A Brief History of the Kettlebell
Kettlebell training may seem like a new fitness trend but this type of weight has been around since the 1700s. In Russia, the kettlebell, which looks like a small bowling ball with a handle attached to it, was called a girya. The Russian weight measurement for the giyra is a pood and is typically around 16 kg (or around 35lbs). The girya was initially used to weigh crops.
Then, in the 1800s, the kettlebell was used by strongmen who performed in the circus as well as in athletic competitions in Russia and across Europe. These competitors are called giveroy. Eventually, the Russian military and Olympic athletes took up the centuries-old tradition as their exercise routine.
The English term kettlebell arose in the 1900s and now comes in a number of weight sizes, from 5 lbs to 50 lbs and more. Kettlebells are not just made of iron or steel, but can also come in a variety of forms, including adjustable versions, where one can change the weight, as well as a fillable kind that can hold sand, water, or metal shot. Its popularity rose within the past few years in part because of celebrity usage and its ease of use. You can use Kettlebells anywhere—there’s no need for a gym or other kinds of equipment.
Kettlebell Training Benefits
What makes kettlebell exercises different than other strengthening exercises is the instability that is created from the shape of the kettlebell. Because the kettlebell’s weight is located inches below the handle, it is harder to control than a regular dumbbell. This instability is something a body must adapt to and handle, working extra hard to control and stabilize the kettlebell. This is the basis of how these ballistic exercises can build endurance, strength, and flexibility.
The kettlebell has its roots in agrarian society, and the exercises are similar to the motions that farm hands make such as lifting bales of hay, handling farm tools, or carrying large buckets of water. The allure of the kettlebell is that it can give people an all-around holistic workout instead of isolating individual muscles. Other improvements include improved grip strength, range of motion, flexibility, and mobility; boosted core strength; and stronger wrists, arms, legs, shoulders, and lower back.
What’s important with kettlebell training is that users have the correct form. It’s a low-impact workout and can be easy on one’s back. But, if one has a weak core, or back or shoulder issues, kettlebell training can actually be dangerous.
Kettlebell training can be compared to high-intensity interval training (HIIT) in that the exercises are somewhat aerobic and can be an effective cardio workout. Kettlebell training also involves a high number of repetitions for minutes at a time, or with small breaks. One training session can last just 20 minutes, yet entail a greater intensity of work per minute than most other exercises.
Kettlebell Movements: The Kettlebell Swing
Kettlebell training has many movements that people can use, with one or two kettlebells. The most famous movement is the Kettlebell Swing. The Russian Kettlebell Swing focuses on strengthening the posterior chain—a group of muscles located on the rear or back of the body, specifically biceps, buttocks, back, calves, and shoulder muscles.
The key to performing this movement correctly is how one stands. The hips are what guide the way as the legs stand firm, hip-wide apart, knees soft, digging in one’s heels. The arms and the grip should be held loosely. The kettlebell is swung from inside the legs, in the middle of one’s feet, and then up to the chest with the arms straight. Gravity and the kettlebell’s weight can help bring the kettlebell down. A more detailed version of this movement can be found here.
The American kettlebell swing is similar to the Russian swing but differs on where the swing ends. It terminates with the user holding the kettlebell overhead. Whether one uses the Russian swing or the American swing, the focus of the swing should come from the legs—just like the old adage goes for moving boxes: “Lift with your legs.” There should be no back pain, but if there is, the technique needs to be reviewed. The core needs to be engaged and the shoulders pulled back. The chest should not be guiding the kettlebell’s descent. It’s all in the hips, from beginning to end. With this one exercise, a body could be transformed—leaner and more powerful. There are other kinds of movements one can make with the kettlebell, including snatches, jerks, squats, curls, and lunges, but perfecting the kettlebell swing should be considered first.
Kettlebell training is a simple and powerful exercise routine that is mobile, versatile, and efficient. This all-body training regimen from the ancient fields of Russia now has a modern place both inside and outside of the gym. As long as one uses the right form, users can find significant, visible results.