Everything you ever maybe wanted to know about kettlebells, and lots of stuff you probably didn’t
Used properly, kettlebells can serve a unique place in your home fitness arsenal as an effective and efficient way to stay mobile, strong, and fit. They’re also great for supplementing movement rehabilitation work on a path toward injury recovery or performance improvement. However, it can be difficult to wade through the large number of kettlebells available to find one that offers the best overall value in terms of usability, durability, and cost.
I’ve been experimenting with kettlebell work over the past year and in that time I’ve put several of the most well known kettlebell brands to the test, including products from Dragon Door, Rogue Fitness, Kettlebell Kings, Perform Better, Kettlebells USA, Onnit Labs, and CAP. I also experimented with a homemade kettlebell made out of plumbing parts from Home Depot. If you’ve been looking for real-world feedback on kettlebells in general or any these companies in particular, read on.
Warning – this is a ridiculously long and detailed write up, so if you just want to know about a particular kettlebell use the table of contents below to skip to the Bottom Line section of any kettlebell included in the testing. If you’re only interesting in knowing which brand comes out on top, skip to the Recommendations section.
If you’d prefer a copy of this article formatted as a PDF for easier consumption, click here.
- What’s a kettlebell?
- Why should you care about kettlebells?
- Kettlebell evaluation criteria
- Kettlebell test process
- Kettlebells tested
- Kettlebell test results
- Price Comparison
- Other Resources
What’s a kettlebell?
If you’ve never heard of a kettlebell before, think “cannonball with a handle”. I won’t get into the history of kettlebells because that topic is covered elsewhere and frankly knowing their history isn’t necessary for grasping their value as a fitness tool. For now, it’s enough to know that kettlebells have been around in some form or another for a very long time, with good reason.
There are two main types of kettlebells – classic “Russian” style, which increase in size as the weight increases, and competition style, which are the same size regardless of weight and differentiated by color coding. Some classic-style kettlebells also offer color coding, but not all. The focus of this review will be on classic “Russian” style kettlebells.
Why should you care about kettlebells?
If you’re like me, you want to stay healthy and strong so you can consistently meet the challenges of everyday life without feeling worn out at the end of the day. You have a busy life so you can’t spend hours on end at a gym, and storage space for exercise gear at home is limited. You want a regimen that will keep you motivated, but the latest fad fitness program on DVD isn’t cutting it.
If you can relate then consider kettlebell training. Kettlebells are easy to store, relatively inexpensive, and provide an efficient way to work nearly every part of the body in a minimal amount of time.
Working with kettlebells is different from working with barbells or dumbbells in that the work is not simply a matter of picking up the weight and putting it back down again, rinse, repeat. Kettlebells require skillful handling as well – you have to pay constant attention when working with one or risk launching a cannonball at your surroundings. Depending on where you are, your surroundings may get very upset when this happens.
This difference essentially makes a kettlebell practice a mindful movement practice. As a lapsed martial artist, practicing mindful movements that also build strength and endurance is right up my alley. Working with a kettlebell requires my constant focus on a heavy weight moving through multiple dimensions and position changes at different rates of speed. This forces me to stay mentally present with the exercise or risk having a round hunk of iron go flying through my wall.
So far, no hunks of iron have gone flying through my wall.
Kettlebell evaluation criteria
Although the criteria I used should be boadly applicable, it’s based on a search for kettlebells I can use at home without chalk. Your criteria may differ, so take what’s useful to you and discard what isn’t.
The first criteria is usability – the kettlebell has to work for me in the way I need to use it. I work out at home and at my work gym, and for various reasons neither location is tolerant of the mess that goes along with chalk. Therefore, I need to be able to maintain a steady grip on the kettlebell handle without resorting to chalk.
The three factors that affect my ability to exert a strong grip are:
- Finish – The kettlebell surface and handle should be smooth and free of artifacts left over from the casting process. This extends to the base of the kettlebell, which should be ground completely flat. Imperfections on the handle can pinch or cut skin during transitions, and a wobbly bottom hinders the kettlebell from providing a stable base for exercises that require the bell to act as a platform.
- Coating – The coating must protect the kettlebell from damage and rust, and provide enough traction to keep hold of without needing chalk while still allowing the handle to rotate smoothly in my hand with minimal friction.
- Handle Size – I find my grip to be strongest when I’m able to touch the tip of my thumb to the first knuckle of my index finger with my hand wrapped around the handle. For the sake of simplicity and lack of a better term I’ll call this the “first knuckle rule” throughout the rest of this write up.
The second major criteria is durability. Although kettlebells can be cheaper than a long term gym membership or outfitting your home with plates, bars, benches, racks, etc, they still aren’t cheap enough to be treated like throwaway items. I consider kettlebells to be an investment in my long term fitness, and I want my investment to pay dividends as long as possible. The kettlebells need to hold up to constant use, and occasional accidental misuse for those rare times when a bell gets dropped due to grip fatigue or a failed rep.
Last, and certainly not least, is cost. I’m not necessarily looking for the absolute cheapest option, I only want the best product I can afford that meets my need. I weigh quality against cost with the understanding that price is not always reflective of quality level. For my purpose, quality is defined by ease of use and level of durability.
Kettlebell test process
For testing purposes I selected five short workouts that incorporate various skills. I tested the kettlebells for two months over the summer by completing at least two of the five workouts every morning, excluding weekends, rotating through two different kettlebells every day and taking notes on my experience afterward.
- 100 two hand swings in under 5 minutes
- 100 snatches in under 5 minutes, switch arms every 10 reps
- 5x5x5 one hand complex – 5 rounds of 5 reps of each of the following 5 exercises, performed once on each side for a total of ten sets, in under 10 minutes:
- One hand swing
- Clean + overhead press
- Turkish get up, 10 reps each side – not timed
- Windmills, 2 sets of 5 reps each side – not timed
The choice of workouts depended mainly on how I felt that morning, and the workouts I had done the day before. I tried to keep rotating through combinations of exercises and kettlebells in order to work with each bell in as many ways as possible within the scope of of the exercise set.
A complete list of kettlebells tested is provided below. These are kettlebells I either owned or had access to at my work gym, and I worked with all of them through the various workouts.
