Aside from some unfortunate schedule bumblings, I did four of these workouts a week, which only adds up to about forty minutes of actual exercise per week, or a total of less than five hours of exercise altogether, in the seven weeks I actually worked out.  I did no other exercise.

BEFORE-AFTER490

I don’t look remarkably different, but I’m pleased with the results.  One of the hallmarks of kettlebells is that they make you stronger without being a lot bigger.  I have experienced some visible improvements in muscle definition and size (especially in my back,) but the main difference has been in my strength, not my shape.  When I was moving boxes into my apartment, I was struck by how easy it was to lift everything and carry it long distances without fatigue.

My posture has improved and my back is not sore after sitting at the computer all day.  I don’t get winded during football or basketball like I used to.  I’m just altogether more resilient, and I’ve only just getting started with kettlebells.

My muscles also feel tighter and harder, for anyone in a position to notice ;)

Misgivings

I did not do my best.  Or maybe I did, but my best was not very good sometimes.  I handled my unexpected obstacles poorly, I let them get me off track for longer than I needed to be.  In the last few weeks I missed a few workouts for no good reason at all.  As I stated in my progress log, several times I skipped my normal after-work workout, reasoning that I could work out later.  The problem was that after supper I naturally had less energy and did not feel up to giving my all.  Since I was always trying to do better than last time, I would push the workout to the next day rather than work to disappointing numbers.  A bad habit, and I will nip that one in the bud as I continue my strength training.

Towards the end I did lose much of my initial ferocity, and workouts started to become an obligation, rather than an opportunity to get stronger.  Part of my kettlebell education has been reframing how I feel about the thought of working out, and what to do when I just don’t feel like that.  I hit some rough spots in this sense, but I’ll level that out too.

All in all I consider it a success, just not the “smashing” kind.

What I Learned

Kettlebells deserve the hype. As I mentioned, I became substantially stronger in just five hours of work. I’m thrilled at what they’ve done in such a short time, and can only imagine what will happen when ramp up the volume and add to my repertoire of lifts.  My joints and back feel awesome, I don’t tire of anything nearly as easily.  Kettlebells are just beginning to catch on in the mainstream, and soon nobody won’t know what they are.  If you’re looking for a way to workout that works in a short time, go buy a kettlebell, you won’t need a Bowflex or a treadmill or a gym membership.

Work out at the earliest opportunity.
As a career procrastinator, I found myself choosing ‘later’ over ‘now’ when it didn’t really make sense to do so.  And I always felt so awesome for the rest of the night when I did get my workout in early.  There was a lot of needless procrastination in this experiment, I wonder what my results would have been like if I’d been airtight with my commitment.  At any rate, I did get better at combating this lifelong discipline problem and I will continue to work it like I worked my lungs and heart.  “Work out at the earliest opportunity” is a sound mantra that will guide me in the future.

Don’t shoot for a personal best each time, just do whatever your best is right then and there.  This was a pit-trap for me, as I got into the habit of deferring my workout whenever I didn’t feel up to topping my last totals.  If there is anything I wish to address in my further kettlebell adventures, this is it.

I still have discipline problems. I’m pleased with and proud of my results, but they could have been much more substantial if I had been determined not to miss my workouts for lame reasons.  Much of the time it was just pure cowardice, no real excuses.

I always tilt my head to the left when getting my picture taken. Seriously, I don’t know why, but all pictures of me are like that.

What’s Next?

I wasn’t sure what I’d do when I finished this experiment.  Obviously I’m not going to pack up the kettlebells, I’m just getting warmed up.  But I do need the accountability factor of posting my results online, so the experiment will continue. The Party approves.

I’m eager to try my hand at some more advanced kettlebell movements, so I’m going to transition to the second program, the triumphantly-named Rite of Passage. Snatches and overhead presses, with more swings and Turkish get ups.  But I must practice these new lifts first.

Of course, when I leave Canada for New Zealand, I will not be able (or rather, willing) to carry my kettlebell in my backpack.  So at that point I’ll have to switch to a bodyweight-only regimen.

***

I am still busy not doing drugs, but — as ever — there is another experiment on the horizon.

