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Introduction to Kettlebell Sport

Introduction to Kettlebell Sport

Wednesday, May 14, 2014 - 8:24am

Kettlebells. Photo by Flickr user Victor. License.

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Introduction to Kettlebell Sport
Workshop: Fundamentals of Kettlebell Lifting w/ Chris Doenlen @ Atlas Fitness

By now you've certainly seen them. They're everywhere - in department stores, on TV, and pretty much every gym in the country. Those funny weights that look like cannonballs with a handle? Those are kettlebells. No, not "kettle-ball" - kettlebell. Think:  dumbbell, barbell, kettlebell. 

A kettlebell is a training tool used to develop full body strength and conditioning. The unique shape, where the weight is displaced from the handle, will make some exercises harder, challenging your core and stabilizer muscles, and others easier, promoting greater work capacity. While kettlebells can be used to develop maximal strength and muscle hypertrophy to a point, they're best for developing work capacity, or strength endurance - the bridge between aerobic and anaerobic conditioning. 
Kettlebells come from Russia where they were traditionally used as counterweights in shipyards and markets. Now, try to imagine turn of the century Russia: you've got vodka and ego - the perfect recipe for competition. Kind of incredible to imagine that kettlebells' fitness application was birthed from such an environment. What was once the standard exercise equipment for convicts and sailors has become one of the most popular tools in today’s fitness industry.

Most of you are probably familiar with Olympic weightlifting, where athletes, divided by weight class, attempt to lift the heaviest weight possible in the snatch and clean & jerk events. Or possibly powerlifting, where athletes test themselves in the squat, deadlift and bench press. In these sports, the heaviest lifts win.

Instead of maximal strength, Kettlebell Sport tests an athlete's work capacity. Divided by weight class, athletes lift a sub-maximal weight for ten minutes without stopping for as many reps as possible. A lifter’s success depends on technique, flexibility, strength & power, aerobic capacity, and mental toughness.

There are three events: jerk, snatch, and long cycle (clean & jerk). Traditionally an athlete competes in a biathlon of jerk and snatch, snatch only, or long cycle only. 

  • Jerk: men use two kettlebells, women use one or two kettlebells, and lift the weight from the chest to overhead position.
  • Snatch: the kettlebell is lifted from a low position between the legs to overhead in one fluid motion. Both men and women use one kettlebell and can switch hands only once. 
  • Long Cycle: same rules as jerk, except the kettlebells are lowered between the legs and then raised up to the chest between each overhead lift. So, low position to chest, chest to overhead, back to chest, then back to low position – that’s the cycle.

Check out this short demo of the lifts featured in kettlebell cmpetitions.

Professional and elite level male athletes compete with 70 pound (32kg) kettlebells, and amateurs use 53 pounds (24kg). Women lift 53 pounds (24kg) and 35 pounds (16kg) in the professional and amateur divisions, respectively. However, most meet organizers will allow athletes to use lighter and intermediate kettlebell weights to help develop the sport and competitive spirit. At any competition in the US you'll find athletes of all ages, from 6 to 60 years old, lifting between 16 and 70 pound kettlebells.

For those interested in Kettlebell Sport for fitness or for competition, it is highly recommended to find a reputable coach – someone with experience who can guide you through all aspects of the training such as gear, assistance work, pacing, recovery, and preparation. While the rate of injury in Kettlebell Sport is low compared with other sports, it is important to learn proper technique and training progressions to ensure safe lifting. Training for Kettlebell Sport often results in increased lean muscle and fat loss as well as improvements in strength, conditioning, endurance, coordination, flexibility, joint health, and mental toughness. 

About the Author

Chris Doenlen is an athlete, coach, personal trainer, yoga instructor-in-training, and doughnut enthusiast. He is a multiple time national champion in Kettlebell Sport and one of the top competitors in the US. His experience is drawn from ten years of weight lifting and endurance training, plenty of personal experimentation, and a unique blend of formal and unconventional education.

Chris currently trains at Atlas Fitness on Capitol Hill and offers individualized, in-person and/or online coaching services for Kettlebell Sport and general fitness. Read more on his website, follow him on Facebook and Twitter. Email: