To Kettlebell or Not

by Thom Van Vleck

Here's a photo that shows a handle like the one that my grandfather used to convert his dumbbell into a kettlebell.

I work at a University and we have a rec center on campus.  It’s a small school so the rec center is actually pretty decent for our size but still small.  The guy that runs it has been there for 30 plus years and he is very upbeat and positive.  Dan came out of the 70’s running craze and still runs to this day.  Nothing wrong with that, but he’s not really a weightlifter and he knows it.  I am a weightlifter and not much of a runner…so we keep each other balanced.

Dan tries to stay on top of the latest trends and has bought a handful of Kettlebells.  They get used a great deal in the Osteoblasters “crossfit” style workouts that we have 4 days a week.  We have a more traditional weightlifting group but the ratio is about 10 to 1 (the crossfit wins hands down).  If you don’t know what that type of training is just imagine multiple stations where people move rapidly from one high rep, low weight or bodyweight exercise to another done in an open area and NOT in the regular lifting area)  We have both been surprised at the success of the workouts.  He likes the cardio aspect and I like the lifting aspect…..but neither of us would have guessed how well this would have went over.  The problem is…we’re old and we don’t know what’s “in” these days.  At least that’s the only explanation I can think of.

So we try and keep each other up to date on what’s “hot” in the fitness and lifting world.  Dan wants to appeal to all the students including the students who lift heavy…like us.  He asked me the other day if I thought he should get a set of Kettlebells for the gym.  His concern is that the space is small and most of what he sees is people doing dynamic movements with them such as swings and flipping them to arms length.  He’s worried about somebody getting conked on the head or a kettlebell going out a plate glass window.  I’m worried NOBODY will use them enough to justify valuable gym space as the place is often packed!  Plus that money could go for other things that would get used more often.

Here's what standard kettlebells look if you really needed to see them! But there are an ever increasing list of variations of them out there much like how the globe dumbbells became all different shapes.

Now you have to understand that me and Kettlebells go way back….well…sort of.  I have never….EVER…trained with them.  Sure, I’ve pulled them out and played with them and I even bought three of them for my gym that were close to the weights used in the highland games.  Right now I’ve loaned them to the club because after I bought them and built a cool shelf to put them on….they were pretty much paperweights and novelties after that.  Now before you Kettlebellers get your panties in a bunch let me go on.

My long relationship with kettlebells was that my grandfather had a kettlebell handle that went on a regular York 1″ loadable dumbbell making it a makeshift kettlebell.  He also had some block scale weights that were kind of like using kettlebells.  He would do high reps and sometimes would just grab it and do a few reps between chores around the house.  My grandfather never trained to max out…always for fitness.  He lived a very healthy and active life to the age of 85….when he was hit by a car!  I think he would have live to be 100 and been one of those guys that would be in fantastic shape his entire life.  But we all thought his lifting routine….especially the kettlebells was….uhhhhh….well….we called it the “fruitcake” routine because it seemed to have a little of everything and a lot of nothing and appeared thrown together most of the time.  However, I think he may have had the last laugh.

So, what’s all this mean in regards to kettlebells.  I told Dan that I thought they were a great idea to be used for the Osteoblaster workouts and we needed some more for the 45 to 90 people that show up for each workout.  But as far as having a rack in the gym….so few would use it that it would be not worth it in my opinion.

There used to be a business supply chain centered locally that went out of business.  It seemed to be a powerful business and I wondered why.  I met someone that knew.  He said his grandfather (who was the patriarch of the business) said, “Computers are just a fad…typewriters are where its at and where its always gonna be”.  We can laugh now at that business decision but some of us older guys probably all had a typewriter at one time (Bill Clark still does).  Kettlebells are kind of like typewriters in my mind.  But again…before the kettlebell nuts get a screw loose…one more story.  When I was in the Marines 30 years ago I copied Morse Code.  We used teletypes (a cross between an electric typewriter and early computer) and actual computers.  When the power went out….we pulled out our trusty “Royal” manual typewriters.  I still have one in the closet in case I need to continue to write after the zombie apocalypse.  So my point is, Kettlebells can be useful and every once in awhile pulled out for something different and they can be VERY useful in the crossfit type workouts.  But their use is limited for those seeking pure strength and cannot, in my opinion, be a central part of your training like the dumbbell.  The dumbbell….with the dumbest name next to the “Jerk” and “Snatch” (that’s another story altogether about stupid names in lifting) is still the Prince of the gym next to the King Barbell!   Okay, I’m done and I’m sure there’s some kettle bell heads out there ready to burn my house down.

