What Are Kettlebells And Should They Be a Part of Your Garage Gym?

In Equip Your Gym by Tim Steward

Last updated on January 17th, 2022 at 02:28 pm

When building a home gym, it’s important to make sure the equipment you pick is both versatile and effective. There are few, if any, implements that meet those requirements better than the kettlebell. For those in the know, kettlebells are an easy addition to their home gym. For those that aren’t, you may find yourself asking, “What is a kettlebell, and should I have them in my home gym?

What are Kettlebells?

A kettlebell is a cast-iron ball with an attached handle. Typically made from one solid piece of metal, they were invented in the 13th century and popularized in Russia. They are extremely versatile and their design makes them an ideal choice for functional training as well as for kettlebell sport.

Kettlebell history.

Kettlebells trace their history back to the 13th century with the first written reference found in Russia in the early 1900s. Russian strongmen and weightlifters of that period were known as “gireviks”. This loosely translates to “kettlebell man”. At that time, kettlebells were THE implement of choice for building strength and in many cases still are.

The Russian special forces or “Spetsnaz” also use them as their primary training method. Since kettlebells build both impressive strength and seemingly unending endurance, kettlebell training is ideal for this branch of the Russian military.

The incredibly simple and deadly effective kettlebell was brought to the US by a former Spetsnaz trainer, Pavel Tsatsouline in 1998. Known as the “father of the kettlebell”, Pavel introduced American law enforcement and military forces to kettlebell training. Pavel quickly showed US forces such as the Navy Seals how to stay in peak physical condition using the versatile, effective, and easily transportable kettlebell.

Kettlebell training turned out to be so effective that it quickly caught the eye of the US fitness community. Very few, if any, implements have more uses or are as effective.

Should you have kettlebells in your home gym?

All home gyms, regardless of the goals being pursued, benefit from the addition of kettlebells. Kettlebells are used for ballistic training and allow many movements that can’t be performed with standard weights. Kettlebells are a joint-friendly and safe option for all types of home training.

Before I ever considered dedicating a space in my home to being a home gym, I owned a set of kettlebells. In fact, my first several purchases of exercise equipment for home use consisted of several types and weights of kettlebells.

Primal KettleBells by Onnit
My first set of kettlebells – you can tell by the shine that I only really used the chimp

Kettlebells are ideal for a home workout area and take up almost no space. They can be used in almost any room that has a bit of room to move. They can also be used for an unusually large number of exercises. In fact, you could build a substantial home fitness program around kettlebells alone.

Another really compelling reason to invest in kettlebells is that they are a supremely budget-minded implement. You can literally start with just one (In his books, Pavel suggests just that). I can think of no other piece of equipment that allows you to do so much with so little.

What type of kettlebell should you buy for your home gym?

Let’s start by ruling out one category… Don’t buy the cheap ones. In other words, don’t sort by price on Amazon when buying your kettlebells! You only need 1 or 2 to start (see my recommendations below), so it doesn’t make sense to go cheap. Cheap kettlebells will break. They are not cast from one solid piece of metal and instead the handle is formed separately and then attached.

Another reason to avoid the cheap stuff is the finish. Cheap kettlebells are usually dressed up with shiny finishes, rubber coatings, or brightly colored plastic cases. All of those finishes will fail and leave your kettlebell to rust. Always look for a single cast, powder-coated kettlebell.

Corroded finish on a kettlebell
This is what happens to a cheap kettlebell in a very short amount of time.

When looking at quality kettlebells (that doesn’t mean expensive, btw), you will see standard kettlebells and competition kettlebells. If you will be competing in kettlebell sport, go with the competition bells. If not (which is 99% of the people reading this article), save your money and go with the basic design.

If you are just starting out with kettlebells and want high quality at a reasonable price, you simply can’t beat the powder-coated kettlebells from Rep Fitness. If you like to opt for a bit higher quality, the Kettlebell Kings make the best kettlebells on the market and they always ship free! For a complete list of my kettlebell recommendations, see my recommended kettlebells page here.

