Monday, May 23, 2011

How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Love the Kettlebell

If you’ve read my posts from a few weeks ago, you know that I keep mentioning kettlebells.  There’s a reason for that, of course: I love the things. 

I’m writing this post because I want to mention an alternative to the standard gym grind.  I keep meeting folks who have never seen a kettlebell, much less used one, and I’ve gotten too much good out of mine not to praise it.

But before I wax rhapsodic about the virtues of kettlebell training, I should lay out some basic info:
  1. A kettlebell is essentially a cannonball with a handle.  They come in a wide range of weights: 18 lbs. is the starting weight for an average woman and 35 lbs. is for an average man.  Because of its shape, a kettlebell’s center of mass moves relative to your hand as you swing it, and this makes it very different from using a barbell.
  2. Kettlebells are not new, despite the latest Jillian Michaels fad.  They got their start during the 18th century in Russia, where the kettlebell is called a girya.  They were so influential that the Russian word for “strongman” is girevik: “Kettlebeller”.
  3.  Kettlebell training is not really a beginner’s exercise.  It involves coordination, ballistic swinging motions, and overhead elevation of significant weight.  While not necessarily dangerous, it is certainly riskier than the Stairmaster™.
I started swinging ‘bells because I was never a great fan of weightlifting.  I gain muscle slowly, and the grind of the gym was terribly unappealing, although I tried it for years on and off.  Three years ago I recognized my deteriorating physical condition and decided to buy a kettlebell.  It seemed interesting if nothing else.
When I finally got it and tried it, I was floored at the intensity of the work and the coordination it required.  My heart pounded after just a minute of swings.  My legs shook after two minutes.  This relatively light ball of iron forced me to attend to a whole host of physical relationships that I had ignored for years.  I had to coordinate everything just to swing it back and forth!  It felt athletic in a way barbells never had.

I started out using it twice a week, then bumped it up to three.  I started walking straighter as my hamstrings and adductors (inner-thigh muscles) became strong enough to balance out my quadriceps.  My grip strength improved vastly—I was quite unkind to a smug missionary who made the mistake of offering me his hand, a fact of which I am not proud.  Sort of.

I lost fat.  Turns out that swinging 35 lbs. forward and backward burns a lot of calories per minute—far more than more traditional cardiovascular exercise like jogging.  The more advanced kettlebell swing, called the snatch, is so intense that it’s used as a gauge of overall fitness by the U.S. Secret Service: 200 snatches in 10 minutes with a 53 lb. kettlebell gets you high marks.

Most strangely, my general athletic ability improved.  I have never been a strong swimmer, but last summer my wife and I took an impromptu swim across Green Lake here in Seattle, which is about ¼ mile of open water.  That is (conservatively) three times as far as I have ever swum in my life.  In the kettlebell community, this sort of global improvement is often referred to as the “What the hell?” effect.  Enthusiasts blame it on the whole-body nature of the movements involved in all exercises using a ‘bell.

I should tell you that my affair with the girya has not been without its challenges.  I have congenital shoulder problems that have required me to modify some of the exercises to prevent tendon pinching.  Excessive kettlebell training has sometimes required a trip or two to the chiropractor—after all, weight must be transmitted through the spine.  That said, my experience has been overwhelmingly positive.

Enough about how awesome they are.  If you’re interested in learning to swing ‘bells, you have a lot of resources.  If you play well with others, Crossfit centers are usually very serious about their kettlebell work and teach it correctly.  If you prefer to fly solo, YouTube is a great source for “how-to” technique videos once you have a girya of your own.  Pavel Tsatsouline has made a career out of kettlebells, and has a number of books and videos of varying quality available through his “Russian Kettlebell Challenge” company.  Beware: his marketing approach can be rather… enthusiastic.

And while kettlebells are popular enough that sports stores often carry them, I can’t recommend any that I’ve seen.  Most of those ‘bells are made with a handle that is too wide; it works great for two-handed swings, but it just gets in the way with most other exercises.  I’ve bought five from and I’ve been happy with them all; websites selling very similar ‘bells abound.

Have you had an experience with kettlebells? Have you never tried them?  Is this the first you’ve ever heard of them?  Let us know by leaving a comment!

