There are few things more motivating, I find, than exercising outside with like-minded people. But while it is simple enough to do cardio work out of doors in the UAE (though not always pleasant during the heat of summer) when it comes to weight sessions things get a little trickier. I've long expressed my aversion to weightlifting areas in gyms - which has always made my desire for well-honed biceps a tad difficult to achieve - so when I saw a group of men and women swinging what looked like a cannonball with a handle in Dubai's Safa Park several months ago, I vowed to find out more.
Last week I finally took my place at an early morning Kettlebell Club session, under the instruction of Rudi Botha, a qualified kettlebell trainer and former professional rugby player from South Africa, whose ability to trim, tone and strengthen Dubai residents has won him local acclaim. Botha, not without considerable muscle mass himself, discovered kettlebells while training for rugby and mixed martial arts and has never looked back.
The beauty of the cast-iron weight, he explained, is that the exercises performed with them focus on gaining functional strength to complement movements made in daily life as well as during sporting activities. Controlling and lifting a kettlebell provides whole-body conditioning and toning. "Anyone can do it," he said. "There are obviously different levels, from beginners through to advanced. The ballistic movements challenge your stability and put emphasis on core strength."
To be honest, it didn't look too difficult from a distance - for one thing, there was no running around and no sign of burpees - and the kettlebells laid on the grass in front of us on Wednesday morning weighed either 5kg or 7.5kg, which seemed manageable enough. But this was no class for wimps. After a quick and straightforward warm-up, we were straight into the basic lifts and movements that would later build in intensity through several different circuits.
The first movement involved swinging the 7.5kg kettlebell from between the legs to eye level, keeping the stomach in and the pelvis tilted to protect the lower back. When performed properly, the movement strengthens the core and prevents stress on the lower back by strengthening the bottom, hamstrings and calves. It also stretches the hip flexors. It sounds easy but after a couple of minutes of kettlebell swings, the news that we'd next be doing the same movement using alternating hands, brought with it the realisation that, despite the cheery dispositions of my classmates, this was going to be far from easy.
After alternating hands we then moved into what I found the most difficult movement of the hour-long class. Keeping one arm straight up in the air, kettlebell handle in our grip, we had to squat. It sounds simple, and it looked it when Botha demonstrated, but the art of keeping the arm straight up and bending the knees proved all was not as it appeared. Later Botha explained that my difficulty in getting this right could be down to weak back muscles, poor flexibility and poor strength in the glutes - all of which should improve if I kept at it.
After we finished this movement we tried the "kettlebell snatch", a movement similar to a clean-and-press. You begin with the kettlebell between your feet, as with the swing. You bend at the waist to squat down and pick it up, using your legs and hips to thrust it up over your head, punching your fist up to the sky and standing straight. The weight then flips over your wrist, before you swing it back on a 45-degree angle down towards the ground again.
After a set of these on both arms, we did another set of circuits that involved lunging with the kettlebell held straight up in the air with one arm, punching it up into the air as we lunged, and then stretching in a windmill-type movement that worked the obliques as well as the shoulders and flexibility. Movements like this, due to the displacement of the weight of the kettlebell, call on stabiliser muscles to work on any weak areas.
We did this on both sides, Botha correcting technique to ensure the right muscles were taking the effort and the lower back was protected. By the end of the hour, I had worked up a sweat and I'd had fun. The mixed-sex group was friendly and despite the effort needed in the exercise, we all encouraged each other to keep going when it got tough. Later that day and certainly by the following morning my gluts and shoulders were not shy in letting me know that they had worked hard, though - to my relief - I had none of the lower-back aching I had expected.
The 5kg and 7.5kg weights are just the starting point. Weights can reach 45kg. "A lot of professional athletes, celebrities and even the armed forces, are using kettlebells now in their training regimes," Botha explained later. "It complements everything. It works the shoulders, arms, the obliques, hips, thighs, gluts and it will help improve back strength and posture."
Where and when Sunday and Tuesday evenings at 7pm, and Friday's at 8.30am at Al Barsha Park; and Monday and Wednesday mornings at 8.15am at Safa Park, Gate 2.
Why this class? Total body conditioning under a blue or starry night sky, with none of the mirror gazing or grunting typical at many gyms, but all of the results. Muscles used Kettlebell training is a whole-body workout that engages the core, arms and shoulders, legs, glutes and postural muscles. Who can do it? Male or female, young or old, if you have the commitment (and no serious injuries) then Botha has the skills needed to see you make real change.
Cost Dh80 per session or Dh800 for 12 sessions. Contact E-mail info@AmericanFitness.me, visit www.americanfitness.me or join the Facebook group "The Kettlebell Club" for more information.