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Where Did All The Kettlebells Go

Already it had been dealing with low inventory levels across its home gym lineup because the virus had temporarily shuttered factories in China. Since then, the 55-person company has largely been reorganized to turn away from professional gym gear and focus only on home exercise products.

author
Danielle Fletcher
• Tuesday, 13 October, 2020
• 7 min read
kettlebell history
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But kettle bells are part of a complicated and fragile supply chain, one that's a microcosm of a global economy currently in crisis. Rogue, which did not respond to an interview request for this story, captioned the post to its two million followers with: “We know we are behind, and we are working around the clock to clear the backlog.”

Most of the kettle bells that you could have ordered before March 13 were; it's probably not surprising that, in 2020, there are few American foundries eagerly pumping out large bulbs of iron. But Rogue, in a moment of massive demand and with a supply chain in chaos, has turned to Rhode Island's Cumberland Foundry, a company with roughly 40 employees.

Those Instagram pictures it posted were from Cumberland, a tacit acknowledgment that, at least temporarily, the system has shifted: Rogue needs professionally crafted kettle bells wherever it can get them, even if it has to pay higher, American-sized wholesale prices than what they and other companies (including Rep Fitness) are getting overseas. Cumberland isn’t automated, and its president, Tom Lucchetti, estimates that it takes a full day to produce 40 to 50 kettle bells (with Rogue handling last steps, like painting the bells).

I just saw the news report that the Patriots sent a plane to get a million paper masks from China. Back then, the owner of a Rhode Island gym was ordering products from exercise gear conglomerates, which have their kettle bells made overseas.

The gym had issues with the durability of those kettle bells —their two-piece designs had a steel handle that would often come loose, which is disconcerting when you’re holding 40 pounds of iron over your head. A one-piece cast-iron kettle bell design emerged as the clear alternative model, and the gym owner enlisted nearby Cumberland to make it.

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The gym owner prototyped his kettle bells, then gave Cumberland the tooling—which would have cost $50,000 to $100,000 to create—so it could manufacturer his final cast-iron product. In Georgia, George Boyd Jr. is the vice president of Golden's’ Foundry and Machine Company, one of the largest foundries left in the U.S. Golden's’ makes long-haul truck parts, in addition to commercial items like cast-iron grills, which Boyd says are “selling like hot cakes” right now.

Golden's’ dabbled with limited runs of dumbbells once upon a time, but stayed out of the kettle bell business out of respect to their foundry friends up north. Golden's’ dumbbell experiment didn’t last, and Boyd is hesitant to take on fitness equipment-related projects without a commitment from the companies involved that they wouldn’t bolt back to China when the pandemic subsides.

“A lot of large American buyers say they care about everything, but at the end of the day, all they want to know is piece price,” Boyd says. “They certainly do have great foundries in China, but the reality is, the bulk of their production is not done by people who are paid living wages, and the work isn’t always done in environmentally friendly ways.”

“A lot of large American buyers say they care about everything, but at the end of the day, all they want to know is piece price.” Boyd hopes the sold-out kettle bell saga will open consumer’s eyes about the dismal state of manufacturing, amongst many other industries, in the U.S. and around the world.

“With these massive disruptions, I hope more people are thinking about, well, do we really want to have a logistical supply chain that stretches over half the globe ?” he says. UPDATE: This piece originally misstated the number of kettle bells that Cumberland Foundry can produce in a single day.

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From Zoom raves to Instagram orgies, coronavirus isolation has meant a boom time for sex via screen. While it looks like a cannonball with a looping handle protruding at the top, it can easily be mistaken for an iron cast tea kettle on steroids.

It also happens to be growing in popularity, allowing athletes and those just trying to stay in shape to perform a wide range of specialized strength-building exercises with kettle bells. Kettle bell exercises were later popularized in the late 1800s by a Russian physician named Vladislav Kerensky, considered by many to be the country's founding father of Olympic weight training.

After spending roughly a decade traveling around the world researching exercise techniques, he opened one of Russia's first weight training facilities where kettle bells and barbells were introduced as a core part of a comprehensive fitness routine. By the early 1900s, Olympic weightlifters in Russia were using kettle bells to shore up weaker areas, while soldiers used them to improve their conditioning in preparation in combat.

But it wasn't until 1981 that the government finally threw its weight behind the trend and mandated kettle bell training for all citizens as a way to boost overall health and productivity. A-list celebrities such as Matthew McConaughey, Jessica Biel, Sylvester Stallone, and Vanessa Huygens have been known to utilize kettle bell workouts to strengthen and tone.

What distinguishes a kettle bell workout from training with barbells is an emphasis on a wider range of movement that involves several muscle groups. Whereas barbells are generally used to directly target isolated muscle groups, such as the biceps, the kettle bell’s weight is away from the hand, allowing for swinging moves and other full body exercises.

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Russian Swing: Standing with knees slightly bent and feet apart, hold the kettle bell just below the groin with both hands and with both arms straight. Also, since they're compact, portable and with many shops selling them for prices comparable to the cost of barbells, it might be worth it to just buy a set.

That’s Victoria Fear, a sociocultural sports historian who’s completing a PhD at the University of British Columbia on historical perceptions of the muscular body. She also has a side project that seeks to answer the question that keeps her up at night: why did the kettle bell suddenly explode in popularity in 21st century America?

Pavel Tsatsouline is widely credited as the first man to popularize kettle bells in the United States after the former Soviet Special Forces trainer migrated from Belarus in the late 90s. And in her quest to uncover the secret history of the kettle bell, Fear, along with some of her colleagues, has journeyed to archive all over the world and traveled back in time (uh, metaphorically) to old-timey Scotland, Russia, China, Germany, and America itself — about a hundred years before Pavel even landed on its shores.

