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Fit to be tried: Kettlebells

IT looks like a convict's ball with a handle instead of a chain, dates back to 18th-century Russia and has helped one happy Dublin woman drop two wedding-dress sizes.

Meet the kettlebell. Once the preserve of musclebound strongmen, this latest fitness trend is now a favourite of health-conscious celebrities such as Penelope Cruz, Jessica Biel, Matthew McConaughey and our own TV presenter Blathnaid Ni Chofaigh, who says the training is a health boost.

"My energy levels have risen and I feel toned all over," Ms Ni Chofaigh smiles. "And with a group it's more fun -- except if you laugh you might drop a kettlebell on your toe."

Like many women, I don't know much about weightlifting and give it a miss at the gym, where it seems to be the domain of posturing men in strange belts.

I do have a kettlebell at home, but so far the eight-kilogram ball has made an excellent paperweight.

But Christmas is coming, and it's time to make a pre-emptive strike, so with visions of a butt like Biel's and the curves of Cruz I blow off the dust and grab this weight. I'm told this is a good workout to get into at home, if you know what you're doing.

"It's the ultimate piece of home-gym equipment -- one piece that will train the whole body and really strengthens your core and back," says Shane Nicoletti, of Kettlebells Ireland.

But despite his enthusiasm and my attempts to follow the routines on some borrowed DVDs of kettlebell workouts, the results aren't too impressive.

This isn't helped by me noticing all the dust on the floor as I bend to lift the weight, even though I tell myself fitness is more important than housekeeping. Then the sight of all those grunting fellas on the screen makes me thirsty and it's time for a cuppa. And of course that scone just has to be eaten or it will go stale.

The moral is that while home workouts are good for the motivated, it can be hard to stay focused when you're solo so it's worth signing up for a class.

Kettlebells Ireland is a good place to start, and they will point you to a national line-up of qualified trainers so you can find someone in your area.

"It's best to start out with simple exercises," says Shane Nicoletti (39) who gained his kettlebell expertise in the US.

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So begins my inauguration into a series of tough exercises with cute names like the snatch and the windmill.

Most dreaded is the Turkish get-up -- a cruel torture where you sit on the ground with your leg tucked under you, seagull-like, and then scramble up, one hand raised above your head holding the kettlebell. This doesn't sound too bad until you're told you can't use your spare hand to push yourself up for balance.

Kettlebells are more challenging than hefting barbells or free weights, because the weight is much less static. Promoters say you use up to 600 muscles, including those in your arms, shoulders and core stabilisers, to maintain balance because the centre of mass is offset from the handle.

Mr Nicoletti demonstrates the snatch with a graceful flick of the wrist. It involves squatting, swinging the bell up from between your legs and spinning the kettlebell as you reach up your arm and stand up straight. The effort of the workout gets your heart pumping and your legs shaking.

Mr Nicoletti says a growing number of sports clubs, including GAA, soccer and rugby, are incorporating kettlebell routines into their training.

Supporters claim a well-conditioned person can burn up to 1,500 calories an hour, compared with 300-400 calories an hour for normal weightlifting or an aerobics class.

"One of my clients had to have her wedding dress taken in two sizes after training with me coming up to her wedding day, but she wasn't complaining," says Mr Nicoletti.

Many of the kettlebell workouts are held outdoors, including during the winter months. "But don't worry, you'll be warm within two minutes, and that's a promise," says one trainer.

It's a whole new spin on putting the kettle on.

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