Something I haven’t written a lot about is the fact that I’ve been involved in some kind of athletic endeavor for pretty much all my life. I played team sports when I was a kid like soccer and basketball and baseball, which I hated. In early high school I ran track and cross country, which were a much better fit for me, since I didn’t have to put up with the rubbish of sports team drama and politics. I also gravitated to the fact that my success as a runner was only determined by me. This, in turn, instilled in me the mentality of a solo athlete: you’re on your own. After all, once you graduate from team sports, staying in shape isn’t something you do as a team.
In college, I transitioned to the barbell and eventually achieved some pretty good numbers in both the “powerlifts” (the squat, bench press, deadlift, and overhead press) and the “quick lifts” (the snatch and the clean and jerk). The barbell has been home for me for years, and still is. I’ve learned many lessons under the iron. But recently, I’ve started doing more endurance work as I’m preparing for a hiking excursion this October, and the kettlebell has been the staple of my training.
In my opinion, if you’re just starting out with training and you want a simple program to get big and strong, do a beginner barbell program like Starting Strength. But if you’re dirt broke, or have no time, or some other lame excuse like that, then scrape together some pocket change and buy a kettlebell. $35 will get you a used 35lbs kettlebell on Ebay. Then watch Pavel Tsasouline’s tutorial on YouTube on how to use it and do his “Simple and Sinister” protocol three or four days per week:
Ten sets of ten one armed swings, with each set of ten starting every 30 seconds (switching arms each set) followed by 10 getups, one per minute(switching arms each time).
Anyone can find $35 and 15 minutes, and for that amount of money and time, you can get some pretty good results. Not world class, by any means, but a step in the right direction towards becoming a stronger and more capable man.
If you do find more time, you can do all kinds of things with kettlebells. Single leg split squats, cleans, snatches, presses, bent presses, etc. are all good exercises that can be done with a kettlebell. I have a 35lbs kettlebell that I use for dynamic work like swings and a 52lbs kettlebell that I use for static exercises like presses and split squats. They are small and intensely portable, which makes them great for travel. Just remember to put a chain through the handle while you carry them in the car so they don’t become a missle and kill you if you get in a front-end.
They also get you used to training without all the pomp and circumstance of a modern gym setting. Not every session needs to be some kind of ammonia-snorting max-effort death march that leaves you panting on the ground under the squat rack with a bloody nose and DOMS so bad you’re unable to sit down on the toilet for a few days. Ask me what that feels like. Most of your training sessions shouldn’t be killers like that. Consistently doing circa-max efforts in the gym day in and day out is the perfect recipe for injury and psychological burnout. The vast, vast majority of training efforts should be muted and ordinary. This is because showing up to train is the biggest factor in actually training, and therefore actually improving. This is the most important thing to learn as a beginner, and kettlebell teaches you this.
If you are a strength athlete who’s a little stiff and crusty around the edges, kettlebells will force you into new uncomfortable positions and allow you to work on strength imbalances. If you’re a powerlifter or a weightlifter or a strongman, getups are uncomfortably dissimilar to everything you usually do in the gym like presses, squats, and deadlifts, in a good way. They teach you to bear weight in uncomfortable positions for longer periods of time than traditional gym lifts, with the exception being carrys in strongman. The unilateral nature of kettlebell training also exposes certain weaknesses. You’ll probably find that one arm is better at pressing, or one leg is better at single leg RDLs. Are these things holding you back from that 700lbs deadlift you daydream about? Probably not. But for general health and for the sake of you not walking like a cripple because your left hip flexor is as tight as a banjo, it’s worth a shot to do such things.
I’m not going to say that kettlebells are the magic strength training elixer that some people on the internet claim they are. I also won’t claim they replace barbells in terms of effectiveness. Nothing, and I mean nothing, beats heavy squats, deadlifts, and presses as developmental exercises. If you’re looking to get big, you need to milk these three lifts for all they’re worth. Thus, kettlebells won’t give you top-end powerlifter type strength and they won’t make you look like a bodybuilder. They aren’t going to make you a world champion in anything. They probably won’t make you extraordinarily jacked. They’re not some kind of weird Russian strength alchemy that will magically turn you into Yury Belkin or Dimitri Klokov or Mihail Koklyaev.
They’re good at what they’re for: effective and minimalist strength-endurance conditioning. They’ll get you a stronger set of shoulders, hips, and a stronger back, and they’ll condition you to remain cool in awkward positions and in high workload periods. In my opinion, they work pretty well for that.