“A kettlebell is not a kettlebell is not a kettlebell. It matters which one you get.” – Shawn Mozen, Agatsu Inc.
Let me help you choose which style of kettlebell is right for you and your training.
(Learn about kettlebell weight here).
First, decide what you plan to do with the kettlebell. Ask yourself:
- Do I want to learn proper kettlebell technique, including cleans, jerks, get-ups and snatches?
- Am I simply planning to augment my current exercise routine with swings?
- Am I just planning to use the kettlebell as a bottom-heavy dumbbell, and continue to do my usual exercise routine including tricep kickbacks and bicep curls?
I prefer proper Russian kettlebell training learned from certified, experienced professionals. Solid kettlebell technique is like a martial art or a dance – challenging, technical, requiring lots of focus: and super rewarding. With relentless focus on improving kettlebell technique, body composition results come quickly.
I divide kettlebells here into 4 categories: Pro Grade, Standard, Stackable, and Other.
1) Pro Grade/Competition Kettlebells
Pro grades are uniformly sized, hollow, steel bells. They are used in Kettlebell Sport competitions because every pro grade bell is the same dimensions, so you can go borrow someone else’s bell and it will feel exactly the same. The handles are a good distance from the bell, and the bell has a big surface area so pro grades sit comfortably on your forearm, bicep, shoulder and possibly your pec when racked, as well as in a good position on your forearm when overhead.
The bells are colour-coded, so 16 kg’s are yellow, 8 kg’s are pink, 12 kg’s are blue etc. A full collection of bells can make a colourful addition to your living room!
Pro grades are best for anyone who wants to do legit kettlebell training, anyone who wants to comfortably do any sort of overhead kettlebell work, anyone who wants a colourful living room.
They cost about $2.10 to $3.20 per lb plus shipping from Agatsu Inc. They are a great investment because they last forever, and if you decide you do not want to train with them anymore, they maintain pretty high resale value. They also take up very little space, and unlike other workout equipment, do not make a good clothes-hanger:
2) Standard Kettlebells
Standard kettlebells are usually made of cast iron. They are not uniform in size, so as they get heavier, they also get bigger. This can hinder your performance because when you go up in weight, you have to relearn your techniques with the new size of bell.
You can also find standard-shaped kettlebells in plastic, or vinyl-dipped steel.
If you are just going to use the bell for swings, or as a bottom-heavy dumbbell, then you do not need to worry about the handle size beyond – “does my hand fit in it?”
If you are going to do cleans, hold the bell in racked position, or press/snatch/jerk the bell overhead, (basically any of the exercises that make life worth living!), be mindful that standard kettlebells tend to rest squarely on your wrist in these positions, which can get suuuuper uncomfortable. Before buying a standard kettlebell, look at the handle and make sure it is big enough not to sit right on your wrist. The 20 lb plastic one above would be pretty comfortable because the handle is big so it would allow the bell to sit on your bicep.
The shape below is commonly sold at department stores and is particularly uncomfortable on your wrist/hand, even in very light weights:
Another option is to wear a wrist wrap or wrist guard to protect yourself from bruises.
My favourite types of standard kettlebells are Ader because they are smooth, durable, and good dimensions that tend not to be too awful on your wrist:
Most standard-sized bells run about $2 a lb or less, unless you get the Ader’s which are more expensive, but you get what you pay for.
Standards are best for beginners who do not want to invest in pro grades up front, because one can find many cheaper options in this style.
Kettlestacks or Kettleblocks are a great choice if you really have only a 1×1 foot space available for workout equipment. These “stackables” allow you to adjust the weight of the kettlebell by adding or taking away plates. Stackables are best for swings and standard “exercise moves” like weighted squats, lunges, deadlifts, rows etc. These are not recommended for racked or overhead work – just imagine how it feels to have this resting on your wrist:
I would also worry about bringing this overhead, as I would never trust I latched the thing properly to avoid parts of it falling on my melon.
They are expensive (approx $200 for 40 lbs of interchangeable plates) and because of their limited application, I would not recommend you spend the money.
There are some super creative “Kettlebell Cousins” coming out these days, including Kettlebell Sandbags, Sandbells, Water Bells, medballs with handles, and so much more. By now you are probably educated in kettlebells enough to decide if any of these tools will suit your fancy.
