Kettlebells: A hot new exercise equipment

From Paris Hilton to Parris Island, one of the hottest workouts for fitness enthusiasts today employs one of the oldest pieces of gym equipment around.

Kettlebells, ranging from 7 to 200 pounds, look more like something shot out of the business end of a cannon rather than equipment in a typical weight room. Originally used to whip soldiers and bodybuilders into shape, kettlebell training has re-emerged as an efficient way to burn fat, tone muscle and get a cardio-workout simultaneously.

"All the stars are doing it," says Ray Anderson, owner of Allentown, Pa.'s Personal Fitness Ltd. "It's probably the only workout in which each exercise works nearly every muscle set in the body."

Anderson, 50, teaches a weekly kettlebell class on the second floor of his spartan Allentown, Pa., venue, drawing students - from as far away as New Jersey - who seek flat tummies, sculpted biceps and strong thighs.

Kettlebells consist of a cast iron-based "bell" attached to two "horns," connected by a handle. Exercises include a variety of lunges, push-ups, presses, swings and squats, all designed to raise the heart rate and target major muscle groups.

"It's not uncommon to lose 30-50 pounds in three months," says Anderson, a former 1st Class Naval officer, who speaks on his regime's weight-loss potential with authority.

Anderson spent more than two decades overseeing the military's "obesity farm" before opening his own gym, first in Virginia Beach and now in the Lehigh Valley.

"The Navy has zero tolerance (for obesity)," Anderson says. "If soldiers didn't lose weight in my class, they were out of a job."

However, Anderson is a gentle giant when it comes to helping civilians tone up and lose weight. Success stories include one patron who dropped 94 pounds in 90 days. Another, training under Anderson's associate Nancy Witzel, lost more than 160 pounds in a year, saving her from gastric bypass surgery.

Though many athletes use kettlebell training to "bulk up" or increase muscle mass, Anderson says his classes are less about becoming muscle-bound and more about achieving that lean, "Greek god" look.

Hour-long classes include several periods of intense exercises, each followed by water breaks. Students wishing to stretch must do so before or after the highly focused class.

In addition, the class is conducted without the often cloying, high-energy "workout" music that thumps through other gyms.

"For this class, it's best to focus on your own body's rhythm," Anderson says.

Class is far from silent, however. As Anderson demonstrates one exercise after another, he stops only to correct students' form. As moves become more advanced, smiles, then groans, are passed among the several participants in the deliberately small class.

"Music can be distracting," Anderson says. "Focusing on each exercise ensures correct performance, thereby reducing risk of injury."

Focus also prevents "cheating." Anderson constantly encourages proper body and weight alignment. "When you don't cut corners on an exercise, you get a lot more out of it," he says.

Both standing and floor exercises are performed, incorporating kettlebells in a variety of ways, including as support for push-ups.

Anderson admits a certain degree of coordination is required for beginners, but with a little coaching and practice, most students are orbiting kettlebells around the shoulders and passing them, figure-eight style, around the thighs.

"It's one of the oldest workouts around," he says," and one of the best."