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.
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
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?
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 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 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.
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
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.
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.
This Canadian company offers instructor certification through Shawn Mozen. 16 hours of instruction, $500.
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
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.
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)
If you liked this post, please Subscribe To The RSS feed.
And have you joined the World’s Strongest Book Club?