I PROP MY phone on the rubber floor, hit record, and straddle my kettlebell. At the sound of the overhead beep, I do a single-arm gorilla row, leap back for a single-arm clean, lunge to the side, snatch the bell over my head, bend for a windmill, snatch again, and do a single-arm swing to finish. Then I do it all on the other side, and then the first side again, back and forth until the next beep.
On the walk home from class, I review the footage and find the 10-second clip where I look the most confident. I used to be the queen of cardio, with a little yoga sprinkled in. Now I’m the sort of person who posts videos of themselves sweating and grunting their way through a kettlebell complex on social media. (This sort of person might also be known as a “meathead”—which is what my Men’s Health colleague Brett Williams immediately comments on my video). And you know what? I’m embracing my inner meathead with pride.
Before kettlebells, I was all about cardio.
I’m apparently part of a growing number of people—and women, specifically—achieving meathead status of late. Strength training with free weights (which includes kettlebell work) ranked second on the American College of Sports Medicine’s Worldwide Survey of Fitness Trends for 2023, up from fourth place in 2022 and eighth place for 2021.
That’s not to say I jumped on a bandwagon. I grew up going to the gym with my mom, who worked as a personal trainer. I was deadlifting, squatting, and bench pressing as a high schooler. But starting in college, my exercise regimen skewed entirely toward cardio. It was partly because I rarely saw women in the weight room of my campus gym, and partly because I didn’t have the mental bandwidth to plan lifting routines. (Plus, I could multitask by reading and using the elliptical or treadmill at the same time—because nothing helps pass the time on a treadmill like an academic paper on 17th-century art history.)
Moving to New York City and building my careers as a journalist and an author left me with even less mental energy to plan the kinds of strength training workouts I used to love.
In 2021, I eased back into strength training.
A random stroke of luck brought me back to strength training. In 2021, I learned that two of my favorite trainers from the (since-discontinued) ClassPass Live app—Alex Redelico and Dean de Luna—had started a fitness company, Strength City, based near my home in Long Island City, New York. At the time, they were offering outdoor bootcamp classes that incorporated dumbbells and kettlebells. (Since then, they’ve opened an indoor studio offering HIIT, strength-training, and kettlebell performance classes.) Eager to meet them IRL, I showed up to class one day—and as I started lifting again, I remembered the rush of feeling strong.
Kettlebells became my favorite pieces of equipment, and not just because I could feel and see my muscles getting stronger. As I cleaned and swung for the first time, I found it liberating to learn new skills purely for the fun of it, and not to achieve some greater goal (besides impressing my colleagues on social media). Plus, there’s something extra satisfying about swinging heavy kettlebells around as a woman. In a world that wants us to be ever daintier and ever smaller, it’s empowering to sweat and grunt and take up space.
I was incredibly inspired by Alex, who’s a head shorter than me and lifts massive kettlebells like it’s NBD. With her classical dance background, she said that when she started kettlebells in 2017, she was “immediately intrigued by the transition of movements and how you could create this ‘choreography’ within a kettlebell complex.” Kettlebells, like ballet and the other forms of dance she studied, “are based in technique and an intentional skill set that requires a great deal of both physical and mental engagement.”
When you do a single-arm kettlebell clean, you yank it off the ground and let it glide around your wrist to land in a rack position. The move can bruise the back of your forearm, especially when you’re new to the skill and still sharpening your technique. Over and over again, the kettlebells slammed into my forearm. I wore the bruises like badges of honor. Over time, my form solidified, and the bruising became less pronounced: a physical reminder of the progress I was making.
Then, the lower back pain struck.
The forearm bruises, I could handle, but the lower back pain was concerning.
Throughout my first year or so of kettlebell training, I’d been gradually upping the weight I was cleaning and swinging: 26 pounds; 35; 44; 53… It all felt great, until it didn’t. During cleans and swings, I started to notice a sharp pain in the quadratus lumborum (QL) muscles of my lower back. I had the same sensation during deadlifts and medicine ball slams—anything that involved me bending over and straightening up. The pain felt like a sudden stab during the motion itself, but then it lingered as a dull ache in the days that followed. It even affected my sleep.
I didn’t want to give up my newfound passion, so I made an appointment at Bespoke Treatments Physical Therapy, which specializes in sports performance training. It didn’t take long for Philip Tam, PT, DPT, to assess my form and diagnose the problem: it was my hip hinge—or rather, my lack thereof.
Logically, I knew I should use my legs to lift heavy things off the ground, but that’s not what I was doing in practice. I was bending over and lifting with my back, which explained why my muscles were screaming in pain. Working with Phil once a week, I practiced initiating a clean by shooting my hips back. Once I was in the proper starting position, I braced my core and used my legs and hips to launch that kettlebell off the ground. The first time I did it correctly, I was stunned; engaging the proper muscles had taken the pressure off my QLs, which didn’t hurt at all.
I started prioritizing my form over how much weight I was lifting.
Back at Strength City, I scaled down to lighter kettlebells while I focused on perfecting my form. My trainer Alex always stresses the importance of nailing down the basics before you progress to anything fancy—in my case, swinging heavy kettlebells before I fully grasped the hip hinge.
“My ballet teacher told me something that has stuck with me through everything I approach: Until you start putting more effort into refining your foundational skills, you will never successfully excel at the ‘fun stuff,’” she told me recently. “That couldn’t be more true when it comes to kettlebells—or any movement practice, really. Until you are well versed in the proper baseline skills—hinging, swinging, cleaning, pressing—you will only cheat your own progress when jumping into the ‘fun stuff’ like snatches, jerks, and complicated complexes.”
I only thought about scaling up my weights again once I felt confident in my hip hinge and I could clean and swing lighter kettlebells without pain. These days, I’m back to swinging 53-pound bells—using the correct muscles this time. My QLs aren’t screaming. Sometimes, when I’m fatigued, they give a little yelp, which I take as a reminder to re-engage my core, glutes, and hamstrings.
I’ve learned a lot since I started training with kettlebells in 2021, but this is the most important thing of all: If you skip the basics, you’re going to struggle—if not seriously hurt yourself. When it comes to any kind of strength training, you’re only as strong as your form.
Jordyn Taylor is the Executive Digital Editor at Men’s Health. She is the co-author of ‘Best. Sex. Ever.: 200 Frank, Funny & Friendly Answers About Getting It On,’ and an adjunct professor at New York University’s Arthur L. Carter Journalism Institute. She’s covered sex, relationships, health, wellness, and LGBTQ+ issues since 2013, and has previously worked as a reporter and editor at Mic and the New York Observer.