Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome
The history of hand weights is one of a slow evolution of purpose and design, and Kettlebells share a common origin with dumbbells, barbells and other resistance apparatus. Although the stone ishi sashi of ancient China and wooden clubs of ancient India had much in common with the Kettlebell, extending the center of mass beyond the hand and allowing for swinging movements, the ancient Greeks developed the first real precursors to modern hand-held weightlifting equipment. Ancient Greek society glorified the athletic body and sport was a central part of the culture, used both as a form of physical training and recreational relaxation.
Weight training was part of the legends of ancient Greece, with Milo of Croton, a revered wrestler and warrior of the sixth century BC, using special weighted apparatus and also exercising with a calf on his shoulders every day until it was fully grown – the birth of progressive resistance exercise. Grecian halteres were the original hand-held weights of the Western world. Made of stone, they were used both as lifting weights and as an aid in events like the long jump to help athletes extend their jump distance. While the term ‘halteres’ appears to have applied to a very large range of weighted apparatus, all varying greatly in their design, the second century AD Greek geographer Pausanius described them in his Description of Greece as ‘half of a circle, not an exact circle but elliptical, and made so that the fingers pass through as they do through the handle of a shield.’ As a weight with a handle, where the mass was carried underneath the holding position, halteres had more than a little in common with the Kettlebell. The Romans copied much of the sporting culture of their ancient Greek predecessors and weights became part of the exercise routines of ordinary body-conscious Romans.
The Greek physician Galen, who played an important part in the development of Roman medical beliefs when he became Emperor Marcus Aurelius’ doctor in the second century AD, may have influenced this trend when he recommended weight training exercises in his On the Preservation of Health. It was also in ancient Rome that the use of weights first became associated with military training. According to late Roman writer Vegetius, recruits to the Roman army trained with double-weight shields, and they are also thought to have used weights similar to Kettlebells.
From the Renaissance to the Modern World
While interest in weight training methods was revived to some extent during the Renaissance, when humanist scholars returned to the texts of the ancient Greek and Roman civilizations, it was not until the eighteenth century that training with weights once again became a mainstream form of physical training. Benjamin Franklin wrote in 1786 that his good health was down to ‘using daily the Dumb Bell’, and it is alleged that the first official mention of the Kettlebell (or girya, to give it its Russian name) was also at the beginning of this century. Kettlebells are thought to have originated as actual counterweights, issued by the Russian Imperial authorities for use at food markets. This may be something of a myth, but in any case Kettlebells only emerged as a distinctive, cast iron hand weight in their own right in the nineteenth century.
Circus strongmen were the pioneers of Kettlebell use in the nineteenth century and, as well as being consummate showmen, they were the founders of modern strength training. The famous Prussian strongman, Eugen Sandow – a star of the turn of the century, who wrote several best-selling books on physical training – used Kettlebells as part of his exercise regime. He was probably influenced in this by his early mentor, Louis Durlacher, a German strongman known by the professional name of Professor Attila. In 1912 the New York Herald reported on a performance where the then sixty-seven year old Attila lifted an eighty-five pound dumbbell with his teeth, while also lifting a pair of seventy-five pound Kettlebells above his head.
This may have been an extreme form of Kettlebell training, but colourful characters like Sandow and Attila did much to popularise Kettlebells at a time when resistance apparatus was beginning to be manufactured commercially in Germany and the US.It was only in the twentieth century that Girevoy sport began to crystallize into the distinctive training method and competitive game recognizable today, and Russia is its undisputed home. Girevoy sport has been intimately bound up with the history of modern Russia – it was here that the modern sport was born, taking on the status of an unofficial national pastime. Both the unit of measurement of Kettlebells – the pood – and the three main types of Kettlebell exercise are of Russian origin. The pood is an old Russian measure of weight, equal to around 16 kilograms (36 pounds), and Kettlebells still come in 1, 1.5 and 2 pood weights. The key training methods – the one arm power snatch, the clean and jerk, and the one arm push press – were all first developed by Russian gireviks (literally, ‘Kettlebell men’).During the twentieth century the associations of the Kettlebell with strength and power were harnessed by the Communist authorities in Russia, and they promoted the sport in the first All-Soviet Union Strongman Competition, held in Moscow in 1948. They later declared it an authentic ‘ethnic sport’.
As a form of exercise that promoted strength endurance, Girevoy sport became part of the Red Army’s training regime, and the way in which Kettlebell exercises mimicked the movements of real physical labour meant it fitted in well with the Soviet glorification of the worker and the peasant. The first USSR National Girevoy Sport Championship, held in 1985, coincided with the introduction of greater reforms to the Soviet system, known as perestroika, and the sport became better known in the West as the Cold War came to an end. The United States Army now uses Kettlebells in its training regime and the sport is rapidly growing in popularity worldwide