Story by TANIA CASSELLE
Photos by GAELEN CASEY
It’s a Saturday morning in the L-shaped studio of Santa Fe’s Dynamic Kettlebell Fitness. About 30 students are swinging their kettlebells under the direction of trainer Keira Newton, and despite the rigor of the workout, nobody groans, complains or tries to sneak a moment’s downtime when Newton’s back is turned. In fact, she has to keep admonishing them to hold back when they’re too eager to launch into the next round. “You’re not going yet, y’all! Hold on, hold on!” She clicks her stopwatch to start the new series of movements (“Use your breath, not your momentum!”) and then, when the timed period is over, has to rein in the overzealous once again: “Stop! You’re done, you’re done!”
Despite their quaint name, evocative of The Sound of Music, kettlebells are cast iron weights that look like cannonballs with handles, used with very precise movements to provide an intensive, full-body workout for strength, cardio and flexibility. Russian references to kettlebells date back to at least 1704, and in the former Soviet Union they were used as a training tool by Olympic athletes, the military and your regular everyday muscle men. Over the last decade, Pavel Tsatsouline, a former instructor for the Russian Special Forces, has spread the kettlebell creed in the US, and the newly converted are passionate in their praise.
“I never enjoyed a gym until kettlebells,” says Val Johnson after Newton’s class. “I’m putting lotion on, and I feel muscle where it used to be mushy.”
“The cool thing is, it works with a whole range of people and body types,” says Marta Miskolczy, a runner who uses kettlebells for strength training. “I don’t like weight rooms, and I don’t love lifting weights. It’s an alternative to going to gyms.”
The word “addictive” crops up frequently, and it’s an addiction Newton identifies with. “It’s difficult, technical, very Russian, hardcore … but also I like how simple it is.” She compares kettlebell training to a martial art: Even black belts continue to refine and improve their skills. “You’re always learning, you’ve never reached the top, so you don’t get bored. I didn’t think I would find it so interesting. If someone told you weight lifting is interesting, would you believe them? You know, like, really? In the past I’d had said, ‘OK, whatever, Meathead!’” She laughs.
Nobody could call this very feminine and trim instructor a meathead. Watching her demonstrate to the class, I’m reminded of the ballet dancer Sylvie Guillem at the peak of her game: The combination of grace, strength and agility is spellbinding, and, also like Guillem, Newton appears to be beyond the law of gravity, the silver stripes on her Nikes flashing with her fast footwork.
Newton’s introduction to kettlebell training was through watching her husband. “I thought that it looked really strange and sort of barbaric, and I teased him about it. Finally he said, ‘If you think it’s that silly, why don’t you just try it?’” She did and was humbled by how tough it was—as well as intrigued that the mere 30-minute workout he led her through could make her so sore the next day. She took herself to a certified trainer who taught her to do the workout properly; correct form and technique are major watchwords for Newton, and she warns repeatedly against people just picking up a kettlebell and going for it on their own.
Soon she was hooked. Newton had just had a baby and didn’t have time for her usual two-hour stint at the gym, but she could squeeze in a kettlebells workout while baby was napping. “It had an effect on my body even though I was only doing fifteen minutes a day. I went slowly to twenty minutes, then thirty, to rehab from that pregnancy and shed the baby weight, and I ended up doing kettlebells through my pregnancy with my second child.”
Now, at nearly 39 years old, she’s stronger, fitter and faster than she’s ever been, and the proof is in her medical exams. “My heart rate is in an elite athlete’s level; that surprises me. I’m at a lower heart rate now than six years ago. And oxygen—it was 100% the capacity of the lung, and the doctor is like, ‘I’ve never seen that before.’ Not in a million years did I ever think I would be here.”
Newton earned certification as a Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) instructor, and as a team leader her certification level ranks her amongst the top ten women in the world. She’s also a Feldenkrais practitioner, experienced with body mechanics and helping people recover from injuries, which dovetails with her kettlebells work. “You have to focus on your form. It’s a way to be more present with what you’re actually doing, that awareness of self.”
She has seen her students transform their bodies dramatically, and 40 pounds of weight loss isn’t unusual. But it’s not just about getting into physical shape. “I love to see the confidence it can build, the excitement of getting stronger. For a woman to be able to do a push up or a pull up, or for a woman to use a very heavy weight in some of the lifts that we do, it can be quite empowering.”
Women start working with 18-pound kettlebells, as opposed to perhaps five-pound weights in a gym. “If you want to build lean muscle mass, you have to lift heavier weights to build definition and muscle. They’re often very afraid of that 18 pounds, fearful of building bulk, but they feel good after class. You use the whole body to lift the kettlebell, and focus on the whole movement of the muscle, rather than isolating muscles. It’s a more functional movement, more relevant to life.”
Newton’s business partner, Jennifer Grossman, has lost 55 pounds through kettlebell training and nutritional changes—the first 36 of those pounds in three months. “I look like an entirely different person, and I’m only half way to my goal,” she says. “In order to make the body transformation stick, the mind has to change too. Changing a lifetime of habits that don’t support good health takes time, patience and perseverance. It also takes incredible focus. The good news is that through a strong kettlebell practice, people discover what it’s like to have intention, how to focus and use that focus throughout their life. That in and of itself is almost life changing. People feel empowered in more than just the physical aspects of the studio.”
A sense of community is vital to Newton. She often works with timed intervals rather than counting reps. “Students can focus more on their form than thinking about numbers, and they don’t have to compare themselves to someone next to them. If their swinging is slower I don’t want them to get self-conscious. If they all go for the same period of time, everyone’s on the same page.” She pairs people off for some exercises, so they get to know each other and are more supportive to each other in class. “When you give support, you stop feeling alone, separate, different. And when you feel a connection, you come to class more often. We want people to enjoy what they’re doing. If you’re going to exercise you have to enjoy it, because that’s what’s going to keep you there.”