If you want a kettlebell, the first question to answer is what weight you should get. If you’re getting only one, which you should as a beginner, I recommend a 16-kilogram bell for men and a 10-kilogram bell for women (get a 12 kg bell if 10 kg isn’t available). While many people recommend women starting with an 8-kilogram bell (about 16 pounds), I think that the two-handed lifts like squats and swings aren’t very well-served by that low weight. If you want to start modestly, my suggestion would be to get the 13-pound version of our budget pick and then order a larger, higher quality bell once you feel comfortable.
In an ideal world, a man would have 16-, 20-, and 24-kilogram bells. With these three, all kinds of single and double kettlebell work is easily achievable and scalable. For women, if they wanted a set of three weights, I would recommend 10-, 12-, and 16-kilogram bells. Here is a female perspective on starting out with kettlebells, from longtime kettlebell trainer Lauren Brooks. Here is another perspective on starting weights. Both of these linked pieces reiterate my earlier point about seeking credible instruction before beginning an at-home regimen.
Then there is the question about which kind of kettlebell you should buy: cast iron, competition, or adjustable. Among these, we think cast iron has the broadest appeal, so that’s what we focused on for this guide. Cast-iron bells are more comfortable for two-handed grip positions, which beginners should master before moving onto the more challenging one-handed exercises. Cast-iron bells generally have a more rounded handle (versus the squared-off handle on competition bells, which is hard on the pinkies in a two-handed grip).
Competition bells are created for the competition lifts—snatches and clean-and-jerks—which are way beyond the capacity of new lifters. Besides the handle shape, the main difference between cast-iron and competition bells is the size. While cast-iron bells increase and decrease in proportion to their weight, competition bells are the same size regardless of weight. They are made out of a single-forged piece of steel and have larger or smaller cavities in the bell case instead of changing the size of the bell itself. This makes them preferable for one-handed moves because the ball part of the bell sits on the same part of the wrist/forearm (in rack position) no matter the weight. Cast iron bells of different weights will sit on slightly different parts of the arm.
Though competition kettlebells have specific design specifications used in competition, the types of lifts done with them (clean-and-jerks/snatches) are also easily done with cast-iron bells. So one should not think that they need to “graduate” at some point to competition bells. We just opted for cast-iron bells in this test because kettlebell work is best entered into with two hands, and one can see from the above picture that the squared off handle of competition bells is less accommodating to both hands. Furthermore, people wanting to use kettlebells to maximize strength/body composition attributes will choose cast-iron kettlebells because their smaller/denser dimensions allow for using two kettlebells at once. Using double competition bells is unwieldy in the backswing (two at a time won’t fit between the legs very well), so this is another reason I opt for cast iron when doing doubles. See this discussion of the benefits of double kettlebell lifts. Finally, it’s worth noting that a competition bell will cost $10 to $20 more than its cast-iron counterpart at any given weight. It’s not worth paying extra unless you actually plan on competing—a slim minority of home kettlebell users.
The round part of a kettlebell rests on your forearm in “rack” position. Photo: Mark BixbyUnlike with dumbbells, adjustable kettlebells aren’t a good buy. The appeal of getting multiple weight increments in one device is undeniable. However, given the dynamic nature of most kettlebell movements, I don’t recommend kettlebells with lots of pieces of movable or fragile equipment. A kettlebell should be capable of being thrown, dropped, and even juggled, so I would opt for single-forged metal that can stand up to a beating—and stay together in the process. Also, a major frustration with adjustable kettlebells is that they don’t offer a wide enough weight range to make them ideal for many. Most of these bells range from about 24 to 36 pounds in their adjustability. While this would be a fine range for most women, male users would start at 36 pounds and not have anywhere to go from there. The few adjustable kettlebells that have a higher-end weight range have an unwieldy shape that make them impossible to use for some of the signature kettlebell moves like snatching and jerking.
With that in mind, I set to work picking out the best cast-iron bells for testing. As it turns out, there’s not a huge amount of difference between these things because most of them borrow their design from the Dragon Door RKC. Dragon Door was the first US company to run kettlebell instructor certifications (taught by famed instructor Pavel Tsatsouline) and have mass distribution in the US (Dragon Door started selling these bells in 2001). Dragon Door bells achieved great acclaim, but their high price point (roughly $120 each after shipping and handling, the highest in our test) invited lots of competition from other companies. Rogue is one of the most famous competitors, popularized for its comparatively low price. CAP is another popular fitness company that makes a good bell at a lower price point. Then there’s a slew of other RKC copycats that have inferior distribution or are flawed in some other way. For example, this Yes4All bell is one of the most popular models on Amazon, but its large, flat face is hard on the wrists in one-handed positions.