Most of these will not improve your Kettlebell Sport-game, but my life-motto is: Fun and Safety. So if it the training method looks fun to you, and it’s safe, go get after it! After all – the best workout is the one that you do 🙂
Kettlebell Sandbags: for those times when you don’t want to haul your metal bells to the beach.
Sandbells: now used widely in schools, don’t look anything like a bell, good for grip strength, generally only in very light weights.
3 In 1 Kettlebell: perhaps better suited in the stackable category?
Water-fillable kettlebells: plastic hollow bells, that you can fill with water or sand to adjust to your preferred weight – http://www.kettlepower.net/wp/
Medicine Balls with Handles: http://www.gtechfitness.com/aeromat-12-lb-kettlebell-medicine-ball.aspx
If you would like more info on Standards vs. Pro Grades, and to hear his nice accent, check out Shawn Mozen in this video: http://www.agatsu.com/pro-grade-vs-standard-kettlebells-which-to-choose/
Honourable Mention: Demon Bells
Can someone please explain these to me?
Now that you’ve decided which type of kettlebell to buy, let’s look at how heavy it/they should be.
Quickie Recommendation: Start with two bells, 8kg and 12kg for newbies; 12 kg and 16 kg for stronger exercisers.
First come back to the question:
“What type of training do I want to do with the kettlebell?”
As mentioned in my earlier post on kettlebell type, I am a big fan of solid, traditional, russian kettlebell and kettlebell sport techniques. This includes both swings/lower-body moves (squats, lunges, deadlifts), as well as overhead work, including presses, cleans and snatches, as well as “slow and low” exercises like the Windmill and the Turkish Get-up. It is a rewarding, effective, and fun way to train, and this is the style of kettlebell training I will focus on for today’s recommendations.
Remember that these are general guidelines – if in doubt, just email me or comment below for help.
Ideally, you will invest in at least two different kettlebell weight options: a heavier one for swinging, squatting and deadlifting; and a lighter one for overhead work. If you get into double-kettlebell exercises then you will need two of each weight. (That kind of training is a total blast, but do not worry about it just yet.)
The power for the kettlebell swing comes from the lower body, and the core/posterior chain assists with stability through the move. There is no arm-lifting involved with the swing. Even the snatch and the clean, when done properly, use lower-body and core power to propel the bell overhead. Most of us have strong legs, which is why I encourage you to get a heavier bell than you may initially gravitate towards.
The very lightest bell I recommend is 15 lbs, and that is for adult beginners to kettlebells. Our tiny little cousin Syd could swing a 10 lb bell perfectly at 7 years old, and I have had a client send pictures of her 5 year old dead-lifting a 15 lb bell (with perfect form!), so there is very little reason for you to go any lighter.
Again, the prime mover for the swing is the legs, and a kettlebell that is too light may encourage you to get your arms involved. Not good.
The pro-grade bells I recommend start at 8 kg which is just over 17 lbs. They don’t even make them smaller because it is not necessary to train with anything lighter than that.
I am sure you are not intimidated by the thought of a 15 lb kettlebell, but if you are, take a second to think about the things you lift in your day to day life: how heavy is your kid or your dog or your cat? Do you pick them up from time to time? How about your grocery bags? Purse/briefcase/backpack? Do you rearrange your rooms and move furniture? Help push cars out of snowbanks during Canadian winters? When you lift these things, are you using your arms, or are you putting your legs into it?
I usually recommend an 8 kg and a 10kg/12 kg prograde bells for beginners, or 15 lbs and 20/25 lbs. You can start learning the basics (deadlift, swing) with the lighter bell, but once you get your basic technique you will absolutely (and quickly!) move up to the 20 or 25 lb bell, and sub-in the lighter bell for your overhead work.
Sometimes when you are starting to build up your overhead pressing strength, you will need a lighter weight (8 or 10 lbs) – go ahead and get a dumbbell for this and then move onto your 15 lb kettlebell in a few weeks once you are stronger.
Experienced Exercisers/Stronger Folk:
For those with a good foundation of strength, I recommend getting a 12 kg for overhead work and a 16 kg kettlebell for swinging/squatting etc. Again, you can learn the basics with your 12 kg and then progress to your 16 kg in a few weeks, or sub-in a 15 or 20 lb dumbbell. If you are stronger than average, you may want to go heavier than this for sure.
A good way to test if the bell is right for you is to go deadlift some different bells in the sports store. If it is a super struggle to deadlift, it might be a bit heavy. If it feels like nothing, it’s too light. Find the one that feels just right for you right now – a little challenging, but not crazy-town. Something you can feel in your legs when you deadlift maybe 10 times, without getting exhausted.