The first roadblock to answering Fear’s question is that kettle bells are little more than a weight with a handle on top. That is, intuitively, a pretty useful strength tool, which means that a lot of societies, from Shaolin monks in China to Highland Game athletes in Scotland, have produced some variation on the model, sometimes under names like “ring-handled weight” and “stone padlock.”

“Suggestions have been made that in Western civilization, objects resembling kettle bells were used as far back as classical Greece,” she writes in her currently unpublished paper on the topic: The ancient Greeks had developed three different weighted implements, including an object called the ‘halter.’ Although Todd notes that there was vast variation in their appearance and composition, some described movements of this ‘singable’ weight are akin to today’s kettle bell.

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“The kettle bell’s a vastly unknown and unappreciated weightlifting object,” Fear tells Barbed. The story goes that Russian farmers used kettle bells as counterweights to measure out grain at the market.

As bored farmers learned the weights could be heaved and tossed in feats of strength and endurance, giros began enjoying a central role in farming festivals. Some time around the turn of the nineteenth century, a Russian doctor called Vladislav Chayefsky realized that the kettle bell deserved a place in sports medicine.

Chayefsky (also called on Korzybski, Kraevskogo, and Krajewski) happened to be the personal physician of the Russian czar, who popularized kettle bell training in the Russian army which eventually elevated it to a national sport. As historians unearth more and more documents, some of which can be found in archives like those at The Stark Center in Austin and The Open Source Physical Culture Library, it has become clear that kettle bells had a presence in more places than Russia.

“There are photographs of strong women and men prior to the 1900s who used kettle bells in feats like the bent arm press and extended lateral isometric holds,” Fear explains, pointing to an old image of strong woman Elise Seraphic Bultmann as an example. “There are tons of German training manuals and diaries and stuff like that from the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries that feature the kettle bell, though often under different names,” says Fear.

Since much of the Turners System is akin to the exercise programs used in CrossFit, Fear jokes that these photographs of Greg Glassman’s ancestral father pioneering kettle bell training are “a Crossfire’s wet dream.” But Germany, with its rich history of physical cultists and bodybuilding, is the place that has the historical documentation.

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The late 19th century was also the dawn of globalization in terms of international travel and cultural influence. There’s a good chance that it was at an 1898 gathering of strongmen in Vienna where Dr. Chayefsky became more familiar with the kettle bell as a strength and conditioning tool, after he met with the innovative German trainer, Theodore Sievert.

The czar’s physician may have then brought the idea back to his homeland, where he wrote his first book on the topic just two years later. It was also at this time that circus strongmen journeyed to and sometimes settled in America, opening gyms and giving the United States their first taste of kettle bell training.

Theories as to the kettle bell’s disappearance range from war-born distaste for Russian artifacts to an expansive feud between two rival fitness moguls. (For history buffs, we’re talking about Joe Wader and Bob Hoffman — almost every gym had to pick a side, and neither of their training systems included kettle bells.)

The czar’s taste for giros had long since spread from the Russian army to the nation at large, and it was here kettle bells became not just a conditioning tool, but a sport. German sociologist Norbert Elias more or less defined the point at which activity becomes sport, contending that sports are modern cultural creations, determined by urban space, configured as commercial spectacle, and subject to formal regulations and sanctioned by public institutions.

Kettle bell swinging and juggling was a popular “folk exercise” among Russian farming communities in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, but it wasn’t until 1948 that it became an official sport. That was the year that Russia, then the Soviet Federative Socialist Republic, declined to attend the Summer Olympics in London, declared kettle bell lifting as their national sport, and held the the -Soviet Union Competition of Strongman in Moscow.

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13 14 But different Soviet states tended to have different rules, weights, dimensions, and training styles. “That was when the sport was shortened to ten minutes per exercise for as much reps as possible,” says Steve Cotter, founder of the International Kettle bell and Fitness Federation.

At this point, kettle bells were a fully-fledged sport in the old USSR, but implementing them for fitness — not for performance, but for wellness, rehabilitation, a healthier heart, and so on — has an entirely different motivation and practice. But then there’s the question of Fear’s research paper: why did Americans start using kettle bells as a tool for fitness?

Usually, the credit goes to the Belarusian Pavel Tsatsouline, a former trainer of Soviet Special Forces soldiers. And a subject-matter expert to the US Marine Corps, the US Secret Service, and the US Navy SEALs.

Fear more or less agrees that Pavel’s marketing was extremely influential in spreading kettle bells as a fitness tool. She likens him to Eugen Sand ow: he wasn’t the first guy to excel at bodybuilding, but he was a marketing genius who lay a lot of the groundwork for today’s world.

But as an academic, she’s not completely satisfied that Pavel is patient zero for the 21st century’s kettle bell epidemic. She points out that scores of ex-Soviet kettle bell athletes fled to America and opened gyms after the Berlin Wall fell.

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“The kettle bell has a long and complex history that ultimately parallels the embodied practices of weightlifting itself. There are so many factors that have influenced the rise of not only physical culture, but weightlifting, all the way down to the kettle bell itself.”

The kettle bell is at the center of an inconceivably vast network of international and intercultural influences and practices. But there are things we do know: the kettle bell came to America long before Pavel Tsatsouline, and its modern sport may have originated in Germany, not Russia.

History prepared from the Russian text “Gregory Sport” by V. Poyarkov and VI Voropaev, 1988. “Requiem for a strongman: Reassessing the career of Professor Louis Attila,” Iron Game History 7, no.

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Sources
1 www.gq.com - https://www.gq.com/story/inside-the-great-kettlebell-shortage
2 www.thoughtco.com - https://www.thoughtco.com/who-invented-the-kettlebell-4038483
3 barbend.com - https://barbend.com/kettlebell-history/