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The origin of kettlebells

Hadyn Luke posted this on Tuesday 10th of December 2013 Hadyn Luke 10/12/2013

Tags: Training methods

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With a wide variety of machinery and equipment available for professional fitness instructors to use as part of their job, we thought it would be useful to focus this blog on the origin of one particular type of fitness equipment: kettlebells.

What is a kettlebell?

A kettlebell is a cast iron weight with three components: a handle at the top, the horns, and the bell at the bottom.

Often referred to as a Russian kettlebell, it’s used in a gym environment for strength training and also in competition. Kettlebell lifting is considered a major sport in Russia and Eastern Europe, with competitions from local to international level.

The history of the kettlebell

Although there’s some mystery surrounding their origins, it’s likely that Russian Bogatirs – warriors – used kettlebells to prove their strength in competitions against neighbouring villages, although they may also have been used to measure the weight of goods during trading.

Equally, similar pieces of equipment are believed to have been used in Greek sporting competitions and by Roman gladiators more than 2,000 years ago. The word kettlebell first appeared in the Russian dictionary in 1704 and, in 1948, kettlebell lifting became the USSR’s national sport, with three events: the clean, the jerk and the snatch, although official competition rules weren’t developed until 1962.

It’s easy to forget with today’s sophisticated fitness machinery that kettlebells were a familiar sight in early gyms, such as the famous New York gym run from the 1920s to the 1970s by the East Prussian bodybuilder, Sigmund Klein.

The resurgence of kettlebell training

In recent years the use of kettlebells in Western gyms has returned to popularity and personal trainers are using them more frequently for training clients. Nationally ranked kettlebell competitor Pavel Tsatsouline is one of the present-day champions of this piece of gym equipment. 

The benefits of training with a kettlebell

Functional and adaptable, kettlebell training can be a valuable element of a personal trainer’s strength training programme for clients. With a range of simple but effective exercises and lifts to choose from, kettlebell training can help develop:

  • Strength and power – promotes the nervous system adaptations that increase strength and mobility; develops motor skills, including balance and co-ordination; helps develop grip and forearm strength.
  • Hypertrophy – provides the necessary resistance for the muscular tension that drives skeletal muscle hypertrophy.
  • Muscle endurance and cardiovascular fitness – through high repetition on lower weights of kettlebells, either as a stand-alone exercise or as part of a circuit training regime.
  • Body composition – good for burning fat and weight loss; developing a lean, toned physique without necessarily developing too much muscle mass, so popular with women; increases bone density (see our blogs on Osteoporosis and The benefits of strength training for women).
  • Kettlebell training is also beneficial for:Functional abilities – as a highly functional method of applying resistance to the body, with many exercises involving integrated movements and working in different planes of motion (see our blog on Functional training: a new tool for fitness professionals).
  • Core function – strengthening the core, which is used to support and stabilise the trunk during kettlebell lifts; beneficial for preventing lower back pain (see our blogs on Defining core strength and Lower back pain).
  • Sports performance – improves co-ordination, agility, stability and flexibility, which are all useful in most sports; helps develop shoulder and hip strength.
  • Active flexibility – because many kettlebell lifts are carried out through a large range of motion, they can help to develop movement-based flexibility, useful in every day life and in sporting activities.

Recommended starting weights for kettlebell training

A personal trainer should first assess the fitness levels of their client and also establish their goals. The choice of kettlebell size will in part be dictated by whether a client is training for cardiovascular fitness, muscle endurance, strength or power.

Ideally, an average male client should be started on a weight of around 16kg, progressing to 20-24kg depending on their strength and the type of exercise being carried out. For female clients, the starting point should be around 8kg, progressing to 10-12kg.

Who is kettlebell training suitable for?

Depending on the reps, the sets, how they are performed and the duration, kettlebell training can tie in with exercises for most energy systems and muscular structures.

Kettlebell training is particularly useful for functional training, as it allows you to go through each plane of motion and target different muscle groups in isolation.  Its effectiveness has also been recognised by those training in mixed martial arts (MMA) and for sports training.

As noted earlier, it’s a good exercise for a personal trainer to use with female clients who want to lose weight or tone their body without putting on too much muscle mass.

The benefits of kettlebells for personal trainers

As a solid piece of cast iron, the kettlebell is a durable piece of gym equipment but also portable – a personal trainer visiting a client at home or working in a gym space can easily transport kettlebells in their car.

A fitness instructor can choose to take a Level 2 qualification in kettlebell training, which is needed for teaching kettlebell classes.

Safety precautions for kettlebell training

As with every form of exercise, the personal trainer should first carry out a fitness screening test with any new client and should work out a programme of steady progression as the client achieves their goals, while ensuring they are following the correct, safe technique.

Personal trainers should also be aware of the safety implications of training with kettlebells, from ensuring that there is sufficient space to train to avoiding this kind of training with clients who have specific conditions, such as hypertension, severe osteoporosis, osteoarthritis, rheumatoid arthritis and with clients who are pregnant or obese.

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