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Marco’s Kettlebell Minimalism

January 31, 2020

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The Short Story

One kettlebell, ten minutes, three times a week, it’s all it takes to remain fit and lean – or to get there. Don’t let the apparent simplicity of Marco’s Kettlebell Minimalism fool you. The plan is simple yet not easy. As you reduce time, you need to increase intensity. This program is extremely intense.
 
Perform kettlebell swings to failure after a light warm-up of squats, pushups, and burpees, three times a week, or as many times as possible, while increasing repetitions on the kettlebell swing every session: simple but not easy
 

The Long Story

“To boil water, the minimum effective dose is 100°C at standard air pressure. Boiled is boiled. Higher temperatures will not make it more boiled.”
―Tim Ferriss
Marco’s Kettlebell Minimalism was not meant to make me stronger. It was not designed to make me fitter. Although it’s very likely, it can make less trained individuals much fitter. I was already reasonably fit when I pulled it off my sleeve for the first time. To me, it was more a matter of reducing effort, much like when you’re already making a decent living and are exploring ways to make the same amount of currency for less work. This protocol was the simple answer to a straightforward question: what is the absolute minimum exercise regimen necessary to stay reasonably fit? That’s it: nothing more, nothing less. I wanted to call this piece Experimenting with Laziness, but truth be said: experimenting with laziness is all I do—in some way or another.
 
Less is more, they say. It’s probably right. To reduce, I first needed to master complexity. I needed to know where to cut corners and what I could leave aside to get to the essence of the very concept I was deconstructing. I’ll spare you all the trials and errors – adios fasted cardio – that led to the protocol below. I’ll just bestow upon you the distilled fruits of my labor.
 
In this case, my goal was to stay fit with the least amount of exercise possible. For someone else, the goal might be to get reasonably fit with the least amount of exercise possible. This protocol can equally fulfill both objectives. When it comes to exercise and athleticism, what gets you to a certain point is also what keeps you there. That’s why it hits all the right spots, not unlike crispy bacon hits all the dopamine receptors of my little Portuguese brain.
 
Keep reading if you want to find out how I kept reasonably fit in half an hour a week. Skip to the bottom of this piece to see what happened to me when I practiced the lost arts of the Russian swing for one full month.
 

Setting Boundaries

Let’s define goals before shooting the arrow, painting the bullseye around it and call ourselves grandmaster archers. What I mean by staying reasonably fit and conditioned is the following: unchanged body fat percentage, constant weight, and similar resting heart rate (RHR). There are other metrics that I’m using now of the likes of heart rate variability (HRV) or even tone of pitch – the future is crazy. At the time of testing, back in 2014, I didn’t have a Halo band measuring HRV and tone every single single second. Also, those three metrics above are plenty so far. Let’s not unnecessarily complicate things.

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Perfecting the Kitchen

“To live is to want, and the curse of life is the curse of want.”
―King Allant, Dark Souls game series

Apprentice Marco’s Fantastic Appetizer

First, I introduced 1.5 liters of the coldest possible water in my daily routine, with the fridge I had at the time it was 4°C. I drank the water upon waking every morning and waited at least half an hour to drink or eat anything else. Eventually, the water was cold enough to produce mild shivering within a few minutes. This boosts metabolism for a short period by 5 to 20 percent, different numbers coming from different studies. The study that gets cited most in the literature was published in 2008 The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism [1]. But let’s not discuss the numbers, I’m not after theoretical purity. The effect I wanted to trigger was increased fat oxidation and increased protein synthesis through the hormonal responses to cold temperatures.

I’m just inserting a side note that we will explore in other pieces. You probably heard people left and right cite the rules of thermodynamics. Thermodynamics is the branch of physics that deals with the relation between heat and other forms of energy, like for instance, mechanical energy. Yet, when it comes to exercise and fitness, everyone stops at the dynamics part, and very few explore the thermo part of thermodynamics. This is the whole subject of my Marco’s Ice Mastery and Marco’s Fire Mastery pieces (upcoming). On a further side note: the phrases protein synthesis and fat oxidation are just technical ways to say: adding muscle and subtracting fat, respectively. I’m only using these fancy terms here in case you decide to drink from the magnificent well of knowledge that is Google Scholar or stumble upon them while you quench your thirst for experimental wisdom.
 
Let’s get back to our cold water now! This simple behavior adjustment took me no time, as drinking plenty of water should be an absolute must anyway. If you find it daunting to drink one liter of cold water upon waking. Well, then, I have bad news for you; life’s going to be much rougher.
 
