Implementing an effective strength and conditioning protocol for a competitive martial art (and sports in general) has to be one of (if not the most) daunting task that we have to consider, for both the athlete and the coach. The task of deciding what technical and physical attributes are necessary for improvement is, in fact, easy to accomplish. In terms of technical attributes, both the athlete and the coach are already extremely aware of the need for refining favorite attacks, polishing up timing, and developing the mindset of a warrior and champion. This is a winning formula. Both have the desire, both are willing, and both can execute.
The problem arises when the solution falls outside of the realm of technical improvement, and more along the vague intangibles of athletic strength and conditioning. Selecting and executing the precise physical attribute(s) protocol for the athlete is the difficult part of the process. And it is this process where most coaches and athletes ultimately fail.
Take for example, the BJJ athlete. Confident right before entering the competition mat, the athlete goes through a laundry list of tactics and techniques of faking before shooting, unbalancing before sweeping, positioning before attacking, while maintaining the clarity of the overall strategy of staying relaxed and being thoroughly technical. However, nothing becomes more disheartening, for both the athlete and their coach, when execution suddenly becomes lethargic and dull. Everyone notices a visible slowing down of movement, accompanied by heavy breathing…EVEN THOUGH HIS TECHNICAL EXECUTION HAS BEEN FLAWLESS.
Whether he wins or loses the position (or the match altogether) is not the point. If a competitive athlete is to develop into full maturity, such instances of “gassing” while being technically sound cannot be accepted nor tolerated. Once the athlete and the coach both elevate their standards, realizing that such instances are not acceptable levels for performance, the quintessential “tipping point” comes to the fore. It is at this crucial juncture that the need for “maintaining” current technical attributes is thrown into the mix, while acquiring greater “physical” attributes becomes the shiny new object of overall athletic training. “We’ll get that guy at the next match. You just need more cardio.”
The phrase “you just need more cardio” is up there with “hey guys, watch this” as perhaps one of the greatest famous last words uttered. It implies that more of something is needed, when in fact we need less. It implies that the issue is cardiovascular, when in fact it could be an endocrine or neural re-patterning issue. It implies that adding a paradigm, rather than SHIFTING a paradigm will lead to the optimum results that both coach and athlete are looking for. This lack of insight into the actual nature of the problem can and will do more harm than good.
Cue The Music..Enter the Kettlebell
As a weighted exercise implement, the kettlebell is more akin to the unwieldy sandbag than to the commercialized dumbbell. The center of gravity (COG) of the kettlebell is about a good half foot away from your hand. With this displaced COG, the central nervous system (CNS) simply has to require more muscles groups to wield the awkward object. Curl a dumbbell, and feel it get LIGHTER as it redistributes its weight on top of your wrist and elbow when you pass 90 degrees. Curl a kettlebell of the same weight, you will actually feel it get HEAVIER, because no such shift in COG occurs. You’ll find yourself actually having to brace not only your entire arm to control it, but your abs, glutes, and your OTHER arm as well. You’re doing a full body workout with a kettlebell as opposed to using a dumbbell.
And that’s just CURLING it.
It can, therefore, be easily concluded, that the kettlebell can work well with a BJJ/S&C protocol, since BJJ is a fully body activity. Whether the rationale is precise or ultimately sound, selection has been made, and the selection is actually correct. Training with awkward loading has been a favored practice of European wrestlers such as George Hackenschmidt (known to juggle 70lbs. kettlebells) as well as the Indian wrestling legend Gama (known to run for miles with a 35lbs. stone yolk on his shoulders). Perhaps, the displaced COG and the neural recruiting patterns required to wield a kettlebell made Hackenschmidt “feel” like he’s dealing with a “live” opponent (human beings are not as evenly distributed, weight-wise, as the gym-friendly dumbbell). Regardless of what sensation the kettlebell can induce in an athlete, the selection of the KB as our S&C tool for the BJJ athlete is due mostly to the types of EXERCISES associated with the KB that are best suited to the needs of our specific athlete.
To proceed with KB exercise selection, let us first examine the most important joint actions necessary for the execution of the majority of BJJ techniques. The criteria is as follows:
- Bottom position
- Top position
By examining BJJ techniques and positions using this criteria, several joint actions come up as periphery actions, in that they assist in the completion of techniques, and only a couple come up as “prime movers” in the actual execution of ALL techniques and positions.
For instance, elbow flexion/extension (e.g. dumbbell curling/lowering) are part of completing a single leg takedown, framing, underhooking, guillotine, etc. However, it is hard to complete any of these techniques without the assistance of other joint actions. For example, an underhook is a pointless technique without other joint actions to assist (triple extension/lateral abduction of the leg, sacral subnutation, etc.).
However, a primary joint action that occurs in BJJ is hip flexion/extension (e.g. a deadlift). To be more specific, DYNAMIC hip flexion/extension. Ballistic hip flexion/extension is to be found in the following key BJJ techniques:
- Hip Bridge/Upa
- Elbow/knee escape
- Hip-up Sweep
These are just some of the BILATERAL (e.g. both sides working) applications of dynamic hip/flexion extension. The unilateral (one-sided) applications are, quite frankly, endless.
Considering how KEY dynamic hip flexion/extension is in the execution of BJJ techniques, the next question then becomes “What is the best way to train this?”
The answer? KETTLEBELL SWINGS.
1 - Trains the movement of hip extension/flexion safely and dynamically
2 - Loading is minimal: 35lbs. on average.
3 - Stays away from the common mistake of training loaded sport-specific movement (which has been proven to actually RUIN the original skill via implementing new neural patterns)
4 - Effectively combines plyometrics AND metabolic conditioning in the same exercise
5 - Can be added easily into competition training, as opposed to having a separate S&C session
The main attraction of using the kettlebell swing isthe issue of time-management: it practically obliterates the need for complicated circuit training. A typical circuit can consist of:
- BJJ free sparring (1 min)
- Barbell curls (1 min)
- Bodyweight squats (1 min)
- Crunches (1 min)
- Brazilian leg (1 min)
With the introduction of the KB swing, your circuit can consist simply of:
- BJJ free sparring (1 min)
- KB Swings (1 min)
Because of the KB Swings ability to hit EVERY body part with one exercise (as opposed to the first circuit which requires 3 exercises minimum to accomplish), more time can be utilized using skill development. In other words, both coach and athlete accomplish more goals (increased metabolic output and dynamic hip mobility) with less exercises in less time. The problems usually associated with traditional S&C methodologies (accelerated overtraining rates, emphasis on soft-tissue development, lack of assimilated energy system training, complicated monitoring protocols, etc.) are all but eliminated by introducing the simple KB swing.
The approach to improving a competitive athlete’s performance should be a matter of tweaking, not overhauling. A brutal but precise assessment should be accompanied by a simple yet elegant solution, something that preserves the essence of the athlete (i.e. a BJJ athlete) without “optimizing” him for another sport (i.e. BJJ athletes who are also powerlifters/bodybuilders/gymnasts/marathoners). In an age where the fitness industry churns out one new shiny object after another, the kettlebell is back on duty for those more suited to a different age: an age when work meant HARD work, when competition required honor, when strength correlated with function, when the individual knew no difference between their profession, their art, and their discipline. The kettlebell came from a time when less meant more.
- Rolando Garcia, RKC Instructor and Head Instructor at Bad Factory, NYC.