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Get hard and lean with kettlebell training

By Topher Bordeau

The fitness industry is teeming with training gimmicks. Despite its goofy-sounding name, kettlebell training isn't one of them. Developed in Tsarist Russia during the early 1700s, it's been a staple in the training routines of both recreational athletes and also those who require power for its practical applications—the Russian special forces, the United States Marine Corps, even the Secret Service.

Kettlebell training involves series of exercises performed with a kettlebell, a traditional Russian cast-iron weight that looks a little like a cannonball with a handle. Kettlebells come in a variety of sizes, classified by weight, ranging from the 26-pound beginning kettlebell to the 106-pound behemoth. Most men who are in reasonably good shape decide to start with the 35-pounder.

What they find during their first session is that 35 pounds doesn't sound like much, but manipulating a 35-pound lump of iron in a variety of movements over, under, and around their bodies is quite enough, thank you. "You look at it and you think, 'There's really not much here,'" says Vic Holtreman, a kettlebell devotee and respected author on the sport. "Then you pick it up, you do a few swings, and you're completely winded. You try a pistol or a one-legged squat or a Turkish get-up and you just can't do it."

Swing? Pistol? One-legged squat? Turkish get-up? If those terms were used in anything else related to the Secret Service, they might be suspected to be torture devices. But if you're a kettlebell enthusiast, they're the backbone of your workout.

Describing the occasionally awkward but demanding movements is difficult at best. A better way to learn what you'd be getting yourself into would be to check out kettlebell articles by Holtreman and other experts at the kettlebell web site Dragondoor.com. Should you decide to try it out, order the Men's Russian Kettlebell Quickstart Kit ($154.85 for the 35-pounder from Russiankettlebell.com). The instructional book and DVD will make sure you start right.

And when you do, take it slow and easy. Done right, kettlebell training can help your balance, improve your flexibility, and increase your joint strength. The catch is that one bad rep can tweak a joint, pull a muscle, or send you tumbling. Practice each drill without the kettlebell, learning how to maintain your balance and form through the full range of motion. When you pick up your kettlebell, shoot for the best range of motion that you can achieve without compromising your form—as you get stronger, the weight you're manipulating will remain the same, but you'll increase the depth and the number of reps per exercise. Bodybuilders measure strength gains by weight; with kettlebell training you'll chart them by reps and range.

Even though you're starting slow, expect an ass-kicking workout right away. "Once you learn to complete a rep the right way, it's eye-opening how intense the aerobic workout is," says Holtreman. "You're performing these exercises that you know require strength and concentration, but what you don't realize is how much stamina they take. When you lift weights, you might feel like you're shaking after a workout. After a kettlebell routine, it's like you've just run up the side of a mountain. You're spent."

Combined with the novelty of kettlebell's unique drills, that aerobic component to kettlebell training is part of what makes it so attractive to fitness enthusiasts who have burned out on conventional lifting. The aerobic work also makes the results appealing: experienced kettlebell athletes usually develop a lean, ripped physique more akin to a jacked swimmer than to a bulging, rounded weight lifter. "It's more of a hard, clean look than a puffy build," says Holtreman. "And it comes with flexibility and total body strength gains that normal free weights just don't offer."

It sounds like the magic fitness bullet. Is it? Perhaps not. "Anyone who isn't in good enough condition to lift weights probably shouldn't try it out," cautions Holtreman. "But for those who are, once you get through the early learning process, your strength and aerobic capacity increase so rapidly that it's shocking."

Topher Bordeau is a correspondent for the Rowing News and has written for Men's Edge, N'East, and other magazines. He also makes his living as a collegiate rowing coach and currently works at Dartmouth College.