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It looks like a cannonball with kettle-handles, a remnant of late-nineteenth-century strength training when all barbells and dumbbells were black, round, and arcane, and there were no racks, pulleys, machines, or even benches. And of course not women To mess with any of that—which made it all the more real to walk one Friday evening, past the gleaming rows of the latest high-tech body machinery at a top local gym, to the far corner, where a young woman did this anacrostic swing. A fragment with studied interpretation.
Pamela Chovis is an IT specialist for Siemens and 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: “Float it!” She does it again, this one-armed snatch, sinking her hips toward the ceiling like a cannonball and swinging her arm to hold it straight overhead. Another minor improvement, and she does it again. And again, because she didn’t lock her arm or buck her hips to Will’s satisfaction, and he wouldn’t count it. Two more times and he’s happy. “Put it down,” Will tells her. “Time for active relaxation!” Pamela, drenched in sweat, knows what the phrase means, but doesn’t bat an eyelid. For the next few minutes she would be shuttle-sprinting up the stairs and Will would be standing at the top with a stop-watch. This is a form of “active relaxation”. Another is “hand-to-hand”, passing the kettlebell continuously from hand to hand between the legs. Either way, the relief she gets before the next drill is close enough.
According to Russian literature, the kettlebell or “gira” dates back to the 1700s and was a popular staple of physical culture in Czarist Russia. Since then they have been a mainstay of conditioning for Russian Special Forces and other military elites. According to Pavel Tsatsoulin, a former physical training instructor for the Soviet Special Forces and currently a consultant to the US Marine Corps and other US military and law enforcement agencies, Soldiers, be strong! The official Soviet Armed Forces strength-training manual, declared the kettlebell drill “one of the most effective means of strength development” that represented “a new era of human strength-potential development”. Pavel, a lean, eccentric man who has made himself a legend, seems to corner the market on this strange import.
In addition to his consulting/coaching positions, he has established himself through his site as a master guru and purveyor of all things authentic-Russian-kettlebell. His followers, many of whom are doctors, military and law enforcement personnel, martial-artists, and other competitive athletes, delight in documenting the superiority of the kettlebell over all other training (especially bodybuilding), regaling each other with tales of accomplishment and mishap. All the while, they refer to Pavel and each other as “comrades”. They number in the thousands (there are kettlebell competitions (see side-bar) and even a kettlebell convention in Vegas). They are tough, and whether male or female, take their toughness seriously. And some of them will tell you they don’t desired People find these things.
Kettlebells come in ‘poods’, an old Russian measure of weight, which is 16kg or approximately 35 lbs. According to Pavel “The average man should start with a 35-pounder. It doesn’t sound like much, but believe it; it feels a lot heavier than it should! Most men will eventually progress to the 53-pounder, the standard issue size in the Russian Army. Although available in most units, 70-pounders are only used by a few advanced people and in elite competitions. 88-pounders are for mutants.”
The way kettlebells are used violates most principles of weight-training; Bodybuilding requires slow, controlled repetitions, focusing on one muscle-group at a time for a largely cosmetic effect, the kettlebell needs to be pushed ballistically to achieve functional strength, with a coordinated orchestration of the whole body. It is closely related to the way we engage in play, work and combat, reasoning and ability to achieve. more difficultOnly instead of big, which distinguishes Girevoy from “girly-man”.
There’s a fundamentalism to this mock-machismo, a creed that praises old-school functional core and tensile strength qualities, while modern trends and bodybuilding (the only ritual Pavel would appreciate is vomiting after an intense squatting marathon). In the face of today’s bewildering array of technology and gimmick-hype, retreating from the basics is inevitable. And you can’t get much more basic than a man and a rock, eschewing any concessions to comfort or convenience, insisting that real results come only with real courage. This shows up in the titles of kettlebell training books and videos: “From Russia with tough love.” “People power!” “Stephen Maxwell’s Brutal and Unusual Kettlebell Workout for Real Men!” It features Powell’s “hard comrades of all persuasions” and kettlebells are “low-tech/high-concept” and promise to “melt fat without disrespecting dieting or aerobics.” And this is reflected in World Gym’s Will Williams transformation:
“My introduction to kettlebells came from Muscle Media magazine, where I read an article by Powell about the one-arm dumbbell snatch. I was stationed at sea at the time and after my first set with 45lb dumbbells, the ship’s rocking and navy chow was enough to lose belly, chow and part of the lungs. Given time, I brought it to my head. I knew this stuff was for me.
