So much so, that there has even been a backlash against the hyperbolic claims made by some about how these hunks of metal with purposefully crude handles can turn you into a superhuman strength machine more efficiently than any other item.
Recently I attended a course taught by Jeff Martone, a federal law enforcement officer and trainer who is a true lifelong athlete.
“The ‘90s were a tough decade…” he explained during his introduction to the two-day Tactical Athlete Kettlebell Instructor Course. With multiple shoulder injuries, bad knees and a host of other issues common to those with an active life, Jeff needed some help if he was going to continue putting himself in harm’s way and be responsible for his own safety and that of those on his team. He tried a lot of things but eventually found kettlebells.
Rumors of Russian special operations soldiers secluded in remote locations with nothing more than kettlebells to keep them strong (which might even be true) have become the kind of thing that 12-year-olds post on Internet forums behind monikers like “toughguy37” whenever the topic of fitness comes up.
This kind of reputation tends to create skepticism in many people, to the point that they might not give kettlebells a fair look. My first opportunity to learn about kettlebells back in 2003 suffered from just such a response.
Even some people who haven’t been jaded by the claims of overzealous kettlebell proponents might look at the exercises and say things like, “Why couldn’t I do that with a dumbbell?” They might say even worse after watching the first couple demonstrations of the hip movement during a typical kettlebell swing. The phrase “like a jack-rabbit” was used by a female student to describe one of Martone’s more rapid demonstrations.
All the grandiose claims and non-traditional exercises aside, there is no doubt that for Jeff Martone, kettlebells used properly are an incredibly efficient choice for those looking to build what has come to be known as “Functional Fitness.” This is the concept that all of your exercise should be directed toward movements and actions that benefit you in your realworld daily activities, not just specialized or isolated motions (like a bench press or long-distance running).
The concept, which has been developed, propagated and effectively taught by the CrossFit Community, is so exemplified by kettlebell workouts that Cross- Fit promoted and sponsored the Tactical Athlete Course I attended.
Jeff credits his current level of fitness and impressive strength with the work he started doing with kettlebells about a decade ago. He has built a reputation for teaching people how to use them to strengthen their own bodies, become more capable and generally healthier in a very efficient way through his company, Tactical Athlete.
I first met Jeff at a training conference several years ago. At the time, I had only been superficially aware of kettlebells and really hadn’t “gotten it” yet. At the conference, I attended his session, which actually covered exercising with D-Balls, another efficient exercise tool that’s a sort of cousin to kettlebells. I was very impressed with Jeff and the efficiency he brought to fitness, and had been looking forward to training with him again.
As I’m getting (much) closer to 40 years of age, I’m taking my own fitness, and that of my students, more seriously, so this opportunity to train and learn how to teach was one I couldn’t pass up.
Every year, Tactical Athlete offers training at various locations, many in conjunction with CrossFit. Jeff focuses on simple exercises performed precisely and safely to increase strength, flexibility, accuracy, balance and coordination. “Juggling” kettlebells is not something that was covered in this fundamental certification course, but Jeff did do a couple of short demonstrations of his ability to throw, flip, spin and catch heavy chunks of metal with crude handles in what looked like an amazingly effortless way.
For us and our future students, we stuck to simple movements: kettlebell swings, cleans, snatches and presses. Outside of the swings, which use power generated mostly by the hips to move the bell from between your legs to chest height or straight overhead, many of the exercises share names and mechanics with Olympic- style weightlifting. This type of lifting combines strength, coordination and balance in specific ways to create functional power.
TURKISH GET UP
The centerpiece of the exercises taught in the course is the Turkish Get Up, a fullbody exercise that truly tests the limits of balance and strength. Jeff told us that one student asked which muscle groups the exercise actually works, and he replied, “After you do it, tell me which one it doesn’t work!”
You start a TGU lying flat on the ground with a kettlebell of appropriate weight held in one hand vertically at your side, with your elbow on the ground. After pressing the kettlebell up to a straightarm over-the-shoulder position, you then sit up, move to kneeling, stand up straight and reverse the process until you are lying flat on your back again.
Some people reading this might have trouble doing those motions without a kettlebell. According to Jeff, when you can do it with a 100-pound bell, with either hand, you’re good to go. How heavy can Jeff go? Well, he demonstrated a TGU with a student who weighed 135 pounds. You read that right—he performed a proper TGU with a human being holding onto his arm. And that was his left arm!
You probably don’t want to try that right away. I’d suggest starting with a 25- to 35-pound bell for the average guy, and 15 to 20 pounds for the average woman. So far, I have managed to TGU a 53-pound bell and an eight-year-old girl of undetermined weight. Lots of work ahead if I want to meet Russian Strong Man standards!
The course itself, which was held at Atlas CrossFit in Chicago, was a really pleasant way to spend two days “fitnessing.” Personally, I owe 95% of any semblance of good fitness or performance that I have to genetics. I have will-powered my way through sports, workouts, obstacle courses, extreme close-quarters tactics scenarios and most real-world tests of strength and stamina despite a disdain for exercising, poor diet choices, habitual lack of sleep and a preference for reading books over running laps.
CrossFit woke me up to its potential for efficient exercise that offers significant return for the time invested. Kettlebells are an important piece of the Functional Fitness concept. We spent two full days moving bells around dynamically and I never felt bored or exhausted or caught myself looking at the clock hoping it was all going to end soon. Jeff is a very entertaining and engaging teacher. Once you get past his “non-regional dialect” (which he apologizes for ten minutes into the course), his explanations of each important point are easy to follow and make sense to anyone who has performed physical skills.
There is no doubt that the course is truly Instructor Development and not just a two-day workout. Each exercise was approached from a step-by-step perspective, and Jeff shared the typical common errors and corrective drills necessary to fix them. Too often, “instructor courses” that were really just high level end-user, or what I call “demonstrator development” programs have frustrated me. This was not one of those. The morning of Day Two offered a couple hours of lecture on Program Development and the Fundamentals of Teaching Motor Skills.
The course ended with a performance test that required all attendees to go through all of the exercises covered in the course. Prior to the test itself, the class broke up into groups to review and perfect their techniques. From my perspective, this was as much of a test as anything, because each participant needed to coach others and identify errors, just like we’ll do with our own students when we teach.
Jeff also teaches end-user courses under his Tactical Athlete banner, and he has certified instructors all over the world sharing the fundamentals of kettlebell fitness. He has written articles on the topic, produced several videos and is working on a book. There is a lot of information about kettlebells available on the Internet as well.
If you’re looking for a scalable, relatively quick way to improve your functional fitness, kettlebells and the Tactical Athlete programs are great choices.