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Heavy Lifting

Vermont kettlebellers throw their weights around


Published April 29, 2009 at 10:07 a.m.

When you first hear the word “kettlebell,” it conjures up an image of bovines on an alpine slope, or perhaps Will Ferrell’s gyrating gut in a “Saturday Night Live” skit. But the kettlebell isn’t a cowbell; it’s a cast-iron weightlifting device. The only “music” you’re likely to hear as practitioners hoist the bowling-ball-like things around is a cacophony of hissing and grunting. Still, lifters’ faces do often have a Ferrell-like look of intense focus.

The kettlebell, purportedly invented by the Russians in the 17th century, looks like a rudimentary cannonball with a handle. The weights come in increments of 18, 26, 35, 44, 53, 70 and 90 pounds, and were traditionally used by the Russian military for strength training. More recently, kettlebells have gained some Vermonter aficionados, a few of whom go through their paces on the Statehouse lawn with Calais-based trainer Abdul Mujib.

With the weight held in both hands, kettlebellers, or gireviks, practice controlled movements — lunges, squats and lifts. The point of the exercise regimen is to condition and strengthen the whole body at once, rather than to build up specific muscles such as abs, pecs or glutes.

KB workouts are short, typically about 40 minutes, and are as intense and low-tech as you can get. The technique is deceptively straightforward. Kettlebellers manipulate the weights as they squat, swing and juggle. The trick is to avoid dropping the weight on your foot.

Mujib, a Maryland native and founder of North Country Kettlebells, says you could try this at home in front of a YouTube video. But if you want to avoid injury, you’d be better off paying him a small fee to attend one of four weekly workshops he offers in central Vermont.

At a session last week in a shady corner of the Statehouse lawn — a site he chose for its high visibility — Mujib, 23, coached four other twentysomething males on the finer points of kettlebell technique. The men, dressed in T-shirts and workout pants, each gripped a 35- or 70-pound weight with both hands and proceeded to squat, letting the kettlebell swing between their legs, and then, in one motion, they stood up, thrusting their hips forward and lifting the weight up to their chests. As they began the 10-repetition countdown, they inhaled and exhaled deeply, hissing as they released air through their teeth and stared forward in concentration. Mujib kept track of the reps and timed the lifters’ short breaks. Then they counted 10 more reps. By the time the swing workout was over, the kettlebellers had practiced the move 110 times.

As his students rested, Mujib exhorted them to put more “crack into that hip pop.”

The men caught their breath for a few minutes, sipped at water bottles, and shook out their legs before continuing on to the next kettlebell maneuver, called the “clean and jerk.” Then they assumed a similar squat position, but this time held the kettlebell out at shoulder level when they reached the top of the swing.

“Yeah, you got it,” Mujib enthused as Goddard College student Tom Hamilton worked on his positioning. Hamilton has been kettlebelling since December; his compatriots, brothers Jacob, Justin and Jonathan Finsen from Northfield, have been training for more than six months.

Their fearless leader is a rather unlikely-looking disciple of the popular Russian sport. No beefy jock, Mujib is a bantam-sized guy with an unruly mop of dreads; he carries his 5-foot-6-inch, 130-pound frame with quiet confidence. Despite his compact size, Mujib pulls his weight. Literally. He’s been a practicing kettlebell lifter for six years and can now swing a 70-pounder with ease. His strength, he says, comes from “pulling your whole body together as one unit against this external force.”

Mujib has trained at a program run by one of the two top international kettlebell coaches: Pavel Tsatsouline, a Russian émigré who has promoted the sport in the United States and runs a kettlebell center in St. Paul, Minnesota. The former Soviet military special-forces trainer is also a champion lifter. (The other international trainer, Kenneth Jay, is a Dane who works with Olympic swimmers.) Stripped to the waist in a photo on his website, Tsatsouline shows off his sinewy frame and hairy pecs and points at viewers like Uncle Sam in World War II “I Want You” posters. The site touts his books, newsletters and videos with titles such as Power by Pavel (for men) and From Russia with Tough Love (for women). Tsatsouline also promotes his coast-to-coast network of Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) certified trainers. Mujib is one of two in northern New England.

Mujib’s discipline isn’t limited to kettlebell training. He holds down a day job, as a full-time cook at McGillicuddy’s Irish Pub in Montpelier, and on weekends helps run a Calais-based survival-skills program called ROOTS. Between these two gigs, Mujib holds kettlebell classes and demonstrations at Snap Fitness in Berlin, Xenergy in East Montpelier, the Plainfield Community Center and — depending on weather — the Statehouse lawn. Training classes cost $20 to $30 per session; demonstrations are $10 to $15. The kettlebells live in his car.

Mujib’s connection with the sport was accidental. He dabbled with weightlifting in high school, but it wasn’t until a friend in Maryland contracted leukemia and began lifting kettlebells to build his strength that, in solidarity, Mujib started training, too. Five years later, his friend had recovered from cancer and could bend rebar with his bare hands. “I pretty much saw … that kettlebells can create health from nothing, that they took my friend who was deathly weak and enabled him to become strong,” Mujib said.

He was hooked. About a year ago, Mujib obtained his first RKC training certification at Tsatsouline’s center in Minnesota, and is gearing up for his second level.

Kettlebell lifting is big in California, where there are 17 RKC trainers, but the sport hasn’t taken New England by storm … yet. If Mujib has anything to do with it, though, kettlebells will become a standard personal-training component at every fitness center in the state. He believes it’s an attractive, less time-consuming alternative to traditional weightlifting and can help build the strength needed for rigorous endeavors such as long-distance running.

“Kettlebell training makes you stronger and it doesn’t bulk you up,” Mujib declares. “It teaches you how to move your body the way it wants to move.”