There are various theories about the origins of the kettle bell. They are known to have been used in Russia as early as the 1700s. Originally the kettle bell, or gyra, was used as a weight at markets. The gyra weighed around 16 kg. At some point farmers established it further as a useful exercise tool. However, there are also historic illustrations sufficient to suggest the kettle bell was in use in Ancient Greece. Whichever country first made use of them, they are now popular internationally, but especially in Russia, the US, and, increasingly, the UK. Originally men trained to gain an athletic physique, but not the modern goal of heavy, muscular arms and legs, torso with a V taper, as this is not the build of strength. Heavy limbs are not fast-moving limbs, and require a lot of fuel to maintain. Instead, the emphasis was on strong and lean, and in proportion. The kettle bell is an ideal tool to achieve this.
Any decent trainer knows that free weights offer the body a far greater challenge – and results -than fixed resistance. Well, kettle bells do that of course, but they offer more besides:
Improve balance and co-ordination
Improve bone density
Increase cardio function
Educate yourself to recruit your whole body in movement!
When I swing my kettle bell, I am working on balance as it is an unstable weight gaining and losing momentum. I am also building a stronger back and abs. When I snatch a bell above my head it puts my body under a different duress: one side maintains the weight up there, the other side is working hard as a counterbalance. When I squat with two bells held at chest height, in the rack position, it is a more demanding move than a barbell squat precisely because the bells are separate and each hand has to work independently. There is no help from one side if the other starts to bail out. Clean and jerks with two bells is fairly gruelling too. Holding two weights above your head and then jumping with them, it beats the barbell if you’re looking for danger and excitement. But if you don’t train often with the bells, some of these moves won’t be ideal for you straight off. So there’s definitely a need for some simple programming to take the mystery out of them. It frustrates the blazes out of me when trainers are nervous of these brilliant tools, and so only ever get their clients to use them for deadlifts. What a waste of potential! I run a series of three one hour workshops for clients new to the sport, at the end of which they should be safe to exercise independently. But others enjoy the sociability of the workshops and fix to meet up after the course, and swing a few bells together. Heck, it beats a latte and a muffin for endorphins! Firstly, get yourself checked out though: in particular, if you have any underlying health issues, haven’t trained much in the last few months, are over 40, or could be pregnant. The moves in kettle bell training may look easy, but they are in fact fairly technical. Incorrect form is extremely likely to lead to injury, so be prepared to invest in some qualified instruction. So who will benefit from using kettle bells? Almost everyone. They are an excellent tool for weight loss, they provide CV and resistance in one. They’re great for one to one training with a client, and make for a dynamic class activity. They are also a powerful tool for sports performance enhancement. I have used them very successfully with equestrians who need to build lower body strength, while maintaining upper body stability, and olympic lifters looking to strengthen their back. You can go all the way through to competing in Girevoy Sport (GS) or just stick to swinging in your garden. My experience has shown me that many women feel more comfortable with kettle bells than other free weights, and so get more daring with them. Once they have mastered a safe technique they feel at ease in the testosterone-laden free weight area of the gym, which is all to the good.
Getting it right
The most frequent comment I get when training for myself at my club is: “Won’t you hurt your back?” The answer is no, not if I maintain a good technique and consistently achieve the swing movement from the hips and not the back. The swing involves a very pronounced hip thrust. If you’re not sticking your belly button out at the wall / mirror in front of you, you need to stop, and practise hip extension without the weight. When that feels familiar and comfortable, then pick up the bell again and get swinging. You will need to constantly analyse your swing in the early days, so film it and watch it to make sure it stays hip dominant.
The second question I regularly field is “What happens if you drop it?” Dropping the bell from a swing onto your foot is to be avoided at all costs, so from the outset I teach my clients that if the move feels wrong, let the bell go and jump back quickly. This presupposes a floor surface that can cope with the arrival of, say, 32 kg at speed. But, that being the case, it is the safest option. Dropping the bell from overhead, however, is not to be attempted. If the technique fails, you will need to get the bell down to chest height (rack position) and take it to the floor in a controlled swing. Beginners often feel they will be safer from the risk of a bell landing on their feet if they train wearing trainers. This is illogical nonsense! Trainers have as their outer covering an instep made of nylon mesh. Furthermore, the design of modern cushion-soled training shoes means your foot is not even entirely in contact with the floor, and your ability to balance has been compromised before you’ve even picked up the bell. Ideally, get into the habit of training barefoot, but where gym etiquette will not allow this, I choose a very simple shoe with no built-up heel. My current favourites when at my club, which insists on footwear at all times, are my surfing shoes.
What you will need
Initially you will need three bells, of three different weights. What is a good weight for lower body work will be too much for overhead pressing. So, a man might choose to work with a 16kg for pressing, a 28kg for swings and a 32kg for squats. Similarly, a woman new to the discipline might choose an 8kg for pressing, 12kg for swings and a 16kg for squats. You can progress up in the weights as you get experienced: I currently swing 2x28kg and squat with 40kg+. Moving onto using two bells at once will take your training regime to another level as well. The optimum bells to work with are competition bells, as regardless of the varying weights they are all the same dimensions. This makes for less disruption in movement patterns when moving between weights. If you have any issues with muscle memory, or know your co-ordination is intrinsically poor, you would do well to take the financial hit and buy the best from the outset.
Leaving ego aside, if you are not experienced with kettle bells, you are a beginner, regardless of your prowess in any other discipline. You will need to start with basic lifts, and work through these for a few months before you will be ready to move to more advanced work. The basic lifts I use with my beginner clients are:
Deadlift Two-hand swing
One- hand swing
Then we move onto:
And later on down the line:
Clean and jerk
Turkish Get Ups
There is a wide range of extensions and progressions to add to this list, and there are some excellent sites where profoundly experienced sportsmen and women demonstrate further skills. You can always learn more, adapt further, and even design your own moves, once the basics are established.
Sources: Kettle bell Training for Athletes, David Bellomo The Kettlebell Bible, Stan Pike