Kettlebells: What They Are and Why You Should Train With Them

Jimmy Pritchard STACK

Tour any modern gym and you’re bound to stumble upon a section littered with kettlebells.

A kettlebell looks like a cannonball with a handle. They come in all sorts of shapes, sizes, colors and weights.

The weight of a kettlebell will often be listen on the implement itself, usually in kilograms. One kilogram equals 2.2 pounds. A 20kg kettlebell, therefore, weighs 44 pounds. People may also refer to the weight of a kettlebell in “poods,” which is an old Russian unit of measurement. In this case, 1 pood is a little more than 36 pounds.

Photo via Taco Fleur/Wikimedia

Kettlebells have spiked in popularity recently, but they’ve been around for a long time. It is unclear as to when kettlebells officially became a recognized tool for strength and conditioning, however it’s estimated their history dates back over 300 years. Known as a “girya” in Russia, kettlebells were originally used to help balance scales while weighing crops. Russians soon figured out that a heavy thing with a handle was pretty good for exercise, too.

The man most notable for westernizing the kettlebell is Pavel Tsatsouline, chairman of StrongFirst Inc. and former PT drill instructor for Spetsnaz. Tsatsouline’s authored several books that outline simple but effective kettlebell training programs.

Why Are Kettlebells So Popular?

A kettlebell is highly versatile.

Its design allows it to be manipulated in a multitude of ways, allowing for swinging, pressing, pulling, carrying, throwing and stability-based exercises. Entire workouts can be executed with nothing more than a single kettlebell, whether the aim is strength, hypertrophy, power or endurance.

A kettlebell is relatively small (though I dare not say it’s “light,” as that all depends on the weight you select) and relatively affordable in comparison to most other gym equipment.

Compared to training with machines or even dumbbells, the kettlebell provides variability and offsets the load so that no one rep is ever truly the same. Kettlebell exercises can at times be the biggest bang for your fitness buck, targeting numerous muscle groups and moving you through multiple planes of motion.

Thousands of exercises can be performed with a single kettlebell, and it’s possible to train for just about any fitness-related goal using kettlebells.

As Tsatouline writes in his book Simple & Sinister, “the kettlebell is an ancient Russian weapon against weakness.”

Are Kettlebells Better Than Dumbbells and Barbells?

I am hesitant to ever proclaim one implement as being “best.” Every piece of equipment brings something unique to the table, and every person is different, so it’s foolish to speak in definitives.

Dumbbells aren’t bad, barbells shouldn’t be banned, and kettlebells aren’t the only answer to training.

Some people believe kettlebells are inherently safer than barbells, but one could easily injure themselves with a kettlebell if they’re using improper technique. Heck, people hurt themselves doing bodyweight training all the time.

Many novice trainees fixate on powerlifting movements when they’re just starting out in strength training—specifically the Barbell Back Squat, Barbell Bench Press and Barbell Deadlift.

I’m an advocate for these movements. I program them for myself and I program them for many of the athletes I train. However, I don’t program them for those with a low level of movement competency.

Barbells make it easy for a newbie to load a movement heavier than they can handle in a fixed position. A perfect example is that of a Barbell Bench Press, where the hands are pronated and the shoulders are inherently placed in an internally rotated position. If a novice lifter does not know how to bench properly (i.e., shoulders down and back, hips on the bench, feet on the ground, elbows in correct position), this can be a recipe for disaster.

Of course, good coaching helps guard against this. However, I find kettlebells to be a bit more forgiving. Pressing a kettlebell overhead is, in my opinion, safer than pushing a barbell overhead, because the kettlebell allows you to rotate your hands and get the shoulders out of internal rotation. I also find movements like the Kettlebell Deadlift and Kettlebell Goblet Squat to generally be safer than their barbell counterparts.

Although there are some exercises that work better with barbells or dumbbells than kettlebells, the inverse is true, as well.

The Kettlebell is a natural fit for movements like the Kettlebell Swing or the Turkish-Get Up, for example. These movements train essential qualities that can be more difficult for beginners to target with say, a barbell.

Most gyms will not have a kettlebell that exceeds 100 pounds. Many gyms will have kettlebells that max out around 50 or 60 pounds. If you believe you need very heavy weight to get the adaptations you’re after, then it’ll likely be easier to achieve that criteria with a barbell and plates than with a kettlebell or kettlebells.

I believe everyone should lift weights in some capacity. I also believe one should build a proper base and learn how to move correctly before adding too much load. Kettlebells are a great option to keep an individual’s load lower while growing their movement competency.

What are the Best Kettlebell Exercises?

There are too many good ones to list.

However, I’ll share two of my favorites. These exercises are unique to the kettlebell and are the bread-and-butter of Tsatsouline’s work.

The first one is the Kettlebell Swing:

I love this exercise because it can serve the purpose of both conditioning and power work. It targets the posterior chain and teaches individuals how to hip hinge properly with some force. This exercise involves holding the kettlebell with both hands (although single-arm and double-bell variations do exist) and using the hip hinge to forcefully drive it out in front of yourself. Your gripping muscles may eventually burn if the set is long or enough or the weight’s heavy enough, but your arms and shoulders should essentially contribute no power to the movement.

Once the Kettlebell Swing is mastered, it is an excellent addition to any program or a convenient stand-alone option for a conditioning day.

Another kettlebell staple is the Turkish Get-Up. Its goal is simple: Stand from a supine position while keeping a weight over your head. However, that simple act requires a lot of technique, shoulder stability, core strength, hip mobility and focus to execute effectively. The Turkish Get-Up uses every part of your body:

There are other exercises that are difficult to replicate with implements other than kettlebells, such as the Bottoms-Up Kettlebell Press.

There are also many scenarios where replacing a classic barbell or dumbbell exercise with a kettlebell version can make sense.

Instead of Barbell Back Squats, you can do Kettlebell Front Squats, which reduce the load on your spine. Instead of overhead pressing with a pair of dumbbells, you can use kettlebells. It might seem like an insignificant swap, but kettlebells naturally lead to better scapular position, making the move more effective and reducing wear and tear on your body. The opportunities for swaps are endless, and ultimately, you or your coach/trainer must decide what makes the most sense in a given scenario.

Undoubtedly the kettlebell is an extraordinary tool with a long history of producing excellent results. Implement them into your programming, and I think you’ll wonder why you didn’t start training with kettlebells sooner.

Photo Credit: Taco Fleur/Wikimedia, Halfpoint/iStock, takoburito/iStock, Yuri Arcus/iStock