By James S. Fell, Special to the Los Angeles Times
April 18, 2011
For the past few weeks, I've been sporting big yellow bruises on my forearms. I blame actor Daniel Baldwin and his enthusiasm for kettlebells.
As you may know, Baldwin has had issues with weight, alcohol and drugs. He's been on both "Celebrity Fit Club" and "Celebrity Rehab." But things have turned around for Baldwin, and he gives a lot of credit to the kettlebell.
What is this life-changing thing called a kettlebell? It's a traditional Russian training tool that looks like a cannonball with a handle attached. Kettlebells come in various weights and sizes, and instead of lifting them (as with dumbbells), one usually swings them.
Baldwin was introduced to kettlebells last year when renowned trainer Michael Skogg pitched Baldwin's production company on a DVD series featuring the back-to-basics weights.
"I was intrigued," Baldwin told me. "I'd just turned 50, weighed 285, and my doctor had read me the riot act about my health."
So Skogg became Baldwin's kettlebell mentor. The hard training — along with an improved diet — helped Baldwin lose 50 pounds in six months.
"My doctor didn't recognize me," he said. "He thought I was Billy Baldwin."
Daniel Baldwin says he loves working out with kettlebells because it's fun and allows him to lose fat and build muscle in a short period of time. He also says the confidence boost that comes with his new physique has been good for battling his addiction demons.
"What this does for me emotionally, psychologically and spiritually — to look in the mirror and not be ashamed — has been very important in not relapsing," he told me.
With that kind of endorsement, I decided to give these things a try.
I hired Dave MacLean, a professional trainer at Edgemont World Health in Calgary, Canada, where I'm a member. MacLean learned the proper use of kettlebell techniques from Agatsu Inc., a Montreal company that makes the weights and has developed a certification system for trainers. I trust their trainers because, unlike some certification bodies, Agatsu isn't afraid to flunk people who simply don't cut it.
I've been lifting weights for over 17 years, but for the most part, this builds slow-speed strength. Kettlebell training builds explosive power production, which is actually more practical for everyday life.
Imagine yourself hoisting a sheet of drywall. You don't slowly muscle it into place while feeling the burn. No, you lift it in one fluid and powerful motion. In other words, kettlebells train you to install drywall — or throw bales of hay or toss kids into swimming pools — better than traditional weightlifting does.
MacLean likes kettlebells so much he made them the centerpiece of his workouts. And he's mighty fit. Mind you, he's only 24.
MacLean started me off with the "Turkish get-up" maneuver, a classic drill of power and coordination. You start lying flat on your back and holding a kettlebell straight up to the ceiling. While keeping the kettlebell in place, you get to your feet through a sequence of quick, power-generating movements, and then back down in reverse order.
The first couple of times I tried it with a relatively light 26-pound kettlebell, I have to admit I thought it was kind of silly. It seemed like such an awkward series of movements. But then I started to get it. Now it's not just the power moves I like, but I can feel my bum left shoulder improving because it's getting challenged like it never has before.
MacLean also taught me the traditional swing, the clean, and the snatch. The latter is swinging the kettlebell from down low into a one-handed overhead press in one fluid motion. Before you master the technique, expect to have the kettlebell smash into your forearm several times. This is how I earned my bruises.
Thanks, Daniel Baldwin.
Now I'm cutting into my weightlifting workouts to start each session with 10 minutes of kettlebells, and I like it, although I doubt it will ever make up the majority of my exercise.
Another good thing about kettlebells is that they make for a less expensive and more space-conscious home gym than one based on free weights. You can get four kettlebells (enough for most people) for around $300. A good home gym with free weights can cost thousands of dollars.
Not everyone is as enamored with kettlebells, however.
Harley Pasternak is a sought-after trainer with a client list that includes Halle Berry, Robert Downey Jr. and Katy Perry. He is also the bestselling author of the "Five Factor" fitness and diet books. Unlike a lot of "celebrity trainers" out there, Harley is actually well-qualified, having a master's degree in exercise physiology and nutritional sciences from the University of Toronto.
"Kettlebells are one tool," he told me. "When people base their entire exercise regime around them, they're making a mistake. Gravity only goes up and down, and there are certain body parts that are difficult to train with them as a result."
Pasternak also warns that good technique is especially important because there's a greater risk of injury. Slow-speed lifting of traditional weights involves easy-to-control movements, but with kettlebells you're swinging and bending and lifting the weight quite rapidly. Truthfully, there were a couple of times I worried I might bonk myself in the head and wind up spending my days on the couch giggling through reruns of "I Didn't Know I Had 19 Kids and Counting" on cable TV.
Pasternak sees kettlebells as best suited to conditioning competitive athletes. "For 99.9% of the population, dumbbells are a more effective tool than kettlebells," he said.
I can certainly see Harley's point and agree they're not for everyone; a solid training base from weightlifting should be established first. If you wish to take your physical performance to a higher level, however, careful kettlebell training from a qualified instructor can be valuable.
Just be prepared to field questions about your bruises.
Fell is certified strength and conditioning specialist in Calgary, Canada.
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