The True History Of Kettlebells – (It’s NOT What You Think!)

Written by Gregory Dzemaili

9. February 2022

Editorial

When we ask ourselves the question „where does the kettlebell come from“, we usually do a simple search on the internet. 

in most cases, we usually find the same answers: 

  1. In the early 1700s the word kettlebell (or Gyria) appeared in Russian dictionaries as a training tool. 
  2. Russian farmers used their scale weights to swing them around; eventually leading to the development of modern kettlebell training
  3. The original and most significant techniques come from Russia
  4. The kettlebell subsequently became the secret weapon of Russian wrestlers, soldiers and special units – while the West seemed to be completely oblivious of their existence
  5. The greatest number of kettlebell exercises were invented in the last 20 years. 

Unfortunately, most of these notions, already established in the collective thought, do not completely align with documents, evidence and history.. 

.. and that is what we will discover in this video. 

PROLOGUE

The objective of this video is to bring us as close as possible to the true origins of the kettlebell. 

Jeronimo Milo – who I consider a friend who shares the same enthusiasm for kettlebells like I do –  undertook the titanic task of collecting, translating and interpreting books, texts, publications, photos, and stories dedicated to the kettlebell over the last 300 years. 

This video is – among others – heavily influenced by Jeronimo’s book „Kettlebell’s Secret Files“ which I have linked in the description. 

As a disclaimer, we do not pretend to know everything about how it all went down, yet we believe that we have come pretty close to the truth. 

We want to establish a chronological timeline until the beginning of the 20th century. 

Even though we present to you a massive amount of documents and historical proof, we want to make clear that we are willing to revise, adapt and alter our statements if new compelling evidence is presented. 

Many of us are probably familiar with the fact, that the ancient greeks used so called „Halteres“ to build god-like physiques. 

This demand of physical activity arose as human beings slowly abandoned their origins as hunters and gatherers. 

So while lifting objects has been done even in ancient times, the origins of the kettlebell can be traced into a different timeline; starting somewhere between 1800 and 1880. 

While it seems to hold true that the predecessors of the kettlebell we use today, were used as scale weights on global markets, we want to turn our eye to the geographical locations of where it all began.. 

Interestingly enough, we can conclude that the Europeans – namely the Germans, Austrians, Polish, French & English – contributed the most to the popularization of kettlebells, weight training and strength athletics in general. 

Amazed by massive feats of strength from European Strongmen and strongwomen, pivotal figures of Tsarist Russia decided to travel throughout Europe to learn more about this new art of strength and physical culture. 

Their findings seem to be the fundamental reason as to why the kettlebell was further cultivated in Russia as we will discover later in the video. 

This predisposed focus on kettlebells of great Russian Teachers – bringing some sense of order, structure and method to the madness – would perhaps make a difference in the future of this tool in Russia. 

While it may be true, that farmers all over the world started tossing around scale weights for fun on fairs, even before any type of strongman appeared, we do not have any evidence for it. 

Now In order to understand the chronological structure of where it all began, we will classify the men & women responsible for the proliferation of Physical Culture into three groups: 

  • The Originators; ranging from the end of the 18th century to around 1860
  • The Classics; ranging from 1860 to 1900
  • The NeoClassics; ranging from 1890 to around 1930 

The Originators – (1800 – 1860)

1800 – The Turners (Gymnastics) 

In the German Turner movement, we find the first description of weight training exercises similar to those performed with spherical objects, weights and equipment of similar nature. 

Johann Friedrich GutsMuths was one of the first great physical training theorists of this period.

Muths exerted great influence on Friedrich Ludwig Jahn who would eventually become the “father of German gymnastics” 

1830 – Felice Napoli 

It is in this period that the “grandfather” of Physical Culture appears: Felice Napoli from Italy. 

He’s considered the precursor of many of the exercises used by strongman and physical culturists of the following generation. 

Presses, Carries and Holds such as the “bras tendu” are the only records that come from this period and timeline. 

Now while we can certainly say that Felice was handling clubs on a regular basis, we cannot say for certain that he used some form of spherical weights in the manner of a kettlebell. 

Yet, our assumption that Felice probably trained with some sort of kettlebells isn’t far fetched

Many physical culturists who use clubbells, are also drawn to similar types of equipment that come from the same family. 

