Humble weights effective

Mike Fickling, co-owner of Progressive Fitness and a Russian Kettlebell Challenge-certified trainer, says proper form and technique are important to avoid injury and get the maximum benefits out of kettlebells.

Kettlebells came on the national scene about a decade ago and on the local scene about six years ago. And there's good reason the iron orbs with handles are not a fad and have earned a permanent place in fitness clubs, studios and gyms.

Mike Fickling, co-owner of Progressive Fitness in West Ashley and a Russian Kettlebell Challenge-certified trainer, says the kettlebell is “unmatched for being an all-around efficient and effective training tool.”

“The thing about a kettlebell is that, if used properly, you can develop strength, power, flexibility, endurance, fat loss and performance at the same time,” says Fickling. “The efficiency of the bell is what is attractive to us, and more people are realizing that you can get a lot of benefits in a little amount of time.”

I can vouch for it.

Swing a kettlebell, using proper form and technique, for a minute and you will be gassed, sweating and, I might add, energized. And if you're just starting out, you might be sore deep in your glutes for days.

Long before CrossFit gyms sprang up across Charleston, Fickling and his business partner, David Drake, were seeing the fitness benefits of a piece of equipment associated with Russian strongmen of yesteryear, Soviet Union special forces and athletes in the 1970s.

They were among the first to come out of the blocks locally in using them, starting with a training session for their entire staff from an RKC trainer based out of Columbia. Fickling, and now Progressive's Annie Banks, are the only RKC trainers in the Charleston area, according to the website of RKC's parent company, Dragon Door.

Fickling says that learning how to use kettlebells properly, however, is not innate. All you need to do is to witness someone swinging a kettlebell to understand that the ballistic nature of the exercise has potential for danger.

“I see people in gyms using them as a dumbbell, but they are clearly not a dumbbell,” says Fickling. “They are an unbalanced load that is specifically designed to swing. ... It's a quick snap, explosive energy, but also with whip-like, relaxed tension. There are really no other lifts like it.”

While he recommends Pavel Tsatsouline's “Enter the Kettlebell!” book and Dragon Door DVDs, he says having an experienced trainer review the fitness level and past injuries, figure out a plan based on personal goals, and check for proper form would be a good idea.

And while the kettlebell has a ballistic side, it also has “a grind,” or exercises that are slow and heavy and aimed more at building strength.

In recent years, more emphasis has been placed on the importance of core strength.

For most people, core primarily means working the abdominals, which, as a result, can get stronger at the expense of other, even more important, muscles of the core.

“Most people work on their anterior channel, or their 'beach muscles,' ” says Fickling. “Kettlebells make you very strong in your posterior channel, the hamstrings and glutes, the muscle you see when people are walking away from you and the ones they don't see in the mirror. But the general population is very weak in their posterior channel.”

With the rise of kettlebell use in the United States, many sports medicine researchers have been studying the humble piece of equipment with mixed results.

In January 2010, the American College of Sports Medicine released the results of a study by University of Wisconsin-La Crosse comparing kettlebells with running on a treadmill and weightlifting for heart rate and oxygen consumption.

The 10 subjects, both males and females ranging in age from 29 to 46, were all experienced in using kettlebells, and performed a 20-minute workout.

Using oxygen consumption as a measure, researchers estimated calorie burn of the kettlebell workout at 20.2 calories per minute, which is equivalent to running a six-minute mile.

Wisconsin-LaCrosse researcher John Porcari said, “The only other thing (activity) I could find that burns more calories is cross-country skiing uphill at a fast pace.”

Reach David Quick at 937-5516 or dquick@postandcourier.com.