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Journeyman Marco’s Incredible Main Course

The second small tweak was to eat a high protein breakfast no more than 30 minutes after waking. I’m often guilty of skipping breakfast because I mostly wake up late. High protein breakfasts have been shown to decrease hunger in a study published in Obesity [2]. There are plenty of choices, eggs, bacon, protein powder, canned sardines, tuna, salmon, chicken, tofu, etc. I mostly went for the sardines. I could go on and on about sardines, mackerels, and cod liver. How all that vitamin D, omega 3, and low toxin content keeps me unsurprisingly healthy. Vitamin D is the great unsung hero of all the vitamins. It’s a bit unfortunate that so many people are deficient without even knowing it. But more on that in later pieces, I’ll refrain, for now. You’ll read about those delicacies in the Adventures in Doubling Testosterone piece (upcoming) if you feel like it.
 
There are tremendous amounts of research on high protein breakfasts increasing protein synthesis and fat oxidation during the day. I figured, let’s use this little yet powerful insight to our advantage. The breakfast goal was to reach a minimum of 30 grams of protein for this first meal of the day. Some people have difficulties eating a solid meal in the morning. For those people, protein shakes might be a reasonable solution. It’s not for me, as I avoid industrial foods as much as I avoid real jobs, but do what you must.
 

Artisan Marco’s Extraordinaire Dessert

Every time it was possible, and to an extent where I didn’t start being overwhelmed by so much juiciness, I squeezed lemon juice on my meals. Along with eating and chewing slowly, squeezing lemon juice on food is one of the easiest ways I’ve found to manage blood sugar. The blood sugar of people who squeezed lemon juice onto their meals raised slower than control groups in a study published in the Proceedings of the Nutrition Society [3]. Stable blood sugar is the highest predictor of lean body mass and managed body fat. I used and abused this to the point of having unchristian dreams about lemons and their curves.
 

Mastering the Swing

The only difference between the master and the novice is that the master has failed more times than the novice has tried.”
Stephen McCranie

Marco’s Kettlebell Minimalism was of haunting simplicity: perform kettlebell swings until muscle failure after a light warm-up session inspired by my adventures in cross-continental CrossFit extravaganza.
 

Do We Really Want to Become Swingers?

We do. We say that squatting is the king of all exercises, which it might well be. There are so many benefits to heavy squatting, in particular, and strong legs, in general. A study published in the MOJ Yoga & Physical Therapy could demonstrate the correlation between for instance leg strength and cognitive function [4]. I know, I know, correlation is not causality. But I also know that the scientific method, with its pure rigor, always has an inevitable delay. Just because something hasn’t been scientifically proven yet, doesn’t mean it’s not there. It just means it hasn’t been proven… yet. To this day, there are still researchers in labs, mostly men, arguing that squirting doesn’t exist. I don’t know about you, but I know very well on which side of that futile debate I stand.
 
Be that as it may, squatting is a great exercise. But it’s hard. It’s also quite technical, and doing it wrong can be worse than not doing it at all. I always recommend training with a coach or an experienced partner, at least now and again. Think about it. If world-class athletes need coaches, so do we. The second set of eyes helps keep things in check, at a minimum. Anyway, chances are you can’t do a proper squat even without weights. Oh, you don’t believe me, do you? Fine, take your eyes from your phone for a second, stand up next to a wall, with your nose and toes against the wall. Now, squat down to the bottom of the movement – when your glutes are almost touching your ankles. Chances are, you just felt on your butt because the wall prevents your knees from moving forward to compensate for the weakness of your hip’s external rotators caused by years of inactivity or worse, unenlightened exercise. That’s terrible form. Luckily, you can reverse almost anything. Look at Jeff Cavaliere’s work at ATHLEAN-X. That man has trained some of the most ridiculously gigantic athletes, from American football to baseball. He also has encyclopaedical knowledge of anatomy in sports and delivers it in a no-nonsense, straight to the point kind of way.
 
Kettlebell swings are much safer to do and provide almost as many benefits as squats. Also, it’s easier to perform a correct kettlebell swing than perform a proper squat. Worst case scenario, you end up breaking a window or a wall with the kettlebell. Both those things are much more comfortable and cheaper to replace than a knee. The caloric expense of kettlebell swings is almost as high as squatting. It targets nearly every muscle on the body, and as the swinging time increases, you also get cardiovascular and respiratory benefits. Last but not least, it’s much cheaper to buy one or two kettlebells than a squat rack, weights, and barbell if you want to train at home.
 
