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Kettlebells?

David Landau

Physical Fitness is defined more or less as one’s ability to function (body wise) in accordance and within the scope of their individual lifestyle. This merely suggests that the ideal objective in one’s physical fitness culture is enhancing their muscular functional ability as a sound part of a balanced life. Generally, exercise physiology has at least been consistent with the definition of this concept. This idea has been defined in the same manner for at least the last 50 years. Again, it should be obvious to mean that an individual is physically fit when he or she is able to meet both the ordinary and unusual demands of daily life safely and effectively. These requisitions include working at either sedentary or active pursuits. This comprises of social obligations like family, community, and the recreational endeavors of individual choice without undue strain or exhaustion. However as simple as this meaning is, it gets convoluted in its transition to the institution of proper physical training itself. This is a result of the fact that the fitness industry completely ignores these simple foundations and definitions that are set forth. As a consequence of this ignorance, the fitness gurus instigate a myriad of inappropriate exercise modalities.

Most of the “training” that exists today reveals recreational modes consisting of gross anatomical exertions that have nothing to do with personal daily fitness requirements. These unrelated laborious activities then turn into designer fitness fads that are prescribed for countless individuals. Typically and without thought, people indiscriminately join in for the sake of being involved because it’s the “in” thing to do. But in some cases, it becomes nothing more than an exercise disorder for many of these fanatics. Much of this is becomes fitness cultism.

At the drop of the hat, the meager suggestion of being healthy by way of these ascribed exercise trends will get people hook, line, and sinker. Without scrutiny again, the general public will obsessively pursue such routines en masse. It becomes the neurotic nature of physical fitness. In these instances, the road to Hell is certainly paved with good intentions.

To further illustrate this point, many of these wholesale leaders of sports medicine preach the expression “real world” fitness. These fearless leaders state that activities that somewhat mimic “real world” bodily actions are the key to some sort of success to personal physical endeavors, sports, games, and vigor. Ignoring the specifics of individual lifestyles, they proudly exclaim how certain aspects of their pet bodily exertions readily transfer to the said requisites of all physical fitness. Most of the mainstream then woefully agrees with these conclusions. These beliefs however literally become empty promises. It lures the “average” man/woman into assuming that they can become some sort of super being or as they say; a “fitness animal.” This “real world” ideology is then readily absorbed by the promiscuous followers of the fitness industry. One thing for certain, the physical fitness industry is a business that has had its fair share of this dogma for sure. As a consequence, a majority of these fitness leaders oddly allude to a return to “old world” primitive modes of physical training. So it really becomes “old world fitness,” as if it were something that is badly needed as a cure to those in today’s modern society.

Historically, physical fitness in work as a vocation has relied on job efficiency and competence. A laborer or apprentice carpenter for example will take years to hone his work in gaining ongoing skill acquisition and efficacy. In other words, he or she learns to perform the tasks in a manner that allows for the least wear and tear on the body in order to get the job done. In addition, their experience of trial and error over years alone teaches them to learn their trade as effectively as possible. As they say, “different strokes for different folks.” This example can be seen on the farm. Heavy labor such as tossing bales of hay simply makes one better over time at tossing bales of hay. If one cannot do this task, they will be ordained to milking cows or some other menial work. But remember, the farmer’s labor as in all work must be made to last all day. Therefore the specific skill and bodily adaptation as understood in all manual labor, is precise to the job being performed as proficiently as possible. As someone once said, “nothing fails like instant success.”

Therefore, forms of work that require manual labor can be summed up in the equation; work equals force times distance times efficiency. Without understanding the basic premise of this work efficiency, the Fitness Machos make the glaring mistake of using the old physics formula that states that work equals force times distance. So instead of prescribing exercise programs, they in turn institute sporting/recreational programs. Their flawed approach relies on the equation that predominately applies to the mechanical definition of work. This formula was intended for relationship of horsepower to machines and manufacturing, not humans. Nonetheless, they blatantly omit the huge factor of human physiology. Their doctrine is then cleverly test driven on genetically gifted athletes. We only seem to see those that happen to be born with supreme structural bodily integrity; the cream of the crap. Only the strong survive here and it is only thing noticed in this end result. The millions of failures are therefore ignored and never noticed in this process. So what appears to be really successful, in actuality isn’t.

