In this series, fitness pros investigate how exercise trends measure up to the hype.
I tested the bonds of an 18-year friendship by making my friend Emily sweat through a kettlebell class at Bang Fitness in Toronto (610 Queen St. W.). Kettlebells are becoming a staple in most training facilities. Most studios just incorporate bells into the classes – such as boot camp or sculpt – but others, like Bang, now offer kettlebell-only classes. In Vancouver, try Precision Athletics (240-858 Beatty St.) and in Montreal, there is Agatsu Academy (202 Prom. Ronald).
Kettlebells look like a cannonball with a handle. In essence, bells are simply a weight that you swing. The shape of the bell and the fact that you utilize momentum (versus lift slowly and with control) means that the workout is fundamentally different than when using dumbbells. The momentum required makes the workout both cardiovascular and strength-based. The shape of the bell adds an additional stabilization and core challenge and the exercises require both strength and explosiveness, which means that you have to move with power. The speed needed is why I have a love-hate relationship with kettlebells. As an endurance athlete, I am used to working at a fairly consistent speed. The powerful movements don't come naturally to me, but I know my body needs them.
What to expect
The class at Bang was – from warm-up to cool-down – entirely based around the kettlebell, which is atypical; most classes use the bell in addition to staples such as free weights, bands and body-weight exercises.
Any class with sustained bell work will probably include the swing, a staple of kettlebell training. In the swing, you use your legs, bum and core to swing the bell from between your legs to shoulder height. At Bang, we did swings, and then more swings, and then a few more. The initial main set was three rounds of two minutes of swings, one minute of single-arm swings on each arm, one minute of overhead presses and one minute of squat jumps. Between the second and third set of swings, Emily turned to me and said, "It is lucky I like you so much." I think she actually liked the challenge – she is an athlete at heart – but shooting dirty looks is often part of the fun when working out. Other kettlebell staples are goblet squats, the Turkish get-up, push press and iterations of the clean.
Emily felt that, although she likes kettlebells, an hour with the bell was too much. She would prefer a class that uses the bell, but not only the bell. She was pleasantly surprised by how sweaty she got; she expected to simply lift weights, but instead left feeling that she had gotten a strength and cardio workout all in one.
I left feeling inspired. Before I moved a year ago, I went biweekly to a functional gym where I flipped tires, used bells and lifted heavy weights. When I moved, I replaced these classes with biweekly Pilates classes. Training at Bang reminded me how much I love weight training – it makes me feel empowered and energized. I have already started prioritizing weights again.
A main positive of kettlebells is that it provides a strength workout, and, as Bang's website says, "Strength is for everyone." I wholeheartedly agree and appreciate that all of Bang's trainers have that slogan on the back of their shirts.
Strength training – whether you use kettlebells, dumbbells, or your own body weight – is for everyone. Strength will help you have better posture, protect your back, walk with confidence, perform everyday activities with ease, improve bone strength and improve your athletic achievements. As Bang's website states, strength training "fuels every other goal, from fat loss to athletic performance. It makes progress more efficient and results easier to maintain. It's not the whole story but it's an essential part."
For many people, kettlebells are a new training tool and thus can be used to mix up a workout routine. Never underestimate the importance of variety; workout boredom is a major reason many people abandon their fitness regimens.
As a trainer, I also appreciate that doing exercises holding the bell straight up toward the ceiling strengthens the wrists, which are a common weak link.
The main negative is that kettlebells are an advanced training tool. Kettlebell exercises are inherently intense and, in the wrong hands, kettlebells can be dangerous. If you are curious about the bell, I suggest taking a few one-on-one lessons; learn proper form before joining a group class. This is especially true if you have lower back issues – the swing motion is potentially detrimental. Before attempting the swing, you need to master the basic hip hinge and strengthen your core with staples such as the bird dog. Done correctly, kettlebell exercises offer an intense full-body challenge; done incorrectly, they simply keep your neighbourhood physiotherapist in business.