Which kettlebell weight should I buy?
Kettlebells have been gaining in popularity for the last decade. Pavel Tsatsoulin was the main driver of a movement that started from "What you use cowbells to train" to mainstream level with DVD sets delivering kettlebells for free with their program (hint, as this kettlebell comes for free, you guessed it, its crap). This article takes my experience with kettlebells and walks you through the major principles. As I do not own many different kettlebells myself, because I am simple and did my research on my first time purchase, refer to the links at the end of the article if you want to know details about specific models and learn from others.
The question lacks context
The question "which kettlebell set should I buy" lacks context as I do not know you personally. This is often the case with questions regarding health, fitness and dietary habits. In this article, I will outline the most common scenarios for you to help you to make a better-informed decision, provide the resources I used on which the article is based and share my own experiences. Always consult a doctor for a new exercise regimen before you take it up, especially if you have not been active for a long time, you are older than 50 or have been already diagnosed with chronic disease. If you have any questions, recommendations or tips please leave a comment at the end of this article or look up my email address in the about section of this webpage.
Who are you?
So that you understand which type of kettlebell you should choose it is important to have an understanding how your gender, fitness, age, and weight affect your choice of a kettlebell. All of which I outline here also applies to exercise equipment in a more general sense. Everyone is different and generalizations are flawed but help beginners with guidance. Take this as such, guidance, not gospel.
Males have a tendency to overestimate themselves when it comes to kettlebell training and also strength training more generally. There is a bigger need to show off and to be perceived as one of the strong guys. This leads to the challenge in picking a properly sized kettlebell yourself. Generally, kettlebells will be bigger for males than for females in size and weight, but not as big as the individual might think. Just because you can perform multiple repetitions of a 225-pound bench press that does not mean that a 10kg something kettlebell is child's play. Pavel Tsatsoulin, one of the most respected kettlebell instructors to date, recommends a 16kg kettlebell for men who bench press below 200lbs for reps and 20kg for males who easily bench more than that for repetitions. In my case, I picked up a 24kg kettlebell with a 300-pound bench press under my belt when I started serious kettlebell training.
Women come in at the other end of the spectrum. They seem to think that kettlebells are too heavy for them when they pick them up from the ground and therefore go to low in weight. Remember that when you pick a kettlebell and do a curl or row you are not performing the main exercise which you will do with this piece of equipment. The main exercise is the kettlebell swing in which you can make use of more muscle groups than in the row and curl. Where Adam should usually go a size down from what he thinks he is capable of Eve should go one nudge up. This rule might not just apply to kettlebells as I also see quite a bit of writing about this phenomenon in books regarding career advise, Lean in and Nudge being two of them. Generally, you will find that women, given that all other factors compared to a man are equal, will use half the weight in the kettlebell swing.
Apart from gender, your fitness level is also to be considered when choosing the right kettlebell to start. The fitter you are and the more used you are used to heavy lifting, the more likely it becomes that you can pick a bigger kettlebell. The more injuries you had and the more overweight you are the smaller the kettlebell weight should be. In some cases, you might even avoid using the kettlebell altogether as you should not load a movement if your body is not capable of doing so. If you have joint pains, arthritis or other chronic diseases which kept you from heavy exercising in the past kettlebells might be a solution but consult your doctor first.
Another component is age. Without being ageist it is a fact that you produce lesser growth hormones the older you get. There seems to be a very significant drop in fitness over 40, especially in untrained individuals. Factor this in when deciding to pick up exercising again after one or two decades of sitting behind a desk. The older you are the more likely it is that you should start with a smaller kettlebell than is generally recommended.
The last component to consider is weight. The laws of physics dictate that the heavier a body is the more it is at an advantage of moving another object. So for all of you who are a lot smaller and lighter than average also consider going down a kettlebell size to get the best results. The good news is that you probably have better leverages for lifting than the average joe.
Recommended kettlebell size
The most commonly recommended sizes for kettlebells for men are 16kg and women should start with 8kg. The starting recommendations lie within a range of 12kg to 24kg for men and 8kg to 16kg for women. The younger, fitter and stronger you are the more likely you are at the upper end of the scale. The older, weaker and less fit you are the more likely it is that you are at the lower end of the scale. Men should usually go one down from what they think they can move. In my example, I felt like I could have started with a 32kg kettlebell as the strongest bench presser in my gym and opted for 24kg to start with. If you think 16kg is laughable for an exercise you have never done before, it is very likely the right weight for you to start. Women might think that 8kg or 12kg is too much for them and based on the psychological background discussed this is what they should start with.
