The History of the Kettlebell

Most heavily blitz marketed fitness devices are some fancy new thing you see on late night TV with claims to answer all your problems and do everything a gym can do only better, faster, and easier.  What makes kettlebells different from all those too good to be true, over promising and under delivering pieces of scrap metal?  The obvious is the kettlebell is not fancy or technologically advanced.  But the biggest mistake people assume, is that the kettlebell is this new innovative device.  It couldn’t be more opposite from the truth.

Back when the Romans where conquering the world, the kettlebell came into existence as standard measuring device use trade and commerce.  There were no digital scales back then, so counter weights were the standard, and the kettlebell as simple as it is, was just a counter weight with a handle.  Since these counter weights were standardized to all be the same, they became a great tool for sport competition.  The sport being throwing and carrying competitions, this was the best fitness use of kettlebells even to this date.  It was not until around the 19th century that actual kettlebells for exercise were made.  Still, these devices where not meant for strength training, but for competitions and showmanship.  Like many things in the “functional training” realm that have become so popular, kettlebell training is more along the lines of learning a skill rather than simply getting stronger.  At the time, kettlebell lifting was nothing more than a gimmick, like lifting thick-handled dumbbells or anvils is today.  The truth is, strong men couldn’t get strong by using kettlebells alone. The kettlebell was just a skill set they learned, so they could be good at lifting kettlebells.  These “strong” men could not count on being the strongest men everywhere they went.  They could however count on the fact that if they practiced doing movements that no one does, with a device no one uses, they would likely be more skilled, and thus could show up the crowd.

When strength training began to become more mainstream, plate loaded barbells and dumbbells were invented and standardized.  These devices were deemed superior in design by being balanced, having rotation sleeves, and safer and more effective for strength training.  The reason kettlebells seem like a new concept is because the only area where the kettlebell survived was soviet Russia.  Why might you ask?  Simple economics.  Kettlebells were cheap and easy to make, and they already had equipment and operators to do so.  In an economically unstable country, kettlebells just had to be good enough.

Now companies and so called fitness experts have taken advantage of flash marketing ad buzz words to bring the kettlebell back to popularity.  Afterall who doesn’t want to make more money and spend less? If I can convince you that my gym with $500 worth of kettlebells can provide everything the 10 million dollar club down the road can provide, that gives me quite an advantage.  Because the goal of the kettlebell’s resurrection is not to make better fitness training or athletes but rather just to bring in profit, you can only guess the amount of misinformation that exists surrounding the kettlebell. If you don’t believe me, just stop by your local big box shopping center and look at the price of a kettlebell vs. its equal weight dumbbell.  Dumbbells cost much more to make, but cost less in the store.

What do you think would happen if you went to a construction site and told everyone, “Ok guys, today we are going to build this house with just hammers and nails.  That’t it, no saws, not levels, no tape measures, no screw drivers, just hammers.”  I’m guessing this would not be a project that turned out too well. Now take that same thinking, and imagine I told you from now on, if you go to the gym, you are only allowed to use dumbbells.  Does that really seem like an effective way to train?  This brings us to the real goal of kettlebell training, which is deeply rooted in its history.  In part one we discussed the use by the strongman.  Training exclusively with kettlebells can only have one true purpose, to make you better at using kettlebells. That and a dollar will get you a bottle of water some places, but being good at lifting kettlebells does not directly make you strong, fit, or healthy.  Kettlebell exercises are not the most effective way to train for any sport, increase strength, endurance, build muscle, or lose body fat.  There is almost always a better, safer, and cheaper way to go about doing almost everything claimed by kettlebell marketing.

Because the fitness industry is a simple business industry like any other, driving the popularity of a tool with low production cost and high mark up value is a great way to make money.  Who’s going to rush out and buy something old and out-dated if the chances are they already have a better alternative?  Combine that with the moronic idea of kettlebell training, you now make a really low cost group fitness tool.  Group fitness is all about keeping you busy while taking up as little space and equipment cost as possible.  If I can keep you entertained with just one toy instead of having to buy 5, why not?

It’s not all bad though.  Lets go back to the construction site metaphor.  The kettlebell is itself just a tool.  It is not the worst thing ever made, nor are you a bad person if you pick one up.  Kettlebells are actually a useful tool when you throw them in exercises meant to work on speed and acceleration, like a snatch.

The kettlebell swing is an exercise that is very effective and easier to teach than an olympic lift.  Aside from that though the rest is theatrics that you would either be better off using a dumbbell or doing a more effective exercise.  When it comes to weight lifting movements everything a kettlebell can do, a dumbbell can do better.

Modified kettlebells are now starting to show up as a resistance training too.  The one I am most familiar with is the one by Watson Gym Equipment in the UK.  Instead of a traditional solid kettlebell.  The device functions more like a dumbbell with offset weights.  The handle rotates so the weight moves around you to provide a change in the force curve of the lifting movement.  You can read Charles Poliquins articles on these kettlebells and see a video at www.charlespoliquin.com.

In writing this article I came across so many articles about how kettlebells are better than dumbbells because they work the whole body, or are more functional, blah blah garbage.  First, a Kettlebell can’t do anything a dumbbell can’t do.  Its a weight with a handle.  It has no function other than resistance with gravity.  In fact, anything a kettlebell can do, you can probably do with a gallon of milk.  It’s the exercises promoted in kettlebell training that are different than dumbbell exercises.  You could do all those kettlebell exercises with a dumbbell, but you would only do snatches and cleans with a dumbbell if you are too dumb to use a barbell.  So I guess they are right, in that kettlebell training does do things not used in dumbbell training, because usually people training with dumbbells are enlightened enough to utilize the best equipment for the job, rather than trying to put screws in with a hammer.

So when you hear some idiot on TV talking about 3 dimensional exercises, and core activations and listing muscles head to toe, I’ve got news for you. It’s just a bunch of fancy exercises.  In fact, I want you to hear about this new exercise I just did.  I activated my abs/core, gluteals, quads, hamstrings, stabilizers, all moving in a 3D motion.  What is this awesome new movement I just did?  I sat up and got off the couch.  Think I can sell that for $50?

Download the December 2011 Equipment Special to see the Poliquin Kettlebell also called the Pendulum Dumbbell by Monster-Grips