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Kettlebell History: The Ultimate Guide (2019)

  • 21st December 2018

kettlebell history: kettlebell header image

Kettlebell history has a lot more to it than gym instructor classes! Sure, kettlebells are the hot topic of the fitness industry right now, and they may seem like something of the present. But, they’re not as new as you think. 

Looking at starting kettlebell workshops with your clients, or making your classes better than your competitor’s? Then reading our ultimate guide to kettlebell history will seriously help you out!

Kettlebell history: who invented the kettlebell?

When it comes to who invented the kettlebell, the answer is somewhat of a mystery.

Many sources on the internet point the finger at Russia and leave it at that, but this is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to kettlebell history.

We’re not saying that Russia didn’t invent the kettlebell, or at least the modern version of it. It’s just good to keep an open mind when it comes to history, especially when there’s conflicting evidence. It’s not always black and white!

After sifting through every article and piece of information that we could find on the topic, we’re thrilled to share our discoveries.

Here’s what we know, not in strict order (as a timeline suggests that every invention led to the invention of the modern kettlebell).

Ancient Greece’s part in kettlebell history

Whether or not the ancient Greeks had a part to play in the creation of the modern kettlebell is debatable, but it’s certainly worth knowing where such ideas come from.

Let’s take a step back to the very beginning of the 6th century, B.C.

Heard stories of the Olympians as a child? Maybe watching Disney’s Hercules is what gave you that first urge to hit the gym.

To give you a clue about what time frame we’re entering, this was the century that Buddha and his ideas came to life in, along with the other ‘great thinkers’. It is also known as the Axial age, if you’ve ever heard of it. So, quite some time ago…

If that isn’t enough to turn your head, then you can also skip to the next century.

The fact that they used it with a swinging motion does sound oddly familiar… we wonder if the ancient Greeks had their own take on the kettlebell swing?

This springs the off-set centre of mass in kettlebells to mind, which you may have heard of already (we’ll also be covering this later in the article). Other weights such as barbells and dumbbells rest their mass on the trainer’s hands. However, with kettlebells, the centre of mass is off-set and extends beyond this.

The debate on whether these inventions influenced the modern kettlebell focuses on the fact that the they lacked this unique quality, obviously due to the time-period (and lack of resources).

Even if the ancient Greeks didn’t lead to the invention of the kettlebells we see today, it’s still amusing to see their take on weights (after all, they were the original Olympians!)

Kettlebells in Scotland

Yes, this is a little closer to home than ancient Greece. We couldn’t fail to mention Scotland in the debate about who invented the kettlebell.

After all, almost every source we found linked kettlebells to the Highland games.

If you haven’t heard of the Highland games, they’re a part of Scotland’s heritage, like the original Olympic games are to the Greeks. Their origin is hard to trace back to, as sport is something that existed long before human records did.

Among other things, the Highland games are heavily centred around ‘Heavy Events’, which involve competing in sport and athletic style activities (as well as lifting heavy objects, as the name suggests).

 There are a variety of competitions, but we’ll highlight one in particular; the weight over the bar throw.

To add to the evidence, we can’t miss out Apollo the Scottish Hercules.

Also known as William Bankier, Apollo was a Victorian strongman, which basically means a bodybuilder back before gym culture was a thing.

It’s clear that Russia wasn’t the only country influenced by kettlebells at the time, but whether they started the craze within this time frame is still up for debate.

Scotland have a partial claim on the early use of kettlebells, as well as a legendary strongman who used them often. Who knows, maybe trying out the over the bar throw made him yearn for circus life? Or maybe America introduced him to kettlebells.

Either or, we still love reading up about it (and looking at the old photos of strongmen with kettlebells; no brand names or skull-shapes to be seen!)

China’s take on handled weights 

Trying to pinpoint the history of kettlebells is no dull task. There are so many variations from different cultures, it’s really amusing to wonder how they could have impacted on what we see in gyms today… and the way that we exercise, too!

If you think that your custom kettlebells are hardcore, then you’ll want to read this. Give ‘Chinese stone locks’ a quick Google, and you’ll soon see what we mean. They look terrifying.

So, what are they?

They are especially useful for those who practice martial arts, as they are great for training specific muscles used for fighting. They can be used to mimic the shock that trainers absorb in real fights, and to train the body to deflect it when blocking kicks and punches.

They are thought to have been around since long before the Mongol conquest, which was in the 13th century. This means that they are over 1000 years old

Many articles exploring who invented the kettlebell state that the first kettlebell was invented in Russia, as their version of the word, ‘Girya’, first appeared in 1704.

We’ll talk more about this later in the article, but it’s clear that it doesn’t all boil down to just one country or culture’s influence.

