Eric Leija was dating UFC fighter Roger Huerta and his brother Juan Leija on day one when he picked up a kettlebell. The native Texan was still a teenager at the time, with an ambition to compete professionally in mixed martial arts, and all of the guys who hit him on the mat used bells during their training. It was a classic example of when you can’t knock them out, join them.
“The first time I tried tearing, it felt so strange, I just couldn’t understand the movement,” admits Leija. “But that only made me more committed and it wasn’t long before I saw some real benefits.”
The dream of a career as a fighter finally fell into a void, but his passion for martial arts and fitness did not. When he found a home base at the progressive Onnit Gym in Austin, he began experimenting with kettlebell flows and sharing them with the masses on Instagram. Now his account @ primal.swoledier has almost a million followers and he gets DMs from celebrities like Josh Brolin in his program.
InsideHook recently caught up with Leija at Onnit to get a glimpse of his personal journey to self-improvement and some training tips from a kettlebell master.
InsideHook: What was the reason you went to the gym for the first time? What did you train for
Eric Leija: My older brother Juan and I were always a bit chubby as kids. I remember making fun of it every now and then. I saw him start exercising with his friends and really change his body. I looked up at him, of course, so it was only natural that I should try to follow in his footsteps. We have bad genetics because when I look at the food I put on weight which meant I had to exercise all the time. But I was starting to really adjust to it, and it wasn’t long before I got compliments from my classmates. Not only did I feel better, I just felt better.
So how did you approach the process first?
I just started lifting weights when I was 12. I remember reading Arnold Schwarzenegger’s encyclopedia of bodybuilding. I borrowed it from my brother and studied it in full. It was there that I got the first basic routines that I did. Between that time and regular running, I started losing weight pretty quickly.
What took it to the next level for you?
I think it was definitely when I first discovered mixed martial arts and the UFC. I was impressed with these guys who were fighting and their ability to move with force. Not only did they have muscles, but they could use them in this practical but brutal way. That led to me engaging in this sport myself and studying jiu-jitsu and boxing.
How has practicing martial arts changed your workout in the gym?
I was beaten up in the ring and on the mat. I’d been in the gym all the time but always doing these very simple, one-dimensional exercises. I had muscles, but they were only used in one specific way. It was then that I noticed that the successful fighters around me, like my friend Roger Huerta, were finding ways to challenge their bodies more fluidly. There’s nothing wrong with the bench press, squat, and deadlift, but if you’re looking to throw someone around, you need more flexibility than these offer.
They used these different tools. I’ve tried them all and was specifically drawn to the kettlebell. I was surprised at how much I got involved with it at an early age, because back then I only knew the little plastic bags that you see on old women. But these were completely different and opened up a whole new kind of training. I was starting to see real improvement in my overall strength that was directly reflected in my martial arts.
Leija takes turns doing kettlebell pushups
Which kettlebell movement is the hardest for you to master?
The Turkish get-up was arguably the most difficult step, at least for me. Getting all of the different elements just perfect is so important, and getting them all into flow can be a real challenge in the beginning. I’ve found that the key to learning is to do the full flow initially without the kettlebell so you can perfect the transitions. Once you’ve mastered the sequence, it’s time to add that extra burden.
One of the problems people have with the Turkish getup is how much overhead mobility it takes to keep the bell overhead. Personally, I sometimes have this problem because I enjoy doing a lot of pull-ups and a lot of back training, which results in my shoulders being quite tight. This means this overhead movement can be more difficult to maintain.
I’ve learned not to force my arm into a full lockout position when I feel like I don’t have it. I will soften the elbow and find ways to restore that stability where I can. I actually worked my way up to do a Turkish outfit with a girl who used to work here at Onnit who weighed around 125 pounds. It was great to see through, but I wouldn’t try to do something like this today. That was an achievement for a younger man.
Do you have any hacks for the easier kettlebell moves?
I would say one of my favorite lessons for beginners is snatch. I find that people who are just starting out usually have a problem catching the tear where the bell circles around the hand and hits the forearm causing great pain. Catching the bell as it rips is an art, but it takes a while to perfect.
The usual starting position is with the kettlebell on the floor and the handle parallel to your body. I have found that if you tilt this grip on yourself, your arm will naturally be placed on this course in which your arm rotates and the bell wraps around your wrist in the end position rather than slamming on it. I also like to express the importance of having a softer grip during these movements, as I often find that people with a death grip grab the handle and end up tearing their palms open.
If you were to give yourself one piece of advice at the beginning of training with the kettlebell, what would it be?
I would tell myself that when doing kettlebell training I should do better to moderate the intensity. I used to just focus on getting tough and getting heavy all the time. How fast could I do snatches? How far could I go? That was what I thought was real training. I would never take breaks, even if it would probably have benefited the workouts in the end. I was on the verge of burnout the whole time.
I used to exercise every day too, but now I have more of a shared schedule with Wednesday and part of the weekend off, and it allows your body to rest and get the maximum benefit from your work. Today I am much more focused on what is actually sustainable and beneficial in the long term. I don’t chase those numbers anymore. I just want to feel good, look good and be happy.
Leija doing snatch, a classic kettlebell exercise
How often do you train with the kettlebells?
I use kettlebells during all of my workouts, but I will only do kettlebell workouts three times a week. These days are all about speed and building quick strength by performing movements like rocking and tearing. I like a good variety in my workouts by including these traditional exercises and cardio. I think it’s important to mix it up as often as possible. Occasionally I only do kettlebell training for a month, which is a time for me to play around with different weights and intensities.
Do you think it’s possible just to exercise with a kettlebell and see results?
I think you can see a lot of results and gain a lot of strength just by using a kettlebell. They are great for burning calories and building your cardiovascular system. I think you could train for a whole year, learn new things and find new challenges. But I think there comes a point where it is necessary to incorporate other modalities if you really want to advance in muscle mass or strength. Because of the way kettlebells are constructed, there is a very narrow weight window that you can work with.
Do you take your kettlebells with you everywhere?
I love traveling with my kettlebells and I think that’s one of the real benefits of exercising with them. I recently did a road trip to Big Bend in West Texas and we were in a pretty simple but beautiful place. They didn’t have a training facility or anything, but I had my bells and ribbons in my truck. Bands are a great way to add intensity when you can only bring one set with you. I did a little workout every morning when I was away and they were all great. When I came back I was sore, which was a good sign. Even on vacation I like to take a session with me so that I can really enjoy my meal. You can eat well in Texas.
How do you advise people to find the right weight for a kettlebell given their size?
Kettlebells come in fairly limited weights and sizes. A little experimentation is always the best way to go, but over time I’ve found certain weights that work well for people in general. I will tell men that if they weigh under 155 pounds they start with a 16 kg kettlebell and if they are over, at least a 20 kg kettlebell. Of course, once you feel more comfortable, it’s time to improve it. People don’t always understand that holding a kettlebell is much different than holding a dumbbell, and those weights may not always apply to the right kettlebell for you. There is much less intuitive balance and this is where the challenge comes in.
I know Josh Brolin approached you on the Instagram DMs a while back. Since you’ve grown so much on social media, do you have anyone else you’ve connected with who feels a bit surreal?
As you know, my brother Juan, who put me in my lap here at Onnit, and I are both UFC fans. I’ve met a few fighters over the year, but one of the guys I really admired from an early age was Mike Chandler. I followed him early on, and when I saw him follow me and then tag me with his training, it was surreal. I was allowed to train him a few years ago. That was a cool moment that came full circle. I’m really proud of the community I’ve built online and at Onnit. We’re not stopping anytime soon.
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