We Don't Just Train You Harder...
We Train You Smarter

Kettlebells by The Number

Jennifer Imsande
Former Division I 400-800 meter hurdler/sprinter Hall of Famer
Busy Mother and University Professor

A couple of years ago, I started to get really frustrated with my running and with The Legs, as they like to be called. Although I stayed fit and continued to race after college, training had started to feel like ditch-digging - and without the ditch to show for it. I injured too often, fatigued too easily, and recovered from hard workouts too slowly. Also, I had two children and accepted a demanding job that I love. In my twenties I could burn hours each day pursuing fitness and strength; now I can't. Then Jon Engum convinced me to try Russian kettlebells, and I will be in his debt for a long, long time. Finding kettlebells was like finally finding exactly the right key to open the door I wanted open.

Why? Most athletes I know pay attention to numbers (times, splits, distances, hours, pounds, miles) more than words. So here, by-the-number, are my reasons why anyone who wants to run, cycle, swim or multi-sport faster should try Russian kettlebell.

81 - The number of seconds that I hacked off my personal record in my first 5K of this season. For runners at my age and performance level, that kind of break-through is rather unusual. More bizarrely, I had reduced my weekly mileage by half this year. Granted, I'm cross-training with cycling and swimming, but cycling and swimming cannot account for that kind of improvement.

12 - The number of people in my local running/triathlon/cycling group who want to start kettlebell training because they know that cycling and swimming can't account for that kind of improvement.

0 - The number of training-related foot and leg injuries I've had since starting kettlebell. (Yes, I still trip a lot, but kettlebell cannot solve my every problem.) I do kettlebell barefoot, and it seems to be training my muscles to generate greater forces while simultaneously giving me greater range-of-motion. Strong, flexible muscles are less prone to strains, pulls and tears.

25 - the number of hours each week that my training partner - named best female triathlete in the Tri-Minnesota Racing Series for 2006 -- devoted last year to preparing for Wisconsin Ironman. This year she's taking the summer off from serious training and racing. In fact, she's barely taking her bike out of the garage. But she just completed a sprint triathlon "for fun" in St. Cloud, Minnesota and her cycling and swimming times are exactly where they were last year when she was at her fitness peak.  She attributes this phenomenon to starting kettlebell in the winter. As she gears up for her 2008 Ironman training cycle, she's decided to put kettlebells at the center of her base training program.

2 - the rows of abdominal muscles that I can now see on my stomach...even though I've not done a traditional crunch or sit-up since starting kettlebell. Yes, it's a 4-pack and not a 6- pack and the light needs to be right, but I'm still happy to show them to anyone who asks nicely. I haven't encountered a kettlebell lift that doesn't require and build extraordinary core muscle strength. This is the kind of strength that cyclists, in particular, need. When climbing hills cyclists need to exert great force down on the pedals and simultaneously exert great core and upper body strength pulling the handle-bars. If that doesn't happen, downward force is dissipated and the cyclist...well, that cyclist is no angel on the hills.

12 - the average percent by which strength-trained cyclists increased their lactate thresholds in a University of Maryland study. According to Joe Friel, author of Triathlete's Training Bible, this means that "subjects could ride farther at a given intensity level after following a leg- strength program for a few weeks." Studies have shown that strength training increases the time to aerobic exhaustion. According to Friel, it helps by strengthening slow-twitch, endurance muscles. Those muscles can then carry greater workloads. This means that you won't need to rely as early or often on fast- twitch power muscles at high effort. Studies also show that strength-training improves economy of motion -- which reduces the amount of oxygen you need to expend at sub-maximal efforts. I've cribbed most of this from Friel's book, which you should read yourself. But if you're an endurance athlete and you've avoided strength

training, he's going to tell you that you're dumb. Be forewarned.

1,500 - roughly the number of square feet in my home. I don't have room for cardio or weight equipment. I keep my bike rollers and my kettlebells. I can get an amazing cardio workout and certainly the best strength workout of my life with only one 12K bell - so small that the person who cleans my house mistook it for door stoppers and polished it. I've been trying to get the residue off ever since.

2 - The number of children that I have. And I work full-time. My training/kettlebell partner has five boys under the age of 8, and is finishing her teaching degree. We, and our families, don't have time for inefficient or time-intensive strength programs. Our lives are better when we don't have to drive to a weight room, and when our kids can play in the yard while we train. Of course, they play far away because the kettlebells swing fast and hard and it is just not cool to brain your own child.

200 - the number of snatches that I completed during my first 10 minute kettlebell snatch test.

200 - my heart rate (I'm pretty sure) while I was doing that 10 minute snatch test. A 5K has always felt to me like someone (let's just say an older brother named Jay) holding my head under water for 19 minutes and sometimes remembering to let me up for air. I'm not mystified why hill-workouts and running 5Ks seem a lot easier after a year of kettlebell.

2 - the number of pounds that I've lost since starting kettlebells...and I didn't want to lose the weight. Many women, with endurance athletes, avoid strength training because they fear gaining mass. You can put that fear aside and concentrate on more realistic concerns - like getting struck by lightening. Jon Engum can explain why. And in the bizarre event that an endurance athlete gains mass while doing kettlebell, the increased power will offset the increased mass to carry.

In the end, why do kettlebells instead of traditional weight-lifting that is patterned on body- building? Again, Joe Friel says it better than I can. "The triathlete or duathlete needs to improve the synchronization and recruitment patterns of muscle groups, not their size and shape. This means that resistance work must not only develop the muscles, but also the central nervous system which controls muscle use." Kettlebell work fits that bill. The lifts are all dynamic, multiple-lever movements that require coordination and rely on major muscle groups. It's training as far removed as you can get from doing a bicep curl and thinking it will help you perform better.

(Parting Word of Caution: Some individuals should not train with kettlebells. Specifically, if you are an individual against whom I might compete in the future, you should stick to your traditional training methods. Kettlebells might be ruinous to your health.)

Enjoy Your Kettlebells, and Go Well, Jennifer