Kettlebell – the power of balance

(what it is all about and the history of the kettlebell sport)


WO: A contestant once said that kettlebell training is a sport that gives you the feeling that your body not only looks like a Ferrari, but also has strength that resembles a strong, reliable and productive Ferrari engine. What do you think about this – would you agree?

MŁ: Yes, that’s it precisely. However, you don’t really understand this until you actually start training. The sport is so complex that every part of the body is involved, and the workout is very intense.

WO: What does kettlebell training involve?

MŁ: The kettlebell itself is the most important object – it’s a cast iron ball with a handle. Kettlebell training involves ballistic, or strength, exercises that engage the whole body. So-called deadlifting, so lifting the kettlebell, or even throwing it up in the air, involves not just the strength of the arms, but also that of the whole body. You lift it just like weightlifters lift barbells. Of course this is a very general description, without going into details.

WO: What exactly does this lift look like? Where is the kettlebell located – in the middle, or on the left or right side? I know that a barbell is lifted with both hands, but a kettlebell with one hand only.

MŁ: On a professional, competitive level everything depends on the specific competition. For example, one competition involves two kettlebells, where you lift both as high as your chest, resting your elbows on your hips. From this position we lift the kettlebells just like weightlifters lift a barbell, so we step under them to make sure we take as much weight off the arms as possible.

WO: You do all this with one hand?

MŁ: Yes, we also do these exercises using one hand. It’s not done symmetrically, we only involve one side of the body. During the competition you can change hands as needed, but it all depends on the specific rules in a given competition. For example, during a ten-minute lifting sequence you can only switch hands once, but in long-distance sequences that last half an hour or even an hour you can switch hands whenever you need to, as many times as you like.

WO: So the obvious question comes up: what about safety and injuries? When I imagine exercising with a big kettlebell, with one hand, I think it must be easy to bend over sideways, or even fall and tear a muscle. It seems like a very dangerous sport to me.

MŁ: Yes, but it only seems this way until you get into the details. Exercising and training involves many levels. The first is building stability, not only that on the inside, so the spine, the so-called core, but also stability of the shoulders, hips, knees, and feet. All this, at the first level, has to be trained to perfection. If we don’t have this core stability and strength, this inner fortitude that comes from a strong stomach and stable body, we are like the Ferrari you mentioned earlier, but with a very weak engine.

WO: So how do you start training? As with the Ferrari – where do we start building?

MŁ: We have to learn the basics, like crawling on all fours, just like little children exercise when they are learning how to walk. Once we know the basics, the rest is just climbing higher and higher on the experience ladder, one level at a time.

WO: I think we should talk a bit about where kettlebells came from. We mentioned that this isn’t a very popular sport yet. All I know about it is that it originates from Russia. Could you tell us a few words about where the idea came from – the story is exceptional from what I heard?

MŁ: Yes, that’s true, the story is quite interesting. The beginnings of the sport date back quite a few years, when farmers used a 16-kilo kettle to weigh their grain – this was the equivalent of one pood, a Russian weight measure dating back to the 12th century. One day they had a bit much to drink and started competing between themselves – who can lift more? Later this evolved into a circus show, and then the element of competing was added. The sports discipline grew until sports competitions were created. This is a very short version of a long story, of course.

WO: I also heard about a very interesting story about the Russian army’s special forces…

MŁ: Yes, around 1980 kettlebell training was introduced as a compulsory subject in Soviet schools. The relationship between good physical development and effective work was discovered: well-developed and physically active people are healthier, so the costs of medical care for the government are lower. This type of physical activity was introduced not just in the army among the special forces, but also in regular military settings, to increase the effectiveness and endurance of soldiers. Beyond a doubt this type of sport builds incredible strength, endurance, and resilience; it helps manage stress, but also facilitates dealing with exertion, which is a stress generator.

WO: Maybe this is a secret, but is it true that the sport is absolutely obligatory for the Russian Spetsnaz?

MŁ: I don’t know if it’s a secret, but yes, this is true.

WO: On your website you say kettlebells are like a moveable gym. Does the sport increase body mass, and if not – why is that?

MŁ: Kettlebell lifting, training with the use of kettlebells in general, shapes the body and builds body mass in a way that is natural. There is no way there will be an unnatural increase in body mass. If there is a muscle group that is weaker and less developed than it should be (according to correct body biomechanics), it will definitely develop and grow as it should. However, if there is an area where you have excess body mass,  that area will shrink. The body shapes itself in line with correct proportions.

WO: From what you say a self-awareness of your own body is key, and the coach’s role is also developing this ability. Do you know of any contestants who trained without a coach?

MŁ: Of course, I know people who trained without a coach, but I believe that people starting their kettlebell adventure should start working with a coach – even, if I may say, with a smart coach, who is aware of how things should be done. Professional contestants do train alone, but these are people who are already well aware of their own bodies, they know the basics of biomechanics, anatomy, building endurance, the methodology of training – so they will not hurt themselves. I can’t imagine someone with no experience, so a beginner, lifting such heavy equipment without the necessary skills. As I mentioned earlier, we first need to build stability, then improve technique, which is really the key to success.

WO: In that case how long do you need to train with kettlebells to get to the level where maybe you are not a world champion, but where you can start feeling satisfaction and start enjoying yourself as far as your body and fitness level are concerned?

MŁ: I think this happens fairly quickly because the hardest part is building this self-awareness and stability of the whole body, muscle control, control in general.

WO: A month? Six months? Two years?

MŁ: I think that after six months we can start feeling the benefits.

WO: Someone said that you build balance when kettlebell training. This is a little like in the business world – we lose our sense of balance by definition. Would you agree?

MŁ: Yes. Balance refers back both to physics and mental balance. I talk from experience: for many years I practiced combat sports and there was always an issue of overstraining, of a lack of balance. I often felt pain: usually in my back, sometimes in my buttocks, legs, or even my neck. When I started kettlebell training I forgot about all my pain – I have no back or hip pain, no pain from overstraining in general. This is because of this symmetry of training. As far as the business analogy is concerned, I think  the key issues are focusing on yourself, hard work, consistency and its positive consequences.

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