- DIY – various weights
- CAP, cast iron and enamel coat – 9kg, 16kg
- Dragon Door, e-coat – 12kg, 16kg, 24kg
- Perform Better, powder coat – 6kg, 10kg, 14kg, 20kg, 24kg, 28kg
- Kettlebell Kings, powder coat – 6kg, 12kg, 20kg
- Onnit Labs, chip-resistant coat – 12kg
- Kettlebells USA, e-coat – 12kg
- Rogue Fitness, powder coat – (2) 12kg
Kettlebell test results
From here on out I’ll describe my experience with each kettlebell manufacturer. I’ll start with how I discovered kettlebells, moving forward in time to discuss each bell in turn according to when I first started using it.
My introduction to kettlebells came via Tim Ferriss’ book The Four Hour Body. In it, he describes an experiment performed using a do-it-yourself kettlebell made from parts found in the plumbing section at Home Depot.
I’m all about DIY when I can, especially if it means I get to build a cool new toy, so I was off to Home Depot the next day. According to Tim Ferris the parts are supposed to cost under $10, not counting the weight plates. However, inflation has taken its toll because I paid closer to $18 after tax, and that doesn’t include the price of the plastic clamp I already owned.
My setup has athletic tape around the handles for grip, but this isn’t strictly necessary. I just happened to have some handy and I figured I’d see if it helped me hold on to the bar longer. Incidentally, it does.
If you’re unsure whether or not kettlebells are for you, the DIY approach can be low risk way to take a test drive without committing to a bigger purchase. This assumes you have access to some weight plates to use with your DIY “T-bar” kettlebell. I don’t have plates at home but I was able to use my T-bar with plates at my office gym.
The DIY kettlebell has two big advantages. First, it helps take the guesswork out of deciding what size kettlebell to buy for two hand work. I was able to experiment with different weight increments to find a starting point I was comfortable with, eventually settling on 20kg (44lbs).
Second, it allowed me to establish proper swing form with a lower weight before moving up to a real working weight. This is important, because improper swing form can really jack up your back.
In fact, I’ll tell you up front that if you don’t already have some background lifting weights or being active, or if you are very out of shape, please consider finding a certified kettlebell trainer to get instructed in proper technique.
On the flip side, a DIY kettlebell has two major disadvantages. First, usefulness is limited to two hand work only. Second, there are upper limits to how much weight you can apply to the bar and how long the bar will last over time. The plumbing parts are being used off-label, and they weren’t designed to sustain a dynamic load swinging in an arc. This puts stress on the metal that will eventually lead to fatigue and fracture. If you decide to pursue a regular regimen of kettlebell work, either invest in real kettlebells or plan on replacing your T-bar parts at least once every four to six months depending on frequency of use.
The DIY approach is a great way to experiment with basic kettlebell work without committing to an expensive purchase, provided you have some weight plates to work with.
I felt noticeably stronger in my butt and back after experimenting with the DIY kettlebell for a few weeks, so I decided to dive in and purchase some real kettlebells. When looking for fitness equipment, I always check Craigslist first to see if I can score a good deal before I resort to paying retail price.
I didn’t know much about kettlebells at that point, and I naively thought all kettlebells were pretty much the same. I found a couple of CAP kettlebells posted for sale on my local Craigslist, so I bought them for fifty bucks thinking I’d gotten a great deal. One was a 16kg enamel coat bell, and the other was a 9kg cast iron bell with a rust-resistant coating.
The 9kg bell had a very rough finish with lots of burrs on the handle. I was learning how to perform the hard style snatch at this time, and the stupid burrs kept digging into my palms during the hand transitions. At first I tried to tough it out, but eventually I ended up using metal file to smooth down the handle and make the bell a little more usable.
Ironically, the body of the bell with the rust-resistant coating was badly rusted. I painted it with Rustoleum to try and stem further rust damage, which is why the kettlebell is colored brown in pictures.
The coating on the 16kg bell was chipped in several places but luckily there were no chips on the handle. I used the small bell for one hand work and the larger bell for two hand swings. The enamel finish on the large bell was extremely smooth and hard to hold once I broke a sweat, and generated a lot of heat on my palms through friction. I didn’t like these bells at all and after working with them for less than a week I knew I’d soon be replacing them.
I realize I’m reviewing used kettlebells rather than new products, but the rough finish of the smaller kettlebell is the same finish it must have had when it was new and the coating on the larger kettlebell is too smooth to use without chalk. Plus, the enamel coat is not durable at all – it chipped several times from bumps through regular use just in the short time I owned it.
I used these kettlebells for three weeks while I researched other options. Once I found another option I disposed of the CAP bells by re-selling them on Craigslist. I was even able to get back what I originally paid for them because I know how to win at Craigslist, and so should you.
Despite their low price I don’t recommend CAP kettlebells for your home gym. In fact, I actively recommend you stay away from them entirely because you will inevitably rue the day you purchased them. The enamel coated kettlebell isn’t built to last and provides a lousy grip, while the finish quality of the cast iron kettlebell is the worst of any brand-name kettlebell I’ve seen.* Even at a bargain price, they aren’t worth it.
*CAP, if this review somehow happens to come to your attention and you would like to send me new kettlebells to review please contact me, I’d be happy to re-evaluate the new bells and update the review accordingly.
Dragon Door Publications has been in business since 1991, having started with producing martial arts and fitness-related books & DVDs before branching out into fitness equipment.
Dragon Door was among the first companies, if not the first company, to reintroduce kettlebells into the US mass market in 2001. As a result, they probably have the most brand recognition in the kettlebell community outside of Rogue Fitness. The recognition is reflected in the price because Dragon Door kettlebells are the most expensive option included in this review.
At this point in time I’d been training for three weeks with the CAP kettlebells, hating them a little more each day. I kept my eye on Craigslist, and eventually someone offered a set of used Dragon Door kettlebells for sale. I had done some research by now and read many reviews singing the praises of Dragon Door kettlebells, so I jumped on that offer and managed to score a 12kg, a 16kg, and a 24kg for $100 total, thinking I had hit the kettlebell jackpot.
