Russians have been lifting kettlebells for health for a long time. They originally used them as “counterweights … to weigh out dry goods on market scales. People started throwing them around for entertainment and they were later put to use for weight lifting.”
When Tolstoy wrote Anna Karenina in 1873, at the novel’s moral center he put Konstantin Lyovin, a plain-living country gentleman who lifts kettlebells. Kettlebells also show up in plenty of photos of old-time strongmen from the “tiger skin and waxed mustache” era, such as George Hackenschmidt (a Russian German) and Eugen Sandow (an East Prussian with a Russian mother), and later in photos of early American health clubs.
Though Americans dropped kettlebells in the 1930s and 1940s for modern plate-loading barbells and forgot they existed, Soviet sportsmen kept snatching kettlebells for fun, health, and sometimes in informal competition.
In the 1970s, the Soviet Union organized girevoy sport (“kettlebell sport”) as an officially sanctioned sport, originally consisting of three events: the two-arm jerk, the one-arm snatch, and the one-arm press (later dropped from competition). After a few rule changes, girevoy sport (or “GS”) settled into its present form: you jerk (with two bells) and snatch (with one bell) for as many reps as possible in ten minutes without setting the bells down, and in the snatch you may change hands only one time.
That means kettlebell lifters dwell in the no-man’s land between strength sports and endurance sports, inhabited chiefly by rowers and middle-distance runners. You’re under load for 10 minutes at a time, with bells that might weigh one-half your bodyweight, so you develop some very serious cardio. In fact, girevoy sport is essentially weightlifting turned into an endurance sport. The metabolic demands are incredible, and kettlebell lifters tend to develop a wrestler’s physique: muscled but tending toward the lean, rangy side rather than the puffy, hypertrophied side. Maybe it’s the wrist wraps, but gireviks make me think of the famous “boxer at rest” statue: wiry arms, somewhat meaty shoulders and thighs, and big, pronounced back muscles.
Kettlebells have a way of “right sizing” people, writes Andrew Read: If you’re chubby, they’ll lean you out. “Likewise, if you’re scrawny and need some muscle they’ll do that, too, without that exaggerated puffed up bodybuilder look.”