Sandow Kettlebell Study

by Roger LaPointe

I am really excited about this topic. I have unearthed a “new” lift.

Traditional kettlebells offered by Atomic Athletic.

Did you see yesterday’s photo of that 1928 French gym with Prof. Desbonnet? Look at the equipment in the background and on the floor. I can pick out at least four different kinds of kettlebells. Each one has a slightly different shape and handle design.  Kettlebells are hot and trendy again. Fashion comes and goes. Because kettlebells are a great tool, I hope they don’t disappear again. Fifteen years ago you couldn’t get a kettlebell. Certain guys like myself were brought up training with old kettlebells, so they never really disappeared, but you certainly couldn’t buy a new one.  Forty years before that photo of Desbonnet was taken, Eugene Sandow did a serious study of kettlebell training. Kettlebell training was considered so essential that his anatomical and bio-mechanics illustrations were done all in relation to the kettlebell lift he considered the very most important.

Trust me, this is the type of research that gets me excited.


The lift is definitely a kettlebell overheard split, but, it is unclear if the study is of a split snatch, split swing or even a split jerk. The awesome part about this is that the study was done in the late 1880s, making it the earliest indication I can find of this type of lift with a ring weight type object done in the manner of a kettlebell. Variations of the study were printed in Sandow’s books.  Expanding on this, I have also found a direct link from this study to Mark Berry’s ABBM (Association of Bar Bell Men), as their membership medal featured the figure originally produced by the Sandow Study. Berry was the editor of “Strength” magazine and associated with Alan Calvert’s Milo Bar Bell Company, which was ultimately purchased by Bob Hoffman and the York Barbell Company.


For these lifts, I prefer to use plate loading kettlebell handles. They work well for movements from the floor and have a fantastic upright position when overhead. The bio-mechanics of the design are outstanding for the shoulder and rotator cuff. Clearly, the kettlebell used in this early study was slightly different from most modern kettlebells.  Versatility is also a hallmark of the kettlebell handle, as you can easily make quick plate changes.

All the best, Roger LaPointe
“Today is a good day to lift.”

Crucifix – Part 3

by Roger LaPointe

Crucifix Part 3 – Questions about the Crucifix Lift

Actor John Saxon utilized Kettlebells to develop a symmetrical muscular build.

How about the lower body when doing the crucifix (iron cross)?

The official competition crucifix lift is properly performed with the feet together.  The feet are brought together once the weights are brought together overhead and before the weights are allowed to descend.  As you are learning the lift, don’t worry about the legs.  Get the weights overhead and learn the upper body movements first.   The Crucifix is an awesome movement for highlighting that old physical culture concept of symmetrically balanced physical development.  You see this as topic of apparently huge importance in the older bodybuilding literature, as measured by the amount of print space devoted to it.  However, from a practical issue, no where has it been better highlighted than during a Crucifix Lift.  I thought the 2 Hand Barbell Snatch made this obvious, with press outs, spear fished barbells and other dramatic missed attempts, but it is even more obvious in the crucifix.  No one in the Atomic Athletic Club has properly held out those weights, with their feet together, the first time.  You will be surprised at how much of an impact the foot position will be, as you get closer to limit lifts.  Once you get everything else nailed down, add in the foot placement.

Read the specifics of the competition lift in the USAWA Official Rule Book, which can be found on this website.

What is the best dumbbell for the crucifix?

