Kettlebells, Calories and the Disgrace of Aerobics


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.

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.

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.

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