How to Keep Your Paw Strong

Bearistotle Talks Fitness

This issue of Strong Paw is about my favorite form of exercise: kettlebells. If you don’t care about exercise or kettlebells, read no further, but please, I beg you, don’t unsubscribe. Fitness content won’t be a regular part of the newsletter, because I expect to say almost everything I want to say about it in this issue and also because, well, I have tons of more important things to write about. If you are interested in exercise and/or kettlebells and you think you would perhaps like to read what I have to say about them, as well as watch a few videos of me using them, read on! I have some practical tips for getting started and information you might find useful, mostly at the end of the post. Enough throat-clearing! To the meat!

For those of you who follow me on twitter, kettlebells are a big part of my twitter shtick. I’ve been an avid kettlebeller since roughly 2013, when I joined a kettlebell focused gym here in Durham. I’ve been posting my kettlebell workout videos on twitter regularly since the beginning of the pandemic.

It started out as a gag. At the beginning of the pandemic, I was living in one of Duke’s Residence Halls as a Faculty-in-Residence, and, because of the pandemic, the students had all gone home, leaving me and my main squeeze, Sun Bear, all by ourselves in an empty dorm. It was weird! Of course, gyms had also closed, including our kettlebell gym. Our instructor was doing Zoom classes, but we didn’t have the space in our apartment so we made the executive decision to do the workouts in the spacious dorm hallways. I also started recording my workouts to allow my instructor to critique my form, which was hard to do live over zoom if we weren’t one-on-one. The result was that I started to amass videos that looked like I was working out in the Overlook Hotel. It was both uncanny and kind of funny. From there, I decided to get creative and try to find new and weird places in the dorm to do kettlebell routines. And I started to post the videos on twitter because I thought they were funny.

[The thing on my hand is not related to lifting. I fell while running and cut my palm up real bad on some gravel.]

I also started to take pride in curating (what I consider) good music.

[I got a little too enthusiastic about this cut, but, hey, I miss dancing.]

Predictably, what started as a gag, became something I started to enjoy and take pride in. At first, I started to lose twitter followers when I would do it, but, again, I thought that too was kind of hilarious and interesting in its own way. But once the herd was thinned and it became part of my twitter persona, some portion of my twitter followers seemed to enjoy it too. Some were also kettlebell fanatics—sadly separated from their bells by the pandemic—and they liked to engage with me substantively about the workouts. Others had never picked up a kettlebell, but thought that it looked like a genuinely interesting form of exercise. There was also a much ballyhooed run on kettlebells, if you’ll recall, because they are ideal for strength training in confined spaces. So this interest made sense, and, as a result, with some regularity people reached out to me on twitter—and sometimes through email and DMs—to ask for advice. Because I’m not that kind of doctor, I tried to keep my advice practical and not make any claims about anatomy.

Since this newsletter is, to an extent, an extension of my twitter persona and answering those inquiries—while pleasant—was repetitive and time-consuming, I thought I would centralize that advice in a newsletter. That’s what this is, though I’ll start by giving you a little context on how and why I know what I know.

I. A Short History of My (Not Always) Strong Paw

[Proof that Gabe is a jock, even if his high school football sweatshirt is now way too big for him. Jocks rule! Nerds Drool!]

I've lifted weights regularly since I was on the football team in high school. (A three-year letterman and the starting center on the juggernaut 8-3 1998 “Braves”; someone should, ahem, revisit that mascot!) I am also a modestly experienced power- and olympic-style lifter (though never competitively and it’s been many years since I did any of the olympic stuff). Kettlebells were a really enjoyable change of pace that, initially, I liked to mix in with running, swimming, and barbell lifting. But I got addicted, and what started as a sometime thing became an all-the-time thing.

This was, in fact, really good for my health. In my 20s, most of my exercise time was dedicated to long-distance running, and I lifted weights only to strengthen my running. It’s nearly impossible to build upper-body muscle mass and gain serious strength if you’re running long distances—your body wants to gobble up the muscle mass rather than haul it around—so the lifting always felt like an unpleasant slog. In my late 20s and early 30s, the mileage began to wear on me and I started to experience recurring knee and foot injuries.

When I talked to my doctor about it, she candidly told me that if I continued to run 30 or 40 miles a week, I should expect to suffer these sorts of injuries a few times a year and that it would probably get worse as I aged. By contrast, she said, if I limited my running to closer to 15 miles a week, I’d probably be fine as long as I didn’t, you know, trip or fall. (I’m quite clumsy, so that’s always a live possibility.) There are, no doubt, physical therapists and running coaches who would have adjusted my stride and my program to make it compatible with the higher mileage. But given that I was also trying to write my first book and get tenure at Duke, I didn’t really have the focus or time to investigate those options. Instead, I just ran less, felt sorry for myself, and gained some weight (though, that was also linked to the stress of the new job).

Kettlebells changed all that. Swinging around a huge metal ball was fun! The movement patterns and workouts were also incredibly varied, so it kept my interest. I could make it intense if I wanted to, or I could ratchet it down and take it easy. There were strength days and cardio days, and in-between days. But I also just enjoyed hefting huge weights over my head, which was something I had also enjoyed as a teenager but had since forgotten all about. I also adored my trainer, Betsy, and I loved the culture of her gym.

This was the moment when CrossFit was really taking off and I had tried it a few times (including workouts that integrated some kettlebell stuff). I hated it. Everything about it bothered me. I felt like an outsider amongst the bros in their 20s. Everyone was competing with each other to do the most reps of exercises they clearly didn’t understand and the response of the trainer was mostly to yell at them to do more. Sloppy form is something that you can bounce back from if you’re in your mid-20s—though not always!—but I was certain I would destroy my back if I continued with it.

(To any CrossFitters reading: Yes, I know this isn’t true of every box or every trainer or every CrossFitter. I undoubtedly went to some bad ones and if CrossFit works for you, have at it. Similarly, not all kettlebell focused gyms are as good about form as Betsy’s. All of this is variable, and I’m only talking about my experience. Please leave your angry comments only after you have subscribed. Thx.)

Meanwhile, Betsy’s gym was organized around basically the opposite principles. It was disproportionately populated by people in their 40s, 50s, and 60s. There were way more women and gay men. The diversity of bodies and capacities in the gym was encouraging and meant that Betsy placed extra attention on safety and body mechanics. No one was competing with each other; the vibe was cooperative and if you were competing, it was only with yourself. Betsy was focused on safety, form, and technique. She understood and explained the movements in terms of body mechanics and her method was always to emphasize working on mastery of basic moves. Master the basics and assemble those solid basic moves into more complex stuff—that’s how you avoid injuries. And Betsy never yelled. She paused and corrected us if need be, but she had a commitment to making sure we understood and weren’t merely complying. (She was no despot!) I felt very much the same about the other instructors at the gym (in the unlikely even they’re reading this, Shawn, Bonnie, Jason, and Ben: heyyyyyy hope you’re all good!).

II. Complexity and Variation, Or Why I Think It’s Fun

The culture of the gym helped to hook me, but it’s also the case that the “start with mastering the basics and then assemble them into designs of greater complexity” is how I like learning. For example, I love video games, but I find games with too much functionality in early game play boring and distracting—I want it to be simple at first and for the initial simplicity to scale to infinite variation. This is true too of my exercise preferences. Kettlebells has a basic set of core moves (the links go to videos of Betsy explaining each one): the swing (1-arm and 2-hand), clean, press, snatch, squat, lunge, deadlift, carry, and row are the primary ones. Each one of these exercises can be done with a single bell once for benefit. Then you can complicate things.

  • String the moves together as chains. First there’s a simple chain: you clean a bell and then you press it. Then there’s a longer chain: you clean a bell, press it, and then squat with it (all without setting it down). Chains are open-ended! You can always add another move to the end of the chain to lengthen it. You can also repeat a chain multiple times in a row: clean and press the bell five times.

  • Increase the reps before advancing to the next movement within the chain to do a “complex”: clean the bell five times, press the bell five times, and then squat with the bell five times, without setting the bell down. Because a complex is like a chain in that you can keep adding movements, some of them get reeeeeeeally long. This one, for example, is a double complex with 32kg bells that goes 5 1-arm swings, 5 cleans, 5 presses, and 5 racked squats.

  • You can also mix in non-kettlebell moves into a routine. For example, you could intersperse pushups or planks in a routine that involved any of the above.

  • There’s also variation with how you hold the bell in terms of body location. That includes whether you are holding at your chest with one hand (in rack), with two hands (goblet), overhead, or by your side (suitcase and farmer’s carry).

  • The funnest variations, but most difficult, are all about how you grip the bell. The two I love to play with are called bottoms-up and “stacked.” Both of these increase the difficulty of the exercises, isolate particular muscle groups, and generally strengthen grip strength—how you get that strong paw!

