Welcome to Kettlehell

Well, that’s what the sign welcoming participants to a weekly kettlebell class at the Odawa Native Friendship Centre should have read.

Leaving a trail of melting slush behind me Hansel-and-Gretel style, I ventured into the centre’s gymnasium. The drab monotones of the walls are broken up by the occasional motif. An Inukshuk here, a golden eagle there.

The hum of fluorescent lights hummed overhead. Half of them needed replacing.

A woman wearing a “Duh! Winning” t-shirt was sat at the halfway line of the basketball court stretching.

“Excuse me, but are you here for the kettlebell class?” I asked.

T-shirt looked me up and down slowly.

“First time?” she asked. I nodded.

“You’re gonna enjoy this,” T-shirt said, a sly grin carving itself into one side of her face.

But let me back up. Hands up if you know what a kettlebell even is? Good. It wasn’t just me then.

A kettlebell is a cast-iron weight that vaguely resemble a kettle, and a bell not a jot. Think of a cannonball with horseshoe for a handle.

These weights are used in ballistic exercises that combine cardiovascular, strength and flexibility training.

Truly they are weapons of mass destruction.

These WMDs allegedly evolved from Russian ‘poods’ – the commercial counterweights traditionally used in markets. A pood was approximately 36 pounds, or 16 kg.

The development of kettlebell weight training as an organized exercise may have started as early as the 17th century with the Russian farmers and dock hands who were required to handle them as part of their daily work.

Apparently by the 17th century kettlebell training was a mandatory part of the Russian Army’s military physical fitness program.

By 1948 kettlebell lifting, or girevoy, was recognized as an official sporting event in the former Soviet Union. Participants raced against the clock and each other to see who could do the most lifts within a given time.
Back to the present.

Kettlebell training has seen a resurgence in the last decade as an effective way to build strength and endurance, particularly in the lower back, legs, and shoulders.

T-shirt introduces herself as Kim, a 56-year-old grandmother.

Kim’s just one of the eleven people who have shown up to the evening class at the Odawa centre.

The kettlebell class is just one of the activities arranged at the centre. Members can also sign up for zumba, jiu-jitsu and yoga classes.

“In the aboriginal community right now there are so many problems with diabetes, drugs, alcohol, smoking,” says the centre’s recreational director Sheldon Baptiste.

Baptiste is a big, black hulk of a man, whose imposing frame belies a softer side.

“So my healthy living program deals with that,” he says wiping beads of swat bubbling on his shaved head. “It gets people active and moving.”

Sadly the statistics back up Baptiste’s claims.

The Aboriginal community is three to five times more susceptible to having type two diabetes than the general population of Canada.

Alcohol-related deaths range between four and nine times higher, and drug-induced deaths are two to seven four times higher.

Self-reported data from a 2007 Public Health Agency of Canada report also illustrated that obesity rates are higher among off-reserve Aboriginal adults compared to non-Aboriginal people (24.8% versus 16.6%).

Baptiste jokes around with some of the participants as he puts out mats for the class. I follow him into the gymnasium storeroom to help him bring out the kettlebells.

He adopts a more serious tone.

“These people have dealt with a lot of adversity problems in their lives, you know?” says Baptiste.

He effortlessly passes me a couple of the smaller kettlebells to carry. I pretend that the 12 and 16-kilogram weights aren’t all that heavy. I think I pull it off.

“So classes like these are a huge stress release for them,” Baptiste says. “It’s also a huge social thing with people coming from different reserves from all over the country and it’s actually just a place for people to meet.”

I ask him if I’m going to regret taking his class.

His laugh booms across the gymnasium.

“I’m not going to lie man – you’ll be hurting for a few days after your first time,” Baptiste says patting me on the shoulder.

Now I understood T-shirt’s knowing smile.

Eleven of us walk to the pale blue exercise mats that fan outwards in a semi-circle from a whiteboard in the centre. A 16-kilogram kettlebell sits beside each mat, waiting, ominously.

We’re a motley crew: ages seemingly ranging from early 20s to late 50s, some in designer exercise gear while others don faded jogging pants and tops. One woman wears a black and white t-shirt with Obama’s face emblazoned on the front. Although on closer inspection later on in the evening I decide it may well be the in fashion hip-hop artist of the day.

We take off our shoes and step onto our mats expectantly.

I end up being beside T-shirt, or as I later find out, Kim.

Kim is 56 years old and proudly tells me about her six grandchildren. The youngest is 15 months and the eldest is 18 years old. She says that she’s been taking kettlebell classes for over a year now. I ask her why she does it.

“Well, I promised my grandkids that I’d see them all grow up,” says Kim as she bends down stretching her hamstrings. “And kettlebell classes are a hell of a way to stay in shape.”

