What You Need to Know About Kettlebell Sport, Part 1

Kettlebell Sport has been gaining popularity in the States, but competitions involving the kettlebell snatch, press, and the clean & jerk have been around for the better part of 70 years.

Kettlebells, or giriya, as they are called in (their) mother Russia, have existed since the early 1700’s or much longer, if you ask the Greeks.  Designed as counterweights for markets in rural Russia (according to some), it wasn’t long until the market workers and farmers started using them as a way to display their strength.

Evidently, I’m not the only one who oohs and aahs at feats of strength. The entertainment value of  kettlebell swinging, juggling, and pressing made it easy for these counterweights to find their way to carnivals,  fairs, and circuses, where their influence can still be felt. At a recent visit to Cirque du Soleil, one of my favorite acts was the Russian Cradle. It consisted of  a strongman-type athlete, swinging and “juggling” a petite gymnast, as if she were a 3 pood kettlebell.

Just as the circus acts have evolved, so too has the use of kettlebells as an instrument for fitness. According to the International Union of Kettlebell Lifting, the IUKL, it was at the 1948 All-Soviet Union Competition of Strongman in Moscow that kettlebell lifting not only became a sport, but was also declared the National Sport. Kettlebell athletes at the competition performed both the long jerk, a two-kettlebell clean & jerk event, and the biathlon, single-arm jerks, followed by single-arm snatches.

As Kettlebell Sport competitions became more popular, different States made up their own rules pertaining to weights, kettlebell shapes, and competition events. In an effort to solidify the sport’s national impact, The Official Kettlebell Commission was created in 1981. It would be another four years until comprehensive rules were enforced, this time at the first USSR Championship in Lipetsk, Russia.

The “modern” incarnation of the sport was inaugurated in 1988, at the First Cup of Girevoy Sport, where both the long cycle event and the ten-minute time limit were introduced. By 1992 the International Girya Sport Federation was founded, and Russia hosted the First World Kettlebell Lifting Championship in 1993.

It took another six years for women to be allowed to compete in the championships, and it wasn’t until the dawn of the 21st Century that women were included in the snatch competition at the Russian National Championship.

Today, there are a number of kettlebell organizations active in the US, including The American Kettlebell Alliance (AKA), which is a member of The International Kettlebell Sport & Fitness Academy (IKSFA). The American Kettlebell Club (AKC), is a member of The World Kettlebell Club, (WKC). There is also the  International Union of Kettlebell Lifting (IUKL), and The International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation (IKFF), and a number of other smaller clubs.

A photo posted by Girevoy (@girevoysportaus) on

Here are some things you can expect to see at most kettlebell sport competitions nowadays. As with most things relating to kettlebell sport, almost every rule has exceptions.

  1. Three lifts and two events.
  2. Competition bells that are all equally sized and shaped, regardless of their weight. Each bell’s weight is identified by a specific color.
  3. Athletes get to choose the weight of the bell they will compete with.
  4. For a repetition to count, there must be fixation while the bell is overhead.
  5. Predetermined weight, and age classes.
  6. Loud techno dance music. Ok, that’s a joke. Sorta.

So let’s break these down a little.

The Three Lifts

The Jerk

Athletes start by picking up the kettlebell from the floor, and performing a swing clean into the front rack position. They then jerk the kettlebell overhead, and show fixation. The bell is then returned to the front rack position, before being jerked again.

Men compete with two kettlebells, at a weight of their choosing. Women compete with one kettlebell at the weight of their choosing. .

The Snatch

Athletes start by picking up the kettlebell from the floor, and performing a back swing  into a snatch overhead. The athlete must show fixation, before lowering the bell into another back swing, and snatch.

Men and women compete with one kettlebell, at a weight of their choosing. They must switch hands once during a 10 minute event.

The Clean & Jerk

Athletes start by picking up the kettlebell from the floor, and performing a swing clean into the front rack position. They then jerk the kettlebell overhead, and show fixation. The bell is then returned to the front rack position, before it can be lowered for another swing clean.

The Two Events


The Biathlon consists of 10 minutes of the Jerk, followed by 10 minutes of the Snatch, with no less than 30 minutes of rest in between sets. Athletes choose the weight of the kettlebell they will lift for their set.

Long Cycle

The Long Cycle consists of 10 minutes of the Clean & Jerk.

At most meets, men and women compete with kettlebells at the weight of their choosing. Pro Divisions require athletes to compete with a 32kg kettlebell for men, and 24kg kettlebell for women.

Competition Kettlebells

Although there are deviations in shape within brands, all competition kettlebells have the following measurements:  

Height:  280mm

Diameter of body: 210mm

Diameter of handle: 35mm

Kettlebell weights are identifiable by the following colors. I know a lot of athletes that refer to the kettlebells by color, rather than weight.

Kg Lb
Pink 8 18
Blue 12 26
yellow 16 35
Purple 20 44
Green 24 53
Orange 28 62
Red 32 70
Gray 36 79
White 40 88
Silver 44 97
Gold 48 106



There are a few things most people agree on when it comes to fixation, but in the end, it is up to the judges at competition.  In short, the athlete must show total control over both the kettlebell and their body, while locked in the overhead position.Here are some other points to consider:

  • Overhead arm, legs, and hips, are fully extended
  • Body is properly aligned, and facing the judges
  • The body is motionless
  • The kettlebell is motionless

Age and Weight Classes

Weight and Age Categories can vary by federation, but it is not unusual to see athletes as young as 8 years old as often as those well into their seventies.

Ranks in the Sport are achieved by performing a minimum amount of reps, at a certain kettlebell weight, during a 10 minute set. Athletes must achieve the lower rank, before being eligible to compete for the rank above it. As you can see at the AKA / IUKL ranking tables, your weight at time of competition is also factored in to determine the number of repetitions needed to achieve a certain rank.


Kettlebell Sport is rhythmically repetitive, not unlike techno dance music. The genre is played often, and loud at meets. If your musical preferences lie elsewhere, and you plan on competing or spectating, it may be time to order some  noise cancelling headphones.

Want to know more? Tune in in the coming weeks to learn more about how Kettlebell Sport strikes the perfect balance between strength and endurance, why efficiency leads to athlete longevity in the sport, and tips on how to get started training.

Featured image: @inaruudwinther on Instagram