Health & Grooming

Kettlebells

After 40 minutes of grabbing, snatching and thrusting, Simon’s buttocks, thighs, knees and arms are all voicing concerns.

June 12 2009
Neil McLennan

Workout-wise, there isn’t much Simon Taylor-Watts hasn’t tried. From power salsa to aqua-kwan-do, if a discipline claims it can shift the kilos, then Simon’s willing to give it a try. Unfortunately, trader Simon’s character is both results-driven and easily bored – a fatal combination that results in him rarely sticking at anything long enough to find out whether it works or not. But having recently decided that he and the high-summer gym environment just aren’t gelling, he’s vowed to try something new. His latest fad, sorry, find, is kettlebells – the favoured strength-training technique for Soviet-era athletes. Open-air body sculpting using solid iron balls is different, guarantees results and is on offer as an early-bird bootcamp at the local park. Simon’s signed up in a heartbeat.

Rolling up to the common at an ungodly hour, it’s not hard for Simon to spot who’s running things. For starters, Dmitri is the only person about who isn’t walking a dog. Then there are the bulging muscles… and the spandex unitard. Dmitri is a long way from Vladivostok, and even further from the bronze he was denied in Beijing when a cruel twist of fate (and some shoddy record keeping) saw him disqualified from the bantamweight snatch and jerk. Still, there’s no ignoring the body he’s been left with. Dmitri isn’t so much built like a brick outhouse as constructed like a concrete Communist Party HQ – which, from where Simon’s standing, can only be a good thing.

There’s a variety of kettlebells for Simon to choose from. The behandled iron globes range from tennis ball-sized through grapefruit-shaped to a few bowling balls so battered they look like cannonballs dragged back from the Crimea. Simon decides to start out with a mid-range 20kg grapefruit, vowing to upgrade to a bowler once he gets into the swing of things.

Dmitri warms up by squatting down with a straight back, getting a grip with both hands and slowly swinging his big, heavy ball backwards and forwards between his legs. Simon follows suit, albeit gingerly. Dmitri may be going at it with gusto, but the last thing Simon wants, as he spreads his legs and squats down, is to catch 20kg of iron on anything else that happens to be swinging free.

Once Simon’s got the hang of it, Dmitri moves on to the two principle arm moves. The first – the “snatch” – involves hoisting the kettlebell up to balance at shoulder, or “rack” position, then pausing before thrusting it skywards in a sudden burst of power. The second manoeuvre – the “clean” – cuts out the middle bit, or “the rest stage”, as Simon is soon calling it, by requiring a hoist of the bell from floor to sky in one explosive swoop.

Simon practises enthusiastically, but can’t help noticing that Dmitri’s skill relies on quite a bit of huffing and puffing. Not to mention a quick grunt at the point of exertion. Simon isn’t sure if the sound effects are key to the discipline or just a cultural thing – or something that, by rights, you’re not entitled to employ when only shifting a grapefruit.

After 40 minutes of grabbing, snatching and thrusting, Simon’s buttocks, thighs, knees and arms are all voicing concerns. To an extent that he can confidently predict that one of the after-effects of the session is that he won’t be taking the stairs for quite a few days.

Spotting that Simon’s not fit for any more bursting, short, sharp or otherwise, Dmitri suggests he trade down a size of kettlebell. But Simon’s made himself a promise, and there’s no way he’s swapping his grapefruit for an apple. It’s a decision he’ll live to regret. With only five minutes remaining between misery and a hot bath, he swaps his grapefruit for the 40kg cannonball. It could bring a battleship to its doom, but Simon switches on the turbo drive for his final flourish. He bends over, wipes the sweat off his palms and, with an almighty heave, reaches for the sky. His fear that he couldn’t get it up is soon surpassed by the sudden realisation that, with locked elbow and rapidly failing wrist, he has no idea how he’s going to get the damn thing down. So he simply lets go.

Actually, the damage isn’t that bad: a couple of broken toes and some acute metatarsal bruising. As Simon limps away, Dmitri reminds him that he’s at the park every weekday at 7am. So he’ll be welcome back as soon as the swelling eases. Simon would rather run a mile. If only he could…

See also

Exercise