Thursday, September 11, 2008

Kettlebell Conundrums

One of the frequent questions in my email is:
What brand of kettlebell should I buy?
When I began training with kettlebells they were almost impossible to source so I had a student custom-make me a pair of stainless steel bells which were very serviceable (and still reside in my ex-wife's backyard). When Dragon Door came out with the first mass-produced bells it was like a revelation! Compared to the crude, straight-handled, stainless steel bells (and the plate-loaded versions I'd constructed of steel plumber's pipe) they felt marvelous. Kettlebell heaven, so to speak, and what with the variety of weights available, it was all very convenient.

Soon, other companies began to produce kettlebells. Entrepreneurs located foundries in India and China where bells could be produced cheaper, while maintaining the same basic quality. Prices came down and Dragon Door no longer had a lock on the market.

The main problem came when Valery Federenko formed his own organization, the American Kettlebell Club and, for the first time, we Americans were exposed to so-called "authentic" Russian kettlebell design. According to Girya Sport purists, the only legitimate use of the kettlebell is for Swings, Snatches, Long-Cycle Clean and Jerk and Long-Cycle Clean and Press. All of the AKC bells, from 8 to 40 kg, are the same size and shape, diameter, and handles which is very important...if you wish to compete in kettlebell sport lifting. The bells are the ideal shape and design for the sport and I highly recommend them as the tool of choice for those wishing to be competitive with their kettlebell lifting. Because they are all the same diameter, you'll develop flawless technique and program the nervous system to lift the bells into the exact same groove each time. This feat is achieved by making the lighter bells hollow.

An alternative to buying a complete set of AKC bells, for those wishing to incrementally increase resistance, are the hollow Russian competition kettlebells sold by Dmitri Sataev at

These are high-quality kettlebells with a superior paint finish to the AKC bells. In the bottom of the bell is a little metal plug which screws in and can be removed to weight the bell, e.g., with lead shot, pennies or screws. The 16kg bells I bought can potentially be filled to weigh 32kg. This is very handy when you live in a confined space e.g., a van or small apartment. What I like about these bells is you can make fractional incremental increases, as opposed to big jumps in weight. The drawback? It's virtually impossible to adjust the weight up or down during a single workout and there are times you may wish to use heavy and light bells within the same workout.

More recently,a whole slew of new kids have arrived on the kettlebell block. At first, Power Systems came out with their own brand of kettlebells; K-1 brand have been around for quite a while; Everlast made some KBs and Lifeline USA has their own line. The newest addition to the kettlebell family is the MaxBell and of course, I like them the best! Anything I put my name to, you'd better believe has good quality. The rubberized paint on these bells is the best I've seen and the handle thickness is equal on each bell, from light to heavy. They are similar in design to the Dragon Door and Lifeline bells, with the exception that the 8kg MaxBell is far superior to the Dragon Door 8kg. Bonus: MaxBells are very competitively priced.

What to Look for in Kettlebell Design

What I look for in a kettlebell is:

1) A curved handle
Avoid kbs with straight handles because the as the bell travels back and forth in the hand, irritating the wrist, the curve keeps the bell centered in the hand, not only protecting the wrist from undue stress but also improving the grip.

2) A smooth finish on the handle
Which won't irritate or tear the skin of the hands.

3) A superior paint job
Which won't easily chip
(because they all chip!) exposing the underlying metal to the elements.

4) A flat base
So the kettlebell can sit up without out tilting onto the floor
. Avoid kettlebells with a raised base. Some kettlebell manufacturers put rubber bases on the bells, making them unstable and unsuitable for exercises such as:
Renegade Rows
Bear Crawls
and the delightful Elephant Walk

The MaxBells design permits smaller-sized people, e.g., women to easily handle a kettlebell. Since the majority of attendees in most group classes are women, the MaxBells design is more suitable to small hands, chest structure and shoulders of the average woman. Tha AKC bells are simply too big and too awkward for exercises such as:
Arm Bar
and even Cleans (for most women)

The AKC claims the only true use of the kettlebell is for Swings, Snatches, Long Cycle, et al., and certainly, for those exercises, it's true the AKC bells are superior for the GS Sport-type movements (unless you're a very petite woman.)

It all depends on what you're training for! If you're training GS, hey, you've got to use GS bells. If you're training fitness, sports and athletic conditioning, go with MaxBells.

That being said, I've found that for extremely large men (with extremely large hands) have difficulty gripping inside the Dragon Door-style bell. Their hands don't fit. For them, the traditional Russian sport design is also a better choice.

If you live on the East coast, around the NY-Philly-Wash DC corridor, you can save huge bucks on shipping by borrowing a pick-up or SUV and coming over to MaxerciseSports Fitness in Center City, Philadelphia and loading up some very well designed MaxBells.

No matter which bell you decide upon, the main decision seems to be "authentic" Russian design vs. the more standard fitness design of incrementally larger sized bells. I was the first person to teach kettlebells in the U.S. and I have more experience leading mainstream fitness classes than anyone else in the U.S. or abroad. I've worked with every level of client: from the extremely de-conditioned/obese right up to elite professional athletes. In my estimation as a fitness director, health-club owner and group class leader, the superior design is along the lines of the MaxBell or Dragon Door-type bell.

In Strength & Health,


Clint said...

I'd love to take these suckers for a test-drive. Do you plan on having any with you when you hit Portland for the Maxbells Cert?

Arthur said...

Where will the Maxbells be sold? And what are the sizes? I bought a pair of Apollo 12KG and 16KG with the rubber bases and I am not pleased with them for the very reasons you pointed out in your Blog. I am interested in buying quality Kettlebells.
Thank you,
Art Kiser

Steve Maxwell said...

Arthur, go to
They don't have an online ordering system yet but you can call Maxercise and they'll process and ship your order for you:

- Steve

Steve Maxwell said...

I doubt I'll be driving them cross-country in the van, but you never know. If enough people in Portland are interested, I'm sure John will ship some out. - Steve