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What I Know About Russian Kettlebells So Far

This is my long kettlebell manifesto, kind of a compliment to the weight training history piece I wrote recently. Again, feel free to skip it if you aren’t into KB fitness.

Variety

I’ve tried a lot of different kettlebell brands and styles. The selection wasn’t always this generous. Most of the people throwing these iron balls around were proud knuckle-draggers and fitness people out at the fringe. That changed of course. The kettlebell has been gaining steam for the last couple of years. Recently Jillian from The Biggest Loser whipped one out on TV, and that did it.

Now you can find a kettlebell, or girya, just about anywhere. I saw one for sale at Barnes and Noble not too long ago. It was in a little box about the size of a season of television on DVD. It probably weighed about a pound. In the future, I’ve no doubt that you’ll be able to open a box of Strength-O cereal and have a small iron ball drop out into your bowl.

I’m not sure what sort of kettlebell workouts you’d be putting together with a one or two pounder, but to each their own. I’ve also seen an adjustable kettlebell handle which has these plates that you can slide in an out of a little frame. The weight maintains the same diameter, but you can save money and not fill your entire house with Russian strength training equipment–or so the legend goes.

I am going to list them in order of preference, with any relevant information I have learned about each one. Kettlebells are not cheap, but the right ones will outlast you, unless you throw them off of tall buildings. And I guess they could last even then, provided you threw them onto soft grass or into a lake.

Dragon Door Kettlebells

RCK Authentic Kettlebells on SALE

If I could go back to the beginning of my training, I would have started with Dragon Door Kettlebells. I started with the Apollo kettlebells brand. It wasn’t horrible for me to learn on, but I also didn’t know any better. Kettlebell technique can change quite a bit if the diameters of the bells or the handles get too screwy.

I had fun and I believe that is really what matters with any sort of fitness training. But there was a point where I had gotten good enough that I wanted to know if I deserved better, that I should find out if I was missing anything, if that makes sense.

Some of this is kind of hard to explain if you haven’t used kbs before, but with the DD RKC bells, the balance is right, the width and thickness of the kettlebell handle is perfect, and I like the coating. Dragon Door has drastically cut their prices recently. They’re still expensive, but I am currently in the process of replacing all of my oldies with this brand. No regrets.

The face of Dragon Door is Pavel Tsatsouline. Pavel is largely responsible for the kettlebell’s popularity in America. He came over in the early 2000s and that, as they say, was that. It’s been nearly ten years and now it’s getting harder to find strength training enthusiasts who haven’t heard at least heard of the girya or come across Pavel’s strength books in their cybertravels.

Pavel’s school of kettlebell instruction is called the Hardstyle Kettlebell method. It emphasizes power and speed, although the KB is a great tool for cardio conditioning as well. In my opinion, one of the only limiting factors of the kettlebell is that they can’t be used for every goal. Meaning, for example, that if you want to deadlift progressively heavier weights, at some point you won’t be able to make the leaps with kettlebells alone. You’ll need to get a barbell and a bunch of plates.

There are a lot of people out there who will yap at you all day about how kettlebells are the only tool anyone should use. Nah. Don’t listen to them. They’re great for a lot of things, but I just love barbells and dumbbells too much to totally commit to one tool for the rest of my training life.

I got certified by Mr. Tsatsouline at the RKC instructor certification in June of 2009. It was a lot of fun and I’ve never regretted it. The rest of the RKC leadership have a very small online presence, but if you’re looking to investigate the hardstyle system further, I’d recommend having a look at the material of Brett Jones, Geoff Neupert, David Whitley, Andrea DuCane, Jeff O’Connor, Kenneth Jay, and Mark Reifkind.

If you’re ever planning on teaching kettlebells according to hardstyle principles, the RKC weekend is a lot of fun, but it’s grueling. Go prepared if you go.

