Dietary advice and nutrition trends get the brunt of our attention here at MDA, but an equally crucial component to the Primal Blueprint is the development of functional strength and fitness through Primal exercises. Lifting heavy weights, running intense sprints, and incorporating constant, steady movement into your day mimic the activities of early man and represent the most efficient path to fitness. The free weights at the gym are great, but you don’t always have time to get there. Short of absconding into the wilderness for a boulder-lifting, tree climbing, beast hunting sabbatical, investing in a few kettlebells will give you the means to emulate some of the more savage strength building movements our ancestors employed, without having to drive to a gym.
Why the kettlebell? First off, the kettlebell is perhaps the most Primal piece of exercise equipment available. Its very appearance is brutal – a huge metal ball with a handle. Primal man would have killed for a kettleball, and using one tends to release the baser instincts that make for the best workouts. There is no “casual kettlebelling”; it is an engrossing exercise that engages your entire body and demands your rapt attention.
Their size and maneuverability make kettlebells incredible versatile. Because they are relatively small but incredible dense, almost any natural movement – twisting your body, raising your hands above your head, swinging your arms – can be enhanced and turned into a serious exercise with the addition of a kettlebell. They’re portable, meaning you can ramp up the intensity of a weekend hike by bringing along your kettlebells. Just think of yourself as a Primal huntsman stalking his prey with a skull-crushing rock, and you’ll be fine. Going out of town and need to maintain your exercise regimen? A couple nice-sized kettlebells on a road trip will take care of your fitness needs on the go and help you avoid paying outlandish single-use gym fees.
And finally, kettlebells are so effective because they are fairly awkward to handle. Unlike a dumbbell, a kettlebell has momentum. It swings. It’s a bit unpredictable, just like the outside world. Working out with something that swings and has momentum means working out your entire body – stabilizer and primary muscles alike – to account for the added movement.
The basic kettlebell exercise is the swing. Either performed with one or both hands, the kettlebell swing enlists your shoulders, core, and thighs. Such a compound movement leaves room for error, so be cautious of your form. Correct form is absolutely essential to avoid injury and maximize output. To start, squat as low as you can. Maintain proper squat position – feet shoulder width apart, toes slightly out, slight curve in lower back, weight on your heels, chest out, shoulders back, eyes straight ahead – with the kettlebell resting between your legs. Grab the bell and, as if in a deadlift, rise up while pushing your hips out. Drive the kettlebell up primarily with your lower body and core; your shoulders will help, of course, but they shouldn’t be the main agent of movement. Try to resist pulling with your shoulders and instead actively engage your legs, hips, and stomach in the movement, and you’ll be able to handle higher weights sooner. When you reach the top of the motion, actively pull the kettlebell down to the start position. (The video shows both good and bad swing form, but with an absolutely terrible song that I had hoped I’d never again have to hear.)
Clean and Press
These Olympic lifts aren’t only possible with a barbell; the kettlebell works as well. From the basic swing, you can transition into numerous other movements. For the clean, start in the swing position. Still pushing with your hips and legs, swing the bell up while keeping your elbow in. As the bell reaches your shoulder, dip your knees and get your elbow underneath the kettlebell. Hold it at your shoulder. From the clean, you can move into the press. Simply push the kettlebell up over your head with your shoulder and slowly lower it. Return to the squat/swing position and repeat.
Turkish Get Ups
This is a fun one, but also a bit difficult to describe. For clarity’s sake, let’s use a specific hand. Lie on your back while holding the kettlebell straight up in the air with your left hand. Keep your elbow locked and the kettlebell resting against your forearm. Keep the elbow locked throughout the exercise. Prop yourself up on your right hand (obviously, not the one attached to the arm holding the kettlebell) while bringing your left foot toward your buttocks. Put your right knee and left foot on the ground, so that you’re in a half-kneel. Maintain the straight arm and stand up. Always keep your eyes on the kettlebell. Turkish get ups have long been a staple for Eastern European strongmen, and incorporating them into your workout will strengthen your body’s foundation and improve your core strength. We’ve shown this video before, but it’s a great one.
Any natural motion a Primal man might have made, from crushing animal thigh bones with a rock for the marrow, to hoisting up a prey’s carcass for transport, can be simulated with a kettleball. For best results, try all the movements (see link below). Because the kettlebell exercises engage your entire body, a kettlebell user can expect dry heaves, debilitating soreness, and sweat coming from every pore. In short, all the signs of a fantastic, Primal workout!