Kettlebells have a very interesting history. They were once used as tools to measure grain. Later, they were adopted as a measure of strength among Russian men. Finally, they become one of the most effective core and all-body strengthening tools that they’re now popular for.
The act of lifting a kettlebell for strength training is one that’s often credited to the Russian culture. However, there’s an ancient 143.5-kilogram stone kettlebell housed at the Archaeological Museum of Olympia in Athens, Greece.
This ancient kettlebell has “Bibon, son of Polos, heaved me above the head by one hand” inscribed on it (source). Other than this one artifact, little other evidence exists about their use in ancient cultures.
Flash forward to 1700’s Russia and kettlebells were used as a counter-weight to measure grain and other goods. The Russians called them a “girya” which translates to kettlebell in English. One “pood” equaled 16kg. One and a half pood was 24kg. Two poods weighed 32kg, and so on.
Over the next couple of centuries, giryas became a popular test of strength among Russian men. In Russia, strength is among the most desirable qualities a man can have. Workers used the weights during their downtime. They also found their way into festivals as a form of competition and entertainment.
In the late part of the 1800s, kettlebells became popular method for building strength among the Russians. However, it wasn’t until the rise of the Red Army after WWII that the foundations of the Girevoy (kettlebell) Sport were founded.
Girevoy was developed as a way to condition Red Army soldiers for battle and focused on 3 main movements:
- Jerk: The kettlebells are lifted to the chest once, and then pushed overhead using a jerking motion as many times as possible.
- Long Cycle Clean & Jerk: Same as the jerk, but the lifter must allow the kettlebells to drop to the below the waist after each overhead jerk.
- Snatch: The kettlebell is swung between the legs and up over the head in a single uninterrupted motion, with the arms kept straight.
The above movements were developed strictly to strengthen and condition. They later became the foundation of kettlebell competitions when Girevoy became an official Russian sport in the mid-1980s. During this time, kettlebells were also used extensively throughout Europe.
They didn’t find their way to America until Valery Federenko, a Girevoy champ, brought them here when he immigrated in 1999. Federenko was one of the first champions to be crowned in the sport. Federenko taught thousands of American martial artists and athletes how to use kettlebells. In 2006, he formed the World Kettlebell Club.
During this time and continuing to the present, the use of kettlebells exploded. This mostly due to mixed martial artists and CrossFit athletes embracing their core-strengthening benefits.
More and more people outside professional sports are now using kettlebells to strengthen their body and increase their fitness.
Kettlebells will always be popular because:
- They’re reasonably priced and versatile.
- Are easy to move around and store.
- They offer limitless movements for exercise enthusiasts to do anywhere.