In the summer of 2017, Marine Sgt. Maj. Steven Burkett was all set to become the world champion in most weight lifted by kettlebell swings in one hour.
After training consistently for months, the 5′11″, 192-pound sergeant major felt confident he could break the Guinness World Record, which captures the total weight swung by a male in repetitions across 60 minutes.
The CrossFit gym in Carlsbad, California, near his base of Camp Pendleton, turned his attempt to set a new record into a small spectator event.
“We had cameras, we had judges, there were like 100 people in the room, the whole nine yards,” said Burkett, now the top enlisted Marine at School of Infantry–West at the same base.
A kettlebell is a ball-shaped weight with a sturdy handle attached to it. To swing a kettlebell, weightlifters bring it between their legs and then hoist it above their heads.
The record captures the most weight swung cumulatively over the hour. His goal was to complete 950 swings of a 53-pound kettlebell in an hour, to break by a wide margin a previous record that equated to 892 swings.
Well into the record attempt, the skin on his hands ripped, slowing him down. He fell short of the record by about 50 reps.
Embarrassed and demoralized by his failure, he didn’t touch another kettlebell for months.
“I fell into feeling sorry for myself,” Burkett said. “Like, ‘Oh, it just wasn’t for me. I could have set the world record, though.’ Like the dudes who are like, ‘I almost joined the Marine Corps.’”
When he moved to a new unit, in embassy security, Marines there who had seen the video of his record attempt asked him if he planned to try again.
“These younger Marines were, almost, calling me on my bullcrap,” he said. “They were like, ‘Really? You came that close and you did all that training, and you’re just not going to do it?”
Burkett said his Marines’ apparent disappointment in him spurred him to start training again.
In 2018, on the Marine Corps birthday of Nov. 10, he set the record for most weight lifted in an hour — even though the skin on his hands ripped again.
When he got sent to Guantanamo, Cuba, other troops there found out about his passion for “jacking” kettlebells, as he calls it. Burkett formed the Guantanamo Kettlebell Club and hosted training sessions that at times included more than 100 people, he said.
While in Cuba, he found out about two other kettlebell records: most weight swung in one minute and three minutes. He shifted his training away from endurance and toward pure power, and knocked out those two records.
Meanwhile, someone else broke his hour record by a few reps.
Burkett knew he wanted to reclaim the record. But he didn’t want to eke out a new record by a little bit, only for it to get broken again weeks later.
Instead, his mentality was, “I need to put up a number so big that nobody ever tries to even attempt the one-hour record again.”
So he did.
He has now amassed a healthy Instagram following at @sergeantmajorkettlebell, more than 11,000. When he met then-Commandant Gen. Robert Neller, the general asked him, “Are you the kettlebell guy?”
Whenever someone asks Burkett that, his response is, “Yeah. Do you want to lift some kettlebells?”
The now-70-year-old Neller took him up on the offer and, according to Burkett, was “super strong.”
Burkett also recently garnered official Marine Corps recognition, winning “2022 Male Athlete of the Year” for the Camp Pendleton, California, Marine base. He is also a finalist for the Corps-wide title.
Now, he is partnering with an exercise physiologist to write a book, called “Jacking Bells,” about his story and training method.
But Burkett wasn’t always a star athlete. In high school, he said, he was a “nondescript average football player and track guy,” the kind who started on the varsity team but only in senior year.
He enlisted in the Marine Corps in 1994, according to his official bio. He signed an open contract and ended up in supply administration, he said.
A few years later, he went to Marine Security Guard School and was assigned in Paris and Ankara, Turkey, according to his bio. He has had multiple deployments as a staff noncommissioned officer, including to Iraq and Mongolia.
As a Marine, Burkett kept himself in shape, optimized for the running and pullups that the Corps expects of its troops, he said.
“From all appearances, I looked like I was Marine Corps healthy, but I would always have little back injuries whenever I would carry gear — just little things,” he said. “I just don’t feel like I was very strong.”
But while stationed in Washington state in 2013, Burkett joined a CrossFit gym on a whim and learned there about the principles of weightlifting.
As he prepared for a deployment to Iraq in 2016, he wanted to stay in shape, but there wasn’t gym equipment where he was going. So he packed a single 53-pound kettlebell.
His goal was to do 300 swings each day. At first, he had to do them in sets of 15 or 20, spread out throughout the day. But as the months passed, he became able to knock out the 300 swings in one workout.
At one point, he mentioned to one of his workout buddies back in California that he had done 500 swings in under 30 minutes. The friend asked if there was a world record for kettlebell swings.
“That was like the first moment it even entered my mind that there was a world record,” Burkett said.
Advice from ‘Sgt. Maj. Kettlebell’
Burkett said his approach involves doing larger sets to build power over time, rather than throwing a lot of power into each individual swing.
Don’t train just by swinging kettlebells, he said; also involve them in squats, lunges and presses. You don’t have to relegate these exercises to the gym — Burkett said he keeps one or two kettlebells in his car at all times.
Form matters. Imagine there’s a laser beam coming out of your chest: That beam shouldn’t touch the ground. Keeping the chest up is a way to keep pressure off of the back, Burkett said.
When a workout gets uncomfortable, focus on your aspirations, and push through.
Break long workouts into shorter chunks in your mind. Rather than thinking “I have to make it to 30 minutes,” focus on making it to 10 minutes, then 15.
“I think that’s a good principle for Marines,” Burkett said. “If you look at your entire four-year enlistment or you look at an entire deployment or you look at a whole training field op, that’s hard. But can you think about this next thing that you’re doing or the next little mini accomplishment that you can give yourself?”
Burkett said there’s another lesson for Marines in his kettlebell journey. The standard advice that mainstream kettlebell organizations offer is to keep the number of reps low in training, according to the sergeant major. Burkett has done the opposite, and it helped him smash records.
“It’s important when you’re setting out in life that you need to have mentors and people who can guide you,” he said. “But if you just follow someone else’s advice or playbook, you can only do either what they’ve done or what they have intended for you. You’ve got to set out your own path in life.”
Irene Loewenson is a staff reporter for Marine Corps Times. She joined Military Times as an editorial fellow in August 2022. She is a graduate of Williams College, where she was the editor-in-chief of the student newspaper.