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It looks like a bullet with a kettle handle, a holdover from late-nineteenth-century weightlifting when all dumbbells and barbells were black, spherical, and arcane, and there were no racks, pulleys, machines, or even benches. And certainly not women to mess with any of these things – all the more surreal, one Friday night, to walk through the shiny rows of the latest high-tech body machinery at a top local gym to a far corner where a young woman was brandishing this anachronistic. piece with studied reflection.
Pamela’s twenty-four, an IT specialist for Siemens, and she does photography on the side. Strongly built, serious behind small-rimmed steel glasses, she listens as her instructor, a tall young ex-Marine named Will, exhorts her: “Make it float!” She does it again, this one-arm catch, dipping her hips like the bows of a bullet to the ceiling, and swings her arm to keep it straight up. Another minor correction, and she does it again. And again, because she didn’t lock her arm or flex her hips to Will’s satisfaction and he wouldn’t count it. Two more times and he is satisfied. “Put it down,” Will tells her. “Time for active rest!” Pamela, drenched in sweat, knows what this euphemism means, but doesn’t bat an eyelash. For the next few minutes she’ll be doing shuttle-tracks up the stairs-well as Will stands at the top with a stopwatch. This is one form of “active rest”. Another is “hand-to-hand”, a continuous passing of the kettlebell from hand to hand between the legs. Either way, it’s as close to rest as she’ll get before the next workout.
According to Russian literature, the kettlebell or “girya” dates back to before 1700, and was a popular staple of physical culture in Tsarist Russia. Since then they have been the mainstay of conditioning for the Russian Special Forces and other military elite. According to Pavel Tsatsouline, a former physical training instructor for the 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 Soviet armed forces strength training manual, declared kettlebell drills “one of the most effective means of strength development” representing “a new era in the development of human strength power.” Pavel, a lean, thin fellow who has made himself something of a legend, seems to have cornered the market on this strange import.
In addition to his consulting/coaching positions, he has established himself as the premier guru and purveyor of all things authentic-Russian-kettlebell through his website. His followers, many of them doctors, military and law enforcement, martial artists and other competitive athletes, delight in documenting the superiority of kettlebells over all other training (especially bodybuilding), regaling each other with anecdotes of accomplishment and mishap. All the while, they address Pavel and each other as “Comrade.” They number in the thousands (there are Kettlebell competitions (see sidebar) and even a Kettlebell Convention in Vegas). They are tough, and male or female, take their toughness seriously. And some of them will even tell you they don’t wants the public to discover these things.
Kettlebells come in “poods,” an old Russian measure of weight that equals 16 kg, or about 35 lbs. According to Pavel “an average man should start with 35 pounds. It doesn’t sound like much, but believe it; it feels much heavier than it should! Most men will eventually progress to 53 pounds, the standard issue. size in Russian army. Although available in most units, 70-pounders are only used by a few advanced guys and in elite competitions. 88-pounders are for mutants.”
The way kettlebells are used defies most of the weight training principles we’ve come to know; while bodybuilding encourages slow, controlled repetitions, focusing on one muscle group at a time for a mostly cosmetic result, kettlebells are pushed ballistically, with the coordinated orchestration of the whole body to achieve functional strength. This is much closer to the way we exert ourselves in sport, in work and in battle, the reasoning goes, and the ability to get harderrather than just bigger, is what separates the girevoy from the “little girl.”
There’s a fundamentalism to this mock-machismo, a belief that extols the virtues of old-school functional core and tensile strength, while belittling modern trends and bodybuilding (whose only ritual Pavel would admire is that of throwing up after an intense squatting marathon). Going back to basics is inevitable in the face of today’s confusing array of technology and gimmick explosion. And you can’t get any more basic than a guy and a rock, avoiding any concessions to comfort or convenience, insisting that real results will come only with real grit. It shows in the titles of the kettlebell training books and videos: “From Russia With Tough Love.” “Power to the People!” “Stephen Maxwell’s Cruel and Unusual Kettlebell Exercises For Real Men!” It shows in Pavel’s call to “tough guys of all persuasions” and the promise that kettlebells are “low-tech/high-concept” and “will melt fat without the indignity of dieting or aerobics.” And it shows in the transformation of Will Williams of the World Gym:
“My introduction to Kettlebells came from Muscle Media magazine, where I read one of Pavel’s articles on the one-arm dumbbell catch. I was deployed at sea at the time, and after my first set with a 45lb dumbbell, the rocking of the ship .and a belly full of navy chow, I made it to the head with just enough time to lose the chow and part of a lung.I knew this stuff was for me.
