Fad Fitness: Kettlebell Class is in Session

Week 4: Learning to be a slightly weak, somewhat lop-sided Strongman

Fortified by last week's private session with kettlebell pro Branden Bonk, I decided to foray into group classes at his Punch Gym/Art of Strength this week. Bonk designed the hour-long class to be a Strongman-style workout. As soon as he uttered the word “Strongman,” I’m pretty sure my jaw dropped and I quickly scanned the room for the nearest exit. But since I couldn’t dart out of the room without drawing significant attention, I realized I was committed to this circuit sweat session, whether I liked it or not.

There were seven glorious exercise stations, most of them focused on kettlebells. But it wasn't all about these wonder weights.  We had a station where you literally just smashed a sledgehammer against a huge tire (Hey, I needed to work out that 9-to-5 frustration) and another station where you had to hang from a pull-up bar like a sack of potatoes (harder than it sounds, even though I had the advantage of arms). Not to fear, though -- there were kettlebell exercises, too, including swings and another standard move called the one arm kettlebell clean.

Each station required one minute of exercise, followed by 40 seconds of rest during which we rotated to the next station. After each circuit, we were given a two-and-a-half-minute break. We did three circuits in all, by which time my muscles were completely kaput. What was nice about the workout was that we were alone at each station, allowing us to work out at our own paces. As the resident weakling, I really appreciated the fact that I could benefit from a pro correcting my form but didn’t feel like I was ‘competing’ with my (stronger, more talented) classmates.

And what did I learn from the experience? Not only do I have zero upper body strength, I am also much weaker on my left side than on my right (which effectively means that my left side has negative strength). Every time I lift the bell with my left arm it’s much harder than when I lift it with my right. In fact, I was aware of this imbalance, but in a different context: It gave me a nasty case of IT Band Syndrome last year because I was—I'm being serious here—leaning Tower of Pisa-style slightly to one side during most of my runs. After six weeks of corrective physical therapy, though, I went back to ignoring strength exercises altogether. So consider this my wake-up call: All this strength stuff is important, not only for achieving a toned look, but also for preventing injury.  That's one more reason I should stick with this.

“I have no doubt I'm going to feel this tomorrow morning,” I told Branden on my way out the door. He just nodded, laughed knowingly and said, “I think you will.”  On cue the next morning, my muscles were screaming, but in a good, “Heck yeah, that was a hardcore workout” way.

No matter how hard I think I'm pushing myself when I exercise solo, it—duh!—doesn't compare to taking orders from a pro. Oddly enough, I can't wait to get back after it. Go figure.

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.