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A Brief History of Kettlebells

When I first took on this column, I mentioned that my tastes in writing spanned the full spectrum of topics. This particular topic is about taking a funny looking piece of metal and using it to create a brutally effective home workout. Certainly, appropriate in these times, as going to any public place has become

When I first took on this column, I mentioned that my tastes in writing spanned the full spectrum of topics. This particular topic is about taking a funny looking piece of metal and using it to create a brutally effective home workout. Certainly, appropriate in these times, as going to any public place has become very difficult.

Years ago, when I first ventured on my own to start my first fitness facility, I got into training with kettlebells with a friend to get stronger for Olympic-style judo. In fact, I was so taken with the versatility, and underutilization, of this fitness implement that I founded a company to design, manufacture, and market these weights. While, I didn’t become wealthy, I do feel that I played a part in the notoriety and popularity of kettlebells.

Kettlebells and similar training weights have been around for millennia, though there are conflicting accounts of their exact time and place of origin. Popular belief holds that kettlebells are a Russian creation, stemming from the Russian kettlebell sport Girevoy, where lifters called “girevicks” use kettlebells called “gyra.” In fact, they may have originated elsewhere. Stone weights resembling kettlebells have been found in Greece, where early Olympians may have used them in training. The Russian word “gyra” may be of Persian origin and closely resembles the Persian words “hera” and “gera” in pronunciation, both of which translate to “weight”.

The modern form of the metal kettlebell was likely created in the early 1600s. According to strength historian Bill Hinbern, these first modern kettlebells were used to weigh grain or other farm produce. Hinbern speculates that farmers and blacksmiths would kill down-time by playing catch with these early weights. They would swing and flip the kettlebells, usually weighing approximately 12 to 16 kg (26–35 lbs), to their partners. The partners would increase their distance from one another until someone missed, in which case the other partner was declared the winner. (I have actually tried this when I was younger and emphatically do not advise it.) According to some sources, Russian soldiers of the period utilized this type of weight to develop strength for lifting cannonballs during wartime.

By the late 1800s, kettlebells were being used by the performing strongmen who traveled with circuses throughout Europe, North America, and parts of Asia. Famous strongmen such as Saxon, Sandow, Goerner, and Krylo used kettlebells as main implements in their performances, though they likely used them more for shows and stunts than for training. Kettlebell training during this period was usually restricted to different types of swings, one and two-handed flips, juggling, and pressing. Kettlebells might also appear in movements like the “Two- Hands Anyhow,” sometimes in conjunction with dumbbells and barbells, where both hands were used to lift multiple heavy weights in a somewhat awkward fashion to a fully extended position overhead.

Girevoy, the Russian sport mentioned above, was created in the 1980s. Sport kettlebell competitions are usually organized into the biathlon or the long cycle categories. In biathlon, athletes perform kettlebell jerks for ten minutes followed by snatches for ten minutes. In long cycle, athletes perform clean-and-jerks for ten minutes. The competitions have steadily increased in popularity in the last decade and can be found all over the world.

Kettlebells are also a staple training tool for organizations such as CrossFit, a varied, high-intensity training program designed to prepare people for any physical challenge they may face. In recent years martial artists have revived kettlebell training by using them extensively in rigorous conditioning programs designed to build strength and stamina without adding the unnecessary bulk of conventional bodybuilding programs.

Why train with Kettlebells? Kettlebell training is arguably the most effective and efficient form of strength training ever created. It is based upon whole-body, real-life movements that today’s fitness experts would call “functional,” as opposed to muscle-group-specifc styles of strength-training like bodybuilding. Fitness machines typically work in only one plane of movement, such as forward and backward or side-to-side. Many kettlebell exercises, however, incorporate movement into more than one plane, just as people move in real life. Some kettlebell exercises can be performed in a slow, controlled manner, while others must be performed in a more abrupt, “explosive” manner. They can be used to isolate a single muscle group, as well as for big, whole-body movements. Kettlebells are not only versatile but also extremely durable, cost-effective, and space efficient.

While a dumbbell’s weight is distributed symmetrically on either side of its central handle, a kettlebell’s weight is one solid mass. This fact, as well as the increased distance of the kettlebell’s center of mass from the lifter, means greater power is needed to perform many exercises than for a dumbbell of the same weight. This also makes the kettlebell ideal for performing ballistic, whole-body exercises such as cleans, snatches, and their variations. Kettlebells can be used either individually or in pairs. Kettlebells are more user-friendly than dumbbells in performing movements such as the high-pull, because the wide handle allows for comfort and correct body positioning. These Old-World weights are not just for the elite strongmen seen on television. Anyone who is healthy enough to strength-train can learn to use kettlebells. Whether you are a great athlete or a great-grandmother, these simple tools will help you to produce extraordinary results.

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