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Don’t Buy A Kettlebell Until You Read This! (Because size DOES matter!)

Selecting the right sized kettlebell is important in getting the most out of your kettlebell training.

A bell that is too light or too heavy is not only a waste of money, but will compromise the safety, productivity and enjoyment of your workouts.

Unlike traditional resistance equipment like barbells and dumbbells, you don’t need an extensive set of bells arranged in small weight increments.  A set of two or three kettlebells can provide you with years of challenging and productive workouts.

Progress can be sustained with the same kettlebell by varying exercises, leverage, intensity, sequencing and work-to-rest ratios to make your training more difficult.

Historically, Russian Kettlebells were measured in “poods.”  One pood equals 16 kilograms or about 35 lbs.  In my opinion it is unnecessary to work with weight increments any smaller than .5 poods.

How To Select The Right Bell For You

At the risk of sounding sexist, men typically over-estimate the amount of weight they can lift properly and women tend to under estimate their strength.  Either extreme, too light or too heavy, can pose problems.

Too Heavy

Keep in mind that Kettlebell training is dynamic.  In the course of a workout you will lift, swing, jerk and even throw that big chunk of cast iron in a variety of patterns, directions and positions.

If you are in over your head with an exceedingly heavy kettlebell, you run the risk of accidents, faulty body mechanics, injuries and property damage.

Too Light

When you begin your training, avoid the temptation to grab a “piddley” little kettlebell that is way below your current potential and fitness level.  Some people do so thinking that is an effective way to learn the basics quickly and safely.  That may not be the case.

Training with a kettlebell that is too light posses a different set of problems:

  • A light bell will reduce your results in strength development, fat loss, cardio vascular conditioning, and even injury prevention.
  • A light bell will not “load” the appropriate muscles needed to support the structure of the body, generate optimal force and may not fully activate the important stabilizer muscles (that may not yet be firing properly when you begin your functional training program).
  • It is possible to train “wrong” with a light Kettlebell and not realize it.  Kettlebell training is much more than “lifting weights.”  A KB is a “feedback” mechanism” that teaches you how to stabilize, align and move your body properly.

When the size of the bell is appropriately challenging, you MUST perform the exercises correctly or mistakes become glaringly obvious.

General Guidelines

To dumb it down as much as possible, the most generic advice I can give you is:

If you are an “average guy” you’ll want to start with a 16 kg Kettlebell.  A good “set” of kettlebells for an average male would be a 16, 20 + 24 kg.

If you are “average gal” you’ll want to consider an 8 kg bell for starters.  A good “set” for an average female would be an 8, 12, 16 kg.

Bench Test

In his essential book, “Enter The Kettlebell,” the guru of Russian Kettlebell training, Pavel Tatsouline, provides a rough guideline for men based on the bench press.  If you bench press less than 200 lbs. start with a 16 kg.  If you can press over 200 lbs. start with a 20 kg.  If you are unusually strong (strongman or power lifter) you can probably get away starting with a 24 kg.

Press Test

If you’ve already learned the “clean and press,” another good standard for your primary kb is a weight you can press strictly 3-5 times.

A word of caution –  When people first begin training with KB’s, the device can feel awkward and heavy.  They often perform their introductory session with a lighter bell than the one’s I’ve recommend.   No big deal right?

It could be if after the exhilaration of your first KB workout, you run out and buy the same bell you began your training with.

What will happen is that same bell becomes too light for you almost over night.  Your initial strength levels will soar as your muscles begin to fire more efficiently and your body mechanics improve.  You’ve just wasted your hard-earned cash on a dust-collecting doorstop.

If you’re going to err… do so on a heavier bell.  If it DOES turn out to be too heavy for your current level of strength and conditioning, you can add a lighter bell to your arsenal and work your way up to the heavier one when you’re ready.  Instead of a waste of cash, it’s a logical investment to your future training.

Also, there are a number of legitimate “cheats, tricks and assists” that can be applied when lifting a bell that is a bit on the heavy side.  These techniques will allow you to train with that bell until you develop the additional strength needed for more strict repetitions.

The Optimal Solution

In a perfect world, it would be nice to have access to a variety of kettlebells that you can “play with” and hone in on the right bell for your current level of fitness and conditioning.

Take some time, focus on technique and “dial in” the optimal size of your “primary kettlebell” over the course of your first couple weeks of training.