As we wait for the class to start Kim offers me some pointers: use your legs and not your back when lifting, and stretch as much as you can beforehand.

Baptiste walks over to the corner of the gymnasium, leans down and turns on a stereo.

Lyric-less, pulsating dance music throbs from the speakers.

“Did ya get this music from a jail workout?” jokes one of the women as she tightens a red and white bandana around her head.

Baptiste laughs good-naturedly before launching into an explanation of the exercises on the whiteboard for the benefit of those new to the class like myself. Kim, a seasoned kettlebeller, has her head down and continues with her stretches.

It reads like a litany of pain: swings; pushups; thrusters; high arm-pull; lunges; burpees; sit-ups with the kettlebell; arm presses; deck squats, and jumping jacks.

Baptiste gives us a brief demonstration of each of these exercises.

A swing involves holding the kettlebell with both hands between your legs. You start from a squatting position and swing the kettlebell up to shoulder height and back down again.

Next, you squat, holding the kettlebell in both hands at sternum height. In one movement you extend your legs and thrust the bell heavenwards as if making an offering to the kettlebell gods. That’s a thruster.

An arm press is where you hold your arm out at 90 degrees from your body, and holding the kettle bell so that it nestles in the crook of your arm. From that position you extend your arm and the bell above your head and back down again.

Lastly, you hold the kettlebell against your sternum and, from a standing position, you duck down and roll backwards on the mat before rolling forwards again back into that same standing position. It’s a particularly masochistic form of a sit-up that means lesser-coordinated kettlebellers can end up feasting on a 35-pound cannonball.

After Baptiste runs us through the basic exercises I felt pretty confident. I considered myself to be fairly fit.

But then came the kicker.

We have to do each exercise 10 times.

Then nine times.

Then eight. You get the picture.

“I should probably warn you,” says Kim smiling before we start. “I’m very competitive.”

So am I, I thought. Good luck keeping up with me.

So with monotonous youth music blaring in the background the eleven of us heaving and hefting our WMDs up and down, and side to side.

The banter from earlier soon faded into a silence, broken by the occasional grunt or groan. We are all engaged in pained genuflection.

Halfway into the first round of exercises I glance out of the corner of my eye. Kim is already two exercises ahead of me.

Ego bruised, I pick up my pace to keep up with the tireless grandmother.

Below me, I start to smear droplets of sweat onto my mat, blackening its surface.

By the end of the first round I have managed to catch up with Kim. My arm and shoulder muscles are on fire. Perspiration avalanches down my face.

Kim isn’t even out of breath.

I take a break and head over to the water fountain for a drink.

“Hey! Back to work buddy!” yells another woman, the embodiment of schadenfreude.

How does the saying go? Ah yes. Misery loves company.

The next 50 minutes of the class pass by slowly as my body tires exponentially with each passing round. Even by the sixth round, when we’re doing each exercise just four times, my arms threaten to write a strongly worded letter about the unnecessary abuse.

Baptiste finally calls time on the class. I collapse in a puddle on my mat.

“See you next week,” says Kim, wiping off a modest film of perspiration from her brow.

I grunt in the affirmative.

I’m somewhat happy to see that Sana on my other side is in a similar state to me.

Sana Diabo is a 22-year-old Mohawk. He has piercing eyes, a fledgling goatee and strong, sloping shoulders.

His actual first name is Shonatsowane, but he says most Canadians can’t pronounce it. So he goes by Sana.

I ask him what his first name means.

“Big drum,” he says. “It was given to me as I was born by my grandfather. It’s a well-respected name.”

I had noticed Sana earlier in the evening before the class had started. He had stood quietly in the corner as his girlfriend braided his long, dark hair into a ponytail.

He tells me that it was his girlfriend who dragged him to the class. Sana says that the kettlebell class is actually better than weights because you have someone to stand over you and push you.

Sana moved from the south shore of Montreal to Ottawa in 2009 to study architecture at Algonquin College.

I ask him how he pays for his schooling.

“My band pays for my tuition,” he says. “But I don’t get allowance so I have to also fund myself through summer jobs and I collect E.I. through the school year.”

As we walk out of the centre, the snow crunching under our feet, Sana tells me about one of his summer jobs.

During the summer he gets paid $18 an hour climbing 400 foot telecommunication towers to change the hardware. So the kettlebell classes will help him build up strength for that this coming summer.

I ask him if the classes have other benefits beyond the physical.

“The class – the centre – brings people together who’d not normally have come together,” says Sana. “Many Aboriginal people don’t normally go outside their normal bubble. So this is good.”

His handshake is firm, even after the past 60 minutes of recreational torture.

I turn homewards, promising myself a hot bath and scotch.