Thank goodness that in today’s mechanized “society,” the advances in technology has allowed industry to become less labor intensive. In today’s modern day society we demand the best in scientific knowledge and we have it at our disposal. The advances in transportation, medicine, communication, etc involve highly complex machinery for our benefit. I was told by a colleague recently about the former problems associated with the Diesel Fuel Injection Engine and how they have quickly solved them by the advancement of better industrial science. The engines have computer precision wise monitored electronically controlled governors. The sensors measure the precise combustion, temperature, compression, and barometric pressure. The computer senses the precise requirements of the engine. The old mechanisms however, were incapable of doing this and therefore had its fair share of problems. The old system was just not nearly efficient as it is today. We can plainly see there should be no issues in the advancement of these needed specific technologies. High-tech advancements are a must in any endeavor of science. Transportation, communication, branches of medicine, engineering, and architecture are prime examples where these superior industries will and must advance.

Unfortunately there are glaring exceptions related to the lack of progress in the exercise industry. Deplorably, the fitness business can merely be turned around on the simple aspect of what is seen in the movies; “some advancement?” Just take the example of the movie Rocky 4, whereas our hero eschews modern “high tech” equipment in favor of the Machismo Spartan approach. The villain in the movie is cast with the inferior “scientific” approach to physical training and as a consequence he is scripted to lose. Someone once said; “Even though I make those movies, I find myself wishing that more of those magic moments could happen in real life.” But the public nonetheless, starves for such narrative. Once this hype is known to be profitable, the leaders of fitness will typically follow that easy money trail. But, this fantasy exists only in the movies. It is a shame that such hollowness can capture the imagination of the fitness public. Instead of learning rational cause and effect relationships, they in turn become inculcated with a fairy-tale reality. Therefore it is easy to see why exercise physiology is such a field where science can be fleeting. Here exists a satirical twist in an industry where science should be possible, but is excluded in favor of the latest fitness trends. Nowadays, the craze is retrogressive and there is no end in sight to this disaster.

As a result of such mishaps, this year’s evocative trend now becomes the rage in physical fitness, as last year becomes quickly passé. This being the case, the doors are pried wide open to another resurrected calamity that is dug up from past fitness lore. To clearly comprehend how this game takes place, it’s important to look back upon its history. As someone once said, “those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.” We will see again that there is nothing new under the sun, other than pre-industrial age mentality.

The Circus Strongmen have been around since the turn of the century. They were featured attractions for entertainment purposes only. The early vaudeville shows were headlined with these big muscle men. Many were muscular marvels that relied on using exotic show implements in which to push, pull, hoist, or lift. Whether it was back lifts underneath tables supporting men in excess of two thousand pounds or being chained between horses, the strongman created a legendary prowess of power. This was part of the entertainment industry in those past days. These touted performers had to come up with all kinds of feats of strength and stunts. Their acts included various oddball items like huge blacksmith’s anvils and massive military cannons. Many of the Strong Boys were like their counterparts, which were the mystical magicians. Legend has it that many of these Strongmen were known to use clever tricks to fake their shows. Curtains were opened and closed to conveniently hide their trickery. Weights were quickly hollowed out when used by the magnificent performers. Cannon ball weights were made to look real, then quickly loaded up behind the scenes. Secret compartments were present to allow for lead shot to be weighted down. To allow for the cover up, there was a ringer available at every corner and many stage hands to boot. They had to be standing ready if a big strong farmhand came out of the audience. Many obviously were frauds and became exposed as such over time. Many knew this, but most were afraid to stand up. Of the bold, Alan Calvert, an astute student of heavy lifting pointed this out in his book, “The Truth About Weightlifting” written in 1911.