Update: Kenneth Jay is no longer part of the RKC system. Also, I’ve done a lot of thinking since I went through, and I now believe that kettlebell certifications are more expensive than they should be. It would be stupid of them to charge less if people are willing to pay it, but if I could go back, I would never be able to justify the price for the material–if I wanted to go just for fun, I would, but the material is not worth a couple thousand bucks to me. If you want to read more about this, please check out Are Kettlebell Certifications Too Expensive?

Lifeline kettlebells

I have a 40kg Lifeline kettlebell. In size, shape, and balance, they are very similar to the Dragon Door’s. Sometimes Lifeline runs great sales, but on the whole, they’re typically cheaper than the RKC models. This might just be specific to the one I bought, but I love the handle on the lifeline KB. There are some movements, such as the bottoms up press, that I hit a lot more consistently with the Lifeline kettlebells. I like the coating and the thickness of the handle a lot.

Speaking of the handle, I’ve heard that a lot of them are welded on, versus cast, which causes a lot of people to worry. I don’t know if it’s true or not, but I’ve never had any issues with mine.

Mike Mahler is a big brute of a personal trainer who has put out some very cool kettlebell dvds. I’m a big fan of Mike’s, and his Aggressive Strength website promotes Lifelines. I can’t argue with him.

Perform Better

Perform Better makes regular kettlebells, which I haven’t used. But I haven’t ever heard a complaint about them. Where I really love Perform Better is their competition kettlebells. Have you ever heard of Girevoy sport? It’s crazy, brutal, and awesome.

For the competition bells, there are differences in sizes and the shapes of the handle, but the main thing is: all of the weights are the same size in diameter. Whether you’re using a 32kg or a 12kg kettlebell, they are the same size kettlebells. This is how they standardize things for the competitions. It also makes it easier to practice the lifts, because you’re never wondering if you’ve got the kb in the same position as the rep before it. Or at least, you will know that the size of the bell is not what is changing your technique.

Speaking of those competitions, they are true tests of mental toughness and grit. Hardstyle kettlebell training is more of a sprint, but Girevoy sport–practiced by loonies called Giriveks–is a marathon.The events are a lot more formidable than they sound: the kettlebell snatch, clean and jerk, and long cycle.

If you’re looking for some formidable gents, check out Valery Fedorenko and Andrew Durniat. Valery is a head coach with the American Kettlebell Club. the AKC is the US subset of the World Kettlebell Club, which holds annual championships globally every year.

They also come in snazzy colors! (The competition kettlebells, not the coaches)

Agatsu kettlebells

Agatsu is a Canadian kettlebell manufacturer. I have a 48 kilo bell from them, also known as The Beast. My mom grabbed it for me as a Christmas present a few years ago. I do not know much about Agatsu kbs beyond the one I’ve got. So far so good. The coating is a bit smooth for my taste and chips quite easily, but if you need a beautiful, pristine kettlebell, you might as well shop at Dick’s Sporting Goods, put your Everlast bell in the corner, and let it get dusty. It’s the only way to keep them un-dinged.

Apollo kettlebells

I spent my first 12 months of kettlebell training using Apollos that I found in a used Sporting Goods store. For most kettlebell exercises, they suck. Now, don’t get me wrong–I made a lot of progress in that year using my Apollos and I still have four of them, but they are crappy fitness equipment. The handles are really wide and long. This really matters once you’re doing lifts where the kettlebell rack on your forearm impacts your performance.

For swings, the core of kettlebell training, Apollos are pretty okay. But, even for swings, I’ve had some clients I’ve trained who have bigger thighs than they would like. Most of my female clients want to use the kettlebells for fat loss. The size of the handle on the Apollos made even swings hard for this woman because the handle was so wide she couldn’t get her thighs out of the way.

I am often asked, “What size/weight kettlebell should I start with?” The most common suggestion I see is that men should start with a 16 kilo kettlebell. I disagree with this in some cases, which I talked about recently in this article, Can a man start with a 24 kilo kettlebell?

