Kettlebells: Simple and Sinister

The original, portable home gym.


Back in 2016, Cristi and I moved into an apartment south of Asheville off Long Shoals Road. It was one of these new developments with a pool and a pond and a fitness center. In keeping with the the principle that all new developments must be named after the natural feature that they destroy (Hawk’s Ridge, Prairie View…) the apartment complex was named after its retention pond: “Robert’s Lake.”

In retrospect, there wasn’t much to like about the place, aside from the fact that we could afford it and that it was close to Bent Creek. But it did introduce me to a piece of equipment that I’ve been using ever since: the kettlebell.

We found the kettlebells in the fitness center. Tucked in among the weight machines, treadmills and elipticals, were a handful of dumbells, some medicine balls and a rack of kettlebells up to about 50 pounds.

I was curious about what to do with these chunks of pig iron and went to the web in search of answers. I found a lot of resources from the CrossFit world about swings, presses and cleans, but things really clicked for me when I discovered Pavel Tsatsouline.

S&S. Buy Pavel’s book. Get the second edition.

Tsatsouline is largely credited with introducing the kettlebell to the west from Russia, where it has been building strongmen for more than 300 years. His book, Kettlebell: Simple and Sinister, kicked off my personal relationship with this Slavic power tool. It’s safe to say that after spending the past seven years working with these unforgiving training partners I am a complete convert. An evangelist, even.

As far as I’m concerned, the kettlebell is the most effective, most affordable, most portable, and most sustainable strength training aid I have ever found. It will make you strong in ways that you didn’t realize you were weak. If you’re looking for something to do in the coming year to improve your strength, endurance, and mobility, you really should give kettlebells a shot.

And if you’ve never tried them before, Pavel’s book is a great place to start.

Now, of course, your humble blogger isn’t any kind of fitness professional. Aside from being a fat kid who’s spent the last thirty or so years trying to stay in shape, I’ve got zero credentials. But, if you’ve been reading the blog for a while you’ll know that this has never stopped me from sharing an opinion. Here’s what I’ve learned in the past 7 years throwing these things around.

A couple hundred dollars spent on kettlebells creates a powerful home gym.

The Kettlebells
The implement itself is fairly straightforward. A heavy ball of steel with a handle on top, cast in a variety of weights. In Russia, the kettlebell has traditionally be sized in “poods” a unit of measurement that comes in roughly at 16 kilos or 35 pounds. While you can find kettlebells in 5 pound increments at just about any box store these days, if you follow Pavel’s program you’ll be working with bells that are sized in the more traditional, Russian style. This means half-pood jumps between bells. Bumping up 8 kilos at a time.

Gents start here. You’ll need the 35 to learn the get-up. Before long you’ll be swinging the 70.

For starters, Pavel recommends that men start with two kettlebells: 16 kilos and 24 kilos. Which is 35 and 53 pounds for us Americans. He say’s you’ll soon need a 32 kg bell as well–70 pounds, which seems impossibly heavy at the start, but soon becomes manageable.

His program recommends lighter weights with smaller increments between sizes for women. The jumps in weight are still significant, and many women working with the Simple and Sinister program manage to progress to kettlebells heavier that they might have imagined possible.

The big jumps between weights might seem counterintuitive to those of us used to lifting at the gym and making gains 5 pounds at a time. Pavel insists that they’re a feature of the program. By making large jumps in weight, you force your body to adapt. You work at the lighter weight until you’ve completely mastered it, then you add in reps with the next size up. The approach is completely different from anything I’ve tried before. And it is very effective.

Effective, and affordable. After a couple months of walking back and forth to the fitness center each morning, I decided I would rather work out in my apartment. I bought a 35, 50 and 70 from the Walmart website, which offered free in-store pickup. Total cost was a little under $200. Later I popped for a legit 24 kg bell from Rogue, along with the next step in the progression in the series: the 40 kilo, which is just under 90 pounds. These bells, with shipping, set me back another $200 or so. That’s $400 all-in for seven years weight training. Less than five bucks a month. An absolute bargain.

The core of the practice. A year with this kettlebell dramatically increased my strength and balance.

The Program
Simple and Sinister is comprised of two motions: the kettlebell swing and the Turkish get-up. That, plus a few warmups and stretches, is the entire program. No arm day, leg day, targeting muscle groups–none of that. Just two, whole-body movements that build functional strength, balance and stability. Once you get accustomed to the program it takes about a half hour a day.

The swing targets the muscles in the posterior chain. Shoulders, back, glutes and hamstrings. Muscle groups that I tended to neglect when I lifted in the past. They also improve core strength, particularly when done one-handed.

Swings are a rapid movement that builds what Pavel calls Strength/Endurance. In practice, a session of swings feels like a combination of cardio and strength training. You can absolutely smoke yourself by limiting recovery time between sets, but that isn’t the objective. Pavel recommends catching your breath fully between sets.

