Thursday, March 15, 2012


If you trust certain quarters, they would tell you that Russia owes its greatness not to Communism or the Kalashnikov but to an unassuming hunk of iron that now lay at my feet.

So this was the secret weapon that had forged the men who won wars, medals and pride for Mother Russia? This was the ‘heavy artillery’ that made Supermen out of mere mortals and supposedly built nations, character and muscles, all with one ‘heave ho’? For something as awesome as all the literature around it proclaims, the kettlebell (that’s what it’s called, for it looks like an iron kettle without a spout), is a rather elusive and little known fitness apparatus. In fact, most sports and fitness stores in the country, and in most countries outside Eastern Europe and the United States wouldn’t know a kettlebell from George Orwell. So how good is a kettlebell at doing what it does, which is transforming the merely ordinary into the truly exceptional, be it people or countries? Well, posterity can decide about the latter, I was keen to know about the former... in other words, could this hunk of iron make an extraordinary hunk of a very ordinary me too?

History would seem to suggest so… In Russia, everyone, from weak and unhealthy teenagers who could barely lift a ‘bell’ - kettlebells, unlike dumbbells, have fixed weights that jump from 8kgs (half pood) to 16kgs (one pood) all the way to 48 kgs (three poods)- right up to old time champion wrestlers like Ivan Poddubny, was lift ing giryas (that’s what they call a kettlebell in the fatherland) and becoming stronger and fitter and healthier than they had ever been.

American and English circus strongmen, the kinds who you might come across in sepia toned pictures, standing in breeches, fire hose arms folded across a massive chest, hair and moustache waxed shiny, with a far away look in the eyes, would use kettlebells to develop the ‘flexible strength’ they needed for their strong man acts. Arthur Saxon and Eugene Sandow swore by them too.

Eventually, the strong man acts went the way of the vaudeville theatre and disappeared. With them, the kettlebell too fell from grace and public memory and was lost to the rest of the world for almost a century. But back home in Russia, it became the architect of a new nation. From school children and littérateurs to soldiers and leaders, everybody ‘played’ with the girya to build strength and character – a fixed weight, fixed ‘target repetitions’ and an ungainly weight necessitated the development of correct lift ing technique and a tenacious resolve to not give up until the goal was reached.

Behind the iron curtain, the girya remained a closely guarded secret that powered Russian soldiers at the frontline, behind enemy lines and athletes beyond the finish line. And then the wall came down and a Spetznaz trainer named Pavel Tsatsouline, a hard nosed Russian with something very Jason Statham-ish about him, showed up in the land of milk and honey, his trusted kettlbell tucked in his armpit.

As soon as gym-going Americans and martial artists found out that it was the girya that gave the Spetznaz their wiry strength, it resurrected the girya and triggered a kettlebell revolution of sorts. Today, kettlebells are the deity of choice for a multitude of athletes, special ops warriors and mixed martial artistes. So without much ado, I picked one up and huffed and puffed and waddled my way out of the store.

I began training in earnest and…. Wait! I’m too new to this so no, I don’t quite feel ready just yet to pull my underpants on top of my pants (erase that picture in your head, I know what you’re thinking) and go “Up! Up! And away”. But I do know someone who would look rather nift y if he did choose to wear his underpants like the original man of steel. His name is Steve Cotter, kettlebeller extraordinaire and popular strength training instructor. Pavel describes him as a mutant of a man who performs incredible feats of strength, like lift ing enormous weights hundreds of times, feats that strong men twice his size would find impossible to contemplate.

Steve was in town for a kettlebell workshop for a group of Indian personal trainers and that’s where I met up with him. He took the group through a list of challenging calisthenics like the pistol –one legged squats, lunges and pushups and some kettlebell drills and then he took a short break. The trainees surrounded him and asked for questions and autographs while I waited my turn. Steve noticed, smiled and waved. I smiled and waved back. Once he had patiently answered every question and posed for a few pictures, he came up to me and extended his hand. We shook hands and I asked him if he had a little time. He pulled a chair, smiled and said he had all the time I needed. Such graciousness in most cases is a welcome virtue but in a man so densely muscled, it was almost a relief.

It has been said that pound for pound, Steve Cotter is amongst the strongest athletes in the world. Steve would crank out more squats on one leg in five minutes than the total combined pushups you and I could manage in the same given time. To give you a perspective, 70% of the world’s recreational athletes and gym goers would find it difficult to complete even one pistol, or one-legged squat.

Besides setting kettlebell records, Steve Cotter has spent years learning and teaching Hsing Yi Chuan, an internal martial art similar to Tai Chi Chuan and has training videos that cover body weight training and weight training. So now that you have a measure of the man, here’s what he had to say when I asked him if a kettlebell really was king of the gym heap…

“Kettlebells are tough to beat when it comes to all round fitness. Powerlift ing is best at building low gear strength while running is great for cardiovascular fitness. Yoga will make you more flexible and something else would be great for (developing) agility but kettlebells develop everything, functional strength, muscular endurance, stamina and cardiovascular fitness and a degree of flexibility and agility… they are unique for the way in which they develop all-round fitness.”

Steve and I spoke some more about the fitness industry, his peers, about how he approaches his work as a fitness trainer as an act of service and how he would love to act in Bollywood movies, “preferably as a villain since they seem to have all the fun”, but I will save that for another time.

For now, let this sublime truth sink in that if one wants to acquire extreme all-round fitness in a hurry the kettlebell is tough to beat.

And since I did mention that I had begun training with kettlebells a few weeks ago, in case you are curious to know how far am I from, wearing my underpants on top of my pants, I must confess that I’m still hobbling around with them around my ankles but with perseverance and patience, who knows… I might fly by your window someday… P.S. I must say though that a chronic shoulder injury I picked up while punching a heavy bag, and one that refused to go away no matter what I tried disappeared after a few weeks of kettlebell snatches and presses. So while I can’t vouch for its ability to build super strength just yet, the kettlebell has definitely had a hitherto unclaimed, therapeutic effect on my shoulder.


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