I don’t know exactly how old the Dragon Door kettlebells are but they’re at least three years old based on comments the previous owner made when I bought them. The coating on each has worn off in places and given way to rust, especially on the 16kg bell. They don’t look great, but the coat on all of them is in okay shape considering they were stored year-round in a garage subject to three or more years of humid central Texas summers.
The coating on the 12kg bell is in the best shape overall, and is the one I used the most because it was the easiest for me to use for one hand work. I started using the 24kg bell for two hand swings, but eventually scaled back to the 16kg to keep my form crisp.
Since the coating seems to have held up well to a few years of use, I reached out to Dragon Door to ask what it was. I’ll quote the relevant portion of their response below:
“The coating on our kettlebells is an e-coat method, which is an electrostatic process, where the kettlebells are baked in an oven to finalize the coating. Think of the e-coating as a rust-protectant. Because a kettlebell is cast-iron, they likely will rust over time. Almost all iron does. But the e-coating will protect the iron and delay the onset of rust.”
I also asked how their coating compares to a powder coat in terms of maintaining grip, and here is what they said:
“We did experiment for about 9 months with a powder-coat finish, but deemed that the powder-coat finish caused too many hand injuries, because it was too smooth (which caused too much friction when used, causing blisters and tears in the skins). So we reverted back to our original e-coat finish, which they’ve had since that time in the mid-2000s, and I can’t imagine that another type of finish will ever be experimented with.”
This was an interesting response since my experience has been the opposite – the powder coat kettlebells provide me with the best overall chalk-less grip experience of the options I tested.
Plus, after working with many different kettlebells I’ve realized that quality of the finish plays a bigger role in usability than the coat does. You can sometimes improve grip on a slick coat with chalk, but chalk can’t mask casting imperfections that cause injury by catching, cutting, or pinching bits of skin. The Dragon Door kettlebells all have prevalent seams left over from the casting process on the handles, which force me to be extra careful if I want to avoid pinched palms. Unfortunately I’m not always successful at avoiding pinched palms.
I thought the pinching was normal for a long time because I had nothing else to compare to. However, I came to find it isn’t normal at all. In reality it’s a sign of low quality sandblasting and grinding steps that are supposed to eliminate casting imperfections before the coat is applied.
Speaking of grinding, none of the bottoms of the Dragon Door kettlebells are ground completely flat – they all wobble a little when on flat ground.
The Dragon Door kettlebells have the lowest quality finish of all the bells tested, with the exception of the cast iron 9kg CAP bell. This is notable because the cost difference between CAP and Dragon Door is huge, and that extra money is clearly not being invested back into quality control at Dragon Door.
The handle of the 12kg bell is small enough to conform to the first knuckle rule, and the coating does not generate much friction. If it wasn’t for the poor finish these would be nice kettlebells to use on a regular basis, and I did use them on a regular basis because they were all I had for a while.
Plus, I mistakenly thought Dragon Door was top of the line as far as kettlebells go, so I thought it couldn’t get any better. However, after comparing these kettlebells to the others in the test group I plan to replace my Dragon Door kettlebells with bells from one of the other companies in the test group in the not-too-distant future.
I know I’m evaluating old kettlebells, so there’s always a chance Dragon Door has upped their game since these bells were originally made. I reached out to customer service again to tell them about my experience with the used bells and asked if they could still be considered to be representative of the current level of quality of newly made Dragon Door kettlebells. Here is the relevant portion of their response:
“While we have not made significant changes to molds for our kettlebells, our coating process has only been getting better over the years. Without knowing exactly what your current kettlebells look/feel like, I can tell you that things such as seams could indeed have been a problem exclusive to a batch or perhaps they were kettelbells that made it past inspection.”
The rep went on to say this:
“My advice to you would be to give our latest kettlebells a try on your own and if you are dissatisfied you can of course return them. We have a 1 year, 100% money back guarantee.”
I give props to Dragon Door for offering a 1 year 100% money back guarantee, this is by far the best warranty offered by any of the companies included in this review. In fact, several of the companies offer no guarantee whatsoever and will not accept a return at all unless your purchase is defective. Not cool!
I’m willing to give Dragon Door the benefit of the doubt and assume their newer kettlebells have a higher quality finish than what I currently own. However, since the guarantee doesn’t cover the cost of shipping to me and back, and shipping heavy hunks of iron is expensive, I don’t plan on taking them up on that offer anytime soon.
The best things Dragon Door kettlebells offer is a 1 year satisfaction guarantee and a durable coating, but given the quality of the competition these factors aren’t enough to offset their substantially higher cost. After working with the different kettlebells covered in this review I’ve concluded Dragon Door is not the top of the line in kettlebells, only the most expensive*.
*Dragon Door, if this review somehow happens to come to your attention and you would like to send me new kettlebells to review please contact me, I’d be happy to re-evaluate the new bells and update the review accordingly.
At this point I began to get serious about kettlebell training and I started lugging the Dragon Door 12kg and 16kg bells to work and back so I could practice my kettlebell skillz at home and at work. Needless to say, this got old really quick.
Lugging around 50+ pounds of cannonball-shaped iron is a workout all by itself, and a pain in the ass as well. I began lobbying my employer to add kettlebells to our work gym, and they agreed. They purchased six “Performance First Place” kettlebells of different sizes and a storage rack from Perform Better, a company I had not previously heard of.
According to their LinkedIn profile, the parent company has been in business since 1960, selling pretty much any kind of fitness-related equipment you can think of. I reached out to Perform Better’s customer service to ask about when the company was founded and how long they’ve been selling kettlebells, and I’m quoting the relevant snippet of their response directly below:
“Perform Better started in 1992 and has been selling kettlebells since 2004/2005.”
When I started working with the Perform Better kettlebells I was immediately impressed with the consistency of finish on all of them. The handles of all six were well rounded with zero prevalence of any seams or flaws, and the powder coat provides just enough grip with low friction to allow high rep work without sustaining grip fatigue or blisters. This set does not include a 12kg bell, but it does have a 10kg and a 14kg and the handles on both easily conform to the first knuckle rule. Overall, these are very nice kettlebells to work with.