The get-up is an old-school strongman stunt. You start on the floor, press the kettlebell away from your chest and then progress through a series of movements that take you to a standing position and then back to the floor. Get-ups are slow and controlled. Like doing yoga with a heavy iron weight held awkwardly above your head.

Get-ups are a complex movement, about as complex as the kayak roll. It takes time to learn to do them correctly, and a big part of progressing in weight with the get-up is improving your technique. Very simple changes in how you position your body can have dramatic impacts on how heavy a kettlebell you can successfully use.

I started get-ups using a 35 pound kettlebell and quickly progressed to the 50 pounder. Getting from the 50 to the 70 was difficult until I refined my technique. I was hung up on the transition from the floor to the elbow, working against myself by unconsciously pressing my hand against the floor. Once I identified and corrected this mistake I had no trouble progressing to the 70 pound bell.

The Payoff
Pavel outlines a complete program for progressing to what he calls the “simple” standard which, for men, is the ability to do 10 sets of 10 one-arm swings in 5 minutes followed by 5 get-ups on each side in ten minutes, all done with the 70 pound kettlebell. I’ve “passed” this test a few times since I started training with kettlebells. It’s always gassed me out. Safe to say that the cardio side of things is my weak point.

These days, I focus more on doing the motions than trying to meet a speed goal. I just lift the weights, catch my breath, and do it again. This approach has paid off.

Come to find out, if you lift a manageable weight day after day for a long time you will get strong. During 2019, when Cristi and I were traveling and later working in Savannah, I took just the 70 pound bell with me on the road. After more than a year of training just this weight I retrieved my heavy kettlebell from storage. I discovered that I could easily do a get-up with the 88 pound bell, despite never lifting anything heavier than 70 pounds in the previous year.

Life on the road. You can train anywhere with a kettlebell.

The program isn’t intended to wear you out every time you do it. Instead, Pavel outlines a slow approach to building strength, with workouts at a manageable weight every day, and occasional breaks when you’re feeling really tired. If you’re used to lifting to muscle failure and “feeling the burn” this approach will seem counterintuitive. It works.

In January of this year I set out to train kettlebells every day for a month. I wanted to progress from the 70 pound to the 88 pound bell for both the get-up and the swing. I’ve slowly added the heavier bell into my sessions, never fast enough to experience failure in a motion. On days when I was feeling tired I did my swings and get-ups with the 70 pound bell as a rest day.

Eventually I ended up alternating heavy days with lighter days as I added sets with the heavier bell. Now, at end of the month, I’m better than halfway to the goal–completing all of my get-ups and 1/3 of my swings with the largest bell. All without taking a single day off from training. Slow and steady is paying results.

My current training partners. 32 and 40 kilo bells.

Unexpected Results
Pavel talks about something that he calls the “what the hell?” effect. Which is a way of describing some of the more unusual results of kettlebell training. Here are a few of the surprises that I’ve had in the past few years of doing swings and get-ups.

  • Lasting strength: even after taking long breaks from training I’ve found that my ability to work with the 70 pound bell doesn’t diminish. My cardio fitness falls off, but I haven’t had any trouble restarting get-ups at the same weight.
  • Shoulder stability: years of kayaking and a couple minor injuries had my shoulders pretty beat-up. After several years of doing get-ups they’re much stronger and more stable.
  • Knee stability: Not sure why, but the tendons in my knees get tender anytime I take a break from S&S. After a few weeks of training, knee pain disappears.
  • Core strength: My core was always a weak area. Heavy get-ups have made it stronger than I ever imagined possible. I’m a little too well marbled to sport a six-pack, but there are some strong muscles in there somewhere.
  • Grip strength: Doing one-handed swings with a 70 pound kettlebell makes your grip very strong. A few years ago I couldn’t swing the 88 pound bell one-handed because my grip would fail. Today I have no trouble with one-handed swings at this weight.
  • Flexibility and balance: My hamstrings are looser than they’ve ever been. I stand up straighter. I have better torso mobility and better balance than I’ve ever had before.

Get Strong
Why do it? What’s the point? Well, I think life is better if you’re stronger. It’s easier to do everyday physical tasks around the house and yard. It’s more fun to go on outdoor adventures. You’re better protected against injury. Being strong makes everything you do easier and more enjoyable.

Of course, another good reason to to do strength training is to counteract the effects of aging. We all lose muscle mass as we age. Lean muscle is the engine that drives our metabolism and weight bearing activity increases bone density and prevents injury. These are things that are easy to take for granted in our twenties and thirties. They become more critical as we age.

At fifty years old, I’m increasingly interested in physical activity that will help me stay active as I age. I want to be taking canoe trips and hiking in the mountains when I’m in my seventies. The only way to achieve a goal like that is through strength training.