Although much more rare, some companies compete by distinguishing their offerings from Dragon Door’s with different designs. Kettlebells USA’s bells have a slightly wider handle for better comfort in two-handed positions as well as a feel comparable to competition bells on one-handed moves. Perform Better at one point implemented a screw-on rubber skid plate on the bottom of their bells, but later on scrapped it due to negative customer feedback. They now make bells with a wider-diameter, more stable base.
You will also need to decide between a powder-coated finish and an e-coated one. Generally speaking, e-coating is a more expensive process that results in a smoother finish that’s necessary for one-handed work. Powder coating is cheaper, but is rougher on the hands. It’s fine for two-handed work but can rip off callouses during one-handed work.
You could go even cheaper by getting a vinyl-coated bell, but we don’t recommend it. Vinyl-covered bells were created to protect floor spaces in commercial gyms and homes, but more often, the vinyl is there to smooth over the defects of a cheaply cast bell and they often get criticized for very uneven handles that cause hand pain and tearing. I tested several vinyl-covered bells commonly sold in big box stores, and none were worth buying. They were extremely uneven in terms of metal handle quality, had limited weight options, and they weren’t significantly cheaper than the budget options we ended up testing—you don’t even save money on shipping. I also noticed major tearing in the vinyl parts of these bells while they were sitting on the shelves to be sold as “new” at Sports Authority (now Dick’s Sporting Goods).
From left: Metrixx Elite, CAP Cast Iron Competition, Rogue, Perform Better First Place, Dragon Door RKC. Photo: Anton BrkicIn the end, I settled on testing the Metrixx Elite Precision E-Coat Cast Iron Bell from Kettlebells USA, the RKC bell by Dragon Door, the First Place bell by Perform Better, the CAP Cast Iron Competition Bell (which confusingly isn’t actually a competition bell), and the Rogue Kettlebell.
Our testing group, which consisted of myself and five members of the high school varsity baseball team I coach, worked with all five bells at the beginner/intermediate level and did only two-handed moves (deadlifts, squats, presses, high pulls, and swings).
Only at the conclusion of the third week of testing did I ask the players which bell was their favorite. They all said that they hadn’t noticed much of a difference between the bells, but they did appreciate the slightly wider handle gap of the Metrixx bell, which was more accommodating to a comfortable grip on two-handed work. We decided that if just basic/intermediate kettlebell work is what you’re after, any of these bells would work just fine, and that choosing the most budget-friendly bell would be a smart choice. However, if a person is interested in exploring the full range of what kettlebell exercises have to offer (including the kettlebell snatch, which in lab testing has yielded a remarkable rate of burning 20.2 calories a minute over a 20-minute workout—the same rate of caloric burn as a 6-minute mile pace), a premium bell like the Metrixx bell is definitely what they should opt for. I was the only tester who did high-repetition snatching (a one-handed exercise) with the five test bells, and the Metrixx easily rated highest when testing with both one-handed and two-handed exercises.
Each of the five bells in the test group were used for 21 workouts over the course of a seven-week testing period. We did a basic routine together first, then I did a more advanced one. The basic routine consisted of five deadlifts, five squats/presses, five high pulls, and 10 swings. I used this protocol because it includes the kettlebell swing (which is a signature kettlebell move anyone doing kettlebells should learn to perform), a couple of beginner moves, and the two-handed high pull, which puts significant pressure on the hands/grip. I selected this protocol to show the strength and conditioning benefit of a simple kettlebell routine and evaluate the quality of the kettlebell handle in terms of how it taxes the hands.
For the second test, I did 100 snatches with each bell (20 on the left hand, 20 on the right, 15 on left, 15 right, 10 left/10 right, 5 left/5 right) in the shortest time possible (took me on average 3:45). The kettlebell snatch puts more pressure on your hands and grip than any other move does, and snatching reveals which product has the best handle. A poorly produced handle can rip callouses off the hands during snatching, and this test is where the bells differentiated themselves. The three more expensive bells—Dragon Door, Perform Better, Metrixx—easily outperformed the cheaper CAP and Rogue bells. In fact, I wouldn’t use the CAP or Rogue bells for high-rep snatching because they have coarse handles and some tackiness from the painted finish. I have heavily calloused hands from years of kettlebell work, and the two cheaper bells worked those callouses into swollen, bright-red welts by the time I got through 100 reps.