Perform Better offers no details on the composition of the coating used on the kettlebells, so I reached out to customer service to ask what it was and how it compared to an e-coat and powder coat. The customer service rep replied and asked if there were specific products I wanted to compare to, so I provided the names of two competitors. I’ll quote the relevant portion of the response below:
“We use a powder coat finish so our First Place Kettlebells are more comparable to the <competitor> Kettlebells.”
I was really hoping for more detail on the coating, but that’s the most I got after several emails back and forth so I let it drop. The powder coat on these kettlebells has held up well to eight months of use in the office gym, with relatively few scratches or rust spots. However, the office is rather small and I’m not sure if anyone else uses them, so it’s hard to say if this is a fair assessment. Time will tell if they hold up for the long term, but based on what I’ve put them through already I do believe they will.
As nice as they are to use, I do have some nits to pick.
First, the markings on these kettlebells are color coded according to weight, but the color scheme doesn’t conform to the standard scheme established in kettlebell sport and followed by other vendors like Kettlebell Kings and Rogue Fitness. Plus, some of the color choices aren’t distinct enough to be easily discernible without looking closely, which defeats the purpose of the color coding. This is a minor aggravation, but still worth knowing about if you care about the color coding.
Second, the Perform Better logo and weight marking are painted on the face of the kettlebells, and not as much care was taken with the painting as was taken with the finish and coating. The paint job looks sloppy, as if someone was in a hurry to get the job done.
These issues are purely cosmetic and don’t take away from the usability of the kettlebells at all, but they do detract from the overall perception of quality.
Regarding price, with the cost of shipping factored in Perform Better kettlebells clock in at the higher end of the price spectrum for products I tested, coming in only below Dragon Door. However, Perform Better sometimes runs sales that provide significant savings – at the time of this write up there’s a summer sale going on with discounts on individual kettlebells of up to %33 off, which drops the price down enough to make them a much better value.
Perform Better kettlebells are a good option if you catch them on sale. I like working with them, but they are in fact my runner up choice. Don’t pay full price for Perform Better kettlebells without taking a look at Kettlebell Kings first.
Another six months go by and I’m very into training with kettlebells at this point but the palm pinching from the Dragon Door bells when I work out at home has gotten really old, especially after using the much nicer Perform Better kettlebells at my work gym.
I began looking for a better option to use at home and found many potential candidates, but not a lot of solid comparison reviews that included all the companies I was interested in. This is when I hatched the idea to do the review myself, in order to help others that might find themselves in a similar situation. My budget for test equipment is limited, so I decided to start with local options to save on shipping costs.
Kettlebell Kings is one of two local options but the only one that specialized entirely in kettlebells, so I decided to start with them first. They’re a relatively new contender to the fitness arena, having only been in business since August 2013. I learned from poking around their website they offer a discount for local pickup, and being the frugal shopper I am I naturally wanted to know how to apply it. I called to ask and spoke with Jay Perkins, and during the course of our conversation I learned he’s one of the co-owners of the company.
We talked at length about kettlebells in general and Kettlebell Kings kettlebells in particular, and it was clear to me a lot of thought had gone into how to differentiate their products in an already crowded field. We talked about Fitness Test Lab and my plan to test various kettlebells including Kettlebell Kings. I asked if he’d like to participate, hoping for at least a discount to help reduce my out-of-pocket costs for this experiment. Jay was genuinely interested in knowing how his products stack up against the competition, and offered to provide me with two powder coat bells to evaluate at no cost. Sweet!
I picked up the kettlebells in person from the Kettlebell Kings warehouse in south Austin. One 12kg and one 20kg were already unpacked for me when I arrived and my first impression was very positive. The finish on the kettlebells is the smoothest I’ve seen with no visible seams or burrs anywhere on the bells. The powder coat is unique among the test group in that it feels like chalk to the touch, and the handle of the 12kg bell easily conforms to the first knuckle rule.
I took the bells home and started working with them the next day. I was pleased with how well I was able to maintain my grip, the 12kg kettlebell rotates very easily in the palm with minimal friction and the 20kg is easy to hold for high-rep two hand work with no skin pinching at all.
I wanted to know more about the coat and finish, so I contacted Kettlebell Kings again via email to ask how their powder coat differs from the competition. I’ll quote the relevant part of the response below:
“Our goal in designing our powder coat series is to create a bell with the smoothest finish available. So there are no imperfections or seams or paint globs anywhere in the bell because we know this creates the best workout experience. However, we want to make sure and do this without sacrificing grip, if you look around the internet one of the biggest gripes is the grip while working out. So, we wanted to create an incredibly smooth, but ‘grippy’ bell.”
Kettlebell Kings have definitely managed to hit the mark they were shooting for. The smooth finish means no pinching of skin and the low friction powder coat makes it easier to maintain my grip during long sessions or high-rep sets.
Another nice touch is the color coding bands around the handle horns that conform to weight classifications established in kettlebell sport. This makes it easy to determine the weight of any given Kettlebell Kings powder coat kettlebell at a glance.
I usually take very good care of my equipment, but I’ve resorted to banging brand new bells together to simulate prolonged use in order to estimate long term durability. Not the most scientific or accurate approach, but the best I can do under the circumstances. The durability of the coating is impressive, these kettlebells can withstand a hard blow without chipping. The best I was able to do was scratch them when banging them together.
My first thought was, “A powder coat that won’t chip? Challenge accepted!” I kicked it up a notch by placing the Kettlebell Kings kettlebell on the floor and dropping another kettlebell on it from waist height. At last, a chip! You can see the location where the other kettlebell struck the ‘G’ in ‘Kings’ in the picture below.
The Kettlebell Kings kettlebells are hands down my personal favorite to work with out of all the options I’ve reviewed, and I’m not just saying that because I got a couple of freebies to review. I liked them so much I plunked down real money for another powder coat kettlebell for my wife, and I plan to replace my Dragon Door kettlebells with new bells from Kettlebell Kings.
Regarding the kettlebell I purchased for my wife, I decided to have it shipped to me rather than pick it up in person so I could get a look at the packaging. I placed my order on a Thursday afternoon at 3pm and by 5pm I was notified it had been shipped. This is the fastest order turnaround of the three companies I ordered from (the other two are Kettlebells USA and Rogue Fitness). I wondered if maybe it was just a slow day for them, but after poking around the Kettlebell Kings website again I found the following information on their About page that explains the speed as part of their business model:
“Shipping is one of the biggest parts of purchasing anything online, we ship out all orders the same day that are received before 4PM central so you can enjoy your kettlebells as soon as possible.”