What size kettlebell should you buy?

Pavel Tsatsouline, the father of kettlebell training, recommends the following for beginners. Men should start with a single 26-35 pound kettlebell. Stronger men can start with a 45-pound version. Women should start with a single 15-18 pound kettlebell, with stronger women starting at 25 pounds.

I hesitated to put those recommendations in as I know there are some men who should start at 25 lbs and some women who should start at 45 lbs. Please take these as a general recommendation handed down over the years and more geared towards your starting strength than your sex.

If you aren’t sure and are between weights, start with the lighter option. You can always add a heavier bell down the road, but if you start too heavy, you won’t be able to use what you bought.

As a note, you will usually find kettlebells in weights measured in traditional lbs. or kg. But you will occasionally find them measured in their traditional Russian measurements of “pood”. If that’s the case, here’s how those weights break down:

  • .5 pood = 8 kilos or 18 lbs.
  • 1 pood = 16 kilos or 35 lbs.
  • 2 pood = 32 kilos or 70 lbs.

How many kettlebells do you need?

When buying kettlebells, start with a single kettlebell (35 lb for men, 15-20 lb for women). As you progress in skill and strength, add kettlebells in singles or pairs depending on the movements you want to do. It’s best to buy them in increments of 10-15 lbs above or below what you already have.

Because of the way kettlebell training works, you do not need an entire set in 2.5 or 5 lb increments like a set of dumbbells. Typically, the strategy is to work with a single weight until it is easy for you and then move up to a much heavier kettlebell.

I’ve been training with them for years and only own 9, 4 of which I rarely use. That basic set of 5 works for 95% of everything I do with kettlebells. And I can’t emphasize enough that you can train effectively for years with just a single kettlebell!

Where to start with kettlebell training.

Cover art for Kettlebell Simple & Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline
My favorite book by Pavel

At this point, many people wonder where to start with their new kettlebells. Pavel Tsatsouline wrote a book, called Kettlebell Simple and Sinister, which is an amazing place to start. In it, he outlines a program that consists of just two exercises. Those two exercises, when done daily, will build a strong physique and a surprising amount of cardiovascular endurance.

Doing just kettlebell swings and “Turkish get-ups” every day, as outlined in this book, was my very first home workout routine. Before the weight bench. Before the free weights. Before the yoga. Before the dedicated space in my garage.

Every morning I moved my coffee table and followed Pavel’s prescription on my living room floor. I got stronger. I built endurance. I started on my path of working out at home. I owe a lot to Pavel, his book, and the deceptively simple kettlebell.

Tips & Recommendations…

There are a couple of tips I’ve picked up over the years that will help you get the most out of your kettlebell workouts.

First, take a lesson. Just one lesson. Find an RKC or Strong First certified instructor in your area and go see them. In one lesson they can teach you the basics of kettlebell safety and form. While they are a relatively safe piece of equipment, some of the more dynamic movements like kettlebell swings can definitely be done wrong and thus cause injury. A lesson will prevent this.

I always use my wrist guards when working with kettlebells.

Second, get a set of wrist guards. You can see a pair here on Amazon that will work great. When you first start working with kettlebells, you’ll find that your wrists might not be able to take the weight of the kettlebell resting against them in the “racked” position.

Wrist guards will allow you to complete the exercises without worrying about wrist pain. Over time, you’ll build up a tolerance and won’t need them. At first, you’ll be glad you have them as part of your home gym equipment.

Third, work out barefoot or in zero drop shoes (shoes with no rise in the heel leaving your foot basically flat on the ground). Good old-fashioned Chuck Taylors work great. I love my Nano’s by Reebok. But any zero drop (aka NOT running shoes) shoes will work. They’ll give you a much more solid foundation to work from and are the type of shoe you should be working out in any way!

What do you think?

If you have always used kettlebells, or have just added them to your home gym, let me know what you think in the comments below! Your input may help other readers discover the highly effective and fun world of working out with kettlebells.

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