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Kettlebells | The Times



The Times | 22 November 2008

Swing my bell: the great kettlebell workout

Photo: Teri Penglley

Photo: Teri Penglley

Laura Ivill joins Glenn Cumiskey's strength and conditioning programme and gets introduced to the magnificent art of kettlebells

You wouldn't think it to look at me, but I can lift nearly two tonnes. OK, so it's in 12kg bursts over 40 minutes, but it all counts. The 12kg weight in question is a kettlebell. It's essentially a cannonball with a handle, which you swing repeatedly and lift overhead, working all the key muscle groups in the body at the same time.

Fans include Jennifer Lopez, Penélope Cruz and Jennifer Aniston, with kettlebell classes now available at many gyms nationwide. Sales of the bells have increased by 30 per cent every year in the two years that they have been available at London Kettlebells, a strength and fitness company. Another sign that the bells, which hail from tsarist Russia, are here to stay, is the accreditation this autumn, for the first time, of 41 trainers in the UK by the International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation (IKFF).

So, given their ironman connotations, what is the appeal? At about 8st 7lb (54kg) I'm too slight to lose weight, but I want to tone up with a regimen that I can stick with. The swinging actions that make up a kettlebells workout melt away the pounds, about 500 calories during a 30-minute session, if that's what you are after. But for me the main attraction is their ability to boost endurance as well as strength, flexibility and power in the trunk, shoulders, pelvic girdle, legs and hips, and to promote mental focus.

Inspired by this simple back-to-basics premise, I decide to try a kettlebells class with Glenn Cumiskey, who runs the strength and conditioning programme, of which kettlebells are a key component, at the Allwell Centre, at London Bridge.

When I first set eyes on the kettlebells, they are lined up according to weight - 12kg, 16kg, 20kg, 24kg and 32kg - identical hulking black balls of iron. There's something refreshingly honest, earthy and, yes, powerful looking about them. Cumiskey starts me off with a 12kg (26lb)bell, a challenging starting weight for most women - he feels my fitness is up to it.

Hard work and a lot of sweat

We kick off with the double-handed swing to help me set the correct position, legs and feet apart to avoid clouting my knees. With both hands, I swing the bell down between my legs, then simply thrust my hips forward to swing it up again to head height, and down we go again. This feels good - it's rhythmic and straightforward and pretty much anyone could do it. The idea is to perform a few key lifts, each repeatedly over, say, ten minutes. It sounds simple, but I will find out over the next few weeks just how much fierce concentration, damned determination, gritted teeth, explosive grunts and sweat, a lot of sweat, it will involve.

You don't need to have handled weights before or be super-fit to get the hang of it, but being taught the correct technique is vital to avoid injuring your lower back and shoulders.

“The health benefits come from the fact that your whole body is engaged in the movements,” says Jonathan Lewis, a chartered physiotherapist and a personal trainer with Balance Performance Physiotherapy, who specialises in kettlebells. “But without instruction from someone who can explain the reasoning behind moves such as the swing and snatch (see Key Lifts below), you may just be making shapes and getting hot.”

Cumiskey agrees. “There's a lack of knowledge of how they should be used,” he says. “The words you want to hear from a genuinely good kettlebell instructor are ‘the swing', ‘the snatch', ‘the clean and jerk' and you want to be doing a high number of repetitions of these over a set period of time. These are the mantras.” Three kettlebell sessions later, I've mastered the basic lifts, although it takes me a little more time, practising at home with a tin of beans and a streaming video of IKFF founder, Steve Cotter, in action, to get to grips with “the jerk”. Now I'm ready to join a group.

Classmates Leo, Conor, Will and JP are pleased to see a new recruit. I can see from the impressive muscle definition in their arms and legs how the programme is paying off. They've been doing the regimen for six months, so I'm curious to know what to expect. “Apart from the obvious weight loss, the strength gains and the feeling of vitality, mentally it has made me more determined,” says Leo, 42, an IT developer who has lost just over 1st. “I can take on more. I understand the importance of training, not as a get-in-shape surge but as an integral part of my week.” Will, 37, an IT network and security consultant, agrees. “It has made me more confident. I'm now quite lean and have increased stamina and speed. Essentially, it's a foundation for all sports, plus it provides the physical ability to tackle any situation better.” We stand in a circle, ready to swing and lift the bells overhead, changing arms, with short breaks in between, for 40 minutes. This is known as “the clean-and-jerk long cycle”.

The group dynamic spurs me on

It is intense. I find the group dynamic really spurs me on. It's amazing how much the body can recover during the 60-second rest periods. Each time I go again, I tune in to my breathing, which synchronises with the rhythm and effort. We sweat, we power on, we grunt as the work gets tougher, we breathe and heave. Finally, our 40 minutes is up. Cumiskey does the sums and tells me I've done 147 reps. I have lifted 1,764kg.

The next day I feel strong and confident. I walk tall, I'm in a good mood, which builds as I continue doing three 40-minute workouts a week, which include bodyweight exercises (push-ups, pull-ups, squats etc), over the coming months. There's plenty of evidence that such high-intensity exercise raises metabolism, enabling the body to burn fat for long periods following a workout. It's impressive stuff. Having also followed the accompanying hunter-gatherer Paleo or Caveman diet (mainly fruit, veg, lean protein and lots of good quality olive and fish oils, no refined carbs), I'm soon reaping the rewards, with a stronger back, increased stamina and a more toned body to show for my efforts. It's not only fun, but these are long-term gains, underpinning my health and wellbeing in a profound and sustained way.

Four months after my first kettlebell session, Cumiskey has a surprise. “Laura, you'll be working with the 16kg this evening.” This is swinging more weight in one hand than Ryanair would let me take in my suitcase to Spain. I'm up for it. I've come a long way already. This is definitely something to stick with.

For more information, visit; to find an instructor go to Strength and conditioning with Glenn Cumiskey costs £120 a month (unlimited classes), with a kettlebells workshop for beginners next Saturday, Allwell Centre, London SE1; phone 020-7357 7517,


The swing

Holding the kettlebell in one hand between the legs in a squat, thrust with the legs and hips, straightening up to send the bell upwards. Control the bell's descent between the legs back into a squat.

Double-handed swing overhead

With the kettlebell between the legs in a squat, thrust with the legs and hips to send the bell in a full arc upwards overhead. Control the bell's fall back down between the legs in a squat. Keep the lift fluid, as with all the moves.

The snatch

From the single-handed swing, continue the lift so the arm extends fully overhead and slightly back, controlling the bell's descent down into the squat again.