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It is reminiscent of a cannon ball with a kettle handle, a relic of the strong tradition of the late nineteenth century when all weights and dumbbells were black, round and mysterious, and there were no racks, pulleys, machines or even benches. And certainly not women to mess with any of this – what’s even more surreal, one Friday night, is walking through the shiny rows of the latest high-tech body machines at a high-end local gym to a far corner, where a young lady is swinging this anachronistic piece with studied deliberation.
Pamela is twenty-four years old, she is an IT specialist for Siemens, and she is also involved in photography. Solidly built, serious behind small-rimmed steel glasses, she listens as her instructor, a tall young Marine named Will, exhorts her, “Let it float!” She does it again, this one-arm jerk, dipping her hips as she cannonballs toward the ceiling, and swings her arm to hold it straight overhead. One more little correction, and she does it again. Then again, because she didn’t fold her arm or bend her hips to Will’s satisfaction, he wouldn’t count it. Two more times and he is satisfied. “Put it down,” Will tells her. “Time for an active vacation!” Pamela, drenched in sweat, knows what this euphemism means, but she doesn’t bat an eyelash. For the next few minutes they run up the stairs as Will stands above with a stopwatch. It is one form of “active vacation”. The second is “hand to hand”, continuously passing the kettlebell from hand to hand between the legs. Either way, it’s the closest to a break he’ll get before the next workout.
According to Russian literature, the kettlebell or “girya” dates back to before 1700 and was a popular part of physical culture in Imperial Russia. Since then, they have been the mainstay for the conditioning of Russian special forces and other military elites. According to Pavel Tsatsouline, a former physical training instructor for Soviet special forces and currently an advisor to the US Marine Corps and other US military and law enforcement agencies, Soldier, be strong! the official strength training manual of the Soviet armed forces declared kettlebell exercises “one of the most effective means of developing strength” representing “a new era in the development of human strength potential”. Pavel, a lean, wiry guy who has become a legend in his own right, seems to have cornered the market with this strange import.
In addition to his consulting/training positions, he has established himself as the go-to guru and purveyor of all things Russian Kettlebell through his site. Its followers, many of them doctors, soldiers and policemen, martial artists and other competitive athletes, enjoy documenting the superiority of kettlebells over all other training (especially bodybuilding), regaling each other with anecdotes of accomplishments and misadventures. All this time, they address Pavel and each other as “Druže”. They number in the thousands (there are kettlebell competitions (see sidebar) and even a Kettlebell Convention in Vegas). They are stubborn, and men or women take their toughness seriously. And some of them will even tell you that they don’t want reveal these things to the public.
Kettlebells come in ‘puds’, an old Russian measure of weight, which is 16 kg, or roughly 35 lbs. According to Pavel, “the average man should start at 35 pounds. It doesn’t sound like a lot, but trust me; it feels a lot heavier than it should! Most men will eventually work their way up to 53 pounds, which is the standard size issue in the Russian military. Although are available in most units, 70-pounders are only used by a few advanced guys and in elite competition. 88-pounders are for mutants.”
The way kettlebells are used betrays most of the weight training principles we’ve come to know; while bodybuilding advocates slow, controlled repetitions, focusing on one muscle group at a time for mostly cosmetic results, kettlebells should be thrust ballistically, with a coordinated orchestration of the whole body to achieve functional strength. This is much closer to the way we strive in sports, at work and in combat, reasoning and the ability to tougherand not just bigger, is what separates girevoy from “man-girl”.
There’s a fundamentalism to this fake machismo, a creed that extols the old-school virtues of a functional core and tensile strength, while disparaging modern trends and bodybuilding (whose only ritual Pavel would admire is that of throwing up after an intense squat marathon). Going back to basics is inevitable in the face of today’s bewildering array of technology and gimmicks. And you can’t get any simpler than type and stone, avoiding any concessions to comfort or practicality, insisting that real results will come only with true determination. This is evident from the title of the kettlebell exercise book and video: “From Russia With Tough Love.” “Power to the people!” “Stephen Maxwell’s Cruel and Unusual Kettlebell Workouts for Real Men!” This is evident in Pavel’s appeal to “heavyweights of all persuasions” and the promise that kettlebells are “low tech/high concept” and will “melt fat without the shame of dieting or aerobics.” And this can be seen in the transformation of Will Williams from World Gym:
“My introduction to Kettlebells came from Muscle Media magazine, where I read one of Pavel’s articles on one-arm dumbbell curls. I was deployed to sea at the time, and after my first set with a 45 lb. food, I made it to the head with just enough time to lose food and part of my lungs. I knew this was for me.
“KB training definitely catches the eye of other gym members. They see people of all shapes and sizes swinging, grabbing and throwing a small iron ball… and they literally stop what they’re doing to marvel… or run and hide. What a scare Most the distance between people is how quickly they can learn these exercises and benefit from them despite their initial judgment, which is born of fear.I’ve trained everyone from soccer players to 65-year-old grandmothers with Bella, and I’ve watched these people get stronger and stronger every moment. more flexible.