About Randy LaHaie

I’m the founder of “Protective Strategies,” a training and consulting company providing self-defense and combative fitness solutions to law enforcement, high-risk professionals and private citizens since 1994. I am a retired police officer, court-declared expert in use-of-force and critical incident performance, and a life-long student of self-defense and combative fitness. “My Thing” is to help people incorporate functional and minimalist workout strategies to improve their health, fitness and personal safety.

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  • Tony Bell

    Kettlebells – and other dynamic training equipment like Clubs, Mace etc – are great bits of equipment that are minimal in terms of space and maximal in terms of benefits and of course, not greatly expensive pound for pound (ok..Kilo…;-).
    In our training centre, we frequently get into discussion about “what’s best for..” so in this case here’s a question for you:-
    In your opinion with KB’s, “What’s best for”… middle aged men and women (think late 40’s/50’s) who are returning to training and want to get back into combatives and weights? Same generic rules (bench press/200lbs) or a modified approach?
    Tony B

    • Hey Tony, thanks for your comments and your question.

      Interestingly enough, the bulk of my focus nowadays is precisely what you’re asking about. My primary interest is training and conditioning issues for people in that 40/50+ stage of life… (I’m 56).

      My personal preference is a solid foundation of body weight exercise (pushups, pullups, squats, bridges etc.) supplemented by basic kettlebell exercises – such as swings and turkish get ups. In addition to “combative drills” such as hitting a heavy bag, focus pads etc.

      I’m defnitely an advocate of “minimalist training;” being able to train anywhere, anytime with little or no equipment. I’m sold on calisthenics and kettlebells. I find that the “longer” devices such as clubs and maces aren’t practical when training at home because of space and ceiling height.

      We can get 80% of the conditioning that we need with little more than our own bodies and a pull up bar. That being said, I also believe that it’s important to place an “external load” on the body… (especially when training for combative performance).

      That’s where some basic, “heavy” kettlebell exercises are valuable. In particular, the kettlebell swing is one of the best things to do for quick and simple fat burning and cardio workouts. The versatility of slow “grind” and fast, ballistic exercises with the kettlebell give it an edge over most other functional exercise tools.

      Being were I am in my life and training, as well as the fact that many of my subscribers are in the 40+ category, I’ve been doing a ton of research into the unique needs of people in our age bracket. Factors like nutrition, joint mobility, training intensity, duration and recovery time, hormone optimization, bone density, and even disease prevention and reversal are more important now than they were in our “younger days.”

      If you’ve come across any research, resources or have opinions of your own on the subject I’d love to hear them. I also have a list of quality resources to recommend if you’re interested.

      Thanks again for your comments.

  • J.H.

    Which weight bell do you need?
    It depends upon the exercise.
    The vast majority of beginners can use a heavier bell as recommended for swings and lower body work, overhead exercises generally require a lighter bell.
    The idea is to improve your health and fitness. Not to jeopardize it. It’s always amazing to me how much weight some people claim to lift on the internet.

    • Points taken J.H.

      My position on kettlebell training is that it’s different than standard weight or resistance work. It’s not about lifting more and more weight, or grinding out another rep “by any means possible.” One should not be so concerned with counting reps during a “workout” as much as perfecting one’s body mechanics during a “practice session.”

      I sometimes refer to training with kettlebells as “tai chi with weight.” By that I mean that one’s focus should be on the proper and precise body mechanics and intense concentration on every aspect of the movement and as close to perfect body mechanics as possible. Body position, spinal alignment, joint positioning, muscle tension and breathing must all be considered.

      Injury prevention and proper technique should ALWAYS take precedence over how much you can lift, or how many reps you can squeak out.

      I am also not a fan of relying on several different kettlebells for various exercises. I’d rather someone stick with a particular bell, and incorporate it into a full body training session.

      You are right, some exercises are “stronger” and could accomodate a heavier bell… I’d rather stick witht the same bell… and if a movement is stronger, then perform higher repetitions or explore a variation that changes one’s leverage to make the exercise more difficult using the same kettlebell.

      My approach to conditioning is one of “minimalism.” I want to be able to maintain my training sessions with the least amount of equipment anywhere I happen to be. There is no reason that someone can’t get a great exercise session in with little more than a skipping rope, their own bodyweight and a SINGLE kettlebell.

      If one were to be restricted by the need for a collection of several kettlebells it defeats the purpose in my opinion. But that’s just me.

      Thanks for your comments.

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