1830 – Elise Serafin Luftmann (Power Juggling/ First to lift ring weights)

We’re foolish to assume that lifting heavy objects was an activity exclusively reserved for Men

Elise Serafin Luftmann was probably the first woman – and with it the first person – to engage in power juggling and lifting ring weights. 

She is perhaps the first person to be portrayed lifting a tool relative to the kettlebell. 

Originally from Bohemian Germany she was a performer who made appearances throughout Central Europe; famous for lifting heavy objects and for power juggling with cannonballs. 

1880 – Hans Steyrer (First Recorded Photo Of Spherical Kettlebell) 

Hans Steyrer was born in Munich, Germany in 1849. 

In the photo, we see him lifting a stone weighing more than 200 kilos and a 23 kilos ring weight with an outstretched arm. 

In the classic period, ring weights or Kugelgewichte were referred to what we now call kettlebells. 

As far as we know, this might be the first recorded photo of someone lifting a spherical-shaped kettlebell. 

1880 – Professor Attila (9 Points / First PT ever)

One of the most important figures of Physical Culture is the legendary “Professor” Attila from Germany. 

He is probably the first person to perform feats of strength with spherical shaped weights that look a lot like the kettlebell we use today. 

Attila’s contribution was so important, that we have to list his accomplishments in 8 designated bullet points. 

1. He made an invaluable contribution to the Physical Culture movement in Europe and the United States during the late 18th century. 

2. He pioneered the use of weight training to improve performance in professional athletes. 

3. He pioneered “Personal Training” for the rich and famous. 

4. He was an important promoter of equal opportunities for women in sports 

5. He publicly argued that weight training slowed the aging process, almost 100 years before the medical community came to the same conclusion. 

6. He was the mentor and trainer of Eugen Sandow. 

7. He was the originator of the “Bent Press

8. He was the first to introduce loading a barbell with discs as weights, universally used today. 

1880 – Eugen Sandow (Father of BB/ Best marketer)

Eugen Sandow is considered the “Father of Modern Bodybuilding” and the first bodybuilder in history – and also probably the first person who performed a snatch with a kettlebell. 

His iconic pose features a kettlebell – where he holds it overhead; standing in some kind of a lunge position to show off his physique. 

While he was not the first strength athlete and certainly not the strongest, Sandow was the first to perform in shows where the goal was to “show off his muscles.” 

Theodor Siebert also mentions in his book „the catechism of athletics“ from 1899, that Sandow was „equipped with a handsome face“ – which gave him a considerable advantage that he consciously utilized with his skill as a marketer. 

We can say, that Eugen was to Bodybuilding what Pavel Tsatsouline was to the kettlebell.  

Eugen Sandow’s training books were the gateway to physical exercise for millions of people around the world – at the beginning of the 20th century. 

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The Classics (1860 – 1900)

1880 – Charles Batta (The Get Up with dangerous elements)

Having inherited great muscular strength from his father, Charles Batta from France took advantage of this ability

He thus decided to bet on making a living out of lifting weights and showing off feats of strength.

Batta was the creator of novel types of lifts that later on were copied by many other artists, including the “Get Up”.

Professor Desbonnet gives his account on Batta’s performance in his book „The Kings Of Strength“: 

“His exercises are really a novelty. Lifting weights is the ABC of any athlete, however we can see him lifting two 20kgs balls with the left arm, while holding a third 20 kg ball in the right arm. These feats might be challenging but seems like a child’s game for Batta.„

1880 – Apollon Louis Uni (Bras Tendu/ Dedicated to beat other Strongman/ Friends with Edmond Desbonnet)

Frenchman Apollon Louis Uni had no specific or ordered training, he was simply dedicated to beating any of the strongmen records of his contemporaries. 

In a series of performances, he met and received praise from the greatest exponents of Physical Culture of the time, such as Charles Batta and Eugen Sandow . 

Apollon did not develop a method or a way of training. 

As a testimony, only his weightlifting photos remain. 

In the photos of the book “The kings of strength” by Desbonnet, we find these photos where he shows a difficult version of the Bras Tendu with kettlebells. 

1880 – Emil Voss (Power Juggling w/ 32 kg kettlebells)

Emil Voss was a famous Strongman of Polish origin who carried the title of “The World’s Strongest Man” 

He also formed a duo with another, legendary character of physical culture named Pytla. 

Emil’s typical circus act was Power Juggling 16 and 32 kg kettlebells. 

Even though Power Juggling seemed reserved for strongman, it seems like it’s probably the first style of any type of regular kettlebell training. 

