From Men’s Health
Before the COVID-19 pandemic, I was working out five days a week. I ate relatively healthy, too. While I was never exactly shredded, I was making good progress on the big lifts and felt comfortable taking off my shirt in public. But when lockdown started, all of that changed.
I was still eating like a person with an active lifestyle, but the most movement I was getting was walking from my bed to the couch. My gym closed. My office closed. The natural routine of my day-to-day life crawled to a near stop. That, coupled with the new existential threats of daily existence under the pandemic, meant I was eating a lot of take out, and food became a distraction from the casual terror of everyday life.
When I stepped on the scale last month, I discovered I’d packed on about 21 pounds. It wasn’t a surprise that I’d gained weight. With all the changes over the last few months, of course I was going to put on weight. The question now was what did I want to do about it?
Dan John‘s 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Workout has earned a reputation as a simple, brutal fitness challenge. The breakdown of the program uncomplicated, but daunting: you’ll perform 500 kettlebell swings, five days a week for a total of 20 workouts over four or five weeks. The swings are supplemented with squats, presses, or dips for four of the weekly training sessions. John claims that people who have taken on the challenge dropped fat while adding muscle, saw noticeable improvements in posture and body composition, and made significant gains in overall strength.
I wanted a program that didn’t require regular gym access while still offering big results to combat my pandemic pounds and general malaise. Swinging a kettlebell 10,000 times seemed like the best available option.
By the time the challenge was finished four weeks later, I had dropped nearly all the pandemic weight and a quarter of my body fat. The change was not subtle, and the work was not easy. This is what it was like for me to swing a kettlebell 10,000 times in a month.
Week 1 of the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge
There are thousands of trainers on the internet insisting their programs are the absolute best way for people to lose weight. What those people often leave out is that the equation is often even simpler than following their plan. You need to expel more energy than you’re putting in (this is called a caloric deficit). That can happen through careful focus on diet, exercise, or most effectively, some combination of the two.
When people don’t get the results they want it is usually because they didn’t actually follow the program. They don’t do all the workouts. They eat food they’re not supposed to. If you want to achieve your goals, the key is consistency and tracking. Unfortunately, I am terrible at consistency and tracking. To keep me accountable and make sure I actually finished the 10,000 swings, I asked longtime friend and collaborator Diego Lopez, a comedian and model in Brooklyn, to complete the challenge with me.
As a day job, Lopez works as a trainer and jiu-jitsu instructor. During the pandemic that’s meant coaching clients through Zoom and training sessions in the park. For people looking to improve their fitness with minimal equipment, Lopez has been a strong advocate for kettlebells.
“The kettlebell swing is a phenomenal pattern to strengthen the upright human being,” said Lopez. “Kettlebells are this perfect marriage between cardio training and strength training. They open you up and improve posture. The swing strengthens every muscle you can’t immediately see in a mirror. If I had to recommend one exercise to a client, it would be swings.”
The first day of training Lopez completed his 500 swings with a 70-pound bell, but struggled with his grip. Normally that wouldn’t have been a problem. But the program didn’t call for a day off. It called for another 500 swings. After completing the set Lopez sent me a text. I am having zero fun with this.
The first day of swings (I used a 54-pound bell, as prescribed in John’s workout design) and presses took me 38 minutes to complete. By the end of the last set I looked like I’d just stepped out of the shower and every part of my body felt sore. I thought about the text from Diego. Zero fun with this. I wondered what exactly I’d signed up for.
Week 2 of the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge
By the end of the first week, I had lost nine pounds, dropping from 210 to 201. The workouts felt both difficult and monotonous. I had started to develop a large callous in the middle of my hand. Even still… it was very hard to argue with those results. While I couldn’t say that I was enjoying the process, the program was living up to the hype.
One of the hardest things about hitting 500 reps in a workout was maintaining good form. The kettlebell swing forces you to be honest with what you’re doing. Round your back too much and you’ll end up hurting the next day. Try and muscle up the bell and you’ll feel it in the shoulders. Focusing on the hip hinge and being consistent with the swings can get exhausting, but that’s kind of the point. For some more involved pointers how to do the move right, you can check out this guide.
I was also tracking my calories through an online app, aiming for roughly 1,800 calories a day, and one gram of protein per pound of bodyweight. Part of the reason I had gained so much weight over the course of the pandemic lockdown—aside from the obvious stress eating—was because I stopped doing things consciously. I’d absent-mindedly eat two days worth of calories while binge-watching The Sopranos. I’d slam back a fourth park drink because they were far cheaper than what I’d pay in a bar. Logging the calories and doing more or less the same workout each day wasn’t sexy, but it did give me a sense of control.
Week 3 of the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge
A big mistake people often make is assuming that the extremes of a fitness challenge should be incorporated into everyday life. The point of a challenge is to push yourself in a short, pre-determined, amount of time to see what you can get done. Sacrifices are necessary during that time period, but temporary.
At my second weigh-in I had dropped another three pounds. This left me frustrated. Why wasn’t it closer to the nine-pound loss of the first week? With the beauty of hindsight I can understand what a success dropping three pounds in a week is, but it didn’t feel that way at the time. I felt like I was pushing myself without seeing a lot in return.
These feelings had more to do with the fact that a big assignment was ramping up at my day job than anything to do with diet or kettlebell swings. I had a huge project due that required late nights and multiple meetings. With outside stress escalating the last thing I wanted to do was workout, especially if those workouts weren’t immediately making me the hottest version of myself. But I had already told my friend—a professional trainer and model—that the challenge was something I’d complete to the letter. The shame of explaining that I’d quit or missed a workout seemed worse than actually doing the swings. Lopez had similar feelings.
“One of the reasons I love kettlebells is the versatility that they offer. Limiting the workouts to swings took that away,” said Lopez. “But getting this challenge done wasn’t about having fun. It wasn’t even about motivation. I told you I was going to do something, so I needed to follow through on doing it.”
Lopez even shared a story about a late night message from a lady friend he left unheeded—he turned down the booty call to finish his swings. Sacrifices are necessary during a fitness challenge.
Week 4 of the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge
The last week of the challenge was when I started getting compliments. My face looked noticeably thinner and clothes that had been feeling tight fit again.
The swings were still difficult, but I had shaved 10 minutes off my starting time. Getting a decent workout in at under half an hour was incredibly satisfying, even if I continued to look like Swamp Thing after I was finished.
Lopez noticed that his posture was better, and it was the best his ass had ever looked. He cut his record for completing 500 swings to an impressive 17 minutes, and dropped 10 pounds without tweaking his diet.
The Final Results of the 10,000 Kettlebell Swing Challenge
I dropped 16 pounds in four weeks, going from 210 to 194. While the 10,000 swing kettlebell challenge didn’t leave me with visible abs or a superhero body, it did leave me in a significantly better body composition than when I started, which serves as proof of concept for Dan John’s program.
I kept hoping to come up with some kind of life changing revelation when I discussed the challenge with friends, but nothing profound came to mind. If you make a plan, put in hard work, and remain consistent, you’ll get results. That isn’t something you’d print on a t-shirt, really, but it seems like a decent message.
So really, I think the challenge shows that you don’t need a gym or personal trainer to get noticeable results from your workouts. You need consistency and a good plan. And maybe a kettlebell, too.
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