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Kettlebells Are a Blast Ė If Youíre Careful

Kettlebell lifting (see article #65, for a brief description and history) is harder than it looks -- especially on the elbows and lower back. Pavel makes it look easy in his video, but itís really quite challenging. I now understand why heís rated a Master of Sports in kettlebell lifting: He's good. Whatís more, heís right on when he says, "This is fun."

My Master of Sports rating will be a long time coming, probably in the next life, but my brief experience may save those who plan to try kettlebell lifting some unnecessary aches and pains.

My First Mistake

My first mistake came before my kettlebells arrived, when I tried a basic kettlebell move, the one-arm swing, with dumbbells. On this lift, with arm straight, you swing the weight back between the legs and then overhead using the muscles of the back, hips and legs.

My mistake wasnít practicing with dumbbells Ė thatís a good idea -- but starting too heavy. In his video, Pavel throws around a 97-pound bulldog kettlebell like itís nothing. So, I thought it would be reasonable for me to work up to repetitions with 50 pounds in my first workout. Wrong!

My lower back complained some, especially at the bottom when I swung the dumbbell back between my legs, but five reps with either arm went pretty well. Actually, the motion felt good; I enjoyed it. As expected, my lower back was stiff and sore the next day. The surprise was my arms. I knew Iíd made a big mistake when my biceps insertions and elbows hurt like hell. The pain was especially pronounced in the left arm.

As explained below, lowering the KB to the shoulder, and then to the bottom position, reduces the jarring on the lower back. (Photos by Carol Bass)

As I wrote in my dairy, by hindsight, my aches and pains were quite understandable. Swinging a heavy dumbbell overhead with the arm straight puts an unusual stress on the fully extended and stretched biceps; no wonder my lower biceps were both extremely sore. The severe pain in my left elbow was also easy to explain. An old training injury has left me with a weakness in my left shoulder; some of the muscles are gone. It doesnít bother me a lot, but my left shoulder is weaker in some positions. The weakness obviously put an extra torque Ė and strain Ė on the my left elbow.

I guess I shouldíve anticipated it, but I didnít. Iíve never experienced any problems with my elbows. This is the first time. So, I guess my shortsightedness is understandable. Readers are forewarned, however. Even for experienced lifters, kettlebell moves will stress and strain your muscles and joints in new and perhaps unexpected ways.

Starting Over

What I did next is what I shouldíve done in the first place. After my elbows recovered Ė the left arm took several weeks -- I started over, this time with less resistance. I slowly increased the stress over time to give my body a chance to adjust. I was also careful to rest long enough between training sessions to allow my muscles Ė and especially my joints Ė to recover.

This time I warmed up with a one gallon plastic milk container filled with water. The handle resembles a kettlebell handle, so it was perfect [I'm now using the new 4k and 8k KBs that Dragon Door has just introduced; see below]. After convincing myself that my elbows were okay, I did sets of five reps with each arm in the swing and press with 20-, 30- and 40-pounds. After that, I did dumbbell swings every two weeks, on Wednesdays. I didnít do it more often, because I was also doing my regular workouts and didnít want to over train, or inflame my elbows. (If KB lifting was part of my main workout, I probably would've done it more frequently.) 

This worked well. My elbows and back adjusted, and I slowly became more proficient. I stayed in the 30 to 40 pound range -- about the same as the smallest standard kettlebell, which weighs 16 kilos or 35 pounds -- for 7 workouts. I was doing 10 reps with 40 pounds for each arm when my Dragon Door kettlebells arrived. Thatís when the real fun began.

The Real Thing

Kettlebells present a whole new set of challenges. They are more cumbersome than dumbbells and harder to control. The critical difference is the handles. While dumbbell handles are centered and well balanced, kettlebell handles project out to the side, like a big loop on a bowling ball. The effect is like having a second pivot point or elbow at the end of your arm. At the top of the clean or snatch the KB rotates around and comes down on the back of the arm. This makes it harder to control the weight and also presents an extra shock to the body. Not only the back of the arm, but the wrist, elbow and shoulder must adjust. As Pavel suggests, you should bend the knees slightly to cushion the blow, which requires a little extra agility and coordination. You also must make sure that the kettlebell comes around straight and doesnít twist to the side and strain the wrist. This also applies when you lower the weight, because itís easy for the bell to get out of control and twist around. As I said, itís a whole new ballgame. After a few missteps and some practice, Iím doing okay and enjoying the new maneuvers.  It really is fun after you get the hang of it.

