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Why a high school PE instructor and champion weightlifter loves kettlebells: "My goal is kettlebells in every high school."

January 18, 2011 10:30 AM

Mike Burgener, Notre Dame Football player, Champion weightlifter and head coach Junior Women's Weightlifting team squats with a Russian Kettlebell

A former Notre Dame football player and champion weightlifter, Mike Burgener is currently a high school P.E. teacher in Bonsall, CA. The 57-year-old athlete is also the Senior International Weightlifting coach and head coach of the Junior Women's Weightlifting team. He became Russian Kettlebell Challenge certified in April of 2003.

Dragon Door: Can you talk about your background, and what you're currently doing athletically?

Mike Burgener: I'm a high school physical education teacher. I teach grades 9-12. My subject is Olympic-style weightlifting, and we use the kettlebell to enhance not only our Olympic weightlifters and our athletic teams, but also the fitness levels of the students I deal with on a daily basis.

I got involved with kettlebells years ago when I was a student at the University of Notre Dame. My strength coach was a Catholic priest, Father BHB Lange, and he actually had kettlebells in his weight room that were from eastern Europe. That was 1964-1968. We used the kettlebells very sparingly. We used them mostly as an adjunct, like I'm doing now with my Olympic weightlifters. I was predominantly a football player, and I became an Olympic lifter during the off-season, and we used kettlebells for core stability and strength, endurance-that sort of thing.

D.D.: Did you play for Notre Dame?

M.B: Yes I did, defensive back.

D.D.: Did you go on to the NFL?

M.B: No, I blew out my knee and was drafted by the Canadians, but I elected to go into Olympic weightlifting, and also I was in the Marine Corps at the time. Active and inactive duty, I was in for 10 years. I was a captain, company commander, and I ended up in Camp Pendleton, CA. I saw lots of active duty, but didn't have any combat experience. I was airborne, scuba-qualified…

D.D.: You had success in the Olympic lifting arena, right?

M.B: Yes. My expertise as a coach is in Olympic weightlifting. I'm the Senior International Weightlifting coach; I'm also the head coach of the Junior Women's Weightlifting team. And the Olympic lifts-there are two competitive lifts. There's a snatch and the clean-and-jerk, and they're contested in competitions held throughout the United States, but they're also contested in competitions held throughout the world. I've traveled extensively throughout Europe, South Africa, and those places with my Junior World team.

D.D.: Did you win any professional awards with your Olympic lifting?

M.B.: Well, Olympic lifting, back when I competed, back in the late 60's and 70's-the Olympic press was one of the events that was contested. And that's about all I could do. I was strong in the press, and I held the Junior National record in two weight categories in the Olympic press.

D.D.: Have you been using kettlebells since Notre Dame, or did you rediscover them through Pavel?

M.B.: Yes, that's exactly what happened. When I left Notre Dame, my kettlebell experience basically ceased. We looked for them, but they weren't around. Back in July of 2002, I contacted Ethan Reeve, who was the strength coach at Wake Forest University, but also was the former coach for two of the men that I'm working with, Josh Everett and Stephane Rochet. Both of those young men had come down to my house and trained with me in Olympic-style weightlifting, where they told me about Ethan and his experience with kettlebells. And I'm going, "Oh, you gotta be kidding me! Kettlebells? I remember kettlebells from the day!" So I contacted Ethan, and that's basically how it started.

I'm not shy and bashful, so I found out about Dragon Door and contacted them. I have this idea that kettlebells need to be used throughout the United States for high school kids.

D.D.: What result have you seens from using kettlebells, either in yourself or the kids you train?

M.B.: Unbelievable results. We have a contest at our high school. It's called "Last Man Standing," and it's done with back squats and power cleans. We have them do back squats, we put 135 lbs on the barbell, and we ask the young men to do as many repetitions with that back squat as they can. And last year, in 2002, the maximum number of repetitions was 101 reps, and I thought, "Wow, that's outstanding."

This year, we added kettlebells to their training. Two days a week in season, and during the off-season, when our football season was over, we immediately went into what we call a transition period. And this transition period goes from the beginning of December to the end of January. And this year we had seven men go over 100 reps, and I actually stopped the man who won the competition at 150 repetitions.

In the power cleans, we only used 40 kilos, and last year, 75 reps was the maximum. Hang power clean, where they had to rack and stand, with 40 kilos, which really isn't that much but still very much a challenge. Then all of a sudden, this year, we actually stopped a guy at 179 reps! And we had several way over 75 reps.

And the only thing that we did different between 2002 and 2003 was that we added kettlebells.

Our feeling was that we had much better functional strength, but the strength endurance and enhancement of work capacity was just greatly taken care of for us.

D.D.: How are the kids taking to the kettlebells?

M.B.: It's really interesting to see because not only do I deal with the football program, I deal with high school students. My physical education classes-it's documented-I've actually done a couple of clinics where I've spoken about football training, and I've taken video of my classes doing kettlebells. Young ladies-15-year-old, very petite young ladies doing kettlebell swings, kettlebell snatches, squat pulls, things like that in my class.

And my students absolutely love it. It's challenging, it's hard work, but the results have been just astronomical.

My family. I have four children. I have a son that lives at the Olympic training center. He's an Olympic weightlifter, and he's the Junior record-holder in the United States. Loves kettlebells.

Another son is a volleyball athlete, hopefully he's going to go onto college to play volleyball-he loves kettlebells. My 14-year-old baseball player son, he can snatch the 2 1/2 pood. At 14! My little girl, who's 12, can do more Turkish Get-ups than I can. She uses the 1 pood for the Turkish Get-up, and snatches it without any problem.

I am such a great believer in kettlebells. I'm sure my enthusiasm carries over to my students.

I'm an older man, but the workout that I use…when I started my kettlebell training I weighed 210 lbs, and right now I'm down to about 187 lbs.

I'm a very compulsive person. Once I bought my first kettlebell, it was all over!

Mike Burgener, Notre Dame Football player, Champion weightlifter and head coach Junior Women's Weightlifting team practices with a Russian Kettlebell Mike Burgener, Notre Dame Football player, Champion weightlifter and head coach Junior Women's Weightlifting team practices with a Russian Kettlebell Mike Burgener, Notre Dame Football player, Champion weightlifter and head coach Junior Women's Weightlifting team practices with a Russian Kettlebell