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New Wine, Old Bottles

October 8, 2004 02:00 PM

In elite athletic circles the word is spreading as in-the-know Americans are purchasing ancient Russian fitness equipment, resurrecting old exercise philosophies and obtaining significant gains in cardio conditioning, muscle tone and strength as a result. Call it the Slavic Retro Fitness Craze: kettlebells are rustic and raw and are lifted and swung and tossed in specified patterns to produce specific muscular and cardiovascular results. The apparatus has a system, a philosophy of usage, first formulated in Czarist Russia.

Kettlebells have been rediscovered by a new generation of modern athletes seeking ways to gain an edge over the competition. It's at once both a puzzling and predictable reemergence. Kettlebells have pure Slavic origins
and have been at the heart and soul of Russian sport-strength training for more than a century. Regular use of heavy kettlebells develops strength with staying power; call it sustained strength. This type strength makes itself available over an extended period of time.

Conventional barbell/dumbbell weight training develops short strength, burst strength: the user hoists maximum poundage for relatively few reps in order to maximally stimulate muscle hypertrophy. Sustained strength is different from short-burst strength. Sustained strength is an athletic attribute particularly prized by wrestlers, boxers, mixed martial artists, football, basketball, hockey and lacrosse players. The common thread is participation in athletic events of long duration where last minute flurries make the difference between winning and losing, between 1st and 8th.

"If you ask me a question I don't know, I'm not going to answer."

Systematic use of K-bells, users contend, provide the elusive athletic attribute of sustained strength. It is one thing to flip over a small car, lift a grand piano or squat 1000-pounds with a burst of short, nasty and brutish (apologies to Thomas Hobbs) power, but it is quite another thing to exert significant strength deep into a lengthy and grueling training session, athletic competition or event.

A lot of men in the NFL might have the ability to bench press 400-pounds at the beginning of a sixty-minute gladiatorial battle but how many could bench that same 400 in the last two minutes after an exhausting game? Sustained strength doesn't just happen, it is nurtured and developed. Through the use of multiple sets conducted with little rest and often high repetitions using exercises with exaggerated range-of-motion, sustained strength is gradually built up, and over time improved and extended. The transition takes time and patience and lots of practice.

Another athletic attribute associated with the regular use of kettlebells is the acquisition of "in-between" strength. Powerlifters, bodybuilders and athletes who train using modern day iron-pumping tactics are tremendously strong within the technical confines and boundaries of the specific exercises they practice, but often brute strength need be administered from an odd angle, a quirky position, a less-than-optimal push or pull position. Kettlebells fill in the gaps and spaces that separate conventional exercises, one from another, and build elusive in-between strength.

Generally speaking conventional weight training exercises can be reduced to two dimensions: either push the resistance away, or conversely, pull the resistance towards the body. Often athletic situations demand the application of strength from poor leverage positions and kettlebells provide applicable muscle power, outside-the-box, filling in the gaps that exist within conventional weight training.

In addition to providing sustained strength and in-between strength, through the use of multiple sets and high repetitions, the Russian fitness system adds a lung-searing, heart-bursting cardiovascular dimension to the workout. This third dimension, cardio intensity, needs to be felt to be truly appreciated. When done on a regular basis (and coordinated with a half-way sensible diet) intense cardio of this type mobilizes trans-fatty acids and oxidizes stored body fat in order to cover caloric shortfall. Determined use of kettlebells burns stored body fat, assuming the eating portion of the fitness equation is kept under control.

No amount of exercise can undo or overcome horrendous eating habits; eat sensibly so as not undo gains. Use of these primitive tools in the appropriate fashion generates an intensity that shocks the user, mentally and physically. Yet results vastly outweigh difficulties and discomfort and the number of converts continues to grow and expand. Introduced to this country less than three years ago, Russian kettlebells have acquired a significant following and garnered respectable market share.

"If you can't imitate him, don't copy him."