R

Photo by jay8085



Will July 23, 2009 at 9:36 am

David – you’re the man. raw powah!
Don’t feel alone, though… since I read your first post on this topic, I wanted to start working out with kettlebells. Subsequently, my realtor of all people offered me a free gym membership a few weeks ago & I’ve been working out with semi-regularity for almost a month now. Semi-regularity because the program I’m following is HARD and I (physically) can’t just dive right in the whole way. One thing I’d like to suggest is that I’ve read that if you work out when you’re not feeling at optimum strength, it’s unlikely that you’ll gain muscle because you’re not surpassing your previous intensity. So feel free to give it another day of rest if you’re sore- just make sure you give 110% the next day! (more rest, harder work = bigger muscles vs. less rest, less work = more tone/definition) And make sure you’re eating enough
As for giving up drugs like caffeine, alcohol, pot… you’ve got me beat haha but you can let me know if something crazy happens on earth & totally I’m spacing out… man.

Good luck on the next leg of your program & you’ve got a workout buddy somewhere in Philadelphia…

Jess July 23, 2009 at 11:09 am

This is all quite impressive when you consider it’s only from five hours of work! Like you said, it probably feels a hell of a lot longer while you’re actually doing it, but I still find this thing seems to good to be true. You’ve inspired me again to get back in shape! Also, it must be tough to stay committed to two fairly major experiments at the same time, so props to you.
That aside, I must say, I had quite a chuckle to myself when I read the bit about you tilting your head to the left!
.-= Jess´s last blog ..Peas Today, Potatoes Tomorrow =-.

Narconon Arrowhead July 23, 2009 at 11:28 am

These kettlebells sound interesting. I had an intervention for weight, and I wonder if these will help me look better.
.-= Narconon Arrowhead´s last blog ..Intervention Daily =-.

Tim July 23, 2009 at 11:39 am

David:

Thanks for the update…I think it is great that even though the results are difficult to see in pictures, you feel different. I’ve been a skinny guy my entire life, but now that I’m getting older I’m noticing some belly fat (or is it a mini beer-gut?). I think I’ve always been stronger than I look and have done more reps, lower weight in most of weight training. In recent weeks, I have slowed down my workout routine because I’ve been having some rotator cuff problems and I’m trying to let it heal. So it bothers me that I haven’t been able to work out with weights. And I’ve had back and neck issues, so even when I’ve been lifting it hasn’t been the heavy, mass-building type of workout. In the meantime, I love to cycle so I am putting some miles in there.
.-= Tim´s last blog ..The Miracle of Everyday =-.

David July 23, 2009 at 1:55 pm

Will — Yeah I’m still trying to work out what to do when I really don’t feel up to working out. This will be my strategy:
1) Avoid physical states where I don’t feel like working out (after overeating, drug use, lack of sleep)
2) Work out anyway, but don’t try to top myself

Most trainers advocate not shooting to surpass last time every workout. I think maybe once a week or two I’ll shoot for a new record.

If I’m ever in Philly I’ll look you up.

Jess — So far, this experiment was way tougher than the no-drug thing is proving to be. I did learn a lot about my weaknesses and I’m excited to fill in the gaps.

I don’t know why I tilt my head like that, it just happens! My internal sense of verticality is a bit skewed I guess.

Tim — Yeah the real improvement was in my strength and endurance, not so much the aesthetics. That’s kind of what kettlebells do. But this experiment is still continuing. I’ll post more pictures as I complete each leg of my kettlebell saga. :)
.-= David´s last blog ..The Results Are in! — Experiment No. 2: David Before and After Kettlebells =-.

John July 23, 2009 at 2:46 pm

I’m glad you’ve noticed improvements of yourself. Even though you felt it was an obligation at the end, I’m glad you stuck through it instead of giving up, as is the common occurrence.

I can’t wait until the series finale of the kettlebell saga :P, so we can see the final results. I’m rooting for ya!
.-= John´s last blog ..20 More Steps You Can Take Today to Be a Success =-.

david July 23, 2009 at 5:18 pm

David – Great work. You’re tackling KBs in the exact way you should. With discipline. Get the PM down first, then learn the other movements, then move to the ROP. Too many people assume they have “mastered” the lowly PM when in reality it is more than most people will ever master.

