Friday, May 8, 2009

Kettlebells, Calories, Heart-rate Monitors and the Disgrace of Aerobics

This is from a post by Marty Gallagher from his monthly column on I wanted to share it with you so you could see why I feel kettlebells are superior to normal cardio work. Enjoy.

My old friend Pavel Tsatsouline once famously said, (and I paraphrase) "At all cost avoid the disgrace of aerobics." Knowing the man for over a decade I understand his ill feelings towards all seemingly mindless forms of exercise. His vision of "aerobic disgrace" is the Sisyphus-like stationary bike ride to nowhere - or sitting on some glitzy machine that cost more than a small car, mindlessly moving along at a "nice" sub-maximal pace, while watching a built-in TV or perhaps talking with your aerobic neighbor about how great "working out" is or how the local football team is doing. The epitome of "disgraceful" would be a Jane Fonda-type workout where a pack of syncopated sissies would gyrate and contort in a group aerobics dance class to the swinging sounds of Britney Spears or some sugary-sweet pop music. Everyone would wear an outfit and no one would sweat. Pavel's disgrace list would likely include any group event that involved music, hand clapping and decidedly feminine dance routines. Aerobic activity needs to be more than "feeling good" about ourselves and our fitness efforts, aerobic activity needs to be maximally intense, sweaty and preferably done outdoors.

As I've said before, in fitness effort is no substitute for fitness success. Sub-maximal effort is, in this man's opinion, a complete waste of training time. My idea of aerobic exercise is lung-searing, grunt and pant cardio that forces the individual to equal or exceed some sort of limit, keeping in mind that limits can take many forms. I like running or power-walking while toting a heavy weighted pack; also high on the approved aerobic list would be swimming for miles or hoisting heavy objects for protracted periods. My idealized version of cardio exercise is done outside, sans machines and always resulting in sweat being excreted by the bucketful. Beneficial cardio needs to involve extreme exertion. Man is primordially programmed to run and swim: from the beginning of time until the domestication of the horse, men caught and killed wild game on foot in order to survive? How do you think primal man avoided man-eating predators? If primal man was not physically fit, if he were not a capable runner or swimmer, his life expectancy was significantly diminished. Modern man is the inheritor of primal programming and is a natural runner or swimmer; genetically we are preprogrammed for these activities. There is nothing in our exercise DNA that makes us good stationary bike riders or dancers; there is nothing in our genetic makeup that allows us to reap maximum physical results from minimal physical effort.

I cannot tell you how many times over the past decade decidedly fat men have thrown Pavel's quote in my face when I have suggested that a little cardio activity might do them a world of good...

Me: "Look here my good fellow; you are fifty pounds overweight and you huff and puff like you've just run a marathon after walking up three flights of stairs. You should consider adding a bit of cardio activity to your kettlebell regimen to improve your deficient circulatory efficiency."

Them: "Pavel says aerobics are disgraceful! (Belch!) Besides I hate cardio!"

Why I would never have guessed. Basically Pavel's words are being twisted by the decidedly unfit to provide themselves a 'get-out-of-jail-free without doing cardio trump card.' How can you argue with this kind of logic? As someone once said, "a man convinced against his will is of the same opinion still." For this reason I don't spend a lot of time trying to convince the unrepentant unfit that they need some applied cardio exercise - this reluctance to embrace cardio is doubly ironic: unbeknownst to the aggressively unfit, they already possess one of the greatest cardio devices ever invented: the kettlebell.

Used intelligently, i.e., for high reps and for an extended exercise periods of time, the uber-simplistic kettlebell becomes the AK-47 of cardio devices. Factually and mathematically, a properly used kettlebell trumps the aerobic benefit derived from uber-expensive aerobic machines or the pump-and-groove-step-aerobic class.

In recent years I have worked with obese individuals in an attempt to introduce them to a humane approach towards fitness. One of the goals of any comprehensive fitness regimen is cardiovascular health. When the circulatory system is systematically "exercised," organ functionality and overall health improves. The heart and lungs are muscles and like any other and when routinely exercised they are strengthened and their pumping power is improved. Intense cardio sends torrents of blood rushing down arterial highways, cleansing and cleaning as the blood-flood blasts through the miles and miles of internal plumbing.

➢ How do we exercise the circulatory system?
➢ Systematically elevate the heart rate for a protracted period
➢ How do we lose body fat?
➢ Synchronize cardio exercise with cleaned up food selections and gradually reduce caloric intake

Invoke and pay homage to the four bullet points and do so for a decent period of time and excess body fat begins melting faster than ice cubes strewn on a hot concrete sidewalk in mid August.

Recently I have been working with kettlebell trainees to improve various aspects of their performance. To satisfy my own curiosity, I suggested one of my hardcore kettlebell athletes "strap up" with a Polar F4 heart rate monitor during his intense sessions. My idea was to see what sort of cardio impact kettlebell lifting generated. I thought kettlebell lifting would prove to be a dynamic calorie oxidizer. My hunches and suspicions were confirmed when Jim Ski began reporting his results: hoisting heavy kettlebells in a variety of methods, using various exercises, generated a dramatically elevated heart rate. Ski's results pointed out with mathematical certainty that intense and protracted kettlebell training is an aerobic activity without peer. While running and swimming are fabulous cardio activities, and as natural for an athlete as natural can be, lifting heavy weights for high reps burns more calories than either activity.

