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Tools of the trade: the kettlebell

A one-pood kettlebell

In his 1995 book Mastery of Hand Strength, John Brookfield remarks that kettlebells are "very hard to find," and "finding someone who will sell you their antique kettlebells is about as hard as becoming the king of France."

Brookfield might have been right in 1995, but today, kettlebells have become much easier to find. Popularized by fitness guru Pavel Tsatsouline, kettlebells can now be found in homes, martial arts studios, and even commercial fitness gyms. Numerous kettlebell organizations exist, each offering books, DVDs, seminars, and certifications, all in the name of helping you learn the right way to use a kettlebell.

What is a kettlebell? Imagine a cannonball with a handle, and you have a pretty good idea of what you're in for. The standard Russian kettlebell's weight is measured in poods (roughly 16 kilograms, or 36 pounds). Today, kettlebell manufacturers produce kettlebells in weights ranging from as low as five to over 100 pounds.

Kettlebells are a source of controversy among trainers. It's adherents swear that it is the first and last word on equipment, and that one can develop strength, endurance, or power with kettlebells alone. Detractors suggest that there is nothing that can be accomplished with a kettlebell that can't be accomplished with something else, usually for cheaper. The truth is somewhere in between. You can accomplish a lot with a kettlebell, but it isn't the end all and be all of training. It certainly isn't REQUIRED for success, as some would suggest.

Kettlebells can be used for many of the same exercises as a dumbbell; in particular, it lends itself well to explosive lifts like swings, snatches, and cleans. For the martial artists looking to develop power for their punches and kicks, these exercises are fantastic. The kettlebell can also be used for "grinding" lifts, like the bent press, for developing maximal strength. Because of the weight distribution, the kettlebell often taxes and helps develop the grip, a must for martial artists of virtually all styles.

Kettlebells are compact. A single kettlebell easily fits in a closet, dojo corner, or the trunk of a car. The lifts themselves don't require an enormous amount of space, though it's good to have some clearance when you start swinging around what amounts to a hand held cannonball. For the martial artist who wants a tool to have at home or near their training area, it's a terrific resource.

On the downside, kettlebells are relatively expensive. A 35 pound kettlebell (the recommended starting weight for adult males) will set you back about $50, maybe more. As with all fixed weight objects, if you ever out grow it, you'll be stuck with a very expensive doorstop. Outgrowing most kettlebells takes a long time, but it still can happen. The ballistic kettlebell lifts can be stressful on the body, particularly the back. If you do start lifting with kettlebells, start carefully. One alternative option is the kettlestack, a plate loaded kettlebell that works very well for most exercises (you cannot throw it, however).

In his book The Russian Kettlebell Challenge, Tsatsouline touts the ease of use of the kettlebell as one of it's merits. These days, specialized kettlebell trainers (with specialized kettlebell certifications) will tell you that no one should use a kettlebell without proper training. Again, there's merit to both arguments. Working with a good trainer certainly won't hurt you, but you can get a lot done with a kettlebell, some careful reading, and the wonders of the Internet (youtube has dozens, if not hundreds, of kettlebell videos).

Compact, versatile, challenging: for the martial artist looking for some home training equipment, the kettlebell is a solid choice.

For more info:
For a simple introduction to kettlebells and their use, check out The Russian Kettlebell Challenge.
If you're looking for formal instruction in the use of the kettlebell, try these Boston area trainers.


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