Man, that is a great question.  I always believe that solid dumbbells are the best, for just about anything.  Obviously, a solid dumbbell is terrible if you need to adjust it.  For training purposes, I am not a big fan of Olympic sized dumbbells.  They are so big that they really limit what you can effectively do with them.  However, if you only have Olympic sized plates, they are clearly the cheapest way to go.  I am a big fan of a rotating dumbbell as well, which is satisfied by the Olympic dumbbell concept.  Standard sized equipment, plates and bars, are much more compact and they are cheaper than the Olympic ones.  We sell a variety of bars, rotating handles, collars, plates and other equipment, including the kettlebell handles that I like for the crucifix.  However, that may not be an invest you are willing to make.


Crucifix – Part 2

by Roger LaPointe

Crucifix Part 2 – Kettlebell Weirdness

Joe Southard performing a "perfect" Crucifix. This picture is from the USAWA Rulebook.

While a number a strongman contests have had some form of the crucifix hold, each one seems to be somewhat different, with the “made for TV” aspect seeming to be paramount.  The USAWA Official Rulebook has the only “officially” written rules for a Crucifix Hold that I can find.  If anyone can find anything else that would qualify, I would love to see it.  That being said, I will assume that we are using the USAWA rules for the competition form of the exercise.

Three  Training Tips

1. Start of extremely light: Vic Boff recommends that you start off with no more than 12 ½ pounds.  I deferred to Vic’s experience, because he has never steered me wrong.  Well, he was right again.  Certainly, experiment light and then continue light for your first week or two of training, after getting some of the technique down.

2. Kettlebells Hang:  Of course they do, you might say.  Now is the time to read the USAWA Official Rule Book, Lift # E8.  It can be downloaded from their web site.  (Just a tip.  I had several copies spiral bound: 1 for the gym, 1 for the office and 1 for the announcing table during contests.  It has become a valuable reference tool.)  The Crucifix can be done with either dumbbells or kettlebells.  I don’t know which one is easier, but they are two different lifts, with the kettlebell version being the more interesting and dramatic, as they hang down when the arms are outstretched.  As you start from the press lockout, with the palms facing each other, the kettlebells will hang down, increasing the leveraged force as they are lowered.

3. Dynamic Stretching:   As I started doing training for the Crucifix I did my typical warm-ups with Indian Clubs.  I am really glad I did.  I have since also added curls.  Those are done with light weight in a full range of motion, as a warm-up.  I feel like this combination is really helping my lockout in my snatch as well. 

For those of you unfamiliar with some of the terminology I have used here, you may want to check out Traditional Training Legendary Strength.


Crucifix – Part 1

by Roger LaPointe

Part 1 – Crucifix Holds

Crucifix using two kettlebells.

Strange lifts abound in the world of old school strongman feats, but the classic Crucifix Hold would seem to be pretty easy to understand.  Boy, I couldn’t have been more wrong.  You simply have to start doing this movement to really grasp the coolness and easy application to a variety of training programs.

This first Atomic Athletic Bomb Proof Bulletin, covering the Crucifix Hold is going to highlight some of the many benefits, where to fit it into your routine and some initial tips for you to get started.  This will help you bypass a few of the stumbling blocks I hit along the way. 

1.  Shoulder Development:  The crucifix is just one of the exercises that Vic Boff recommends for use with kettlebell handles.  As Vic Boff says in his “Body Builder’s Bible”, “The exercises, when carefully followed through,will give excellent results when intelligently applied.” (Boff, p. 125)   I highly recommend that you actually work the various kettlebell handle exercises in Vic’s book.  They provide outstanding supplementary training for the competition lift, which is not just part of the USAWA, but frequently seen in strongman contests as well.

2.   Tools:  The old classic shots of strongmen, from fifty to one hundred years ago, almost always show the strongman doing the Crucifix Hold with some sort of globe kettlebell.  As I have a pretty good selection of equipment, including antique Milo Bar Bell globes, I figured this was the way to go.  Wrong.  Then I tried various dumbbells, which turned out to be varying degrees of “acceptable”.  The best was definitely NOT solid kettlebells, as the small solid heads and somewhat rounded handles had strange torque issues.  Maybe competition grade kettlebells would have been better, but I don’t have any of those here to try.  Certainly the best, and cheapest, were the kettlebell handles.  I would love to push sets of solid kettlebells, simply from a profit perspective, but I would be giving you my honest opinion.

