Erik’s Beginner’s Guide to Kettlebells Part 2: Finding Kettlebells

I've gotten great results from training with kettlebells. Several friends ask me for resources. I couldn't find a solid starting point for ultra beginners, so I made my own.

This portion includes my thoughts on picking a starting weight and recommendations for buying kettlebells.

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  • Part 1 is a short rant on why kettlebells are efficient training tools, especially for busy people.
  • Part 2 has my thoughts on picking a starting weight and recommendations for buying kettlebells.
  • Part 3 collects a list of helpful videos for basic exercises.
  • Part 4 has a list of helpful videos for slightly more advanced exercises. 
  • Part 5 includes a few resources for training routines and quick recommendations for protecting your arms and hands.

As a disclaimer, I am not a doctor, trainer, fitness expert, or person of any particular talent. I’m just a dude trying to stay healthy. If you have concerns about injury or safety, consult an expert. A real expert, not your meat-head cousin Joey who bench pressed 400lb. that one time. You don’t know what he was on when he did that.

Starting Weights

Kettlebells come in a few weight intervals, which is part of the appeal if you’re looking for a simple and efficient way to exercise. Kettlebell weights were traditionally measured in the amazing-sounding unit, the pood, which is roughly 16 kg. or 35lb. Kettlebells generally come within some range of the .5 pood increments:

  • .5 pood: 8kg. or 18 lb.
  • 1 pood: 16kg. or 35lb.
  • 1.5 pood: 24 kg. or 53 lb.
  • 2 pood: 32 kg. or 72lb.

For the sake of simplicity, it makes sense for men to stick to .5 pood increments. Women may need to go up in .25 pood increments. Less is often more, and you can make incredible gains in fitness using no more than a few kettlebells. You’ll probably want to start with two: a lighter kettlebell for presses and a heavier kettlebell for swings. 

Finding your starting weights isn’t a science. Training with kettlebells doesn't involve complicated calculations of one-rep-maxes or lean body mass. Instead, your starting weight should meet two criteria: 1. You can safely complete a press for your lighter kettlebell and a swing for your heavier kettlebell. 2. Completing a few reps of swings or presses feels challenging (but safe). 

Most men should be able to start with two kettlebells: 16 kg. (35 lb.) and 24kg. (53 lb.). However, if you are like me and you work a desk job and have never been an athlete, you might have to start lower. My first kettlebell weighed 25 lb., and I considered myself decently fit at the time. 

Note: I’ve never trained with women, so I can’t comment too much on the weights women should start at, but Pavel Tsatsouline, arguably the progenitor of the American kettlebell market, recommends 8 kg./18 lb., 12 kg./26 lb., and 16 kg./35 lb. as starters for ladies. 

Finding a starting weight for kettlebells is a great way to rid yourself some of the conventional notions that make exercise confusing. Online forums are full of complaints regarding the lack of granularity in kettlebells weights available, presumably because they’re looking for that Goldilocks weight that’s heavy enough for a challenge, but light enough for them to complete their prescribed workout. But exercise shouldn’t be about completing some overly-detailed regimen. It may sound like a violation of natural law, but workouts don’t actually need to come in sets of 10. You can get stronger by doing a single repetition of something heavy. If 16kg. is too heavy for you to complete 10 reps of overhead presses, do 5. Next time, you might be able to do 6. 

Try Before You Buy

Before you buy your own kettlebells, I highly recommend borrowing one from a friend or finding a gym with kettlebells. I’ve seen kettlebells cropping up at more big-box gyms like 24 Hour Fitness, but if there are any CrossFit gyms in your neighborhood, they will definitely have them. 

Gather a bit of momentum on your training by building some familiarity with a couple of basic exercises, such as the swing and the press, before buying your own kettlebells. Play around with your borrowed kettlebells to the point where your excitement is around the actual training, not around trying something new. 

I’m not trying to save you money. This is a recommendation for compliance. Buying gear for a new hobby tends to be a trap that leads to failure. The sense of completion brought about by buying new toys (unpacking video!) is often enough to satisfy people into never actually doing their new hobby. But if you can’t find a gym or if you don’t have any friends, kettlebells are inexpensive, unobtrusive, and can look cool lying around a bachelor/bachelorette pad, so isn’t a huge tragedy if you buy one and it ends up gathering dust. 

Buying Kettlebells

So you’ve already tried your hand at kettlebells (or if you're a total baller) and you’re ready buy some for yourself. You’re not going to find great kettlebells at your local sporting goods store, but there are tons of great options online. Unfortunately, the market for kettlebells can be overwhelming, especially since reviewers tend to be the loudest people on the internet.

You’ll find fancy features and technologically advanced production methods, but at the end of the day, you’re looking for a metal ball with a handle; it’s hard to go wrong. Just make sure it has thick handles. You can look for features that you think are important, such as the way the kettlebell is painted (which affects grip), but that may be getting into the unnecessary detail, especially for beginners. 

The price of kettlebells, like anything else, will vary from brand to brand. On the high end, you’ll find Dragon Door, which are supposed to be the best kettlebells for some reason or other. These guys are expensive though, and kettlebells will run about $3.25 per pound, including shipping. 

On the affordable side are kettlebells from Onnit and Rogue, coming in at about $2 per pound, including shipping. Both of these manufacturers have solid reviews all around, and given the price, are a great place to start. I’ve tried both and highly recommend either brand. If you live where one of these companies is headquartered (Onnit is in Austin, Rogue is in Columbus), you can save on shipping, cutting the costs of your training equipment nearly in half. 

If you stick to a less expensive brand, kettlebell training becomes amazingly inexpensive. As I mentioned above, an ambitious man will need a 16 kg. (35 lb.) kettlebell and a 24 kg. (53 lb.) kettlebell to start, bringing the grand total for workout equipment to $176. Once you’ve beefed up a bit, you can get a 32 kg. (72lb.) kettlebell for another $140. $316 isn’t too bad for fitness equipment, especially since you could, theoretically, use nothing more than those kettlebells. If you're training with more weight than 32 kg., I should be looking to you for advice. 

If you’re looking for fun (but admittedly, unnecessary) features, you can buy kettlebells cast with mean-looking faces. Demon Bells makes a set of kettlebells cast as ghouls (their 54 lb. "Daimon" is extra slick). Onnit makes a primate-themed line called Primal Bells, including a .5 pood monkey, a 1 pood chimp, a 1.5 pood orangutan, and a 2 pood gorilla. I have the gorilla, and I must admit, it’s pretty rad.

Once you’ve found your starting weights and have access to kettlebells, you should start training with basic moves.