Another thing to consider is whether you will be mainly doing grinder or ballistic movements with your kettlebell. Grinder movements are exercises performed with long time under tension and which are not meant to be explosive. Examples are the renegade row & Turkish get-up. For grinds, pick a kettlebell which you can easily press ten times overhead. For ballistic movements like the swing and snatch, you can pick slightly heavier weights. I personally do Turkish get-ups with 28kg and swing with 32kg at the moment. Apply similar thinking to your case.
Overall be honest with yourself or, even better, get a professional to evaluate you and make a recommendation. Be humble when you think you are hulk, be wise according to your age and be brave if you are a pink wearing weekend warrior when picking your first kettlebell.
How do you want to train?
How big and what type of kettlebell you will buy is also depending on the style of training you are intending to pursue. Is your goal to mainly build strength or lose weight? Is the kettlebell your main tool of strength regime or considered accessory work? The more you gravitate towards strength and sideshow, the heavier the kettlebell will be for a first buy. The more you gravitate towards the main tool of exercise and cardio the lighter your first kettlebell will be.
If your focus is on strength, you will not perform more than ten kettlebell swings per set. Therefore the choice of kettlebell can be a bit heavier. Some people even consider 5x5 templates using kettlebells, especially if they do not like barbells. I am currently experimenting with 2x16kg front squats to build strength for my back squat.
If your focus is on cardio you will swing in the 12 - 20 repetition area and therefore you might even go down a size from the recommendation. Just do not go too light. The kettlebell should not be too light as you can not execute the swing properly then and also not too heavy because this leads to the weight dominating you rather than you controlling the movement. You and the kettlebell should be on eye level. A professional instructor can help you with finding this balance.
The Hardstyle way of kettlebell training is usually done with cast iron kettlebells. This is the raw version of training which is focused on strength and in which you try to brutalize yourself and the weight in the most intense way without exposing yourself to unnecessary risk. You will find this type of training described in the book Simple and Sinister in more detail.
The Girevoy sports style is more focused on skill and endurance as it is not allowed to put the kettlebell down during such a routine. This style is usually followed by people who are more interested in full body control and acrobatics than raw strength. For this purpose, competition kettlebells have been designed which tend to this need. Here are two videos to better understand the differences between the two ways of training.
As a beginner, do not sweat these different training methods too much and stick with the simple considerations around bodyweight, age, and fitness. If you are an advanced athlete think hard before you buy a set of heavy kettlebells. The heavier they get the more it will hurt your purse when you do not think through how kettlebells will fit into your already full workout schedule or that of your athletes.
Types of kettlebells
When people buy on their own budget they usually try to save money. That so happened with my wife when she gave me two 14kg kettlebells for my birthday which I was delighted about. Both of them were plastic and uneven and the experience wore off after a couple of uses. When it comes to equipment like barbells and kettlebells good quality will last you for a lifetime and keep you safe. In the iron game, quality means craftsmanship and high-end material which cannot be gotten for small change.
Vinyl and plastic are the types of kettlebells to stay away from. Their fillings are usually of low quality and either fall apart or have to be constantly refilled. They are bigger than cast iron or competitive kettlebells of the same weight and are more prone to poor finish or design which will literally hurt you in the long run. For me, there are only a few reasons to get vinyl or plastic kettlebells. One might be health reasons as some people are allergic to steel and/or iron. If that is the case make sure that you find a kettlebell which has similar dimensions to what the pros use. Another reason is if you can not store the kettlebells out of reach for children. Plastic and vinyl are a lot more forgiving to your children when it gets dirty or they do other things with the cannonballs with a handle on them. They are also less destructive when dropped as their grown-up cousins, the cast iron kettlebell. If, however, your reason for buying kettlejunk is budget, I personally think might as well not get them. Do yoga instead or body weight exercises, that is even cheaper.
Adjustable kettlebells are great in theory as you get ten for the price of one. The challenge with them is that the mechanics of changing the weight are either cumbersome if it is a sturdy design, or downright terrifying during the swing if you can adjust quickly. Based on the extra mechanics these kettlebells are also bigger than their actual weight would demand which makes them often unbalanced and hard to handle during the swing which takes away the focus from what matters, your body.
Cast Iron kettlebells have been around the longest and are a great entry point as a compromise between your wallet and getting the real deal of Russian exercise bliss. This is the tool of choice for all the hardstyle swingers out there who want to go very heavy. The size of the kettlebell increases when the weight goes up in this category. Rogue fitness even sells monster kettlebells which go up to 92kg.