Will – that’s a commonly held, inaccurate misconception. You don’t need to be surpassing your previous volume or intensity every single workout as long as the general TREND of your training is increasing. Listen to your body, and delay a workout if you are compltely fried, but 99% of the time do NOT put off a workout until the next day.
.-= david´s last blog ..How Not to Craft an Order Page =-.

Tatiana July 23, 2009 at 5:33 pm

I love kettlebells, they’re used heavily in the crossfit workouts, which are single-handedly the single toughest workouts I’ve ever done. (http://www.crossfit.com) for those interested.

They do add a lot of strength and since they’re a functional movement workout they add a great deal of real life training. And working out consistently is much much much tougher than just about any other habit to acquire. I still struggle and use stupid excuses to miss workouts.
.-= Tatiana´s last blog ..I grew a zucchini and then I ate it =-.

Brad July 23, 2009 at 10:00 pm

Kettlebells scare me! I’ve seen a couple videos of guys swinging them around and I just can’t keep back the images of myself dropping one on my foot or something.

I don’t doubt that they give a good workout with all of the smaller muscles it takes to stabilize free weights – especially when moving them through precise paths. But I will just stick to doing different weight machines, switching them up to prevent stagnation (plus elliptical machine).

10 minutes of weights can increase your muscular strength, but you need to work out longer for cardiovascular improvements.

Ian | Quantum Learning July 24, 2009 at 2:18 am

David, this has very little to do with the content of your article, but this post almost cost me my marriage.

I was reading the article and had just got to the before and after pictures when Mona happened to glance over my shoulder.

‘What are you doing?????’ she said. ‘You’re cruising the net looking for pictures of naked men!!!!’

I guess it could have been worse. She could have compared your physique to mine and no amount of sucking my belly in would make any difference in that particular comparison!
.-= Ian | Quantum Learning´s last blog ..Reward! Wanted dead or alive =-.

Mel July 24, 2009 at 3:31 am

As a female, I can’t imagine doing a kettlebell experiment, but this was interesting to read, and see the results. Compared to Bikram yoga, which I do, the time vs benefit ratio is incredible.

Ummm… would it be inappropriate to quote the great philosopher Paris Hilton and say… “That’s hot(t)!”?

Jacob September 21, 2013 at 8:57 pm

“As a female, I can’t imagine doing a kettlebell experiment, but this was interesting to read, and see the results. ”

Why not? Better not try to tell Ksenia Dedyukhina that.
http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=a3l6gqujgEo

David July 24, 2009 at 7:25 am

John — Thanks John, glad to have you in my corner.

David — I’m trying to improve my form every time I pick up the bell. I think I will spring for a session or two with an RKC, I’m sure it’s well worth it.

Tatiana — Me too. Discipline has been a lifelong problem for me, particularly with working out and studying. I have improved though, and over the next few months I want to almost eliminate workouts missed for lame reasons.

Brad — When you’re holding an iron ball above your head, you will automatically be as careful as you need to be :)

If you do 12-minute kettlebell manmakers with me, you’ll see that the 20mins+ figure thrown around as the ‘minimum for CV improvement’ is outdated conventional doctrine. I have not done more than 12 minutes for a long time now, and my cardio has improved remarkably. Try it!

Ian — HAHAHA!! Well at least it’s rated PG. I still have pants on.

Mel — It is really amazing, the time-to-benefit ratio. I can have my workout done in the time it would take to drive to a nearby gym.

Brad July 25, 2009 at 12:30 pm

“If you do 12-minute kettlebell manmakers with me, you’ll see that the 20mins+ figure thrown around as the ‘minimum for CV improvement’ is outdated conventional doctrine.”

I have to disagree here – the only thing that determines your cardiovascular workout is how hard your heart is pumping. So if you have it over 180 bpm for 10 minutes, it shouldn’t matter (to your heart) whether it is done by kettlebells or with a treadmill. But, I will probably try them sometime just to test the hype for myself.

david July 25, 2009 at 2:21 pm

Brad – Unfortunately, as with your assumptions wrt kettlebells vs weight machines you are completely wrong.