The kettlebell was delivered the next day, well packed in a sturdy box.
Speaking of shipping, Kettlebell Kings is one of two companies included in this review that offers free shipping. It’s not actually “free”, both companies structure the cost of shipping into the up-front kettlebell price rather than charge it as a separate line item. This means the initial sticker price might be higher, but at least the price you see in the shopping cart is what you’ll end up paying. Shipping heavy hunks of iron is expensive, and the lower up-front cost of some of the competition gets completely wiped out by high shipping costs tacked on during the checkout process.
If you happen to Google for Kettlebell Kings reviews like I did, you may come across some negative reviews for a defunct company called “The Kettlebell King”. I’ve learned this is not the same company, so don’t be alarmed if you happen to read the same reviews I did. Apparently that guy was a lousy businessman with horrible customer service, which explains why he’s no longer in business.
By way of contrast, Kettlebell Kings have made customer service a cornerstone of their business and had the following to say about it when asked:
“We strive for accuracy in weight and have a guarantee on the weight or we replace the bell. All orders before 5 PM central ship the same day, so customers get them really fast. We want customers to feel confident in their purchase so we give a lifetime warranty on the structural integrity of the bells or we will replace. We triple box with styrofoam so that items are received in pristine condition. If a bell is really mishandled in shipping we send out a replacement the day we receive confirmation in photos from customers.”
One last thing worth mentioning – the base of the Kettlebell Kings kettlebells have the largest diameter of the options I tested. This means they provide the most stable platform for kettlebell work that requires the bell to act as a base.
*Update October 4, 2016 – the replacement of kettlebells I referred to earlier is done. I’ve sold all my other kettlebells through Craigslist and used the money to buy four more kettlebells from Kettlebell Kings. I like these kettlebells so much I also joined their ambassador program!
If you’re in the market for a powder coat bell, your search has ended. The coating and finish on the Kettlebell Kings powder coat kettlebells is hands down the best I’ve seen, and in my opinion provides the best overall value in terms of price, durability, and usability. I highly recommend them for use in a home gym setting, or any setting where heavy chalk use isn’t an option.
Onnit Labs is another relative newcomer to the fitness arena, having been founded in 2010 to create nutritional supplements but rapidly expanding into fitness equipment, clothing, foods, certifications, online training courses, and many other fitness-related pursuits I’m probably not even aware of.
Onnit offers a line of classic-style kettlebells at a very reasonable price point, and because they’re local to Austin I reached out to them to see if they would like to participate in this review. The customer service rep was very nice and directed me to a separate email contact for inquiries, but I never heard back from anyone else despite multiple requests. I suppose they get these kinds of inquiries all the time and maybe just prefer to ignore them.
Unfazed, I visited the Onnit Academy Gym in south Austin to buy a 12kg bell in person. Incidentally, they’ve got a nice reception area with a cafe in front of the gym.
The kettlebell was brought out to me still packed in a shipping box, which allows me to comment on the packaging – the boxing was very sturdy and the bell itself was well packed. It looks like it could take a decent amount of abuse from UPS, but the lack of plastic structural reinforcement straps around the box could be an issue if the bells are shipped a long distance.
The finish on the Onnit kettlebell is not easy to evaluate because the textured coating is thick enough to mask small imperfections. I can’t feel any seams on or burrs on the handle, which is good, but the kettlebell has slight bumps and dips all over that give it a lumpy look and feel. There are spots on the bell where I can see how the coating application ran down the handle and dried, similar to how spray paint drips when applied too thickly.
These are cosmetic issues that don’t take away from the usability of the kettlebell, but my bar was set higher after working with products from Perform Better and Kettlebell Kings. Granted, the Onnit kettlebell is the cheapest of the bunch included in this review, but my impression is they reached the lower price point by sacrificing quality in a few places.
I couldn’t find any details regarding the composition of the coating other than it being described as chip-resistant, so I emailed Onnit customer service again to ask what it was made of and how it compared to other types of coats in terms of durability. I’ll quote the relevant portion of their response below:
“Per your inquiry, our kettlebells are forged from one pure piece of steel. The handle is not welded on like most kettlebells. So it is very durable, and the finish is a powder coated finish that helps against rust, scratches, sweat, etc.”
The description of the coating as a powder coat was a mild surprise. The kettlebells I’m reviewing from Perform Better, Kettlebell Kings and Rogue Fitness are clearly powder coated, at least in terms of what I normally think of as a powder coat, but the Onnit bell coating is very different in look and feel from the others – it feels more like an epoxy coat rather than a true powder coat.
As for durability, although the coat is described as chip-resistant, in practice it isn’t very hard to chip. I only had to carry it to my backyard with another bell for some outside work on a nice summer morning to knock the first chip out of it. The two kettlebells accidentally banged together and a piece of the Onnit bell coat came flying off.
I thought maybe this was a fluke, so I intentionally banged the bells together again with medium force and another chip flaked off. I didn’t do any further durability testing because I didn’t want to damage the bell any further, but it did chip several more times during the testing period through normal use, mainly from getting bumped against other kettlebells.
I get that “chip-resistant” does not mean “chip-proof”, but it really doesn’t take much to damage the coat on the Onnit kettlebell. I don’t see this poor guy holding up over the long term when compared to some of its more hardy kettlebell brethren.
The Onnit kettlebell is different from the previously reviewed bells in another significant way – the gap between the bottom of the handle and the top of the bell body is taller than almost all the other kettlebells tested by roughly one centimeter, with the exception of the Metrixx bell from Kettlebells USA. It’s a small difference, but I was surprised to find it was enough to change the dynamics of some of the exercises.
Specifically, this small increase in distance means the body of the bell sits slightly lower on my forearm when held in a rack position. This subtle change in where the bell rests and applies pressure to my forearm is uncomfortable for me to hold for long periods. Your mileage may vary, I can see this increase in space being beneficial for people with larger hands or longer forearms.