Strongmen weren’t around during the time of the Shaolin Monks, and it is thought that these Monks they were the original inventors of the Chinese stone lock, or at least discovered its use an exercise tool when they were practising Shaolin kung fu.

Persian and Indian influence on kettlebell history

The weight we’re about to talk about doesn’t strike us as being an obvious connection to kettlebells, but it’s on our list for a reason.

What are we talking about? Persian meels, better known as Indian clubs (although they did originate in Persia).

They’re especially good for upper body strength, so it’s no wonder that they became so popular in Victorian England, the time of strongmen and rising popularity in group exercises.

Meels go back way before the 19th century, as there are records of them being used in ancient Persia (also known as Iran), and other locations across the Middle East.

Skip forward to the mid-19th century, and you’ll see just how prevalent these exercise tools and their routines became across the globe.

At that time in Persia, the zurkhaneh training system was huge. ‘House of strength’ is what zurkhaneh translates to, giving you a good idea of what it might be. Any guesses?

It was, and still is, sort of like a fitness class. Imagine doing a CPD in Exercise to Music, the Persian meels addition!

So, how are meels like kettlebells?

It is evident here that the main difference between kettlebells and Persian meels is that meels are more flexible when it comes to shape and size (they vary a lot).

Their general shape also means that the trainer using them can grab them at different areas to experience different loads of weight. If they are grabbed closer to the centre of mass, the load decreases, and if they are grabbed further away from the centre of mass, then it has the opposite effect.

This is handy as it means that trainers don’t have to switch out meels as often as they do kettlebells, and can achieve a more well-rounded workout in terms of the weight levels used within reps.

Saying this, kettlebells are more versatile in terms of the different movements that can be performed during a workout, and the amount of muscles in the body that are worked.

They may be less of a full-body workout than kettlebells, but if you want to focus on your upper body strength, then meels would be a great option. The movements used in a workout with meels are dance-like, and certainly a breath of fresh air in a world of repetitive, mainstream exercise routines.

After all, they were used by Persian wrestlers originally, and then strongmen across the globe after being made popular in Europe by British colonists in the 19th century.

Modernisation of the Persian meel/Indian club

If you’re into your modern and commercialised exercise equipment, then you’ll have been burning to get this out whilst reading this chapter. Yes, Persian meels/Indian clubs are the original version of steel clubs.

Like kettlebells, Persian meels disappeared from the face of the earth in the West, but in the 1930s. We’ll go into more detail about the disappearance of kettlebells later in this article, and then maybe this will seem uncanny to you.

The reason for this is that the popularity for sports grew, whilst the novelty of fitness training wore off for those who weren’t in the military or competing in athletics professionally. People generally became less interested in becoming fit.

From viewing several YouTube tutorials with steel clubs, the exercises seem more like those of kettlebells. Whilst some trainers do incorporate traditional moves into their routines, there are a lot of swings, windmills, and extensions as opposed to dance-like moves.

This is interesting, and perhaps shows a bigger picture of all the different influences from different cultures on modern day exercises, which is why we’re about to delve into the most popular claimant to kettlebell history.

Russia: The Trialblazers of Kettlebell History?

As you may have guessed, Russia is the most popular answer to the question ‘who invented the kettlebell?’

We’re not trying to prove this wrong, but we wanted to attempt to answer the question in more depth than any of the sources that we’ve found. We don’t believe in going with easy answers!

Let’s start with the beginnings of the kettlebell in Russia.

Reading this, it’s easy to see why people think that the kettlebell was first invented in Russia. The appearance of giri compared to modern kettlebells is almost identical (apart from the ones shaped like zombies or King Kong…)

Like we mentioned before, the question ‘who invented the kettlebell?’ is a grey area. The one conclusion that we can come to is that kettlebells are something that didn’t just ‘happen’.

If you think about string instruments for example, they were invented by different cultures within a similar time frame, so the invention of the modern guitar can’t be down to one culture’s idea.

Kettlebells seem to be similar; they were influenced by many different cultures and time periods, but the modern design is heavily associated with Russian culture.

This leads us nicely into our next topic; Russian kettlebell history. We hope you’ve followed us so far and have a good idea on how the kettlebell came about!

Russian kettlebell history

So, now that you know everything that you possibly could about the influences on the modern kettlebell, we’re going to delve right into this popular topic.

You may have heard phrases such as ‘Russian kettlebell swing’, or ‘Russian kettlebell workout’, and wondered where moves like this came from.

Phrases like this also highlight a pivotal time in kettlebell history; when they became so popular.