Monday, May 16, 2011

Kale and Lemon Salad

Kale and Lemon Salad
I'm ready for spring food.  Are you?  I'm ready for fresh greens and strawberries and asparagus.  We're so close I can taste it!  Sadly, the Farmer's Market is still filled with kale and root vegetables.

Ah, patience.  Patience is not a virtue I possess in surplus, but what I lack in patience I make up for in creativity.  I give you Kale and Lemon Salad, loosely based on the Emerald City Salad from our local co-op.  This salad gives a hint of spring in the lemon and green onions but features winter cruciferous vegetables as the centerpiece.

Kale and Lemon Salad

Chop and dice all your ingredients as finely as you can manage!

1 bunch green kale
1 small head broccoli
2 medium carrots
1/2 cup red cabbage
1/2 red bell pepper
2 green onions

1/4 cup olive oil
1/8 cup (or less) lemon juice
1 small clove garlic
Salt and Pepper to taste

  1. Chop up kale, broccoli, carrots, cabbage, bell pepper and green onions and place in a bowl.
  2. In another small bowl, whisk together the olive oil, lemon and garlic.  Season to taste.
  3. Pour the dressing over the salad, toss, and refrigerate until ready to serve.  
This salad is even more delicious the second day!


Monday, May 9, 2011

Failure Is Not an Option!

Today is the 8th day of the Movement Project.  From comments on the facebook page and here on the blog, I see that people are running and walking and doing yoga and lifting weights and swinging kettlebells.  Everyone is going a great job!  Have you moved every single day for the last week?

If your answer is yes, congrats!  We're almost a third of the way through and you're rocking!  If your answer is no, don't worry about it.  You haven't failed.  Really.

If you're having trouble moving everyday, let's figure out why.  Answer the following questions:

  • Did you schedule your exercise?  Was your schedule realistic?
  • What activities did you pick?  Did those activities fit comfortably into the time frame you scheduled?
  • Did you find a way to keep yourself accountable with a friend, a journal, or by posting on the FoodWise Facebook page?

Based on the answers to those questions, where did you fall off the wagon?  How can you change your current behavior to meet your movement goals?

Let me reiterate, if you didn't move everyday last week YOU HAVE NOT FAILED.  Change is difficult and there will be bumps in the road.  The most important thing you can do is be kind as you enter into this period of transition--do not chastise yourself.  Most of us would never berate another person the way we berate ourselves!  Besides, far more important than playing the blame game is figuring out what to change so you can succeed and try again.

If at first you don't succeed, try, try again.  Don't give up too easily; persistence pays off in the end.

Thursday, May 5, 2011

Find Ways to Fidget

Do you fidget?  Wiggle while you work?  Walk around while thinking?  Stretch your legs out or cross and re-cross them during meetings?  We all got told to "stop fidgeting" when we were kids. Turns out that may not be such good advice after all.

We've known for several years that "naturally" lean people tend to fidget more than their overweight counterparts, but did you know it makes a difference of hundreds of calories per day?  On average, people who fidget 2 hours per day burn an extra 350 calories daily!  That's huge.  It's fantastic that you've challenged yourself to 30 days of intentional movement--now let's integrate even more movement into your life!

Can you learn to fidget?  I have no hard data to support this, but I'm going to go out on a limb and say yes.  It's all a matter of environment and awareness.

There are computer programs--alarms, really--that you can set to ding every 10 minutes to remind you to move.  My good friend Tim likes this one.  There are standing desks and bouncy balls.  There's not allowing yourself to sit on the couch while you watch TV.  Basically, make yourself a little less comfortable so you're more aware of your body.

I just started sitting on an exercise ball while I type, and in just a few days I've noticed a huge increase in my "wiggle factor".  I was never a still person. but every time my mind wanders from my work I notice myself wishing I could slouch, which leads to an awareness of my back and a little wiggling to relax it. When I'm trying to think of a word I bounce up and down.  When I'm transitioning between tasks, I move my booty from side to side or make circles with my abdomen.  Keep this up and I'll have gorgeous abs by the time it's warm enough for a swim suit!

