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Kettlebells and the CPAT Testing Process

Kettlebell lifting, with proper emphasis on technique, provides a safe way to mimic the physical response of a working fire.

For those kettlebell lifters out there who wonder what CPAT is, and for those firefighters out there who wonder what kettlebells are, this article is for you.

Twenty-five years ago, when I first entered the New York Fire Fire Department, there was no such thing as a standardized physical entrance exam for firefighters. Every department created their own test, and the FDNY was no exception.

Today things have been ultra-standardized. The CPAT is a 10-minute sequence of events that attempts to replicate structural firefighting. When tested, a candidate must climb stairs, advance hose, force entry, transport equipment, raise ladders, search for and rescue victims, and lastly, overhaul the structure. This has become known as the Candidates Physical Abilities Test or CPAT, our national standard. Learn how to pass the CPAT by clicking here.

Kettlebell lifting may be as old as firefighting. It's roots can be traced way back to Eastern Europe, but it's gained popularity over the last 50 years. Only recently, however, have kettlebells made it to the United States. Comparatively speaking, weight lifted is light (from 18 to 140 pounds), but sets are long and timed (up to 10 minutes). Repetitions are high, sometimes reaching well over 200.

Typical weight lifting sets are short, usually under a minute or work before rest. Firefighters don't have the luxury of stopping after a minute (or even several minutes). Every effort tends to be extended (hence CPAT's design as a 10-minute sequential test).

Cardio is a light-weight activity, with relatively little, if any resistance ever added. It's hard to recreate conditions encountered on the fireground when wearing nothing but gym shorts and sneakers.

The Common Ground: Kettlebells and Firefighting
Kettlebell lifting, with proper emphasis on technique, provides a safe way to mimic the physical response that's inevitable when operating at a typical "worker" - under load for minutes at a time, with no chance to put the weight (or hose) down and bail out.

A timed kettlebell set is much like dragging a high pressure hose down a long hallway and putting out three rooms of fire, but with the benefit of a calculated progression and low risk. The body is put under constant load, simulating full firefighting gear and operations (moving the load), and it responds in much the same way.

Ashley is a kettlebell lifter Master of Sport and FDNY candidate. In the video below she is performing a standard move known as the "Jerk." This short clip covers about two minutes of a full 10-minute set with only one hand switch. She maintained a pace of about 20 reps each minute. Notice the the connectedness of Ashley's upper and lower body as she drives the 35-pound weight up with perfect form. This explosive power and and android work capacity transfers to all other activities.

Kettlebell lifting, when approached properly, is the best possible way to prepare for both CPAT and actual firefighting. As the American Kettlebell Club's Fire and Rescue Advisor, my mission is to spread the word to every firefighter and department wise enough to listen. To find out more about kettlebells, click here.

Top 20 Firefighter Fitness Program Requirements

  • Build strength-endurance (one word)
  • Improve cardiovascular function
  • Build resiliency and recovery
  • Foster upper/lower body connection
  • Build joint strength (tendons/ligaments)
  • Teach breathing under load
  • Control tendency to panic under load
  • Directly address grip strength
  • Create mental toughness / discipline
  • Low impact, low injury potential
  • Practical, very little space necessary
  • Easy to learn technique
  • Coaching and support available throughout US
  • Works for all age groups, fitness levels
  • Provide a challenge, creates adherence
  • Provide camaraderie, community
  • Can be taught to a large group
  • Quick workouts for busy schedules
  • Low cost of initial gym set up
  • Works well in academy and firehouse setting

MIKE STEFANO, a Contributing Editor, is the author of The Firefighter's Workout Book and American Kettlebell Club (AKC) Fire/Rescue Advisor. For more information on kettlebell and firefighter workout programs, visit To read Mike's complete biography and view their archived articles, click here.