Giri are thought to have been used in Russia before ‘Girya’ appeared in the dictionary, and certainly long before they were ever popular in America. Juggling and swinging giri around was popular amongst Russian farmers and strongmen, and they were reportedly popular during Russian celebrations.

Joseph Stalin, Russia’s leader at the time, is supposed to have enjoyed the sport himself. Who would have known?

An exact timeline is difficult to piece together, but here’s what we know. We’ve made it short and sweet for your convenience, but this is the condensed list of main events when it comes to popularity in kettlebell history.

We've made it short and sweet for your convenience, but this is the condensed list of main events when it comes to popularity in kettlebell history. 

So, what brought kettlebells back?

The resurrection of kettlebells is mainly down to Pavel Tsatsouline, a former fitness trainer for Spetnaz, which is Russia’s special forces unit.

Hopefully this summary of Tsatsouline’s own kettlebell history will leave you with a better insight. It does seem unbelievable that one man could influence a fitness trend so much, but that’s the world for you!

It’s likely the idea of a new trend sparked interest in fitness fanatics, as they are constantly on the look out to be the first to try something new. Why else would you be reading up on kettlebell history? Afterall, they do look quite impressive if you haven’t trained with them before. You could be the next hero of Girevoy sport, or your clients could be!

Tsatsouline’s marketing of kettlebell training is probably the reason why most people attribute the invention of kettlebells to Russia (especially with his branding of the ‘Russian kettlebell challenge’).

While it’s clear that there are kettlebell-like training tools from a variety of different cultures, the modern kettlebell does bear the strongest resemblance to Russia’s girya.

Russia are also the only country to make kettlebell training mandatory for their workers, and the first to hold kettlebell competitions.

They may not have single-handedly invented the kettlebell as a training tool, but they certainly had a heavy involvement. The modern kettlebell would not exist without them.

How to use kettlebells: Russian kettlebell exercises

Now that we’ve looked back enough to know that Russia did heavily influence the modern kettlebell, why don’t we look at some of the moves that have developed throughout kettlebell history?

All of the following are either deemed to be traditional Russian kettlebell exercises or have been modified through modernisation (but look extremely similar to old Russian training guides).

Maybe you’re new to this exercise, and you’re wondering how to use kettlebells? Or maybe you’re looking for some moves to try out with clients at your first kettlebell class.

We’ve got beginner, intermediate, and advanced exercises to get your imagination flowing.

Kettlebell press

Demonstration:

Russian kettlebell swing

Demonstration:

Kettlebell Goblet Squat

Demonstration:

Kettlebell Lunge Press

Demonstration:

Russian kettlebell twist

Demonstration:

Kettlebell deadlift

Demonstration:

Russian military press

Demonstration:

The benefits of kettlebell training

We may have glossed over some of these in our kettlebell history guide, but let’s talk about kettlebell benefits more directly. If you’re going to sell it to your clients, then knowing the benefits of kettlebell training is a must.

Just in case you’re new to the scene and you’re wondering how to use kettlebells with your clients, use this list as a quick reference point.

It doesn’t matter what your clients’ goals are, all the exercises link directly to these kettlebell benefits (some more than others, depending on the move). You can always see the previous chapter for ideas. There is something for everyone!

The benefits of kettlebell training tie directly into kettlebell history, as they are the reason that different cultures started to use them in the first place.

If you ever need a quick reminder of kettlebell benefits to show to your clients, now you have one!

How are kettlebells made?

Kettlebell anatomy

If you’re an experienced kettlebell athlete, then you’ll probably have knowledge of kettlebell anatomy already.

If not, then this could be useful to know, especially if you’re looking into a CPD Kettlebell course, and want to get the anatomy right for your future classes and clients.

There’s not much to it, but this could save you a lot of time when trying to explain different techniques to entire classes (especially when not everyone is familiar with kettlebells).

Now you can avoid questions like ‘what do you mean the horn?’, or someone injuring their wrist grabbing the wrong part of the handle.

It’s a good idea to give a quick run-through of kettlebell anatomy at the beginning of each class; it only needs to take ten seconds.  

What is a good starting weight for kettlebells?

This is a question we hear a lot, and it’s important to get this right. A good starting weight for kettlebells is one that feels comfortable and doesn’t strain your muscles and joints in an unnatural way.  

In Russia, kettlebells are around 16kg as a standard weight (a Russian pood).

For men, this is around average for a good starting weight for kettlebells, whereas women may want to start with a lighter weight. It all depends on the trainer’s fitness level.

It’s advised that you should start with a weight of 8kg-16kg while you’re getting used to the techniques, and then push past this if you wish.

Nothing is set in stone, so if you progress faster or slower than others, this is fine!