First of all steady-state cardio is broken, that has been pretty well proven now.

Then your comparison of 180bpm via kettlebells or treadmill. A treadmill pulling you along at whatever pace gets you to 180bpm is recruiting nothing in comparison to snatching a kettlebell and getting your HR to 180bpm. There is absolutely no comparison.

You really need to go back to the drawing board with your assumptions about fitness mechanisms. If you think that switching weight machines and doing 20+ minutes on a treadmill is effective, you’re doing a lot of work for minimal gain.
.-= david´s last blog ..How Not to Craft an Order Page =-.

Brad July 25, 2009 at 7:50 pm

Well, you’ve stated that I’m wrong several times in different ways, but never explained why. The heart does one thing – it pumps. How could the source of the stimulus make any difference, whether steady state or dynamic, as long as the same heart rates are achieved?

Tiffani W July 25, 2009 at 9:50 pm

This is totally irrelevant and maybe a little inappropriate, but I just wanted to say:

David, you are so hot! :)

Best of luck with the kettlebells. I’ll stick with my twice-monthly treadmill workouts thaaanks.

David July 25, 2009 at 11:30 pm

Tiffani — I will never not like someone telling me I’m hot. Thank you.

Josh Hanagarne July 26, 2009 at 3:14 pm

Hey David. Great work. You did well, especially considering all that you had thrown at you. One small correction, just because I want to see you do the Naked Warrior experiment: It’s about one-legged squats and one-arm pushups, not one-leg deadlifts. The squats are way harder and will make for a much livelier experiment.

I can’t wait to see what happens in the follow up experiments. If you ever need help with technique or you have questions, I’m an email or Skype away:)

Great job!
.-= Josh Hanagarne´s last blog ..Sunday Backtrack: The Terrible Day I Met Bruce Campbell =-.

David July 27, 2009 at 6:34 am

Thanks Josh. Yes, you’re right, one-legged squats. Pistols. Anyway that’s a ways off. Today I begin my ‘interim period,’ where I’m learning the C&P and snatch while continuing the Program Minimum. I’m going to refine my swing form by enforcing the Hardstyle Lock, so I’ll start small.

david July 27, 2009 at 10:44 am

Brad – Frankly I’m not qualified to even begin to explain the how and why of steady state vs intervals & machines vs free weight. If you’re genuinely curious and open-minded, start doing some research and you’ll see how deep the rabbit hole goes.
.-= david´s last blog ..How Not to Craft an Order Page =-.

Miles July 27, 2009 at 9:26 pm

What is experiment 4?

David Cain July 27, 2009 at 10:18 pm

Miles — It’s a secret until it’s officially announced. Make sure you’re subscribed so you can find out that morning.
.-= David Cain´s last blog ..The Essential Skill of “Want Management” =-.

Brad July 28, 2009 at 9:13 am

david – The issue isn’t steady state versus interval or machine vs. free weight. I agree overall these choices make big differences. Just that for cardio, one means of achieving a heart rate profile is no different than another means. They provide the exact same workout to your heart.

Ian July 28, 2009 at 2:19 pm

I know its late, but well done with all the work. You will start to see massive differences in bodily looks when you start the ROP, especially if you add pull-ups like Pavel recommends. Judging by what you look like, you will probably add a fair bit of muscle. You can increase or decrease such muscle mass by decreasing or increasing rest periods as Pavel discusses.

I’d also really like to see before and after pics every month or so during ROP, you’ll see big differences.

Oh, and just my two cents, when you do the ROP, my recommended exercises on the Variety days are single reps of Goblet Squats, Hack Squats (ask on DragonDoor forums you can get tonnes of info – they work well with swings), TGU’s (I do the three on Tuesday), and some clapping/normal press-ups (they add some chest strength and mass, I’m working up to 5×10 clapping press-ups as Pavel recommends in Beyond Bodybuilding, and I do them on Thursday). Finally, in the back of ETK, there is a page which discusses how to get stronger on ROP with variety day (Thursday) work, you can download PDF’s after subscribing on the official site; http://enterthekettlebell.com/ They’re really good

Chris Edgar | Purpose Power Coaching July 28, 2009 at 2:42 pm

What kind of exercises do you do for your core with kettlebells? Just curious, in case I ever decide to drop the gym membership.

