I have below an interview with David Ganulin, NYC based owner of Kettlebell Concepts, which certifies fitness professionals in how to properly teach kettlebell training. He has a Master’s in Teaching, Curriculum, and Development from the University of Rochester and speaks Japanese. He has appeared on the Early Show (CBS), Fox News, Morning News (WB11), Inside Fitness with Bonnie Kaye (CBS), ABC News and other media outlets.
David is one of the pioneers who brought kettlebells to chain gyms. In answering these questions, David also had some assistance from his Program Director Vincent Metzo (questions 4, 6, and 7).
1) What are kettlebells? Where do they come from?
They’re originally Russian in origin and were counter weights found on scales in farmers markets. People would come in and have grains on one side and the KB on the other.
There originally were three basic sizes measured in an old unit of measurement called a “pood” which is 16kg, approx. 35lbs. There was a pood, a pood and a half (about 52lbs) and 2 poods (about 72lbs.) This is also why, in my opinion, when KB’s first reappeared on the fitness scene, they were not only labeled in kilograms (perhaps an attempt to be “traditional?”) but also they were heavy and only, more or less available, in those three sizes. Obviously, vendors got wise to the fact that things needed to change quickly if they were going to get any real traction.
You only hope that the trainers who teach KB’s do a good job of conveying the history to their clients properly. It’s important for trainers to convey to clients the fact that, when they use kb’s, they’re definitely entering into a tradition—that they’re a part of something bigger. Clients should know this!
2) You are considered one of the pioneers who brought kettlebell training to U.S. gyms. What sparked you to believe so much in a hunk of iron? Why bet your career on it?
I used to be the fitness/wellness editor and manager for a (now defunct) site called woof.com. (A sort of “best of the web” for guys 18-34 and a precursor to sites like Maxim, Urban Daddy, Thrillist and others.) I saw the KB slowly start to make a comeback (in the literature) and, having used tools similar to it while studying martial arts while I was living and working in Japan for 6 years, I knew this revival was going to “take.” Kettlebells were nothing new, but for a variety of reasons that are beyond the scope of this article. . .time “forgot” about them and. I saw the writing on the wall. It was the very beginning of the rise of things like Cross Fit, p90x, body weight exercises, suspension training and more. Small group training hadn’t really existed yet but every indication was that was where the industry was heading, and this tool was perfectly positioned for forward thinking clubs to jump right in.
Also, after the dot com died, I started training at the Sports Club LA on the UES and at a small studio in a residential commercial building called Zone Studios on East 31st. The responses I got from my clients were off the charts. Clients who “barely sweat when they exercise” (we’ve all heard that!) are now drenched. Magic, right? So ok. After doing some “in the field” work for a good 6 months or so, I became firmly convinced that, if NYC people are believers, there’s got to be a business here.
So. . . I started taking bells in a backpack all over NYC going from one gym to another talking to anyone who would listen to me trying to convince them this weird looking thing is going “to be the next Pilates or Yoga.” I also was doing workouts in Madison Square Park (before Shake Shack took over my spot!) and Central Park with KB’s. Talk about crowds! Nobody had ever seen this weird lookin’ thing before.
As far as the gym owners went, 9 people out of 10 laughed at me, told me I was nuts, said they are the same as dumbbells. . .whatever. One guy—Dr. Paul Juris—then the head of Equinox Fitness Training Institute and now the Senior Research Director at Cybex said, “Oh sure! Kettlebells. Great stuff. Been around forever. Let’s do something with them!” Then I started doing small group PT with KB’s in Equinox. I was the first guy there to do them and taught small groups at Graybar, Wall, Greenwich, and others.
While all this was going on, I was doing research into other similar, educational businesses like Spinning, YogaFit, Stott Pilates, EFI Sports Medicine, and many others. I wasn’t going to reinvent the wheel, but I knew that I wanted to be business to business since (by training the trainers) you can have a much broader effect on the end user that way. They’re extremely cost effective when compared to things like an Allegro reformer or Spin bike or something. There’s no maintenance costs either. It had a cool shape nobody has ever seen before. (Unless you’re from the former USSR!) It’s sorta sexy. It has a legitimate history of use in the iron game.