Take care when finding a good starting weight for kettlebells. You may pick up an 8kg bell and think that it’s way too light, but remember that this can change during the actual workout. Start small and gradually. 

Kettlebell competitions

How could we talk about kettlebell history, and leave out the legendary kettlebell competitions?

In a ‘then and now’ format, we’re going to take you through another journey in time.

We’ve mentioned Girevoy sport in Russia and talked of The First Cup of Girevoy Sport in 1988, as well as The First World Kettlebell Lifting Championship in 1993.

These were the first major kettlebell competitions, but what came before (and in-between) them?

Kettlebell history continues to surprise us; there’s so much to it! Now you have a brief history of kettlebell competitions and Girevoy sport (of course, there will have been even more between these dates), it’s worth having a think about kettlebell competitions in context.

So, what about now? Are you familiar with kettlebell competitions in 2019, or have you never heard of them?

Perhaps you’ve even competed in one…

Whatever the answer, here’s what we know about kettlebell competitions now! (and how they function)

How kettlebell competitions work

In your typical competition, there are three events that kettlebell athletes compete in. These are the Biathlon, the Long Cycle, and the Snatch. Each of the kettlebell competitions has a 10-minute time limit.

Biathlon

Long Cycle

Associations for kettlebell competitions

The kettlebell world championships are hard to track, as they usually take place in the countries where kettlebells and Girevoy sport are more prevalent. As kettlebells are still something of a niche across the globe, finding info on these kettlebell competitions can be fiddly.

The latest world championships were held in Latvia, from the 10th-15th of October 2018.

The European Championship 2019 will be held in Stolberg, Germany, 30th May-2nd June. Keep your eyes peeled for this! Who knows, maybe you’ll end up joining the kettlebell athletes in Stolberg yourself? 

Kettlebell History: Women in Kettlebell Sport

We thought it would be wrong to miss this out of our kettlebell history article, especially due to it being a subject that gets swept under the rug.

We’ve heard this FAQ a lot: ‘When were women allowed in kettlebell sport?’

It’s certainly a valid question, and the answer may surprise you! It really is something that came about in recent years, as opposed to other sports.

So, when were women allowed in kettlebell sport?

This is rather shocking, and we find it hard to believe that it took so long for organisations to allow women in kettlebell sport.

What about now?

In some countries, women are still only allowed to compete in the kettlebell Snatch, and are excluded from other competitions…

In general, things for women in kettlebell sport have slowly improved since their early days of competing, but there is still a long way to go before kettlebell athletes are seen as equal, no matter their gender. 

Here’s some quick-fire info to fill you in on what’s happened recently!

Although progression for women in kettlebell sport has been slow, it’s evident that things are changing for the better.

If you’re a female kettlebell athlete, or thinking of becoming one, why don’t you get yourself down to your local competition? Who knows, you could be the next World Champion to go down in kettlebell history!

The more women in kettlebell sport who compete, the better things will get.

Kettlebell History FAQs

#1 Who invented the kettlebell?

If you missed our answer to this question, then you should know that it’s a grey area. Russia, Persia, China, Greece, and many other countries have invented exercise tools that resemble the modern kettlebell in one way or another!

Russia’s Girya does seem to be the closest to the modern kettlebell, however.

#2 What are kettlebells good for?

Kettlebells are good for the strength and conditioning of the body, as they are good for cardio as well as bodybuilding. This is exactly what they’ve been used for throughout kettlebell history!

#3 What is a good starting weight for kettlebells?

It is recommended that trainers start with 8-16kg bells whilst getting used to the techniques, and before working their way up in Girevoy sport. Kettlebell athletes can compete with much heavier bells than this! 

#4 Are kettlebells good for losing weight?

Used alongside a nutritious diet, kettlebells are good for losing weight! This is because they are a full body workout and help you to build muscle (which burns fat).

#5 When were women allowed in kettlebell sport?

Women first competed in 1999, but they were limited to what they could compete in/what weights they could compete with. See our ‘women in kettlebell history’ section for more info!

#6 Are kettlebell swings good for you?

Yes. Russian kettlebell swings are a great move to start with; they work your back, shoulders, hips, legs, and glutes. When you master this, move onto the American kettlebell swing (see the ‘how to use kettlebells’ section for more info)

Before you go!

Hopefully after reading our ultimate guide to kettlebell history, you’ve learned some things that you didn’t know.

Got any kettlebell history facts that we’ve overlooked? Let us know in the comments below!

If you’ve got something to share about your own kettlebell experiences, then we want to know! Are you a kettlebell athlete, or have you just picked up your first set of bells?

Throw us your questions on Twitter or Facebook, and remember to keep your eyes peeled for more articles on the OriGym Blog.