Getting back into the swing of exercise with kettlebells

Helen McGurk speaks to Lisa Barwise, founder of the Tribe of Kettlebell Warrior Goddesses
Lisa BarwiseLisa Barwise
Lisa Barwise

The gym can be a terrifying place, especially, if like me, you are of a certain age and well upholstered.

There’s the humiliation of floundering on the running machine, face the colour of a Braeburn apple, sweat dripping like Niagara Falls.

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Then there are the posers and the strutters (usually men, but not always), in the weights area - unashamedly grunting like Neanderthals.

A kettlebell class in full swingA kettlebell class in full swing
A kettlebell class in full swing

But worse is the mortification of being surrounded by willowy beauties admiring their trim waists in the changing room mirrors, whilst you struggle to get dressed under a too-small towel.

When I was in my 20s and 30s I was one of those gym bunnies; these days, in my mid-40s, I am more of a gin bunny.

Life, more specifically, children, curbed my enthusiasm for exercise; at the end of a long day of school runs, the 9-5, and homework, I just wanted to flump on the sofa rather than go to a gym with droning MTV channels, mirrors and monotony.

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But, something had to change. I had a wardrobe-full of nice clothes, but none of them fitted me anymore. My face had begun to look doughy. It was depressing. I was becoming a heffalump.

Then I heard about the Tribe of Kettlebell Warrior Goddesses - a class run by a woman, for women - with a focus on becoming stronger rather than stick-thin. Lisa Barwise is the woman behind the concept - a petite powerhouse, who is 41 and in terrific shape, but not in a scary, unobtainable kind of way.

‘‘Scales are for fish, not women,’’ she laughs.

‘‘We need to get rid of these age-old, archaic thoughts about dieting and scales and weight. We need to understand quality and the macronutrient content of food and understand body shape change.

‘‘I’m not a bikini model, I’m not super skinny, I haven’t ever been massively overweight, but I’ve been wobbly and I’m an apple shape so I understand belly issues.’’

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This home-schooling, single mum, who describes herself as a ‘wellness alchemist’, runs classes out of a studio in east Belfast, as well as hosting a popular YouTube channel and providing online programmes.

Her background is in business, marketing and health coaching, but once she got bitten by the kettlebell bug, her life took another direction.

She explains: ‘‘About six years ago after a nutritional conference in Limerick I met a girl in a bar - she was one of the speakers at the conference, a personal trainer and a kettlebell instructor. She was about the same age as me and looked great.

‘‘She had a YouTube channel and I decided to watch it and do kettlebells in my living room, because I wanted to de-wobble and start looking a bit more toned (even though I hate that word).

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‘‘So I bought my first kettlebells, which were plastic Davina McCall ones with sand in them, and just started swinging them in my living room.’’

Lisa was hooked and determined to become a kettlebell trainer herself.

‘‘I decided I was going to teach women kettlebells because I had had such great results in a matter of weeks. You can do it from home, it doesn’t cost a lot and you don’t have to go to a sweaty, testosterone-filled gym with men with beards and tattoos - all of which can be very intimidating.’’

She attained her fitness instructor and kettlebell qualifications - and started running classes, which have become immensely popular, with women travelling from all arts and parts to attend them.

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The majority of the classes incorporate exercise with kettlebells to build lean muscle, which in turn helps to stabilise insulin, and is highly beneficial, especially during menopause as women often produce too much of the stress hormone cortisol, which contributes to weight gain.

So, what exactly is a kettlebell?

It is a cast-iron or cast steel ball with a handle attached to the top. The word girya, meaning kettlebell, first appeared in a Russian dictionary in 1704 - and they have been used for centuries by strongmen.

‘‘It’s essentially a strength training bullet, because of the ballistic ( exercises that combine cardiovascular, strength and flexibility) training,’’ says Lisa.

‘‘We all know that strength training is good, for osteoporosis prevention, for anti-ageing, it boosts your metabolism, it’s good for brain development and cardiovascular fitness.

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‘‘Strength training generally is good for the body because you need that resistance to build lean muscle - I say ‘lean muscle’ so ladies don’t think they are going to get ‘Arnold Schwarzeneggered’ .

‘‘However you need to build lean muscle, because what happens is that as we get older our metabolism slowly deteriorates, our bone density decreases and our skin elasticity decreases.

‘‘Also our fat burning support hormone, oestrogen, starts to drop, especially when we hit our mid 40s - what that means is that we are no longer supported in fat burning for at least two weeks of the month and we start to square out and get unfit.

‘‘Strength training is the micro tearing of your muscle for you then to fuel it with good nutrition to build it back up - when you build it back up, that’s what gives you the lean look. It means you are making the muscle bigger than the fat under the skin. Fat is the thing that makes it look wobbly and dimply, cellulite is just fat - don’t think of it as anything else, it’s just fat.

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‘‘So, what kettlebells do specifically is a double whammy - you build the strength, you build the lean muscle, whilst also stripping the fat at the same time.’’

A kettlebell workout is done in bare feet and involves a series of moves, from the dead lift, to the swing and snatch - and many, many more.

The bells come in a variety of weights, and once you are comfortable with one weight, you can progress to the next level.

But it’s not all about kettlebells, the classes are interspersed with other activities and there’s lots of stretching and mobility work.

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‘‘I say to my clients you are only as old as your hips,’’ says Lisa, ‘‘so that is why we do the mobility work and then sometimes we meditate at the end of class to help bring our heart rates down.’’

After my first taster session my legs were jelly and the next day my gait was like John Wayne’s; but it felt good.

Better still , the classes are friendly, there is a genuine camaraderie among the women, and above all, Lisa is encouraging, knowledgeable and funny.

‘‘I consider myself quite lazy,’’ she laughs.

‘‘I don’t believe in ‘no pain, no gain’.

‘‘I don’t believe in pushing yourself till you vomit, I don’t believe in any of those sorts of things because it is not conducive to helping people to continue and stay motivated.’’

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For that reason she advocates short bursts of ‘‘efficient’’ training, believing that to be more beneficial than totally exhausting yourself.

The classes attract a lot of clients who tend to be a little bit older.

‘‘I thought there needs to be a space where women can come and don’t get frowned upon because they are a bit older or a bit out of shape, but will feel empowered, feel like a warrior goddess - and why shouldn’t they?

‘‘We have all shapes, all sizes, all backgrounds - and younger clients too - they don’t feel left out - the youngest client we have is 16, the daughter of another lady who comes.’’

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Lisa adds that a big part of her own motivation for getting fitter was her son Josh.

‘‘I want to be there for every one of his milestones. It’s about being the best version of me so I can live as long as I can.’’

I have been attending Lisa’s classes for a few months now and can honestly say I really look foward to them. I may not have morphed into Claudia Schiffer -but I feel fitter and more powerful - and being part of this tribe, makes me feel ready to take on any battles life throws my way.