Suffice to say that the reasons why this hunk of iron could help (any) gym owner’s bottom line kept stacking up. There was research behind it. It was here in the states too in the early 1900’s but again, time forgot about it. . .and anyone who has been in the industry long enough knows that the “good stuff” always comes back. (But it comes back with a new, academic understanding and appreciation for WHY it’s the “good stuff” and that’s what’s happening now with the KB.)
3) A recent study found that a kettlebell workout can burn up to 20 calories per minute. That’s double most calorie burn estimates of jogging. Why does kettlebell training burn so many calories?
Many KB movements are compound in nature and, because some of the “foundation” movements use momentum and inertia (what happens in the gym shouldn’t stay in the gym!) the lifter must learn to handle these forces accordingly. Using the KB is hard work. It’s a skill and it must be taught and continually refined. This means the trainers need to keep up with their own education so they can continually progress their clients! It’s no different than yoga, Pilates, martial arts, dance, etc. KB training puts new demands on the body that simply aren’t “called up” when sitting on a machine.
4) Most kettlebell exercises can be done with a dumbbell. Why not just use a dumbbell instead?
Most dumbbell exercises can be done with a barbell, most barbell exercises can be done on a machine, most machine exercises can be done on a suspension trainer, etc. etc. The problem with the question is that it neglects the physics and mechanics inherent in these different apparatuses. Moreover the question is from the point of view of the equipment instead of the organism (person, client, exerciser, athlete) using the apparatus or tool. 1
The kettlebell because of its “U” shaped handle has its center of mass outside of the lifter’s hand. This is more like the unbalanced objects we manipulate in life (sports, work, grocery bags, etc) and the fluctuating lever arm created by the U-shaped handle increase the amount of inertial that must be overcome to stop the KB.
Swings for high intensity intervals, the u-shaped handle is more comfortable to hold than trying to swing a dumbbell. Additionally, training with and to use momentum has its own benefits with respect to transferability, recruitment of muscle fibers and speed of adapting to training, and intermuscular coordination.
You can use a kettlebell to do traditional exercises like squats, presses, curls, etc but you can’t get the same bang for your buck by swinging, cleaning, snatching, pulling, or jerking a dumbbell because it’s designed to be balanced and minimize inertia and momentum.
5) What are your top 5 favorite kettlebell exercises for overall strength & conditioning?
- The Turkish get up. Just plain nasty.
- The KB snatch.
- The swing. (Under rated and absolutely killer as an exercise in and of itself)
- The windmill
- And some basic juggling is always fun. (But that’s best practiced outside!)
6) Should kettlebell training be used on its own, or part of an overall workout, or exercise program?
Can kettlebell training help burn fat, or build muscle?
There are many factors that influence program design and equipment selection, cost, convenience, versatility, and program goals to name a few. The kettlebell can be used on its own. It’s a gym in hand swing intervals for cardio/metabolic training, snatches and jerks for power, traditional exercises for strength. It promotes SKILL related fitness in the form of intermuscular coordination. Depending on the goals of a program, a KB could be used for just the warm up, for the power/velocity/explosive component, or for the strength component of the workout. If you need to clean, deadlift, squat or bench very heavy weights, a barbell is the tool for you—that’s what it was designed for. But that doesn’t mean you could do adjunct, complementary work with the kettlebell.
High intensity interval training has been shown to be the most effective way to burn fat. The KB is a very convenient tool for this type of training. KBs can also improve strength and lean body mass. We’ve written a white paper on using kettlebells for hypertrophy that you can get through our FB page.
7) For someone who is new to kettlebell training, how do you suggest they start? How much weight should be used for men and women beginners?
