The kettlebell way: Focused workouts mimic the movements of everyday activities

Tom Corrigan has no use for beach muscles.

He sighs when asked how much he bench presses. A firefighter for the city of Everett, Corrigan has lifted as much as 315 pounds using free weights, but he doesn’t try to max himself out anymore, he said.

“Unfortunately, it doesn’t carry over as well,” Corrigan, 43, said. “How many times do you end up lying on your back, picking stuff up?”

Instead, in 2002, Corrigan started using kettlebells. He became certified with various kettlebell organizations, competed at the amateur level, and now teaches workshops at Local’s Gym in Lynnwood and for area firefighters.

“It (a kettlebell workout) really does mimic what we do,” said Kevin Fetter, a firefighter for Snohomish County Fire District 1 who has taken Corrigan’s workshop. “It really matches our philosophy of training, doing controlled movements in an unstable way.”

In an age of Wii Fit, strip aerobics and Zumba, there’s something appealingly lo-fi about kettlebells. A cast-iron kettlebell looks like a cannonball with a thick handle. Supposedly the device originated in Russia, where it was popular for military training. Someone said it looked like a kettle, and it got its name.

Kettlebell workouts are simple and focused, often involving continual exercise for about 30 minutes. The quick, ballistic moves can increase strength and endurance alike.

“It builds up a strong low back, and it builds up strong shoulders and a strong grip,” Corrigan said. “That’s kind of what you need in real life. Just think of all the shoveling everyone has had to do.”

During one workout, Corrigan cycled through different exercises with a small group of men. He swung a kettlebell through his legs, switching it from one hand to the next. Then he hefted the weight above his head, lowering it behind his neck with both hands.

Watching the routine, it was easy to imagine a potential drawback. If the compact weight slipped from a hand while it was being juggled around, it could break a foot.

Greg Hartley, a Lynnwood man participating in the workout, said that didn’t worry him. He was unfamiliar with kettlebells beforehand but said afterward their handles provided ample control. He never considered one falling.

“I would say they’re going to be in gyms a lot more because of their ease of use,” Hartley, 38, said.

Indeed, the size of kettlebells offers another advantage. Unlike barbells, they store easily in the bottom of a closet, and their centered handle allows them to be swung or lifted in a wider variety of movements. Varied weights, from 10 to 106 pounds, make them fit into casual exercise or intense workout routines.

That was clear after Corrigan’s class. Sweat dripped from his smiling face. The blue-eyed, sandy-haired firefighter said basic moves take some practice to master but are easy to expand upon after they’ve been learned.

“It’s kind of like riding a bike,” Corrigan said. “It’s awkward at first, but once you get it … you’re good to go.”

Andy Rathbun, Herald Writer, arathbun@heraldnet.com, 425-339-3455

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