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  • Writer's pictureJosh

The #1 Kettlebell Exercise you need for Martial Arts

Training for the martial arts requires a huge amount of time and energy spent on skill acquisition. And this goes double for anyone participating in combat sports such as MMA, Boxing, Muay Thai or competition Jiu Jitsu.

These are serious sports and taking them lightly comes with serious consequences. A common expression around boxing gyms sums it up nicely, “you can play basketball, you can play baseball, but you can't play boxing”. The very premise of combat sport is the exchange of damage between two athletes, with your aim being to mitigate the damage you receive and maximize the damage you can inflict.

After a little time in these combat sports the gravity of the situation becomes clear to everyone involved. What also becomes clear is the need to commit a maximum amount of time to sport specific skill training while still maintaining a certain level of physical endurance, speed, power and mobility.

I've seen so many beginners make the mistake of thinking they can do a full bodybuilding split and train in an MMA gym 4-5 days a week. It's a quick path to poor motor coordination, mental burnout and a torn rotator cuff.

So how do we solve for this issue and become highly conditioned athletes while still perfecting the skill of martial arts itself?

Enter the Kettlebell

Kettlebell athlete in the style of Bruce Lee from "Enter the Dragon"

While there are many training modalities that can improve a fighters conditioning, and I would recommend trying out many to figure out what works best for you, it's honestly hard to beat the kettlebell.

Fighting sports are among the most demanding physical and mental sports in the world and any training modality used needs to reflect that. It needs to be well rounded and yet not take up too much of the time and physical energy of the martial artist. Kettlebells fit this mold very well.

Take a look at these Kettlebell benefits for fighters...

  • Minimalist- This benefit cannot be overstated, the kettlebell easily and naturally combines strength training, endurance training, explosiveness, mobility, and stability by its very nature. Kettlebells use smaller weights than traditional lifting allowing the weight to be moved for more repetitions, at a faster rate, and with more refined movement patterns. Not to mention that outside of some wrestling, most martial artists are never required to move large weights. The nature of the activity is centered around body weight movements with the need to manipulate only a small percentage of the opponent's body weight at once.

  • Power- Most kettlebell movements utilize a ballistic hip movement creating infamously powerful glutes. This translates to all sports but especially combat sports. Whether the martial patterns being used is strikes, kicks, throws or grappling, the explosive hip power created by kettlebells will come in very handy.

  • Offset load- This an aspect of kettlebell training that isn't talked about enough. One arm kettlebell movements create a greater load on one side of the body. The offset load creates a constant demand on the core and any appendage used in the lift, generating automatic gains in joint stability and decreasing the risk of injury with every repetition.

  • Shoulder health- This is another benefit of the offset load but it's so big I had to mention it by itself. In my time as a competitive boxer, a martial arts and fitness enthusiast and in my career as a neuromuscular therapist I have seen one problem dominate all others, shoulder pain and injury.

I see it in all types of athletes but in martial artists in particular, largely due to the caved in posture of the shoulders in most fight stances and the overuse of the anterior delts and biceps. This caved in posture is good for making yourself a smaller target and hiding the chin but terrible on the balance of the shoulder joint unless your actively prehabing the shoulders.

In order to prehab the joint properly the anterior delts and chest need to be loose and flexible and the muscles responsible for packing the shoulders blades need to be strengthened. The most common shoulder exercises, overhead presses, are generally terrible for this with most people compensating the spinal position instead of opening the shoulder joint because they are already too tight.

However overhead presses using kettlebells avoid this problem due to the shape of the weight. When gripping the kettlebell handle the bell of the weight sits behind the hand and wrist. This means the weight naturally pulls the arm back and assists you in setting your shoulder in the proper position, automatically opening up the shoulder and helping you pack the shoulder blades. I've seen this be a godsend for people who are already developing shoulder pain.

  • Dynamic Proprioception- And finally, due to the imbalanced shape of the kettlebell, nearly all kettlebell movements require proprioceptive skill in order to use properly. In fighting, it's necessary to have a heightened awareness of your body, your opponent's body and the way they move in relation to each other. Kettlebells help train this by creating a fine-tuned awareness and control of your body in relation to the weight and momentum of the kettlebell.

One Kettlebell Movement Pattern for all these Benefits

While there are many kettlebell movements and I don't advice to just stick to one, there is one that provides all of the above benefits, the Clean and Push Press.

In reality this is more of a progression of movements all in the same family, starting with the one arm clean and press. This movement provides the explosive hip movements of the clean, creating power and quickly raising the heart rate due to the large muscle groups of the glutes being activated so dynmically.

kettlebell clean and press illustration

And because this is the single arm version the weight is offset to one side of the body, generating lots of stabilization strength in the core and joints. After the clean movement the weight is pressed overhead creating shoulder strength while the kettlebell pulls the shoulder back into a healthy position. This whole-body activation from head to toe is a great conditioner of the body.

Once this is mastered you can move on to the one arm clean and push press. This is the same as the previous movement with the exception that the entire body works together in one motion to explode the weight off the shoulder and into the overhead position. This is great for creating full body power and muscle control as the entire body learns to contract together. There is also the added benefit of taking some of the load off the shoulders and allowing a higher number of safe repetitions, further increasing conditioning.

kettlebell clean and push press illustration

And the final progression is the single arm clean and jerk. This exercise starts with the standard clean movement and the whole body still work together to launch the weight up, as in the clean and push press. However, as the weight launches up you will drop down into a squat or a lunge position and catch the weight in this position with arm fully extended overhead.

This creates a much greater demand on proprioceptive muscle control while also placing greater mobility demands on the shoulder and hips. I've also noticed when dropping into the lunge stance, a lot of strength and speed development which transfers well to my fighting stance.

kettlebell clean and jerk illustration

This is only one exercise of many I would recommend to any MMA fighter, boxer, kickboxer, or grappler, but it's for sure the first one I would recommend. In fact, a good martial arts skill practice along with a little sparring, jump rope, stretching and some clean and press is already an amazing full body workout. Everything else is just icing on the cake unless you start to over train.

If you're interested in kettlebells but you don't have access to any, consider temporarily using an alternative such as a small sandbag with a handle or even a dumbbell, though I would recommend moving onto a kettlebell as soon as your able.

You can find quality hard style kettlebells at Onnit Academy or Yes4All, great for beginner and advanced lifter alike. And if you prefer competition style kettlebells for more comfortable long workouts, I can vouch for Titan, Rougue Fitness, and Kettlbell Kings.

Whether you're a combat athlete, martial arts enthusiast, or just a fitness buff, give this exercise a try and I'm sure you won't be disappointed. And best of luck in your training!

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