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Firefighting and Kettlebells : A Great Combination

August 20, 2007 10:10 AM

Firefighting is a physically demanding job. You have no time to warm up when the alarm sounds. In fact, many of your hardest calls wake you up the middle of the night. You have to drag heavy hoses, lift ladders, carry heavy equipment, and pry open or just break down doors. You need a strong grip, a powerful back, and the ability to take ballistic shocks. You need power that endures, which means having both strong muscles and a strong heart. I have discovered that these qualities are developed with kettlebell training. I'd like to share with you how kettlebell training has changed the entire way I look at firefighting fitness.

Before kettlebell lifting, I mainly did the standard health club workouts, which are based on bodybuilding protocols. You did exercises for each body part, pumping your muscles up by going smooth and slow until your reached muscular failure. After "weight lifting" for my muscles, I still had to work my heart, so then I had to do 20-30 minutes of cardio, usually on a treadmill or a stairstepper (I used to run a bit, but once I bulked up to over 210 pounds, it hurt my knees and ankles too much). Doing these kinds of workouts did improve my overall condition, but I always got a rude awakening when I worked various manual labor jobs during the summer months. All this lifting I was doing didn't translate too well to the "real strength" needs of working a construction job. It always took a few weeks for me to feel fit enough to work all day on a job site.

After a friend introduced me to kettlebell training, I ordered my own KB along with both the RKC book and video. While just training three times a week, I felt that it was building functional strength, active flexibility, and cardio power. After my initial training sessions I noticed minor pains in my elbows and wrists. They faded as my tendons and ligaments started to strengthen and thicken, adapting to the ballistic shock. You don't get this kind of shock from the health club machines - they teach you to be slow and smooth and have zero impact. That would be OK except for one small thing... REAL LIFE! You get jarred around in real life - if you never train for it, you won't be able to handle it. Controlled ballistic training helps you handle shocks without getting injured as easily and feeling as sore afterward.

Over the next few months I lifted less and less at the gym (and eventually dropped my membership) and started focusing on building my KB skills. I started to bring them to my fire station, so I could practice during our allotted fitness time each shift. KBs are perfect for doing short but intense workouts. Never "training to failure" helps me stay fresh. As a fireman, you really can't afford to be really sore and stiff like you get after the typical "feel the burn" bodybuilding type workouts. . This was the kind of intense and functional workout I had been searching for - no fancy machines, high-tech gimmicks or complicated contraptions. Just a hunk of iron with a handle...

Kettlebells are the best single tool I have found for developing strength, endurance and flexibility. Their off-center weight distribution recruits the stabilizer muscles of your shoulders and torso like no dumbbell or barbell can. The over-sized handles are about the same size as the grips on our axes, pike poles and other tools. High rep swings, snatches, and cleans tax your cardiovascular system just like moving a charged hose line down a long hallway, hauling hose and tools up multiple flights of stairs, or dragging a person out of a building. You can't get that kind of cardio from a treadmill or even a stairstepper. You only develop that kind of cardio from working your entire body. Whole body cardio is built by using your major upper body muscle systems working in a controlled and coordinated fashion with you legs and hips for doing high rep sets with little or no rest. Your abs and back also get a great workout from staying firm and protecting your spine while you do rep after rep. I refer to high rep kettlebell lifting as "Loaded Cardio", because your heart is working just as hard as your muscles. It's a two-for-one workout.

While fighting a fire, I am always lifting heavy objects off the ground, carrying heavy things quickly up stairs or down hallways, working with heavy tools over my head, and bending or crouching down as I pull hose or search for victims. Bending over and lifting things, standing up with heavy weights, pressing and holding things over your head describes kettlebell lifting to a tee. Our class motto at the State Fire Academy was "Train like you fight, fight like you train". Are you training like you're going to be fighting? I have yet to sit on a bike seat or a rowing machine seat, or lay on a bench on a fire scene.

Firefighting tasks can be trained for with the use of kettlebells. The versatility of KBs is unsurpassed. You can hold them in many different ways - one handed, two hands together, two hand parallel (right side up or upside down) or even press it sitting on your palm, either on the flat bottom or the curved side. You can wrap a towel or large diameter rope around the handle to lift it up and even swing it around your body or legs. It swings like a wrecking ball, developing tremendous amounts of force. Swinging a six pound axe feels like a toothpick after swinging a kettlebell on a rope. Lifting and swinging two KBs in one hand develops a powerful grip. Pressing and walking around with kettlebells overhead builds both strength and stability in your shoulders. High rep swings builds your low back endurance, which is what you need to avoid injury and pain.

My advice to any firefighter who wants "real world" conditioning, would be to buy a few kettlebells, then get my new DVD "KB FIRE". It covers everything you need to get started with kettlebell training. Learn the five basic lifts and their variations, and practice the firefighter specific drills. You would be wise to read pertinent articles on KB training at Consider getting some training from an RKC in your area. Check out Pavel's kettlebell DVDs-I have every one, and have learned from them all. Keep training and having fun with KBs and don't pass up an opportunity to convert an interested person-they might be a "victim" of the bodybuilding mentality that pervades American gyms and health clubs. Please help set them free! I am glad someone I knew took the time to put me on this path. Hopefully you will learn what that feels like.

Tom Corrigan is a firefighter and RKC Team Leader based in Shoreline, WA

He can be reached by phone at 206-604-5588 or by email at: