What I Know About: Kettle Bells and HIIT

By December 14, 2013 No Comments


A well known aussie personal trainer recently wrote a column lamenting how fellow practitioners of her trade try and sell exercise as ‘fun’. Her thoughts were that exercising is meant to make you feel uncomfortable and being uncomfortable is not fun. Funnily enough she coped a lot of slack from it and used her column space the following week to consolidate her point and post a rebuttal to all the haters. Although I strongly agree her, there are those sick and twisted people who actually enjoy every second of a workout but I myself have no qualms in admitting that exercising is zero fun for me, which is why I’ve been an on again off again runner for four years.

But also, I exercise for results. I don’t go for a brisk walks to the cafe and back or bench two sets at the gym then go home, maybe that’s fun; when I exercise I take my body to its limits. I come back from runs barely able to walk up the stairs after sprinting the last 200m, or have been on my hands and knees about to retch after doing 2kms of interval sprint/jogs up and down a soccer field; not really something I consider ‘fun’.

Although I do consider myself health conscious, I am in no way a fitness buff. I do make sure I eat my fruit and veg, try my best to hit my weekly quota of exercise and keep an eye on my kgs and body fat % but do so to stay fit and lean for holistic reason. It’s not the be all and end all for me, just a one part of a well rounded life, and if pushing my body is the most effective way to achieve those goals then why not? and hey, less time working out means more time to practise, right?

I’ve gone through a couple of different exercise phases, most noticeably a failed 12 month stint of body building out of high school. I decided to drop the weights to use that time to play. Only a couple of months ago I recently renewed my gym membership after getting pretty fed-up of running, this time without the big dreams of mass, just some modest cardio and general fitness goals in mind.

Walking into a gym for the first time in two years I serendipitously stumbled upon the kettle bell.

For those unfamiliar with the KB, they are those quasi-spherical weights with a handle attached at the top [a ghetto example pictured above]. I did some R&R at home and found that the KB was right up my alley. You see, the KB appeals to both the strength and cardio side of the fitness spectrum making it one dangerous device.

To take a step back, my reason for returning to the gym was to increase my cardiovascular fitness for my trumpet playing, as well as to shed those last mms of stubborn flub hanging around from winter.

Although my goals are cardio focused, I am more than aware that strength training has holistic benefits beyond muscle hypertrophy including cardiovascular fitness among an extensive list of other benefits. That’s were KB shine. Touted as the tool leading a renaissance of a ‘functional’ and ‘practical’ approach to fitness, KB workouts fuse cardio with strength to create a full body workout that engages multiple muscle groups and energy systems all at once. Basically, if you’re looking to shed fat, build some functional strength and get lean and toned, KB is for you. If you want your bicep to be bigger than your head, stick with strength training.

Type kettle bell into google and you’ll stumble upon an entire school of fitness that revolves around these weighted balls and handles, even a number of fitness organisation that exclusively train with KBs. Scout the net a bit more and you’ll realise there are a seemingly endless list of exercises that can be done with a KB.

This is in part why I decided to pen this article. It took me a couple of sessions experimenting with a short list of movements from the plethora out there [not to mention all their various permutations] to find a handful of movements that worked for me and my fitness goals.

If you’re someone who is looking to engage a certain muscle group in your body I highly recommend scouring the net for specified exercises- for example there are a number of core and abdominal exercises you can do with a KB that I decided to not include in my workout because I didn’t want to focus directly on my abs. That beginning said, most KB movements indirectly engage the core i.e. the KB staple, the KB swing relies heavily on your core to keep the pendulum-esque movement in motion.

Another aspect of working with kettle bells that appeals to me on a personalised level is the the way nearly all possible exercises engage the muscles groups used when paddling on a surfboard. Paddling is the dark reality of surfing; for every second spent actually at your feet, guaranteed there was a five minute paddle to get there and so it’s safe to say your surfing ability is intrinsically linked to your paddling efficiency and endurance. The better you are at paddling the more waves you can catch and the more time you spend on a wave actually refining your surfing.