You might know kettlebells from watching a bunch of nicely posh ladies swinging them around on YouTube. Kettlebells typically look like iron cannonballs with handles. I would argue it’s a bit unnecessary to paint them pink, but I’m also not marketing them. Kettlebells provide an excellent, well-rounded workout. You might think those are for homemakers with weak wrists. Well, think again! The Spetsnaz used kettlebell only sessions in the seventies and eighties. Nobody ever fucked with the Spetsnaz. Anabolic steroids and amphetamines might have had something to do with it as well. Be that as it may, if the Soviet special forces trained with kettlebells, I’m sure we can squeeze some juice out of their training to apply to our very cushy lives. For instance, Pavel Tsatsouline, Belarus born strength guru, introduced this Russian elite military workout tool to the West back in the nineties. By the way, if you’ve never heard of Tsatsouline, I encourage you to watch his videos. That guy just unloads massive amounts of practical knowledge on you as he throws jokes upon jokes while doing so. It’s hilarious.
 
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Kettlebells—How Do They Work?

In the first week of Marco’s Kettlebell Minimalism, I performed kettlebell swings on Monday, Wednesday, and Friday. They say kettlebell swings are the closest thing to fighting without actually fighting. It might actually be true. Every fighter knows you thrown a punch with the hips, not with the arms or shoulders, which is also how you move the kettlebell.
 
To start, I took a kettlebell with which I could complete 20 Russian swings but no more than 30. The Russian swing distinguishes itself from the American swing by ending the upper part of the movement at eye level and is therefore much safer. The first day, I did as many swings as my frail Portuguese body would let me. Since the starting weight was selected correctly, this didn’t allow for more than 30 swings. This part is essential, as I didn’t want to be changing kettlebells too frequently. I aimed to always train until muscle failure. Muscle failure is the term for the momentary impossibility for a muscle to move a load despite maximum nervous system stimulation. In simple terms, it means, however hard I tried, I couldn’t keep swinging that iron cast hell bell anymore, even if my life depended on it.
 
Before swinging the kettlebell and following 20 to 30 seconds of light jumping around, I performed three sets of air squats, pushups, and burpees on a decreasing 21, 15, 9 repetitions mode. It means 21 air squats, then 21 pushups, then 21 burpees followed by 15 of each and finishing with 9 of each. No rest time is planned between any previous ones, but you can take a second to two to catch your breath now and again. The goal of this part is to be as fast as possible. I recorded my time with a stopwatch. Once I could do it under four minutes, I increased reps by three, i.e., 24, 18, 12 was my new mode. This brought scalability to the all ordeal. I could do this indefinitely. Every time I hit the four-minute line, I’d just add three more reps to all exercises.
 
As a recap here’s the full protocol for the starting days:
The pregame (around 5 minutes, as fast as possible, increase all by three reps once less than 4 minutes):
21 air squats, 21 pushups, 21 burpees;
15 air squats, 15 pushups, 15 burpees;
9 air squats, 9 pushups, 9 burpees.
 
The party (much less than 5 minutes, around 5 minutes at later stages): Kettlebell swings until muscle failure
 
That’s it. This protocol is of beautiful purity. Don’t add a damn thing. Remember, boiled water is boiled water. There is no such thing as more boiled. Applying more heat just wastes energy.
 
Total prescribed exercise: about 13 minutes per session times three sessions equals 39 minutes per week. At later stages, more days off are needed so that it will go down to two sessions per week, eventually, two to three hours over a month.
 
The beauty of this protocol is that as fitness levels increase, the pregame becomes shorter and shorter while the swinging time of the hell bell becomes longer and longer. Thus, things are kept in some kind of Taiji-like balance.
 

Adding Muscle / Subtracting Fat

The tricky part of the protocol is here: mastering the impulse to give up before reaching failure, an exercise in discipline, and ensure proper rest after the first week for increased load. I don’t think we need to explain the first part: no giving up, swing the kettlebell until it can’t be done with proper form anymore. The program only works if you apply enough intensity to it. There are no miracles. The second part consists of rest between the workouts after the first week. After that week, training frequency will be determined by fitness increase. In simple words: I only performed kettlebell swings when I was confident that I could do more reps or more weight than last time.
 
