The kettlebell workout is one new fitness trend that has actually been around since the turn of the last century -- in czarist Russia, to be exact. The cast-iron ball with an easy grip -- think a cannonball with a handle -- is a low-tech comer finding new popularity with hard-core lifters and other fitness enthusiasts.
Andrea Rippe, a trainer at the Sport and Health Club in Reston, uses kettlebells herself and with several clients. "I like them because they're so old school; it's a retro-style throwback that really gives you an efficient full-body workout." A few other gyms have shown interest, but for now most individual enthusiasts have to buy the bells on their own through masters like Pavel Tsatsouline.
Tsatsouline -- whose grueling kettlebell workouts have earned him the nickname "The Evil Russian" -- traces the girya, or kettlebell, to strongman competitions in pre-revolutionary Russia. "Kettlebells were used . . . to give that extra edge in strength and endurance training," says Tsatsouline. "Back in czarist times, a strongman or weight lifter was called a girevik, or kettlebell man." More recently, the bells were used in training by Soviet Olympians and members of the Spetznaz, the Soviet equivalent of U.S. Special Forces.
Tsatsouline, a former Spetznaz instructor who now trains SWAT and special police response teams in Texas, New Mexico and Washington state, is the author of "The Russian Kettlebell Challenge: Xtreme Fitness for Hard-Living Comrades" and a one-man kettlebell industry. The Evil One's books, videos and kettlebells, as well as training tips and a list of certified trainers, are distributed through the Web site www.dragondoor.com.
Kettlebells come in a variety of "poods," an old Russian measure of weight; one pood equals about 16 kilos, or about 35 pounds. Kettlebells designed for women come in quarter-pood and half-pood sizes and sell for $90 to $100. The next size is 1.5 poods, followed by 2- and 2.5-pood models, which cost up to $140.
Many of the exercises that Tsatsouline outlines in his books and videos are familiar from conventional weight training: dead lifts (in which you lift a weight from the ground, keeping your back straight and head up), clean-and-jerks (in which you explode up from a squat position) and military presses (in which you press the weight overhead from a seated position). Others, such as the windmill, the one-arm swing and the Turkish "Get-Up!" -- in which you start on your back, holding the bell above you, and slowly get up, still holding the ball above your head -- are not.
"It's the momentum," explains Gunnery Sgt. James A. Coleman, chief instructor at the Marine Corps Martial Arts Center of Excellence at Quantico. "There are more muscles involved in balance and leverage with the kettlebell; you work every muscle just keeping them up."
The 34-year-old career Marine, a powerlifter who has set four U.S. armed forces records, says he has seen a big difference since introducing kettlebells into his training: "Everything has jumped up: my power -- I've increased my squats by 100 pounds -- and my endurance has more than doubled. It's easy to see why they're popular here at the center."
A caveat: Swinging a 53-pound cannonball-shaped weight over your head can be a hazardous proposition. Rippe, who advises novices to consult with a trainer before trying them, uses her own checklist to see if clients are kettlebell-worthy; to qualify, they must be able to perform basic pull-ups and dead lifts, have good core and lower back strength and possess good coordination.
Walt Thompson, a professor of kinesiology and health at Georgia State University in Atlanta and a fellow with the American College of Sports Medicine, advises caution. "I can see the appeal," says Thompson. "But ouch! These weights are clearly for those with a good sense of balance and coordination. Otherwise, I'd advise a helmet. This would take a high level of fitness at the start."
-- Wendi Kaufman