The History of the Kettlebell
By Tyler Murphy, BEd, CPT
Sports history is a huge industry in today’s society. Who was the first baseball player to hit a homerun at Wrigley? How many times did Wayne Gretzky make the All-Star game? These questions fuel a large group of people to search for the answer. But when it comes to the history of fitness culture, few people seem to really care.
In an industry that changes by what seems like the minute, and new techniques, methodologies, and technologies take a front row seat, there are few modalities that withstand the test of time. One of those pieces of equipment that has been in almost every gym for the history of the fitness culture is the kettlebell.
The majority of historians will tell you that the kettlebell was made popular as a fitness tool by Pavel Tsatsouline, a defected Soviet Special Forces Trainer, who now acts as a subject matter expert for the U.S. Marine Corps, Secret Service, and the Navy SEALs. The true history, though, can be traced back to Ancient Greece where the first Olympians used what was called a “haltere,” an ancient version of the kettlebell, in their training. Kettlebell cousins can be found in many ancient civilizations from Shaolin monks to Greek Olympians and all the way to Scottish Highland Games athletes.
Usually, its modern popularity gets traced to Russia, where it’s called the giro or girya. That term first appeared in Russian dictionaries in 1704 and originates from the Persian word gerani, meaning “difficult.” It’s also been traced to the ancient Slavic word gur, which means “bubble.”
The story goes that Russian farmers used kettlebells as counterweights to measure out grain at the market. As bored farmers learned the weights could be heaved and tossed in feats of strength and endurance, giros began enjoying a central role in farming festivals.
Sometime around the turn of the nineteenth century, a Russian doctor called Vladislav Krayevsky realized that the kettlebell deserved a place in sports medicine. Krayevsky (also called von Krayeski, Kraevskogo, and Krajewski) happened to be the personal physician of the Russian czar, who popularized kettlebell training in the Russian army which eventually elevated it to a national sport.
Kettlebell swinging and juggling was a popular “folk exercise” among Russian farming communities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it wasn’t until 1948 that it became an official sport.
That was the year that Russia, then the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, declined to attend the Summer Olympics in London, declared kettlebell lifting as their national sport, and held the All-Soviet Union Competition of Strongman in Moscow. Kettlebell contestants performed in two events: the “long jerk” which is a clean and jerk with two bells, and the “biathlon” which is a set of jerks with two bells followed by a set of snatches.
Throughout the 1950s, 60s and 70s, sports schools appeared throughout the Soviet Union and it became known as the “working man’s sport” due to its inexpensive equipment and minimal space requirements. In 1981, The Official Kettlebell Commission was formed, which advocated (but didn’t enforce) mandatory kettlebell training for all workers. This, they said, would bring about a fitter population with higher productivity and a cheaper healthcare bill. But different Soviet states tended to have different rules, weights, dimensions, and training styles. It wasn’t until 1985 that the sport was modernized and formalized across the entire Soviet Union.
The kettlebell has grown from an ancient training tool, to a farm tool, to a full-on international sport. Feats of strength and small town challenges grew into Olympic challenges that determined bragging rights amongst allied and warring countries alike. Think about that the next time your trainer has you swing one around or throw it over your head.
The History of the Kettlebell