The national clearinghouse for all things kettlebell-related is, home base for the innovative Russian ?migr?' who single-handedly launched the Kettlebell revival in this country, Pavel Tsatsouline. A former Russian Special Forces drill instructor, Tsatsouline earned the prestigious Master of Sport kettlebell classification back in Rodina before relocating from Latvia to Minnesota and eventually to Santa Monica, California. He travels the world introducing and demonstrating kettlebell training techniques, tactics and traditions.

Numerous Police departments and various branches of the Military have engaged Pavel's services and become avid users of kettlebells. Trainees rave over results and share training tips on-line at Pavel runs periodic K-bell certification seminars that are always packed to the rafters. Nothing sells like success and in the world of serious fitness results are the only thing that matter.

The best sales tool imaginable is a human walking billboard, someone who has obtained tangible results using a particular system. Pavel and his business partner John Du Cane have taken the fitness world by storm; like Marshall Zhukov blasting T54 tanks through retreating Panzers at Stalingrad.

Pavel is a lucid spokesman and presents his respective discipline in a concise, no BS-fashion.

"The future ain't what it used to be."

Emanating from Russia, Old School training tactics thought pass? are reemerging in an aggressive, unapologetic fashion: this is no nostalgia craze as advocates point to quantifiable results bestowed on all level of diligent practitioners. Kettlebells are round lumps of iron with molded handles. Various poundage kettlebells are hoisted in a wide variety of prescribed moves.

The system straddles two worlds: strength training and cardiovascular training. The system is neither pure strength training nor pure cardiovascular training. Kettlebells stand astride the two worlds, splitting the difference, combining strength training and cardio training. Is this the best of both worlds - or the worst of both worlds? The object of weight training is to trigger muscular hypertrophy. The object of aerobics is to burn fat and increase cardio capacity.

Is it possible to do both at once? Empirical experience of recent years would lead one to say that melding the two disciplines is a bad idea; progressive resistance circuit training was pushed for many years with no discernable results and adherents eventually faded into oblivion. Fitness success is defined as improving muscle mass, reducing body fat, increasing strength and secondarily acquiring endurance, speed, agility and vitality.

Kettlebells stake out the gray zone between the two disciplines. Users handle significant poundage virtually non-stop for the session duration. Workouts are brutal affairs as the athlete tugs, throws, lifts, flings, powers or finesses the bell, singularly, or two at a time, in a wide range of patterned exercises for multiple sets and reps. In a typical progressive resistance exercise the motor-pathway is narrow. When using a progressive resistance machine the groove is narrower yet. A kettlebell uses a broad motor pathway that forces whole series of muscles to work in a coordinated fashion to complete the prescribed exercise. The 'gaps' are attacked and the space between conventional weight training movements are filled in.

With kettlebells, cardio intensity is increased by increasing the poundage, increasing the reps, speeding up the pace and/or extending the session duration. There seems to be little questioning that diligent use of kettlebells can provide a cardio session as intense as a person can stand and muscle hypertrophy will occur if the poundage is sufficient.

"You can observe a lot by watching."

Burnt out? Stagnant? A dose of kettlebell training might be just the thing to jar a complacent body out of a rut. This type training involves a variety of floor to ceiling hoists and pushes; large sweeping movements with relatively light weight that recruit lots of muscle. The muscular 'inroad' is far different than that obtained from the short, controlled stroke of most progressive resistance exercises.

Pavel's classical kettlebell approach favors high sets for moderate reps using a quick pace, heavy poundage and the broadest possible range-of-motion. Pavel's videotapes demonstrate beginner, intermediate and advanced techniques. Seeing Tsatsouline hoist a pair of 70-pound kettlebells overhead in the repetition power snatch reinforces the modern interpretation of that age-old adage: one video is worth a thousand words. Pavel is whippet-strong, explosive power personified.

Watching these videos inspired me to want to test drive this viable fitness alternative. A logical first step for anyone curious and seeking more information would be to pay a visit the website. If interest is peaked consider purchasing one of the self-explanatory videotapes.