Hip to be round

Swinging times on a Hardstyle Kettlebells course

Hinge then plank. The ribcage flare. A broomstick down your spine. Break the horns apart. Play chicken with your junk. You have no arms.

Ever have that feeling where you’re not sure if you’re awake or still dreaming?

I’m in a square room below street level, somewhere near Times Square. It’s my first time in NYC in four years, but the museums will have to wait. Because today’s purpose is to learn the basics of a piece of gear I’ve been trying on and off for a year plus: the kettlebell.

The course is Dragon Door’s one-day instructor intro the HKC, led by Steve “Coach Fury” Holiner. And there’s more fun terminology on this course than you can shake a ball of cast iron at.

Looking like a cannonball with a handle, a kettlebell is a free weight that looks nothing like a barbell, but which does all the same things — while going a lot further. The weight of a kettlebell is offset — a sphere occupying a distinct point in space, rather than two plates either side of your hand. So unlike a barbell, a kettlebell feels unwieldy and lopsided. And needs more effort and energy to get moving.

You wouldn’t think a compact ball of iron would challenge powerlifters and strength champions. But it does, for the same reason skimming a black hole is scarier than orbiting a planet. Small and dense and some distance from your palm, the inertia of a kettlebell is concentrated right where you don’t want it. So handling one carries a smaller margin for error. It’s inefficient.

And when you want results from your workouts, inefficiency is good. It makes you work harder, train smarter. Guys who can deadlift twice their bodyweight often have trouble with a kettlebell of just 24kg, and most men will start with a 16kg or smaller. Kettlebells ask more than raw strength; they develop your balance, poise, proprioceptive abilities, that awareness of your body in space. It’s strength as a skill.

Kettlebells are also new — at least to the West. They’ve been in the USA only a couple of decades, in the UK even less. But in their native Russia, they’ve been around for centuries. The girevik is a recognised figure in Slavic folklore, heading for his “courage corner” to develop the strength he needs to survive in the Siberian wastes. He laughs at our candy-coated barbells, our talk of “leg days” and “muscle confusion”. He works out for neither aesthetics nor bragging points, but simply to compete in the world of men. For that is the Soviet way.

For a mild-mannered metropolitan copywriter, of course, this is what makes kettlebells cool.

The HKC is a course with a pedigree. (The harder RKC and even harder RKCII are beyond it — but that doesn’t make it easy, just easier.) Along with Pavel Tsatsouline, fitness publisher John du Cane was responsible for introducing America to the world of girya and poods in the 90s. Du Cane liked kettlebells so much he started making them, turning molten iron into saleable sports equipment by sheer force of economic will. (His Dragon Door kettlebells remain the most debugged ‘bells in the USA, falling smoothly to hand with no skin-wrecking seams on the handles. In the UK, equivalent quality comes from Wolverson, the ‘bells I have at home. Needless to say they’re pricey to ship across the Atlantic.)

The HKC isn’t a broad curriculum covering a range of topics like the PCC qualification I took earlier in the year; it’s all about the essentials, drilling in the basics so you’ve got something to build on. To pass, you need to perfect three core moves: the Goblet Squat, Turkish Get-Up, and Swing.

(Oh, and be able to quote from Keanu Reeves movies. A Fury thing.)

The day kicks off around 8. Even given the early hour, the participants are a friendly bunch. (Fitness courses are like jazz bands, people of varied backgrounds coming together around a common theme.) But what makes any course sing are the instructors.

Sound and Fury, signifying something

Fury is a big name in the kettlebell world. A Master instructor (the top level in the Dragon Door system) he also does stuff called Ultimate Sandbag (whatever that is) and has taught across America and Japan. Like other well-known instructors, he’s a deeply normal guy in the flesh, the sort you could enjoy a beer with without knowing he heaves lumps of cast iron around for fun.

I’ve met fitness instructors with PhDs in medicine and degrees in pure mathematics, but one factor unites all: ultimately, they’re unashamed blue-collar guys, seeking to do a fair day’s work for a fair day’s pay and give value so you’ll keep coming back. (Today’s a very unfair payday for him. The New York Marathon’s taking place across town and it’s squeezed enrolment numbers. But the small class size makes for very up-close-and-personal tuition.)