Remember not to obsess about this decision – your strength will improve and you will have to get a bigger bell, that’s just part of the fun. You can always sell the bell and trade up for a bigger one, or start growing your collection.
Thanks for your time – let me know if you have any questions/comments.
Go forth and swing.
First let’s talk about clothes
There is nothing like cuuute short-shorts, but save them for running or volleyball. Capri-length or full-length tights, or even just long-shorts (“shlongs”?) are best. When you do a 2-handed swing your hands contact your inner-thighs. While this connection happens pretty high up the leg, I have found that wearing shorts makes for an unpleasant kettlebell training session. You will also want to wear bottoms that fit snugly to your body. Not only is compression is good for muscle endurance, baggy pants or shorts will catch on your bell and may cause injury, or worse, the momentum of the heavy bell will tear your pants off. You do not want everyone in the gym to see you in your tighty- whiteys, do you?
When you are doing the jerk (and I don’t mean your ex! Okay okay kettlebell jokes stop now, sorry…) or are resting in racked position, you nuzzle your working elbow onto your hip. If you are not wearing a shirt and are sweaty, you are setting yourself up for more work than necessary. Friction between your torso and elbow can be helpful, so keep your shirt on to avoid bracing on a slippery surface. Wicking synthetics can be slippery too. Jersey t-shirts end up soaking wet at the end of the training workout, but maintain their grippy-ness throughout, so that is what I recommend for a training session where you plan to do these exercises. If they are not on your program that day, I see no reason why you can’t rock a cute sports bra or go shirtless if you’re a man (or a liberated woman).
Wrist & Forearms
The kettlebell rests on your forearm in racked position and overhead, through exercises like the clean, the overhead press, and the snatch. This can cause some discomfort if you are not used to carrying load here. To avoid issues I recommend:
- Get yourself a prograde or high-quality standard kettlebell. For more details, see this post right here.
- Start with a light kettlebell and low repetitions to build up your strength.
- Focus on perfect technique – hire yourself a specialized kettlebell coach to learn. Pleeeease do not try to youtube-it, or even hire a trainer without kettlebell certification from a reputable source. It is so specific and there are many ways to botch it up – it is worth looking around for someone awesome.
If you still have wrist discomfort or pre-existing wrist issues, feel free to wrap your wrist. Kettleguard is a popular brand of kettlebell-specific wristguard.
A wristband or tensor bandage will do in a pinch. Cut the tensor bandage in half so it’s not too bulky, wrap one half around each wrist and tuck the loose end under.
Some people frown upon using wrist protection because when you have discomfort, it teaches you what not to do. This helps you crystallize clean technique. While I can understand this viewpoint, if wrist discomfort is keeping you from training, slap on that wrist protector. Treat it like training wheels with the intention to build your strength and technique over time.
You may come across youtube videos or inexperienced trainers telling you to wrap your hands with tape or wear gloves to prevent blisters. Bad idea. The kettlebell handle will bunch up the tape immediately and gloves will impair your ability to grip the bell.
You are better off stopping your swings and re-checking your form if you start to feel hot-spots on your hands. If you find yourself getting tons of blisters, stop training with the bells long enough for your hands to heal, then lighten the weight, reduce your reps and really work on technique until they stop happening. Callouses build over time and should be cared for so they do not rip. Tearing up your hands hurts really bad, and while it happens to the best of us, it is not a badge of honour. Prioritize good technique over reps and you will have great results.
Chalk’s purpose is to add friction and cut back on sweat so the bell does not slip from your hand during training. As it adds friction, if you are not skilled at “jumping the bell,” chalked hands will only cause skin discomfort or tearing. So chalk is usually not necessary until you get more into the intermediate and advanced lifts, with heavier weights and higher volumes, or are training in very sweaty conditions. Continue training with lighter bells chalk-free until you have established jumping the bell. Once you reach that point, regular weightlifting or gymnastics chalk will do.
I train kettlebells barefoot, or in Vibram Five Fingers, and 99% of the time I am barefoot. I have lifting shoes for when I work on my jerk. These have a hard, angled sole to allow for good lifting mechanics. I have not used them in awhile because I have been shying away from high volume lifting for the joy of a good circuit or ladder.
Read more about footwear, and why you may want to ditch your flip-flops and high-heels, in this article.
– Lisa Avramenko