Kettlebell sport is a strength sport originating in the Soviet Union and still practiced in modern Russia. In the Kettlebell competition, three lifts are practiced: the kettlebell snatch (raising the kettlebell overhead from between the legs in one fluid motion), the kettlebell jerk (pressing one kettlebell in each hand overhead from shoulder height), and the kettlebell long jerk (cleaning one kettlebell in each hand from knee to shoulder, then pressing overhead). Competitions use traditional Russian pood (16kilo, approx. 35 lbs.) as units of measurement, and for men the 2 pood (32kilo, approx. 70 lbs.) kettlebell is typically used. There are two events: the biathlon and the long cycle. In the biathlon, the lifter is given ten minutes to complete as many snatches as possible (allowing one switch of arms in the process) and then ten minutes to complete as many jerks as possible. In the long cycle, the athlete is given ten minutes to complete as many long jerks as possible.
Kettlebells have a long history, having existed in some form in ancient Greece. They began to appear in their modern form in the 1700’s in Russia. Originally used as weights to measure goods, people began to swing them around to demonstrate various feats of strength, and as a result they became a common training tool. In the late 1800’s and early 1900’s, when modern bodybuilding began to take shape, athletes such as Eugen Sandow travelled the world and began to bring kettlebell style training to a much wider audience. Unfortunately, after the first world war and the birth of the Soviet Union, Russia became sealed off from the outside world and as a result kettlebells were largely forgotten about outside of Russia. Within the Soviet Union, however, kettlebell training still flourished. Within the Soviet Union, the modern kettlebell sport developed, and in 1974 was named as its official sport. The first national championship was then held in 1985. It has existed in its current form since 1989.
In the west, kettlebells were largely forgotten about until 1998, when Pavel Tsatsouline wrote a well-received article on them. He was then approached by Dragon Door, and together they manufactured the first kettlebells for western use, first available in 2001. Through Dragon Door he also created a certification called the Russian Kettlebell Challenge to help certify trainers in the west in kettlebell training styles. As a result, kettlebells have since seen a large resurgence and can now be found even in many commercial gyms. There has been little interest in the west in participating in kettlebell sport, but kettlebell lifts are now a common strength and conditioning tool. While commercial gyms may have a few kettlebells, specialty gyms for Olympic lifting, powerlifting, strongman, or CrossFit will typically have a full set.
The kettlebell itself is essentially a ball of iron with a handle for gripping. Competition kettlebells must be uniform in size, so they will often be partially hollowed in the center to maintain the same size across disparate weights. Non-competition kettlebells, however, will vary in size. Traditionally, the kettlebell is manufactured in russian pood, and as a result even in the west kettlebells will be manufactured in units of quarter pood, although they will of course be presented already converted to pounds. Kettlebells may be coated with plastic to protect them, similar to the way weight plates are protected by a rubber coating.
Training with the kettlebell is unique in that the shape and center of gravity of the kettlebell places different demands on the body than would a barbell or dumbbell. The relative distance of the center of gravity from the hand means that the kettlebell can be swung more easily and uniformly than a dumbbell, and as a result most kettlebell-specific lifts feature some level of momentum. The relatively light weight of the kettlebell combined with its propensity for momentum means that the kettlebell lends itself well to high-repetition lifts, as can be seen in kettlebell sport. Also, the unique placement of the handle relative to the weight makes it good for pressing motions, as it is nearly impossible to drop or lose control of during such a motion.
Kettlebell sport is unique amongst the strength sports in that it primarily focuses on producing as many reps as possible in a set time. This means that it will focus on endurance much more than other strength sports, which typically focus on maximal strength. Training for kettlebell sport thus requires training for density (reps/time) with the primary lifts in addition to typical strength training routines.
Kettlebell sport is also closely related to Olympic lifting, as evidenced by the similar lifts. In Russia, kettlebells are often used as a training tool for Olympic lifters in addition to the traditional barbell. As a result, there is also a high emphasis on form in kettlebell sport akin to the emphasis on technique in Olympic lifting. While the lighter weight renders the technicality of the lift to be much less, a good kettlebell lifter lifts with what is called a fluid style, wasting no effort in the movement of the kettlebell.
I cannot be sure of the status of kettlebell sport, in terms of money and fame. Certainly, in the west the sport is barely even practiced, much less popular. However, in Russia, where the sport is infinitely more popular, it is possible that money or status may be conferred upon winners. At this time, I have no idea.
While kettlebells themselves are growing in popularity, the kettlebell sport has of yet failed to penetrate very deeply into the western consciousness. As such, while many have used kettlebells as a training tool, few have ever competed. I would argue, however, that it’s very likely that with the growing popularity of kettlebells, the sport will likely eventually follow. It is likely that in the future, westerners will practice kettlebell sport just as they do any other strength sport.