Firefighters and Kettlebells - Revisited

It's been two years since I've started working with kettlebells and AKC methodology. As the American Kettlbell Club's Fire/Rescue Advisor, I'm convinced now, more than ever, of the perfect match of real kettlebell training and firefighting. Whether one-on-one, or in a large group, the ability of kettlebell training to simulate fire/emergency operations is unparalleled, and will physically prepare first responders for what they will inevitably encounter.

Consider the following seven elements of what true kettlebell training can do.

1. STRENGTH-ENDURANCE
Think of strength that endures --practical strength, not lying or sitting, not focusing on small, obscure muscles, not worried about bench pressing 300 pounds one time, but strength-endurance from learning how to move heavy objects over an extended period of time. Swinging a heavy sledge hammer dozens of times, moving a high pressure hose line down a hundred foot hallway, walking up 25 flights of stairs with 60 pounds on your back are comparisions that come to mind.

Running in shorts and sneakers misses the mark. Lifting heavy weights five or ten times is even further from what first responders need.


2. MENTAL FORTITUDE
Firefighters, as well as all first responders, need to push past the point of physical exertion where every fiber in their being is screaming for them to stop and rest -- but that's never an option. Whether advancing a hoseline, carrying a 300 pound victim down five flights of stairs, or in hot pursuit of criminal, taking a break is not part of the equation.

Kettlebell sets don't end on a simple rep count of ten or twenty. Timed sets of four, six, or even ten minutes don't offer the quick bailout option. You're in it for the long haul. And with basic technique (that's passed on from coach to lifter) the kettlebell athlete learns to survive under the bell.


3. TEN MINUTE SET, TEN MINUTE CPAT (standard firefighter physical test)
It's no coincidence that CPAT, the national standard on firefighter physical testing, is a ten minute test of strength-endurance. Ten minutes represents the typical work time for an individual firefighter at a routine worker or structural fire. Ten minute sets are the ultimate goal of the kettlebell lifter. With proper technique and conditioning, the ability to last for ten minutes is cultivated over time, safely, making quantifiable jumps in intensity.

That's the key element here - safety. Without having to go through the rigors and risks of real fire operations, the trainee can build this illusive ability of extended work capacity, preparing not only muscle, but the heart-lung system for what he or she will routinely face.


4. OPERATING UNDER LOAD
Firefighters and other emergency responders are typically asked to haul heavy equipment. A firefighter's gear alone can weigh in at 80 pounds. Starting relatively light (as little as 18 pounds), kettlebell sets build the capacity to work for extended periods of time while under this steady poundage, not releasing the weight until the set is complete. Compare this to a barbell set done for 30 seconds. It just doesn't fit the bill, doesn't call upon the body to rise to the occasion in the same manner.


5. CARDIOVASCULAR HEALTH
There really is nothing more important to an emergency worker than a healthy heart/lung system. Kettlebell sets train the body's ability to provide oxygen to muscles, also defined as aerobic capacity. Weight lifting does little here because the workload must be continuous. Stopping, putting the weight down, switching stations, all miss the mark. Stroke volume, or the amount of blood pumped with each beat is increased. After monitoring heart rate on scores of my students, I've witnessed improvements here first hand.


6. EXPLOSIVENESS, ABILITY TO GENERATE POWER
Strength and power are very different. Slowly moving a weight off your chest does little for explosiveness, and therefore there is only a minor crossover effect in swinging axes and pulling pry bars. Penetrating a plaster ceiling with a six foot hook (pike pole) requires a full body connectedness and the ability to explode off your feet, quickly transferring energy through your legs, core, arms, hands, and finally into the tool itself. A key element in kettlebell lifting is this explosive connection.


7. PACING AND RECOVERY
In my 22 years with the FDNY, I've slowed down many probies with the words, "pace yourself kid..." Full of spit and vinegar, the rookie wants to go all out, but winds up spent before the job is done. Long, timed kettlebell sets forces the lifter to think about recovering with every rep. The time spent holding the bell between repetitions is just as valuable as the lifting itself in that it teaches pacing, as well as the ability to come back - recover, while still working. There is a direct crossover for the firefighter here.


If your department is in need of a fitness system, a viable plan to bring your firefighters or first responders physically up to the task at hand, please contact me on how you can implement this truly groundbreaking methodology. I can be reached at: michael.stefano@gmail.com