Ringing the Bells

Combining strength, cardio and flexibility training, kettlebells are ‘the hottest new way to blast fat.’

Traditional kettlebells (like these) may soon be replaced by an adjustable version coming to Bell's Sporting Goods.

Photo by Robin May

Darren Colletti 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 Colletti, a personal trainer and owner of Snap Fitness in New Orleans.

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.

But that may not be the case for very long; kettlebells are finding a following in Acadiana as well. Bell’s Sporting Goods manager Ken Seibold says the weights have caught on so much in the past year that California-based LifeCore Fitness is just rolling out an adjustable kettlebell that should be arriving in the next couple of months at Bell’s. “Now it’s going to be a little more expensive, but it will be one kettlebell you can adjust [for various weights],” he says. That will ultimately translate to a reduction in cost, not to mention the space savings.

One of LifeCore’s new weights can be adjusted from 2 pounds to 35.5 pounds and the other version from 1 to 17.5 pounds (you can view a video at

Bell’s currently offers solid cast iron kettlebells ranging from 10 pounds to 50 pounds; they’re sold in 5 pound increments for about $1.50 per pound. The Johnston Street store also offers The Great Kettlebell Handbook, a step-by-step workout booklet, by Productive Fitness Products. “They’re making a comeback,” Seibold says of the unusual-looking hand weights.

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,” and 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 U.S. 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 training is it combines strength, cardio and flexibility training 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 ancient 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 these weights will seldom be 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. “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 your lower back down behind your 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. Bell’s Seibold believes the introduction of the adjustable version is a sign this is one piece of workout equipment that’s not likely to fade anytime soon. “[LifeCore Fitness] feels the popularity of this is on the upside,” he says.

Colletti is 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.”