May 4, 2009 / 10:13 AM / 10 years ago

Kettlebells: a swinging workout for the whole body

NEW YORK (Reuters Life!) - They look like basketballs with handles or tea kettles without spouts.

Instructor teaches kettlebell class at Equinox Fitness in Chicago, Illinois in this 2009 file photo. REUTERS/Eric Hiffhines/Handout

After years of collecting dust on gym floors, the kettlebell, for centuries a staple of Russian strongmen, has emerged as the latest word in streamlined workouts.

“For people who want their training all in one, it’s by far the best bang for your buck,” said Kristen Gagne, a certified kettlebell instructor at the national Equinox Fitness chain.

Attendance at her Long Island, New York classes have recently doubled, she said, even before the ancient cast iron hand weights were featured on the hit weight-loss TV reality show “Biggest Loser.”

“Consumers are more educated now. Rather than do an hour of aerobics, and an hour of resistance, they can get it all done in one hour with kettlebells,” she said. “With this recession people need to get up and out.”

Gagne’s classes offer kettlebells of 10, 15 or 20 pounds.

“People in their late 60s swing next to girls in their early 20s,” Gagne said, “and it appeals to men who shy away from other studio classes. Once you acquire the skill, the technique is easy.”

So why not just lift plain old weights?

“Kettlebells trains your body for real life, like carrying your child on one hip while you haul groceries or walk the dog,” said the mother of two. “It incorporates lower body, upper body and core.”

Dr. Ricardo Nieves, President of Colorado Spine, Pain and Sports Medicine, P.C., agrees.

“The dumbbell is a dead weight. It doesn’t have the same fluidity,” he said from his office in Fort Collins, Colorado. “The bell becomes alive when you start swinging it.”

Nieves described kettlebells as having a whole gym in one tool because it doesn’t isolate muscles.

“It’s a great tool for rehabilitation. I use it on patients who’ve had disc injuries, after physical therapy, to strengthen the spine,” he explained.

Legend has it that kettlebells began as counterweights in Russian farmers’ markets some 300 years ago. The farmers took to swinging their weights at the end of the day and a national workout was born.

Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Soviet Special Forces physical training instructor, said his 2001 book, “The Russian Kettlebell Challenge,” introduced kettlebells to the United States.

“The kettlebell allows you to develop exceptional fitness in under an hour of training a week,” Tsatsouline, a consultant for the U.S. Marine Corps and the U.S. Secret Service, said from Los Angeles.

Asked about the recent explosion of interest in kettlebells, Tsatsouline, like Gagne, regards it as a discovery rather than a trend.

“Perhaps people are tired of gimmicks,” he said. “Kettlebell training works and it works fast.”

For this Minsk-born fitness expert, consistency, not fashion, is the key.

“Beware of exercise variety,” he warned. “Russian coaches have an expression: ‘the continuity of the training process.’”

“Starting something new is the easy way out,” he explains. “It gives the illusion of progress because it is always easy to make initial improvements, and because it is fun, and because you get sore.

“Be it kettlebell training or something else, do fewer things better.”

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