Other kettlebell brands that I haven’t used, but that you can research

London Kettlebells

Muscledriver

Art of Strength

Anthony Diluglio runs Punch Kettlebell Gyms. I haven’t used his bells, but I’ve heard nothing but good things about them. Also, if you’re looking for seriously overpriced kettlebell jewelry, this is the place.

Suggestion

If you’re looking for used or discounted kettlebells, I would strongly urge you to avoid buying from department stores. They’re just not very good quality. If you buy used, I would recommend sticking with the brands listed above.

Other kettlebell organizations, systems, and certifications

IKFF – International Kettlebell & Fitness Federation

The two heavy hitters in this club are the incredibly strong Steve Cotter and Ken Blackburn. Steve and Ken are both martial artists. They offer several levels of kettlebell certification, called CKT. Certified trainers must recertify every three years.

Two-day Certs cost between $1000-$1400, depending on how early you register.

Agatsu

This Canadian company offers instructor certification through Shawn Mozen. 16 hours of instruction, $500.

Maxbells

Steve Maxwell was affiliated with the RKC system for quite a while before leaving to form his own company. Various kettlebell and martial arts workshops with Mr. Maxwell run between $500-900, which some extra-day add-ons possible.

Russian kettlebell complaints

I know a lot of people who have been injured while lifting kbs. Sometimes it is their fault, sometimes it is not. But assuming that they’re just flat-out dangerous is shortsighted and untrue. They’re just pieces of metal. It is the way they are often used that is dangerous. Logan Christopher is a friend of mine, a friend of the blog, and performs some of the most dangerous-looking feats I have ever seen with the giryas. He recently wrote a post for me that you might found useful called “Are kettlebell dangerous?”

Kettlebell DVDs and Books

Enter The Kettlebell! (Book & DVD) There are a lot of great things on Youtube. Most of the kettlebell instruction is not great. Learn your technique from Pavel and you’ll be fine, as long as you can get over the fact that he’s demonstrating next to a bunch of ammunition reserves. Also has great programs for beginners up through advanced levels.

Benchmarks of this program include:

  • The secret service snatch test (200 snatches in 10 minutes with a 24kilo kettlebell–even strong women use a lighter bell)
  • Rite of passage: Complete the SSST and military press the kb closest to to half of your bodyweight
  • Program minimum: Do swing and turkish get ups for a couple of months to prepare yourself for the workload to come

Return of The Kettlebell

Tsatsouline returns with a book that doubles your pleasure–or not. This book is for gireviks that complete the workouts programs outlined in ETK. In the programs in RTK, you add one KB. Cleaning and jerking two kettlebells for reps is the best kind of fun, but I truly would not tackle the programs in this book until you’ve put in some time working on kettlebell basics.

One of our only limiting factors in the amount of weight training progress we can make is time. Time is finite stuff. There’s nothing more frustrating for the strength nut than to get an injury and take a forced layoff, especially when it was preventable.

Get with a trainer, learn to lift safely, learn to avoid kettlebell injuries, go through ETK and the Rite of Passage, then tackle RTK.

Bottom line

Your strength training should be fun. If it’s not fun for you, try something else. If adding  big Russian kettle bells is going to help you lose fat, get stronger, build muscle, but above all, have more fun in your training, by all means, expand the toolbox.

The End (for now)


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Comments on this entry are closed.

  • Mich July 12, 2010, 5:28 pm

    Thank you for this post. I used kbs for the first time today and this was a very useful overview.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 7:01 pm

      You’re welcome! I’m glad it helped. Let me know how your progress goes, please.

  • Kevin Greto July 12, 2010, 7:54 pm

    Awesome post, it’s always fun to read about kettlebells.

    I’m a Muscledriverusa user, I have their original gray series in 16kg & 24kg (no longer availible), a 24kg in the gray series version 2, and a 36kg in their black series (also no longer available). I always suggest them to my friends because the price for the quality can’t be beat. Only downside IMO is the new gray series (the ones I suggest) chip fairly easily, making kettlebell stacking and such a tad disheartening.