The progression should be constant. Every session, I should be able to do three to five more swings. If not, I increased rest days between sessions; less is more. The body adapts quickly to changes. Mechanically sticking to three sessions per week, as prescribed, just for the sake of it, without increasing reps or weight, won’t help. To freely paraphrase Malcolm Gladwell in his Outliers: The Story of Success practice only cannot make perfect, only deliberate practice can. Swinging the same kettlebell for the same amount of repetitions every session won’t produce results after a couple of sessions. This is called the fat aerobics instructor syndrome. We’ve all seen those aerobic teachers, who perform ungodly amounts of exercise every week and yet still proudly sport fat rolls that would put an obese hippopotamus to shame. This is mostly because one calorie does not always equal one calorie, and burning a bunch of calories only won’t make you any fitter in the long run. It will make you hungry, though. All other variables remaining constant, repetitions need to increase every time. The only exception is the first week. Also, I wouldn’t increase the kettlebell’s weight before hitting 100 or 150 reps.
 
Knowing what I know now, I learned that I don’t need to worry too much over the times I record on the pregame. I think of the pregame as a nice-to-have. I never skipped it, but I focused the progress tracking on increasing the number of swings I could do. Also, important note, I never rest-paused by thinking I was going to do 40 reps, then catch my breath, let my cardiovascular system clear up some of that extra spicy lactic acid burning under my skin, and then do 11 more. None of that, what counts is how many reps can be done in one go. When in doubt, just swing more.
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Measuring Progress

“If  you can’t explain it simply, you don’t understand it well enough.”
Albert Einstein

Read me now, quote me later. The results this protocol provides must be close to the highest benefit/cost ratio in the exercise department. You’ll sorely regret not recording starting weights and body fat if you experiment with what I’ve done. For practical principles of weight and body fat tracking, look into the What Is Measured Is Managed post. It’s quite tricky to know where you’re going when you don’t know where you are. After a couple of weeks of swinging, you’ll notice changes, maybe subtle changes at first, but they’ll keep you going. Reducing Complexity Swinging kettlebells is the most critical part of the protocol. If you don’t know how to do it, I’d recommend going to any gym with kettlebells in your vicinity and asking the professional personal trainer working there for an introduction into the lost arts of swinging. Most gyms will happily give you a first free session, so this should align with any budget. You can also use the opportunity to figure out what weight allows you to perform 20 solid reps but no more than 30.
 
If you don’t want to join a gym and instead prefer to perform the protocol in the comfort of your own home, as they say, you have roughly two choices: buy one kettlebell new or refurbished or make one yourself à la DIY way. At the end of the day, two or three kettlebells will last you for years. It’s quite challenging to increase weights when you go for 150 reps, surprisingly enough.
 
For the pregame, I trust anyone can google how to do air squats, pushups, and burpees without killing themselves. That’s all there is to it, really.
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Marco’s Month of Kettlebell Minimalism

I did nothing. I did absolutely nothing, and it was everything that I thought it could be.”
Peter Gibbons

I drank from this magnificent well of controlled laziness for one full month back in 2014. I still do it nowadays when I’m pressed for time.
 
I’ve tracked and recorded the data below for August 2014. As background, I was quite fit before starting it, and I remained quite fit while performing it. If anything, what it did for me was to maintain muscle mass and conditioning levels for a ridiculously low time cost. I completed 11 sessions within one month for a total of 2h07m of exercise.
 
Have a look at the data below. Take it with a grain of salt: a less trained subject would display noticeable changes. I’ve also uploaded the original dataset for those interested in the nitty-gritty. The table shows the full data for August 2014, one beautiful Summer month of effective laziness; bold days illustrate exercise days, 11 sessions of 10 to 13 minutes for a total exercise time of 2h07m.
 
The data might look quite unimpressive at first glance because nothing seems to happen. Sometimes, it’s not just about gaining; sometimes, it’s also about conserving. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again; a less trained subject will experience noticeable changes.
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Literature

  1. Brown, C. M., Dulloo, A. G., & Montani, J. P. (2006). Water-induced thermogenesis reconsidered: the effects of osmolality and water temperature on energy expenditure after drinking. The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 91(9), 3598-3602.
  2. Leidy, H. J., Hoertel, H. A., Douglas, S. M., Higgins, K. A., & Shafer, R. S. (2015). A high‐protein breakfast prevents body fat gain, through reductions in daily intake and hunger, in “breakfast skipping” adolescents. Obesity, 23(9), 1761-1764.
  3. Tejpal, S., Bastie, C., & Seetharaman, J. K. (2018). Lemon juice: a potential source of angiotensin converting enzyme antagonism for weight loss and insulin resistance. Proceedings of the Nutrition Society, 77(OCE4).
  4. Vecchio, L. D., Daewoud, H., & Green, S. (2018). The health and performance benefits of the squat, deadlift and bench press. MOJ Yoga & Physical Therapy, 3(2), 40-47.

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