When communism began to crumble, one of the first things to leak through to the West was kettlebell training. Although it certainly wasn’t a secret in the old Soviet Union it was unknown here, and fitness enthusiasts found it revolutionary. So of course I had to try kettlebells out, since I’m always interested in what strange commando types like the Spetsnaz are doing in training. You pick up a lot of good tips from people like that.
I was surprised that kettlebells felt so familiar, and it turns out that the remarkable strengths the Russians demonstrated as a result of kettlebells training aren’t that unusual if you grew up on a farm and spent a lifetime doing various sorts of manual labor. I’m not
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talking about standing in front of a packaging machine and placing this item here and pushing a button, which is what manual labor has become in many of today’s factories. People get stuck with the simple tasks machines can’t do as yet. Manual labor is something much more complex and I’ve always been drawn to it. In old China, the best warriors were said to be farmers, because they already had the essential skills of weapons handling. If you’re interested in those old martial skills, manual labor offers a great starting point.
A story one of my older neighbors used to tell will explain the link to kettlebells. Jim hired local boys to help in his fields when it was time to cut and bale hay. Usually no one but sons of friends were willing — or pushed — into working that hard for two cents a bale, and usually it didn’t even pay that well. If the season was a little short the reward was a really good meal and a “thanks, boys.” But if the season was really good, there might be a little money involved and occasionally some kid from town would hire on — usually one of the big meaty guys from the football team who could bench press several of us leaner farm types.
Those big kids seldom survived a day on the baling crew and Jim loved to talk about it, how they didn’t know the tricks and tried to “muscle” everything with brute force, wearing themselves out in a hour or two and then dragging themselves back to their cars with about a dollar in wages in their pockets. Bucking hay bales is like a kettlebell drill, all about swinging and rotation. A lightweight fellow who knows the trick can toss a ninety pound hay bale ten feet up onto the top level of the stack, without putting much muscle force into it. If you know the skill you can do it all day. If you’ve trained in brute force and straight line movement, like classical weight lifters, you’re only good for a brief burst.
Kettlebells adapt to either system of training, and it’s easy to convert them to lifts you already know and skip the weird stuff like the swings and handling routines. If you want unusual results from the kettlebells you’ll focus on the weird stuff because that’s what you don’t get from Olympic weights. The combination of styles gives the best overall training. I wouldn’t recommend giving up either approach. In my own experience there were certainly many circumstances where a lean farm kid was at a disadvantage against the football athletes, and it certainly doesn’t hurt to train for those situations, too.
The unfortunate thing about kettlebells, to someone on a limited budget, is the expense. Kettlebells of cast iron or steel cost a lot to ship, and if you train with them in a graduated weight system you eventually need a lot of kettlebells. The old style doesn’t adjust, and if you feel like stepping up to more weight you buy a new and more expensive kettlebell.
Several alternatives are available and I took one — the Kettlestack. KettleStacks are nothing but a handle and some hardware and tools. The advantage is that you can use Olympic weights on them and increase weight gradually without having to buy a new kettlebell every time. If you already have stacks of Olympic weights handy, you can pick up a few more cheaply and as needed. I bought two Kettlestacks and set them up with different weights for different exercises and that has worked out very well.
Classic kettlebells aren’t hard to find now but cost far too much in my opinion. If you try out a few at a gym you can settle on a weight that’s perfect for your own training and add one to your home system, even if you’re on a tight budget. You may find that a single kettlebell of moderate weight — 25 pounds for women and 35 pounds for men, if you’re already fit — adds enough to your regular drill to satisfy your need for manual movement training.