Thursday, December 08, 2005

Russian Kettlebells (Part 1)

Fitness trends come and go. Today, kettlebell training is a hot item. Probably anyone interested in fitness and weight training has heard or read something about kettlebells, those chunks of iron resembling a cannonball with a big handle.

Kettlebells are very “in,” though actually they aren't new. In fact, they are very old. But until recently, they were an almost forgotten part of weight training here in the United States.

Along came Pavel Tsatsouline, a Russian kettlebell lifting champion, and former fitness trainer for the Russian Special Forces. Now an American citizen, Pavel works with the U.S. Marine Corps developing fitness-training programs.

I was curious about Pavel’s training concepts and bought his Power to the People video. In it, he demonstrates and explains his recommended techniques for lifting weights of any sort, not just kettlebells. He has a good sense of humor and stage presence.

By chance, I learned that two of his registered instructors were giving a kettlebell workshop nearby. So I signed up.

We were a class of 12 to 15 people. The ages ranged from a middle school youngster to a geezer (me), with the other ages scattered between the two extremes. We were about evenly divided between men and women.

Our instructors were a friendly and very polished married couple.

They gave a brief overview of kettlebell training concepts, along with cautions about safety (“We have never had anyone injured in a class, and there won’t be anyone injured today.”). Then we were told to select a moderate weight and form three lines.

The first thing we learned was the kettlebell deadlift. No one was to try anything very heavy until mastering the proper back alignment and technique.

Once our instructors were satisfied with our form, we moved on to the kettlebell swing, which seems to be the backbone of kettlebell training. From the deadlift position, gripping a KB with both hands, arms held straight, you swing the weight back between your legs, then up to about chin level and back again. Imagine a giant pendulum swinging from top to bottom, instead of side-to-side. Straightening your legs and snapping your hips forward generates the power.

When we were all showing proper form with the two-arm swing, we graduated to doing it with one arm, then the other.

Next, we practiced the clean, and then the one-arm military press. Great emphasis was placed on achieving total body tension, gripping the handle hard, and either holding your breath or expelling it slowly while pressed the weight.

If you’ve never hoisted a kettlebell, by now you’re probably wondering how it is any different from using a dumbbell. Well, I can tell that it is different.

The unwieldiness of a kettlebell, as opposed to a standard dumbbell, is a big part of what makes KB workouts effective. Controlling them requires all parts of your body acting in unison. Generally, kettlebell people hold so-called isolation exercises in disdain, especially those done with "machines."

The last lift we practiced was the kettlebell snatch, which is mostly the same movement as the Olympic lift of the same name, except of course we were using one arm at a time and a kettlebell. The KB snatch requires the most coordination of the lifts we learned. From the floor, in one quick movement, the weight swings up to just above forehead level, and then is “punched” straight upward above your head.

(Tomorrow: Part 2. Kettlebells: Observation and Opinion)

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