Competition kettlebells are the Mercedes among kettlebells. They come in at the highest prices as the most craftsmanship goes into the production. Based on how they are produced they have the same dimensions in the weight ranges from 8 to 48kg. You usually will not find monster kettlebells in the competition segment as there are not many people walking this face of the earth who can juggle 92kg for ten minutes.
For most trainees, a good cast iron kettlebell will do to start. Only if you are serious about lifting, like to try different things or just always want to have the best thing you should look into competitive kettlebells. You also do not get the highest tech speedo swim suite if you only go for a splash on the weekend with the kids. Nice swimming trunks will work as you also do not want to look cheap when you are out (aka plastic kettlebells).
There are some standards in the kettlebell world which are either confusing to beginners or not pointed out for lack of knowledge or attention to detail with instructors. To avoid this here are the main points to consider:
Poods are measurements which come from good old Russia. Back in the day kettlebells were used as weights on markets to determine the worth of certain goods brought there, such as sacks of grain. When the locals started to get bored and do tricks with these weights the kettlebell sport was born. 1 Pood is a unit used back then and equals 16kg. Today you find this terminology often in Crossfit boxes. Most often you get kettlebells in increments of 1 pood (16kg) or half a pood (8kg). An exception from this rule is kettlebell kings which offer kettlebells in 0.5-pound increments. There are different opinions about strength training in the market. While Pavel Tsatsoulin has advocated big jumps to shock systems to make them adapt Mark Rippetoe outlines the principle of incremental increases workout for workout in his book Practical Programming for Strength training. As of late, the kettlebell master seems to be a bit less extreme in what kind of increments he advocates. This might be due to the wisdom he gained in older days or seeing a chance to sell more kettlebells. In the end, whatever makes you stronger is useful.
The standards for competition kettlebell handles are 55mm from the kettlebell to the top of the handle, 35mm thick for men, 33mm for women and 186mm from one end of the handle to the other. Make sure that the kettlebell you choose can be comfortably placed into a double hand grip. Especially light kettlebells from low price vendors can have a tendency to be too small dimensioned to get a proper grip.
The most common weights you will find in the range of 4kg to 28kg. These are placed in many gyms around the country and I encourage you to test these weights before buying one for yourself. If you do not have a gym membership, make use of one of the free trials to try some kettlebells out and get instruction. Be careful though. The situation is improving, but if your personal trainer does not use kettlebells himself/herself and is not RKC or Strongfirst certified the instructions might even do more harm than good.
What to avoid when you buy
There are many points to avoid when buying a kettlebell. If you go with one of the well-established brands at the end of this post you will have not to worry about these. If you opt for low-quality range products check them for these points. Poor kettlebells are a result of cost savings in manufacturing to offer them to you at a lower price or to make them look more "cool" or "girly" as a marketing strategy to make it more likely that you buy them.
Painted kettlebells of all sorts have a higher risk of chipping and therefore losing their structural integrity and balance. The more the color "pops" the more aggressive the chemicals used for achieving this effect. If you go for color watch out for the ones that match the feel and structure of the kettlebell itself. These are usually the more durable and better materials for coloring iron or steel. Unless you want to dip them in gold of course.
Seams are the result of the manufacturer skipping the filing of the handle in the production process. Simply run your finger at the lower part of the handle and if you feel one long rough line from one end to the other put the kettlebell down and step away. If you buy this you will get bloody hands, especially if it is a cast iron kettlebell.
Ridges are usually a result of a poor finish of the body of the kettlebell. If the manufacturer wants to make as many kettlebells as possible out of one cast and lowers the quality standards or produces too fast it can lead to micro-tears in the cast. The longer the cast is not replaced the worse this effect gets. The results are bumps and ridges in your kettlebell. This is not as bad as seams as it does not affect all movements. But for all grind movements, this will be counterproductive and downright dangerous. There are also some high-quality kettlebell manufacturers who decided to protrude their logo from the overall design of the kettlebell. This has, unfortunately, the same effect as a ridge, even though fully intended.
Rough spots are areas on the kettlebell which have a different feel than the rest of the kettlebell even though the material is the same. These can occur when the metal cools down at different rates in the cast which also leads back to poor manufacturing. If you see rough spots on the kettlebell it is a sign of poor production and the durability of the entire kettlebell has to be questioned.
Skinny handles can also be a problem with low-value kettlebells. A handle should be somewhere between 30 - 38mm depending on the size of the kettlebell. If it is less than that it will not properly fit into your palm. If you are not buying for children, stay away from anything skinnier than 30mm.
