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A Gym In Your Hand

Wednesday, April 27, 2011

Spencer's Julie Elsbecker completed the Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) in St. Paul April 15 -17 to become a certified RKC instructor. She introduced kettlebell workouts at the YMCA four years ago and teaches kettlebell classes daily.
(Photo by Michael Fischer)
There's a way to sculpt your body, build endurance, improve your cardio, increase strength, and it fits in the palm of your hand. You don't need much space or time, either. Sounds too good to be true? Not if your willing to commit to working out with Russian kettlebells.

All you need is 45 minutes, three times a week, and Julie Elsbecker will have you whipped into shape. Elsbecker could be considered the torch-bearer for the "kettlebell invasion" of Spencer. She started teaching a kettlebell class at the Spencer Family YMCA about four years ago, and now she's more passionate, and more knowledgeable, than ever before.

"The things kettlebells can do you for you are endless," Elsbecker said. "It's a fat burner, it's body sculpting, it's for all ages. Everyone can benefit from it. I was a runner prior to starting this but I've never been this fit."

The kettlebell is 300-year old fitness device which experts claim is "the ultimate tool for extreme all-around fitness." A kettlebell is a cast iron weight resembling a cannonball with a handle. It's become more popular in the United States over the past decade thanks to Russian Pavel Tsatsouline (simply known as Pavel), who is credited with the "kettlebell invasion" starting in 1998. It gained attention in America in 2001 when Pavel was featured in Rolling Stone magazine. Today, it's a top fitness tool used by expert trainers in their workouts. It's a successful training tool in every sport, at every level, for every age.

Elsbecker was introduced to kettlebells about four years ago by a friend, and saw first-hand the physical changes in some acquaintances, who had done nothing different other than use the new fitness tool. She learned the basics and bought a few kettlebells. They come in many sizes but most of the ones featured in Elsbecker's class are 12 kg to 24 kg (26 lbs to 53 pounds).

Turned on by the possibilities of kettlebell training, Elsbecker brought it to the Spencer YMCA and was given the opportunity to start her own class. When performing the workout, instruction and form are essential. So much so that this past weekend, Elsbecker completed a rigorous certification course in St. Paul to be an official Russian Kettlebell Challenge (RKC) instructor.

"I'm on such a high from this past weekend," Elsbecker said. "It's not all about me, it's about being able to help others. I learned about the safety, technique, respect and best workouts to use for everyone. When I started on my own four years ago, it was a lot of trial and error. My classes and I have learned together, and they've also been my cheerleaders. Whether they liked it or not, they were training with me to get ready for the intense training over the weekend."

The full weekend, Friday through Sunday, of training and teaching is not for the faint of heart. Lasting 23 hours over three days, the participants in the certification process must complete a strict course of "swings, snatches, and squats" with the kettlebell. You also learn the proper techniques from Pavel himself, along with RKC Team Leaders, and instruct others on proper form. Roughly about 70 percent of the people involved in the challenge pass with the certification.

One of the tasks before the people trying to get the certification is 100 snatches in five minutes. A snatch is when you pick up the kettlebell, swing it back between your legs, and lift, or "snatch," it overhead in one uninterrupted motion to a straight-arm lockout. Elsbecker had to use a 12 kg kettlebell, which is standard for women under 123 pounds. A man over 132 pounds uses a 24 kg kettlebell during the RKC. One hundred snatches in five minutes is not an easy task. And that was one of the first things to complete on Friday. A flexed-arm hang is another task to complete.

"Saturday was an intense day," Elsbecker said. "It was non-stop and constant, and because it was instructor certification, they were showing us not only on ourselves, but how to help other people."

Sunday was more instruction and practice, which led to a test over five movements within each group. One of the last things of the weekend was to instruct a "new client" and teach them the basics of kettlebells for 45 minutes. All done under the watchful eye of Pavel and his RKC Team Leaders.

Elsbecker's RKC Team Leader was Phil Ross, a fitness expert and martial arts instructor from New Jersey. Ross has a 7th degree black belt to go along with his RKC 2 status and his certification as a Certified Kettlebell- Function Movement Specialist (CK-FMS), which is necessary to be considered as a RKC Team Leader. He got into kettlebells while training with former UFC champion Frank Shamrock back in 2005. Since then, Ross, a former competitive power lifter, stopped lifting and uses kettlebells exclusively.

"To pass the certification test is not easy," Ross said. "It's a grueling weekend. You really have to know what you're doing. I call the snatch test a 'weeder.' It sort of weeds out some of the people because it's so demanding. We want to get them to the point where they're tired so they have to use the technique."

Elsbecker, a mother of five, stands about 5-feet 2-inches tall and is well under the 120 pound requirement for the 12 kg kettlebell. Her small stature didn't hamper her passing the lifting and endurance tests.

"I never judge a book by its cover," Ross said. "I get to know the person first. (Julie) impressed me. She was very willing to learn, took correction well and had impeccable technique."

Some people may be intimidated by the mere fact the workout includes lifting a heavy kettlebell and swinging it around. But there's nothing to be scared of, Elsbecker said. The motto written on a whiteboard in the dance studio at the YMCA where the class is held says "Kettlebells aren't dangerous, people are! Handle with respect."

"There are a lot of misconceptions about kettlebells," Elsbecker said. "You just have to have proper instruction. Anything can be bad for you if you're not doing it correctly. That's why I wanted to get this certification. You don't have to be into fitness to benefit from it. It's not a weightlifting class. Everything is controlled and connected, and that's why it's such a great total body workout."

So what makes Elsbecker and Ross so passionate about this Russian workout? It's the benefits it can provide, incorporating strength training, cardiovascular endurance, posture, stretching, and body transformation all into a 40-45 minute workout. You don't need a big time commitment in order to see results. It features body synergy and targets your core, which improves back and overall strength. And it's about helping other people achieve goals, all with this simple weight that's dubbed "a gym in your hand." Ross said it may sound corny but it's true.

"When you benefit from something, it's your job to pass it along to others," Ross said. "I love teaching and instructing it. It's for all ages. I've got my 72-year old mother swinging kettlebells. If you don't have a lot of time to work out, learn to swing a bell."

Elsbecker wants to help others as well, from young athletes to grandparents who just want to be able to pick up their grandkids. She also wants to start training her entire family with kettlebells. It can benefit everyone and because it's a full-body workout, no matter what you want to improve, kettlebells can help.

"I want to be able to help people reach their goals, whether that's in athletics, getting in shape, getting their body back after a pregnancy, or just getting out of a chair," Elsbecker said. "It just makes you feel so good. The feeling is contagious."

It sounds like the "invasion" is here to stay.

Elsbecker currently teaches a kettlebell class every morning at the YMCA, starting at 5:30 or 5:45. She plans to add more classes this spring and will be starting personal training sessions as well.

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Zach Jevne
Real Sports Talk
Zach joined the Daily Reporter staff as sports editor in March 2011. He is originally from Decorah, Iowa. He played baseball at University of Northern Iowa and studied multimedia journalism at Simpson College.