Kettlebell training has been vogue the last eight to ten years. We know this, because in addition to seeing kettlebells swung in CrossFit gyms, home garages, and on shows like The Biggest Loser, we have seen a meteoric rise in the number of kettlebell DVD workouts brought to market by opportunistic celebrity faux-trainers (a.k.a. Hollywood luminaries who are inexplicably qualified to give exercise instruction for no other reasons than their fame and that they look fit).
I own several kettlebells, and I often incorporate them into my workouts. Needless to say I am a big proponent of their use in fitness conditioning. In the text to follow, I offer a history of kettlebell training, an overview of modern kettlebells, a look at popular kettlebell exercises, and my subjective evaluation of Pavel Tstsouline’s program, Enter the Kettlebell.
History of Kettlebell Training
Anthropologists have evidence that shows we have swung weights with attached handles for exercise throughout our history. Shaolin monks threw around stone padlocks known as ishi sashi. Indian clubs, which saw a particularly wide surge in popularity during the Victorian era, have been around for ages. Bam Bam Rubble waved his weighted club as far back as the Flintstone’s era, etc.
The inception of modern kettlebell training is somewhat unclear; we do know, however, that the practice started in Russia. A few hundred years ago Russians began using “cannon balls with handles” as counterweights for their farming scales, and by 1704, the word “girya” (kettlebell) made its first appearance in the Russian dictionary. Over time, these farmers began using the girya as a ballistic fitness tool as well. The practice became popular, and in 1948, kettlebell lifting became the Soviet Union’s national sport.
Kettlebell training has been in practice in the US for some time now. It only became popular recently however. Russian kettlebell practitioner and trainer, Pavel Tstsouline, is credited as being one of the primary champions of the US kettlebell movement.
An Overview of Modern Kettlebells
Kettlebells are widely available; they can be purchased both in stores and online. By virtue of their simplicity, they really have only two types of distinction—weight, and grade.
Weight: Kettlebells are almost always weight classified using one of three types of measure—pood, kilograms, or pounds. Pood is an archaic form of measure from the Imperial Russian weight measurement system. Beyond its reference to modern sports weights, it is a term rarely used anymore. Kettlebells come in a variety of weights, and while there is no specific guideline, most knowledgeable practitioners recommend that a fit man new to training start with a thirty-five-pound kettlebell—a fit woman, an eighteen to twenty-six-pound unit. Following are helpful weight conversions.
1 pood = 16.3807 kilograms / 36.121 pounds*
1 kilogram = .061 pood / 2.2046 pounds*
1 pound = .0277 pood / .4536 kilogram*
* In the kettlebell market you typically see slight number rounding. One pood is generally applied to 16kg, 35 lb, and 36 lb kettlebells.
Grade: Kettlebells are classified by one of three grades—pro (also called “competition”), classic, or low-end.
Pro: Pro-grade kettlebells are made of steel, and unlike their classic and low-end counterparts, they are always created to the same dimensions regardless of their weight. A thirty-five-pound pro kettlebell has the same dimensional size as a seventy-pound pro kettlebell. Their uniform sizing lends to consistent technique; you can always count on their handles to be the same size, their “ball” sections to hit your forearm in the same place, etc. Pro-grade kettlebells typically have larger ball sections than do classic and low-end units. Many feel this ball mass difference affords them better ballistic properties. Retail pricing for pro-grade kettlebells typically ranges from $2.50 to $4.00 per pound.
Classic: Classic kettlebells are made from cast iron, and unlike their pro counterparts, they are size to weight correlated. The heavier a cast iron kettlebell, the larger its size. High quality classic kettlebells should have smooth handles, large bases, and hard hammertone coating. Retail pricing for classic kettlebells typically ranges from $1.50 to $3.00 per pound.
Low-end: Most department stores sell lightweight kettlebells made from a range of materials. Often they are adorned with a celebrity name, and made to look “sporty.” While okay for very casual use, most experienced practitioners shun them for reasons of size, questionable durability, poor ballistic properties, and general shitiness. Retail pricing for low-end kettlebells typically ranges from $ .75 to $1.50 per pound.
A Look at Popular Kettlebell Exercises
My Subjective Evaluation of Pavel Tstsouline’s Program, Enter the Kettlebell
In my opinion kettlebell training comes with moderate risk given its ballistic and curvilinear nature; thus, I think it is imperative that its instructors stress the importance of safety and form. I have seen a number of kettlebell DVD workouts—namely the aforementioned “celebrity faux-trainer” abominations—in which the trainer spends inadequate time addressing workout space, body mechanics, accidental loss of control, etc. Worse yet, in many of them the trainer does not even use proper form.
For me, Enter the Kettlebell is an effulgent spot in the generally dull sphere of kettlebell instructional and workout DVDs. It is produced by Dragon Door, and it stars Pavel Tstsouline, a fitness icon from the former Soviet Union who is considered to be one of the best kettlebell trainers alive today. Enter the Kettlebell is instructional only; it is not a workout DVD. Over the course of the forty-six-minute video, Pavel takes you step by step through the core kettlebell moves—swings, cleans, presses, get-ups, and snatches. He places particular focus on safety and form.
Pavel is a like a flocculent Jason Statham channeling G.I. Joe in Enter the Kettlebell. He refers to viewers as comrades; he invites us all (regardless of sex) to become “real” men. He wants us to know that kettlebells are tough … that they are cold, indestructible tools by which we can become hardened. For me his exaggerated masculinity brings a sort of laughable charm to the video—an element rarely seen in the genre. I can see where his overblown persona could be off-putting to some though. Bottom line, its gritty theatrics notwithstanding, I highly recommend Enter the Kettlebell.