In 1887, Dr. Krajewski – one of the most influential physical culturists of his time as we will learn later in the video – invited him to his “Circle of Athletes” to demonstrate his lifts. 

Voss quickly became a coach at the Doctor’s Gym and a fundamental influence in the development of the techniques later popularized by Krajewski himself. 

1880 – Theodor Siebert (Pistol Squat/ Greatest contributor to phyiscal culture/ many points)

Theodor Siebert was a German pioneer of weight lifting and physical culture. 

His book„Catechism Of Athletics“, that was first released in 1899 had a tremendous impact on strength training and strength athletics in general. 

In his work, he not only listed the most famous contemporaries from that time period and their feats and records of strength. 

He also shared valuable insights on using a regular, periodized training system – with detailed weight recommendations and exercises.

The word „Kugelgewicht“ – which means kettlebell in English – is frequently mentioned – in the exercise form of curls, cleans and snatches 

He pioneered the Pistol Squat and mentioned in his book that he is striving for a global appreciation for weight lifting and feats of strength. 

If this worldwide acknolwedgment would ever be the case, he would be more than delighted. 

If Theodor is watching us now from Heaven above, he would probably walk around in front of the pearly gates with a huge smile on his face. 

Sieberts influence was also felt in one of the most influential figures in kettlebell training, that we will talk about next.. 

1885 – Dr. Krajeswki (First to setup a rigorous training system implemented with scientific backgrounds/ Book) 

Dr. Krajewski was the first person to setup a rigorous training system, implemented on the basis of scientific backgrounds. 

As the personal physician of the Tsar, he was able to exert great influence in Tsarist Russia

An influence, that might explain why kettlebell training became a part of Russian culture. 

Krajewski included kettlebells in his gym  on the premise that “they are the only satisfactory tool for combating the unhealthy conditions of modern life. And we must remember, that health is a natural companion of strength.“  

The German influence on the general techniques of both kettlebells and barbells is undeniable. 

Krajewski, mentions them as a source of inspiration in his books. 

His openness to new ideas lead to the development of using the kettlebell as a training tool in Russia. 

The legendary Georg Hackenschmidt – who was a student of Krajeswki and will be mentioned later in this video – described many of the attributes of the good Doctor in his book „The Way To Live“: 

– His strict way of life as a physical culturist

– His willingness to help everybody, extending his knowledge and care even to those who couldn’t afford his counsel

– His genuine emotion and enthusiasm for feats of strength, that spread to everyone being in the same room as him. 

On the point of his unfortunate death, the world of physical culture lost one of the greatest contributors, whose legacy is still felt today. 

1885 – Ladislaus Pytlasinksi

Polish Pytla, like many of his contemporaries, engaged in Greco-Roman wrestling and won 794 out of 800 professional fights. 

He became one of Krajewskis Coaches and contributed much to the then, still emerging world of kettlebell training.

His book „Podenoszenie Ciezarow“ from 1930 contains an entire chapter for some form of kettlebell exercises, which are not spherical but cylindrical. 

Pytla calls them “watering cans” and treats them as if they were kettlebells. 

The amount of original techniques Pytla came up with is astonishing. 

Cleans, Push Press, Long Cycle, Jerk, Curl & Press, Two Hands Anyhow or the „Swiss Lift“

Most of them had been perceived as modern techniques, while certain kettlebell exercises were already in use such as the Snatch or particular Bottom-Up variations. 

The NeoClassics (1890 – 1930)

1890 – Arthur Saxon (published powerful books on lifting & physical culture)

Arthur Saxon from Germany was a powerful strongman who performed feats of strengths with his brothers as the Saxon Trio. 

He’s also considered a famous contributor to the world of physical culture for his feats, as well as for writing the following two books: 

“The Development of Physical Power” in 1905. 

An advanced book that included workouts with barbells, dumbbells, kettlebells, and weight tools of the time, such as weighted rings, square weights, and refillable spheres or balloons. 

The Book of Weightlifting” in 1908 which is an innovative work for the time that explains techniques on a scientific and psychological basis. 

1890 – George Hackenschmidt (Book Way To Live – Bench Press, Cruficix, HackSquat) 

Georg Hackenschmidt – Son to a German father and a Swedish-Estonian mother – was a famous wrestler, weightlifter, writer, and sports philosopher, recognized as the first World Heavyweight Champion in the history of Greco-Roman Wrestling. 

