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Kettlebell History

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Walk into a gym, supplement store, or other fitness-related business and look around. The assumption is that whatever you see represents the most effective options for progress—each honed by time, science, and technology. That’s the promise of every fitness solution out there, innit? However, anything you see has survived the rigours of marketing, manufacture, supply chains, and trends. They’re not all keepers. So, how do we choose the good ones?

I ask this question a lot. It’s just so easy to confuse a current trend with a historical winner. Sometimes, it’s both. Sometimes, it’s eeesh. So, I feel like there’s a curatorial part of my job that compares what’s out there right now with history. Then I invite context to the party so that I can figure out what’s really worth it. Kettlebells are a great example.

Russian in origin, the earliest mention of kettlebells date back to the early 1700s. Circus strongmen were the first to really put them to the test but, by the late 1800s, they had become popular for strength training in Russia. Within a decade or two, kettlebells made their way across the pond into North America. They were pretty niche but, then again, exercising with iron weights was pretty niche too. You were much more likely to be swinging wooden clubs—but that’s a tune from a different opera.

A Young Valery Fedorneko

Kettlebells lived and bred in North America until about 1930. And then? They disappeared for at least a couple of decades. There’s no known documentation as to why; physical culture historian, Conor Heffernan hypothesizes that kettlebells just weren’t manufactured or marketed. The two leading brands at the time, York and Weider, found bigger margins through barbells and plates. So that’s what they made and marketed—through more and less obvious means. The cold war may have been an influence too. The good old days!

There’s not much mention of kettlebells again until the late 1990s that I’m aware of. A notable exception is actor John Saxon introducing kettlebells to Bruce Lee during the filming of Enter the Dragon. As an aside, Saxon took his stage name from Arthur Saxon, one of the great strongmen of the 19th and 20th centuries. Was he salty when he found out that he wouldn’t be starring in the martial arts classic? Yes. You know what else happened? Those two dudes became lifelong friends.

If you’d entered a state-of-the-art gym space back in 1955, you might have used dumbbells or cable pulley machines. 25 years later, you might have strapped into a Nautilus machine. Barbells and dumbbells for both. Kettlebells, though? Nope. Those things lay fallow for close to 50 years.

It’s great that they’re are back on the menu—albeit not universally. Kettlebells work for a lot of people. What eventually brought them back? Marketing. But this has been plenty of history for one newsletter. Maybe I’ll do the next one on steel clubs.

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