  • Here’s the stacked (this is one of the harder things I’ve ever done with a kettebell!):

  • And the bottoms-up (this is literally the hardest!):

It’s literally impossible to be exhaustive about all the different ways that the various movements and modifications come together to create unique routines, but the great thing is that, as complicated as this all is, it’s not overwhelming or confusing or complicated. In the beginning, you are learning the core movements that get reassembled in the ever more baroque and intriguing ways. And that’s what makes it a fun game: you start with simple components and you arrange them into ever more challenging configurations. One of the things that makes Betsy a truly outstanding instructor is that the challenge of those configurations isn’t random; it’s strategically designed to build and strengthen different muscle groups and to enhance functional movements. But it has the feel of a game!

III. Some Handy-Dandy Tips for Starting Out from a Not Expert

1) Professional instruction can be expensive, but I wouldn’t recommend kettlebells unless you are willing to invest in learning to do it safely. There are considerably cheaper ways to exercise: go for a walk; get (and use) a Planet Fitness membership; or buy a Pelaton (wait, that’s not cheaper!). The reality is that, for a properly certified instructor, an individual class can be $10 or more and one-on-one training sessions even more. There are a number of organizations that certify kettlebell instructors. My gym is part of StrongFirst, which is, I believe, also among the largest and most well respected of kettlebell organizations. I can only speak about my own experience, but I would recommend searching out a StrongFirst certified instructor if you want to get into kettlebells.

Meanwhile, some gyms do offer packaged exercise classes as part of your membership that may also include a kettlebell class or integrate kettlebells into other routines (CrossFit does this). I would be cautious about that. You may be receiving instruction from someone who knows only a little bit more than you. Mastering the core movements does require practice, focus, and instruction, and many of the instructors at Big Box Mega Gym are not certified or trained to work with kettlebells, in particular. Nor are they necessarily designing routines to teach you about the core movements—they may be mixing kettlebells in for spice. But doing kettlebells with incorrect form, like any ballistic weighted exercise, can risk injury and, at the very least, ensures that you don’t get as much out of it as you could.

You can also find a truly staggering number of videos online that provide instruction (I’ve obviously linked to a bunch of Betsy’s above). You could, in theory, combine this with a set of kettlebells that you own (more on this in a moment) to come up with your own routines. I know people, particularly people with deep backgrounds in fitness, who are able to make this work, but I think it’s a hard route and not a good way to start. If you’re like me, it’s important to have another set of eyes on what you’re doing, and nothing is as good as live, in-person instruction to offer cues and tighten form. Given the expense, my suggestion is to, at a minimum, pay for enough instruction to have competency in the basic moves and, then, if you feel like it’s not worth it or too expensive, consider investing in your own set and doing it at home or pivoting to the “package” classes referenced above. At the very least, you will hopefully have the foundation to avoid serious injury.

Because of the pandemic, in many parts of country, gyms are not offering in-person classes. As I said, my gym offers virtual classes and it loans bells to people who pay for those classes. I miss the in-person socialization and relationships, and virtual instruction is not the same thing as in-person instruction, but I still find it highly worthwhile. It’s also vastly more convenient in many ways. If you have your own bells, you can take instruction from an instructor anywhere in the world (if you don’t you will be limited by a gym that is willing to loan its bells).

Do shop around if you can, however. It’s really important that you feel comfortable with the instruction and positive about your gym. Bad gym or bad instructor (for you) will spoil everything. If you live in a major city there very well may be a number of options and you should never feel like you’re being bullied or forced into a particular one. If you don’t feel good about it, walk away. Full stop.

2) Kettlebells as physical objects can be expensive and they get more expensive the larger they get. And, on top of that, as you get stronger, you “grow out of” them: you need heavier bells! This is another reason to wait until you have a decent amount of experience before buying your own bells. If you purchase a set of bells that is appropriate for your strength on Day 1, you may find that they are not very useful on Day 30. With experience, you begin to get a better sense of what bells sizes will be useful across multiple exercises. So, in normal times, I would caution you to wait before you start investing in your own bells.

