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Weights offer variety and a workout for all parts of the body

What's round and has a flat bottom? You? If that's the case, grab a similarly shaped kettlebell and work hard as this old standby helps transform you into a lean, mean exercise machine. Kettlebells resemble cannon balls with handles, and they can...

What's round and has a flat bottom?

You?

If that's the case, grab a similarly shaped kettlebell and work hard as this old standby helps transform you into a lean, mean exercise machine.

Kettlebells resemble cannon balls with handles, and they can be used to do a wide variety of exercises that hit the entire body and work the cardiovascular system.

They date back hundreds of years to Russia, said Ryan Toshner, a certified kettlebell instructor in Brookfield, Wis. Kettlebells were popular in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s, then fizzled out, but are now returning to popularity, he said.

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These days kettlebells are being used in personal training, as part of some group fitness classes, and in classes devoted just to kettlebells.

And exercisers are loving it.

Kettlebell workouts are different from traditional free weights and machines, they're fun and they have variety, Toshner said.

Women especially like that the kettlebell moves hit so many lower body muscles -- specifically hamstrings and glutes.

"The ratio of women to men in my classes is 70 to 30. But guys who get into it find out you can get really, really strong," he said. "And once people do it they start to realize how quickly they can get results."

Shannon Lutze, 32, a financial planner in Milwaukee, said she has been taking classes with Toshner at his fitness center, TNT Performance, since March and has seen great results.

She lost 10 pounds the first five to six weeks, her fat percentage went from 30 to 21 in about three months, and she saw major changes in her lower body.

"My muscle mass increased and my fat percentage decreased. And I found I could fit back into my old jeans -- that was the biggest change," she said.

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Lutze said she previously did Pilates or weight training classes about three times a week.

"Before, I did one muscle group at a time for the most part. In these classes you're working multiple muscle groups and also doing cardio, which is why I think it's so effective," Lutze said.

Notice the changes

Toshner, who opened his fitness center in January, said he also made gains when he started working with the bells.

"I was a gym rat before. I used traditional weights," he said. "I'm stronger now and in better shape. There are things I can do now that I never thought about doing three years ago."

He is a strength and conditioning specialist certified with the National Strength and Conditioning Association.

Training with kettlebells burns 60 percent more calories than traditional weight lifting, according to research by Michele Olson, professor of exercise science at the Human Performance Lab at Auburn University in Montgomery, Ala.

Because many exercises can be done with either the kettlebells or free weights, she created a workout video in which exercisers can use either piece of equipment.

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National fitness expert Keli Roberts said kettlebells improve "functional total body movement and strength in terms of power endurance," and are good for balance, stabilization and cardiovascular conditioning.

She said she especially enjoys the power and ballistic movements because they "have good transfer into movements you would do in real life. They're good for you because people have trouble getting off the floor," she said.

She added that kettlebell workouts are suitable for exercisers of all levels because they can choose from a variety of moves and poundage. She teaches seminars titled "KettleBell Ultimate Body Detonation" and has a kettlebell exercise video.

When he works with new members, Toshner said he always makes sure they know how to do the moves correctly and that they use weights appropriate to their fitness level.

He said the bells come in different sizes and are often weighed in kilograms rather than pounds. At his gym the lightest is the 4k (9 pounds), but they can run as high as 48k (106 pounds). Depending on the moves, one or two kettlebells can be used.

"Women will typically start with an 8k and progress to 12k or 16k. Men usually start with 16k and progress to 20k or 24k," he said.

How to use them

Examples of moves that might be done in a workout include the Turkish get-up, the pistol and the swing.

In the Turkish get-up, exercisers start on the floor, gradually move to standing position, then gradually return to the floor. Toshner said it takes 30 seconds to do one repetition because it consists of a series of moves that hit all the muscles in the body.

The pistol is an advanced move that hits quadriceps, works balance and requires lots of hamstring strength. It is similar to doing a squat with one leg, while the other leg is extended.

When doing the swing, exercisers swing a kettlebell between their legs using momentum -- something not typically recommended in other forms of exercise. This exercise also works all the muscles in the body with a focus on hamstrings and glutes.

It builds strength and stamina. "Fifteen to 20 swings and your heart rate is up," he said.

But when using momentum in the swing or other kettlebell exercises, it's always done in a controlled fashion, he cautioned. "Control is the big thing. Fast doesn't mean sloppy. This is all about being strong and being stable and doing things safely."

Another break from the norm is that in these classes there are no mirrors and you don't have to wear shoes because bare feet help you balance.

"We don't use mirrors because we want exercisers to develop body awareness by concentrating on how their bodies feel. They adjust their moves by how they feel, not by what they are seeing," he said.

Because these exercises are so different, getting professional help is a must, said Roberts.

"You should make sure you do it correctly. Done incorrectly, it can hurt you, especially when you start to do power movements," she said. "Your posture and alignment has to be perfect. There is not a huge margin for error."

Related Topics: HEALTH
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