In the last 20 years, kettlebells have become enormously popular as one of the most effective and convenient ways to enhance any workout. Once a tool used to weigh groceries in 1700s Russia, the kettlebell as we know today was born when market vendors began swinging and lifting them to show their brawn.
After making their way to the Soviet military to aid training, it wasn’t until Belarusian fitness instructor, Pavel Tsatsouline, brought them to the attention of the fitness communities in the West in the ’90s, most notably through his books and series of instructional videos, that the kettlebell gained true notoriety. Soon after that, they became a standard fixture in gyms and studios around the world.
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Nowadays, the wall of kettlebells that proudly sits in most fitness spaces is commonplace, with a range of sizes, shapes and coordinated colours. Although, the beauty of the kettlebell is that its use isn’t restricted to the gym.
Much like dumbbells, the portability of the kettlebell means you can use them to train just about anywhere. They’re also super versatile and can be used in a multitude of ways, from building stamina and strength to longer, more cardio-induced sets or circuit-style training.
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However, anyone looking to create their own kettlebell set-up at home will quickly realise it’s not so easy knowing where to begin. They come in a plethora of different shapes, sizes and materials, each of which can prove better or worse depending on how you want to use them and which exercises you’ll be doing. Whether you’re new to the world of kettlebells, or well versed in the art of swings, snatches and squats at the gym, here is our guide to buying the right type of kettlebell for you.
The different types of kettlebells
With the explosion of kettlebell training, there are now many shapes and sizes available to buy. The most popular kinds you’ll find while kettlebell shopping include:
The biggest distinguishing feature of a competition kettlebell compared to the more conventional type is that the handle is much smaller and squarer in design. This is because competition kettlebells are designed to be used with just one hand. The advantage here is that your hand doesn’t slide around, and because the size and shape stays the same size regardless of the weight, you’ll get used to the size even when the weight changes. This means though that you can’t use this type of kettlebell effectively if you’re looking to perform that popular two-handed swing or goblet squat, as well as beginner-based exercises.
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Recommended competition kettlebells: In the US, Kettlebell Kings’ competition kettlebell weights are known as some of the best out there. In the UK, Wolverson Fitness are renowned for their market-leading kettlebells. Rogue also have a beautifully designed collection available internationally and are seen in many of the most popular functional fitness competitions.
An adjustable kettlebell is exactly what its name suggests. Being the most versatile kettlebell you can get, it boasts a variety of weighted plates within the kettlebell that can easily be unlocked and removed to adjust the weight, usually in 4, 6, 8, 12, 16, 18, 20, and 24kg in Europe (and 10, 15, 20, 25, 30 pounds in the US).
Many people prefer the more conventional kettlebell over the adjustable variety, mainly because they aren’t quite as durable as a cast iron version, but also because the inclusion of connectable parts makes them clunkier than their single cast counterparts.
(Fitness House Dipped Exercise Kettlebell pictured)
Cast iron kettlebells
The cast iron kettlebell is produced from one solid piece of metal so unlike the competition kettlebell, its size increases the heavier the weight, which means that the lower weights are much easier to use for more complex movements. The other noticeable difference between this and the competition kettlebell is the handle is much wider and thus enables you to use two hands – making all those double-handed exercises possible. This type of kettlebell might be a good choice if you’re a beginner, as it’s much more diverse in how you can use it. Also, due to the material that they’re made out of, cast iron kettlebells should last you a lifetime.
You can also buy vinyl-coated variants of cast iron kettlebells, designed for the simple reason of adding a level of protection outside the metal that’s less likely to mark or crack floors and fixtures.
Best cast iron kettlebells: In the UK, Mirafit is known for its popular black cast iron kettlebells, which are available in a range of weights from 4kg (9Ibs) to 32kg (70Ibs) and have a powder coated matt black finish with orange styling. You can’t go wrong with this brand, to be honest. In the US, Kettlebell Kings, again, are probably your best option. Other notable brands to look for include Rogue and the increasingly popular Bulldog Gear range available in the UK.
Vinyl and plastic kettlebells
In more recent years, due to the ubiquitous use of kettlebells, vinyl or plastic versions have made their way to market, with their main sell being that they’re better for home use due to them not marking the floor. However, there is a reason why kettlebell manufacturers in the know never produce plastic bells. Sand is a common filling in order to get the weight, and eventually this will start to leak out – especially with the cheaper bells.
The other problem with vinyls is that they can get very slippery as your hands sweat, made even more irritating by the annoying seams where they have been coated, which has been known to damage the hands.
The main positive of vinyl kettlebells is the price, with most options available being far cheaper that many of the longer lasting equivalents. So although the quality and build is lessened, they’re a good option for people looking to test out the benefits of kettlebells before making a weightier investment.
