Darren Colletti, owner of Snap Fitness (309 Clearview Pkwy., 883-0309; www.snapfitness.com), smiles when he remembers the bewildered looks of fellow gym-goers when he would break out his kettlebells mid-workout. It's no wonder. The traditional Russian cast-iron weights resemble bowling balls with suitcase handles affixed to them.
"I'd walk in, and everybody would look at me like I was crazy," says the personal trainer.
But Colletti has the last laugh. With the growing popularity of kettlebells in homes and gyms nationwide, American fitness fanatics are finally catching up to their Russian strongman counterparts. Thanks to Colletti, residents of Louisiana and the Gulf Coast now have access to the area's only Art of Strength certified kettlebell instructor.
Although the kettlebell has been in existence for hundreds of years, it did not gain widespread use as a strength mechanism until Russian fitness magazine Hercules hailed it as a premier strength-training tool in 1913. Nearly a century later, American fitness organizations are echoing the sentiment. The American Council on Exercise ranks kettlebell training No. 6 on its top 10 list of fitness trends of 2009. Health magazine calls kettlebells "the hottest new way to blast fat." Men's Fitness magazine ranks kettlebell workouts No. 2 among new NFL training methods.
Certain changes accompanied the kettlebell's transition from Russia to the United States. Whereas traditional Russian kettlebells are weighed in poods (1 pood = 16 kilograms or 35 pounds), Americanized kettlebells are made in pounds and range in size from about 4 pounds to 150 pounds. The general rule is that women start with an 18-pound or 8-kilogram kettlebell, and men start with a 35-pound or 16-kilogram kettlebell.
The benefits of using this centuries-old piece of equipment are timeless. The beauty of kettlebell is it combines strength, cardio and flexibility regimens into one fitness routine. With a typical kettlebell session ranging from 15 minutes to an hour, this strength-training tool is ideal for getting a full-body workout in a minimal amount of time.
"It's not isolating, which is a lot of what our society is focused on," says Colletti, who received his Art of Strength kettlebell certification in September. "People say they want bigger triceps, a bigger chest, bigger abs — kettlebells are not about that. The great thing about it is that most of the kettlebell movements are compound movements, meaning you're working more than one body part, more than one muscle at a time. So, you're getting a two-for-one deal, and you're burning more calories that way."
Compared to the traditional dumbbell or barbell, where the weight is evenly distributed throughout the handles, the mass of a kettlebell hangs low, below the center of the hand. Colletti compares that weight distribution to carrying a bucket of water. Not only does the unevenness boost the difficulty of the exercise, it also forces the body's smaller, stabilizer muscles to ignite, he says.
Besides the physical benefits of using kettlebells, the versatility and variety of these cast-iron weights add a dose of fun to what is for many a lackluster exercise regimen. Their portability makes them functional in the gym, at home or outside. And with a host of moves comparable to Olympic-style weight-lifting techniques — dead lift, squat, press, jerk, clean — training with them is seldom boring.
Before delving into the range of complicated combinations, however, the most basic kettlebell exercise, the swing, should be mastered. Starting in a squat position, the kettlebell is thrust from between the legs up to chest level in one hip-driven movement.
"Have the kettlebell set up behind your heels on the ground flat, and all you're going to do is grab the kettlebell as if you were hiking a football between your legs with your knees bent, hips back, looking forward," Colletti says. "You drive your heels into the ground like you're trying to push the ground away, standing up quickly and at the same time squeezing your glute muscles."
The iconic kettlebell move sounds more challenging than it is. If the swing is done properly, the kettlebell should be weightless, says Colletti, who also owns a personal training business, Alternative Body Solutions (812-6973; www.alternativebodysolutionsllc.com). "You're not actually lifting anything with your arms. Your arms are just guiding the weight as part of the pendulum movement."
While kettlebells traditionally have been popular among men — particularly athletes and military personnel — for their effectiveness in improving strength, enhancing work capacity and boosting flexibility and coordination, others are learning their benefits. For women, kettlebell exercises build lean, dense muscles, sculpting the entire body, especially the posterior chain of muscles from the lower back down behind the legs.
"I always joke, 'Everybody likes a J.Lo butt, but not a Jell-O butt,' and that's what [kettlebell training] does," Colletti says. "It builds up your butt, tightens your glutes."
For working people who spend hours behind a desk each day or older men and women, kettlebell exercises may actually correct some posture problems. Most exercises focus on the front of the body, whereas working with kettlebells awakens the typically weaker backside muscles. One of Colletti's clients, an older man, noticed after one month of incorporating kettlebells into his training that he was able to do yard work more easily and even helped a friend clear about 8 acres of land without needing to stop for a break.
"What I like to tell my clients is you'll notice the little things," Colletti says. "If you had problems getting in and out of your car, that's going to be easier. If you had problems walking up and down a flight of steps, that's going to be easier. Picking up things off the ground is going be much easier."
It's no surprise that celebrities like Kim Kardashian, Halle Berry and Penelope Cruz, as well as NFL teams including the Tennessee Titans, Baltimore Ravens and Oakland Raiders have incorporated the revolutionary tool into their exercise arsenal.
Colletti says he's eager to continue working kettlebells into the fitness routines of Gulf Coast residents. "The more popular it becomes, I feel like being the first trained in Louisiana, I'll have the most experience. I see myself teaching people. It's just another tool in the toolbox to use."