Kettlebell Training for Firefighters

By Dan Kerrigan

Historically, around half of the line-of-duty deaths (LODDs) in a given year result from health-related issues. Truly being prepared to execute a firefighter’s duties means that not only should you attain proficiency in the necessary skills required of a firefighter, but it also means that you are physically and mentally capable of carrying them out. It’s the difference between being an asset and a liability to your department, your co-workers, and the community you serve. How you train should be a direct result of what you are training for; doing it in the least amount of time necessary to be effective is even better.

Core fitness needs of a firefighter includes the following:

  • Upper-body strength.
  • Stability.
  • Endurance/Capacity.
  • Leg strength.
  • Balance.
  • Core strength.
  • Recovery.
  • Flexibility.
  • Resilience.
  • Mobility.

Training regularly with Russian kettlebells and adding certain bodyweight exercises like push-ups, pull-ups, and abdominal core strengthening is an efficient and effective approach to physical fitness training. When used properly, kettlebells easily address all of the fitness needs of firefighters without the need for expensive equipment or facilities.

(1) The double kettlebell military press.This is a fantastic exercise to increase the arm and shoulder strength firefighters need when working overhead pulling ceilings and walls. (Photos by author.)

 

Why the Kettlebell?

These ominous devices are essentially cast iron weights that look like cannon balls with a handles. Developed in Russia in the 1700s, they have been used by Soviet Special Forces to train for strength, endurance, agility, and flexibility since the early 20th century. There is now widespread interest in kettlebells as being an incredibly efficient way to increase raw strength, flexibility, and endurance essentially through the execution of five or six basic movements and variations on those movements. Proponents of the kettlebell consider it to be the ultimate tool for all-around fitness and cross-training. Further, studies are beginning to show that there are tremendous rehabilitative and therapeutic advantages to their use.

(2) The Turkish Getup focuses on core strength and overall flexibility.

 

Kettlebells cost from $1 to $2 a pound, depending on the manufacturer, so they provide a financially palatable and proven method of accomplishing a firefighter’s fitness needs in a manner that directly applies to the tasks they perform. Applied research that includes a pilot study also supports this claim and goes a long way toward proving the effectiveness of kettlebell training for firefighters. Figure 1 shows a study of a three-day a week program on a four-week cycle for three consecutive cycles. The program engaged fire, police, and emergency medical personnel in predetermined sets of prescribed kettlebell movements that followed a specific sequence. Figure 2 shows the results, which were first published as part of a National Fire Academy Executive Fire Officer research project and were later cited in an article published by the Tactical Strength and Conditioning Journal.

Figure 1. 12-Week Pilot Study Sequencing.

  • Training Session A (General Focus)

Turkish Get Up + Two Hand Swing

  Day 1 Day 2 Day 3

Week 1

Workouts

A1 B1 A2

Week 2

Workouts

B2 A1 B1 

 

  • Training Session B (General Focus)

Kettlebell Military Press + Front Squats

 

Day 1

Day 2

Day 3

Week  3

Workouts

                   A2

                   B2

                   A1

Week  4

Workouts

B1

A2

B2

 

Figure 2. 12-Week Pilot Kettlebell Results.

 

 

How do Kettlebells work?

The basic premise of the kettlebell is to incorporate the weight into swinging, pushing, or pulling movements, many of which are ballistic in nature. With the kettlebell, we typically engage in successive rounds of relatively low repetition rates, ladder an exercise (increasing the rep by one for each round of work), or perform more advanced complexes (combinations of several exercises completed successively without rest). Since the kettlebell uses unbalanced weight, the training can be an incredibly efficient and effective, often working multiple muscle groups at the same time while forcing improvement in the user’s balance and core strength. An effective training session with kettlebells can take as little as 30 minutes and, when it is complete, you will have accomplished much more than simply making yourself tired.

(3) The Goblet Squat is unrivaled in improving leg strength and increasing endurance.

 

Programs can be designed to address conditioning, strength, mobility, flexibility, and recovery and breathing. All of the movements will inherently address core strength and grip strength as well as your major muscle groups while burning fat at the same time. Movements include one- and two-hand swings; military presses; cleans; snatches; squats; lunges; rows; and the Turkish Getup, an exercise that incorporates primarily lower-body movements beginning while lying flat with a kettlebell held above the body until a standing position is attained with the bell above the head, then reversing the sequence until flat on the ground again, all while maintaining core tension. Adding breathing exercises into certain routines vastly also improves aerobic and anaerobic capacity.

 

What is the Minimalist Approach?

Traditional attitudes toward exercise often involve the concept that we must spend a lot of time in the gym to achieve and maintain fitness, or that we must be exhausted or sore to ensure that our efforts were effective. This is simply not true; as a firefighter who might be working a 24-hour shift, it is not practical either. Pat Flynn, RKC, co-author of Paleo Workouts for Dummies and the founder of Chronicles of Strength-A Blog on Fitness Minimalism says, “The idea behind the minimalist approach is to train as effectively and efficiently as possible—to get on with it, get it done, and move on. Why use a spoon to dig a hole when you can use a shovel?” For firefighters, this concept has a lot of merit. Why train for an hour or more, five to six days a week, when you can meet your objectives in half that time and stay ready (not exhausted) to respond when the bells ring? However, a word of caution: efficiency does not equate to easy. Make no mistake, you will get your work in; you just won’t spend all day doing it.

A typical kettlebell training regimen that focuses on the firefighters’ fitness needs might include a session that concentrates on upper body pushes and pulls (overhead military presses, bent over rows, the clean or the clean-and-press and, possibly, rounds of pull-ups and push-ups). Add rounds of kettlebell swings in between sets of pushes and pulls and you’ve got a tremendous workout.

(4) Kettlebell Swings are ballistic, hip-hinging movements that work multiple muscle groups as well as build capacity.

 

For the lower body, create a session that focuses on sets of kettlebell goblet squats or double kettlebell front squats, and symmetrical or asymmetrical kettlebell carries (equal or unequal weight on left and right side) up and down a set of stairs. This will have you well on your way to increasing your endurance, leg strength, and overall core strength and stability. For core strength, you can increase core and back strength quickly with sets of leg raises (hanging or lying flat), “windshield wipers,” and kettlebell Turkish Getups. The beauty of the kettlebell is that, within the core movements, you are only limited by your creativity and imagination once you learn them.

 

Achieve and Maintain Fitness

The Russian kettlebell is a highly effective tool that is cost efficient and can improve strength and flexibility in muscle groups used to execute many fireground tasks. It is portable, versatile, and easy to learn. It also incorporates another traditional firefighter mindset: We practice with kettlebells like we practice our craft.

Is it the only path to firefighter fitness? Of course not. A bigger point may be that, along with regular medical evaluations and proper diet and nutrition, you should engage in firefighter-appropriate fitness training on a regular basis. Why? Whether you realize it or not, it’s a requirement of your job! So, whether you choose to use Russian kettlebells or you engage in some other firefighter-appropriate method of physical fitness training, please, do something! You can be an asset to your department, your co-workers, and your community. Or, you can be a liability. It’s up to you which path you take.

 

Dan Kerrigan is a 28-year fire service veteran and an assistant fire marshal/deputy emergency management coordinator and department health and fitness coordinator for the East Whiteland Township Department of Codes and Life Safety in Chester County, Pennsylvania. He is also certified as a Killing It With Kettlebells™ Instructor for the Dragon Gym in Exton, Pennsylvania as well as an adjunct professor at Anna Maria College and Immaculata University. Contact KErrigan at dkerrigan@eastwhiteland.org or follow him on Twitter @dankerrigan2.

No posts to display