Interestingly, the extra distance also messed up my snatch technique because I kept banging the bell against my forearm no matter how hard I tried to control the landing of the bell. I blame muscle memory, I’ve logged the most reps snatching the 12kg Dragon Door bell and I’m used to the slightly smaller gap. I’m sure if I dedicated myself to consistently training with the Onnit bell I could get used to the difference.
Getting back to the grip – the finish is smooth enough to rotate smoothly in my hand without catching skin during transitions, but the coating generates far too much friction. Without relying on chalk, I can’t use this kettlebell for very long before the friction starts forming blisters.
Onnit Labs kettlebells are the budget option of the bunch. Much like Ramen noodles, they will suffice if they’re all you can afford, but it won’t be the best experience and you’ll be longing for something more. You’re better off spending a little more for one of the other options, and your hands will thank you for it.
Kettlebells USA have been around for over a decade, and although they now offer a variety of fitness equipment their core business has always been kettlebells. Their Metrixx line of cast iron kettlebells are offered in two styles – a “Classic” line that looks more or less equivalent in size and coating to Dragon Door kettlebells, and a newer “Elite Precision” line that has a different style of e-coat and redesigned handle.
The Elite Precision version is marketed as an improvement on the classic kettlebell design, so I decided to go with that option to put the new-fangled modifications to the test. I purchased one of the Elite Precision 12kg bells and it was shipped out the next day. The packaging was solid and the kettlebell well packed. They even included a sticker!
The finish on the kettlebell is very good, although not as good as the finish on the Kettlebell Kings or Perform Better kettlebells. I can see the casting seams on the side of the kettlebell because of how thin the coat is, and I can just barely feel a seam underneath the handle. Thankfully, it’s not prevalent enough to cause skin pinching.
The Metrixx kettlebell is the only kettlebell tested aside from Dragon Door with an e-coat. I reached out to Kettlebells USA customer service to get their opinion on how they thought their e-coat compared to a powder coat and how it compared to similar coats offered by competitors. They started off by providing details on how e-coats and powder coats are applied, which I thought was interesting enough to share:
“E-coating produces the most resilient finish possible for a cast iron kettlebell. Powder coating is essentially a fancy type of spray painting while e-coating is a cross between plating and painting. The kettlebell is immersed in a water-based solution containing a paint emulsion. An electric voltage is applied to the part causing the paint emulsion to condense onto the part. The coating thickness is limited by the applied voltage.”
Now I’ll quote the portion of their response that answers my questions:
“This means that our e-coated kettlebells are more durable than any other type of kettlebell that is powder coated or enamel baked. They are not as slippery as enamel painted kettlebells and are not as rough as powder coated kettlebells. <Competitor brand> kettlebells are e-coated, however, we utilize a more sophisticated e-coating process that deposits more deeply into the pores of the iron and results in a superior finish.“
Whatever the fancy-pants coating process is, it works. I tried damaging the coating by clanging it against another kettlebell, and the Metrixx bell just laughed. I did a kettlebell waist-high drop-test on it, and the finish did scratch but it did not chip. This coating is bomb-proof – it will likely outlast you, your children, and your children’s children.
Moving on, the most unique aspect of this kettlebell is the redesigned handle. Here’s how it’s described on the Classic vs Elite product page:
“Metrixx® Elite kettlebells have a slightly thinner handle and a more optimized handle geometry so that the bell sits further away from the wrist in the rack position. The slightly thinner handle on the Elite is designed so that your grip does not fatigue as fast as with a thicker handled kettlebell. The gap between the top of the bell and the bottom of the handle is a little bigger and this allows a deeper hand insertion and more space for two hand swings.”
With traditional cast iron kettlebells, the thickness of the handle typically increases as the weight of the kettlebell increases. This can be problematic for people with hands too small to close around the handle, or hands to large to both comfortably fit within the gap.
The redesigned handle of the Metrixx kettlebell is noticeably thinner than the rest of the bells in the bunch, but not ridiculously so, and easily conforms to the first knuckle rule. For what it’s worth, this is the easiest bell of the test bunch to hold with two hands without cramping my pinkies. If they’ve managed to keep a similar size gap for handles on heavier kettlebells I could see it being beneficial for people with large hands.
Like the Onnit kettlebell, the gap between the top of the bell and the bottom of the handle of the Metrixx bell is larger than most classic style kettlebell designs. As a result, I had the same difficulty achieving a snatch without banging my forearm. The gap on the Metrixx bell is slightly larger than the Onnit bell by about a half centimeter, and I had the same problem I did with the Onnit bell – the increased distance changed where the bell rests against my arm, making it uncomfortable to hold for long periods of time.
Regarding the grip – excluding CAP, which I no longer own and therefore can’t definitively compare to, the e-coating used on this kettlebell is significantly ‘stickier’ than all the other bells under review, except for maybe the Onnit bell.
I really wanted to like this kettlebell because of how durable the coating is, but the durable coat is also its undoing. The coat is sticky and generates too much drag from friction as the kettlebell handle moves during transitions. I found that working with this kettlebell for long periods without chalk generated too much heat on my skin, eventually causing blisters on top of my blisters.
I could see this kettlebell having a place in a setting more prone to abuse than my home gym, especially if heavy chalk use isn’t an issue, but it’s not for me.
I give Kettlebells USA kudos for attempting to raise the bar by rethinking the classic kettlebell design, but personally I’m not fond of the particular e-coat formulation used on the Elite Precision bell. The friction generated by the coating makes it unsuitable for high rep work in my no-chalk home setup and work gym. This is still a very good kettlebell though, and you may have a different experience with Metrixx kettlebells if you’re able to work with chalk or if you plan to store your kettlebells in a garage or shed, but if not consider a powder coat option instead.
Rogue Fitness is another company with a huge amount of brand recognition, mainly because of their affiliation with Crossfit. This is the brand the Fittest On Earth use and swear by, so I had high expectations for the 12kg kettlebell I ordered from Rogue.
Unfortunately quality control seems to be an issue with Rogue, starting with the packaging the kettlebell was shipped in – the box was severely damaged when it arrived, and the damage to the box extended to the kettlebell inside as well.
