Fad Fitness: A Serious Kettlebell Critique

Week 3: Spending time with a trainer, getting it all wrong

This week I deferred to the kettlebell pros in Austin, TX to get a better idea of what was working and what wasn’t with my new routine. And boy, was it a wake-up call. A sore-for-the-next-two-days wake-up call.

Branden Bonk, the head trainer at Art of Strength/Punch Gym, has been working with kettlebells for nine years now. He discovered the wonder weights when he was deployed in Iraq. And, as he puts it, “I found the strength and endurance benefits I was receiving with them outweighed the results I received with traditional training. It also allowed me to condense my workouts so I would get more out of the workout in a shorter amount of time.” Heck, if it’s good enough for an active duty soldier, it is definitely good enough for me.

Question number one for Branden: How do kettlebells accomplish both a cardio and strength training workout in one? (And, really, is it too good to be true?) He explained that the aerodynamic design is the key to its success. Unlike dumbbells, you’re able to swing it around pretty quickly and efficiently. That means that you can combine moves like lunges with weight resistance. Translation: Your heart gets a workout and your muscles do, too. Sounds all good, right?

Here’s where things take a turn for the worse: It’s relatively easy to make mistakes with these bad boys. Apparently I was guilty of many of them. One of the biggies, especially for women, is training with a kettlebell that is too light, and my 10-pound bell probably wasn't enough for exercises like the swing. Anyone who's ever been to a gym knows that going too heavy is a common mistake that leads to form problems (witness the bench pressing meatheads bounce the barbell off their chests). But going too light with a kettlebell can cause form problems, too, and means you probably won't engage the right muscles on each exercise.

Branden had me work out with a couple of different weights, ranging from eight pounds to 24 pounds depending on the exercise, and it made a huge difference. This underlined for me the fact that one size doesn’t fit all with these routines, so having just one weight at home isn't the most beneficial.

Another trap that a lot of people fall into? Bad form. It’s even easy to mess up the kettlebell swing, the foundation of the whole workout. For example, Branden told me that I was squatting instead of hinging at the waist, which was hurting my results. 

One other thing that Branden taught me is that I have absolutely no coordination or core strength whatsoever. We did a few “easy” moves (his words)—kettlebell swing, lunges with twists and figure 8s with the weights—and, boy, his (gentle, mind you) critiques made it clear how pathetic I was. I couldn’t keep my form if my life depended on it. My legs were shaky, I couldn’t keep my balance, and I made mistakes right and left. Branden told me that my problems were due to being so right side-dependent in my day-to-day life, but I think he was just trying to be nice.

Needless to say, I definitely have my work cut out for me over the next few weeks. I’m planning to join some of the group classes at this kettlebell-exclusive gym, but I might have to see Branden one-on-one again before I can hope to follow along with a group of dedicated kettlebellers. I’ve been building on what I learned from Branden at home with my Bob Harper DVD, and I picked up a 15-pound weight to allow myself more flexibility. I'm getting better with the moves and, on Branden's advice, I've started doing some of them in front of a mirror to be sure I hinge at the waist, sit back in my heels and continually engage my butt and core muscles while I perform the moves. I’m starting to feel a good kind of sore every morning, so I must be doing something right.


About the Project: The Active Times' Fad Fitness Challenge is a six-week-long project in which five hapless writers will immerse themselves in five popular fitness programs—CrossFit, Insanity, Barre, Flywheel and Kettlebell classes—for the dual purposes of getting in shape and evaluating them for our readers. We guinea pigs will bust our butts, burn calories and discover muscles we'd long since mothballed and, if all goes well, emerge into the New Year with a well-rounded perspective of the top fitness fads. Check back every weekday from now until the New Year to come along for the ride without breaking a sweat. Click here to check out the rest of the programs.