Thursday, October 17, 2013


In a forgettable film named Enough but in a memorable role as the furiously fisty, super toned mom-on-the-run, Slim, Jennifer Lopez, with that final flourish of a front kick that sent her abusive husband to his death, introduced Krav Maga to the league of the bruised and the battered. This Israeli martial art that emerged from the shadow of the Holocaust and emboldened a nation, becoming the chosen self-defense system for not just soldiers and law-enforcement agencies but for the whole nation – children, women and even the elderly. Today, it has spread all over the globe and is practiced with a view to improving not just one’s skills for staying safe on the streets but increasingly for its unique health and fitness benefits.

And this brings us to our rungs in the countdown for this week. First up, at number four, we have the striking arts. If you keep aspects of self defense aside (martial arts like boxing, kick boxing and muay thai are sports while Krav Maga is designed to keep one safe. Consequently, the most vulnerable parts of the body – eyes, throat and groin, are off limits in the former and the express targets in the latter), the striking arts, collectively, those martial systems that predominantly encourage striking with punches, kicks, elbows and knees, as opposed to grappling, like in wrestling or throwing, like in judo or groundwork, like in Brazilian jiujitsu (Krav maga has a bit of groundwork in its syllabus, but most of the time is spent on one’s feet in a Krav maga gym) – offer a tremendous all-round workout.

As a fitness workout, kickboxing, muay thai or thai boxing, krav maga and boxing have a unique edge over most other conventional workouts. A striking art challenges the body to exert balance, power and stamina, all in one intense workout. This is accomplished by going up against two unrelenting opponents – the timer and the punching bag (subject to the kind of strike being practiced, it could be a focus mitt, seed bag, strike pad or a heavy bag).

In most gymnasiums that use a martial art as a fitness tool, trainers use a combination of shuttle runs, calisthenics and bag-work (martialart speak for pounding away against a bag), and I kid you not, the intensity wastes you like few thing under the sun can.

I remember the first time I did a partner drill on a focus mitt (it’s those big padded gloves that trainers wear to help their wards develop striking proficiency against moving targets at different ranges), wherein one holds the bag for a minute while the other pounds away, and then we switch… and we were supposed to total ten minutes, which is just five alternate minutes each, but by the 50th second in round one, your insides are screaming ‘fire’. By the third minute, your veins feel like they are filled with liquid lead and your lungs with magma. Your kidneys beat like your heart and your heart feels like it will explode in your head… but don’t be alarmed. If it doesn’t kill you, and in all likelihood, as long as your doctor has told you that you are fit to exercise, it won’t, then it will definitely make you stronger. And strength in this context is not limited to the muscles and the bones alone. It also strengthens your heart, and perhaps far more than a round of jogging or aerobics ever could.

And cardiovascular fitness, along with muscular endurance and development, is the hallmark of our selections for this week. And so, entering the medal round, at number three, is the oddball dark horse called the kettlebell which does everything that a ‘martial arts for fitness’ workout can do and then some more.

Now, what is so special about this cannonball with a handle that it has become the weapon of choice for elite special-forces like the Russian Spetsnatz and the United States Secret Service, for martial arts legends like three-time Olympic gold medalist Aleksandr Karelin, and for the man the media anointed as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time – Fedor Emelianenko? But today, it isn’t just the Russians that swear by the bounce in the bell. Movie stars, football stars and athletes from track and field besides the usual suspects - martial artists and commandoes, are lifting kettlebells to achieve an athletic edge or an edgy athletic physique, whatever the purpose might be.

Super chiseled Mathew McConaughey lifts bells to ‘burn fat in a hurry and build muscles’ while Jessica Biel swings one too. And if she can’t convince you about why kettlebells rule, no one else ever will…. Why, even homegrown hunks like Hrithik Roshan have fallen for the bell.

And why are kettlebells so special? Well, for starters, the objective of kettlebell sport isn’t vanity but true-blue fitness. Swinging kettlebells won’t work the vanity muscles – bis, tris and pecs -arms and chest to the uninitiated, as much as conventional gym workouts would. But what it would do is work the muscles that we need the most to live long and live strong – the heart, the shoulder girdle, the back, all the way from the traps to the glutes, the core muscles and the legs. Steel grip forearms are a bonus. If you do it right, not only will you avoid injuries but would end up rehabilitating old ones. Secondly, unlike ‘the bigger (in inches or tonnage) is better’ mindset encouraged around most bench press booths, kettlebells are more about encouraging muscular endurance, correct breathing patterns, and learning how to maximize neural strength by working on the mind-muscle connection. All of this holds both body and mind in better stead as the years hurtle into the 40s.

Last but not the least, the incidental benefit of working on these functional fitness goals is a physique that admittedly looks more at home on a lithe vine-swinging Tarzan than on a ‘roid-raging mountain of muscle like that big green guy from Marvel. The latter makes for a fine spectacle, sure and marvelous strength goals are possible with such a physique. But for most folks, whether you want to show off a pair of jeans, a skirt, even the big green guy’s frayed cut-offs or a leopard printed loin-cloth, the former physique is the one they’d like to hold in their arms, or behold in the mirror. And as far as long term health benefits are concerned, on all fronts - muscular strength and endurance, cardiovascular fitness, flexibility and balance, nothing can beat and only calisthenics can match the completeness of the kettlebell.

So there you have it. As long as the body in balance is what concerns you, kettlebells are pretty much at the top of the pile. Sure calisthenics are great too but they aren’t weight-adjustable to accommodate varying levels of fitness like kettlebells can. So start swinging if that’s all you want.

If you think there’s more to being healthy than just a fit and strong body, then maybe next week’s methods are more up your street. But if Superman is all you want to be (Henry Cavil swings kettlebells too, by the way), all you need to do is wear the right pants, carry your kettlebell and find a phone booth where you can start doing your presses and snatches, and before you know it, your fitness levels will be soaring… up, up and away!

Wouldn’t hurt trying one on for size while you wait, would it?


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