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Kettlebells and Functional Training For Kids, Interview with Bob Bell, Ridgewood Public Schools, K-12 Wellness Supervisor

Robert Bell Ridgewood Public Schools Wellness Supervisior

Dragon Door: Master RKC Phil Ross mentioned that you’re using some very different approaches to high school fitness. How would you describe the program?

Bob Bell: We're a wellness-based program which is a bit different than the standard P.E. "roll-the-ball" program. Everything we do is based on lifelong activity and wellness. So we do fitness, stress management, and yoga as well. One of the big things we did last year was to renovate our weight room from top to bottom. We got rid of all of the "this machine is for this, and that machine is for that" stuff and now we're into different aspects of training. I think the buzzword people would use to describe it is "functional training".

We’re teaching the students things that they can keep doing outside of a gym membership, even though we still have our weight racks and stuff like that. But, I’m into functional training along with many of the coaches and teachers, so we wanted to give people options other than just the standard bench press and squat. There’s obviously a place for that in strength training. But as training has evolved, we wanted to bring in functional training, kettlebells, and other things we can do.

Dragon Door: How did first meet Phil Ross?

Bob Bell: Phil is actually in our area and a graduate of Ridgewood High School where the training he shared took place. His name kept popping up, so Phil and I met and talked. My superintendent and assistant superintendent thought this was great, so we put together a training day with ten of our wellness teachers, and Phil took us through four hours of training.

I thought it was great because the teachers were able to learn the concepts and start incorporating them into their classes. In warm weather, the teachers can take the kettlebells outside, too. Everyone is really excited. I think it's great for the kids since many of our teachers are also coaches. And it's another activity for coaches to lead with their sports teams besides always benching, squatting, and deadlifting.

Dragon Door: What are some of the biggest challenges that these coaches and teachers typically face?

Bob Bell: We work in a tremendous place, probably the best public high school in the state. But, working with 35 high school kids in a single class can still be a challenge. Plus, showing some teachers, coaches and kids something new is always challenging, because we often need to get them to buy in. When they do that first workout that’s pretty hard, different, or interesting they start to like it. It’s not like a textbook, you get out there and do it. There’s an immediate result, you're breathing, and working the muscles.

Thirty five kids swinging kettlebells presents some challenges as well, but because of the quality of the kids we can bring it into this school. Discipline is not our biggest issue, though it can be at many schools. So, getting the kids into it is probably our biggest challenge.

I also think it’s nice to have this kind of training for our average non-athletes who might otherwise be intimidated by a big weight room with racks and heavy weight plates. So, the average student or non-athlete who might be turned off by the weight room can still feel like they can work out. The same is true for students who are private or not very social. They now can have the option to work out with a friend instead of lifting weights in a crowded gym. A kid can buy a kettlebell for $100 and do it on their own in 25-30 minutes and get a great workout.

The simplicity of the kettlebell and the short workouts are especially nice if you’re doing it at home on your own. Packing up to drive to the gym is a completely different experience. I’m a cyclist, which takes more time than when I was a runner and just had to put my shoes on to run. These kids are super time-crunched with academics, and sports—about 70-80% of our student population plays at least one season of athletics in high school. The people around here are always looking to do more, not less. For example, we have a bike unit in the middle school so the middle school kids can ride around town with their teacher. It’s a little different here, and these schools are unbelievably good.

Dragon Door: What's your background, and how did you get into teaching and athletics?

Bob Bell: I ran cross country and track in college. In undergrad, I was a history teaching major, and I graduated college kind of early at age twenty. After graduating, I took a year and bounced around to figure out what I wanted to do. I lived in Colorado for a while, then got a job coaching college cross country and track at East Strasburg University, a Division-II school out here. We had a good bit of success and I ended up getting my Masters in movement studies and exercise science. I was really into body performance through athletics. After a couple of years, I applied for a teaching job back in this area. I grew up a couple of towns over from Ridgewood.

The teaching job paid exponentially more, so I took it. Then the economy went bad and my job was cut from the budget. Luckily, a cross-country and track and field coach just retired at Wayne Hills, and the principal at the time realized that I could fill a lot of slots at once with coaching and teaching. I did that for eight years until two years ago when the supervisor of wellness job opened up. I was interested in the job because it involved athletics.

While I was happy with the job I had, it sounded like a unique experience and the opportunity for growth and change. I was fortunate to get hired as the wellness supervisor for grades K-12. We have tremendous program, and are always looking for ways to improve and add to it. The athletic director and I knew we needed to modernize our weight room. It’s a big budget project. When the assistant superintendent asked why we wanted to do it, I remembered that she was remodeling her house in Cape Cod. I told her to imagine a beautiful house that’s really great and has a pool. But, inside the house it still had a very 1985 kitchen. She said that the kitchen is the heart of the home, and I said that weight training is at the heart of many things in wellness and athletics—and that our weight room was very 1980. She understood!

I added that we wanted to do functional training, kettlebell training, and teach kids how to use the bands, medicine balls, and injury prevention techniques. Kettlebell training was the most important thing we wanted to add, and fell under the functional training umbrella—while also keeping standard lifting available.

It also made sense because any student can learn to use kettlebells—even a student who might be afraid of squatting with a barbell. I felt like kettlebells would allow us to get a larger group of students involved.

Dragon Door: That makes a lot of sense, especially as someone who loves kettlebell training.

Bob Bell: They’re a great workout. I use them too, I have a couple of kettlebells out in the garage. Since I’m a cyclist, I try to do a lot of squatting and deadlifting with kettlebells for my posterior chain. All the biking and running I used to do made me very quad heavy.

Dragon Door: So what's next for your program and the new weight room?

Bob Bell: We're looking at adding—and Phil Ross would also teach this—personal safety in our junior year. We might incorporate it into our other strength classes or maybe do a separate class like we have with sports medicine or injury prevention. One thing that commonly stops people from working out is injury. So, we want to keep the students away from injury so that they can be highly functioning, well moving, healthy individuals when they graduate from here.

But that's where we're headed in the next year or so. I was just talking to Phil about the personal safety and self defense. He does a tremendous job, and his energy level is through the roof. Everyone seems to gravitate towards people who are energetic about what they're doing. Phil is hands-on and can answers all the questions. He knows the science and can explain the importance of the movements. I think it's important instead of just saying "do this movement". Too many people don't focus on the posterior chain which becomes very important throughout our lifetimes—and it’s something we don’t seem to work as adults.

Dragon Door: That’s true! Without training, many adults having to learn that again with deadlifts, squats, and kettlebell swings.

Bob Bell: When I used to coach high school and college I simplified the training so that the kids would easily understand it: the front is for show, the back is for go. I understand that everyone sees our front and that the kids want abs, biceps and pecs—but that's show. The back's for go and that's how we win meets. I would always incorporate some of the "show" in our lifting routines because it did help to motivate the kids, but most of the routines would focus on the posterior chain. And that’s why we get to hold trophies at the end of the year—and if you want to look good doing holding a trophy, I can help with that, too.

RobertBellRidgewoodWellnessSupervisior thumbnailBob Bell is the Wellness Supervisor for Ridgewood Public Schools in New Jersey