The kettlebell is an ancient Russian weapon against weakness.”
― Pavel Tsatsouline
The weights feature a handle with a round base and have been recorded in cultures ranging from the Shaolin monks of ancient China to the wise philosophers of ancient Greece. Known as “ring-handled weights” and “stone padlocks”, these tools from ancient times were used to garner strength and develop the human physique. Even the tribes of Scotland had a version of a weight with a handle that was used in Highland Games.
Although several different cultures around the world developed some variation of the kettlebell weight in their time, it wasn’t until the turn of the 21st century that the fitness training device became a staple in modern workout routines. The new wave of kettlebell enthusiasm erupted in 2001, when Pavel Tsatsouline, a former Soviet Special Forces Instructor, relocated from Belarus to the United States and sparked a revolution in the fitness world. His methods are now incorporated in training regimens for the U.S. Navy SEALs, the U.S. Marines, and the U.S. Army Special Forces, among others. Despite the nearly unanimous conclusion that Tsatsouline popularized kettlebell weights in the West and started the current kettlebell craze, fitness experts are uncertain as to where the kettlebell truly originated in history.
The Russian term for kettlebell weights, giro or girya, first appear in Russian dictionaries dating as far back as 1704, nearly seven decades before the United States declared independence from Great Britain. Historians speculate that the word originated from the Persian word for difficult, “gerani,” and the Slavic word for a bubble, “gur.”
Russian farmers first used the handled objects as counterweights to measure dry goods on scales in the marketplace. The weights were measured in “poods” (about 36.11 pounds), and kettlebells are still measured by the pood in Russia and former Soviet states.
In their free-time, people began throwing the weights for entertainment, and farming festivals embraced the activity as a new type of strongman competition. Athletic farmers would compete by hurling the weights as far as possible to demonstrate their strength and endurance. Other forms of kettlebell competitions began to develop, and eventually, kettlebells became very popular across Russia. To prepare for the games, the kettlebell weights were used for bodybuilding and strength conditioning and were considered a household item across the country.
By 1900, Dr. Vladislav Krayevsky, a Russian physician, was working on what he described as “heavy athletics.” Considered a forefather of the modern fitness gym, he founded the St. Petersburg Amateur Weightlifting Society and created what is now considered the birth of Russian weightlifting. He wrote a book titled “The Development of Physical Strength with Kettlebells and without Kettlebells,” detailing ways to maximize the human body as a tool for strength. As one of the greatest influences of the time, Dr. Krayevsky is credited by the legendary strongman George Hackenschmidt, known as “The Russian Lion,” who claimed the doctor taught him everything he knew about fitness training. Another prolific disciple of Dr. Krayevsky was Eugene Sandow, credited as “The Founder and Father of Modern Day Bodybuilding.”
Dr. Krayevsky’s influence was not isolated to fitness enthusiasts; he was also the personal physician of Czar Nicholas II, the last emperor of Russia. The Czar was so impressed with the effectiveness of the kettlebell weights in his own workouts that he ordered his military to begin training with them in preparation for future battles. As kettlebell strength-training became more popular, the activity was named the national sport of the Soviet Union in 1948, but others across Europe had also begun using kettlebells in their weight training.
Germany is known for their rich history of physical fitness programs. Friedrich Ludwig Jahn was a physical educator in Germany in the late 18th century and founded the Turners System of Gymnastics. Turners System became a foundation for the physical education system used in the West, and historians have unearthed diagrams and pictures of his followers using kettlebell weights in their workouts.
The documents suggest that Germans were among the first to utilize kettlebells in their workout programs and that they recognized the effectiveness of constantly varied functional-movements, ideal for kettlebell use, to develop their strength and physiques.
During the late 1800s, globalization started to swell with international travel becoming a more common human experience and foreign influences began interacting with other cultures. Experts believe that Dr. Krayevsky may have first observed kettlebells being used in 1898, during a strongman gathering in Vienna, Austria. Theodore Siebert, a groundbreaking German trainer, was also at the conference and used heavy kettlebell swings in his workouts. The doctor likely incorporated the new weight into his workouts after witnessing an impressive display of human strength at the international gathering. After all, it was only two years later that he wrote his famous book about kettlebell weight training.
Research into the history of kettlebell use has revealed a fascinating trend in the 40’s and 50’s when kettlebells mysteriously disappeared from American fitness culture without any apparent explanation. World War II was winding down, and the United States was beginning to engage the Soviet Union for several decades in what became the Cold War. Kettlebell swings had been a standard exercise among farmers in Russia for hundreds of years and had just recently become the Soviet Union’s national sport.
In 1948, the Soviet Union refused to attend the Summer Olympics in London, and instead, hosted a competition for Soviet strongmen in Moscow. The kettlebell was featured in two of the events: the long jerk and the biathlon. Contestants competed in the long jerk by performing a clean and a jerk using two kettlebells, and the biathlon consisted of a set of jerks with two kettlebells, followed by a set of snatches.