Calvert was the first recognized manufacturer of barbells in the United States. As a youth, Alan developed a fascination with weight lifting. This was after being exposed to various forms of exercise from early on. It was sometime during his formative years, he was reported to have read the crème de la crème of exercise journals “How to get Strong and How to Stay so” that was written by William Blaikie. This book alone inspired him to explore strength and exercise with overwhelming excitement. At age 18 he witnessed his first Strongman Exhibition that featured the legendary bodybuilder/strongman Eugen Sandow. Calvert was impressed by the strongman’s apparent vitality. He was however disappointed in the crude tools that were exhibited. This is what first inspired him to manufacture a better iron tool for ultimate in muscular physical development. But as he researched the subject of strength, he found that he certainly was not the first to explore this endeavor. It was actually the sport of Weightlifting that soon caught his fancy. He quickly found that his main concern was the fact that there was a great discrepancy in the strength of American Weightlifters, as opposed to the European Strength Athletes. He found out that it was the mere fact that thousands of men in Europe practiced weightlifting and had been 20 years prior to any of their American counterparts. Calvert saw that there were nearly one hundred of them to every one American practicing the lifting of the heavy weights. Alan further researched the Europeans and saw even more numbers of lifters as a comparison. He had a vision in the fact that all he had to do to even the score was to expose America to his version of proper heavy weightlifting. Being a concerned crusader for strength fitness and a bit of a machinist, he then designed and the manufactured what was called the “shot loading barbell” in 1902. Soon thereafter he manufactured an accessory to the barbell in what was known as the kettle-bell in 1903. Originally called ring weights, these kettle-bells became an optional extra along with his shot loading barbells and dumbbells. He then developed a variety of different prototypes of barbells, dumbbells, and kettle-bells for his progressive training routines. Alan investigated all possibilities and experimented in all raw materials. (Ironically that included large rubber strands which in practice he saw was “worse than useless.” This will be exposed in a later chapter.) Fine craftsmanship included wood handles attached to cast iron balls with a built in rotating axis. Calvert continued to attend many vaudeville shows (he knew the authentic performers) and took notice to the strongman’s use of his kettlebells in a stunt called “muscling out.” This was where the Bells were held out at arm’s length away from the body laterally and parallel to the ground. The application eventually developed into the specialized training that was done with the Kettles for the muscular development of the arms and shoulders. Calvert then deemed that technique was to be the best anatomical application for this limited tool. He established early on that the use of Kettle bells was not as a means for overall strength and development. With his ever keen observation, he saw that there were indeed limitations that existed. But for exhibitions of strength, the swinging of the kettlebell was ideal and impressive. But, Mr. Calvert was interested in muscular exercise effect. For this he thought that the emphasis should be placed on systematic heavy progressive dumbbell work. He then suggested this as the elite style for his clients. Understand for its era, the kettlebell even when properly used was a limited tool for physical training. It was well understood again as inadequate for the overall development of the body. He was an innovator and genius that knew the value of the use of the better tools that he originated.

Usher in the “ModernEra”

After Alan Calvert swept the country with Progressive Barbell Training that included the Kettlebell, his progressive training theory became a staple for physical training through the 1920s. Leading Strength Professors included variations of it in their books, including one bible of weightlifting called “The Key to Might and Muscle.” Understand that many books also included the lifting of blacksmith’s anvils, so much for effective training implements. But soon after the roaring twenties, strength authorities dismissed the KettleBell outright. It became taboo when it was reported that several individuals suffered broken bones as a result of attempting the feats of explosive strength with the dear kettle. Others caught on and also began to understand the shortcomings of what was really a limited tool. It was then seen universally that Kettlebells allowed for a very narrow application of the many progressive training theories.

The barbell became a far superior tool for obvious reasons; its use allowed for the application of many popular lifts. It was especially seen where the U.S. Olympic Weightlifters were continually coming home with the Gold Medals. As that result, it then turned out to be the accepted tool of those seeking physical fitness and muscular vitality. Ironically, had it been a sport (kettlebell lifting), it may have not faded from the scene. But with an obvious short shelf life, the use of the kettlebell then waned from the Physical Culturist scene.

