Back in 2006, the sculpted abdominal muscles sported by Gerard Butler for his part as King Leonidas in the film 300 generated a great deal of buzz about how such results could be achieved within a limited time frame. That was the first time the word “kettlebell” popped up on my radar. It was one of the many “primitive tools,” according to the Warner Bros press release for the film, used in the relentlessly hyped-up, four-month-long physical fitness program designed to give the principal cast the physique of Spartan warriors.
Kettlebells have now made their way to Taiwan with the formation of the Taipei Kettlebell Club, which gathers at the Chiang Kai-shek Memorial Hall plaza twice a week to work out. “It’s about achieving a level of functional fitness,” said Matt Guy, the club’s founder, at a gathering earlier this month. With a group of students, Guy demonstrated how the use of the kettlebell, a rather primitive object resembling a cannonball with a handle on top, can help develop the muscles of the torso, while conveying many other benefits, including balance, strength, coordination and cardio-vascular fitness. Fantasies about washboard abs, wearing leather underpants and baby oil, and being a Spartan warrior, however appealing, were not an integral part of the program when I joined the workout session. What I did find was a good deal of sweat and a general sense of exhilaration as students pushed themselves through workout routines.
Kettlebells have a long and somewhat murky history, with claims that they were developed by the Russians, the Turks and even the Highland Scots as a means of developing physical strength. There is considerable anecdotal evidence of their use by old-fashioned strongmen and Turkish wrestlers, and plenty of suggestions that they were the favored training tools of the Spetsnaz, or Soviet special forces, and other elite combat troops. Kettlebell lifting was recognized as a competition sport in what is now the former Soviet Union in 1985, and kettlebells became standard equipment at many American gyms around 2002.
All of this gives kettlebells a certain cachet, but there are also many detractors: plenty of online literature criticizes the use of kettlebells as dangerous and more liable than regular machine-based weight training and calisthenics to cause injury.
Simon Finn, a British teacher who helps Guy in leading the instruction, said that he and Guy take great care to “dial in” the correct movements before beginners even start handling the weights. Classes are divided into two sections, with novice students practicing basic movements under the supervision of Guy or Finn, while others move through workout routines with kettlebells of various weights.
The two major routines are the swing and the Turkish get-up, using kettlebells that weigh between 8kg and 24kg. The swing uses the hips to swing the kettlebell up from between the legs, while the Turkish get-up is a series of movements in which a kettlebell is held aloft while the person moves from a prone to standing position. Both demand physical coordination, balance and focus to complete correctly.
“It works the whole person, the whole body, so the mind really has to be connected while you are doing it,” said Marcus Opalenik, a participant in the class. “It’s like you work out the whole being. It’s not like you are just exercising. You’re working everything out.” It is perhaps this complete engagement that contributes to the sense of exhilaration that follows the class.