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What Is a Kettlebell?

 Written by 

Julien Raby

 Last updated on 

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Kettlebells have come to be very popular in the last several years. In this article, we are going to talk about what is a kettlebell, the benefits of kettlebells, and where the kettlebells came from. We’ll give you a brief history of some significant points in time that related to the kettlebell from its origin to modern times. 

So, if you are thinking about jumping into the world of kettlebell training, we hope this article will help. Let’s get started.

A man holding a ketllebell
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Kettlebell: Definition and Meaning

According to the Merriam-Webster dictionary, the first known use of kettlebell (“Girya” literally meaning Handle Bell) was in 1928. It meant a round weight with a thick handle and flat bottom. It was used for weighting and then for weight workouts.

A Brief History of Kettlebells

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Kettlebell history takes place in Russia

If we look at the origins of the kettlebell, they were a part of the official weights and measures of Russia. They were used on the scales in the markets in the 17th century. For example, you would put a bushel of grain on the scale. And then you would put the kettlebell to balance the scale. The official term for this unit of measurement for kettlebells was called the pood which is basically 16 kilograms.

Out of that environment began local competitions basically during festival times. The farming community would have festivals during harvest season. So, there was sort of friendly competition “Let’s see who can lift a kettlebell the most times.” And that was the origin of using a kettlebell for sport and competition. 

St. Petersburg is the mecca of kettlebells. The early research and development of kettlebells were created in this city. There’s even a kettlebell museum that can easily answer “What is a kettlebell?” in St. Petersburg. 

Russian Military Starts using it

In 1885, Dr. Vladislav Kraevsky started looking at the use of the kettlebell for the Russian military to essentially use in basic training to increase the fitness level of the troops. 

There was a research that measured which groups were higher performance in a few physical tests, such as the long jump, broad jump, sprinting, and pull-ups. And the research showed that by using kettlebells alone the group was able to show an increase in all those measures without training specifically in those measures.

In modern times, Pavel Tsatsouline coined the terms of what the effect which basically describes this unknown phenomenon of why we can increase many physical characteristics using kettlebells without training for those specific characteristics.

The origins of kettlebell sport started in the 20th century. There were various competitions among the different Soviet nations. There was no systemization in the early competitions there was no time limit. So essentially it was a game of attrition where it was basically the last person standing who did the most reps. This could take hours. And whoever had the strongest gripping and could last the longest would be the winner.

The first competition which would call the Soviet championship was in the 1950s. And this is when the sport began to be systemized. 

Kettlebell modern era

The beginning of what is now known as the modern kettlebell sports era began in the 20th century. The Committee of Kettlebell Sport was established in 1985, along with official competition rules. All the kettlebells were the same size, shape, and dimensions. Also, it was a time limit. 

So, if we look at what we call the Russian kettlebell system, the Girevoy sport would be the term to describe the kettlebell. Literally, Girivek means a strong man and is associated with a kettlebell sport athlete or kettlebell lifter.

Pavel Tsatouline was one of the historical individuals that were significant in the kettlebell sport. He developed the kettlebell system called the “Russian Kettlebell Challenge” otherwise known as RKC in 2001.

In 2001, Pavel Tsatouline also published the book The Russian Kettlebell Challenge. That’s when kettlebells started to be known in the modern Western world. Previous to that, it was pretty much restricted to the Soviet Union and Eastern Europe. There was definitely some awareness in Eastern Germany. No one knew about this in the U.S.

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What Are Kettlebells Used For: Kettlebell Benefits

Kettlebell training helps build full-body strength and conditioning. This extreme fitness tool is very efficient and you’ve got a full gym with just a few kettlebells.

If you get your legs stronger, your hips stronger, you can walk up stairs better, go down stairs better. And the thing that makes the CrossFit kettlebell special is that you can use one exercise tool. Just one, two, or three kettlebells can do a lot for you.

