Home Icons Kettlebell

The home-gym staple is a talisman of strength and stability amid general disaster

Full-text audio version of this essay.

This essay is part of Home Icons, a series about the cultural and material histories of domestic objects. Read the others here.

In August 2019, I moved cross-country from a small, isolated island in the Canadian Pacific to a peninsular capital on the Atlantic. One of the first things I did upon landing in a full-sized city was join a gym. Not just a gym — a fitness studio. Well-branded and locally owned, its aesthetic was Instagram-industrial. The softer-spirited (but often physically grueling) classes like yoga, pilates, and barre were held in a one-time car garage misted with insistent plumes of essential oil and adorned with dangling pothos plants. The brute strength, boxing, and HIIT classes took place in a second location on the far north end of the peninsula — a small, warehouse-ish space above a port where Jurassic-looking cranes plucked shipping containers off barges, stacking them like special-edition Lego in a color palette of emergency-orange, concrete, ocean, and rust.

Indie-local or no, this was decidedly boutique fitness, and even purchased at a discount, my membership was a highly questionable line item in the budget of someone only waveringly employed. But I loved this gym, and I told myself I needed it — exercise and its attendant home-grown brain chemicals are load-bearing pillars in my ability to pass as a functional adult, and I was tired of my self-programmed, solo workouts. Plus, the fact that this place offered both strength and yoga meant I was essentially getting a twofer, not to mention saving myself the cost of therapy (or so I rationalized). For the next six months, I went to the gym so often that, for efficiency’s sake, I programmed it into Google Maps under the label “Work.” This wasn’t just a leisure activity — I was in “training.” Though what, exactly, I was training for remained, like a number of things in my life and the world beyond it, a little open-ended. At a moment when everything around me felt swirling and variable and plagued by contingencies, investing in my literal, physical body and its capabilities seemed not only wise, but meaningful. A way to imagine existing in the future.

In just a few short years, the kettlebell would go from a hardcore, taboo piece of equipment, to an emblem of CrossFit. Its most recent turn has been its domestication

The northern studio had wall-to-wall padded floors that encouraged training barefoot, and crops of Edison bulbs sprouting from banks of reclaimed wood descended from the ceiling. In fine weather, the metal curtain door of the industrial loading bay would be lifted to let the damp, sea-tinged air mingle with our heavy effort. There was a clarity and minimalism about the space. Everything was low-frill yet high-quality and intentional: The look said Do It Yourself, but together. There were no dumbbells or barbells or weight machines. One wall was lined with heavy boxing bags, and against the other was a cheerful scrum of candy-coated-looking kettlebells. Intimidating and appealing, these bells, more than any other piece of equipment, seemed to reflect the space’s curious amalgam of associations: heavy-duty and faintly martial yet inviting, attractive, and optimized for health.

Victoria Felkar, a PhD candidate at the University of British Columbia whose interdisciplinary health research has included investigating the history of the kettlebell, recalls that when kettlebells first showed up at her local Vancouver gym in the early aughts, they were impounded by bike locks and restricted to use only under the supervision of in-house trainers. She remembers seeing those locks and thinking: Why is this thing being singled out? What does that mean? At the time, kettlebells were mostly a novelty item in North America, and thus primed to absorb any meaning imposed on them: the locks advertised them as “hardcore” and vaguely hazardous, too dangerous for even an experienced lifter to wield solo. In just a few short years, the kettlebell would go from being seen as a hardcore, taboo piece of equipment, to an emblem of CrossFit, to a more normcore strength studio staple.

The kettlebell’s most recent turn, secured by the 2020 pandemic, has been its domestication: Where a home gym once meant an elaborate, space-gobbling array of pulleys and benches and weights spread across a suburban basement or garage, these days, a fulsome home fitness setup might be no more than a mat and a couple of kettlebells nesting in the corner of a studio apartment. Now that many of us have relocated our fitness regimens to our homes, the kettlebell — once kept under lock — is a household fixture whose appeal goes much further than its practical application.

When I got wind of the potential stay-home ramifications of Covid-19, before my gym went on hiatus in March, I rushed to order a set of kettlebells. This turned out to be, arguably, one of the most prescient moves I’ve ever made: just a few weeks later, there’d be a run on fitness equipment in general, and kettlebells in particular. You might still see dumbbells advertised for absurd mark-ups in online community marketplaces, but kettlebells, prized for their multiple applications and efficiency, seemed nowhere to be found. Rogue Fitness, one of America’s largest weights manufacturers, posted contrite messages to Instagram as they documented the scramble to meet the sudden demand. In April, GQ declared it the “Great Kettlebell Shortage of 2020.”

