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CindySays: Kettlebells reinvented into a cool tool

By Cindy Boggs

CHARLESTON, W.Va. -- Dear Cindy,

What is it all of a sudden about kettlebells? I mean a weight is a weight is a weight -- right? I'm no stranger to the gym, but they seem to have taken over lately. My question is this: What can kettlebells do that dumbbells can't? Thanks. -- Jim

Dear Jim,

Gee, how I love working in the fitness industry. Just when we're on the verge of boredom, fitness experts as well as marketing wizards (in this case, John Du Cane and Pavel Tsatsouline) swoop in and grant a makeover on the kettlebell. Like magic, an old tool becomes cool.

Thank you, kettlebell, for your willingness to be reinvented. You've had the courage to be painted, labeled, dressed in vinyl, re-sculpted, minimized and you've even allowed yourself to be girlified. There's no denying you're now wearing pink for fitness's sake!

Move over, dumbbell

But let's not judge. Let's just be glad kettlebells are now the "it" resistance tool for everyone, not just Eastern Europeans, which explains why kettlebells are hogging the shelf space in fitness centers. Well, that plus the recent do-over has girls diggin' them too. Oh, and if you haven't noticed by now, look around. There are a lot more females feeling ferocious in gyms nowadays. They love the kettlebells, and they're swinging more than pink.

What's the big deal?

The industry knows it grows if it can keep health seekers interested. In the past several years, balance was the buzz with the Bosu, versa discs and balance balls. Balance (stability) training alone pretty much used up its 15 minutes of fame, but it was the perfect lead-in to functional strength.

The kettlebell is an old piece of equipment steeped in Russian history, but with the makeover, it has become the hottest new training toy. A round hunk of iron with a handle -- simple, yet those who train with it know it's not about the tool that resembles a cannonball, it's about the variety of movements you can do with it. It doesn't just build strength, it increases speed, power, coordination and aerobic conditioning.

Unique properties

Experts agree that kettlebells are designed to shift the leverage during the course of movement, which continually challenges the user and offers training effects that are not possible with dumbbells.

  • The design sets it apart. The ball portion of the kettlebell is suspended below the handle, which significantly adds downward pull.
  • The kettlebell is a tool for variable resistance (the difficulty changes as the movement changes).
  • Dumbbells traditionally work on a particular muscle, whereas kettlebells challenge many muscles together and therefore elicit a full-body workout -- muscle integration rather than muscle isolation.
  • Weights range from about 9 pounds to 100 pounds.
  • With movement there is a continual leverage change. They offset your body's center of gravity, forcing your core muscles to compensate, which a great way to train and to strengthen your abs and back.
  • Strict form and proper technique must be learned for this tool to be safe and effective. Once the user is proficient, kettlebell training can produce extraordinary results.
  • The swing is the most common kettlebell movement, but there are plenty of variations and exercises.
  • The movements are more athletic than conventional weight-training movements.
  • Dumbbells won't work the stabilizer muscles as effectively as kettlebells because they primarily work in a single plane of motion and use leverage along with a fixed position. A kettlebell's asymmetrical design makes it inherently unstable, forcing stabilizer muscles to pitch in.
  • All shapes and sizes

    There are many companies putting out interesting-looking kettlebells in various color-coded, vinyl-coated versions. Some are sized according to weight. Experts as well as old-school users lean toward the Competition Style kettlebells because the dimensions are the same regardless of weight. For example, a 12-pound bell and 35-pound bell are exactly the same size, so the technique and alignment remains the same for the each. When there is a significant size difference between a lighter and heavier kettlebells, it creates a new learning curve every time you make a weight jump.

    So which is best?

    It's not about which is better -- a kettlebell or dumbbell -- because both have individual advantages and disadvantages. Kettlebells are more suited to quick, explosive movements and cardiovascular drills, whereas dumbbells are better for slower and controlled movements and are available in heavier weights for more-advanced trainers.

    Kettlebells will provide you with a cardiovascular challenge at the same time you're increasing strength; so in terms of time, it's most efficient. On the other hand, when your strength reaches a certain point, the kettlebells will have limitations. So the best advice is to include both and view this piece of iron as just another tool in your fitness toolbox.

    Cindy Boggs, fitness presenter, author and Activate America director, has been an ACE-certified instructor/trainer since 1989. Send your questions about fitness, training or health to her at YMCA of Kanawha Valley, 100 YMCA Drive, Charleston, WV 25311, or email cindysays@aol.com. Look for Cindy's award-winning fitness advice book, "CindySays ... You Can Find Health in Your Hectic World," at www.cindysays.com, or contact the YMCA at 304-340-3527.


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