Kettlebell Sport & the Politics of Equipment
by Steven Khuong, CSCS
Head Coach of ICKB Team
(Editorial note: This article is our perspective regarding the international policies and regulations of Kettlebell Sport today. We make no endorsements or direct references to specific brands, manufacturers, or equipment providers.)
Kettlebell Lifting is an emerging sport and arguably one of the most progressive in America. And with progress and advancement in any sport, the ‘standards’ or lack thereof should be scrutinized. Coming off the heels of the 2015 USA Kettlebell Nationals, one of the most sensitive issues to arise is the debate about how the accessibility, availability, and conformity to a single kettlebell standard dimension may affect the outcome of athletes’ performances. Here is another ideological attempt to create consistent and clear policies as the sport expands to reach its full potential.
Without going into the minutiae of the event, lifters debated about the lack of consistent policy regarding standardized equipment. After 8 years of coaching kettlebell athletes, my stance on this subject has remained the same: We need to have a fact-based dialogue about how we want to move forward as a community regarding a standard for the handle of the kettlebell dimension for competition. The decision will ultimately depend on our collective intention. If we agree that we want to popularize Kettlebell Lifting and increase awareness and accessibility to the sport, then we need to consider progressive policies that match the cultural context in the West as it relates to kettlebell specifications.
THE PLAYING FIELD
Currently, international federations such as IUKL and IGSF mandate that men and women use a competition kettlebell of a same dimensional standard: Diameter of handle: 35 мм ± 1 мм / Diameter of the ball: 210mm ± 2mm / Height: 280mm ± 2mm / *Length of the handle as measured inside the window: 115mm (*from unofficial sources)
This is a disparity from Weightlifting (O-lifting) and other Olympic programs, such as the javelin throw, which also involves the lifting or throwing of an external object by grasping a handle or bar. In O-lifting, a men’s bar is 2.2 meters long with a gripping diameter of 28mm, while a women’s bar is 2.01 meters with a smaller gripping diameter of 25mm. Similarly, considerations are also made in the javelin throw. A men’s javelin is between 2.6 and 2.7 meters in length, while a women’s javelin is between 2.2 and 2.3 in length. Most professional and Olympic sports that involve gripping have considerations for equipment differences between the two sexes, including basketball (the regulation NBA ball is a 74.93cm while the WNBA ball is 72.39cm), handball (men ball sizes: 58-60cm and women ball sizes: 54-56cm), and the discus throw (men’s disc weighing 2kg and 22cm in diameter, women’s disc weighing 1kg and 18cm in diameter).
So why then do international Kettlebell Sport federations such as IUKL and IGSF require men and women to lift a kettlebell of the same specification, when Olympic and World games make considerations for the differences in male vs. female anatomy? In my opinion, the answer is quite simple: it’s because it has always been done that way and there hasn’t been a loud enough sounding board to create change.
Based on historical information, the original or “official” kettlebell standards were designed specifically by men for men decades ago, with minimal or no consideration for the anatomical differences of female lifters.
Today, women make up the majority of kettlebell lifters outside of Eastern Europe.
Serious consideration needs to be made for the inclusion of a women’s kettlebell. While I do not know what the exact standard specifications should be, I would argue that a 32-33mm diameter handle with a window variance of 112-115mm would be an appropriate range. This proposal is based on the -3mm diameter difference between the men’s Olympic bar to the women’s Olympic bar.
Some will argue that women should just adjust “technique” for the 35mm handle. After all, women in Russia are not having a problem with this, right? Well, how do we know if women in Russia with smaller hand sizes have been alienated from the sport by this historical lack of consideration? The fact is, we don’t know. We do know that the professional female kettlebell lifters in Russia with the best results have larger hands.
Why should the burden be placed on women with smaller hands to adjust to a specification originally designed to suit the wide range of men’s hand sizes? In contrast, perhaps men should try to “adjust” to a smaller 32-33mm handle as a standard? The fact is neither idea produces a fruitful result; men and women are anatomically different and we should be considerate of those ranges if our intention is to elicit every athlete’s best potential in competition.
We have a tremendous opportunity in the West to make changes that will invite an exponential number of lifters into the sport in the coming years.