As I said, however, the pandemic has scrambled all this, and it may be that you will have to buy bells to do virtual classes. If you are going to be very minimal about it, I think the most sensible way to “start” a bell collection is to build it around three core bells: your press bell, a light bell, and a heavy bell. Your “press bell” is the most important: it’s the bell that you can press five times in a row comfortably and consistently with good form. (My press bell, for example, is currently the 32kg bell.) That’s usually a pretty transferable unit of measurement and an instructor may tell you to “use your press bell” even when you’re not pressing something. You’ll get something out of going 5 rows or 5 cleans with your press bell too, though you may able to go heavier if other bells are available. Meanwhile, you want to select a “light bell” that is 5-10 pounds lighter than your press bell for cardio and high volume things, as well as for more challenging movements like the snatch or high pull. Finally, there’s the “heavy bell.” This should be 5-10 pounds heavier than your press bell, and you will use it for some, mostly lower-body movements (deadlifts, squats, and swings, for example) that can take much heavier weights. You also will want the heavy bell to do 1 or 2 rep “heavy” lifts on things like the press and clean. High volume, low weight, with little rest is good, but so too is low volume, high weight, with lots of rest: they both play an important role in building a robust strength foundation and functional movement.

My preferred brand of kettlebells is Rogue and I like their “standard” line of bells. When you order you’ll see they also have something called a competition line. The difference is that competition bells are all the same volume and size even though they vary in weight. They’re more suitable for Girevoy style (I’ll explain that below) and have narrower handles. By contrast, in the standard line, as the bells get heavier they get larger. There can be advantages to competition bells, however: they have larger handles at low weights which can make them easier to grip. That becomes a pain at the heavier weights (I like a big handle on a big bell!) but it might be worth thinking about if you're starting lighter. Also worth considering: they're more likely to have the competition bells in stock than the standard line, so it might be easier for you to purchase them.

3) StrongFirst does not do much with what are called “flow” routines. These are long and complicated chains that sometimes use highly rarified movements (like flips and tactical snatches) and they can go on for long periods of time. Some other organizations and gyms do more with flows. There are some good fitness reasons to use flows (they are, as I said, basically more complicated complexes and chains) that are summarized in the tweet below.

It’s well beyond my expertise to adjudicate the benefits and costs of this sort of training. I prefer the StrongFirst approach and avoid fancy flows, but that’s just me: keep it simple and focus on the core set of movements. Others disagree or, at least, would say the flow is the longer-term goal! Decide for yourself.

There are also important “style” differences among gyms. StrongFirst favors what’s called “hard” style which looks quite different from an older “Girevoy” style, which, in turn, is different from the hybrid style found at CrossFit gyms. You’re unlikely to encounter Girevoy too much in the US. But it’s worth noting that “hard” style features shorter movement patterns focused on power and bursts of speed, while Girevoy has longer endurance flows. Meanwhile, CrossFit gyms often do a weird the “American” style swing. Hard and Girevoy style instructors despise that swing.

4) Be prepared for it to be really hard on your hands. Blisters are not uncommon and callouses basically unavoidable. Shaving down your callouses is a thing and if you get really heavy into it, doing so will save you a bunch of pain and suffering. Be careful with chalk and be sparing in using it initially. When you figure things out, you'll have a much better sense of when it's helpful and when it's not, but that's hard to figure out in the beginning. Some people use gloves. I like the feel of the bell and find that gloves impair the development of grip strength. You may feel differently!

5) Work the negative and learn to do bottoms-up work sooner rather than later. Working the negative means focusing on the “eccentric” portion of the lift, like after you’ve pressed the bell when you are bringing it back down into rack. They're both revelations and will tighten your form if you master them. Bottoms-up is about lat activation—you have to have a fully engaged lat to keep the bell stable in a bottoms-up hold—and so it will isolate your lat like nothing else. Doubles work is also awesome and is a great way to amp up difficulty.

6) Video tape yourself! Not (just) for narcissism purposes, but to study what you're doing and to try to make adjustments. This is especially important if you don't have regular access to an instructor. You can share your videos with an instructor to receive their feedback.

7) Buy and read the books “Enter the Kettlebell” and “Simple and Sinister” both by StrongFirst guru/founder, Pavel Tsatsouline, which are fantastic. He also has a bunch of videos through StrongFirst but you will have to pay for those. I also don’t endorse most of Joe Rogan’s show, but the episode where he interviewed Pavel was fascinating and taught me quite a bit and didn’t really touch on politics at all. Rogan continually tried to bait Pavel into talking shit about CrossFit and Pavel kept refusing to do so.

7) Pump the music! You need jams! Here are some jams!

This was plenty. If you have any other specific questions or you are an angry CrossFitter, feel free to leave a comment. Similarly, if you are a fitness professional, feel free to correct me on anything that I said that was wrong. Again: I’m not that kind of doctor!

ETA: Typo clean-ups plus one substantive change: I misstated (and misunderstood) some of the differences among “hard,” “Girevoy,” and “sport” style, and misused “sport” style, in particular. Shawn corrected me and I have it ironed out now! Thanks, Shawn.