Video: The Soloist
Trainer Cameron McGarr demonstrates the eloquence of a masterful kettlebell performance.There are many misconceptions about the kettlebell — even amongst those fairly fluent in fitness. Is it the weapon-like shape? The (often chipped and worn) black paint? The oversized man you once saw swinging it? Something is giving us the wrong impression. And the irony is, this toning tool, with its rough, gritty associations, is the basis of an extremely artful practice that sculpts a perfectly defined — and refined — body.
“I remember the first time I saw a kettlebell. I thought it would snap my forearm in half,” says Cameron McGarr, the personal training manager at Equinox Woodland Hills who illustrates his mastery of the practice in the video above. In fact, he was so intimidated by the tool, which he first encountered in a Las Vegas gym in 2005, that he wouldn’t even pick it up. “Soon after that, my gym got them,” he says, “So I started playing with them, and I realized that even though I wasn’t a very big guy, I could manipulate a lot of weight, and I was like, ‘ok, this is really fun.’” And the rest is history.
“With kettlebells, you develop a different kind of strength — a more true strength, a more applied strength,” says McGarr, who’s hoisting a 20kg pair (over 88 pounds total) in the video. While lifting dumbbells gives you a very limited, linear, bodybuilding type of strength, kettlebell training develops muscles in a way that’s patterned after real life movement. “When we lift weights, we put the emphasis on the acceleration — the ‘how much can I lift — but the deceleration — the control — is just as crucial,” he says. “It’s the balance of the two through dynamic movements that creates true, functional strength.”
“If you’re in the wrong position, you simply cannot do the movement,” he says. Which makes what seems like a dangerous workout an extremely safe one. “It forces you into proper form,” says McGarr, “It makes certain muscles that are maybe overactive shut off — or at least become less active — and activates others that maybe weren’t firing when they should have been.” Which is why the bench press devotees usually don’t fare well with the bell. “They don’t like it because they can’t manipulate the weight properly. It feels cumbersome and awkward to them because they don’t know how to move athletically.” You need synergy in your body from your head to your toes to move the kettlebell fluidly.
“Everybody always want to lift with their upper body, and it’s a lower body movement — an explosive lower body movement,” says McGarr. The explosive power you need actually comes from your hips. In a swing, think about driving your hips through and forward, bracing your core at the top of the movement as the bell swings forward. As it comes back down, you store that energy, then unload again at the top of the next swing. “If you’re lifting with your shoulders it will feel very heavy,” says McGarr, “But if you harness the power from your lower body and hips, it should feel very light.”
“Don’t be afraid of the heavy bell,” McGarr says. If you’re using a kettlebell that’s too light, you’re never going to master the form of the movements. “Most people are afraid to use more than a 10 or 20-pound bell, but they’re lifting a 50-pound suitcase when they go on vacation!” he says. Certainly, you must progress intelligently. When you start using a heavy weight, you want to make sure your movements are very controlled.
“I really didn’t get too creative with the movements until a few couple years ago,” says McGarr, when questioned about his current kettlebell proficiency. He simply just started trying things — and then came the healthy competition from his fellow trainers: “In between sessions, we were flipping the single bell — talking a little smack back and forth — and then suddenly the game was ‘who could do two?’ And then who could do more double flips in a row?” he says, “Isn’t that how we all do our best work?”