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What Are Kettlebells?

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  • Originally Written By: Malcolm Tatum
  • Revised By: A. Joseph
  • Edited By: Bronwyn Harris
  • Last Modified Date: 26 August 2014
  • Copyright Protected:
    2003-2014
    Conjecture Corporation
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Kettlebells are exercise weights that are made out of cast iron and are mostly spherical in shape with looped handles on top. These weights, which are also called Russian kettlebells, giryas or giris, are used in fitness and bodybuilding to build muscle and to work the cardiovascular system. Their design allows them to provide a different type of resistance from that of other types of weights, such as dumbbells, and many people consider them to provide a better workout than dumbbells. There are numerous exercises that are commonly performed using kettlebells. Many of these, such as overhead presses, are often done with other types of weights, but others, such as one-arm swings or two-arm swings, are more specific to the use of kettlebells.

Design

The kettlebell has been described as a cannonball with a handle, because the body of the weight is generally spherical. Most modern kettlebells are flat on the bottom. Some also have flat edges on their fronts and backs. The amount of weight is often shown on the front of the kettlebell.

A kettlebell can be one solid piece of metal, or the handle might have been welded onto the weight. Traditional kettlebells, such as those in the photo above, are uncoated and unpainted cast iron. Many modern versions, however, such as the one in the photo below, have been partly or completely coated with foam, rubber, plastic or a similar material. Some are painted instead.

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These surface modifications are sometimes just to make the kettlebell look more appealing, but there are some practical reasons as well. A coating can help protect the bells from nicks and scratches that might happen when they are dropped or bump into each other or other equipment. The coating also helps protect the floor or other surfaces from the abrasive iron. A coated handle gives the user a more comfortable grip.

Kettlebell competitions often use specialized equipment. With normal kettlebells, the size increases as the weight increases. Those used in many competitions, however, are the same size no matter their weight. They can be made from metals other than cast iron, such as steel, and might be hollow to a certain extent in order to make them the proper weight. To help identify the amount of weight, they are painted according to a color-coding system.

Exercise equipment manufacturers also have produced adjustable kettlebells. This type of equipment allows the user to change a kettlebell's weight by adding pieces to or removing pieces from its main body. When the desired weight is set, the pieces are locked into place. This can eliminate the need to purchase multiple sizes and reduce the storage space that is needed.

Sizes

Kettlebells are available in a wide variety of weights and might be listed in pounds or kilograms, although many of them will be listed in both units. Very light ones can weigh 4 pounds (1.8 kg) or less. Extremely heavy ones can weigh 176 pounds (80 kg) or more. Virtually any size in between can be found as well. Sizes that are frequently used include 18 pounds (82 kg), 26 pounds (11.8 kg), 35 pounds (15.9 kg) and 50 pounds (22.7 kg).

The amounts of weight are often based on a Russian unit of mass called a pood, which is equal to 36.11 pounds (16.38 kg) but might be rounded off in either pounds or kilograms. For example, what is listed as a 1-pood kettlebell might weigh 36 pounds (16.3 kg), 35 pounds (15.9 kg) or 35.3 pounds (16.0 kg). In many cases, the weights will be relatively equal to multiples or fractions of poods, even if they are not listed as such.

Advantages

The kettlebell's design creates a significant difference between it and a dumbbell, which is shown in the photo below. A dumbbell's center of gravity is in the middle of its handle, because the weight is distributed evenly on both sides as well as on its top and bottom halves. When the user holds the dumbbell properly, his or her hand will always be at its center of gravity.

A kettlebell, however, has an asymmetrical design because the handle is on top and most of its weight is below that. Its center of gravity is a little above the center of its rounded body. This means that when the user is holding the kettlebell by the handle, its center of gravity will always be a short distance away from his or her hand — such as below it, above it or in front of it, depending on the position of the kettlebell. The following video helps explain the differences between using a dumbbell and using a kettlebell.

During many kettlebell exercises, the position of the weight changes, so its center of gravity changes in relation to the user's hand. The user therefore must use a variety of muscles to keep the weight balanced and under control. Having the kettlebell's center of gravity outside of the user's hand allows him or her to use leverage while swinging or lifting the kettlebell. The dynamic movements involved in many kettlebell exercises also forces the exerciser to use certain muscles to accelerate, decelerate and stabilize the weight.

Proponents of kettlebell exercises say that they help the body gain functional strength better than traditional weightlifting or many other types of exercises. They point out that in many everyday activities, such as lifting a suitcase or a jug of milk, the object's center of gravity is not in its handle. Lifting or swinging an everyday object that doesn't have an even weight distribution also requires a person to be able to stabilize it and keep it under control, which is what kettlebell exercises help train the body to do.

A kettlebell also can be used in many types of exercises. Its versatility allows the exerciser to switch from one exercise to the next without stopping or having to change equipment. This can save time and provide a longer, continuous workout. It allows for different exercises to be combined into a hybrid exercise or series.

Exercises

Kettlebells can be used to increase strength, endurance, balance and cardiovascular health through a variety of exercises. Many of these are similar to exercises performed with dumbbells or barbells, although the kettlebell's shape allows for slight variations in some of the exercises. Some of the exercises combine a series of movements.