Any sort of weight can be made to work for a home fitness regimen. But the kettlebell is special: Its minimalism evokes self-sufficiency, while its vaguely hazardous look makes using it feel like overcoming an obstacle — like preparing for something. It’s at once threatening and refined, hardcore and holistic, brutal and optimal. It has the whiff of weaponry (the Russian slang word for it is “cannonball”), and when you’re heaving one in the general direction of your face, or swinging it back and forth between your legs as if mustering to let it fly, the knowledge that this thing could do serious damage is never far off. And yet the kettlebell also has a certain yin-to-the-yang elegance about it: The bottom-heavy bell suggests a rootedness, gravity, a desire to remain on earth, while the addendum of the handle cast upward is a provocation and invitation that says lift me, try me. For those bound to home in 2020, the kettlebell — as much a talisman of strength and wellness as a practical device — comes to seem like a lifeline.

The kettlebell’s modern popularity begins in 1998, when Belarusian fitness guru Pavel Tsatsouline entered the American fitness landscape on a mission to bring the gospel of the kettlebell to the West. After publishing an article in a weightlifting trade magazine entitled “Vodka, Pickle Juice, Kettlebell Lifting and Other Russian Pastimes,” Pavel (a first-name-only kind of guy) would go on to develop training videos, programs, and best-selling books, including Power to the People!: Russian Strength Training Secrets for Every American, The Naked Warrior, and Enter the Kettlebell!: Strength Secret of the Soviet Supermen. In 2001, he was profiled in various media as “the evil Russian” and named the year’s “Hot Trainer” by Rolling Stone, appearing in a photo spread with a kettlebell thrust overhead.

Pavel’s brand was all campy Soviet brutality. In one training video, he announces himself with a thickly accented bark: “Comrade! The kettlebell has been instrumental in weeding weakness out of the Russian gene pool, and now you’re next. You are on the Soviet territory, and you are becoming a better man. If you need to know how, I’ll teach you. If you don’t want to, I’ll make you.”

The bottom-heavy bell suggests a rootedness, gravity, a desire to remain on earth, while the addendum of the handle cast upward is a provocation that says try me

Bootcamps and other militarized fitness classes were rising quickly in the late ’90s in places like North America, the UK, and Australia. Their popularity might be read as an organic outgrowth of the military-entertainment complex — the cozy relationship between the military and film and gaming industries that rose to new prominence in the’80s and ’90s, starting famously with the DoD-supported production of Top Gun (1986), which singlehandedly lead to an enlistment spike and helped rehab the U.S. military’s languishing post-Vietnam image. As Hollywood and the Pentagon strengthened their bond, war — not to mention the bodies of the individuals trained to fight in war — took a marked turn for the glamorous. It made sense that regular people might be drawn to ways of replicating the fantasy of urgency, higher meaning, and authority in the safe space of their soft, middle-class lives. 9/11 and the subsequent U.S. invasions of Afghanistan and Iraq only stoked the public’s hunger for the ritualized brutality of pseudo-military workouts, which hit peak in the mid-aughts.

Real military training prepares an individual, human body to be applied in the service of collective goals, however imperialistic. Civilian fitness trains a person’s body to serve itself: to be more functional, with a side of better-looking (or vice versa). By keying into the fetish for discipline, Pavel’s programs were, in one way, right on trend, though the Eastern Bloc spin was novel. His schtick was also underscored by state-legitimated bonafides: a degree in Sport Science from the Institute of Physical Culture in Minsk, and a resume that included working as a physical trainer for Russian elite special forces in the late 1980s, before he flipped and went to work training U.S. military personnel using Spetsnaz techniques.

Despite all the combative bluster, the “evil Russian’s” kettlebell programs were, in fact, rooted in pragmatism and moderation, with an emphasis on efficient training for real-world tasks, breath work, and developing the mind-body connection. Under the guise of the disciplined abuse ethos that dominated the fitness trends of the day, Pavel was really selling the kettlebell as a means of developing intelligent, whole-body strength, prefiguring the mingling of fitness, self-optimization, and wellness that had yet to fully emerge in the mainstream. In the years to follow, weight training would be democratized and subsumed by this whole-body-and-mind approach to staying in shape.