(Bodymax Vinyl Kettlebells pictured)
The tech option
Available globally, the JaxJox KettlebellConnect is an adjustable smart kettlebell that aims to track your workouts. Made by startup JaxJox, who took to CES to launch with this all-singing, all-dancing $300 smart piece of equipment in early January, the KettlebellConnect is a multi-weight device touting a six-axis motion sensor. Like a smartwatch or fitness tracker, it’s able to track your every movement with accuracy, keeping a record of your reps, sets and workout time through a connected app.
And thanks to its charging station, you can even switch between six different weights in a matter of seconds – from 6kg (13Ibs) to 20kg (44Ibs). There are also a large selection of workouts streamed from the app to ensure you can train in the comfort of your home without running out of ideas. It’s obviously not the cheapest adjustable kettlebell out there, and once you’ve hit the weight limit you won’t be able to go higher, but if you’re a fan of tracking data and don’t mind the hefty price tag, it’s the best option out there.
Which kettlebell is best for what?
For those exercises that involve the simplest of movements and don’t require too much interaction with the kettlebell itself, such as a single arm deadlift, single leg deadlift or slingshot, any type of kettlebell can be used.
However, one of the most important kettlebell exercises is the kettlebell swing. And as long as the handle is not made from vinyl, or has a bad finish that cuts up the hands, then any kettlebell will be suitable. Note that double-handed swings won’t be easy with competition kettlebells, though.
If you intend to take your kettlebell training a little more seriously and want to develop and perform regular kettlebell exercises then you should be more careful in which you opt for, choosing one that won’t damage your wrists, forearms, or cut up your hands. For this, the best two types are competition kettlebells and cast iron kettlebells.
To make the choice between competition kettlebells and cast iron kettlebells, remember that competition kettlebells don’t easily allow for two-handed exercises, such as swings, which makes learning the very basics difficult, therefore the cast iron kettlebells would be the better choice here. On the other hand, if you’ve already mastered all the two-handed exercises and want to take your kettlebell training to the next level and even enter some competitions, then you’ll not be surprised to hear that the competition kettlebell would be best suited to you.
Which weights to go for
Generally, kettlebells come in weights starting at 8kg (17lbs), 12kg (26lbs), 16kg (35lbs), 24kg (53lbs) and 32kg (70lbs). However, due to the huge rise in popularity there are now many weight sizes in-between, such as 20kg (44Ibs) and 28kg (62Ibs) kettlebells.
The weight you go for will completely depend on your current strength, your goals and what exercises you’re looking to do. You shouldn’t buy two kettlebells that are very similar in weight, as there would be little point. Instead, get yourself a good range of light, manageable and heavy (but not so heavy that you can hardly lift it).
Most men will probably do most kettlebell exercises comfortably with a 16kg (35Ibs) kettlebell, as this weight is just enough to force you to use proper technique, assuming you have been taught proper technique by a professional. So for your lighter kettlebell, go for something around 4kg lighter, such as 12kg (26Ibs), and the heavier, a 20kg (44Ibs) or 24kg (53Ibs) bell.
For women, it’s recommended by many kettlebell manufacturers that they start with a 12kg (26lbs) kettlebell as their standard weight bell, then an 8kg (18Ibs) for your lighter weight and 16kg (35Ibs) for the heavier.
The best kettlebell exercises
Kettlebell exercises are popular for countless reasons. Not only do they force the body to move in a way that's conducive to functional fitness, but the shape and size of the kettlebell means that the center of gravity is slightly different than what you'll find in a dumbbell or a barbell. That difference may seem small, but performing exercises repeatedly will train different muscles across the body that you won't normally hit with more conventional weights.
Using a kettlebell correctly is, however, far from easy and many movements require keen attention to form in order to minimize the risk of injury. Here are some of the core movements that form the staple of a kettlebell training plan.
The kettlebell swing
If there's one exercise you'll find that forms the basis of any training plan, it's the kettlebell swing. The reason for this is that 1) performing a swing with other equipment is significantly harder and 2) The movement is required to carry out many more advanced exercises using a kettlebell.
Although it might appear simple, it's an incredibly efficient exercise that works the hips, glutes, hamstrings, lats, abs, shoulders, pecs and grip – all in one fluid motion. It's also a tough exercise to get completely right and the risk of injury is extremely high. If you're beginning a training plan using kettlebells bells it's always worth speaking to a trainer to get the form right before moving on to heavier weights.
Kettlebell Clean and Press
The clean and press can be done using dumbbells or a barbell, however, the shape and grip of the kettlebell makes the movements slightly different. In some ways it may feel easier due to the momentum caused by the shape of the kettlebell, however, the functional aspects of the movement activate multiple muscles and can fatigue the body in a different way.
The use of kettlebells in the clean and press not only make the body work in a more functional way, but the fluid motion of the movement lends itself to higher reps and is one reason why it's a popular exercise in WODs.
The Goblet Squat is a great alternative to using a barbell due to the added level of ease by which the kettlebell can be used. It's especially popular with beginners and HIIT classes due to the fact that people can easily add weight to their exercises without needing to set up or know how to properly use a barbell.
The movement is best used for high rep workouts as the size and shape of the kettlebell is difficult to use at heavier weights.