Paddling is a real compound workout, engaging your arms, shoulders, upper and lower back, as well as your core. Compound exercises are movements that activate more than one joint or muscle group. The antithesis of a compound exercise is a isolation movement i.e. a push up compared to a bicep curl. All the movements featured below are as compound as it gets.

Since beginning my kettle bell program I’ve seen my paddling improve pretty drastically and naturally my surfing has had a bit of a spike in its progression.

Going back a couple of steps, my KB regime and most KB workouts out there comes under the banner of HIIT training: High Intensity Interval Training. I read in the newspaper just the other day that HIIT is forecast to become the fitness trend of 2014; not your quinoa and chia seed sort of trend though; I really believe HIIT is a super effective form of training and people are just starting to get savvy with the fact that they can reach their fitness goals with the same amount of energy output [if not more] in half the time.

Although as self explanatory as the colour of an orange, HIIT training is a cardio workout done at 80-95% of your max heart rate interspersed with short rest/recovery intervals. Because of HIITs high intensity you can expel the same amount of energy in 10 minutes that you would from a static cardio exercise such running in something like 30 minutes.

HIIT is merely a workout method and can be heavily personalised depending on your level of fitness. Firstly the recovery period can differ from static rest to a movement that sustains the heart rate around 50-65% of max, such as jogging or skipping. In addition to the recovery intensity, the length of recovery is also key. The ratio of work to recovery differs from 1:2 [two minutes of rest for every one minute of work] to 2:1.

Although HIIT training gets spun as the workout for people who don’t have time to workout, HIITs big success is its effectiveness as a tool for burning fat. Not only does it deplete your energy tanks beyond empty and makes your skin shed many, many salty tears, but HIIT training continues to burn energy up to 24 hours post workout. Not only that but it increases your resting metabolic rate, which to word in layman terms means that your body uses the food you feed it to power itself and doesn’t store it around the lower torso for a rainy day.

So I use KBs as part of a HIIT workout. I have 10 KB exercises that I complete as a one continuous set, as fast as possible while still retaining proper form. I do 10 reps per exercise and complete the set three times with a 90 second recovery period.

I have experimented with different approaches to HIIT including 45 seconds on 15 off, as many reps as possible and with both active and static recovery, as well as 90 seconds on 30 off, also paired with both active and static recovery.

I found having reps as the variable instead of time lead to a more efficient and focused workout. I also believe that having reps as the variable allows you to push your body further but hey, it’s a personal preference and each method has merit.

Although in saying that I do sporadically time my sets. Depending on the intensity and focus on form it takes me somewhere between 3:20 and 4:00 to complete a set.

Do the maths and you notice I spend less than 12 minutes actually working out but thats all it takes to render me both speechless, immobile and am immediately feel like I’m going to implode, a feeling that lingers for a couple hours. But HIIT is meant to be tough. If dancing on the fringe of your physical capabilities isn’t your thing, keep to running.

This is my KB workout:


10kg KB:
One Arm Swing L&R (10 reps each arm)
One Arm Lift and Press L&R (10 reps each arm)

12kg KB:
Figure 8 to curl (10 curls each arm)
One Arm Dead Lift L+R (10 reps each arm)
2 Arm Swing (10 reps)
Squat and Press (10 reps)

Rest for 90 second and repeat three times.


Although I wont go into the specifics of each exercise I couldn’t recommend going online and checking them out enough if you plan to try them. Especially the KB swing, which can be detrimental for your back and shoulders if done with poor form.

I should add I chose these movements because together they target nearly every major muscle group in the body. After completing that workout I feel it in my quads like it was leg day and upper torso like it was shoulders and back day.

As you can see I use two different weighted kettle bells, a 10kg for single hand movements (with the exception of the dead lift) and 12kg for two hand movements. These may seem light but they allow me complete three full sets without compromising form and technique.

As my body adapts to this workout I will incrementally bump up the reps of each exercise and after a couple of months hopefully will graduate to some heavier KBs. I think it’s important to keep your body guessing and never let it become comfortable with a workout.

Happy training.

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