    I do have one dragondoor, 16kg, it’s great, but it’s also my most expensive kettlebell, coming in at $115. It is great though, perfect for snatches.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 12, 2010, 8:35 pm

      Glad to hear it, Kevin. I’ve never used a Muscledriver and don’t personally know anyone who has them. Thanks for jumping in.

  • John Sifferman July 13, 2010, 6:26 am

    I hear you on how different sized KB’s screw with your technique, that’s why I use the IKFF pro grade bells – each weight is still the same dimensions, so your technique doesn’t change when you change sizes. Good writeup, Josh!

  • Heather July 13, 2010, 9:13 am

    OK, OK, I’ll admit it, I use a crap kettlebell—it’s a 15-pounder from GoFit, but at the time it was all I knew and all I could get my hands on. I even bought one of those plate-adjustable-with-handle things (Weider makes it, and boy howdy does it SUCK) but couldn’t handle the handle–GD, is it big! Am currently saving up to hit up Dragon Door later this year and get some o’ theirs. I have only used The Kettlebell Goddess workouts from Andrea DuCane, but I sure do dig those! My goal is to get 2 14 or 18-pounders from DD so I can finally–FINALLY—do the Odyne workout. Yeah, that’s right, Odyne, GODDESS OF PAIN. The way I got started was through Oxygen magazine, a couple years ago they did a thing on kettlebells with a little mini-workout, and their model used a GoFit bell. By far, my fave moves are swings and snatches, and my fave workout for fat-burning is the one found in From Russia with Tough Love, where you do 50 snatches or swings (25 per arm), jog around the block, then drop your reps by 10 (-5 each arm) until you get down to doing 5 swings or snatches with each arm, then a light jog, then you walk, then you pass out in your lawn in a puddle of your own vomit. But the great thing about that workout is—it works! You can hear the fat splorking onto the floor the minute you finally come to and realize you need a shower. Josh, this was a great write-up! I’ve been looking into more and more Dragon Door stuff because of you and Mike Mahler, Mahler’s one of my heroes, along with Andrea and Nicole DuKane. Oh, yeah, I almost forgot! DRAGON WALKS!!!!!!!!! I digs me some Dragon Walks with my little 15-pounder. I’ll dragonwalk across my backyard, but I’m working my way up to dragonwalking the church parking lot behind my haouse, simply because it’s bigger. Thanks again, man, you rock!

    • Josh Hanagarne July 13, 2010, 2:14 pm

      I’ll stay away from Odyne. She sounds too fierce for this sissy.

    • amanda October 24, 2010, 7:39 pm

      Hi Heather, I just started thinking about getting into kettle bells, this has been totally inspirational. Thank you!

  • Demond Thompson July 13, 2010, 2:09 pm

    Great article and it takes be back aways from my own training. I love training with kettlebells and I’m so glad I decided not to sell mine. I’m not sure what I’d do. 🙂

    • Josh Hanagarne July 13, 2010, 2:15 pm

      Demond, hang onto them! There’s always something else you can sell. If HBO has taught me anything, it’s that you can always just become a gigolo.

  • Mike July 14, 2010, 3:44 pm

    Great article and website Josh. Very positive and inspirational. I use the pro-grade Kbs from Wolversons. Perfect when you go up in weight or change exercise because the physical size remains the same.

    Best of luck in all your endeavours.

    Mike (CKT)

    • Josh Hanagarne July 14, 2010, 3:53 pm

      Hey Mike, thanks! I’ve never known a CKT, although I’ve been telling Ken Blackburn I’m going to take away his chair press record:) Thanks for jumping in. Please let me know if I can ever do anything for you.

      • Mike July 14, 2010, 4:06 pm

        I’ve never met Ken but I know he’s incredibly agile for a big guy. Steve Cotter did the certification I attended in London (Hither Green) in March this year.

