Kettlebell History

Kettlebells are known as Girya in Russian, and the athletes that lift them are called Gireviks. Girevoy sport is a traditional Russian weight lifting sport, where maximal repetitions rather than maximal weight determines who is the champion.

Bibon's kettlebell

Analysis of literature and museum archival material shows that kettlebells have been known as far back as ancient Greece. At the museum Olympia in Greece, it is possible to see a stone kettlebell weighing 143 kg, with the following words carved in it “Bibon heaved up me above the head by one hand”. 

stone locksThe kettlebell design may have evolved over the years, but the goal for the cultures that used those weights with a handle was always strength and martial development in one form or another. Kettlebells or weights with a handle have left their trace in the heritage of many countries across Europe, from Scotland to Turkey, Iran and China.

The development of trade and metallurgy lead to the slow evolution of the modern kettlebell.

A handle made it easy to lift compact weights around the marketplace and flour mills. However, not all of these “kettlebells” were round like the ones we use today.For centuries, they were part of programs at folk festivals and became an integral part of the culture of the working class. Indeed, with weights being commonplace, some kind of (unorganized) competitions and displays of strength were to be expected.

In Russia, where Girevoy sports comes from, the standard weight for measuring grain was a pood, the equivalent of 16kg. This weight measure set the competition weight for Girevoy sport that we know today.

Competition during Beer Festival in Stuttgart 1920

Through 1870 to 1880, Doctor V. Kraevsky from St Petersburg gathered all sort of information about physical culture and the development of sports through his travels across Europe. His goal was to improve health and well being for the masses through physical culture. He introduced exercises with kettlebells and barbells to the Russian athletic circles in 1885 by opening the first weight training facility in Russia.10 year later, following Kraevsky’s example ,another doctor (E.F.Garnich-Garnitsky) opened an athletic club in Kiev, Ukraine. Members of the group engaged in wrestling, gymnastics, exercises with barbells and kettlebells.

By the early 1900’s, circus performer, physical culturists and strong men from around the world trained with kettlebells. While kettlebells slowly disappeared in the West in the second half of the century, they began to flourish in the former Soviet Union. Everyone from common people, to the military, to Olympic athletes trained with kettlebells.

It didn’t take too long for the Russian military and government to realize the potential benefits of the humble kettlebell and spread their use across the nation. In 1981, an official Commission enforced mandatory kettlebell training for the masses, relying on kettlebells as an effective and yet simple tool to increase productivity and decrease health care costs.

During Soviet times, Girevoy sport spread rapidly in rural areas, in factories, among students, and in the army and navy.

In 1948, the “first” kettlebell competition was attended by 55 athletes. From then on, kettlebells went from being used for general physical conditioning to a sport of its own. The needs for specific sport specialization lead to the modern competition kettlebell making its appearance in the 60’s. Those bells are hollow and made of steel, and have the advantage of coming in one standard size, regardless of the weight.

The modern history of GS begins in 1962 with the unification of rules.

Back then Gireviks competed in 3 disciplines with no time limits: the press, the jerk and the snatch. Although a one hand switch was already enforced for the snatch, the bell was allowed to be dropped into the rack position as in a half snatch, providing a better resting position than a lockout.

By 1974, GS had been officially declared the ethnic sport of Russia.

A new development appeared in 1985 to further popularize GS: the first championship of the USSR and the introduction of the title “Master of Sports”. Master of sports in Russia is a prestigious title entitling athletes from all types of sports to some state funded sponsorship.

Under the new rules, only jerk and snatch were competed in. Like in weight lifting, the press was abandoned. Originally a slow movement, by the mid 70s the pressing technique used by gireviks resorted to a powerful thoracic extension and momentum. Judging disagreements and the fact that competitions were taking too much time marked the birth of the biathlon.

The current competition time limit rule of 10 minutes was installed in 1989. Over the years some rules were eliminated. For example you are no longer allowed to rest in a hang position, or use small swings between reps in the snatch and long cycle.

In 1992, under the initiative of the Baltic countries, the European Union of Weightball Lifting (This organization would later on lead to a split and creation of the International Union of Kettlebell Lifting in the late 2007) was created, and with it the first European Championship took place that year.

The first kettlebell biathlon World championships were held in Lipetz 1993 with 96 participating athletes from 5 countries.

The first kettlebell long cycle championships were held in St Petersburg in 1998. Women were allowed to compete in snatch for the first time in 1999 in Kaluga. 1999 was also the year that Sergey Rachinskiy introduced team relay events.

Today still, countries of the old eastern bloc use kettlebells as part of the physical training and conditioning programs of many of their athletes and armed forces. In Ukraine, young people of age for military duties have a choice to either serve as soldiers or specialize as gireviks for the duration of their service, should they show talent for the sport.

In the West, the kettlebell was reintroduced primarily as a fitness and strength training tool by the late 90’s. With more sources of information available in English, Girevoy sport is now growing as well, with new federations being created and more and more athletes participating in local and International competitions.