If some women prefer to lift a handle diameter of 35mm, they still can. However, do not discount the importance of providing appropriate equipment specs for women with smaller hands and wrists. I do not view this option as giving any particular group an advantage over another; at the end of the day, women compete against women, and men compete against men. Therefore, as long as we follow the same logic used to devise equipment standards in the Olympic games, we are on the right track. Ultimately, women should have their own voice in producing equipment standards that are fair and logical.
To date I am not aware of any verification agency that is conducting measurements to ensure the precision of kettlebells used in competition. For example, barbells used in sanctioned O-lifting competitions must be IWF certified and calibrated down to the milligram and millimeter, regardless of the brand (i.e. Eleiko, Werksan, etc). We do not yet have a process in place to conduct a similar verification process in Kettlebell Sport. Therefore, lifters are at the mercy of whatever kettlebell manufacturers produce and state as the official spec.
In our gym we house over 100 competition grade kettlebells produced by 5 different brands. We took a sample of random measurements of 25 kettlebells and discovered the variances between the same kettlebell produced by the same brand can differ up to +2mm, across all five brands. This will continue to be a prevalent issue as long as quality control can not be guaranteed by the manufacturers in China, which make the majority of kettlebells used in the West.
The idea here is that unless we have a certifying agency that is verifying the exact measurements of kettlebells for competitions, regardless of the specifications stated by the brand / manufacturer, we need to provide athletes with an acceptable tolerance range allowed in competition – not exact specifications. The responsibility is on the manufacturer to produce a product that falls within an acceptable range of precision; since there isn’t an agency holding the manufacturers accountable to precision, athletes should not be expected to adjust to a singular diameter handle standard that is also unverifiable during competition. Therefore, athletes should be able to use an acceptable tolerance as predefined by the hosting federation, NOT a precise specification – which cannot be guaranteed at this time by kettlebell manufacturers.
SUPPLY & DEMAND
In addition to the lack of accessibility to a singular precise standard for competition kettlebells, athletes in the West also often experience an insufficient supply of kettlebells at larger meets to fulfill the needs of all lifters during each critical phase of the event: warm-up, chalk/prep, and competition.
For example, if a lifter competes in 24kg snatch, at minimum she needs a complete range of kettlebells available for a safe and proper warm-up: 8kg, 12kg, 16kg, 20kg, 24kg. If there are four lifters competing with the 24kg on the same flight, then the appropriate supply should be 4 x 8kg, 4 x 12kg, 4 x 16kg, 4 x 20kg, 4 x 24kg. We must allow for all lifters of the same flight to have equal access to warm-up equipment without the fear of someone holding onto a bell for too long.
Athletes already have enough things to worry about on game day. The last thing they want to stress about is trying to fight for a warm-up bell.
So what is the solution in the interim? Let athletes bring their own kettlebell to competitions – assuming the following:
- Kettlebell dimensions match the acceptable tolerances as defined by the sanctioning federation, considering the uncertifiable manufacturing process to date. For example: 32mm-35mm handle diameter, 110-115mm window frame.
- Kettlebell design must be deemed GS or competition style as defined by sanctioning federation and officially weighed and stamped by a certified judge at the competition.
- Kettlebell must be accessible to other competitors if they choose to use it.
In the event that the hosting organization does not have enough kettlebells to adequately fulfill the needs of lifters in warm-up, chalk preparation, and actual competition, the co-op B.Y.O.B. concept is appropriate.
The fact of the matter is that many competitions in the U.S. and Europe use a varied collection of kettlebells amassed from various sponsors, gyms, and friends anyway. Until every official meet can produce adequate kettlebell quantities for every critical stage (warm-up, chalk/prep, competition) to ensure equal accessibility, we need to keep the B.Y.O.B concept open.
Competition hosts should announce their kettlebell inventory to contestants prior to their event. Inventory should adequately match the needs of the lifting categories and quantity of lifters as it relates to the warm-up phase, chalk / prep phase, as well as the actual competition. If the inventory is deemed inadequate by the athletes ahead of the competition, then the athletes will have the option to bring their own kettlebell to the event and have it certified (weighed, measured, and approved by a judge).
By no means is this article meant to provide definitive answers for the current state of affairs regarding the accessibility, availability, and conformity to kettlebell specification standards in official competition. It’s merely an opinion piece to provoke your thoughts on a topic that athletes are passionate about today.
If our intention is to grow this sport and elevate the potential of ALL athletes, we must continue to develop progressive policies to produce standards that are fair, logical, and relevant to our current context. The future is in our hands– literally!