        All the best

        Mike

  • jay July 18, 2010, 1:50 pm

    great post.
    i’ve been an agatsu kettlebell coach for 3 years now and have used agatsu, dragon door and perform better kettlebells.

    the majority of my set is agatsu (18 out of 20 bells) and my students love them. the smoothness of the bell’s finish and dimensions of the handle make it comfortable to learn cleans and snatches.

    me personally, i don’t mind a rough handle as i’ve developed a thick layer of leathery hands from lifting but when you’re dealing with a woman in her 60s who wants the physical benefits of kettlebell training without the leather hands, then i promote the agatsu…and no, that’s not because i’m agatsu certified and biased, that’s because my client’s safety and comfort are of the utmost importance. i’m just telling it how it is.

    excellent posts as always. keep it up!

    • Josh Hanagarne July 18, 2010, 2:37 pm

      Thanks Jay. Once my agatsu handle started chipping, I just took all the finish off of it and have not had any complaints since. It sounds like you care for all the right reasons. Thanks for jumping in.

  • Rambodoc July 28, 2010, 7:36 am

    Hi, Josh!
    I am amazed at your grace. You know what I mean, and in what context. Let me say I continue to follow your posts with great interest and miss you in the DD Forum.

  • Dan Szepesi July 29, 2010, 5:05 pm

    Ditto to Rambodoc comments. I was cringing waiting for some rehash or bitterness but you are the bigger man.

    Have you ever used Ader? I like them a lot and local strongwoman (Lisa Shaffer) can get them for me without shipping 🙂 I do wish they were made in the US though.

    I have some DD bells but I can’t say they work better for me.

    • Josh Hanagarne July 29, 2010, 5:13 pm

      Dan, talk is cheap. Real life doesn’t happen online, my friend. Anyone who can actually feel any real emotion about any of this inconsequential nonsense is not someone I need in my life, online or off. I train for fun. I train for me. If someone would put half the thought into their own training that they put into worrying about mine and Adam’s, their progress would look more like ours. I have nothing to prove. I am only interested in being superior to who I was yesterday and I believe I practice what I preach. Contrary to popular belief, typing does not result in great strength:)

      I haven’t used Ader, but I have heard good and bad things about them. I think someone else on this thread said they loved them. I love the DDs. Do they work better? Who knows? If so, it isn’t because they’re calling them “military grade.” But I love how they feel.

  • AngstRidden August 11, 2010, 11:24 pm

    Josh,

    Exactly what is it that kettlebells can “do” that dumbbells can’t, and vise versa? Iow, why/when would someone use one over the other?

    Thanx.

    • Josh Hanagarne August 12, 2010, 8:42 am

      Honestly, the only thing I would not try with dumbbells is juggling. That is what I think kettlebells are best for. It is the only place where I think they are demonstrably superior. For me, the thing that kettlebells can “do” that dumbbells can’t, is add consistent fun to my workouts. About 75% of what I do these days is with heavy barbell workouts, but I still do something with a kettlebell every single time I train, just because it’s so dang fun for me.

      It would all come down to your goals. If your only goal is to get stronger, I could help you do that with kettlebells or dumbbells. But if you enjoyed one more than the other, that would make the choice obvious for me.

  • Larry Clark September 29, 2010, 12:54 pm

    Hi Josh, have heard you on Podcasts before and ran across your site while trying to find my Kettlebell Niche site on Google. I’m in a niche site challenge with Pat Flynn and Tyrone Shum, and my Niche I chose was on Russian Kettlebell Training:
    http://www.russiankettlebelltraining.com

    Anyway not only am I doing a niche site, but I started training with Kettlebells as well. I figure I might as well so I have better knowledge of them, and I have about 48 pounds to lose. 🙂

    My question to you, is there are Kettlebells for sale on Amazon and their affordable. But after reading your post about the klettlebells, I am wondering if I should just hold off and buy one of DD RKCs Kettlebells?

