Minimum Effective Dose and Kettlebells

As part of my on-going research on health and fitness I have been researching on kettlebells, which have become “trendy” in fitness training.  A bit of background: kettlebells are of Russian origin where they are known as ‘girya’. They were apparently developed in the 18th century and later used by the Soviet army as part of their training and physical program. Kettlebells had been used for competition and sports in the Soviet Union and Europe since 1940s, and were re-introduced to the US as new exercise tools about a decade ago.

Kettlebells are now available across the globe. I bought mine in Bangkok from whose Australian owner, Roy, also provides professional training on their use. Kettlebells are typically constructed from cast iron and look like a cannonball with a handle on top that allows you to grip it properly.

 Benefits of Kettlebells


Advocates claim that kettlebell exercises help to melt fat away from your body and work the entire system. With kettlebells, there is no support afforded by a machine or bench the way traditional weights can be, so your entire body must get involved and you get exhausted quickly. That way you are burning calories at a much greater rate and chiseling those muscles into shape. I can confirm the quick-exhaustion as the exercises are characterized by explosive movements. The advantage is that it cuts down on the time spent on weight training sessions.

Kettlebell exercises have their own lexicon; snatch, clean, windmill, swing and jerk are some of the more common terms. There are numerous videos on YouTube showing you how to do kettlebell exercises. I found them to be of varying qualities so it would be prudent to first get training on the basic technique from a qualified instructor before you start. Some people use kettlebells for all weight exercises and some use them as complementary to the other weight devices. My trainer says it is advisable to use kettlebells only for what they are good at – working the whole body – and use other weight devices when you want to isolate specific muscles.

 The 4-hour Body

My interest in kettlebells came from reading the book, The 4-hour Body, by Tim Ferriss. In the book, Ferriss advocated the principle of the Minimum Effective Dose (MED), which he demonstrates with the use of a specific kettlebell exercise known as ‘two-hand swings’. MED is defined as the smallest dose that will produce the desire outcome (thus anything beyond MED is wasteful). For example, water boils at 100 degree Celsius at standard pressure. There is no point to increase the temperature. Boiled is boiled. Under the MED principle, we should find the smallest thing that will have the greatest impact. Ferriss submits that the kettlebell two-hand swings exercise is that “smallest thing” to help us lose fat and get into shape.

 Minimum effective dose with kettlebells

Ferriss’ regime for this particular purpose is as follows:  do one set of 75 repetitions of the kettlebell two-hand swings one hour after a protein rich breakfast twice a week. If you could not complete the continuous 75 reps, do multiple sets with a 60-second rest in between until you reach 75. That’s it! While you could do other complementary exercises, this is the MED. Ferriss says it has worked for him, and many readers of his book confirmed publicly that they have lost weight and gained the muscled body they wanted by following his regime. See video below on how to do the two-hand swings as explained by Ferriss.

It is understandable if you treat this with skepticism. I have had doubts myself. However, having followed Ferris for several years – since he shot to global fame with his first book, The 4-hour Week, and having read his latest book, The 4-hour Chef, I am beginning to think that the man is a genius. He could even be a modern day Leonardo de Vinci. In any event, the principle of MED makes sense to me. Thus I decided to give it a go. I have started to follow his regime, starting with an 8 kg kettlebell, one set of 75 reps, twice a week, one hour after a protein rich breakfast. And then we shall see.

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