They look like cannonballs, but work like a charm.
Kettlebells, those squatty steel or cast iron weights topped with a loop-shaped handle, are popping up in gyms all over Austin. Experts say the old-school weightlifting tools, developed in Russia in the 1700s, can boost cardiovascular fitness, increase flexibility and build strength without adding bulk.
"There's not a reason not to swing," says Chris Hartwell, head of the Kettlebell Underground program at RedBlack Gym on Burnet Road, an offshoot of CrossFit Central.
Hartwell is leading a mid-day kettlebell class on a chilly January day. Eminem blasts in the background and a brisk breeze flows through the open-air gym. A dog lolls in the sunshine out front, as two women grunt and push weighted metal sleds up and down the sidewalk.
Inside, metal clangs and sweat flies. I try not to quiver as I sidle into class.
We begin with a 10-minute warmup, then Hartwell leads me to a rack of brightly colored kettlebells, in weights ranging from 8 to 24 kilograms. I grab a pair of the lightest, painted a girly shade of pink, but it feels like I'm carrying a couple of rock-hard frozen turkeys.
I watch as the other students hoist the weights overhead in smooth, swift motions.
In the remedial corner where I've set up shop, Hartwell shows me how to properly hold a kettlebell. I slide my hand toward the front of the handle and let the bell fall to the outside. When I ask Hartwell if my hands will get banged up from using them, he tells me I'll automatically adjust my form to avoid bruises. Self correcting!
The Soviet army trained with weights like these in the 20th century and they've been part of European competition since the 1940s. They've been used in the United States for about 50 years, too, but have surged in popularity in the last few years.
Using kettlebells is simple, Hartwell says, and that's why he likes them. It doesn't take a lot of technical skill to get in a good workout.
He demonstrates a Russian swing, one of the most basic kettlebell maneuvers. He bends at the waist and swings the kettlebell between his legs, then up to shoulder height. "It's like hiking a football behind you," Hartwell says.
I feel like a bowler slinging a double-handed gutterball as I lurch my way through the exercise. Or a farmer doing some hard-core labor. Regardless, I need to generate more power from my hips and less from my arms, Hartwell critiques.
A single pair of kettlebells can provide a full-body workout. Dead lifts, overhead lifts, clean and jerks and snatches -- they're all possible. And it's easier to learn to use them than dumbbells or barbells.
"The truth is, the base fundamental things are what works. You don't have to have an elaborate array of movements," Hartwell says. "The tool works well to get you leaner, harder or stronger."
Before class ends, the students work their way through a set of two-handed kettlebell release catches, burpees and a complicated maneuver with a 90-pound sandbag called a Turkish get-up. (One look at me and Hartwell subs a 15-pound, dinner plate-shaped sand weight in place of the German shepherd-sized bag. He must have noticed my post half-marathon limp.)
When they're done, they mark on a board how many rounds they completed in the allotted time. Then the kettlebellers disperse -- but not before I corner a few to find out why they take the class.
"I'm a vegan, more of a yoga guy, so kettlebell to me has a very organic, holistic movement," says Rob Miller, 36, a real estate investor. "And you don't have to do incredible loads like traditional weightlifters."
Cesar Pena, 37, a program manager for a technology company, says he's gained core strength and improved his flexibility and balance through kettlebells.
"It's something completely different. You can do tons of different exercises with one simple piece of equipment," Pena says.
Some kettlebellers like it so much they try to do as many single-bell snatches or double-bell jerks as they can in a designated amount of time, in what's called girevoy competitions.
Minna Miller, a trainer at Castle Hill Fitness, competes in the sport. She also works with clients one-on-one and in small groups.
"It's like moving a pyramid," she says of working with kettlebells. "You use your whole body as one unit when you swing them. You're incorporating the whole kinetic chain through the core -- from your legs to your hamstrings and glutes -- to generate movement and power. It's a fantastic way of learning to use the body the way it was supposed to be used."
Hartwell shows me some of his more complex maneuvers, flipping and twirling them like a pair of lightweight juggling pins.
A lot of the moves require letting go of the kettlebell for a nanosecond with each repetition, then reeling it back in. That kind of work helps with hand-eye coordination. That's why boxers train with them.
Me? I'm not there quite yet, and I'd probably end up with a crushed toe if I tried.
And since I can get a great workout without the flair, I'll stick to the basics.
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