I personally consider Hack – who was also called the Russian Lion – as one of the most important NeoClassics of his time. 

His feats of strength were incredible and his wrestling career was stellar to say the least. 

He also pioneered the Bench Press and his book, “The Way to Live” from 1908, which is considered one of the “Classics of Physical Culture”, and most of its contents are still relevant today – just like Sieberts book from 1899

You’re probably familiar with the Hack Squat, which is attributed to Hack; yet Pytla also shared this type of exercise in his books.

Since Pytla was older and this type of Squat was the norm in that period, I have another theory as to why they called it the hack squat back then. 

Here’s my assumption as a native German speaker. 

„Hacke“ is a german colloquialism for the word heel. 

It may be, that with the original oldschool type of Squat, guys probably told each other to „lift the heel“ which would mean „Nimm die Hacken hoch“ in German.

This might have been the reason they started allocating the word „Hack“ to the Squat.

1916 – Uncle Vanya (Lebedev) – Most prolific kettlebell writer of his time (Incorporating Science)

Ivan Lebedev – better know as Uncle Vanya – was a famous public figure and another pioneer in weightlifting. 

He was not only a friend and coach of Krajewsks Circle Of Athletes, but also a profound writer who – in memory of Krajewskis passing – founded the „school of physical culture“

Alongside Pytla, he’s responsible for creating all types of exercises with kettlebells. 

In addition to being a teacher, public speaker, and trainer, he wrote several books on physical culture: 

Strength and Health. A guide on how to become a strong and healthy person” (1912) 

„Weightlifting. A guide on how to develop your strength by exercising with heavy kettlebells” (1916) 

„Exercises with Weights” (1928) and  „Gymnastics with Dumbbells” (1930) 

He believed that „Everybody can and should be strong“ and noted the benefits of kettlebell exercises as follows: 

„Since not all cities have amateur athletic societies with a good selection of heavy weights or barbells, all attention should be paid primarily to working with 1, 2, and 3 puds“

Pud being a weight unit used in Russia; leading to the fact that he strongly advocated for kettlebell use. 

„In previous years, we trained with kettlebells no less than with barbells. 

And training with kettlebells gave incredible results when the athlete switched to the bar. 

Since all kettlebell exercises are much more difficult, after them, the bar seemed very easy to us.“ 

Here we have the first description of the modern „What the Hell effect“ or as I’d like to simply call it, the kettlebell effect. 

 

I hope with this article and video, Jeronimo and I were able to provide you with evidence and proof of the true history of kettlebells. 

While we know that the kettlebell has become a solid staple in Russian culture

we cannot and in fact, we must not forget that if it wasn’t for all those European strongman and strongwomen, kettlebell training probably wouldn’t even exist today. 

It’s simply part of human nature to forget our history and where we came from. 

which might explain as to why people in the West were amazed when the kettlebell was re-introduced in the 2000s; easily being sold on the idea that it must be a „secret weapon“ introduced by a foreign man from a foreign land. 

Yet, the reality seems to be that the establishment of kettlebell training in the beginning of the 21st century wasn’t a revolution but rather a renaissance. 

And that it didn’t conquer brand-new and unknown territory, but rather re-entered familiar domains; finally circling back to its place of origin. 

On a final note, it‘s interesting to see that even back in the oldschool strongmen days, competition and rivalry sometimes led to unhealthy tribalism. 

Here are two notable examples: Hackenschmidt having beef with Lurich in a public feud

And Professor Attila claiming that his protégé Sandow stole his successfully implemented training system.

Unfortunately, these tribal wars can still be seen today

Which leads me to believe that this type of behavior is deeply endowed in human nature. 

There are many more, legendary physical culturists who contributed to the growth and popularization of strength training. 

Expect a future video, where we will cover the distance between 1900 and the modern era that we live in today. 

Honorable Mentions 

  • Pyotr Krylov: The King Of Kettlebells
  • Edmond Desbonnet: The French Historian who wrote the book „Les rois de la force“. 
  • Marina Lurs and Agafya Zavidnaya: Two strongwomen who probably lifted more weights then many men in their lifetime. 
  • The Braisse Sisters: For doing Human Turkish Get Ups with eachother. 
  • A Classic „CrossFit“: How barbells, kettlebells and other training modalities have been used way before Glassmann entered the scene
  • Ivan Poddubny: Honorable Master Of Sport in 1945
  • Morro Dimitriev: Legendary Coach Of Krylov & Bukharov

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