Impressive exhibitions of Kettlebell stunts were sometimes seen on occasion on TV from old timers from the lost era. These were simply demonstrations of strength that were simply fill- in entertainment for the programming of that time. Then most of what was known about the “Kettle Bell” disappeared in the United States for a period of about 60 years, but presto it mysteriously made a comeback. The story line must be written here, as the sports superiority of Russian athlete’s caught the compulsive eyes of US trainers in recent decades. Somehow a discarded antiquity suddenly reappeared on the exercise scene, with touting secrets of Russian supremacy. But however, not to worry as there was no magic and no romance. Once again this so called “science” leads us only to past lifting lore. This art if you will, as reported in recent years is a carryover related to American muscle magazines. It appeared that when trying to discover lost secrets, the Americans when visiting Russia in the 1980s found that the coaches were using crude training implements. Included were a few odd weights that may have been KettleBells. When asked where they got their training information, one of the coaches pointed to an old stack of Weider Muscle Magazines; some Science, Sure? The Russians really had no secret! It came by the fact that the Soviet Sports Scientists were obsessed with winning Olympic Gold Medals in Weightlifting amongst many other sports. Given that they had a huge population, this Socialistic Nation built their walls in order to enforce the power of persuasion to threaten the athletes that were culled out to perform or else. But in review of the research literature from the 1960s – 1970s, they were more interested with observing and inculcating the concept of physical culture in the schools from early on. The emphasis on their training was mostly the skill factor. But in essence, their research in strength training revealed their investigation of concentric, eccentric, and isometric applications. They predominately used barbells, machines, and isometric racks. The Kettlebell was a staple of stunts and exhibitions in Czarist Russia, but that was parallel to the time of Calvert’s introduction of it in America. So much for the secret Kettlebell!

A fascinating storyline is told in the following;

“In 1990 I signed with the Tacoma Express of the (now defunct) Minor League Football System. Our first game was to be an exhibition against an all-star professional team from the Soviet Union, the Moscow Bears. The Bears were comprised of national and international caliber athletes from the infamous "Soviet Sports Machine". Track and field athletes, bobsledders, swimmers, wrestlers and other athletes were converted into football players. They were big, strong, fast, athletic men. I'm sure that they were well-versed in the "science" of kettlebell training, as well as the Olympic lifts, plyometrics, and other fashionable training methods of the time.

The Express utilized a practice system aimed at making us better football players and improving teamwork/timing. Other than wind sprints after practice, conditioning/strength training was left up to each individual player. In my own case this meant two HIT workouts each week, utilizing 6-10 exercises (primarily Nautilus, with a few squats and dumbbell incline presses - at the time I could press 120 lb. db's for six reps).

When the Russians came out for pre-game warm-ups, they performed a very elaborate set of agility drills and plyometrics. They were obviously very athletic. The problem was, they didn't possess anywhere near the skills of football that we did.

Final result: A 61-0 victory for the Tacoma Express.

I played center in that game, and the nose tackle, a 265 lb. beast named Eugene Batov (a former international caliber Greco-Roman wrestler) had zero tackles in the game. On a wrestling mat, the guy would have destroyed me. In a helmet and shoulder pads, I owned him.

I'm not sure that the story proves anything, other than that the myth of the "Soviet Superman" produced by archaic methods such as kettlebell training is indeed a myth.”

The ushering in of the new millennium shows us a host of provocative characters promoting the kettle. Poof, out of thin air they come! This KettleBell mania has spawned many experts clamoring to get your attention, in the meantime ironically claiming to be certified Russian KettleBell Experts. It reminds me of the old Calgon detergent commercial, that when asked how they got their shirts so clean; the Chinese man said, “Ancient Chinese secret.” So much for secrets!

We are simply left with another made to order fantasy for physical training enthusiasts. It’s like a soothing lullaby, only one couched with pseudo-scientific lingo. Nonetheless, these KettleBell marauders will continue to come forward calling to impress the frustrated exercise masses. This Insanity training is literally insanity training period, and at best it is another sport or exhibition.

Very clearly we can see that the origins of the Kettlebell have been really tied to the Circus, Vaudeville, and good old Show Biz. We can see the beginnings have been clearly exposed by merely pointing to the history of this faux entertainment. Such is self evident, but with no surprise and one hundred years removed, it has turned into some sort of scientific guru’s training methodology. It is clear cut the fact that the exercise industry will continue to have nothing to do with science. In the meantime they will feign their way through by the promoting of such propaganda, while swindling the exercise consumer.

The bottom line is that the Kettlebell is a crude weight implement that has many shortcomings. One that if you swing, lift, heave, or throw it in a particular manner, it makes you better at the specific endeavor of doing that task. This is simple as being task specific like a prisoner dragging around a ball and chain.

The objective in exercise is either to address the body or be ordained to useless laborious exercise. The answer is rather simple, but gets lost and turned out in the form of many exercise frauds.

© 2010 David Landau