The kettlebell’s dual nature makes it legible by two very different, dovetailing aspects of today’s fitness zeitgeist. Its vaguely Russified militance slots into the punishment quotient in popular fitness movements like CrossFit (some old-school CrossFitters call their kettlebells poods, keeping an Imperial Russian measurement in circulation). On the other hand, the kettlebell also appeals to the optimization and scientification of working out, emphasizing compound movements and coordination across chains of muscle groups. It’s an efficiency thing — ballistic, whole-body exercises that tick off boxes as both cardio and strength training. A literal answer to the nagging existential question “What are you fit for?” Fitness enthusiasts train to be our best selves, to remain alert and strong and vaguely prepared to preserve ourselves against any number of catastrophes on the horizon.

Heavy, handled weights designed to be lifted, swung, and thrown for sport and play turn up across cultures and historical periods. In Ancient Greece, athletes whisked handled stone weights called halteres through the air to gather momentum and propel them further in the long jump; in some of the oldest Scottish Highland Games, competitors flung handled, belled weights up and over bars; and in 10th Century China, Shaolin monks trained with heavy stone padlocks in ways that resemble modern kettlebell exercises.

Despite its pan-national origins, the modern kettlebell’s direct ancestry is most often traced to 17th and early 18th century Russia, where it was developed as a scale counterweight to measure grain and crops. The Russian word for kettlebell — girya — first appears in a dictionary in 1704, and girya typically weighed one or two pood: a unit of measurement equal to about 36 lbs. Soon, Russian farmers discovered that girya had a secondary, showing-off function and began using these weights to perform feats of strength and compete with one another at cultural celebrations and festivals.

Ballistic, whole-body exercises tick off both cardio and strength training boxes, as an answer to the nagging existential question “What are you fit for?”

Interest in health, fitness, and strength flourished not only in Russia but across Europe in the latter half of the 19th and early 20th centuries. The muscular body (particularly the male body) was fetishized as a symbol of power and stability during a time of rapid economic, technological, and social change. The advent of industrialization, deterioration of religious authority, and new ideas about genetics, race, and nationalism all contributed to a growing fascination with the strong, symmetrical, and deliberately cultivated human form. It was under the influence of these continental trends that St. Petersburg physician Vladislav Kraevsky more or less singlehandedly cultivated strength training as an organized activity in Russia. “By developing our physical powers systematically and sensibly, we will become parents of strong and healthy children,” he declared. During the 1870s and 1880s, he traveled across Europe, coming into contact with various figures in the growing cult of strength and fitness, cross-pollinating training tools and techniques.

In 1885, Kraevsky founded the first of the country’s Amateur Athletic Circles, with which he aimed “to develop health and strength by use of kettle-bells, bar-bells, and the wrestling mat.” In 1899, he authored The Development of Physical Strength With and Without Kettlebells — an indication that the girya was, at the time, thought of as the default equipment for strength training. With cheap equipment and minimal space requirements, it was considered a working man’s pastime, and kettlebells often appear in images of 20th century rural village life. At mass community events, lifters would compete to perform the greatest number of reps of an exercise — such as the kettlebell snatch or jerk — in a set length of time, requiring a combination of speed, strength, and endurance.

Though the World Wars and the October Revolution dampened the linear trajectory of fitness trends in the region — narrowing focus onto activities like Olympic weightlifting, in which the Soviet Union might excel on a global stage — kettlebell lifting remained popular, particularly in the farther-flung regions of the USSR. During the Brezhnev era, kettlebells migrated back from the margins into the center of Soviet physical culture. What had been relegated to an auxiliary and vaguely hickish pastime was now recognized as admirably proletarian. Their use may have presented a contrast to bodybuilding, an increasingly popular Western import seen by the powers that be as strength training for renegades, perverts, and what one former weightlifting champion called “numskull posers.” Weightlifting judges the performance of human strength; bodybuilding judges the appearance of human strength. In the received Soviet view, weightlifting was for record-breaking and domination — bodybuilding for aesthetics and frivolity.

While bodybuilding was not original to the United States (the world’s first bodybuilder, Eugen Sandow, born in the 1860s in Prussia, was in fact of German and Russian descent), it had come into its own and thrived there, and its values — showmanship, personal pride, spray tanning — seemed highly Americanized. The Western-inflected notion of developing the male body to be shown off rather than put to use represented an existential threat in the Soviet Union — a splinter of capitalist individualism that might be extrapolated from the male body to the body politic. As one 1977 state-endorsed publication put it, bodybuilding was all about “Self-esteem, extreme egoism . . . in opposition to the humanity and applicability of the Soviet system of physical culture and sport which develops collectivism, industrial and political activeness, furthering the harmonious development of the organism.”