“KB training definitely attracts stares from other gym goers. They see people of all feet swinging, catching and throwing an iron ball… and they literally stop what they’re doing to wonder… or run and hide. Which strikes. most people away is how quickly they can learn these exercises and benefit from them despite their initial judgment, which is born of fear. I have trained everyone from soccer players to 65-year-old grandmothers with the Bell, and watched these people get stronger and more flexible from a moment
“There is an air of danger to these trainings. Flying bells and screams of agony are the least of these worries. All KB coaches know to spend at least one full workout on the most basic movement, the 2-Arm Swing, a dynamic deadlift style exercise that teaches the trainee to ‘explode his/her hips’ and make the bell FLOAT! Once it is understood that the “hip-pop” is the root of all movements, we progress accordingly to the other two initial exercises, the Clean and the Catch. The hip flexor curl activates the entire posterior chain of muscles and engages the hip flexors, abdominal wall, glutes and above all, the almighty hamstrings. These muscles comprise what is known as the “seat of power”. No movement is satisfactory without a complete and conscious contraction of all these muscles; the “core” aspect of kettlebell training stems from just that. KB exercises not only support each other, but all other correctly performed exercises and movements in the outside world. Posture, flexibility, strength and most noticeably, confidence, are by-products of properly done KB training.
“Some exercises can be done with dumbbells, but the swing of the bell and the ballistic shock absorption required to perform the drill correctly is what solidifies the seat of power and allows the trainee to move forward. You can’t reverse a deadlift either. the manual exercises are impossible to perform with DB, and active rest is what helps the trainee tap into the aerobic pathway of energy production, staying mobile for anywhere from 3 to 30 minutes. When the body begins to break down stored fat to support the. energy demands created by these exercises, you not only burned more calories but also gave you more energy to do more work. These sessions are absolute metabolic monsters. Last night I did a set of grabs with each arm, 25 reps with 20 -kg KB and measured my working time at almost 4 minutes.
“People with joint problems and spinal problems can also enjoy KB drills. The swing alone is enough to turn their body into a concrete network of muscles trained to work as a team, from the ground up-as it was designed. Some of the heavy overhead work is too much for people with faulty hinge joints or lower back pain, but with proper instruction from a trainer or one of the 30-plus DVDs and books available, many of these problems can be solved for positive results.
“Sessions 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 of the guys I’ve met who train with KB do two heavy (45) minutes a week. and two or three “Man Makers” for cardio: a set of exercises is immediately followed by 60 seconds of jumping rope and repeated. I adopted this for the girls and called it “LadyKiller” – as you saw my hardest working client, Pam performs with relative ease.”
Speaking of Pam, she’s hooked on these things – even owns a kettlebell that she keeps in the car and uses wherever she gets the chance, like the last time she went camping. “I’m type 1 diabetic and on a low-carb diet,” she tells me. “I started about five months ago. At first I got black and blue forearms until I learned how to flip it properly – everybody does. It’s part of the experience. Just like dropping the bell – it’s ten push-ups if you drop it. … I did that about a dozen 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. the time.”
Will’s next client is Mary, a thirty-three-year-old mother of two. She’s slightly built compared to Pam, and she’s also newer to this, having started just a month ago after taking a “boot camp” that Will also helps run. She says it increased her energy, made her stronger and helped her mentally adjust to eating better. And like most women, she doesn’t want to get bigger. The fear of “accidental” muscle hypertrophy is a common misconception about weight training and women, but it’s a boon for kettlebells and women. Will acknowledges that most men who want to add muscle size won’t get it from kettlebells. “Body builders don’t touch these,” he tells me, while acknowledging that he also does a lot of heavy conventional free-weight work.
I notice that Will is still using his stopwatch. A proper time under tension should be less than one and a quarter minutes, he tells me. After he helps Mary do Pistols (one-legged squats) and Tactical Lunges (the kettlebell is swung under the front leg) Will has her do the Swing, releasing the handle for a moment at the top of the swing to “let it float.” I wonder what happens if it “floats” away. “If you lose it, leave it,” Will replies. “better that than ruin a wrist trying to save it.” He adds that the owners of the establishment below are not happy about the resulting noise. So early one Saturday morning, I find Will training alone outside World Gym on the dewy grass, practicing advanced “hovering” maneuvers. And after he has to “let it go,” the sphere hits the turf, and Will follows it, falling for repetitions of remorse – a masochistic distortion of push-ups with one foot in the air and one hand on the kettlebell (apologies). ?). Then he’s on his feet again, swings it, floats it and catches it – like so many practitioners, a man addicted. Down the sidewalk, the place of more socially accepted addiction, the establishment so upset by the noise of this unholy past, won’t open for hours, its glass windows vaguely oblivious to Will and his folly. Liquor store.
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