At Fury’s side is Kirk Adams, a Pennsylvanian transplant to NYC with a verified 400lb deadlift and eyes the flinty grey of his home State’s steel mills. His fitness niche is undercover work with the world’s covert security services, training cold-eyed assassins to kill silently and without mercy.

(Sorry. That was a joke. His real day job is helping golfers improve their game, which I find oddly funny; first impressions are more Spetsnav than Slazenger. I’m reminded of Hightower in “Police Academy” telling Mahoney his chosen profession was Florist. But he’s known for being very, very good at it, coaching everyone from casual clubbers to kings of the links.)

Both are good-humoured; it’s a trainer boxtick. Remember most clients of personal trainers don’t actually enjoy training, don’t want to spend hours underdressed and sweat-soaked surrounded by people looking at them with a critical eye. So as in many areas of freelancing, the most profitable trainers are those that spend as much time laughing as loading. And these two like to laugh.

Back to the ‘bells. Kettlebells come in two flavours: competition and traditional. Comp ‘bells are made of hollow steel, with smallish handles: no matter what weight, they’re always the same size, so competitive lifters don’t need to change grip or lifting styles. Traditionals are solid lumps of cast iron. Thus different weights are different sizes, and each will rest differently against your hand and forearm.

“Competition” kettlebells aren’t better, just different. They’re used mostly for Kettlebell Sport (KS), a timed event involving as many reps as possible in a set time. Hardstyle (HS) — the focus of today — is performed with traditionals, and if you’re interested in fitness they’re the usual choice, although both can do double duty. Steel or iron, it’s all offset weight, and that’s what makes the kettlebell difference.

The system of the pood

More kettlebell lore. They’re measured in “poods”, a Russian unit of weight equivalent to sixteen kilos. An 8kg ‘bell is a half-pood, a 12kg three-quarter, and so on. Although no American instructor has ever asked a student to “grab a one-pood kettlebell”, it’s worth knowing poods from pounds for that extra tingle of kettlebell culture: just a bit sidestream, just a bit hardcore.

Some kettlebell marketers up the weight in tiny 2kg increments, which is philosophically questionable. You’re not supposed to go too easy on yourself, it’s not meant to feel like a friction-free ramp going smoothly upwards. Kettlebell culture wants you to jump the gap between a 16kg and a 24kg rather than take baby steps. It wants to shock your system just a bit and get you outside your comfort zone.

Doing so is a genuine challenge, taking a bit of a risk to get the extra reward. And the way such gapped step-ups boost your performance across any strength sport — what Pavel calls the “What the hell effect” — is all the reason you need. Swimmer? Climber? Martial artist? Kettlebells can help.

Another way to check your kettlebell vendor is down with the kids is to check their colour coding. By convention, 16kg ‘bells are marked with yellow, 20kg with purple, and 24kg green. Upping the ante, 32kg are red, 40kg white, and 48kg gold.

(Most experts recommend plain iron ‘bells with a touch of paint, and dissuade you from buying brightly coloured ones encased in neoprene. Plastic sheathing cracks and peels in no time, and while a cast iron kettlebell looks cooler with a few scratches, a scuffed neoprene ‘bell looks like something you salvaged from a dumpster.)

The weight scale may be linear, but the difficulty is exponential. Most gyms will top out with a 36 or 40. It’s rare to see a kettlebell above 48kg even in specialised gyms, but they do exist: London’s Commando Temple — a workout space so legendary the NY-based Fury mentions it on learning where I’m from — has a custom-forged 93kg monster named “Boris” on its rack. (I’ve seen it, and it resembles a Bizarroworld spacehopper.)

So: poods, offset weight, large gaps, different shapes for different disciplines, and colour-coding. That’s about all you need to know about the gear.

After some entry-req planking and learning everyone’s favourite Keanu Reeves movie, the coursework starts. And in less than five minutes I realise I’ve been doing it all wrong. The need for good posture, tension, and balance are all magnified when lifting a kettlebell, so the first lesson involves standing and hinging at the hip repeatedly, to make you aware of and engage your whole body.