A set of valences was coming into focus: Weightlifting belonged to the State, bodybuilding to the West, and kettlebells to the People. The government considered bodybuilding bourgeois, individualist, and super gay (and yet they were unable to stop its spread). By comparison, hinterland villagers threw their kettlebells around in vaguely lawless but powerful shows of strength. Whereas bodybuilders were cultivating “unusable” strength, kettlebell lifting required functional, whole-body endurance.

Kettlebell training areas were set up in factories and on collective farms, and the activity was promoted as a means of developing a stronger, more robust populace to meet the needs of modern industry. In the 1970s, it was named the official ethnic sport of the Soviet Union. By the ’80s, the rules of the high-rep endurance competition girevoy — now known in English as “kettlebell sport” — were codified by a state decree, and the first Soviet Championships were held. “This type of sport is loved by the people,” the editor of the daily paper Sovetsky Sport wrote in 1988. In the kettlebell, the government may have recognized a popular activity worth laying claim to during a period in which the social authority of the State was beginning to erode.

In America, the origins of fitness culture sowed in the 19th and early-20th centuries were largely imported from Europe. Many of America’s first fitness buffs followed from the tradition of Eugen Sandow, the grandfather of modern bodybuilding, who made his living as a circus strongman after immigrating from Prussia to England as a young man. Sandow was the world’s first fitness entrepreneur: he founded an Institute of Physical Culture and accompanying magazine, selling various fitness programs, equipment, and diets. He was also something of a celebrity — at the end of the century, he toured the U.S. for several years under the management of Florenz Ziegfeld Jr. in a precursor to the latter’s Ziegfeld Follies, displaying the marvel of his physique and promoting his particular brand of enormity, symmetry, and health.

A set of valences was coming into focus: Weightlifting belonged to the State, bodybuilding to the West, and kettlebells to the People

Americans were receptive to the Sandow ideal, which played into some of the country’s foundational values and contradictory myths surrounding self-authorship and exceptionalism. Strongman culture suggested that you could actively work to build a body to match your preordained, nationally bestowed excellence, exercising the right to grow powerfully and Americanly large. It also appealed to the mingling of spiritual ideals and strength endorsed by movements such as Muscular Christianity, which saw fitness as a way to build a perfect body to mirror a pure soul. This allowed a muscular aesthetic — which might otherwise be recognized as self-interested vanity — to be justified as a kind of moral hygiene, evidence of responsibly tending to God’s creation.

When European strongmen migrated across the pond in this period, they brought their training tools and techniques with them. Here, away from its Russian associations with agrarian folk life, the kettlebell fell under the purview of showmanship and righteous swoleness. Throughout the first half of the 20th century, kettlebells were hoisted by Coney Island showmen and hawked in American catalogues. The first generation of American strongmen likely used bespoke objects made as one-offs by metal workers, but when the Milo Barbell Company, America’s first manufacturer of commercial weights, was founded in 1902, kettlebells were among their offerings. Unlike the barbell and dumbbell, however, the kettlebell did not find its way from the rarified strength training world into either the popular imagination or the fitness market, and in the mid-century, it disappeared from view in the United States entirely.

When Pavel Tsatsouline showed up in America the late 1990s with a kettlebell in hand, the equipment had barely, if ever, been seen for decades, and he was able to supply it with any associations he wanted. It seemed shiny and new and now, thanks to Pavel, very, very Russian. Pavel Tsatouline ironized his Soviet heritage and used it to transform himself into a successful American entrepreneur. You could argue that the gambit to repackage the Soviet übermensch as a commodity and sell it to a willing U.S. market in a largely unregulated industry represents some sort of ultimate, symbolic triumph of capitalism over communism. And the kettlebell was the centerpiece of his whole bit: At once a folk amulet imbued with the “secrets” of America’s recently former enemy, and also a real, manufacturable consumer product. Maybe, in America, the Cold War only really ended when it was finally jerked, snatched, clean-and-pressed away.

Today, Pavel Tsatsouline is the CEO of StrongFirst, Inc.: a multiplatform “School of Strength” that sells equipment, programs, and books, licenses its name to gyms, and accredits trainers. Labeled a “Worldwide Brotherhood and Sisterhood of Strength,” there are faint vestiges of the one-time Soviet parody, but for the most part, the brand has pivoted to become specifically and intensely American. Here, the “functions” one’s functional strength might be put towards are dosed with apocalyptic Libertarianism and prepper-think, with StrongFirst making an appeal to “regular folks who have decided to be weak no more or In Case Civilization Is Temporary®.” Emphasis theirs.

