September-October 2015 | Featured Article

Be Well: Senior Fitness

A 73-year-old Gaithersburg grandpa is teaching kettlebell workouts

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Burpees—grueling full-body exercises that go from a squat to a push-up and back to a jump—are a mainstay of John Kalil’s workouts. So are box jumps, bear crawls and strength exercises with kettlebells, weights that resemble a cannonball with a handle. The 73-year-old Gaithersburg grandfather attributes his ability to do all this to a workout regimen he’s followed for the past seven years, a combination that involves CrossFit training and kettlebells. “CrossFit means functional movement, high intensity, constantly varied,” he says. “The kettlebells keep you flexible. They’re hard as hell. …I’m doing the stabilizing, not a bar, therefore I build my core.”

Kalil, who ran a D.C. liquor store for more than four decades, spent a year at home relaxing after he retired in 2006. “I got tired of watching Oprah,” he says. He’d always kept active—skiing, running, biking, weightlifting—and in 2008, his son Chris brought him along to try out kettlebells at CrossFit Koncepts, a boutique gym in Gaithersburg. Kalil was so sore afterward that he didn’t think he’d ever do it again. But Chris urged his dad to go back, and Kalil wanted to prove to himself that he could handle the exercises. “I couldn’t do things like jumping rope and pull-ups, and that bothered me,” Kalil says.

Now, with two instructor certifications from kettlebell company Dragon Door, Kalil teaches eight classes a week and sees 15 clients for personal training. Between teaching and working out, he puts in about 40 hours a week at CrossFit Koncepts, which has 158 kettlebells of varying weights. He’s also changed his diet—he eats salads and quinoa every day and hasn’t had fast food in seven years—and has lost 45 pounds off his 5-foot-6-inch frame. “I feel like I’ve got to stay in shape in order to teach this,” says Kalil, a prostate cancer survivor whose clients are younger than he is. “I’ll say, ‘Look, if I can do it, I know you can.’ ”

Kathleen Seiler Neary, who lives in Kensington, is a freelance writer whose work has appeared in The Washington Post and Parenting, among other publications.

John Kalil on getting older and stronger:


“I go to parties and see guys 10 years younger than me, and they’re humped over, holding their backs. I look at my wife and say, ‘God bless him. This is exactly why I bust my ass seven days a week—I do not want to end up like that.’ Never too late to start. Period. I don’t care who you are.”


“When I first did the CrossFit-kettlebell workout, I couldn’t even do a pullup. But I could bench press maybe 300 pounds. I said, ‘There’s something wrong with this [other] workout I’m doing.’ I was stiff and tight. We are all about mobility, flexibility. We’re not so hung up about how much weight you can put over your head. I’m more excited to do 10 burpees in a row—fluid, instead of all over the place—than five bench presses.”


“Bulky might be good when you’re 20 with big pecs at the beach. But I’m 73 years old—I want to be lean and mobile and strong. I want to be able to run up steps, and grab my grandchildren if they run out in the street.”


“I had back issues when I came in here, I had shoulder issues. I couldn’t lift my arm next to my ear. [Now] my back is very strong because my glutes are. My hamstrings, my quads, all my hip area, my core is strong. I didn’t have that before.”


“I’ve had prostate cancer—about 3½ years ago, I had my prostate removed. I was good for about a year and a half, but then needed radiation. I had 39 treatments—knocked it right out. They would ask me questions every time I went in: Do you have this, do you have that? I had zero side effects. I think it’s because of the shape I was in and my immune system being so strong. Right now I am clear, so I’m trying to stay healthy. The doctors all say, ‘Keep up the good work.’ ”


“I think people in their 50s and 60s feel better training with me than they would some 18-year-old kid. They say I’m very patient. My wife says they’re crazy as hell.”


“I love what I do. I’ll work until I die. I love teaching people that don’t know [kettlebells] more so than I enjoy a class full of veterans. I get a lot of satisfaction from seeing someone develop over the months.”