Feel the floor beneath your feet, the crease of your hips, and the melon on top of your spine . . . and keep everything in between firm.

We practice plank to hinge, plank to hinge, plank to hinge. We go through the motions of deadlifting. We breathe. It’s an hour before we even touch a kettlebell; when the time comes we run for the racks like excited children. That one’s mine! No, I want that one!

Not knowing squat

First on the dance card is the kettlebell version of a squat.

I thought I could squat. I can do sets of 50 bodyweight ones without issues. But once you’ve got a kettlebell by the horns in the Goblet Squat, the black hole effect sucks your brain into its gravity well and forces a focus that makes you bleed from your forehead. Even with just 16kg in front of your chest.

One does not simply hold the kettlebell. One tries to break the handle apart laterally, creating the “ribcage flare”, that rooster-chest men adopt when attempting intimidation. The Goblet Squat is a grinding move. Like the Get-Up next, the best results stem from doing it slowly and with perfect form, no momentum cheats.

Get your backside onto the invisible chair, or the bell will move too far forward. And don’t lean forward, because that’ll pull you further. Being out a few degrees makes it harder; taking the wrong line upwards feels wrong, the vectors of force directing the load away from your glutes. So grind it out, checking and rechecking your body’s position in space every second. Stand up straight. And then … do it again.

Everything you learned about squatting — knees follow toes, get that horizontal thigh, sit in the invisible chair — gets taught to you again, at higher decibels, when there’s a kettlebell involved. Your teacher is a base element called Iron, and his value system is Newtonian physics.

So that’s why they do the squat first.

Getting on with the Get-Up

Few moves work every muscle group, build greater body awareness, and force mental engagement while also conditioning useful strength skills. Yet practicing them can be a lifesaver. Fury quotes a startling stat: in the USA today, more people over 65 die from falling over than from cancer. Gaining better poise, being able to stand up from supine, is the principle of the Turkish Get-Up, the second core movement taught on the HKC. (My local strength gym calls ‘em “Turkish Fuck-Ups”, but that’s South London for ya.)

If the Goblet Squat opened your eyes, the Get-Up has them popping out on stalks. It’s an extended sequence of moves that starts with lying on your back, pressing a ‘bell above your head, then pushing with sole and palm to rise before swinging a foot underneath to lunge to standing. All the time keeping your eye on that lump of iron overhead.

There’s a laundry list of submoves within the sequence; every joint on your skeleton needs to go through a specific range of motion and end in a particular configuration to complete each step. And if you’re in the wrong position when you start any submove, it’ll show up as grade-A awkwardness in about a second.

This means the black hole effect in the Get-Up is even greater. Because you’re holding the ‘bell some distance away, the forces acting through your body are leveraged, once more proving Archimedes knew his stuff. Mistakenly hold your arm 15 degrees off vertical, and you’ll overbalance like an ambitious drunk. And when you’re balanced on one hand and one foot, 15 degrees can easily look vertical from below. Tip: video yourself.

I can squat with 40kg, but can’t manage a Get-Up with more than 8kg. A shameful half-pood. With both arms stretched out, the moments of force that seesaw through your wingspan are extreme. Even at this toy weight, the little black hole I’m hoisting makes me feel I’ve already crossed the event horizon. It burns… it burns.

Swing low, sweet kettlebeller

Last up is the Swing. It’s a “ballistic move”: the goal is to get the kettlebell moving and then let it do its thing, snapping your hips out of the hinge to launch it, then bringing it back under control on the downswing just before it goes between your legs. (Where “play chicken with your junk” comes from.) It looks simple, but surprisingly, it’s even harder than the Get-Up to master.

Back to our black hole metaphor. You’re not avoiding the gravitational tide, you’re actively using it, slingshotting your spaceship around the gravity well again and again. What physicists call “metastable”. Not stable in the rock-on-the-ground sense, but in the riding-a-bike sense.