David July 28, 2009 at 4:07 pm

Ian — Thanks Ian. I do intend to add pull-ups to the RoP when I get there, I’m just trying to figure out how to do pull-ups without elbow pain. My left elbow always hurts after I do them.

I love the idea of the variety day, I’m excited to craft my own. I’ll check out the lifts you mentioned.

I will post an after pic in four weeks, then another after 8 weeks of the Rite of Passage. Thanks for all the info!

Chris — I don’t know of any kettlebell exercises that don’t work the core. Swings, TGUs, presses, snatches… they all require repeated and intense contraction of the abdominal muscles. It’s really a different animal than the isolated body part training that is so common in gyms. No need for situps or crunches, you’re ‘crunching’ all the time.

Ian July 28, 2009 at 7:43 pm

Elbow pain I’m not sure. Short term answer is try chin-ups (palms facing towards you). Make sure the bar has the same diameter all the way across. Have someone check your form (a person or maybe record yourself and post on DragonDoor). If that doesn’t work see a doctor. Such an exercise should never hurt you, and is considered by many to be one of the most important exercises one can do.

Variety days are fun, but always remember never to exhaust yourself. You can do lots of exercises (but I personally like to exercises that complement the main exercises, hence squats complement swings, TGU complement C+P, press-ups for chest strength, special swings and presses just to advance to a heavier KB sooner), but always keep the intensity low (mainly single reps or for BW stuff aim for 50% of max).

Cool to hear you’ll post pics, I wish I had, but I’ve seen pics of myself pre-ETK, and looking at myself having starting to press the 24kg KB, I look very different. Glad I can help, and look forward to hear how things are going.

David Cain July 28, 2009 at 8:09 pm

Brad, all I can say is try it and you’ll know it’s not the same thing. I’m no anatomist (is that a word?), but the heart almost feels like it pounds harder, not just faster.

I think part of the misunderstanding is fact that ‘cardio’ training actually conditions much more than just the heart and vascular system, and different forms are better or worse at conditioning certain parts of the body. Cardiovascular conditioning itself is only part of the benefit provided by training, even though people will casually group all high-heart-rate activities together and call it ‘cardio’. There is much more happening than just a high heart rate.

There is a considerable difference between reaching 180bpm via treadmill and the same heart rate via kettlebell swings because KBs demand far more from the muscular system, respiratory system, skeletal system and connective tissues. The whole body, of which the cardiovascular system is an inseparable part, gets better at what it does.
.-= David Cain´s last blog ..The Essential Skill of “Want Management” =-.

Brad July 29, 2009 at 12:09 am

Yeah, I get that. I wasn’t trying to lump all of the “cardios” together, nor am I trying to provide discouragement towards “kettlebelling” (it’s fun to make up words). I’m just saying how I see things.

Keep up with your kettlebell ninja tricks. :) You should take some videos.

Dany February 10, 2011 at 9:03 pm

Kettle bettle force you to engage your abdominals with each movement because they are unstable. David you look awesome and the results will get better and better. I like the lean, no bulk luck expecially for a woman like myself. I just started and I love it, less time for working out and great results. Not enough time is no longerr an excuese.

Lewis Carnelian June 23, 2012 at 8:00 pm

Hi David

Good article – just thought I’d mention, you tilt your head because you have mild astigmatism.

Cheers, Lewis.

Giovanni December 17, 2012 at 12:53 pm

Hi David,

Thanks so much for doing this KB experiment. Im deciding if I should try it out and thanks to you I am going to give it a go. You rock and ps i would be so happy if I looked like your before pic even!! lol You are in great shape man!

janet March 22, 2014 at 12:11 pm

Hey David – was once at an ‘event’ where they brought someone in as a fitness coach and they were pumping the idea of ‘kettlebells’ as ‘the answer. But now David — if You say they are ‘it’ — I believe it!! you do look ‘new and improved too’ – keep up the excellent work!!

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