 Dipping the knees slightly when you catch the weight
 overhead -- or at the shoulder -- cushions the impact.

One of the problems, of course, was the weakness in my left shoulder. This made me a little anxious about catching the bell overhead with my left arm. I sure didnít want to re-injure my shoulder. Happily, after trying it a few times I found that I could handle the weight fine with my left arm -- no problem -- if I was careful not to overstep my limits. I canít press as much with the left arm, but otherwise Iím able to do about as much with the left arm as the right. I do the same weight and reps on the swing and snatch with both arms.

Back Flat, Head up

I learned more as I went along. I had to study Pavelís book and watch his video a number of times before I came to fully appreciate the importance of keeping the back straight and the head up on the pulling movements. As Pavel points out, the natural tendency is to let the lower back round slightly when you swing the kettlebell between your legs. Thatís what caused the discomfort in my lower back when I was using a dumbbell. I noticed even more strain on my lower back with the kettlebells, mainly because itís more difficult to control the weight on the way down. If youíre not careful, the kettlebell will come crashing down. Needless to say, this shocks the lower back. This problem was partially solved when I started concentrating more on controlling the downward movement and keeping my lower back tight and straight, especially at the bottom.

Concentrate on keeping the lower back tight and flat, and the head up.  Very important!

I also found that the swing is harder on the lower back than the snatch. The main difference between the two movements, of course, is that the arm remains straight on the swing and bends on the snatch. The weight remains out from the body on the swing and stays in close on the snatch. Importantly, the kettlebell doesnít come back between the legs as much on the snatch, which makes it easier to keep the back straight.. If you snatch from the dead hang position rather than swing it back between the legs, the kettlebell stays mostly in front of the body, much like the two-arm barbell snatch. This makes it easier to keep the lower back straight and the head up.

To protect my lower back, Iíve decided to emphasize the snatch over the swing. I still do the swing, but most of my pulls are done using the snatch movement. Another advantage of the snatch is that I can lower the kettlebell in two movements, which lessens the shock involved in catching the weight at the bottom. I lower the kettlebell to my shoulder (see photo above), and then take it down to the starting position. This reduces the wear and tear on my lower back, without detracting from the effectiveness of the exercise.

No Hurry to Move up

After experiencing the perils of starting too heavy, Iím working mainly with the small, 16k kettlebell and only getting my feet wet with the two heavier bells. Iím doing some two-arm swings and snatch high pulls with the 24k kettlebell, but I plan to take my time in moving up to one-arm lifts. I'm getting the feel of the biggest (32k) bell by doing some two-arm presses and upright rowing movements. 

I expect to be lifting kettlebells for a long time, so Iím going to do 20 reps in the one-arm snatch with 16 kilos before I tackle the 24k bell. I'm doing 10 reps with no trouble, so it won't be long before I'm ready to move up. Still, I'm in no hurry. I intend to go slow and enjoy the process.

In closing, I want to thank Pavel and Dragon Door Publications for making authentic Russian kettlebells available in the U.S. Ė and for giving me a complimentary set. Iíve enjoyed the challenge and plan to make kettlebells a regular part of my training program. As Iíve said before, I believe kettlebell lifting is a good substitute for, or complement to, the regular quick lifts. Itís a way to develop strength, speed and coordination without the need to master the intricacies of Olympic lifting. If you proceed slowly and carefully, itís a challenge and great fun. Iím hooked. Can you tell?

ABC: Always be careful. Bonk! This is what happens when you don't concentrate. 

[See our products page for Pavelís book and video, and order your kettlebells from Dragondoor.com. By the way, Dragon Door is now offering 4k(9lb) and 8k(18lb) kettlebells. See their Website for details and prices. The lighter bells will encourage more people, including women and children, to take up kettlebell lifting. Our 4k and 8k KBs arrived a few weeks ago and Carol is putting them to good use.  They are rubber coated and less threatening than the bigger KBs -- a great way to get started.  Carol would've never tried kettlebell lifting before we got the smaller bells; the bigger KBs are simply too heavy for most women.  I also use the small bells for warm-up; happily, I no longer need the water jugs mentioned in the article.]

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