Competition Kettlebells

Competition kettlebells are designed for Girevoy sport. Girevoy translated from the Russian language simply means kettlebell sport. And it is an endurance event where you perform an exercise with one or two kettlebells without putting them down for 10 minutes

Due to the extreme endurance nature of the kettlebell sport, a consistent technique for hundreds of repetitions is really important. Therefore a competition kettlebell makes sense for the athletes who spend months and years perfecting that technique to not have to change it too much once the weight has become heavier.

So in the kettlebell sport, the goal is to perform the highest number of reps. And the same size and shape of the kettlebells enable the athlete to perform the highest number of reps they can in the ten minutes.

Classic Kettlebells

Traditional-style kettlebells are designed for strength endurance and conditioning purposes. 

The strength goals are not to perform the highest number of reps in a certain period of time. But it is to increase the strength endurance, stamina, flexibility, power, and cardiovascular endurance of the entire body. So that you can be ready for whichever sport you choose to participate in. Otherwise, sometimes, it is also called general physical preparedness.

How to Use a Kettlebell: Kettlebell Exercises

It could take a lot of time to learn kettlebell training. Proper form should be learned with professional instruction. 

Kettlebell Swings

The double-arm swing is the foundational kettlebell exercise. Also, there is an option called a one-arm swing or single-arm swing. Maintaining a flat back, take the kettlebell to the inner thighs. Then swing in front of you to chest height keeping your hands straight.

Kettlebell Deadlifts

Stand with your feet shoulder-width apart. Grab the kettlebell with both arms in front of you. Bend forward at your knees and hips. Keeping your back straight. Then set your starting position.

Goblet Squat

The Goblet squat is one of the variations of the kettlebell front squat. To perform a proper kettlebell squat and lift heavy weight, grab with both hands a kettlebell. Hold it against your chest standing with your feet about shoulder-width apart. Inhale and squat down. Return to the standing position. 

Kettlebell High Pull

Grab with both hands a kettlebell that is between your feet. With a flat back, raise it to your face. Keep your elbows high to head height.

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Single Arm Kettlebell Press

Hold a kettlebell at shoulder height, an arm bent. Extend your arm to lift the kettlebell weight above your head. Return to starting position and repeat.

What Is a Kettlebell: FAQs

What is a kettlebell good for?

A CrossFit kettlebell is a highly effective, very portable, and versatile exercise tool for a range of muscle groups. You can learn to skillfully do a lot of stuff. Utilizing basic kettlebell techniques, you can get everything that you would want from a strength, strength endurance, or conditioning workout. You can build muscle mass and get amazing core strength, beautiful muscle tone, and muscle endurance.

What is the difference between a dumbbell and a kettlebell?

They are two different tools with different shapes and features. You can perform with them different exercises. However, they can be interchanged for certain situations like cleans, jerks, push presses, and snatches. 
Traditional dumbbells are an amazing tool with equal weights on each end. So, it is easier to perform traditional weight lifting and strength-training exercises with dumbbells.
A CrossFit kettlebell is an excellent tool with a weight that is distributed underneath the handle. If you focus on calorie burning, then choose kettlebells.
So, what makes a kettlebell different? The unique structure of the kettlebell. The center of mass of the kettlebell extends beyond your grip, then as you do different techniques, like the kettlebell clean or kettlebell snatch, its position varies on you. That shifting of the weight can make it more advantageous.

Are kettlebells good for beginners?

The biggest takeaway is, by incorporating kettlebells into your routine, they can help your overall daily life. A hardstyle kettlebell helps kettlebell enthusiasts feel better, move better, and look better. This efficient training tool can serve you anything you want to do for general strength and resistance-based movements.

What was a kettlebell originally used for?

In the 17th century, kettlebells were used for weighting on the scales in the markets. Then athletes started using them for weight workouts.


Julien Raby is the owner of BoxLife. He owns a bachelor in literature and a certificate in marketing from Concordia. He's Crossfit Level 1 certified and has been involved in Crossfit since 2010. In 2023 he finally made it to Crossfit Open Quarterfinals for the first time. LinkedIn Instagram Facebook

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