The following are examples of the many kettlebell exercises that can be performed. As with most exercises, these should be done with proper techniques and using manageable weights to reduce the risk of injury. A certified kettlebell instructor or trainer can help an exerciser learn the correct techniques.

Swing: The most common exercise using these weights is the kettlebell swing. To perform a two-arm kettlebell swing, the exerciser stands with his or her feet a little more than shoulder width apart and grips the kettlebell handle with both hands. While keeping the torso as upright as possible and the arms extended during the movement, he or she swings the kettlebell back between his or her legs, then forward and upward. The top of the swing can be either at the exerciser's shoulder or eye level or directly above the exerciser's head. Some people refer to the shorter swing — to shoulder or eye level — as a Russian swing and to the longer, overhead swing as an American swing.

After the kettlebell reaches the highest point of the swing, the exerciser swings it back down between the legs while still keeping the torso as upright as possible, then uses the kettlebell's momentum to begin the next upward swing. The exercise is repeated for a certain length of time or a certain number of repetitions. Although this motion is performed mostly with the arms, the power for the swing comes from thrusting the hips forward as the kettlebell swings forward and upward. The following video shows the proper technique for the Russian swing.

A one-arm kettlebell swing is performed basically the same way, except that the weight is held in one hand. In the one-arm variation, the highest point of the swing usually is at shoulder or eye level. This usually is because the kettlebell can become unstable and difficult to control when swung overhead with one arm. A shorter swing up to eye level is easier to control and therefore safer.

Clean: To perform a kettlebell clean, the exerciser rapidly lifts it from the ground or just above the ground to chest height with one hand. As the kettlebell approaches the top of the lift, the bell portion of the weight is allowed to swing from the front of the arm — the side below the palm of the hand — to the back, either by flipping up and over the handle or by rolling around the side of the arm. If the kettlebell flips over the top, it tends to hit the back of the exerciser's forearm, which can be painful. The impact can be reduced with practice.

Snatch: This exercise is similar to the clean, except that the kettlebell is lifted all the way into the air, until the arm is extended over the head. This should be done in one fluid motion. The kettlebell also swings up and over the handle or around the forearm as it is lifted above the head. Trainers often advise exercisers to punch their hands quickly upward as the weight transfers to the backs of their arms, which helps reduce the impact. The following video provides instruction for performing kettlebell snatches and briefly demonstrates the kettlebell clean and the high pull.

Press: A kettlebell press is a simple exercise that involves lifting the weight from the shoulder and into the air until the arm is fully extended. The wrist usually will rotate one-quarter turn during the press, with the palm facing inward when the kettlebell is at shoulder height and facing forward when the arm is extended overhead. Unlike in the clean or snatch, the bell does not swing or change its position in relation to the hand. It simply rests against the back of the forearm.

High pull: Using two hands, the exerciser lifts the kettlebell from the ground to chest height. The upper body is kept as upright as possible, and the exerciser bends at the knees to lift the kettlebell off the ground. Throughout the lift, the kettlebell does not swing or rotate. The elbows are raised to the sides during the lift rather than being kept down and close to the body.

Long cycle: This traditional kettlebell exercise is essentially a series of cleans and jerks, with a partial swing between the jerk and the next clean. The long cycle usually is done with one kettlebell in each hand. This series of exercises uses a variety of muscle groups and can quickly become exhausting.

First, the bells are cleaned to chest height. They are then jerked overhead — unlike the press, the jerk uses a quick dip and upward thrust with the hips to help push the weight over the head. After a brief pause with the arms fully extended, the exerciser then lowers the bells back to chest height. He or she then swings them down and back through the legs, then forward to begin the next clean as the cycle begins again.

As with most kettlebell exercises, the long cycle typically is repeated for a certain number of repetitions or a certain amount of time. The following video shows Ivan Denisov setting a world record by performing 47 long cycle repetitions in five minutes with an 88.2-pound (40-kg) kettlebell in each hand.

Get-up: Another of the more complicated kettlebell exercises is called the get-up or Turkish get-up. It requires the exerciser to lie on his or her back on the floor and raise the kettlebell into the air with one hand, then use a specific set of movements to stand up while keeping the kettlebell raised in the air the entire time. The movements are then done in the opposite order as the exerciser returns to the lying-down position with the kettlebell still raised. This exercise, which is demonstrated in the video below, is performed with one arm at a time, and the arms can be alternated after each repetition or after a certain number of repetitions or time period.

Origin and History

It is not known exactly when, where or why the kettlebell was invented. It is known to have existed by the early 1700s and is widely believed to have originated in Russia. One theory is that it was a type of counterbalance that was used to measure grain or other types of produce on scales. It is thought that workers might have begun lifting or swinging these weights as tests of strength.

A less popular theory is that the Russian military developed them by welding handles onto cannonballs and used them to train soldiers. Some people believe that they evolved from Scottish curling stones. Others believe that they can be traced to ancient Greece, Rome or Mongolia.

Regardless of its origin, the modern use of the kettlebell as strength-building exercise equipment began in Russia. Its popularity increased throughout the early 20th century. In 1948, the first Russian kettlebell competition was held, and in 1962, kettlebell athletics — also called girevoy sport (GS) — became an official sport of the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics (USSR).

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