I remember the first time I saw kettlebells in a commercial gym. I’ve heard of these, I thought, and decided to try some swings. I picked up one of the bells and faced the mirror — wait, no, I didn’t want to drop it and shatter the mirror. So I turned to my left, and realised if I lost my grip it would fly toward the dude on the cable row machine. Each direction I turned offered its own peculiar peril. If you’re currently swinging kettlebells in your apartment, you may have similar thoughts as you choose whether to face your TV, the window, or the wall.
This is a common fear. As you swing a kettlebell, you’re imparting it with serious force from some of the strongest muscles in your body (your butt, basically), and you’re containing that force with nothing but the strength of your itty bitty fingers. Of course it will go flying if the slightest thing goes wrong. Or… will it?
Flying kettlebells are very, very rare
I took an informal survey on social media, asking people on Twitter, Instagram, and the subreddits r/weightroom and r/kettlebell whether they had ever feared losing their grip during a kettlebell swing, and whether it had ever actually happened.
Nearly everyone answered “yes” to having the fear or thinking about it. But actual incidents were rare. I got 34 “nope, never” responses and only a handful to the contrary. I got responses from several coaches and gym owners who said they had never even seen it happen.
I own a gym that primarily uses kettlebells and I’ve literally never seen it happen.
— David Dellanave (@ddn) November 12, 2020
That said, it’s not unheard of. Two people reported experiencing the exact scenario we’re all afraid of. One sent the kettlebell crashing into a gym mirror; another lobbed it harmlessly in his yard. A few others had seen it happen or heard of such cases secondhand.
Eric Addis, a personal trainer and kettlebell coach in Los Angeles, told me that, he’s seen two flying kettlebell fails in person over almost a decade of experience. Both involved an unusually slippery grip. One time, an instructor had just applied sunscreen and was immediately asked to demonstrate swings. Another time, somebody in a class “had some of the most extreme sweatiness I have personally witnessed and was using a bell a bit heavier than recommended.”
In both cases, the bell flew forward but nobody was in the line of fire. (He estimated the bell thrown by the sunscreen-greased instructor travelled a distance of about ten feet.)
All this is not to say kettlebell fails in general are rare. I heard plenty of tales of people dropping a kettlebell while passing it from hand to hand behind their body, or needing to bail during a Turkish get-up. There were a few folks who lost their grip during a swing, but at a portion of the movement where it did nothing more than drop to the ground.
…even on YouTube
After reading dozens of responses, I realised I needed to travel to the darkest corner of the internet: YouTube. I entered “kettlebell fail” into the search bar and braced for the worst.
What I learned is that kettlebell fails are boring, and that most of the videos aren’t really fails. People throw their bells to the ground in celebration or drop them at the end of a lift when they’re exhausted.
There were a bunch of videos of somebody not quite landing a snatch or a juggling movement, forcing them to drop the bell. Occasionally, a person falls in the process, and is apparently unhurt. I’d say if you have reached the point in your kettlebell career where you are freaking juggling the bells or doing high rep snatches in competition, you have already made your peace with the possibilities.
The only authentic flying kettlebell fail I was able to find is at the 1:31 mark in this video. The competitor is doing snatches, a move that starts like a one-handed kettlebell swing and goes over the head. She loses her grip during the swing and the bell flies forward a few feet. She scurries forward to pick it up, and there’s an awkward moment where she and the judges laugh. That’s all.
But enough theory, we need experimental evidence
That information should pretty much settle it, but I could not let this question go without throwing some kettlebells around my backyard. For science.
I have two kettlebells. On a scale of small-medium-large, one is what I’d call medium (16 kg; a popular weight for someone my size) and the other is off the charts at “honkin’ ginormous” (40 kg).
The results on the big boi were definitive: no matter what I do to it, it’s not going anywhere. Several times I gave it a great big heave and released my grip; it travelled maybe a couple centimetres. There just wasn’t enough force to overcome its mass.
Think about this as a physics problem for a moment. It takes a lot of force to move a heavy kettlebell. If the bell in question is really massive, it takes all the force you’ve got just to get it to arm’s length. There’s not enough extra power there to make it go very far. So if it’s a challenge to pick up a big bell and hold onto it in the first place, you’re not going to send it flying.
Let’s move on to a more common scenario. I was able to get some distance on the medium bell, but not as much as I feared. My best throw — giving it a lot of force and letting go at the worst possible moment — went just shy of seven feet. (I measured the divots in the grass to arrive at my conclusion, but if you’d like a visual reference, the garden shed behind me is exactly eight feet long.)
While seven feet may seem like a lot, any gym wall or mirror I’ve ever faced while doing swings would have been fine.
I tried a few other variables, but they all resulted in shorter travel. For example, if you lose your grip when the bell is near the top, it’s already lost most of its forward momentum and can only drop straight down.
How to prevent this rare phenomenon
So what does this mean for the average-risk, somewhat fearful kettlebell swinger? Besides the fact that this information should already have reassured you, there are a few precautions you can take to make things even safer.
First, be aware of what’s in front of you. If you’re curious how far you might actually fling your bell, take it to a park or backyard and try the same experiment I did above. This isn’t forbidden knowledge.
If you do manage to send a bell flying, it could roll or bounce after its short flight, potentially hitting bystanders or equipment. Even a bell that just drops could dent your floor, if it’s heavy enough. So that’s extra reason to be aware of your surroundings.
Second, be aware of your grip. (Chalk or liquid chalk can give you some extra traction if you’re worried.) Addis says people generally know when they’re losing their grip, and all you have to do is set the kettlebell down instead of going for another swing.
He agreed that there’s not much flying fail risk in swinging a very heavy bell like the one I demonstrated above. Nor is there much chance of catastrophe with a very light kettlebell, especially if you’re just a casual exerciser who has picked one up for the first time. In that case, the bell is so small you’re just not giving it very much force, so there’s not much propulsion for it to go anywhere.
The bottom line is that a flying kettlebell requires a perfect storm: lots of power from the hips, a bell that’s maybe on the heavier side but not enormous, a loosening grip, and, for a true catastrophe, something smashable immediately in front of you. Avoid concocting that scenario, and you have very little to worry about.