We do have some good guidelines from current research that can help us select the appropriate weight for the programs goals. For example, Benjamin Fung published a study on KB lifting in the ACSM journal addendum, and though it was a small group, they found that when the KB was less than 14% of the lifters body weight the exercise was fueled by aerobic systems only. This means it wasn’t heavy enough to give that high intensity interval effect that those interested in fat burning would need. Additionally, a study funded by ACE at the University of Wisconsin, La Crosse Exercise and Health Program, the study that found the 20.2 calories per minute number, used heavy kettlebells, e.g. 35lbs-53lbs and was done with experienced lifters. 2
So, for traditional resistance exercises (squat, press, row, etc), use % of one rep max to train the energy system desired or the appearance related goal. For traditional KB exercises, the skill the lifter and learning the lifts should be the primary goal before adding weight to achieve ranking. For swings and pulls and the simpler traditional KB exercises, if it’s less that 14% of body weight don’t expect a miracle. At the end of the day, if the weight your lifting (dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell) isn’t heavier than your groceries, back pack, kitty litter or dog food bags, don’t expect to get a lot of benefit from your program.
8) Learning kettlebell training can be quite painful for some, especially on the forearms while doing exercises like cleans and presses. Is it normal to feel pain while learning?
Pain? No. Discomfort while learning the clean? Maybe a little but as always, that depends on the instructor. The clean, although it looks very simple when performed properly, is really a very complex movement. Where most people go wrong is twofold:
- They don’t dip to catch/decelerate the bell . And when they flip it, it flips up and comes over and whacks their forearm. That’s completely incorrect. If done correctly, the power comes from the lower body and the hand sort of moves “around” the bell. The bell shouldn’t come up and over “over” the wrist. The hand moves quickly, the body dips to slow the bell down, and the bell should nestle properly right into the rack position. You should barely feel it. But this absolutely can’t be learned in 10 minutes.
- Another big mistake is that the instructor uses too light a bell out of the gate and never works with the client to progress them to something heavier. The client stays there never truly learning how to work with something more appropriate for them so for the clean, they end up “arming it up” in a kind of weird reverse curl. . .which is also wrong.
Using wristbands as “training wheels” can help alleviate any discomfort while learning, but where many instructors fail (not KBC instructors of course!) is that they let the student rely on the wristbands (and the bell continues to smack them) but while it now doesn’t hurt, it’s still very poor form. If the client insists on wearing wristbands (which is fine) the instructor should be extra vigilant to make sure their form is spot on because eventually, you want to get them to heavier weights and (when they’re very advanced) double kettlebell work. . and if their form is off at the beginning, they’ll never really be able to handle the more advanced stuff and you’ll have to go back and try and break what has now become very bad habits.
9) For home use, what brand of kettlebell do you suggest people buy?
With the KB, you definitely get what you pay for. The better news though is that because they’re becoming more popular, prices have stabilized a bit. What hasn’t changed is that the quality of bells you can find in big box retail stores is still crappy. Unless you go to a specialty (probably smaller) sporting goods store or order online, you’re going to probably end up with a rougher bell where the importer decided not to pay for the final touches. (Things like taking the time to do some extra hand grinding, putting on an extra coat of paint or two, etc.)
Check out our brand of bell available from www.silfitness.com exclusively. Full disclosure: We don’t make money on equipment sales. Everything is handled through SIL. I am VERY glad to be out of the product business. Our bell is a nicely cast, well balanced weight and our mfg treats us well because KBC was basically one of his first customers.
But even if you don’t go with ours, I can’t emphasize this enough: Stay away from any bell that has plastic/vinyl coating and/or a rubber stopper on the bottom. Not only aren’t these necessary, but they make the bell more expensive and, once they get dirty (which happens quickly) it really starts to show the wear and tear. And the plastic starts to peel (which can’t be fixed) and with any real use, the rubber stopper eventually comes off too. There’s simply no need for this stuff. I get it though. . .the importers need to cater to the gym owners who have to worry about aesthetics and other things like that. . .but for home use? A basic, good old fashioned cast iron bell is plenty. (And for the love of God, stay FAR away from ANY adjustable bell too!) They’re just not worth it.
10) Is there something we haven’t discussed you would like to mention?