The coating was badly scratched in several places, which is significant because the coating is supposed to protect the bell from damage and corrosion. If the coat can’t stand up to abuse by UPS, can it really stand up to regular use as a fitness tool?
I gave Rogue the benefit of the doubt and assumed the shipper had badly mishandled the box, so I reached out to Rogue customer service to tell them about my experience.
They were extremely helpful and responsive, I sent them pictures of the damaged bell and they immediately offered to send me a replacement or give me store credit. I chose the replacement, and they were nice enough to let me hang on to the damaged kettlebell till the replacement arrived so I could have one to work with while I waited.
However, when the replacement arrived I was disappointed to see it had been damaged during transit as well. Not as badly damaged as the first, but still damaged.
To be fair, the Rogue kettlebells had the farthest distance to travel and therefore the most potential for suffering shipping damage. However, I think one instance could reasonably be a considered a fluke but two in a row suggests the need for better packing materials and possibly a higher quality coating. The boxes the Rogue kettlebells shipped in are the flimsiest of all the kettlebells I had the opportunity to unpack, and neither box was wrapped with plastic strap reinforcements typically used to help preserve the integrity of a heavy load during shipping.
I want to stress I consider the damage to the kettlebells to be entirely superficial since the coating damage does not interfere with usage. However, since neither bell survived the trip from Ohio to me without sustaining damage I’m skeptical of the coat being durable enough to hold up to extended use.
Setting aside issues with shipping and coating damage, Rogue kettlebells are still problematic. The handles of the Rogue bells are the thickest of the test group, making them the only ones that don’t conform to the first knuckle rule. In fact I’m barely able to touch the tip of my thumb to the cuticle of my index finger when I wrap my hand around the handle of the 12kg kettlebell.
You might be thinking the oversized handle is a good thing, especially if (unlike me) you have large hands. Perhaps if the issues with the Rogue kettlebells ended there this would be true.
But, the issues don’t end there. No sir.
The finish of the Rogue kettlebells is rough, with prevalent seams on the underside of both handles. They aren’t finished as roughly as the Dragon Door kettlebells, but rough enough to have imperfections that pinch skin during use.
Getting back to the coating, the coat on the Rogue bells is the coarsest of all the kettlebells tested with a feel of fine grit sandpaper. This is not an exaggeration – I compared the the finish to various grits of sandpaper I had on hand and I found a close match with a 320 fine grit sanding block. My guess is the coat is intentionally designed to be coarse to hold lots of chalk, but since I don’t use chalk it doesn’t help and actually makes the kettlebell more difficult to work with. Think of holding a cylinder wrapped with fine grit sandpaper moving rapidly in your palm. Does that sound appealing?
Frankly, given the following Rogue Fitness has I’m amazed at how badly their kettlebells stack up to the competition. I’ll go out on a limb and guess that kettlebells only play a minor role in Rogue’s product lineup and therefore not as much attention to detail gets paid to them as compared to other products in their catalog. I’m only speculating though, I’ve never used any other Rogue products so I have no genuine basis for comparison. All I can say with certainty is these kettlebells are not high quality products.
On the plus side, this line of kettlebells has weight color coding bands around the horns that conform to the kettlebell sport convention. This praise comes with a caveat though because someone did a sloppy job painting the color bands of the first kettlebell. It’s a minor detail but details matter, especially when there’s already plenty of fail to speak of.
After receiving two damaged kettlebells in a row I intended to scrap Rogue from this comparison review altogether, so I contacted customer service about returning both kettlebells for a refund. Instead, to my surprise they refunded my full purchase price plus shipping and let me keep both kettlebells. Wow!
I though this was a classy move, and awesome customer support may be one of the reasons Rogue is so popular. However, awesome customer service isn’t enough for me to recommend Rogue kettlebells for your home gym, I’d rather you were able to buy a quality product up front and not have to deal with customer service at all.
I get that some people are going to buy from Rogue regardless of what I think, because “CrossFit”, and admittedly because their kettlebells are priced lower than much of the competition. But don’t believe the hype! There are better options available if you can swing a few more bucks.
Rogue customer service is top notch, but quality control leaves a lot to be desired. The kettlebells are difficult to use without injury if you have normal/small hands and prefer not to use chalk. If you’re in the market for powder-coat kettlebells, spend a few bucks more and buy them from Kettlebell Kings or Perform Better.
Enough talk about cold hard metal, let’s talk cold hard cash. How much will you need to spend to outfit yourself with some quality kettlebells?
It’s not easy to do a head-to-head price comparison because shipping kettlebells is costly and each company tackles it differently. Some use UPS, others use FedEx. Some charge a flat rate regardless of where you live, others charge a variable rate based on your distance from a distribution center. Some don’t charge for shipping at all, preferring instead to structure the cost of shipping into the kettlebell base price.
I’ve attempted to smooth out these differences by taking an average of the full purchase price plus shipping (and tax where applicable) for one 12kg bell and one 20kg bell shipped to six locations in cities around the country. The breakdown is as follows, with averages ordered from lowest to highest going left to right.
Table: Total price for one 12kg + one 20kg kettlebell
|City||Zip Code||Onnit Labs||Rogue Fitness||Kettlebells USA||Kettlebell Kings||Perform Better||Dragon Door|
Note – this is a rough guide and the price you pay will vary based on factors like how close you are to a distribution point, whether or not you can pick up locally, or even on the number of kettlebells you buy. For example, Kettlebell Kings sells kettlebell sets that offer significant savings over buying the bells individually, which brings the price down even lower. At the time of this writeup, Kettlebell Kings is also the only vendor that offers the option to build your own set, with an increased discount applied for every kettlebell added.
Also note that I didn’t include CAP in the price table. I don’t recommend buying them at all, so I’m not going to link to them anywhere because I want to save you the bitter disappointment. If you really want them you can often find them at places like Walmart or Amazon, but don’t say you weren’t warned.
If you’ve read through the entire review, congratulations! Your attention span is long and strong. If you came directly to this section for the TL;DR version, read on.
Which brand of kettlebells offers the best overall value?