There are kettlebells which are not cast iron in one piece but welded together. Here, again to save production cost, handles and bodies are being produced separately to be put together at a later stage in the production. Please do not buy these kettlebells under any circumstances as they can become a serious health hazard. Imagine swinging away at full power and 22.5kg (you can keep the handle) go flying towards a fellow gym member or even worse, your children. That is similar to shooting a cannonball at them. Best case scenario is some severe property damage or a piece of modern art which you can sell. Worst case scenario is a dead body which you have to explain to the police or you impaling yourself. I hope it is clear now why these are bad.
Gimmicky kettlebells like ape heads, iron man masks and other demons and beasts are fun to look at. They are even fun to use, for a time. I confess when I saw them first at the Crossfit games I also wanted one. However, if you are not a collector or have surplus money to spend go for a balanced, professionally designed kettlebell. You want to get strong and fit. This is all about discipline and not about being flashy.
What to look out for when you buy
After talking about what to avoid here is what you should look out for when getting your first kettlebell.
Make sure that it has a smooth finish and is even in all parts of the kettlebell. Good craftsmanship shows in symmetry and evenness. This is what you want for your kettlebell.
What goes for the body of the kettlebell goes for the handle as well. It should be smooth to the touch, not need a lot of chalk so that you can keep your grip and slightly curved to be easy on the wrists. Some kettlebells will hold more chalk than others, but this is of no real concern for the beginner.
Free shipping is another attribute to look for when buying kettlebells. The excitement of getting your new toy can be severely dampened when the transport is almost as expensive as the tool.
Kettlebell prices range from 50 - 300 for one kettlebell. You can start with only one which fits your need. No need to buy two of the same weight. If in doubt about kettlebells it is good to err on the side of the slightly heavier kettlebell as you can work up to it. Sales, bundles, and prices for material influence the prices for kettlebells considerably so I won't go into more details as I hope you are now equipped with enough information to make your own choice. For a quick overview from 2013 which has been definitely designed as a sales tool for perform better kettlebell's refer to this Guide.
I will go into the three vendors which are mentioned most often in a positive way in the reviews and guides I've read. This does not mean that you can not get good quality somewhere else if you do some research, but these three are safe havens where you will not be swindled out of your money and get good quality for what you put in.
Rogue Fitness is one of the main sponsors of the Crossfit games and all of the products I have gotten from them are of good quality and shipped in time. Their kettlebells themselves have a design flaw as the Rogue emblem creates ridges by design. The upshot is that they have very heavy kettlebells on request.
Kettlebell Kings are the disruptors on the kettlebell market bringing new ideas to the game like challenging the pood system. If you want a very good kettlebell under the top prices of the market this is your place to go. The design is well thought through and they get high praise from most reviewers.
KettlebellsUSA is the gold standard of kettlebells in my opinion based on how they present themselves, their pricing and the reviews they get online. If you are serious about becoming a well-versed kettlebell athlete who does not just bang away on swings, this is the place to go to get something which will last a lifetime. They have my business for putting something like this on their website:
Kettlebells USA® never has, and does not, manufacture or sell plastic kettlebells, kettlebells with monkey and demon faces on them, adjustable kettlebells and all manner of kettlebell-dumbbell hybrids that are on the market today. Why? Well, we could certainly do it, like so many of our competitors, and make lots of money doing it too, however, there is a very good reason that we do not. These really aren't kettlebells, they look somewhat like kettlebells but unfortunately, the manufacturers don't understand the science behind kettlebell design. Real kettlebells are designed to be balanced in a certain way and they are actually precise tools.
Kettlebells USA® is a professional kettlebell company and we are serious about providing the best tools to enable athletes, coaches and regular people the finest kettlebells possible for the goals they have. If a kettlebell can be improved by new materials or a new engineering insight or manufacturing process so that real users will benefit then we will do so, however, we are not interested in gimmicks that are solely designed to misinform consumers and take their hard earned money from them. We have been in the kettlebell business for some years now and we will not compromise our principles just to make money off innocent, uninformed consumers. After all, we use kettlebells too, we don't just sell them. Our kettlebells are made for real-world use.
Imagine Wall Street put out something like this. All hell would break loose. I like these guys. Something real for a change.
First, you do not need to buy a set. One kettlebell which is the right size for you is enough to start. If you get hooked you will soon regret that you did not buy a set in the first place. If you have the spare cash buy a 16kg, 24kg, 32kg set as an average guy and you will have fun for life. For all of you women out there who want to shape up go for 8kg, 12kg, and 16kg. If you do not have the spare cash to buy a set of proper kettlebells please buy just one good one instead of a heap of junk.
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