That’s why you have no arms in a kettlebell swing; they’re just chains linking you to the weight you’re throwing around. But I’ve got arms, and it’s hard not to use them. To a trained instructor, it’s obvious when a student does this: the ‘bell rises just a little too fast to be the effect of the hip hinge, comes down a little too slow to be playing chicken with my you-know-what.

In the Swing, you imagine a broomstick resting on the back of your head and touching your tailbone, trying to keep as many of your vertebrae in contact with it as possible. All the moments of force belong in your glutes, and they’ll only get there if you maintain a neutral spine right through the hinge. So plank to hinge. Plank to hinge. Plank to hinge. The instructors admonish. Advise. And correct.

The end-of-day exams aren’t many reps, but each rep has to be perfect. And not many certificates are awarded on the day. Far fewer than on a PCC with triple the course material. But the HKC is about fundamentals. Every kettlebell move is built on the same bases: the plank, the hip hinge, the deadlift. Until you get those right, you shouldn’t even be thinking about clean-and-jerks, or snatches, or overhead presses. Before you learn a language, you need some basic vocabulary.

And then, a little too soon, it’s over.

Fury (no longer a Steve to us) and Kirk take us for beers afterwards at one of Manhattan’s ubiquitous Irish bars. I get another taste of how connected the fitness world is: in the bar we meet two graduates of the PCC course that’s been happening across town with the Kavadlo brothers — Al and Danny — who I’ve also met despite being based on opposite sides of the Atlantic. And one of them is also a kettlebeller, with the higher-level RKC II under his (possibly black) belt.

And, of course, there’s some talk of tattoos, an alien subject to my pale British flesh. Tattoos are big in the fitness instructor world — it’s their business to be body obsessive, after all —and there’s some admiring talk of Grace Kavadlo’s latest cartoon-tribute body artwork. (Apparently it’s a Beavis & Butthead one — presumably not on her butt or head.) There are moans about how difficult it is to get good artwork into your butt crack. (I had no idea butt crack tattoos were even a thing.) Fury grumbles about leaving a design unfinished too long and how he’ll need a re-inking.

It’s a small world, but an exhilarating one.

And it’s made me think my next goal, the RKC certification, may be in reach with work. The pass standard for the RKC is to snatch and press a 24kg ‘bell 100 times in five minutes; as of today, I can barely do it once. But when you see fitness as a lifelong journey, that’s sort of the point.

Hardstyle kettlebelling isn’t really about weightlifting, any more than Catch-22 is about life in the army.

It’s not about the kettlebell

To end with another snippet of Keanu lore, the iron globes stacked against the wall are red pills. They demonstrate, using nothing more than physics, how the world really works. How deeply leveraged functional movement is, how much momentum and inertia matter. And how mastery of it all is possible . . . if you put in the work.

After all, if someone proved to you that you’re stumbling through life like a wet sponge, when you could be meeting it head-on with focussed poise … wouldn’t you want to change?

You are nothing more than your consciousness, and that consciousness exists nowhere but within your skin, driving a set of bones and organs through space at the whim of mass and gravity. Kettlebells help you move that machine smoother, relate it better to the world beyond, go through life with a surefooted ease.

And know what? The HKC is a great place to start. After this, there is no turning back: RKC, here I come. I’ll see how deep the rabbit hole goes.

Chris Worth is a London-based copywriter with an interest in fitness. He creates campaigns, copy, and content for marketers and ad agencies as Chris does Content and recently released his 1,200-page textbook for successful freelancing, 100 Days, 100 Grand, on Amazon. This article is a personal opinion; he has no relationship with Dragon Door and paid for the HKC himself. If you’re interested in kettlebells NYC style, Steve “Coach Fury” Holiner is at www.coachfury.com.

--

--

Get the Medium app

A button that says 'Download on the App Store', and if clicked it will lead you to the iOS App store
A button that says 'Get it on, Google Play', and if clicked it will lead you to the Google Play store
Chris Worth

Dreamer-with-a-day-rate authoring and creating at chrisdoescontent.com. Objectivist, minimalist, libertarian; into calisthenics, kettlebells, and Kindle.