My husband Ben has a standing desk and he loves it, though he can't work at it for more than 4 hours without his legs getting really tired.  How much fidgeting would you do if you had to work standing up? Not all of us can afford the fancy treadmill desks so a standing desk is a cheap alternative.  Here's a hint: you don't have to buy something labeled "standing desk".  You can go get a bar table and either cut the legs down or jack them up to the appropriate height.

While watching TV, what if you had to stand up every time you wanted to change the channel?  Or what if you had to sit on the floor or a bouncy ball instead of the couch?  I guarantee more wiggle when not enveloped in your comfy armchair!

How are you going to find ways to fidget?

NYT 2005 article: The Fit Tend to Fidget and Biology May Be Why
Science journal article that provided the basis for the NYT article

Tuesday, May 3, 2011

Udi's Gluten-Free Hamburger Buns Are Delicious!

Hamburger on Udi's Gluten-Free Bun!
Today I was supposed to be making pulled pork for dinner, but circumstances conspired against me. Instead, I went grocery shopping with a grocery list that accounted for every meal EXCEPT today's dinner.  I was strolling down the aisle of my co-op trying to figure out what to make when up popped Udi's GF hamburger buns!  I'd been waiting so long for these buns that I forgot they were coming out this month.

With all this exercise you're doing for The Movement Project, do you feel like a hamburger?  I know I did!  Ben likes BBQ blue cheese bacon burgers, and who am I to refuse the man a luscious burger when I can eat mine on a real bun?

Udi's makes the most wheat-like hamburger buns I've ever had (and no, Udi's isn't paying me to say that). Firm on the outside, chewy on the inside, they make me excited about BBQ season.  Gone are the days of wrapping my hamburger in lettuce or between soggy slices of bread!

The hamburger buns, like most GF products, are quite small, which makes for convenient portion control. The dietitian in me feels compelled to point out that massive quantities of meat, even grass-fed beef, is pro-inflammatory and not good for you.  On my burger you'll see bacon, but you'll also see sprouts with a side of baby carrots.  Enjoy your burger, but add the veggies!

Try 'em.  Let me know what you think!

Monday, May 2, 2011

Progression For Life

Small progressive goals allow you to meet your big ones!

Autumn’s husband Ben is writing this guest column.  He holds a teaching certification in Jujutsu and is a longtime student of Baguazhang, a Chinese martial art.  He has been training in, experimenting with, and teaching others physical culture for 18 years.

So you’ve decided to move for a month straight.  Good for you!  When you make a commitment like that, built on a moment of insight, it’s very motivating.  The passion that drives us to keep our commitment feels invulnerable at first, unstoppable, and we don’t want to consider the possibility that we won’t always feel that way.  To do so is to admit vulnerability, and so to invite it.  I dread the way that an invincible conviction can unexpectedly change into the premonition of defeat, seemingly overnight.

Take heart.  Your motivation can be saved.  First, recognize that your desire to persist over the long-term has almost nothing to do with your first surge of energy; they are different beasts, and the feeding and care of persistence requires a different set of skills than does embarking on a new program.

Sticking to any commitment is a matter of meeting three separate requirements: measurable purpose (which we forget), desire (which withers over time), and sacrifice (which prevents both of the previous requirements from being derailed).  Ignore one of the three and persistence becomes a struggle; ignore two and it becomes nigh impossible. 

Measurable Purpose

The goal is the part of motivation that we often focus on, assuming that it should be enough.  Recognize right now that it almost never is enough.  This frees you to clarify your aims in a way that will allow you to measure your upcoming progress.

What, exactly, do you want to attain with your exercise program?  If it’s strength, what do you want to be able to do?  If it’s fat loss, what’s your target weight?  Do you just want to look good naked?  Answer this question using numbers and terms that can be verified.  For instance, I’m working toward the (distant) goal of a one-armed pull-up.  This is easy to measure: either I can do it or I cannot, and there is no room for interpretation or wishful thinking.  Try to craft your own measurable goal right now—write it down in your own words, and save the paper.  We’ll build on it in a moment.