Kettlebells make it easy to keep up a training program with a minimum of hassle and expense. You don’t have to drive to the gym. You don’t have to put in hours of cardio. Kettlebells let you build strength every day, a little at a time. They’re a powerful tool for maintaining health and vitality. I’m glad I discovered them and I hope you’ll give them a try.

As Pavel would say, “Power to You.”

Photo: StrongFirst

With kettlebells on the brain this week, I remembered Pavel Macek’s excellent post on progressing from the Simple standard to the Sinister standard with swings and get-ups. It’s an extremely useful resource for anyone learning how to do these motions. Not just for those who are trying to progress to heavier kettlebells.

Here’s a quick demo of warmups, swings and get-ups. This guy is STRONK…

Below are two videos with tips for both the swing and get-up. Before you look at these, rewatch the above video and watch Pavel do the get-up with that heavy bell. Note how lifts his hand off the floor as he rolls to his elbow. This is a KEY detail, and one that I missed as I was learning the get-up. If you leave your hand on the floor, your body automatically pushes down with that hand, locking up your torso and preventing you from rolling to your elbow.

It’s similar to a problem that many people have in learning the kayak roll hip-snap. You have to release tension with one side of your body while you initiate motion on the other side. Lifting the hand does this.

In the video below, you’ll see Pavel lifting his hand slightly as he demos the get-up. You can tell he’s programmed the muscle memory for this motion as part of his get-up, even though he doesn’t specifically call it out in his tips.

If you learned to do get-ups through the CrossFit world or online you may have learned the “high bridge” technique, in which the hips are held high during the transition from the upright sitting position to the kneeling position. I’ve done get-ups with this technique, and it probably offers some advantages in terms of training core strength and tension, but it isn’t the best choice as bells get heavier. StrongFirst teaches a “low sweep” version of the get-up that is a little more secure when manipulating a heavier bell.

I’ve had some mishaps switching between the low sweep and high bridge, including dropping a 70 pound kettlebell after snagging my foot on the mat. Since then, I’ve focused exclusively on the low sweep.

The get-up is a complex kinesthetic skill and the ability to perform it smoothly has a lot to do with training muscle memory for the various components. Once you have them trained, you can think about how to more skillfully perform each part of the movement. But if you’re trying to remember where to put your foot or how to shift your weight halfway through a get-up you’re asking for trouble. Better just to train the low sweep and focus on that.

A final note is that I’ve found it useful to concentrate on pushing down with the foot and pushing straight up with the kettlebell as I roll to the elbow. This is especially helpful with heavier bells. In reality, the bell moves through a sort of diagonal movement in the air, but for some reason, focusing on pushing up helps me maintain control and stability with a heavier kettlebell.

You’ll find Pavel’s complete post here:

Rogue Kettlebells:
Kettlebell: Simple and Sinister:

If you enjoyed this post, please share it on your favorite social media site using one of the buttons below. If you want to see more, consider subscribing to our website by using one of the links in the menu on the right side of the screen. If you’re on a mobile device you’ll find the Follow button if you scroll down from here. Thanks!

7 thoughts on “Kettlebells: Simple and Sinister

  1. Scott

    Love the kettlebell, though I am not up to your weight level. I also love the slam ball, which is a similarly simple object. I find it a bit more aerobic!

  2. Dennis Day

    Hey Brian, I am convinced. The exercises look like I could accomplish them. I will look for a couple thirty-five pounders to start with. Any advice on where to acquire them? Retirement has become a little boring so I need to find a routine that will get me healthier, stronger, and better looking. OK I know it will take more than a kettleball to accomplish good looks. Dad P.S. Does Cristi use the balls–no pun intended.

    1. HaHa! Your good looks are well established!

      You should be able to find 35# kettlebells at Walmart. Watch the videos. Take it slow. Might want to run it by your doc before you start, just to be sure. You can do a lot just by walking to begin with.

      Cristi does use them a little but has found that she enjoys yoga more. She does that for strength training.

  3. Andy

    Great Article. I got into kettlebells about a year ago. 3 weeks ago I got rid of my squat rack, bench, and barbells. Now my area consists of a treadmill and a few kettlebells. Left room for rods and reels and paddling gear.

    1. Thanks Andy. I really like the simplicity and minimalism of both the program and the kettlebells. And the fact that they’re always there, waiting for you to pick them up. No excuse not to get a session in.

    1. Thanks Mark. I really like the simple approach of Pavel’s program. Definitely pick up the book. There are a lot of tips in there.

      Speaking of tips, I’ve updated the post and included a couple more videos and a related post by Pavel Macek (yes, another Pavel) which are really excellent. They were a huge help to me as I was trying to move up in weight and improve my technique.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s