After personally working with seven different brands of kettlebells, I’ve concluded that Kettlebell Kings offer the best overall value in terms of cost, durability, and usability. The powder coat kettlebells are finished remarkably well and the durable powder coating is ideal for use without chalk, making it a perfect fit for use at home or other environments where heavy chalk use isn’t an option.
Admittedly, Kettlebell Kings are on the higher end of the price spectrum of kettlebells tested, to which I would respond that only a rich man can afford to buy cheap kettlebells. If you’re going to invest in kettlebell training, buy bells that will serve you for the long term rather than settle for the el cheapo option that will wear out quickly.
Plus, Kettlebell Kings is the only vendor offering sets of three or more kettlebells at a discount, including an option to build your own set. Buying in ‘bulk’ definitely helps bring the price down significantly.
First runner up is Perform Better. Their powder coat kettlebells are very nice to use and if you have the patience to wait for a sale you may be able to get a good deal on some quality bells.
Second runner up is Kettlebell USA – the coating on the Metrixx Elite Precision kettlebell is not my favorite to work with, but it is extremely durable and I would consider their “Classic” line if I needed kettlebells to use in a more extreme environment than my home gym. If you’re looking for a kettlebell with an e-coat, you won’t do better than this.
What size kettlebell(s) should you start with?
Most of the sizing advice I’ve seen suggests the average man start with a 16kg bell and the average woman start with a 12kg bell. If you’re already a very active person with a regular workout regimen or movement practice, this advice will probably suit you just fine. If you spend a lot of time sitting or aren’t very active in general, you may need some rehab work at a lower weight first.
What do I mean by rehab? I’ll elaborate by describing my own circumstances. Although I strive to be healthy and fit, the reality is I’ve led a mostly sedentary life for the last decade. Now I’m in middle age, I have muscular imbalances from old injuries that were never addressed properly, and I’ve lost a good chunk of the coordination and strength I gained in my late twenties and early thirties from practicing martial arts.
Putting it another way, I’ve got some work to do to reacquaint myself with how I hold tension while maintaining proper structure under load, which I’m working on in parallel with Foundation Training.
The upshot is the standard advice doesn’t work for me. I’m not a big guy, I clock in at 5’10” and 170lbs. I can swing a 16kg kettlebell one handed, but I can tell from how compromised my form gets that I’m not structurally sound enough to be working with that weight on a consistent basis. Plus, my hands aren’t big enough to apply the first knuckle rule on the 16kg kettlebell, which makes the work more difficult.
Rather than risk injury, I scaled back to the 12kg bell for one hand work, and for similar reasons I scaled back from 24kg to 20kg for two hand work. I’ve found these weights to work well for me while I improve my structural integrity in tandem.
The point I’m trying to make is, don’t be afraid to start with a lower weight, especially if you know you are out of shape or in need of some injury rehabilitation. I’ve seen many people jump into a new fitness pursuit without laying proper groundwork first, and these folks either get injured or lose interest after hitting multiple plateaus. Just like building a house or a complex software application, you need to start with a solid foundation to build from. Build structure first through reinforcement of proper movement patterns and the strength will follow.
Update January 8, 2017 – I’ve been working with kettlebells consistently over the last 4.5 months since this review was posted, following my own advice to build structure before strength. I’ve now moved up to a 16kg kettlebell, and I can properly dead snatch a 20kg kettlebell. Progress!
How many kettlebells should you buy up front?
Ideally, I’d recommend buying one heavy bell for two hand work and one lighter bell for one hand work. You could effectively target nearly every area of your body with two appropriately sized kettlebells supplemented with simple bodyweight exercises like pull ups, pushups, and dips. If you can afford to buy three, consider buying two of the same size to open up a whole other realm of double-kettlebell work. For example, buy two 12kg bells and one 20kg bell, or two 16kg bells and one 24kg bell.
If you can only afford to buy one, I’d recommend buying one bell sized for one hand work, and buying parts for a DIY “T-bar” in order to get in some two hand work as well.
Garage-gyms.com has an online buying guide with a lot of basic information about kettlebells I didn’t cover. It also includes reviews of several other kettlebell brands not covered here.
Certified Kettlebell Instruction
Several organizations offer certifications in kettlebell training, and most likely one or more of these organizations has certified trainers near you.
StrongFirst, The School of Strength – Focus on ‘hard style’ kettlebell work, which emphasizes explosive movement expressed over a short period of time.
RKC, Russian Kettebell Challenge – Focus on ‘hard style’ kettlebell work, which emphasizes explosive movement expressed over a short period of time.
IKFF, International Kettlebell and Fitness Federation – Focus on kettlebell sport, which emphasises efficient movement and conservation of energy over a long duration of time.
If you want a super simple beginner program to start with, check out Simple and Sinister by Pavel Tsatsouline. The main programming literally involves only two exercises with enough progression built in to keep you busy for a good long while.
For more variety in your workouts, check out Kettlebell Movement. They have a ton of free resources including exercise tutorials and workout videos. They also have a members-only portal that can be accessed for a fee, but I’ve not personally tried it so I can’t vouch for it.
Kettlebell Kings also maintains a page dedicated to workouts, as well as a mailing list you can sign up for to periodically receive new workouts.
Standard Kettlebell Color Coding Scheme
This is the standard color scheme used for kettlebell sport, and followed by some of the vendors of classic style kettlebells as well.
- 8 kg / 17.6 lbs – Pink
- 12 kg / 26.4 lbs – Blue
- 16 kg / 35.2 lbs – Yellow
- 20 kg / 44.0 lbs – Purple
- 24 kg / 52.8 lbs – Green
- 28 kg / 61.6 lbs – Orange
- 32 kg / 70.4 lbs – Red
- 36 kg / 79.2 lbs – Grey
- 40 kg / 88.0 lbs – White
- 44 kg / 96.8 lbs – Silver
- 48 kg / 105.6 lbs – Black
How Kettlebells are Made
An interesting and amusing video showing how kettlebells are made. The guy narrating the video, Pavel Tstatsouline, was affiliated with Dragon Door when the video was filmed so the process is probably still representative of how Dragon Door kettlebells are made to this day.
“When we say kettlebell…we mean strength. When we say strength…we mean…kettlebell.”
Explanations of Coatings
Links to descriptions of the various types of coats offered on the kettlebells that were reviewed.