The brain is a fickle, fickle organ.  What it craves one day is trite or boring the next.  To continue stoking your desire to move forward with your commitment, you must develop the habit of showing (not just telling!) your emotional half that you are getting what you want.  This practice is the heart of progression, and it makes all the difference.

Go back to your goal from the Purpose section.  No matter what it is, it’s probably a ways away, and that’s a good thing because your next job is to break it into stages: what easy, gradual goals can you set that lie on the path to your final objective? 

As an example, let’s take an enthusiastic new runner whose goal is running a 10k race (numbered goals make this especially easy).  Let’s make her first goal to run one kilometer.  No more. 

If this sounds too easy, good.  It should be.  When you accomplish an easy goal, your brain is eager for more; it knows you can go farther, and you actually have to restrain yourself.  Think for a moment—when was the last time you were so motivated to go to the next stage of your training that you had to stop yourself from doing more?  We usually work it the other way, setting difficult goals that give us a huge emotional payoff when we reach them, but those goals require us to push and push on the road there.  What I’m suggesting is exactly the opposite—make each stage easy, and your motivation becomes a horse straining at its reins rather than a nag that has to be whipped over the next hill.

Look at your goal and ask: “How can I break it into eight or more easy, gradual stages?”  The easier the better, and that means that you may need ten or twelve stages.  That’s totally fine!  The more milestones you have to track, the simpler it will be to show your fickle, emotional brain that your work is paying off every single time you move.
Ben's Exercise Record.  What does yours look like?
 Write those stages down.  Number them, and put a little check box next to each.  Every time you exercise, pull out this sheet and look at which stages you’ve already completed.  This alone is surprisingly motivating!  If you find yourself stagnating, consider revising your stages to include a more gradual progression.  Keeping a written record of your progression also keeps you accountable, which Autumn wrote about in a previous post.

There’s one rule: each week you may go no farther than one more stage even if you are ready, willing and able.  The big numbers aren’t going anywhere, and if you continue to feed your desire in this way, it will continue to lead you onward and upward.  Before you know it, it will be June, and you’ll be working on stage 5 and still going strong.


It’s time to get the obstacles out of the way.  You can want your goal badly and that will carry you through the first week or two, but if there are circumstances in your life that compete for your energy, they will sap your will to nothing over the long haul.

What events and commitments frequently “pop up” in your life?  What excuse have you often used in the past?  Take a moment to identify these, and be ruthlessly honest with yourself.  Fear no revelation; you will always have a choice about how to handle each one.  Write them down too.

Recognize one simple truth about everything you just wrote down: in order to get what you want from your goal, you will probably have to pay with one or more of those events, commitments or excuses.  Which ones are you willing to sacrifice?  Take a moment.  Count the cost, and decide what you’re willing to give up to get what you want out of your new commitment.  Write it down.

Every time you notice yourself encountering one of these problems, take just a moment and go look at your sheet.  This will now show you three things: your ultimate objective, the huge progress you’ve made, and the obstacles you anticipated when you set out.  Seeing this with your own two eyes is very different from trying to talk yourself out of whatever situation you’re in.  It is proof that you want something, proof that you are getting it, proof that you anticipated these very challenges on the way.  And proof, above all, is what gets you motivated.

I’ve since typed up sheets for each of my strength and conditioning goals, but the hand-written one we’ve just covered works fine too.  Put it in an easy-to-access place, and when you can’t find your old motivation just pull it out, check on your progress, and review the things you decided were worth giving up. 

The Recap

Step 1:  Decide on a long-term goal for your exercise.  Make it measurable, and put it in writing.
Step 2:  Break that long-term goal down into at least eight easy, gradual steps.  Write those down too.
Step 3:  Decide what you're willing to give up that would otherwise get in the way of accomplishing those progressive goals.  Write down your sacrifices.
Step 4:  Review these goals and sacrifices frequently, and check off each of your gradual steps as you complete them.  You may not progress past one stage per week.

We want to know what your goals are!  Leave a comment below or post on the FoodWise Nutrition Facebook Page.

My thanks to Paul Wade, who wrote Convict Conditioning, and to Chip and Dan Heath, who wrote Switch.  Both books have influenced my thinking and this post.