“KB training definitely attracts the attention of other members of the gym. They see all the walking people swinging, snatching and throwing a small iron ball… and they literally stop what they’re doing to surprise… or run away. What a blow most of the time. How quickly people can learn these exercises and benefit from them despite their initial judgment, which is born out of fear. I’ve trained everyone from football players to 65 year old grandmothers with bells and watched these people learn. Stronger and more flexible in the moment.
“There is There’s an air of danger to these workouts. Flying bells and cries of pain are the least of worries. All KB coaches know to do at least one full workout for the most basic movement, the 2-arm swing, a dynamic deadlift style exercise that teaches the trainee to ‘pop his/her hips’ and float the bell! After understanding that the ‘hip-pop’ is the root of all movement, we progress through two other opening exercises, the clean and the snatch. Crisp popping of the hips activates the entire posterior chain of muscles and engages the hip flexors, abdominal wall, glutes and most of all the all-powerful hamstrings. These muscles include what is known as the ‘seat of power’. No movement is satisfactory without the full and conscious contraction of all these muscles; The ‘core’ aspect of kettlebell training stems from that. KB drills not only support each other, but all other proper exercises and movements in the outside world. Posture, flexibility, strength, and most significantly, confidence, are by-products of a properly done KB workout.
“Some exercises can be done with dumbbells, but the bell ringing and ballistic shock absorption required to properly complete the drill strengthens the seat of power and allows the trainee to move forward. You can’t flip the dumbbells. Also, hand-to-hand drills are impossible with DB and Active rest helps trainees 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 and the energy needs created by these workouts, you not only burn more calories, but give yourself more energy to do more work. Yes. These sessions are absolute metabolic monsters. Last night I did a set of snatches with each arm, 25 reps of 20-kg KB and my work time was about 4 minutes. Yikes!
“People with joint problems and spine problems can also enjoy the KB drill. A single swing is enough to transform one’s body into a solid network of muscles trained to work as a team, as it was designed to do. Some people with heavy hinge joints or back pain- There is a lot of overhead work for these people, but with the right instruction from a trainer or one of the 30-plus DVDs and books available, many of these problems can have 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 people I’ve met who train with KB do two heavy (45) minute sessions a week and two or three ‘man- Makers’: A set of exercises followed by 60 seconds of jump rope over and over again. I’ve adapted this for the girls and call it the ‘Ladykiller’ – as you’ve seen mine work hard. The client, Pam, works with relative ease.”
As for Pam, she’s hooked on this stuff – she 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 have type-1 diabetes and follow a low-carb diet,” she tells me. “I started about five months ago. At the beginning I learned how to flip the black-and-blue hands correctly – everybody does it. It’s part of the experience. Like releasing the bell – ten push-ups if you release it … I did it in three months. Did it about a dozen times. But it’s more fun, more intense than weights and regular cardio. I’ve lost fat and I’m stronger. Other women are curious; I get asked about it all the time.”
Will’s next client is Mary, a thirty-three-year-old mother of two. She’s a little more built-in than Pam, and she’s also new to this, having only started a month ago after taking a “boot-camp” that also helps Will run. She says it has boosted her energy, made her stronger and helped her mentally adjust to eating better. And like most women, she doesn’t want to grow up. 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 to gain muscle size won’t get it from kettlebells. “Bodybuilders shouldn’t touch these things,” he tells me, admitting that he also does a lot of traditional free-weight work.
I noticed that Will was using his stopwatch. A good time under tension should be less than a minute and a half, he tells me. After he helps Mary do pistols (one-legged squats) and tactical lunges (rolling the kettlebell under the front leg), he tells her to swing, leaving the handle at the top of the swing for a moment to “let it float.” I ask what happens if it “floats” away. “If you lose it, let it go,” Will replies. “Better than ruining a wrist trying to save him.” He adds that the owners of the establishment below are not happy about the resulting noise. So early one Saturday morning, I found Will alone outside the World Gym practicing on the dewy grass, practicing advanced “floating” maneuvers. And once he “lets it go”, the goal clatters into the turf and Will follows him, dropping down for a reprieve – a masochistic perversion of push-ups with one foot in the air and one hand on a kettlebell (apology?). Then he’s on his feet again, he swings, floats and grabs—many a studious, addicted man. Down on the sidewalk, a more socially-accepted place of addiction, an establishment haunted by the clamor of this unholy past, doesn’t open for hours, its plate-glass windows bleakly oblivious to Will and his follies. Liquor store.
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