It goes without saying that your instructor should have a current, primary certification from a group like NSCA, ACE, NASM, ACSM, WITS, NFPT, or any other group that’s NOCA or IACET approved. But beyond that, the kettlebell is a specialty credential and the instructor should have formal (and ongoing training) in that too. Make sure they didn’t just “learn” it in a 2 hour workshop somewhere or worse, from a DVD or YouTube or something. Pilates is ongoing and you’d never “learn” Pilates that way, correct? Yoga the same, as is Gyrotonics™ , suspension training and more. You get the idea. As trainers progress in their own KB skills, clients will as well. But they need to do their due diligence. 3
Kettlebell Exercise Example Video:
David is the founder of Kettbell Concepts, which is the first kettlebell certification for fitness trainers. David is considered one of the foremost experts on kettlebell training and is one of the pioneers who helped bring kettlebells to the U.S. masses. He has a Master’s in Teaching, Curriculum, and Development from the University of Rochester and speaks Japanese. He has appeared on the Early Show (CBS), Fox News, Morning News (WB11), Inside Fitness with Bonnie Kaye (CBS), ABC News and other media outlets.
- There are many tools that a person can use or a trainer/coach can include in a program. Cost, convenience, versatility, program goals and other parameters must be considered. One of the most important principles or laws that a qualified trainer or coach works with comes from Sir Isaac Newton, it’s Newton’s first law, the law of inertia. Inertia is the tendency of an object at rest to stay at rest and the tendency of an object in motion to stay in motion until they are acted on by another force. The other force with respect to exercise would be the exercisers muscles overcoming the inertia of the weight at rest to start it moving. Often overlooked but possibly more important is the need to also stop the object once it has started moving. When we do fast movements like throwing a ball or a punch, swinging a racquet or bat or kicking, not only do we need to overcome the inertia of the object to propel it but we then must overcome the inertia of our moving arm or leg to stop it. This requires the sequencing of agonist and antagonist muscle groups surrounding a joint. Exercises that do this (Olympic/Explosive lifts, plyometrics, and others) not only train the muscles but they train the way the nervous system controls the muscle. They train inter-muscular coordination, in this case the cooperation between the agonist and antagonist muscles. This is important for performance and injury prevention. ↩
- Just like with any program or tool, the weight selected should be in relation to the exercisers one repetition maximum. Even if you don’t know your one rep max, you should select a weight that challenges you in the appropriate repetition range for the energy system you are trying to train. The energy systems correlate to endurance, strength, and power capability or a spectrum of changes in body appearance from “toning” to hypertrophy to getting “shredded”. Diet and other program variables are also important for both the capability and appearance related goals.
Based on age and gender, there are certain amounts of pushups, pull ups, sit cups or crunches that are considered average. Likewise with bench press, squat and other exercises there is normative date on strength ratios, that is, per pound of your body weight what should you be able to lift to be average, above average etc.
With respect to kettlebells, Girevoy Sport (kettlebell sport) gives us a starting point for what’s considered average, and what we can hope to progress to, at least with the completion lifts of Jerk, Clean, and Snatch. Kettlebell competitions have a ranking system. The more elite lifters are in the master of sport, and international master of sport ranks. In those ranks, men lift two 70lb kettlebells for 10 minute sets of clean and jerk and snatch. In most leagues, women at this highest level compete with one 45lb-53lb kettlebell for the clean and jerk and snatch competitions. Most competitions and competitors start off at rank 4 which is a two 24lb kettlebells for men and one 28lb kettlebell for women. The number of repetitions that a lifter needs to accomplish to achieve the rank depends on their body weight class. ↩
- If you are a fitness professional who wants to learn more about KBC, they can opt in for a series of rather extensive videos here as well: http://tinyurl.com/learnaboutkbc . The general consumer will find great info on our site as well as www.liftkettlebells.com too.
A really cool video that describes “Girevoy Sport” (the competitive aspect of kettlebell training) can be found here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=ZHe933hOIec
Readers can also check out the US home page of the IUKL here: http://aka-sport.org/articles KBC is the only KB educational organization recognized by the IUKL. Yuri Petunovs, the USA representative, is also a KBC Senior Instructor. Another hilarious one (done very tongue in cheek) is Vince’s KettleBells and You: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=I8sGLHzAYtE ↩
Kettlebell Training Q&A with David Ganulin,