3.   Timing:  I am finding that a solid warm-up with light Indian Clubs is essential, but I would be doing that for my Olympic weightlifting anyway.  Then do some of the light exercises Vic recommends, with no more than 15 pounds per kettlebell.  Then go right into progressively heavier poundages.

The USAWA Official Rulebook has the Crucifix in Section E8, which would correspond to the Top Exercise on Page 129 of Vic’s Book.


Kettlebells: Homemade, Cheap, and Adjustable

by Jarrod Fobes

A homemade Kettlebell, built by Jarrod Fobes.

When the kettlebell craze started several years ago, I wasn’t impressed.  It seemed to me that they were expensive, took up a lot of room, and were redundant besides, since you could do the exact same exercises with dumbbells.   But over time I found they were a worthwhile piece of equipment to have around.  Kettlebell Swings have begrudgingly become a favorite exercise of mine, and there’s fun grip training to be had with them as well.  So that takes care of the redundant part, but still left them expensive and bulky.

Well trouble yourselves no more friends!  It’s easy to make an adjustable “kettlebell” yourself.  If I can put this together, anyone can.  Here are the materials you will need:  (All fittings 3/4″ diameter)

  • One Tee
  • Two 3″ Nipples
  • One 4″ Nipple
  • One 6″ Nipple
  • One Coupling
  • One Cap

The 3/4″ pipe will fit the smaller weight plates like you can find at most department stores.  If you don’t have any other use for the 3/4″ plates, just buy one to put at the bottom, just above the cap to keep standard sized weights from slipping off.  Slap the thing together as pictured, put some tape around the handle so you don’t cut yourself on the threads (not pictured), and there you go!  Ugly, but cheap and it does the job.

What Goes Around….

Arthur Saxon would probably be considered "cutting edge" with most of his training techniques today!

by Thom Van Vleck

Recently, I had a young guy come out to my place to try out the Highland Games.  He was in his early 20’s and had done some weight training at the local YMCA and in high school, but was not a hard core lifter or iron game follower.  What was funny was I gave him a tour of my gym and he started pointing to things I had like they were new and cutting edge.  As if my gym was equipped with “all the latest”.  In particular, he pointed to my Kettlebells and said, “Wow, you have some kettlebells, I would like to try training with those, I’ve heard they are really good to train with”.

This was in contrast to when my Uncle Wayne Jackson saw the Kettlebells right after I had bought them.  Wayne gained the bulk of his training knowledge from reading S&H, MD, and Ironman in the 50’s and 60’s.  He said, “So what are you going to do with those old things”.  As if I had raided the York Barbell museum!   Wayne’s comments leaned towards how Kettlebells were never us used in his day and you couldn’t find those for years and he wasn’t sure what good they were going to do me.

In 2009, I got to go to the Arnold Fitness Expo.  It was there I found out just how “popular” Kettlebells had become again. They were having a competition that centered around doing all kinds of different maneuvers with the kettlebells, some of which I could see a lot of benefit, some….not so much…but hey, I swing a hammer in circles and flip telephone poles in my spare time….so who am I to judge.

I have a lot of stuff in my gym, most of it is pretty old or “well used”.  It is funny to me how things go in and out of style.  It got me to pondering “WHY”?  A lot of times exercises and equipment get run out of town by the “latest thing”.  Usually being sold by some guy looking to make a buck more than he’s trying to “revolutionize” the fitness industry.  He tells us that the old stuff is dangerous, useless, or inferior and enough people buy into it that it becomes a self fulfilling prophecy and the old stuff falls to the wayside.  But form follows function and eventually, what works is rediscovered and comes back again.

Now, this wasn’t intended to be an article on the benefits of Kettlebells, they are just an example.  I’m not trying to sell you on the and I don’t sell them!!!  Just remember, in our effort to get better (whether that be bigger, faster, stronger at lifting, throwing, team sports, whatever) we need to gain a broad understanding of what’s out there.  We need to know our history, we need to know what works and what doesn’t and filter what comes from the so called “experts” so that we may find the tools we need to achieve our goals.  We need to constantly look at what’s been used, what’s on the “shelf” (so to speak) and how can it be used to freshen up our training and lift us to victory!  (no pun intended!).