Mike Mahler's Kettlebell Buyer's Guide: Determine Which Kettlebell Is The Best Fit For You
Q: I'm brand new to kettlebell training and not sure what weight to get...
Kettlebell training involves a lot of overhead work, thus you need the ability to comfortably lock-out overhead whichever kettlebell you're using. If you haven't done regular overhead work, (such as barbell and dumbbell military presses, Olympic lifting, handstands, etc.) you may find kettlebell moves to be difficult. If this is the case, you're better off going with lighter bells.
To help determine which size kettlebell is right for you, do some overhead lockouts with a dumbbell. If it's a struggle keeping a 35lb. dumbbell locked out overhead for 10-seconds with a single-arm, then start with 26lb. kettlebell. If you're able to hold a 50lb. dumbbell locked out overhead for 10-seconds, start with a 53lb. kettlebell.
Strong, fit men will find a 53lb. kettlebell a good starting weight. Strong, fit women should start with 26lbs. I don't ever recommend beginner men going heavier than 53lbs. (nor beginner women going over 26lbs.) and even those weights are dependant on the candidate displaying adequate flexibility--more on this below. Safe and effective kettlebell training demands good technique and the last thing you want to do is play technique catch-up with a too-heavy kettlebell. Dismiss your ego on this issue and spend a few months acquiring the basics with a moderate weight kettlebell before moving to heavier loads.
In addition to overhead lockout strength, the kettlebell Swing, Clean, and Snatch require prodigious strength and flexibility in both hamstrings and hip flexors. The Swing, Clean and Snatch are the go-to kettlebell movements for developing cardio and strength-endurance. If you can't easily touch your toes, you're a stiffy and you'll find these ballistic kettlebell drills especially difficult. This doesn't mean kettlebell training won't work for you, only that you're better off hefting lighter bells until you master these key movements. The practice of the KB Swing, Clean and Snatch will actually increase your flexibility--one of the many unique benefits of kettlebell training. For those of you whose range of motion is compromised, and desire increased flexibility, cardio and strength-endurance, get yourself a mid-sized kettlebell and put it to good use with some high-rep training in the15-30+ range. Most men should purchase a 35lb. kettlebell and women will want 18lbs. If your flexibility is good-to-excellent (and if you have to ask, it isn't!) with equally good cardio capacity, get yourself a 53lb. kettlebell (men) or 26lb. (women). I'm going to emphasize here that this is a rare situation...
Q: Do you recommend starting off with a single kettlebell or is double kettlebell training the best way to go?
While there are tremendous benefits to double kettlebell work, beginners should absolutely first apply themselves to learning proper technique in the single kettlebell drills before moving on to doubles. But--when you've properly prepared for it--double kettlebell training is definitely the way to go! I'll explain why by breaking down a few kettlebell exercises. First, the Double KB Military Press is superior to the One-Arm KB Military Press because overhead pressing two 53lb. kettlebells offers your body 106lbs. of resistance, while a single Military Press is, of course, only half that. Further, with every improvement you make in your Double KB Military Pressing ability comes a tandem gain in the One-Arm Military Press, though the reverse is not true. As an example, I do a lot of double-kettlebell pressing, recently pressing two 88lb. kettlebells for eight reps, yet, without training the One-Arm KB Press, I still pressed a 97lb. kettlebell for 12 reps. On the flip side, I know people who can easily get six reps with a single 70lb. KB but are unable to complete a single rep with double 70's.
A while back, I worked up to double swings with 88lb bells for sets of 6-8 and even though I wasn't currently practicing the single KB Snatch, I was able to knock off 17 reps each side with a 105lb. kettlebell. (Keep in mind I already had good Snatch technique from years of prior training.) The mechanics of the Swing are similar to the Snatch, e.g. hip drive, but when swinging double 88lb. bells I'm using 176lbs. of resistance, and while a 105lb. kettlebell is heavier per arm, in total it's still 105lbs. The raw power I'd developed to drive 176lbs. up to head height carried over big-time to the One-Arm Snatch, and the 105lb. KB felt comparatively light. More recently, at last October's Collision Course event, I snatched a 125lb. kettlebell for reps, even though I hadn't trained the Snatch at all, since I'd been occupied with training Double Swings with the 97s. I got the same results: the hip power developed from working with 194lbs. of resistance carried over to a single-arm 125lb. KB Snatch.
The take-home message? Double kettlebell training means everything you do will carry over to single-kettlebell drills--but not the other way around.
OK, that said, I'm going to back up a little bit in order to provide a fuller picture. While double-kettlebell training may be the superior modality, you won't be able to exploit its many benefits until you first master one-arm kettlebell training! Obviously, if you're having trouble snatching a single kettlebell, you should forget the double snatch...at least for the time being. Likewise, if you're struggling to Clean & Press a single kettlebell, you'll want to postpone the double Clean & Press until a later date. My point is that double kettlebell training is NOT for beginners. Get your single kettlebell movements down before going after the doubles work.
If your goals include competing in--or even simply training for--kettlebell sport, for the most precise transfer you'll want to focus on the One-Arm Snatch; however, I consider Double Snatches, done in timed sets, a powerful supplementary lift.
Finally, I want to clarify that you can benefit from kettlebell training without ever graduating to double KB drills. One-arm kettlebell training is great unto itself. Further, many classic kettlebell exercises, such as the Windmill and Turkish Get-Up, exist as one-arm exercises. Further, while the Double Snatch requires a great deal of technique, competency in the one-arm Snatch can typically be learned in a relatively short time frame. Bottom line? You can certainly get fit and strong with a single kettlebell.
Q: Mike, which style of kettlebell do you use?
I started with dragondoor cast iron kettlebells and then starting using Lifeline USA cast iron bells. Both are very high quality and good options. However, I eventually switched over to competition style kettlebells as they are just a better fit for performance. The bells are the same size regardless of weight so there is more seamless tranfer of form and technique with each progression. In other words the technique you use with a light bell will carry over to a heavier bell nicely. Once you play around with the compeition kettlebells you are not going to want to go back to cast iron. They just feel much better and are the best option for serious kettlebell trainees.