One critical cardio benchmark, perhaps the critical benchmark is: how many calories per minute are oxidized during a particular exercise? As it turns out, protracted kettlebell hoisting is pretty much in a calorie-per-minute class of its own. The 'burn rates' generated during an extended kettlebell session are nothing short of fantastic. I have reprinted a few sample workouts undertaken by Jim Ski to illustrate the awesome calorie-burning attributes of kettlebell lifting...

Sat., 4/11/09 workout I

Cardio Extended Strength - low weight slung for long durations
Warm-up: 75 Bodyweight squats

Two Hand Swings: 20 swings with 24kg K-Bell: 35 seconds of work alternated with 35 seconds of rest for 40 work/rest cycles
Total Swings: 800, Total Volume: 42,400 lbs.

Duration: 52:45 - including squat warm-ups
Intensity: (High)
Blended session heart rate average: 150 beats per minute for 53 minutes equating to 88.7% of his 169 max HR
Max HR hit during the session: 171 beats per minute
Calories Oxidized per Minute: 15.1 calories per minute were burned for 53 consecutive minutes
Total Calories Oxidized: 805 calories in 52 minutes and 45 seconds (1 calorie for every swing)

Here is another representational kettlebell swing workout: this one was shorter and slightly less intense as expressed in cal/per/minute burn...over 33 minutes Jim averaged a 14.1 calorie-per-minute burn rate.

Fri., 4/24/2009

Warm Up: 51 Bodyweight Squats
2 hand swings 20 swings with a 24kg K-bell - 35 seconds of work / 35 second rest for a total of 25 work/rest cycles
Total Swings: 500, Total Volume: 26,500 lbs.

Duration: 33:01 minutes
Intensity: (Light)
%ARHR: 85.2%
Blended session Heart Rate average: 144 beats per minute for 33 consecutive minutes
Max HR achieved during the session: 165 beats per minute
Calories Oxidized per Minute: 14.2 calories per minute for 33 straight minutes
Total number of Calories Oxidized during the session: 469


Below are the results from a short, 13 minute and 30 second, one hand snatch workout...
Protocol: a single 44 pound kettlebell is snatched singlehandedly -
10 reps left hand, then ten reps right hand, followed by 40 seconds of rest for ten cycles

Snatches @ 20kg 10 left hand reps then 10 right hand reps then rest (40 sec. work / 40 sec. rest) for 10 complete cycles
Total Snatches: 200, Total Volume: 8,800 lbs.

Duration: 13:27 minutes
Intensity: (High)
Session average % of age-related heart rate maximum: 91.1%
Blended session average hear rate: 154 beats per minute
Max HR during session: 165 beat per minute
Calories Oxidized per Minute: 14.9 calories per minute for 13 and one half minutes
Total Calories Oxidized: 194

Note that almost 200 calories were burnt in less than 14 minutes...that is a fabulous burn rate - but it gets even better - keep in mind that on both the dual hand swing exercise and the single-hand snatch exercise half the exercise time was spent resting!

The swing protocol was 35 seconds of work followed by 35 seconds of rest for 49 consecutive minutes; the snatch protocol was 40 seconds of work followed by 40 seconds of rest for 13.5 consecutive minutes. This is astounding - in terms of work and work alone, the 800 calories were burnt in 24 minutes of actual work! Ditto the 44 pound one arm snatches - 200 calories were oxidized during 7 minutes of actual work!

The kettlebell seems to be the perfect tool for generating caloric oxidation: the swing is particularly effective and my theory is that the swing strikes a perfect balance between strength and momentum. There is a rhythm and momentum to properly performed swing technique that is conducive for extended performance. The goal of an effective cardio session is to establish an elevated heart rate and keep the heart rate elevated for an extended period of time. The goal of a sensible cardio session strikes the elusive balance between duration and intensity. The kettlebell swing seems to be the ideal heart-rate spiking exercise in that it is a perfect combination of muscle activation and sustainable momentum. Users are able to ignite dramatically accelerated heart rates yet keep the exercise going for a long period of time.

I would challenge anyone to find any other mode of exercise that can generate a higher, sustainable calories-per-minute burn rate. While you might be able to generate a higher caloric burn rate for a few minutes, try keeping it up for 30 + minutes. Keep in mind that the sustained caloric burn rates I have highlighted were generated by a 50 + year old man weighing 205 pounds - there is zero doubt in my mind that even higher burn rates can be achieved by younger, fitter individuals.

On the other hand without a Polar F4 heart rate monitor you would be unable to determine any of this....I would amend Pavel's famous statement and say - "there is no disgrace in aerobics - provided they are performed in proper sweaty fashion using the AK-47 of exercise tools."

1 comment:

  1. I am a big fan of CrossFit training. One of the key component of any CrossFit exercise is a set of Kettle bells. Up till now, I had been unable to locate Kettle bells in local sports shops. Even my well-equipped gym does not have any Kettle bells. register of exercise professionals courses