The strongman 'kettlebell' makes a comeback at the gym

One study shows that the 'core strength' benefit of kettlebell lifting outperforms circuit weight training.

With his shiny bald pate and a Czar's moustache, Jared Savik looks every bit the part of a turn-of-the-century strongman, ready to bend nails or juggle logs over his head.

In his regular life, he patrols the border with Canada as a member of the US Border Patrol. But Mr. Savik's fascination with the Russian kettlebell - basically a cannonball with a handle - turned this rather shy Montanan into America's first-ever champion girevoy, as kettlebellers are called in Russia.

On one hand, Savik's shining moment in a drab Virginia gym marked the birth of America's newest sport. But his feat also marked another milestone in the country's athletic conscience. A growing number of fitness buffs are starting to trade boring workouts for the convenience and novelty of lifting kettlebells. This back-to-the-basics approach is growing in its appeal, with kettlebells showing up in gyms coast to coast and even on Air Force One.

The handles are huge, working the forearms. The swinging motion of the lift knocks the kettlebell against the arms and chest. Stabilizing against the counterforce of the awkward movement by using multiple muscle groups is what users believe gives them an added benefit that static freeweights or dumbbells don't provide.

To be sure, it will take a while for the Americans to catch up to the Russians, who have had organized kettlebell championships since 1986. But so far, amateurs like Savik are part of a return to the fitness revolution's agrarian roots when robust farmhands were plucked out of the fields to box for dollars in town.

"People are wising up to the wisdom of the turn-of-the-century strongman because they're tired of not getting results," says Mike Mahler, a certified kettlebell trainer in California. "Like yoga, [kettlebells] are based on a form of training that is thousands of years old and that has worked for millions of people. You cannot argue with results."

Popularized in the US by Pavel Tsatsouline, a wiry former Spetsnaz, or Russian Special Forces member, the sport now has dozens of certified trainers from Philadelphia to Seattle. Two weeks ago, more than 40 competitors competed in the First National Kettlebell Championships here at the Sterling Community Center. In a modern twist, the championship also had a women's division.

The kettlebell's focus on "core strength" provides a holistic fitness similar to the benefits of wielding farm tools and lifting hay all day that the most modern Nautilus machine can't match.

Indeed, the "Farmer's Walk" is one kettlebell exercise that involves simply walking with heavy weights, like a farmboy carrying water buckets.

"All my life I wanted to go to a gym until I finally realized that a 150-acre farm is the best gym in the world," says George Kinser who grew up on a Virginia farm and is a sometime kettlebeller and collector of strongman memorabilia.

Measured in old Russian poods - about 36 pounds - the sport is characterized by explosive movements known as "snatches" and "jerks." One study showed that kettlebell lifters outperform circuit trainers who isolate muscles. The gains, experts say, are from using the body as a whole, instead of only focusing on one muscle group.

"Kettlebells build strength and endurance and work all 16 major components of fitness," says Andy Komorny, a septuagenarian strongman and holder of several world-record lifts. "It's simple, but it's hard work."

To be sure, the sport has its critics: While injuries are rare, it's still more dangerous than curling a dumbbell. What's more, many of the exercises can be done with regular dumbbells - with no need to shell out nearly $400 for three kettlebells.

Nevertheless, kettlebells have found at least one very serious practical application: Easier than a dumbbell set to transport, the military is making heavy use of them.

There's a competitive reason behind the appearance of kettlebells at the back doors and tent flaps of military personnel. When Russian and US Special Forces started competing against each other after the Soviet Union broke up, the Americans made a disturbing discovery.

"We'd be totally exhausted and the Russians wouldn't even be catching their breath," says Jeff Shaffer, an off-duty Secret Service agent watching the Sterling event. "It turned out they were all working out with kettlebells." Now, half the Secret Service is snatching kettlebells and a set sometimes travels with the president's detail on Air Force One.

After the championship competition, one visiting strongman inexplicably performs a full split while heaving weights. For his next trick, he jerks a 200-pound man into the air - on one arm - then bends down to hoist a 2-pood kettlebell.

For kettlebell-champ Savik, the draw to the sport was in the convenience and quality of workout. "With a family at home and a job, I just don't have time for the gym. With kettlebells around the house, I work out whenever the fancy strikes."

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