Once used to weigh farm produce in 18th century Russia, kettlebells are now lifted as a competitive sport, and one Bendigo gym is proving to be an international powerhouse.

By Raelee Tuckerman – Photography by David Field

Coach Don Grant takes everyday Central Victorians and builds them into world-beating athletes, whose feats raising heavy cast-iron balls rank right up with the best.
Nine members of his Rock Hard Training gym represented Australia at the world kettlebell marathon championships in Denmark, bringing home nine medals, including seven gold, and four world records (Melanie Harris, Jen Fletcher, Hayley Lethlean and Maxine Smith).
“It’s truly amazing,” says Don, beaming like a proud father. “Mums and dads who are not athletes come in here and the next thing, they are the best in Australia and the world.”
No better example is Bendigo grandmother-of-two Maxine, who at 62 declares she is far fitter and stronger today than she was 40 years ago, thanks to her training regime.
She is also now a world champion and record holder, lifting the 12kg kettlebell a staggering 712 times during her hour-long marathon competition.
“I didn’t start training at the gym until I was 58 and have only been doing kettlebells for the last three years,” she says. “I had broken my arm badly and was determined not to be defined by my injury, so I used the kettlebells as a tool to help get my strength and confidence back.
“Once you start, they become quite addictive.”
Maxine has competed twice at the Australian titles, but Denmark was her international debut.
“We trained really hard in the lead-up, because you have to reach a certain standard to qualify for worlds, so to be able to pull off my best result on the day was pretty special.”
Kettlebell sport involves repeatedly raising one or two heavyweights overhead as many times as possible over a set period — traditional (10 minutes), half-marathon (30 minutes) or full marathon (an hour). Lifting styles include the snatch, jerk, and long cycle.
Don explains kettlebells originated on Russian farms more than 300 years ago for measuring produce, where one “pood” weight equalled 16kg.
“Over the years, with the cold winter nights and a bit of vodka, I guess the farmers started challenging each other and seeing how many times they could lift them overhead.
“They were in Russian gyms around the turn of the century and then, after World War II, the Soviet Government passed legislation around rebuilding a strong nation and kettlebell lifting, called ‘girevoy’, became their national sport.”
Western nations began embracing kettlebells as a fitness tool for strength, performance and endurance in the mid-1990s and they have become more popular in recent years.
“Lifting is a fantastic life skill, because we lift many things every day,” says Don, who also won gold on the world stage by completing 994 repetitions with a 20kg kettlebell in an hour.
“But it has to be done correctly — this is a very safe sport but it’s important the trainer knows what they are talking about to avoid incorrect technique, which can cause injury.
“I wanted to learn how to use the kettlebells properly, so I engaged five-time world champion Sergei Rudnev, who was coach of the Russian national team, to teach me.
“I contacted him over the internet and started doing coaching with him online, then did a course when he came out to Melbourne. My gym is based on the Russian template.”
Almost 20 of Don’s personal training clients compete regularly in kettlebell competitions, through organisations like Girevoy Sport Australia Association, the International Kettlebell Sport and Fitness Academy, and the International Kettlebell Marathon Federation.
Athletes from his East Bendigo gym range in age from teenagers to veterans in their 70s.
The youngest is 14-year-old Georgia Welsh, from Calivil, who was introduced to kettlebells by a teacher who trains with Don and runs lunchtime lifting at East Loddon P-12 School.
(It’s worth noting the teacher, Hayley Lethlean, is herself a world champion.)
“I started when I was 12, after Mrs Lethlean suggested I go to one of her sessions,” Georgia recalls. “I went to have a look and thought it might help me with my asthma, and I have loved it ever since. It really is a fun sport.
“The kids at school think what I do is pretty awesome and we’ve had a few more join the lunch classes since I’ve been overseas.
“It was definitely cool to compete with the team and such an amazing feeling putting on my Australian uniform for the first time.”
Georgia claimed bronze in her junior division half-marathon in Denmark, with 327 reps of the 12kg weight over 30 minutes of continuous lifting and lowering.
Many of the Bendigo kettlebell crew enjoyed success at the recent Arnold Classic Australia meet in Melbourne and are now eyeing the 2017 world titles in Italy at the end of November.
Despite his team’s incredible achievements, Don is not motivated by competition or results.
“At the end of the day, it’s not really about the sport for me – it’s about movement. And kettlebells are the perfect tool for helping others become fit, healthy and strong for life.”
For more details, contact Don Grant at Rock Hard Training in East Bendigo on 0432 440 646.