    I’d hate to buy something and then find out it’s all screwy you know? I’ve injured myself once before lifting, and I wouldn’t want to do it again.

    I also have the Enter the Kettlebell DVD, Book and the workbook. all I can say is Holy Crap, the right of passage is insane. so are some of the “normal” workouts. Then again I am seriously out of shape now too.

    When you were certified by Pavel, did you have to do the right of passage workout or what was involved?
    Thanks for the post,
    Larry

    • Josh Hanagarne September 29, 2010, 2:05 pm

      Awesome! I haven’t heard from Tyrone for a while, glad to hear he’s still around.

      So–as to the kettlebells. If it were me and I had all the money I needed and could do whatever I wanted, I would buy Dragon Door kettlebells. That is my personal preference. I like how they feel, I like how they look, and I like to use them. But I could absolutely make great progress with any other brand. I choose not to because I do know what I like, but I could. I could probably bolt a handle into a big rock and do just fine if I had to.

      The certification: the qualifications for becoming an RKC are very easy. You have to be able to snatch a 24 kilo kettlebell (for men) 100 times in 5 minutes. Then you have to be able to get through three days of a heavy workload as you learn, but the snatch test is the only official benchmark you must hit, number-wise.

      I went through the RKC for personal reasons. I had fun, but didn’t learn a whole lot now that I look back. It was just a starting point. If I was making the decision again, I wouldn’t go through it. I think many of their philosophies and methods and counterproductive and what I am doing right now is working better for me. That’s just me, so do what makes you happy.

      Please ask if you’ve got more questions. This has been a good discussion so far.

  • Dan Szepesi September 29, 2010, 7:10 pm

    Larry:

    DD bells are real expensive. Especially when you are starting out with the lower weights, i wouldnt worry too much about the brand. I personally think all the RKC’s that you talk to will push DD bells because its what they used to hit that lofty perch so you know that they spent literally thousands of hours with that brand.

    There are plenty of solid replacements out there. Just get swinging!

    (Note: I now use Ader and my heart explodes just as well as it does with my DD bells. I just moved up to 72 by taping two 5lb plates to the bottom of my 62 lb bells. Don’t believe the hype, its a hunk of metal with a handle. Hmm, maybe I am not the best to give advice here huh….)

    • Josh Hanagarne September 29, 2010, 7:23 pm

      Dan, I agree on all but one point. The perch is more expensive than lofty!

  • Larry Clark October 4, 2010, 6:33 pm

    I’ve decided to just go with a brand I found on Amazon, because I can pay for it with AMEX points, and not spend any money. This way the little lady will be happy and I get to work out at home instead of having to drive to the gym everyday.
    Thanks for the suggestions and coverage on the Kettlebell topic guys.. I appreciate it.

  • Tim Hunt June 15, 2011, 5:28 am

    “There’s nothing more frustrating for the strength nut than to get an injury and take a forced layoff, especially when it was preventable.”

    You’re telling me! I blew out my knee from walking (if you can believe it) in January of 2010, I’m just now recovering from the surgery I got in mid May, and boy has it been a frustrating, stir-crazy 17 months so far! I cannot wait to hit the Giryas again! Speaking of which…

    Before my injury I had been using a line of kettlebells not listed in your critique, the York Hercules® Cast Iron kettlebells (I own a 35, 50, and 70 pounder, they size theirs differently), and they’re of decent quality, no welded-on handles or flashy vinyl coatings and whatnot. They do however, have a few flaws of their own.

    – The bottoms aren’t 100% flat,
    – The flat face on both sides of the bell are too big (hits the wrist harder), and
    – Beyond the 50lb KBs the handles get too wide.

    I kind of wish I had spent the extra buck on the Dragon Door KBs instead of cheaping out on the American impression of an RKC Girya, which is why I’m putting very serious thought into just selling those and replacing them with the DD KBs.

    Anyways, I loved reading your article and found it to be pretty helpful. All the best!