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Kettlebell Weights: Getting Started, Training Safely and Gaining Maximum Benefit

Kettlebell Weights: Getting Started, Training Safely and Gaining Maximum Benefit

In the April 2012 issue of Black Belt, Dr. Mark Cheng, Senior RKC, one of the magazine’s contributing editors, offered advice on how and why martial artists should start training with kettlebell weights. Here’s some bonus interview content that didn’t make it into the magazine!

When a person is starting out with kettlebell weights, should there be no pain other than normal delayed onset muscle soreness? Or is it normal to experience minor pain like, “Oh, my spine felt strange after my first few workouts”?

DOMS is fine; where the DOMS exists should be of interest. For example, you’re doing Swings and feeling a lot of DOMS in your lower back. If you’re spending the majority of your day sitting and your hips don’t flex as much as your spine does, then that makes sense. The soreness means those stabilizing muscles are learning to play better, learning to get stronger.

But after a couple of workouts, the DOMS should shift. Say you’re doing Swings. The soreness should shift from your lower back to your glutes and maybe a little in your thighs. The Swing actually engages a lot of muscles: Your heels dig in, your knees lock out, your glutes clench, your abs shorten and your lats engage — it’s pretty much your whole body.

Mark Cheng demonstrates how to use kettlebell weights for a move called the swing.

How does a beginner know how heavy their kettlebell weights should be?

In general, a guy of average size and strength can start with a kettlebell that weighs 16 kilograms, or about 35 pounds. For ladies, it’s usually the 8-kilogram bell, which is about 18 pounds. Of course, if you’re coming back from an injury, that will be lower. In any case, you should go with a weight you can control. On the other hand, you don’t want one that’s so light you feel like you can do everything with it.




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These days, you can find really small kettlebell weights — a couple of pounds — in big-box stores. Is there any value to them?

They work great as doorstops or paperweights. They won’t hone your pecs very well, though. If a 5-year-old can put one of them overhead for several reps, what good is it to an adult? Those weights exist, in my opinion, only to minimize liability for those who don’t want to pay attention to good form.

How do you know when it’s time to move to heavier kettlebell weights?

If you’ve got a bell you can military-press to a strict lockout for 10 reps with good form, you should up the weight.

How long should kettlebell routines go? If a person starts with a basic routine that lasts 15 minutes, then really gets into it and starts seeing the length of the session grow to two or three hours, is that going too far? Is it a sign the intensity is too low?

People who watch their workouts grow in length are often addicted to the gym lifestyle. They like being there. For them, it’s not just about the workout.

I’ve never heard of anyone doing kettlebells for three hours nonstop. During seminars, we work people for up to three days, but there are plenty of rests.

I’ve taken athletes who are in good shape and, even while erring toward caution and safety, smoked them in five minutes. And it’s not like I was trying to be brutal. It was one minute of Swings, then one Turkish Get-Up, then another minute of Swings, then another Turkish Get-Up using the other hand, then a third minute of Swings.

It seems like that would be a selling point for a kettlebell exercise program: “Get fit in five minutes a day instead of spending an hour and a half in a gym pumping iron.”

I tell people that, but they seldom believe it. Depending on your lifestyle, the minimum program can have as few as two exercises: the Swing and the Turkish Get-Up. The Swing is a ballistic exercise that develops maximum explosiveness with the hips and legs, and the Get-Up is a full-body grind that takes you through the full range of motion with the body learning how to control the bell in multiple vectors.

Those are the two exercises you covered in the first article Black Belt ever ran on kettlebells (March 2009 issue), right?

Yes. People, including many in the rehab community, are still using that article for guidance.

In your DVD set Kettlebell Warrior, you frequently talk about details. Why are they so important during workouts with kettlebell weights? If you neglect those details, are you setting yourself up for injury or are you just not getting the full benefit?

There are different systems of movement and different systems of kettlebell training. The things I talk about in Kettlebell Warrior are from the hard style, which is the system Pavel Tsatsouline came up with. The details keep you safe and give you the maximum benefit — from a prehab and a rehab viewpoint, as well as metabolically.

You often remind your audience to keep the spine straight while exercising. Why is that so crucial?

These days, the average person sits in a slouch — on the sofa, in a chair, in their car and so on. The spine is in flexion more often than not. The problem with that is it makes the posterior muscles weak and the anterior muscles tight.

However, when the spine is straight and the neck is vertical, you’re not over-strengthening the front and weakening the back, which is much healthier. Because of our culture, most of us seldom get our hips to the zero point, let alone to extension.

Keeping that vertical spine, that long body, helps your core to fire more. It helps your body learn what that zero point is. Then you don’t have to rely only on those tight muscles when you do something physical.

If the problem is caused by posterior muscles that are weak and anterior muscles that are tight, does it mean it’s totally correctable?

You nailed it. As long as there’s no mechanical disadvantage or compromise — like bones that have started degenerating or problems with the disks — you’re good. It’s absolutely correctable.

That’s a big thing we emphasize in my Tai Cheng program, too. A lot of people think they’re relegated to doing tai chi because they can’t do anything else; we want to show them that regardless of their athletic level, they can benefit tremendously from exercises that balance the front and the back, the left and the right.

You stated that a person with limited time should do, at a minimum, the Swing and the Turkish Get-Up, right?

For most Westerners, I actually think there should be three exercises; I would add the squat. Little kids do the squat naturally. Many adults, however, stop squatting — at least in the States. In the Third World, adults still squat.

Because most of us don’t do it in daily life, our nervous system starts eliminating our control over that range of motion. It’s the one we in the West need the most. People in Korea, the Philippines and other countries where they squat a lot don’t need to do as much of it.

But yes, for Westerners, those three exercises can provide a full-body workout that doesn’t take hours per day.


For more information, visit Dr. Mark Cheng’s Facebook page!

To order the Kettlebell Warrior DVD, visit dragondoor.com.

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