The kettlebell is a peculiar piece of gym equipment. While it looks like a cannonball with a looping handle protruding at the top, it can easily be mistaken for an ironcast tea kettle on steroids. It also happens to be growing in popularity, allowing athletes and those just trying to stay in shape to perform a wide range of specialized strength-building exercises with kettlebells.
Born in Russia
It's hard to say who invented the kettlebell, though variations of the concept go as far back as Ancient Greece. There's even a 315-pound kettlebell with the inscription “Bibon heaved up me above a head by one head" on display at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in Athens. The first mention of the term, however, shows up in a Russian dictionary published in 1704 as "Girya," which translates to "kettlebell" in English.
Kettlebell exercises were later popularized in the late 1800s by a Russian physician named Vladislav Kraevsky, considered by many to be the country's founding father of Olympic weight training. After spending roughly a decade traveling around the world researching exercise techniques, he opened one of Russia's first weight training facilities where kettlebells and barbells were introduced as a core part of a comprehensive fitness routine.
By the early 1900s, Olympic weightlifters in Russia were using kettlebells to shore up weaker areas, while soldiers used them to improve their conditioning in preparation in combat. But it wasn't until 1981 that the government finally threw its weight behind the trend and mandated kettlebell training for all citizens as a way to boost overall health and productivity. In 1985, the Soviet Union's first national championship kettlebell games were held in Lipetsk, Russia.
In the United States, it's only as recent as the beginning of the century that kettlebell has caught on, particularly in the last few years. A-list celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Biel, Sylvester Stallone, and Vanessa Hudgens have been known to utilize kettlebell workouts to strengthen and tone. There's even an all-kettlebell gym located in Ontario, Canada, called the IronCore Kettlebell club.
Kettlebells vs. Barbells
What distinguishes a kettlebell workout from training with barbells is an emphasis on a wider range of movement that involves several muscle groups. Whereas barbells are generally used to directly target isolated muscle groups, such as the biceps, the kettlebell's weight is away from the hand, allowing for swinging moves and other full body exercises. Case in point, here's a few kettlebell exercises aimed at cardiovascular and strength improvement:
- High Pull: Similar to a squat, the kettlebell is lifted from the floor and brought up toward the shoulder level with one hand while straightening out to a standing position and returning back to the floor. Alternating between both arms, this move hits the shoulders, arms, buttocks, and hamstrings.
- Lunge Press: Holding the kettlebell in front of the chest with both hands, lunge forward and lift the weight over your head. Alternating each leg, this allows you to target the shoulders, back, arms, abs, buttocks, and legs.
- Russian Swing: Standing with knees slightly bent and feet apart, hold the kettlebell just below the groin with both hands and with both arms straight. Lowering and driving the hips back, thrust the hips forward and swing the weight forward up to shoulder level before letting the weight swing back down to the original position. This move targets the shoulders, back, hips, glutes, and legs.
Additionally, kettlebell exercises burn more calories than conventional weightlifting exercises, up 20 calories a minute, according to a study by the American Council on Exercise (ACE). This is roughly the same amount of burn you'd get from a rigorous cardio workout. Despite the benefits, the one drawback is that only select gyms carry them.
So where can you go to find kettlebell equipment outside of obvious places like the IronCore gym? Fortunately, an increasing number of boutique gyms have them, along with kettlebell classes. Also, since they're compact, portable and with many shops selling them for prices comparable to the cost of barbells, it might be worth it to just buy a set.
Beltz, Nick M.S. "ACE Sponsored Research Study: Kettlebells Kick Butt." Dustin Erbes, M.S., John P. Porcari, et al., American Council on Exercise, April 2013.