“There is sense of danger for these exercises. Flying bells and screams of agony are the least of those worries. All KB coaches know how to spend at least one full workout on the most basic movement, the 2 arm swing, a dynamic deadlift style exercise that teaches the exerciser to ‘lift the hips’ and make the bell FLY! Once we understand that ‘hip-pop’ is the root of all movements, we progress in line with the other two initial exercises, Clean and Snatch. The hip crunch activates the entire posterior muscle chain and includes the hip flexors, abdominal wall, glutes and, most importantly, the almighty hamstrings. These muscles form what is known as the ‘seat of power’. No movement is satisfactory without the complete and conscious contraction of all these muscles; The ‘tension’ aspect of training with kettlebells stems from this. KB exercises not only support each other, but also all other properly performed exercises and movements in the outside world. Posture, flexibility, strength and, most importantly, confidence are by-products of properly executed KB training.
“Some exercises can be performed with dumbbells, but the rotation of the bell and the ballistic absorption of the impact necessary to properly complete the exercise is what stabilizes the seat of power and allows the exerciser to progress. You cannot rotate the dumbbell. Also, hand-to-hand exercises are impossible to do with the DB, and active rest is what helps the exerciser engage in the aerobic pathway of energy production, staying mobile for 3 to 30 minutes. When the body begins to break down stored fat to support the energy needs created by these exercises, not only have you burned more calories, you’ve already given yourself more energy to do more work. These sessions are absolute metabolic monsters. Last night I did a set of jerks with each arm, 25 reps with 20kg KB and my work time is almost 4 minutes. Wow!
“People with joint and spine problems can also enjoy KB exercises. The momentum alone is enough to turn the body into a concrete network of muscles trained for teamwork, from the ground up – as intended. Some of the heavy overhead work is too much for people with faulty joints or lower back pain, but with proper instruction from a trainer or any of the more than 30 DVDs and books available, many of these issues can be addressed for positive results.
“Trainings last anywhere from 15 to 60 minutes, and you can train anywhere from two to seven times a week, with proper rest and nutrition. Most guys I’ve met who train with KB do two heavy (45) minute workouts a week and two or three The ‘Man-Maker’ for cardio: a set of exercises immediately followed by 60 seconds of skipping rope and repeat. I adopted this for the girls and called it the ‘LadyKiller’ – as you’ve seen my most valuable client, Pam does with relative ease.”
Speaking of Pam, she’s hooked on the stuff – she even owns a kettlebell that she keeps in her car and uses whenever she gets the chance, like the last time she went camping. “I’m a type 1 diabetic and follow a low-carb diet,” he tells me. “I started about five months ago. At first I had black and blue forearms until I learned how to turn it properly – everybody does it. It’s part of the experience. Just like dropping a bell – it’s ten push-ups if you drop it … I did it about ten times in three months. But this is more fun, more intense than weights and regular cardio. I’ve lost fat and I’m stronger. Other women are curious; they ask me about everything all the time.”
Will’s next client is Mary, a thirty-three-year-old mother of two. She’s a little built compared to Pam, and she’s also newer to this, having only started a month ago after attending a boot-camp that Will also helps run. She says it increased her energy, made her stronger and helped her mentally adapt to a better diet. And like most women, she doesn’t want to get bigger. Fear of “accidental” muscle hypertrophy is a common misconception about weight training and women, but it’s a boon for kettlebells and women. Will admits that most men who want extra muscle size won’t get it with kettlebells. “Bodybuilders shouldn’t touch this,” he tells me, admitting that he also does a lot of heavy conventional work with free weights.
I notice that Will continues to use his stopwatch. The exact time under tension should be less than one and a quarter minutes, he tells me. After helping Mary perform pistols (one-legged squats) and tactical lunges (a kettlebell is swung under the front leg), Will has her perform a swing, momentarily releasing the handle at the top of the swing to “let it float.” ” I ask what if he “swims away.” “If you lose him, let him go,” replies Will. “better than break a wrist trying to save him.” He adds that the owners of the lower facility are not happy with the noise that is being made. So early one Saturday morning I morning found Will training alone outside the World Gym on the dewy grass, practicing advanced “floating” maneuvers. And once he has to “let go,” the sphere hits the turf, and Will follows, descending for reps of repentance—a masochistic twist on push-ups with one foot in the air and one hand on a kettlebell (begging for forgiveness?). Then he’s back on his feet, swinging it, floating it and catching it – like many practitioners, an addict. Down on the sidewalk, a place of more socially acceptable addiction, an institution that is so resented to the noise of this unholy past, it won’t open for hours, its plate-glass windows dimly oblivious to Will and his folly.Liquor store.
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