My beloved Maritime gym (and “Work,” according to Google Maps) is the kind of place that doubles down on Pride Week and hosts a podcast about vulnerability — by no means a prepper training ground. But I do recognize a harmony with the StrongFirst metaphorical register, if not its potential ideological attachments. On the wall directly across from the corner I preferred to station myself in was a scrawl of faux graffiti spray-painted in a baroque cursive that read: Leave the flock. Join the riot. The majuscule J was so ornate it looked like Loin. I read this strange, aphoristic imperative hundreds of times, puzzling over both its intended and accidental inflections. The irony seemed so unselfconscious I found it almost heart-breaking — a sincerely-meant declaration of rebellion lording over a community organized around our shared love of manufacturing physical hardship as a means of self-improvement. The bizarre anti-conformity mantra of a club we’d all paid hundreds of dollars to join.

I’m not exactly a big joiner, and I don’t take easily to earnest shows of group identification. And maybe that makes me exactly the kind of person the controlled, harmless “riot” of the gym is for: those who prize their independence on a practical level but who would prefer — for reasons that hover somewhere between purely social and abstractly political — to enact that independence in loose solidarity with others.

At the gym, I would sometimes look around at the other regulars and speculate about who they might be in their civilian lives, but I almost never talked to anyone. Instead, I pushed my body to its physical limits in the vicinity of these other endorphin-addled humans, each of us tolerating our own and one another’s various exudations. This was exactly as much community as I wanted: parallel but unspecific, embodied but speechless. Leave the flock, I’d unintentionally chant to myself as I gripped a weight by the horns and flipped it upside down, cool against my chest as I dropped into a squat in tandem with the sweaty, breathy strangers around me. Loin the riot, I misread every time my head came up at the top of a swing.

“Kettlebell” is really an approximate term. A globular, flat-bottomed object with some kind of handle on the top weighing anywhere from a few pounds to over a hundred, it’s only conferred as a tool — for weighing grain, building muscle, circus, competition, etc. — through its use. Another way of putting this: A kettlebell doesn’t mean anything until you pick it up. Until you do something with it. Victoria Felkar says that when lockdown went into place, she got handy and fashioned her own kettlebell-like object out of plumbing equipment. And it’s working just fine — proof positive that while the commodification of the object is what gives it its capital power, it’s the shape, weight, and form of a thing that really matters. Devoid of other significations, a kettlebell is just a heavy ball you can cling to.

Since the 1970s, the rise of popular fitness and gym culture in the West has been dramatic. Much as turn-of-the-century fitness ideals developed alongside widespread changes like industrialization, urbanization, and Darwinism, the modern fitness industry has often been read as a response to any number of crises and developments: the decline of labor, the AIDS pandemic, changing gender roles, the growth of consumer culture. As it has variously metabolized and answered to social and economic conditions, the explosion of popular fitness has been highly episodic and trend oriented. After all, fitness is not only a matter of culture — it’s also a $94-billion-dollar industry, and one with little in the way of standardization or regulation. There is a strain of that industry, commodified and aimed at the comfortable, that’s about establishing challenges to overcome in the absence of any real obstacles to one’s survival. Which isn’t to say that it’s not pleasurable and objectively good to articulate and meet physical and mental challenges — only that generating and conquering personal challenges can be a burlesque of those larger, existential problems we apparently have no collective apparatus for handling.

Since Covid-19 began, the same semi-holistic, consumer-oriented trends that have marked 21st-century fitness have come home. Sleek, expensive SoulCycle At-Home and Peloton bikes reproduce the rave-like ecstasy of the spin class; many of us head to Zoom and Instagram and YouTube for a fix of high-intensity interval training, yoga, or pilates, taking in virtual classes that cost anywhere from nothing to prices that match the in-gym version; and there are still runs and mark-ups on all the high-priced accoutrements of working out — mats, athleisure wear, and of course, kettlebells. All signs that even under lockdown, the safely homebound middle class remains committed to the mash-up of feeling and looking good implied by the idea of staying “in shape,” but also, maybe, a sign that for many, this is all there is to do. Even if, rationally, you know that no amount of working out can inure you to a deadly virus, and no personal fitness regime is a substitute for an effective public health effort, acquiring and manifesting physical strength might seem like a concrete way to “take action” in a moment of stunning impotence and loneliness. Locked away at home with the kettlebells, going through the motions, in training for our atomized lives.

Suzannah Showler is the author of the poetry collections Thing is (McClelland & Stewart 2017) and Failure to Thrive (ECW 2014) and the book Most Dramatic Ever about The Bachelor. You can read her work in the New York Times Magazine, Slate, Buzzfeed Reader, the Walrus, Hazlitt, Maisonneuve, and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among other places.