Recognized as a proud symbol for the Soviet Union, some historians wonder if Cold War sentiments pushed the kettlebell out of mainstream American culture. The Soviet Union continued to struggle after the World War, and the United States experienced exceptional economic growth and advancements in infrastructure.
As Hollywood boomed in the 40’s and 50’s, America’s appetite for fashion grew and physical fitness gained a new level of attention from the population. The fitness industry met the demand with new workouts focused on isolation exercises instead of traditional, full-body exercise movements. American patriotism was at an all-time high, and the public was eager to show their support for the U.S. in any way possible. There is a possibility that Americans discarded the handled-weights to separate themselves from Russia and the rise of Communism.
The Cold War was not the only conflict on America’s plate. Two of the nation’s leading fitness tycoons, Joe Weider and Bob Hoffman, were coming to prominence at the time, and American gyms were caught in the middle of a battle for the soul of strength training. Joe Weider and his brother, Ben, developed a system of workouts focused on physique and body image, promoting the old notion that if you train for shape, then strength will come. However, Bob Hoffman of York Barbell encouraged training the body for performance. As a weightlifter, Hoffman believed that muscles should be developed for a purpose, not just for glamorous looks. In the end, he eventually began catering to bodybuilders because of the tremendous demand for bodybuilding merchandise from the public.
The two systems for building muscle mass were wildly popular across the country, and American gyms gained a lot of members because of these programs. Despite their focus on muscle development, neither one used kettlebells in any of their workouts. Of course, it is possible that the kettlebell trend faded at the time because the public wanted to try something new.
How Athletes Use Kettlebells Now
Traditional weight use is focused on individual sets with low repetitions and heavy loads, but kettlebell workouts offer a different approach. Specific exercises for kettlebell weights are designed to burn fat, build endurance, and develop strength by using the weights with high repetitions at a fast pace.
Working the muscles in this manner physically breaks down the microfibers that make up the muscle tissue and creates a chemical response from the body that stimulates muscle growth and burns fat. While kettlebells and dumbbells can be used interchangeably for some exercises, such as bicep curls or lateral raises, the real success of kettlebell weight training comes from using the weights non-traditionally.
If done correctly, kettlebell training is an efficient way to build athletic skills and will increase an athlete’s strength, mobility, balance, coordination, and stamina.
Warming up the body is a crucial component to the beginning of any workout. Professional athletes and exercise enthusiasts recognize that a thorough warm-up can prevent unintentional injuries and prepares the body to perform at a higher level of intensity. Kettlebells are an ideal instrument for warm-ups because of the dynamic motions that activate separate muscle groups in the same exercise. By engaging multiple muscle groups in a consistent motion, blood-flow is increased, and the body is more prepared to react to physical strain.
The versatile nature of kettlebell workouts allows athletes to target different areas of their performance with one type of weight. Cardio workouts that focus on kettlebells are an excellent way to burn fat by adding weights to ballistic exercises. These types of exercises force the body to transition the added weight between different muscle groups for a certain amount of time, increasing the heart rate, and creating a “fun” way to burn fat. A common type of cardio routine combines aerobic activities, such as jogging or jump roping, with sets of ballistic kettlebell exercises, like swings and snatches. Athletes that work through ten rounds of heavy kettlebell exercises will notice a huge boost to their strength conditioning.
Kettlebells are also a great tool for healing and recovery. Programs that encourage athletes to work through injuries using light workouts every week can speed up their recovery time by boosting blood flow to affected areas of the body. Blood flow is critical for recovery because the blood delivers vital nutrients throughout the body that helps the recovery process. Popular kettlebell exercises involve hip extensions, a fundamental aspect of athletic motions, such as running, jumping, turning, squatting, and bending. Using kettlebells to train the muscles will increase the flexibility of athletes in ways that affect their performance through underlying motions that are fundamental to sports. One of the most essential qualities of the kettlebell is the offset center of gravity that maximizes joint strength and flexibility, especially in the major joints.
The unique shape and weight distribution of kettlebell weights make them ideal for professional athletes, already familiar with traditional dumbbells and free-weights, to challenge their bodies to adapt to a new form of strain. Dumbbells have a linear distribution of weight that is in-line with the handle, but kettlebells are different. The weight of the kettlebell is in front of the handle, and this subtle, but significant distinction is why professional athletes find even the most basic kettlebell movement can increase the demand of flexibility from an exercise. Pushing through kettlebell workouts is a popular way for professional athletes to change their exercise programs dramatically.
It almost seems too good to be true, but kettlebell exercises allow athletes to combine the benefits of anaerobic, aerobic, and strength conditioning into one workout. Because of the motions involved, workouts that utilize kettlebells require deep focus and the full attention of the body and mind. Kettlebell exercises also include an element of flexibility and help athletes prevent injuries by building greater ranges of motion.